Sonic canvas of Premasiri Khemadasa
Premasiri Khemadasa was not only Sri Lanka’s best known composer but
also the founder of the greater tradition of Sri Lankan music. His
creativity penetrated almost every aspect of modern music from academic
compositions to popular film music.
Although his influence should be immense there is none to absorb it
due to lack of talent and philosophy of music among the new-comers. This
is the poverty of the musical scene in Sri Lanka.
His latest opera, Agni has already changed the direction of the
musical creations and offer a big challenge to the popular concept of
music. In a country where the popular mode is the simple song, his music
has to change the audience’s relationship to the musical experience.
In the Agni opera you can listen to one-and-half hour musical
performance giving the impression of a gigantic epic theatre because of
its huge sonic canvas. Each new melody, harmony and rhythmic change is
monumental and there is nothing to compare with it in the contemporary
It bravely generates superb voices of Indika Upamali, Krishan
Wickramasinghe, Subuddhi Lakmali, Sumudu Pathiraja, Wagesha and Thisari
who could easily dismiss the entire catalogue of popular singers along
with their musical scribblings.
Khemadasa was no doubt Sri Lanka’s foremost composer of classical
music who had an intellectual monopoly on this field.
It is very interesting to note that the birthday of Premasiri
Khemadasa and Phillip Glass, the American composer who wrote Einstein on
the Beach, Mishima, Satyagraha, Glassworks etc., fall on the last week
Perhaps the most salient features of Khemadasa’s music is the use of
Western classical music with increased use of folk rhythms. No
composer’s music is dramatic than that of Khemadasa’s.
There are many pieces that can be considered as dramatic symphonies
with narrative elements and revolutionary additions of notes as an
elaboration and sponge-like absorption of the folk colours thought to
exist between the sound and rhythm and beyond the reach of the existing
It enhances the spectrum of the code as the Impressionist and
Post-impressionist painters such as Degas, Renoir, Monet, Gauguin etc.
opened up a vast range of new colourism unimaginable to academic
His music has a significant cross fertilisation with oriental music.
He was one of the few musicians in the world who could work in both
genres. In this particular sense of argument, he always voiced against
the splitting of the audience into Oriental and Western, Traditional and
Avant-garde, Bourgeois and Proletariat etc.
The performing of Agni not only in Colombo but also in Negombo,
Chilaw, Panadura and Anuradhapura with full-houses has blurred the
borders of that distinction and discrimination. The maestro was
fortunate enough to find a welcome audience for every performance
sometimes even amidst adverse security situations and parking
His creations presented a radical basis for music and change the
fundamentals of aesthetics of music and also its pedagogy. He fully
embraced the use of folk music, sometimes its rare and esoteric
categories such as Punam Gee to give a greater rhythmic and harmonic
variety. He had a Levi-Straussian fascination for the repositories of
the folk life available in their work-songs.
From the very beginning of his musical career, he endeavoured to
create a tonality totally different from the traditional signing. In Sri
Lankan music, the modernism should be the name appropriate to his trend
of thought and philosophy in music.
There only we can experience how the refrain or ritornelle works
effectively fascinating the heart of the native within the context of a
larger creation and complex musical procedures. Modern music-blenders,
fusion-experts and sales-rep singers would never reach this apex of
They all want to replace the Muse with the computer and its fusion
According to Jonathan Harvey, Muse the Greek counterpart of Goddess
Saraswathee is the crucial symbolic feminine figure in the composer’s
As the etymology of the words suggested, Harvey says, the idea of the
Muse has always been central to music.
The word Music is derived from the Greek meaning of the Muses,
suggesting that it was the art form most associated with the particular
inspiration that only a Muse could bring.
I am sure that the Muse of Khemadasa dwells in his simple refrains or
ritornelle. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, two Post-modern French
philosophers who wrote on the philosophy of music in their landmark
philosophical project, A Thousand Plateaus; Capitalism and
Schizophrenia, admit that the Refrain or its Italian counterpart
category, which means ‘the little return’, i.e. recurring part of a
musical creation usually appearing again and again, creates the core and
spirit of music.
When we evaluate the contribution made by Khemadasa for the musical
world, we can easily witness that he has been able to fill a serious gap
hitherto prevailed not only in the Oriental music but also in the
Western classical tradition. Blissful moments of his music brighten the
darkness and chasm created by that lack up there as the hegemony of the
Western music and the complacence of the Oriental tradition. Even
Western music, although it is a great musical language, still needs to
acquire something from Non- western cultures.
Here we should appreciate the fact that the Western music has
accommodated and absorbed many elements and moods from African and Latin
American music in terms of codes, tempo and tonality. In fact,
accommodating the sonic qualities of other cultures is a moral
responsibility of the art of music.
Pierre Boulez argued that he was struck in a violent way by the
beauty of the Far Eastern and African works.
He said that although this beauty was so far removed by his culture
it was so close to his temperament.
Khemadasa was no doubt one of the pioneers who endeavoured to include
the Oriental musical sensibility and its own elements in the Western
He has been successful in accommodating code additions, new rhythms
and new sentiments hitherto unknown to the West, in his creations.
For him music was a way of life, a way of being in the world and
become an integral part of the modernity and the post-modernity.
He has been brave enough in sustaining new codes or extending the
existing codes. He was a winner at a particular point where the
disciples of Western music fail.
Let me quote a very good example from the modern history of painting
to prove my argument on the success and failure of the Western masters.
John Berger, a famous American Marxist critic describes how Pablo
Picasso failed in the later part of his artistic life due to the
limitations of the European art world.
“Picasso should have left Europe, to which he has never properly
belonged, in which he has always remained a vertical invader ..... He
might have visited India, Indonesia, China, Mexico or West Africa.
....., I am suggesting that outside Europe he would have found his
Khemadasa’s contribution should necessarily be understood in this
paradigm, which is about to be shifted.
The complex cross-breeding of his musical heritage, the intense
political basis of his art and very nature of his genius should be duly
respected as he has been imaginative enough to become an artist of an
emerging musical world.