in conversation... pete yelding

Pete Yelding
India, creativity
and overcoming trauma

Photo credit: Katarzyna Borek

4th May, 2020

“When somebody dies all of the love that you have for them has to go somewhere and the feelings of pain and grief are when the love is still inside you so you have to put them out in some way”

*Trigger warning: suicide references

Pete Yelding is a London based musician, composer and instrument builder, as well as a student of Hindustani classical music.

His Arts Council funded project ‘Situating Musical Knowledge’ has seen him build a one-of-a-kind cello from scratch, and he recently spent time in India studying under a highly regarded Ustad Irfan Khan.

It was early April when I spoke with Pete over video call, about ten days into the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown. Pete exudes curiosity and his insights are unique and well researched. His upbringing was thoroughly musical, and he is, broadly speaking, a classically trained cellist but a keen interest in Hindustani classical music took his intrigue and practice in a new direction. Informed by his Romany and British family history, Pete gently challenges himself and his privilege in everything he does through a political and post-colonial lens.

In the interview, Pete discusses his musical childhood, an ever-changing relationship with creativity as well as his complex diagnosis of ADHD and dyspraxia and overcoming trauma.

u ok hun?

Hah! Yeah, I’m alright. I’m finding the whole quarantine thing pretty strange but I think everyone is. I’m quite undermotivated and I was thinking that that’s the opposite to a lot of musicians who seem to be performing at a level of high productivity. But at the same time, it’s also fine to just chill. Now is not a holiday, so for that reason I’ve been practicing - and that’s it, no other mad output. 

You’re a sitar player, cellist, singer and now, an instrument builder but tell me about the early days? Where did it all begin?

My Mumma was a children’s book illustrator who brought me up pretty much on her own but even before my Dad left she had me at home a lot when she was working. And because I have ADHD I was a pretty active child, and to keep me entertained and focused she used to tell me to write stories about the music that she was listening to. She usually had Classic FM on, so I got really into European classical music and that’s what I was into as a toddler. When I went to nursery there was this old lady that came to do the music classes and she asked me as the new boy to pick a song to play, expecting me to say a nursery rhyme, I chose Mendelssohn.

When I was six years old, my Mumma took me to this commune, a field community near Norfolk. It was all off grid and there were musicians from all over the world passing through. So from about the age of ten, I was jamming with Griots from West Africa; some of the best kora and djembe players in the world. And so that was happening alongside this good quality music education in Milton Keynes. So musical knowledge as a whole became my world.

I got a scholarship to study at Birmingham Conservatoire doing Composition. That’s when it all took off in terms of what I’m doing now. I wasn’t enjoying my time there, it was very eurocentric in terms of the teaching. There was a very limited number of camps in which I could fall. It was either contemporary classical music, so-called avant-garde, which was what I was pushed towards, or very traditional string quartet, or jazz.

And then the man who would become my sitar teacher came to give a lecture on Hindustani music and I was like, ‘this is the thing’. From the moment I had my first meeting with him it became this very different thing. I realised that it was a really serious art form, the most melodically intricate in the world and for me that was the most important thing for my musical life. Ever since really it’s been about tying all this together. My practice became working out what it means to be a cellist, sitar player and a singer who has inherited several lines and flows of musical knowledge on an island that has a colonial history. Also with my Dad’s side of the family, we’re circus Romany. So pulling all of that in - what do you do with that? It’s quite a lot to work out. I wake up every morning and I think, ‘what angle am I going to look at this from today?’

You recently spent six weeks studying under your new guru Ustad Irfan Khan in Kolkata, how did that come about? How was that experience, and what is the relationship like between such an esteemed guru and you as the pupil?

I got some Arts Council funding last year for a development project called Situating Musical Knowledge. The whole purpose of it was to work out, going back to what I said before, how to put all of this stuff together. That entailed just before I went, spending a bit of time sitting with the kora player Jally Kebba Susso to learn a little bit more about playing strings, particularly on your own and how to groove and hold a space, improvising around that - Griots are the masters of that. The main element of the funding though was to build this gourd cello, which is the embodiment of this objective. And then to go to Kolkata and sit with Khansaheb [Utsad Irfan Khan], who is the main proponent, the Khalif of Lucknow Shahjahanpur gharana. He is several generations down the line of this ‘musical school of thought’, and is the last of this gharana. The knowledge that he has dies with him if he doesn’t share it, which is tragic because he is a phenomenal musician.

