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By Allison Babka
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At this point, is it really necessary to invent a new musical instrument? What can be expressed on something new that couldn't be expressed on one of the old standards? And how many people are going to be listening if you do? And if they are, will they be able to understand exactly what you're trying to say? Inventing a new instrument is akin to inventing a new language, and given that you can make music simply by clapping your hands, whistling, scat-singing or banging on a trash can, the idea that someone would spend six years, thousands of dollars and a lot of spare brain power to do just that -- what's the point?
Wouldn't it be easier to start a band? Compose a symphony? Learn three or four other instruments? Anything but invent a new acoustic instrument.
In the course of human history, amazing instruments have appeared (harpsichord, tuba, saxophone, triangle, violin, theremin, Fender Rhodes electric piano), as have duds (flute, steel drum, cornet, ukelele, electric violin). Mark Deutsch has created a new amazing one, something called the bazantar, one of the most beautiful, haunting instruments you'll ever hear.
The bazantar is a rambling list of contradictions: It combines Western and Eastern musical traditions. It appears to be simple in its construction, but close examination reveals a confusing array of strings, pegs and knobs. It's entirely acoustic but yields a sound that most closely resembles amplified, orchestrated feedback. It seems to create random drones, but each sound is specific, and they combine to create a logical chaos.
That the instrument's existence is, at least in some part, the result of a dream, while something of a cliché, makes perfect sense once you hear it, because, simply put, it sounds dreamy. It also makes sense that Deutsch, who has performed Western and Indian classical music, jazz, folk and rock, would be the person who found it necessary to invent the instrument.
"I've played jazz my whole life," explains Deutsch. "Studied classical. I like a lot of different kinds of music. I've hung out with a lot of classical musicians who say, "Classical's the best.' Hung out with a lot of jazz musicians who are like, "Nothing but jazz.' Indian musicians are that way more so than anyone. Anything that's not Indian music isn't (acceptable). That doesn't resonate with me at all. It's like different palettes, using different paints. The style of music doesn't matter; it's who the person playing it is that makes it good. So I like to learn about it all.
"I was studying Indian music," he explains, "studying with (Washington University sitar master) Imrat Khan. Before I went to sleep, I would play a lot of different Indian music, and I was listening to the sirangi, which is this beautiful bowed (Indian) instrument. I went to sleep and had the CD on auto-reverse so it would play all night long, and I had a dream, and this music that I'm hearing enters my dream, but I'm playing the bass, because that's what I do."
That was 1993. Six years and three prototypes later, Deutsch has one finished bazantar, the only instrument of its kind. ("In comparison to anybody else who plays it, I'm the best in the world," he laughs.) He's also got government patents to protect his revolutionary idea, one that is showcased on his new CD, Bazantar/Sitar, and will be performed live at the Sheldon this week.
If the story Mark Deutsch tells of the tribulations involving the evolution of his idea from seed to fruition seems stereotypical -- skepticism, obstacles, peaks, valleys and, ultimately, profound success -- it is somewhat surprising that all of this occurred within the relatively liberal society of musicians; after all, what makes one sound, or one tradition, more "acceptable" than another? Shouldn't musicians, of all people, be able to appreciate another artist's desire to create a new sound?
Alas, as we all are reminded every time we tune in a commercial radio station, or talk to most classical-music aficionados, there are loads of seemingly liberal musicians whose rigid conceptions of music, or simple snobbery, allow no room for experimentation. Says Deutsch, "In the beginning, I never thought about the hostility that people would express about somebody trying to make an instrument. And I was shocked. I thought, what a cool idea. But then I'd tell people about it and I get these sort of patronizing, skeptical reactions. So after a little bit of that, I stopped, and I really didn't say anything. Even now, people hear about it and they're just sort of (rolls his eyes). The thing I'm getting now is, once they hear it, they don't believe it. People will listen to the recording and they'll say, "You're lying. This is more than one instrument.' It's really frustrating. You spend all this time, and you get it, what you want, and you're like, "Wow. I got it. I can show it; I can prove my point.' And then people don't believe me."
Or maybe it's not so shocking. The bazantar is a strange instrument. It sounds like more than one instrument. When Deutsch strikes it hard, he seems to invoke an entire string section of a symphony; it sounds like a host of overdubs.