A saxophone in Indian Classical music! Why not? Says Indian - American Mittal

Aakash Mittal, based in Colorado, has an ensemble, “The Aakash Mittal Quartet,” which performs all original music. But that’s not the big thing about him. Mittal seeks to create music that relates to his dual American and Indian heritage, drawing inspiration as much from straight-ahead jazz and the avant-garde as from technology and the musical traditions of India. He has been keen to explore the possibility of using saxophone in north Indian classical music. To expand his knowledge of the Indian tradition, Mittal travelled to Kolkata, India, and is studying classical Indian music with world renowned artists Pandit Tanmoy Bose and Prattyush Banerjee.

Mittal says, “Among Indian instruments, the saxophone falls between a keyed instrument and a woodwind one, such as between a Shehnai and a Santoor. It is challenging to play Indian music techniques with a saxophone because the saxophone was not designed for Indian music. The saxophone was originally intended to be an orchestral instrument. Since then it has been adopted into numerous musical traditions so I believe it can be adopted in north Indian music as well. It's just an instrument, a tool, and how we use it is only dependent on our creativity. How do we create the aesthetics and soul of Indian music with this instrument? I think it’s less about the instrument’s limitations and more about training and environment. I am interested in exploring the possibility of playing gamakas and meends on the saxophone and the inherent emotional content of these sounds.”

In the 1990’s, there was a revival of swing music, which was popular in the 1930’s. Mittal used to dance to live swing music three to four nights a week. One day he wanted to play in one of the swing bands. At that time, he was playing the clarinet, which he had done since the 4th grade. Clarinet was not used in swing bands too much but saxophone was. He convinced his parents to buy him a saxophone. However, they would only buy him a saxophone if he promised to practice his clarinet everyday for a year. He did it and got his reward. 

Saxophone isn’t the most popular instrument worldwide. Most people play the guitar, piano or drums. Even in the United States it is more common to play guitar and write songs than to pick up a saxophone and play an improvised solo. “Saxophone is very common in jazz and American improvised music and you find it in some blues situations although not very often. Then there is the western classical saxophone tradition, but that is mostly based in France,” said Mittal.

Asked how he felt about the use of technology in music, he said, “Personally, I like the sound of music that is using technology. I have not explored it much but it’s something I’m interested in.” Mittal uses some simple technology in his album “Videsh” to capture a foreigner’s experience of India. Amidst the hard driving compositions and improvisations Mittal weaves sound samples of Kolkata’s markets, streets, and conversations. 

He recently performed with Kendraka during the Smart Art Adda SMART initiative by Rooh Media Pvt Ltd. Asked about this experience, Mittal said, “It was amazing. They are incredible improvisers. They really play their instruments and compositions well. When I’m playing with them I feel like they are really listening to me and interacting.”

His advice to aspiring musicians? “My advice would be to start with listening. I really enjoy history and believe we need to listen to the history of the instruments being played. If you’re interested in jazz listen to the modern players and also go back and listen to the history of the music. Try to explore what other people are doing on your instrument. It is also important to stay curious and practice. Not just individual practice but working with other people. So listen and   collaborate,”


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