Mark Deutsch is the world's best -- and only -- player of the bazantar

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.

When it's plucked, as a jazz bassist would do, the bazantar sounds like your standard stand-up -- that low, authoritative rudder-hum that guides a composition. Underneath, though, as if out of a mist, a rumble appears and beautiful, acoustic (the bazantar, though constructed with pickups for amplification if necessary, is an entirely acoustic instrument) feedback rises and falls as the bass strings are touched. When bowed, the sound is monstrous, symphonic in its complexity and dominance. You first hear the sound of the bow caressing the bass strings, and then, in reaction to the vibrations this action creates, the 29 sympathetic strings begin to make their presence known and a swirling, controlled chaos rings and hums.

The specs, according to Deutsch's press release: "The bazantar is a five string double bass, fitted with an additional 29 sympathetic and four drone strings. This instrument possesses a melodic range of over five octaves, while its sympathetic's range spans four octaves."

The layman's version: The bazantar appears to be a stand-up bass, but with a row of what look like alligator teeth attached to the body underneath the five strings. From a distance, it's difficult to determine what exactly is going on inside there. It's all strings, and they're packed under the bass strings, inaccessible to the bow or fingers. They're just there, and they sound not as the result of direct interaction but as the result of the vibrations of the strings and body of the instrument.

When you examine the bazantar closely, it seems obvious why this undertaking would take six years and three prototypes. The alligator teeth are actually two rows of tuning pegs designed to alter the pitch of the sympathetic strings. To the right of the bass strings is a set of four thinner drone strings that Deutsch strikes with his long pinkie nail. Attached to the center of the bass' body is the sympathetic strings' housing, perfect in its compactness. The 29 strings are strung inside this cartridge, about the size and shape of a man's forearm. Because of the extreme tension of these strings, it would have been impossible to attach them to the bass itself. "What I needed to do was to get the right tension," explains Deutsch, "a lot of tension on the strings, because that's going to generate a lot of amplitude. The problem was, say I strung all these strings up here and down there -- the whole body would cave in."

His solution was to build an independent cartridge to contain this extreme tension. On the second prototype, this cartridge was made of walnut, with geared tuning pegs. However, Deutsch says, the prototype took forever to tune and wouldn't stay in tune for long. The solution was to create the piece from durable carbon graphite, which is what Deutsch's third, and final, prototype is made of. To arrive here, he had to consult with acoustical engineers, brush up on engineering himself (as Deutsch, who's far from humble, explains it, "The kind of mechanics I'm talking about, very few musicians would have any idea about -- I had to read a lot of books on physics and acoustical physics").

The result is an amazing object that Deutsch has successfully patented. Says Deutsch, "Usually what you get is a mechanical patent, but they awarded me a conceptual patent. You can't usually patent an idea, but since this idea is so unique, I got a conceptual patent."

Once you get to talking to Deutsch, it comes as little surprise that he pulled the project off. He explains the relationship between the sympathetic and double bass strings by comparing them to the relationship between Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. When he attempts to explain the mathematical intricacies of the bazantar, he starts by discussing the "underlying architecture, harmonic and frequency structures, as well as the philosophical and psychological context for the music."

A glance at the booklet for Bazantar/ Sitar is proof that Deutsch has a lot going on up there when it comes to the mathematics of music: A table titled "66 Harmonically Resonant Divisions of the Octave" consists of columns labeled "ratio," "decimal," "cents from tonic" and "cents off tempered." Each column is a listing of numbers that, to the layperson, seem to be gibberish. Other, still more confusing pages are devoted to explaining the underlying theme of the main composition of the CD, titled "Fool." Listed on these pages are concepts such as "Searching (nostalgia, dreaming, neurosis)," "Struggle (sorrow, desparation [sic], heroic)," "Gestation (heroic)" and "Formation (conception). They're accompanied by an illustration that looks more like a seismograph reading than a musical annotation.

It's overwhelming. What's obvious about Deutsch's invention, though, is that it has arrived at a logical time. As the world "gets smaller" and cultural boundaries disappear or are co-opted, the bazantar combines two traditions that have normally kept a safe distance from one another -- Western and Eastern. But, says Deutsch, this wasn't necessarily his intention: "I could explain what I'm doing as, I wanted to integrate classical music and jazz, and folk and Indian. And it's sort of true, but really that's an after-the-fact observation. What I'm doing is, all these things I really like, and aspects of them I really like especially. And because I've played them all, a lot of classical, jazz, Indian, popular, it's how I think, or how I hear -- it's what I hear in my head. It's all integrated into who I am."

He's more eloquent in his written explanation: "The integration of North Indian classical music's highly refined sense of pitch and its subtle melodic contouring with Western classical music's strength of thematic development and its ability to create musical structures panoramic in architecture is one aspect of the style I am working to develop."

At the St. James Cathedral in downtown Chicago, a glorious space with Arts and Crafts-era, gold-leaf-flowered wallpaper weaving up the archways, a stolid, scholarly gentleman welcomes the equally educated audience to a performance as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

The audience politely tap their hands together, and the gentleman introduces the performers: "Yusef Komunyakaa, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, professor of creative writing at Princeton University and author of Neon Vernacular, the recent Thieves of Paradise, a finalist for the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award and the forthcoming Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems; Susie Ibarra, New York percussionist and member of the Susie Ibarra Trio; Sugar Blue, Grammy Award-winning harmonica virtuoso, who has played with Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, B.B. King and the Rolling Stones; Dennis González, musician, composer, visual artist, broadcaster, writer, educator and linguist, who has recorded CDs in various styles and performed in festivals and concerts throughout the world; and Mark Deutsch, musician and creator/inventor of the bazantar, which is a combination of a sitar and a double bass."

They walk out, and the audience again claps. All but one of the performers is dressed conservatively, in sportcoats and slacks. But one of these people is not like the others, and it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's seen him in action that Mark Deutsch is this person, dressed in his standard hippie-ish garb: loose, flowing cotton shirt; equally loose-fitting, soft cotton pants; knee-high Indian moccasins. His hair flows down his back, and he constantly has to push it out of his eyes.

The musicians take their places, and Komunyakaa begins to read a work of poetry commissioned for this performance, titled "Blues Jumped a Rabbit and Ran Him a Solid Mile."

Deutsch sits facing the audience, staring at them. He unlaces his moccasins, removes them, takes off his socks, begins rubbing one of his feet. It's jarring to watch him do this in front of an audience. It's almost as though he's sitting down at home and getting ready to watch TV. But he's just relaxing, and after a moment he picks up the sitar and begins a beautiful drone, which he carries for a few minutes. He then puts down the sitar. The others are improvising on their instruments: drums, trumpet, harmonica. Kumunyakaa's reading: "Black hands shuck and shell corn into a washtub." Deutsch moves over to his instrument, the bazantar -- one of these things is not like the others -- and begins bowing it. What comes out of Deutsch's double bass sounds as it should -- that deep, bellowing moan that stretches and sighs. But then, as an echo, that sound appears, eerie and full, a symphonic drone that follows the moan with a cry of overtones and sympathetic echoes.

The other musicians watch him attentively, with obvious wonder in their eyes; percussionist Ibarra even has a tiny smile on her face. The bazantar sounds amazing inside St. James Cathedral, and Deutsch is, on this day and every day, quite obviously the greatest bazantar player the world has ever known.

Mark Deutsch performs at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Thursday, Nov. 18.

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