Amirtha Kidambi is a vocalist who draws on traditions of contemporary classical music, rock, jazz, Carnatic music, rock, and free improvisation in her work. Her band Elder Ones performs her compositions, which incorporate lyrics and vocal phonemes, at the Jazz Gallery this Thursday, April 13.
Last November, the group released their first record, Holy Science, on Northern Spy Records, receiving rave reviews from Ben Ratliff in the New York Times and Seth Colter Walls in Pitchfork. You can stream their memorial to Eric Garner, “Dvapara Yuga,” below.
We caught up with Kidambi by phone to talk about the group’s current evolution and her perspective on musical activism.
The Jazz Gallery: This concert with Elder Ones is going to feature some new music for the group. What direction do you feel it’s going?
Amirtha Kidambi: It’ll be a combination of the previous record, and a new set. Each set will probably be a combination of both, some of the older and some of the new stuff.
There are certain coherent threads that seem to be running through my compositions for this band. There’s definitely some use of the same phonemes, the wordless vocals that I was using in the previous set of music, but one of the biggest differences between the last set and the current one is I am starting to write lyrics and utilize direct language in a way that I didn’t at all on the last record. Part of it is, I think, the moment that we’re in. I felt compelled to as a singer be able to actually really voice certain thoughts and feelings I’ve been having about the state of our world, the state of our country, in a way that it felt important to me to directly vocalize and not deal as much in the abstract. The last record, there is a tune dedicated to Eric Garner and it’s wordless. And it’s potent, and I felt it helped me express that, but I wanted to go one step further for this and really verbalize what I’ve been thinking about. So it’s a kind of combination: each tune has a few sentences for the whole tune, of lyrics, and also interpolates between lyrics and the wordless improvisation as well.
Another thing that’s changed is the instrumentation, a little bit, in that I’m adding a synthesizer to the band. I play harmonium, and it’s always been harmonium, voice, soprano saxophone, bass and drums, and I wanted to see what it would do, how it would influence my writing. There are certain limitations to the harmonium. One thing I love about it—it’s a folk instrument, it’s kind of laborious and notes don’t sound exactly when you play them, with pumping; it has kind of creaky noises, which is such a beautiful quality and I love that. But I wanted to play some fast lines, I wanted to have some parts of the music that really get loud in a way that we were cognizant of not drowning out the harmonium element of the band, so we always played full force, but the synthesizer allows us to have moments that are in another zone. Max Jaffe, the drummer, has experimented with electronic triggers that he uses on his drums, and Matt Nelson, who’s also in the group Battle Trance, has some solo recordings where he uses the saxophone with pedals. So we might be playing with some electronic elements in this new set. There are similar musical elements: still a lot of drone and a lot from Indian rag, but this other thing with the electronic music and the lyrics, and it’s developed in this other place.
TJG: With the choice of syllables or lyrics, what makes you decide to go in one direction or another?
AK: For the lyrics, what I want is to create an impression, rather than it being more like narrative or every single note in the music is set to a lyric. Part of the reason I’ve used the syllables in the past and why I continue to feel like I gravitate towards using them is because of the freedom and improvisation. I might set the basic melodic line to the lyrics, but when I want to do variation or improvise on the line it makes more sense to leave the lyrics because sometimes it’s difficult, it can kind of hinder the improvisational process, like if you’re singing this particular word with three syllables in it and you want to do something rhythmically that kind of breaks that up or makes it awkward, or the word in some part of your voice doesn’t sound as well and might be an open vowel or something up top.
There are still so many ways in which the wordless syllables help me to be much more free and much more interactive with the band. I can respond—like if I hear saxophone do something, I can change my game plan the way a horn would do. Which is not something I feel like lyrics can always facilitate, but I do feel like I like the idea that there is—it’s a special thing to be a singer and I don’t want to erase that. The last record was an experiment in trying to do something different, but in this one I’m excited about being able to directly say something, create an impression, and then maybe that’s in the listener’s mind and then for improvising in that world, even if I leave the lyrics, that impression is still in your mind.
That’s a lot of things that we’re dealing with, now, about human rights and oppression and all these different issues that I feel like are impossible for me to not express right now, because it’s such a crazy time. One thing that was interesting with writing the piece for Eric Garner, which was absolutely a direct reaction to that event—I wrote that piece in 2014—was that it helps facilitate conversation, it helps, when I would get interviewed or something, to bring his name into the room and talk about it. So I feel like having lyrics can help shape these themes, and maybe facilitate discussion. I want to have elements of activism in my life as a musician, and this helps me express that feeling.
TJG: How do you bring activism into the music you’re making, especially related to your involvement with #blacklivesmatter and the dedication of your first album to Eric Garner?
