Naresh Sohal was born in 1939 in Punjab, northern India. There was a strong folk music tradition in the region, but there were no musicians in his family. Naresh’s father, however, besides being a civil servant, was a renowned Urdu poet and the boy developed an ear for the spoken word through serving tea at poets’ gatherings. From an early age, he showed an interest in popular music, his tastes being influenced by the broadcasts of All India Radio and Radio Ceylon.
By the time he reached college where he was enrolled for a degree in Mathematics and Physics he had acquired a harmonica, and become a versatile performer of rock and roll and Indian film songs. He learned all works by ear. With a select band of friends he entertained his fellow students at social gatherings, even playing once before the President of India. He began writing works for the Punjab Armed Police band, providing them with waltzes, marches and pieces reminiscent of the early European music which he had never heard.
Keen to push forward the frontiers of his musical knowledge, he asked a musician in the classical tradition to teach him Indian classical music on the mouth organ. The musician refused. Annoyed by the disdain with which he was treated, the young Sohal determined there and then to abandon his degree course to go in search of people who would be more generous with their musical knowledge. He spent a few weeks in Bombay, lured by the film industry. There, during the monsoon season, he heard Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony on the radio. It was his first experience of European classical music, and it had a profound effect. In 1962 he left India for the U.K. intending to find a way of learning to write western music.
Sohal arrived in London with £2 (yes, that’s just $3.20!) in his pocket. It was the era of black and white T.V., and black and white attitudes to employment and accommodation. Sohal moved from one grisly room to another in London’s most unfashionable quarters. After a few gruelling months, he landed a job as a copyist with Boosey and Hawkes, the music publishers, on the strength of his skill. At Boosey’s, he was immersed in light music – copying, among other things, material for Joe Loss and his orchestra and the music for Lawrence of Arabia. In the evenings he attended various educational institutes to learn western music theory and began writing his own work.
One day, at Boosey’s, the copyists were played Eonta, a new work by the Greek composer, Xenakis, which was considered to have considerable curiosity value: the entire dynamic of the piece was determined by mathematical calculation. For the first time, it occurred to Sohal that music could be about ideas and not just pretty melodies with harmonies attached to them. He encountered the composer and teacher Jeremy Dale-Roberts, who took him on as a private pupil. Dale-Roberts provided exactly the sort of milieu Sohal needed, listening constructively to what the young man had written and occasionally posing the question, ‘And how do you intend to develop this?’
Meanwhile, Sohal had left Boosey’s to work as a free-lance copyist. As an accomplished craftsman, he was generally given the more challenging works to tackle. In doing so, he was exposed at close quarters to works as diverse as Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. The bonus, of course, was that he now had more time to spend on his own composition. In 1965, he completed his first orchestral score, Asht Prahar, a tone poem based on the Indian concept of the eight periods of the day. Immediately after came Surya (1965) for chorus, percussion and solo flute. The text is in Sanskrit and is taken from the Rig Veda.
Sohal had to wait until 1970 to hear what he had written. In 1969, the Society for the Promotion of New Music selected Asht Prahar for a public performance in rehearsal at the Royal Festival Hall where it was played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Norman del Mar. The work was well received. The SPNM then commissioned Kavita 1, for soprano and eight instruments, and this was written in 1970, the same year as the orchestral pieceAalaykhyam 1. In February 1971, the BBC broadcast a performance of Suryagiven by the Ambrosian Singers and in November, Andrew Davis conducted the first performance of Aalaykhyam 1. Sohal was now up and running: he was composing full time.
In 1972, Sohal won an Arts Council bursary which enabled him to move to Leeds University to begin a study of the compositional aspects of micro-intervals. This was a thesis which he was ideally placed to produce, given his familiarity with Indian classical music where the octave has twenty-two divisions, and the fact that he often tantalised performers and audiences by using micro-intervals in his own work. However, the lure of the act of composition was once again too great and the study was left unfinished. At Leeds, Sohal met his partner-to-be, Janet Swinney, who was busy abridging Dickens’ Dombey and Son for radio. They shared a consuming interest in Indian philosophy.
Sohal returned to his London base, where he was now caught up in a whirl of activity: Aalaykhyam II, completed in 1972 was performed that same year by the English Chamber orchestra, conducted by Andrew Davis; Kavita III, composed for the virtuoso soprano Jane Manning and Barry Guy, double bass, was taken on an Arts Council tour, and Asht Prahar was recorded by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Davis. Sohal won the 1974 Young Composers’ Forum with the chamber piece Hexad, and in 1975 the late, excellent Thomas Igloi with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Atherton gave the first performance of Dhyan 1 (1974), a work for cello and small orchestra.
