Tirath Singh Nirmala
he UK underground has sometimes (unfairly) been described as incestuous and introverted. Its community styled support structure has seen an irrefragable growth and evolution as its arms continue to spread through class, culture, religion, urban/rural landscapes, and modus operandi. This sense of comity fosters the talented regardless of timeliness, proximity to London, or A&R; interest.
Tirath Singh Nirmala may not yet be a household name in even the most knowledgeable of improv circles, but his recent runs of CD-R’s have ripped holes in the cloud cover. Having once been a member of experimental act Hood under the name John Clyde-Evans and now a practicing Sikh, Tirath is forging a path of gorgeous, layered acoustic explorations.
With a back-story as interesting as his music, it seemed only right to ask Tirath some important questions about religion and music, and the connections between them.
You joined Hood when you were 17, what were your creative musical experiences up until that point?
I was lucky enough to have had a pretty colourful musical upbringing. I started really young playing guitar and had gone through the whole Death Metal thing by my early teens. My dad, a bitter old hippie, would occasionally stick on a bit of Coltrane, Terry Riley, Incredible String Band (the latter I hated back then). By chance I found a Hans Reichel LP lurking in my parent’s record collection; they had no idea how it got there. That was around 14 and at the same time my music teacher at school thought she’d try and shake us up a bit by playing this horrible distorted Cage piece (possibly Cartridge Music) and asked us to try and record something equally ‘experimental.’ I then started sticking things in guitars and messing around with tape decks, most of it total rubbish.
What was your input into Hood during your time there?
Hood was interesting. Chris (Adams) was most sympathetic to my kind of thing, and in fact we initially met through Chris conning me out of £1.25 for a compilation tape of Dead C and Xpressway stuff that never appeared. As for my input, I’d like to think that, if anything, I added sounds and harmonies that helped bring about the more drawn out improvised tracks we did; I played violin and clarinet mostly. Some of the live improvisations were really good.
How does your post-Hood John Clyde-Evans LP and 7" differ from your new material?
I think the way I go about recording is the same (sit down and see what happens). The digital aspect really helps me, saving so much time and giving me more control over, say, pitching. For some tracks it’s with the same process I was using towards the end of my four-track days. Some things from the Tattvagunamala CD-R’s are this process applied to different sounds. The main difference between these new CD-R’s and the older stuff is that I’m avoiding very static string ‘misery tracks.’ I went to India for the first time when 18 and was shaken by meeting people of my own age who had nothing, struggling for dignity and a little security, and generally smiling about things. For me to have the audacity to enjoy or even record miserable self-pitying crap, which presumably makes other equally naïve financially secure people living in a safe country also feel self-pitying, seems really repulsive! I’m not saying we shouldn’t allow ourselves to feel sad, more that this indulgent ‘life is so hard’ approach riles me. Where was I…?
Comparing your old and new material?
Yes, so basically I try to create ‘natural’ sounding things—pieces that are maybe a little more in tune with traditional Japanese aesthetics; simple, suggestive, and open. The criteria are the same though, whether it’s got that glimmer of nameless magic in there or not. I’m still fairly resistant to amplified sounds and am keeping (nearly) everything acoustic; it’s no big deal, just that I find enough beauty in the sound of these pieces of wood and metal as they are.
What led you to initially decide to go to India?
A cheap plane ticket, my wife-to-be, and maybe my upbringing.
Would you class yourself as having undergone a 'conversion' to Sikhism?
(Laughing) This is something I get asked almost daily. I’ve come to the point now where I choose not to speak about it, because it is very hard to convey accurately. No. “Conversion” implies that I took on new beliefs and had some kind of complete renewal, which is not really what happened. I was raised by weird beardy vegetarians with very strong social and moral convictions on equality and compassion (i.e. a lot of the Sikh perspective but without the God bit!) The Sikh tradition is essentially a devotional non-dualist path which, a bit like other traditions of that region, requires you to go for it. Obviously it had a huge life-changing impact on me. I was also careful to make sure that I spent a long time pondering before I took the complete plunge.
How have others dealt with your becoming a Sikh?
Within my family it was kind of expected, according to my mum. My dad, a staunch atheist, is—I presume—disappointed and baffled. The consequence has been incredible though. It shakes you awake to how the social contract of norms works day in day out. I recommend readers of this to try the following: Tie a piece of cloth on your head and walk around a city centre for a few hours! It is unbelievable the reactions, assumptions, and projections people have of you. Most people literally assume you are slightly out of touch with reality. Plus, not surprisingly, it often draws pure anger and ridicule. At times it’s gotten pretty scary, as you can be an easy target, particularly after 9/11. But it keeps you on your toes and makes you see on a day-to-day basis what it is to be an alienated outsider in this society. The things visible minorities can experience! It’s not physical attacks that are the problem, but those disparaging stares, the sneering ridicule, and the change in people’s faces. It provides excellent practice at remaining unaffected by things around you, though! Thank God, I don’t sing the blues.