“When I found out I had dyspraxia, I realised I was coming up against barriers and finding my own ways around them, which inherently makes you creative”

With the emergence of the Indian middle class and the collapsing of the old nawab system of patronage that his family were a part of, his family and a number of other prominent musician families were pushed to the sidelines, allowing only for a small number of families, like Ravi Shankar’s, to come to the centre. This new peripheral position endangers a lot of incredible knowledge. It feels really nice to be learning from someone who wants to share this knowledge. It’s not just about learning to get better, I owe it to Khansaheb to practice because his knowledge is so important and it’s up to me and my fellow students to carry that on.

The other thing is that there’s these lovely resonances that I discovered when I was learning with him between my family history and his. His family were originally from Afghanistan, they were rubab [ancestor of the cello] players and horse trades people and they came to India and learnt with the senyas, who were the people who held most of the knowledge of Hindustani music. My family were also horse people and performers. They were originally Romany, and then became part of the circus as musicians, and began doing puppetry and horse tricks. I found this resonance quite nice between us. Khansaheb’s house has loads of statues of horses in it. Also I found that another of his great-grandfathers, a few generations later, performed in Queen Victoria’s golden or silver jubilee. We worked out that it’s likely that one of my ancestors was also performing in that jubilee, but as a lion tamer! The idea that Khansaheb’s great grandfather and a great aunt of mine might’ve crossed paths is a lovely thing.

As someone with ADHD and dyspraxia, how does this interact with your mental health?

I only got diagnosed a few years ago, and it was an earth shattering moment for me. In a really good way actually, because there’s a number of things that I’ve always found difficult as a musician. Very basic things like counting and playing at the same time and having trouble with hand-eye coordination. Anything where I have to take my mind in two different directions, I get really confused and it becomes challenging. Despite having piano lessons when I was about four or five, I just can’t do it; this idea that my hands go in two separate directions to do melodies. I would have to dedicate my whole life to nailing that in order to be able to do it. I think that’s maybe one of the things that put me off playing in the structures of European classical harmony.

I’ve always been a problem solver and I’ve always done things my own way. I used to think, ‘that’s just who I am’ in this kind of hyper-identity way of thinking. When I found out I had dyspraxia, I realised I was coming up against barriers and finding my own ways around them, which inherently makes you creative. That was a nice thing.

The ADHD side of things did explain why I got bored of things quickly. I used to get upset and frustrated about the fact that I didn’t progress as quickly as I should be. As a cellist, for example, who has been playing since they’re four years old, I thought to myself that I’m someone that should be giving high concert level recitals by the age of 15-16. Although I did do well and got to a high level, I was still struggling with basic things that I didn’t think I should be struggling with. I could see other musicians who had been playing for a shorter amount of time not struggling. I used to take that on, which made me struggle with my discipline in practice. Music was still the most important thing to me, so I used to think ‘why is it that I’m not disciplined enough when I love it so much?’.

So having this diagnosis of dyspraxia and ADHD definitely took that pressure off, and gave me a much more practical way of understanding how I practice and the things that I want to do as a musician. In a professional environment it means I can walk into a space and I can say from an access perspective, “I need the space to be like this in order to function”, which is really helpful. I try and remind myself of this, because these old neuroses that I mentioned before don’t go away, but at least I’ve got a way of telling myself something to take that pressure off.

You mentioned that the diagnosis was a relief in some ways. Did you find these frustrations or upsetting moments, before and after the diagnosis, would affect your creativity?

Creativity was always an escape so I wouldn’t say it necessarily affected me in that way, it actually became a bit of a vice. It sounds a bit weird, but this is particularly true when it comes to learning Indian classical music. It would be very easy, if you’re being taught something that’s difficult to go ‘oh, I’m not going to do it like this, I’m going to do it my own way’. That’s quite an arrogant thing to do, and so to think that you as an individual are better than something that has generations of refined and honed knowledge. I used to be of the mind that when I was presented with something that I found challenging my first reaction would be to freak out, and my second would be to reject it, take the bits that I like and do my own thing with it. Which is fine, but when you bring in structures of privilege and colonialism, it becomes less okay because what are you representing there? Why are you doing that?

Being more aware of an actual physical and mental difficulty in processing certain tasks in a certain way, it’s helped me regain patience to see through things that I find challenging, if they’re important. This is another positive of ADHD; if it’s not important enough to see through to the end, then you need to find something else to do because you’re not committed to it.

