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.