Name: Sahil Vasudeva
Occupation: Pianist, composer
Nationality: Indian
Current release: Sahil Vasudeva's cover of Derek Sherinian's "Dragonfly", officially hailed by the former Dream Theater keyboarder as 'amazing', is available for streaming now.  
Recommendations: Chopin’s nocturnes and recently, I really liked Hania Rani Live from Studio S2 performance. (available on youtube)

If you enjoyed this interview with Sahil Vasudeva and would like to stay up to date on his work, visit him on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.

Sahil Vasudeva · In the Footsteps

When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I remember growing up with this “very large” sized instrument in our living room that my mother brought down from a random vacation to a hill station. I started learning when I was 7 – my mom put us into Western classical lessons.

As a kid I remember being enamoured by the sheer size and aesthetic grandeur of the instrument. You don’t realize it then, but the instrument becomes a part of your association with home, and as a kid whenever I was upset or angry in my adolescence I turned to the piano – there is definitely something healing about the sound of the piano.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

Growing up playing Western classical a big part of the training is replication and interpretation – so emulation is already an integral part of the learning process. Also the repetition, identifying patterns, styles and musical structures definitely influence your sound and voice.

Musically, my composition style is influenced by composers I really like and structures that have become ingrained in me learning works of different classical composers. And developing a performance voice and style is largely influenced by my experiences, struggles of being a pianist in India, and a childhood that dabbled in  many forms – be it theatre, painting, sports – “how to tell the story” is something I think of often.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

Your perception, your environment, family, childhood, education – these define most of your influences and it is very hard to truly break free from that. I do think that the music, and specifically the piano does require one to develop an acute sensibility – the piano in itself does not have a gender, religion so in that sense you have to be able to communicate your thoughts and expression to all identities.

What were some of your main challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?

It is extremely difficult and challenging to be an independent musician in India, let alone a concert pianist. There is little to no support in a country obsessed with Bollywood and cricket. The musician has to do everything here – performing, building a culture of listening, marketing, finding venues and even carrying their own instruments (and hurting your back in the process) whilst trying to stay financially stable. It is overwhelming and takes a huge toll on every musician. This also makes growth very slow and tends to also add a lot of mediocrity, stagnation, and a way of doing things which is very frustrating.

Of course things are way better than 10 years ago – it is now possible to attempt a career as an independent musician if you are privileged enough to do so - but that’s the accurate picture of where things are and the pandemic has pushed things further back. You have to prepare yourself for a marathon.

As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument?

Initially I was only performing solo classical pieces – I quickly realized that I have to quite quickly find my own style and voice to be able to appeal to audiences here and also work with other media, which I always wanted to do anyway given my exposure to them as a kid. That led me to write a show The Un-Recital that included theatre, film and visual design. I also started composing quite a lot.

At the moment, I am quite into exploring production techniques, sound design elements, synthesizers and reworking my album for solo piano to include these elements.

Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?

Granted I have a little bias, but for me the piano will always be the most complete instrument – it has keys, strings, hammers, it’s percussive, it can be bowed, it can replicate a woodwind, its frequencies are wide and can be used for any style and genre. Given the physicality, using both parts of your brain, the nervous system is at a very high level of stimulation. It is also a challenging instrument – it’s very whole.

The instrument continues to fascinate me and the more you grow older the relationship with it truly becomes spiritual. The piano really gives a very broad canvas to express yourself and you’re not going to meet many people who say “I hate the sound of the piano”.

How would you describe your approach to interpretation? Where do you start and how do you develop your view on a piece, what are some of your principles and what constitutes a successful interpretation for you?

I am quite obsessive in my approach to learning another composer's piece – so while I am not sitting on the piano I will listen to the music for days on loop – where I can play out every note, phrase in my head and “know” the piece and play it until it sits very comfortable on my hands. (I’ll also play it in my head before I sleep – I totally believe a lot of learning happens while you sleep). I will then hear several performers and how they have performed it. If it is historically relevant, I will research what was happening in the composer's life at the time and listen to other works if a part of a larger collection.

A pianist’s role is also to be able to get into the skin and bones of a piece to perform it accurately. Then, you add your sensibility and relevance to your life and transfer that energy for the audience to be able to relate to the music.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
I am still understanding how to collaborate with other people.

Previously I have usually taken their works and interpreted them and made them a part of my performances. I would like to now start working with visual designers, poets, artists, and even other musicians since it basically adds things you wouldn’t typically do yourself – that’s the best part of collaboration but it also requires a lot of aspects to fall into place to make it a successful one.

I don’t look at a musicians role to simply play and perform music. It’s limitless.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

As much as I try, I am not a morning person. I try to get things like morning tea, lunch, house chores out of the way so I can sit and focus on music – whether it's learning a piece and practicing or working on a project post lunch!

My most creative time really is late at night – somehow the night always has worked better for me – everyone is asleep and there are no distractions. If I am on a project and writing music then I will only focus on that until it is done and not be able to think of meeting a friend or do anything in between. I am working on finding a balance.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

The Un-Recital – a mixed media performance I wrote a couple of years ago, is definitely most special to me.

It was borne from the struggles I felt as a musician in India juxtaposed with the struggle of the country and the system. The easiest and most honest story to tell is my own and my motivation was to not take a conventional approach to piano performance. It was an organic process with a lot of experimentation before I stitched the narrative and took it to a theatre.

It gave me confidence to develop my own voice in performance and performing it at the Royal Opera House in Mumbai was a special experience. It was an original presentation of a piano concert and very personal – that made it special.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

Composing is also reactionary in nature, which probably isn't the most ideal state simply from a personal health perspective – many a time I have written music in a bad mood, or if I am angry or hurt. But you do not want to use those as a crutch, much like you do not want to use them to get high.

I think the pandemic has taught us it is all about balance now – healthy mind, nutrition, exercise, focus and good sleep – mind and body are interlinked – that balance is probably the ideal state of mind.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

The more I get into it, the more I am convinced that music is a spiritual experience – It is the language of love. When it is really personal and you have to perform the same piece though, you do have to relive that moment or emotion so it can hurt as well in that given moment since it is quite palpable.

Coincidentally, I just came across this quote while browsing instagram a few minutes ago that can shed light on this question - "Without music, the world is barren, abandoned and bereft of peace, happiness and order."

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?

Since sound is auditory in nature, the other senses work as a response to music. The beauty of music is that it can heighten every other sense in the body. The visual appeal of music has been a marriage filmmakers/visual art and musicians have always loved.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

I think it’s immpossible for art to not respond to the social and political times – since art is something you feel, and if you feel, you will express. If something stirs you, you will create.

Art has always been the greatest archiver of our culture and one has to believe art can change the world or atleast live with that hope.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Well words have never managed to express it so I am going to not attempt to do that either. (laughs) There is a reason it is the language of the soul. It follows the cycle of life, of birth and rebirth.