To me, creativity now means creative approaches to dealing with musical problems rather than trying to be creative for creativity's sake. Maybe that’s an unfashionable thing to say because we’re all supposed to be creative. A book came out recently called ‘Against Creativity’ by Ollie Mould, and he talks about how we live in an age of hyper individualised understandings of creativity, rather than social creativity. That falls into this oppressive culture of individualism, which pushes people out because obviously we’re all connected with each other. Instead of making a piece that’s titled, ‘We’re All Connected With Each Other’, I’d rather function as though we are actually all connected with each other and channel my creativity into solving problems that will enable me to function with other musicians, which is really what I’ve been doing already.

What is your experience with mental health, and how has your perception changed over the years?

I’ve had a very rocky old time with my mental health. My official diagnosis is actually ‘a complex profile of ADHD, dyspraxia and trauma’. It stems back to my childhood; my Dad left when I was eight and the relationship between us became very fractured. So I was dealing with that, and being brought up just by my Mum, we had very little money. I had all of this amazing music in my life which was fantastic, but our material circumstances weren’t amazing. My Mumma’s illustration work dried up which coincided with my early teenage years, so she got a job as a doctor’s receptionist and was on £7 or £8 an hour trying to bring up a teenager on her own. It was hard for her and she did amazingly. I learnt a lot from it in terms of how to look after myself and how to share the mental and emotional load, chores and everything else, so there were positives that came with that.

“I think the decision to put something out there has changed from ‘I’m an artist and therefore this should be out there’ to ‘what from this can I give to someone else?’”

This all culminated just after I’d graduated from the conservatoire. I’d run out of money, was looking for a job and I got a message from my Mum to say that her and my sister were on their way up to see me. When they arrived they told me that my father had sadly committed suicide. That caused a year of going back into survival mode, kind of like how I was when I was when I was an early teenager. I was distraught by it and it changed my life forever, but I was not necessarily confronting it on an emotional level. I began shutting things off and damaging myself, self medicating and going out a lot, drinking a lot, all of that stuff and not looking after myself. Eventually the bits that I’d been shutting off came flooding back and that was when I spiralled into a bad place. I came within a dangerous proximity to the sort of thoughts that my Dad might’ve been having. I’d previously had some therapy before all this stuff happened with my Dad, which had been helpful, but I rang someone on Samaritans and talked about what had gone on. I think that was rock bottom, I must’ve been around 22 or 23.

All of this stuff on the one hand had been very difficult to deal with but it also led to an understanding of deep and painful suffering that on a personal level meant that I kind of feel like you can throw stuff at me and I’ll be okay. I know now to give myself the space to feel something, and incorporate that into my survival rather than to shut it off. Also with this understanding comes a feeling of solidarity with people that suffer things in general.

This is where politics became important for me. I became interested in using my own trauma as a way of interrogating how I could cause trauma to someone else, and through that feel this personal thing of healing of myself, but also in society. Trying to be a positive member of society, not interrupting someone, not being the person that doesn’t step out the way, the things that if you’re a privileged person you feel entitled to. When you’ve experienced something that’s very traumatic, you can use that in order to be able to encounter discomfort and feel okay about it. I see it as a; learning solidarity to help both yourself and society heal. It’s so essential to counter the narrative that mental health can be an excuse for committed oppressive acts. Of course people who are suffering are likely to inflict more pain and suffering on someone else, but that’s not an excuse, it’s a reason. It’s pushing trauma further down the line. To politicise that and to situate it into the structural context, is an essential way of healing.

How has trauma interacted with your creativity?

After my Dad died, I moved home from Birmingham and went to live with my Mum for a bit, which I’m very lucky to have. I ended up recording an album and writing a 23-minute orchestral piece. So I was being very creative in that sense but because I was still thinking of myself as an author, my creative voice was the important thing that left a lot of residual stuff that I had to deal with later. If you elevate yourself, even if you do it as a way of healing, you don’t get the chance to actually let yourself feel the things you need to feel. But this idea came after. I made lots of work in that time, but then to turn that work into something that needed to be put out there, that’s where the authorship came in, whereas now I would sit and practice.

Back then, I was still making stuff that was for me because I was hurting and I tried to pass off all my work as if it was meant to be ‘out there’ but really it was all for me, to help me express feelings and heal. That’s one of the reasons I found music college particularly traumatic because what we were being taught was that writing from your feelings isn’t right, which I think was quite damaging for me. And at that time I was wanting to explore the Romany heritage from my Dad’s side, creatively. I said that to my composition tutor and what he said back was that ‘it isn’t art, it’s too conservative’.