AK: It was so affecting for me, I think for many of us in 2014 who are not black. I am a person of color and I definitely have had my own experiences as a person of color, and I have seen my family members—you know, we’re Hindu and we’re from India, but we have still face the consequences of Islamaphobia and all of that, since post-9/11 to now. I mean now it’s a whole ‘nother animal, and there have been killings of South Asian people, a few of them just in the past year, the man in Kansas. So there’s our own experience, and in 2014 when I saw the Eric Garner video, it was so jarring. I don’t think I had ever seen a video like that in my life. It’s weird, now we’re kind of acclimated to this, which is really crazy to think about, but at that time I don’t know that a lot of people—especially people who aren’t black—even really understood what had been going on in terms of policing and black lives.
The black lives matter movement is definitely so mobilizing and it felt like it really gave people direction, and I really support the movement. I’m not involved in any formal capacity, it’s a real organization they do real activist work. Matana Roberts is someone who kind of helped raise my awareness and get me involved as a musician. She had done a “musicians against police brutality” concert in 2014 that I had performed on with Brandon, the bass player in Elder Ones, that summer, we had performed as a trio. The following year I had organized a benefit for Akai Gurley, who was killed in the end of 2014, on my birthday, I remember, and he was in Brooklyn so I was able to raise funds to donate to his family. So I’ve done a little bit of actual organizing around it, but it’s also the music.
Musical activism is sort of a different thing. The word activism can be a bit problematic, because we’re not on the ground in the same way, it’s more about raising awareness and consciousness, and sometimes money, which is a good thing that we can do. I felt compelled to dedicate the record to Eric Garner, and that piece which was written directly after—it was a real reaction to the video until the whole idea that the cops who strangled him and the main cop, Daniel Pantaleo, did not face any consequences. The vocalizations kind of reflect the anger, and I’m breathless by the end, and so it’s a pretty literal interpretation of the event for me. I realize that was my first piece that I had written like that, that has the sort of “political” message, although really it’s an issue of humanity to me. I realized every time we perform it, to be able to bring that into the room, to talk about it, to say his name seemed really important. So it kind of has inspired me to continue to think in that way when I’m writing music, and understand that we have the power to do that through art.
TJG: I’m interested in the way you feel as a singer, how your voice might change in this band you’re leading compared to your voice as a collaborator on other projects.
AK: One thing about my circuitous path to becoming a bandleader is that I have been a collaborator and so many other people’s work over the years. I have performed a lot of music, because I’m classically trained and in that formal training, and jazz, I’ve been working with improvisers for a long time and practicing free improvisation and I’m in Mary’s Halverson’s band, Code Girl, which premiered a set at the Jazz Gallery last year—it’s interesting. I have all these different musical languages, some of the classical tradition, that technique, and Indian music and singing and rock bands and all these different things.
One thing I find his other projects is I have to compartmentalize a little bit, especially, say I’m doing a new music piece—it’s notes on a page, that’s how they want it and that’s what it is, I don’t do so much of that right now because I feel like I want a lot more freedom, but that’s one way that I collaborate. Or singing in this band, Seaven Teares, which is led by Charlie Looker, an experimental rock band, so it’s a different role. Mary’s group is interesting because I do get to really experiment. There’s a lot of words and there’s a lot of lyrics, so it’s already a bit different from my music in that way, but I have solos in that band and I use a lot of wordless voicing. I would say the biggest difference is when it’s your band, you can go to the full spectrum of your playing. There are certain things I do in my band and don’t quite serve her music in the way that they might for mine. I would say my band a certain level of staticism, and then sometimes anger and intense emotion enter into my band, where Mary’s lyrics and vibe and the whole thing is different.
There are also so many incredible improvisers, but it’s less this collective improvisation than in my band, when there are solos we have collective solos. I don’t really write the parts individually for everyone as much, there’s less written material so it’s maybe each section has main lines written but I don’t always as an arranger write up for every single thing, I want to have a lot more freedom than that. Whereas in Mary’s band we’re playing parts, we decide on where the solos are, so it’s a little different in that way. I like both—I love performing other people’s music, and I am definitely an interpreter in a lot of ways. But there’s this freedom that you have when you’re a bandleader. Especially with the voice, that can do what kind of feels like an endless number of things, it has such a capacity for a range of emotions and a range of production and technique. I really get to explore all the extreme ends in my band, in a way that I haven’t. I don’t have to compartmentalize all these different musical languages that I have in my band, whereas in other projects I kind of make sure I am serving their music in the way that they would like.
TJG: Could you talk about all the influences that are present in your music?
AK: One of the most exciting things about the band was the fact that being a bicultural person, being an Indian-American, my experience in the world is already this really hybrid cultural experience. And then on top of that you add engaging with all these different types of music—since I was young, I have been exposed to Béla Bartók , and Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington, everything. In elementary school, I sang Bach, St. Matthew’s Passion, when I was in fourth grade, and all of that was happening at the same time as I was studying Indian dance, going to see Carnatic music all the time, singing Indian devotional music, and my mom had Carnatic music on in the house 24/7. And then I was really into metal and punk and all this other stuff, and 90s R&B, was a huge vocal influence that was what I was singing all the time in the house. All of that is there, that’s my lived cultural experience as a person in America.