How has this affected your music?
I’m in danger of over-egging it here. I spent a lot of time foolishly mulling over heavy questions (and still do) and music always helped facilitate this. I’m not trying to be deliberately abstruse here, but I sincerely believe that the part of us tapped into certain music and sound is related to the indescribable, unthinkable, more intuitive, and “mystical.” Mystical in that by trying to identify it in thought, you automatically lose grasp of it! Studying mystical traditions later, I found a lot of affinity with this; ineffability, transience, insight, ecstasy. Terry Riley talks of the same thing, Albert Ayler talks of the same thing, and the wandering Qalandhar singer talks of the same.
So does music tap into something within us or do we tap into something 'otherly'?
It’s one and the same.
How did you get back into recording music?
I came back to it all very recently (in the last few months) thanks to Neil Campbell, courtesy of a bootleg computer editing program. It’s nice to record with so few reference points for this stuff, and do what seems to come naturally. Some of it sounds OK, I think. As long as Neil and Richard (Youngs) like it, then I'm happy.
Were you nervous playing your music to people after seven years?
Although I am thankful for the kind comments, it’s not really about making things and turning to others for reactions. I just like these things that pop out of my computer. I send them to friends who are interested, and make enough for other people who may also enjoy it. I guess the beauty of these CD-R’s is that if something were to be truly embarrassing, then there are only 50 people who have cringed. Plus if I’m not happy I can change things around and jiggle them, which is what I’ve started to do with some things already.
What music are you listening to these days?
My ears have never had it so good. All the new UK stuff really seems to have come of its own recently. All of Neil Campbell’s output, of course. Neil made me a compilation of earlier volumes of Astral Social Club, and the opening track (perhaps even from ASC #1) is absolutely masterful. It shudders up quietly and explodes into these fizzling clouds of ecstatic chords. As good as anything I’ve heard. Richard Youngs’ new things are bliss as always. My fellow Hebden Bridge resident Ross Parfitt has finally got a CD-R to his name which is suitably obtuse and great fun. Phil Todd/Ashtray Navigations’ CD-R’s are sweet too. Over the last few weeks I’ve discovered Taj Mahal Travellers a good few years after their recent revival. I like their similar approach of marrying melody and tonality with new sounds and combinations quite naturally. Above and beyond that, prior to recording again my neighbour got me into Theo Parrish who can be great (and, at times, awful). Perhaps of less interest here, the fairly recent resurgence in traditional classical Sikh kirtan or devotional music has been incredible. Without getting into a rant about the fallout of colonialist thought on Indian traditional culture, Sikh devotional music has been moving away from traditional singing, instruments, and structure in favour of a more European influenced sound (a la harmonium). But over the last few years, the exponents of the traditional approach or maryada have had a beautiful revival, and those ‘reets’ or approaches that had been passed down from generation to generation dating back to the times of the Sikh Gurus have at last been recorded. The instruments of kirtan that had nearly disappeared like the dilruba, sarinda, jori, and taus are now increasingly popular among Sikh youth.
How did your recent winter solstice gig come about?
I was lucky enough to grow up on a hill near Hebden Bridge, a small town in a Pennine valley adopted by the hippies in the 70s. There was no socialising to be done really, so I would often bound around the moors which are beautiful and magical. Down the road from my mum’s lives Mike Haslam who is a drunken hermit and well regarded British poet. He generally celebrates the beauty around that part of the world in his poems. I wanted to celebrate it some more and dragged him up too on the night.
How did the event go?
It was very very cold! After a few minutes I couldn’t move my fingers. Fortunately we were only playing boring droney music (laughing). I got Ross Parfitt, who is far more advanced than me in this whole music thing, to do a duo with me. We set up on Solstice evening on Crow Hill, the highest point on Midgley Moor, and played for an hour and a half on flutes, tapes, accordion, percussion, and bowed cymbals to a full panoramic of sky and valley. The beauty of playing in a natural setting like that is that, not only does it all seem to make sense, it gives you the space to move around. Unfortunately half of our audience who had come from Leeds and Liverpool got completely lost in the darkness and returned to a pub in Hebden. There is a perversely limited run of DVD-R’s of the performance available through Volcanic Tongue. We are probably going to do an all-day performance at the same place on a hot day in summer. I put a notice for this last one on Volcanic Tongue and, if David is kind enough, any future events will be advertised there as well.
Tirath at Volcanic Tongue
Official Hood Site