This is where the narratives of creativity show themselves for being quite oppressive when they are super individualised. In my composition teacher’s eyes, the only form of valid art and creativity was one of 20th and 21st century experimental artists and composers who are celebrated as the great modernisers of everything. This idea of being European and modern, in relation to everywhere else that is reactionary and conservative, is so problematic and it’s only when I look back on my time at music college, I see the damage that it did to me personally. All of a sudden, I was being told not to interrogate my feelings as well as that this part of my history was not valid art. But I wasn’t given anything to say what it was.

It’s a funny one with my creativity in relation to my trauma, because when I was much younger it was an outlet and then when I was studying it became not allowed to be an outlet. And then when I got really broken and I had no other option than for it to become an outlet again. But now on the other side of it, I would say it isn’t an outlet. Or if it is, I just do it for me. I sit and have a play to myself and then I’m okay. I don’t feel the need to record it and put it out there. I think that’s a helpful thing.

What relationship do you have with writing your own feeling and emotion now? Is it a place you can access again?

I suppose now it’s all connected, obviously it always has been. But I think the decision to put something out there has changed from ‘I’m an artist and therefore this should be out there’ to ‘what from this can I give to someone else?’. It’s like, if you look at something that’s in front of you, you might think it’s beautiful and you might say to someone, ‘look at this’ with no context. They might not see the beauty in it. So it’s your job as an artist to make that beauty visible for someone else in some way. So they can experience the joy that you felt with your experience so what you have to do is contextualise that in a way so they can experience that in whatever way that is. Then you’re being generous, because you’re not just offloading your projections of something, you’re taking the time to give something, you’re putting more time into it to give it to someone else.

The most important thing in the time of healing from what I experienced with my Dad, was a performance by Laurie Anderson I went to about a month or so before my Dad died. She tells this anecdote about how her dog got very sick, and then eventually died. She was absolutely beside herself, she didn’t know what to do. She went to a number of spiritual advisers from various different faiths and they all kind of said the same thing: every time you feel sad or if you’re finding it difficult processing the grief of losing your pet dog, give something of yours that feels important to you away to somebody else. To which she replied, ‘but then I would have nothing left’, and they said ‘So?’. What I took from that is this idea of being generous as a way of healing but also the conclusion that she came to from this was that the reason for death is the release of love.

This idea, for me, was such a profound thing; when somebody dies all of the love that you have for them has to go somewhere and the feelings of pain and grief are when the love is still inside you so you have to put them out in some way. If you’re just pushing out the grief, that’s the catharsis. But to give it to somebody else, you don’t want to put that on them because then they have to hold it. So to turn it into something that can be related to and experienced by someone else. For me that feels like a much deeper form of giving away. So in response to your question, I would always pull on my feelings, experiences, pains and traumas, but now instead if I’m going to make a piece of music, I’m going to think about why it needs to be out there in the first place. If I want to enjoy just playing and improvising, then I’ll just play and improvise and if someone is sitting in front of me then I’m giving it to them.

What mechanisms do you use to maintain positive wellbeing?

Silliness! Haha. Being silly is great. Trying to see the joy in things. Making the big things not important, and the little things very important. There’s a saying about that, I can’t remember where from but it’s something like ‘the big things you need to make trivial in order to process them, so the little things you can focus on’. I think that’s a good strategy. I also enjoy cooking.

You touched on it a bit at the start, but in quarantine, what are you doing to maintain positive wellbeing?

I’m doing very little and I think that that’s really important. I’m sitting and playing on a Star Wars game quite a lot that I like. Trying not to get too pulled into the news. I was so hooked into the general elections, both 2017 and 2019. Right now, I’m living with my partner and her parents and it’s just a case of making sure that we as a unit are all okay and not being too stressed out. I’m doing practice when I can. I’m hoping that I might feel motivated to do some live stream concerts type things but I’m wanting to just rest, practice and cook. That’s all I’m thinking about at the moment.

There’s a few times that it’s all got a bit much. When I found out that Michael Rosen is in hospital. I love Michael Rosen and his poetry. It brought home how it’s kind of really getting people. Thankfully it looks like he’s recovering well. The hugeness of this pandemic is terrifying and we need to let it be terrifying. That means we need to allow ourselves the space to feel that. I had a cry the day before yesterday and I think on the one hand it’s important to acknowledge that you’re safe, and on the other allowing yourself to be fucking terrified - it’s really scary. I think that’s important to acknowledge too.

Pete’s latest track ‘Mi Tides’ is here.

words: will paintin / images courtesy of pete yelding

uoh 2020 — @uok.hun