It’s kind of funny, you go to music school, and because you have to focus and you’re learning a technique, you find a way to exist in this tradition, whether you study jazz or classical music. Music school is a really weird isolated environment. The world is not like that, and when I went out in the world, particularly when I moved to New York from Los Angeles which was really strange. New York is just like that. You cross paths with so many people—even with the band Seaven Teares, one of the percussionists in that and I’ve worked with in a totally different new music chamber music context, and then we playing like this other thing. In a way New York it’s kind of natural for people to be involved in so many things. In this project, in my band, I kind of couldn’t even help having all these different strains in the music itself.
It wasn’t a conscious, like, “I’m going to take Indian ragas and make them this or that,” it really wasn’t like that. It kind of happened organically. I’m sure the harmonium had a big influence on me, I was writing solo music for myself and the harmonium which kind of turned into the music for this band. Since one of the big things it does is drone, it definitely led me towards doing more raga oriented things and working with microtonality and things like that. But it was just natural, when I was writing, I could feel Black Sabbath was in there, and free jazz, and the Coltranes and Indian music, and utilizing parts of my range and vocal techniques that really come from my classical technique that are always there.
It’s really interesting—I didn’t know what kind of music I was going to be writing when I started, and I would say it’s pretty weird music. I obviously have to give it a category or name, and it’s marketed as jazz, but I think it’s pretty strange hybrid music. It has jazz instrumentation, but that’s kind of what was my only goal was that I just wanted to write something that felt like a real individual expression. Which was something I had worked with Muhal Richard Abrams, from the AACM, in 2013. He and Amina Claudine Myers were a big inspiration for me in writing my own music, because I had mostly been performing other people’s music up to that point. Their whole philosophy of individualism and creativity was super inspiring for me in terms of my own music and not feeling constrained by what it should be, or what it how to market it or whatever.
TJG: This started as a solo project for you, and then became a band. How did you choose the bandmembers, and how did the bigger New York musical community play a part?
AK: Part of the reason I had started solo was this idea that I didn’t quite know what the music was going to be. The idea of choosing a bunch of bandmembers while had I kind of this blank space in front of me didn’t make sense, for one thing. A lot of it was exploring my voice. When I say voice I don’t just mean my actual physical voice, but my creative voice. A lot of it was alone—part of that was a certain insecurity or lack of confidence, because saying, “I’m a composer!” coming from western classical training there are these real lines between being a composer and performer. I was like, “no, those people are composers, I’m a singer, I don’t know how to do that.” But it’s kind of silly, I’ve been writing music for the years at the end of the day.
So this, I was abandoning lyrics and doing these wordless improvisations, which was something that was happening as I was working on the solo material, and I had performed some of the solo material. As it started to take shape more, and I felt more confident, I had added Max Jaffe and Brandon Lopez on one of the gigs. That had coincided with a commission with Roulette, which was amazing timing. One of the biggest reasons I had not started a band in New York was very practical, which is if you’re asking people to play your music you should be able to pay them and respect that they are professional musicians. Having a commission really was like starter money almost, and we could be like, we’re going to rehearse I’m gonna write more music. The set really developed for that concert, which was in 2014, and that was the premiere of the first set of the music and the album that I made.
Choosing the musicians—Max is the one I’ve known the longest. He was not only in a band with my first roommate in New York, when I met him in 2009, but he was also everywhere! Anytime I want to a show he was, he’s in so many bands and I would say I mostly encountered Max in the DIY rock scene. He’s such a standout drummer. When you see him, it’s like he’s stealing the show, every single time, every single band. He has such a fluid understanding of groove, and playing, and time, and manipulating playing in time. But then also he is an amazing free player, when you want to go to that area he can really play free. Brandon I love, because Brandon is like a soloist, he doesn’t function like just like a bass player laying things down, which he also does and that’s great. But when I saw Brandon, I met him in early 2014 and he just blew me away. The way he performs—he is so intense, that’s the best word to describe him. Kind of attacking things every time he’s playing ,and it was so compelling. I was like, I want kind of a wild card who is really individual and really has their own voice. They all are like that in the way.
And then Matt Nelson, I first saw him and Battle Trance, but then I also saw his solo work, and he put out a solo record a couple years ago. There’s so many horn players in New York, you just walked on the street and see people with horns on their back, but his tone, his whole vibe is so unique to me. And then as we have gotten to know each other more, it’s actually crazy how similar our taste and influences are, in terms of we’re both really obsessed with spiritual jazz from the late 60s and early 70s, and he loves soprano saxophone, he doesn’t play soprano in any other groups, this is the only group. It was sort of referring to that, to Pharoah Sanders and the tambre of that with the harmonium and voice. So yeah, each of them as an artist and themselves and their other projects, I have crossed paths with them in different ways. They are these incredible individual artists, and in the band I feel like my job is to help them, just to make it so that they still have freedom to be themselves and have their voices in the band, while still contributing to this larger vision of mine.
Amirtha Kidambi and Elder Ones play The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 13th, 2017. The group features Ms. Kidambi on voice and compositions, Matt Nelson on soprano saxophone, Brandon Lopez on bass, and Max Jaffe on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.