In 1975, Kavita II was one of the BBC’s entries for the International Rostrum of Composers held in Paris. It was chosen as one of the best ten entries and subsequently broadcast on twenty radio stations throughout Europe.
And so it went on, with Sohal representing the West at international music conferences, touring his work Hexad round Asia with the Nordeutscher Rundfunk Ensemble and having a new chamber work premiered almost every year.
In 1981, the BBC commissioned the composer to write a work for the 1982 season of Promenade Concerts. This gave him the opportunity to revert to his compositional love of large musical forces. Attracted by its existential bleakness, he chose the Old English poem, the Wanderer, as his text and set it for baritone, symphony orchestra and chorus. The work received its first performance at the Proms in 1982 with David Wilson-Johnson, baritone, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Chorus and the BBC Singers, conductor Andrew Davis. The work was acclaimed by the critics, and many who were in the hall that night can no doubt recall the frisson they felt as the musical equivalents of snow and ice blattered round the auditorium, starkly delineating spiritual anguish.
In 1983, Sohal and his partner moved to Edinburgh. This brought a change of pace and a widening of focus. In the concert hall, the composer continued to work on a large scale. In 1984, he turned once again to the elegaic works of Tagore for From Gitanjali, a work for baritone and orchestra commissioned by the Philharmonic Symphony of New York. The work was premiered in New York, in the composer’s presence, by John Cheek and the New York Symphony Orchestra, conductor Zubin Mehta. Sohal followed this with an orchestral work, Tandava Nritya (1984) commissioned by the British Council for the London Symphony Orchestra for a planned tour of India, and then a violin concerto for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. This was premiered in 1986 with the Chinese violinist Xue Wei as the soloist, and Martin Brabbins the conductor.
In 1987, Sohal achieved an important accolade. He was awarded the Padma Shri, the Order of the Lotus, by the Government of India for his services to Western Music. He was the first non-resident Indian to receive such an award.
During this period, the composer at last had the opportunity to produce works which involved dance or drama as well as music. In 1987, commissioned by BBC Television, he completed Gautama Buddha, the music for a ballet about the life of Lord Buddha, based on his own scenario and choreographed by Christopher Bruce. This extremely ambitious work was premiered in Houston, Texas, where it was given seven performances by the Houston Ballet. It then transferred to Edinburgh where it formed part of the 1989 International Festival programme.
That same year, on Sohal’s fiftieth birthday, the Paragon Ensemble gave the first performance, in Glasgow, of Madness Lit by Lightning, a music theatre piece which is a contemporary fable about human degradation. The composer and the librettist, Trevor Preston, better known for his extensive work in television drama, found themselves well-matched in terms of temperament and artistic purpose. The resulting work – spare, sinuous, and intense – offered a truly powerful theatrical experience.
Also to mark the composer’s fiftieth birthday, ‘cellist Anup Kumar Biswas, a long-time champion of his work, commissioned a work for his trio, the Guadagnini. This too was given its first performance in 1989.
At the same time, Sohal began writing for film and T.V. His work included the score for the award-winning programme Sir William in Search of Xanadu, directed by Barrie Gavin, and produced by Scottish Television, which marked the opening of the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, and Monarchy – the Enchanted Glass, also for Scottish Television.
But factors in the political and economic climate were beginning to affect Sohal’s career. Arts funding was dwindling apace, and in Scotland nationalism was on the rise. Sohal suddenly found that he qualified neither as Scottish, English or British when it came to grants, commissions and inclusion in public forums. In 1991, he was investigated by Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue on suspicion of being too poor. He protested that he was virtually a vegetarian and seldom drank alcohol and that this kept his expenses down.
Nevertheless, he was required to make a list of all the items he owned that were worth more than £100 ($160). He eventually found two items to put on the list: one was a ‘cello which had acquired some years earlier, but couldn’t play; the second was the suit in which he took his bow at concerts. The case was dropped.
The L.S.O.’s tour of India did not materialise. Tandava Nritya, was eventually premiered in 1993 in the Royal Scottish Orchestra’s rehearsal hall in Glasgow, alongside the work of young composers who had never heard their work performed before. Such was the power of the composition, which is a musical representation of the dance of the forces of creation and destruction, that it nearly ripped the roof off the building – metaphorically if not literally.
Despite strongly supporting a devolved parliament for Scotland, Sohal decided he couldn’t survive in the increasingly hostile environment. In 1993, he and his partner returned to London.
In 1996, the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins gave the first performance of Lila, a major orchestral work which it had taken Sohal five years to realise. This is a musical representation of the process of enlightenment as described in Hindu philosophy and experienced through meditation. As the work progresses, listeners are challenged to experience and survive in an increasingly rarified musical terrain. Many in the audience found this an awe-inspiring experience.
In 1997, the piece Satyagraha, commissioned to mark the fiftieth year of Indian independence was performed at the Barbican by London Symphony Orchestra, conductor Zubin Mehta. In 1998, Sohal completed a second music theatre piece in collaboration with Trevor Preston. This is Maya, an allegory drawn from Indian mythology.
He moved on to complete a song cycle, Songs of Desire, a setting of three poems by Tagore. This work has been performed variously in Bombay, London and at the Dartington Festival. He also produced Hymn of Creation, a major work for chorus and orchestra. This is a setting of the seven mantras on creation from the Rig Veda. Never one to pass up a challenge, Sohal’s setting is in both English and Sanskrit.
A period of experimentation followed. Sohal broke new ground with Songs of the Five Rivers, settings in the original language of poems by classical Punjabi poets Bullay Shah and Waris Shah. This work was commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and given its first performance by them with soprano Sally Silver. The work not only showcased Sally’s considerable musical talents, but enabled her to demonstrate her mastery of the Punjabi tongue.
In several of his works around this time, Sohal experimented with the use of Indian drums and tabla in chamber and orchestral contexts. One of these was a concerto for viola and orchestra, commissioned by the Russian Chamber Orchestra of London and premiered by them in 2002 with soloist Rivka Golani.
Sohal continues to write prolifically. His recent works have included Three Songs from Gitanjali commissioned by the Spitalfields Festival. The first performance was given at the 2004 festival by Sally Silver, this time singing in Bengali, and the Dante String Quartet. Unusually for a contemporary music piece, the work was encored by public demand.
Sohal also has a productive working relationship with ‘cellist Rohan de Saram and pianist Ananda Sukarlan, and this has led to several commissions and performances.
Sohal was commissioned to write a piece by the Israel Philharmonic to celebrate the 70th birthday of maestro Zubin Mehta. He produced a large piece called The Divine Song, for narrator and orchestra based on text at the heart of the Bhagavad Gita. In January and February 2010, the work was given three performances in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Itay Tiran, narrator and conducted by Zubin Mehta. The work can be narrated in any language of the world and in these performances it was narrated in Hebrew by Itay Tiran. It received a tumultuous response from the audience in all the three places. The performance by Itay Tiran was absolutely breath-taking. The piece was recorded by Mezzo Television for broadcast. In January 2011, It was played twice by the Staatskapelle, Berlin with Zubin Mehta conducting and Stefan Kurt, narrator. It was in German this time.
Around the same time Sohal met the famous Chinese harmonica virtuoso, Jia-yi He, and they became friends. Jia-yi played Sohal’s Reflection for harmonica and piano in Singapore and Taiwan. Sohal made another version for him, at his request, for strings, piano and harmonica. Sohal wrote Shades VIII for solo harmonica for him which he has played in New York and Hangzou, China.
The last big piece Sohal has written is a commission by the BBC for 2013 Prom,The Cosmic Dance, which is based on the Big Bang theory and Creation mantras from Rig Veda. Apart from his last Prom piece, The Wanderer, it has the biggest orchestration he has used so far. It was performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and conducted by Peter Oundjian to a packed Royal Albert Hall. It was received tremendously by the audience.
Sohal is a mould-breaker who transcends national boundaries. His resilience is remarkable, and his determination unwavering. ‘The thing is,’ he says, ‘if you have your origins in a poor country, sponsors are hard to come by. I don’t have inherited wealth, and I don’t depend on the state for anything. I don’t teach because I think it dilutes your creative purpose, and I have passed up a lot of comforts which people of my age would take for granted because I do not wish to be diverted from this central task.’ Not an easy position for a man approaching seventy. Yet because of this dedication, Sohal has given us some of the most inspiring, most rewarding and most important works of our time.