Accomplished mridangam artist and composer Rajna Swaminathan is bringing a brand-new project to The Jazz Gallery, consisting of Gallery regulars including saxophonist María Grand, bassist Linda May Han Oh, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and vocalist Imani Uzuri. The project, Mangal, represents an aesthetic change of pace for Swaminathan, as she described in our lengthy interview below. The music, by design, treats time and rhythm with a looser approach, and focuses on the potential for interaction and overlapping textures between pairs and trios of musicians.
Swaminathan performs frequently with Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Miles Okazaki, and Amir ElSaffar, and leads the ensemble RAJAS, an explorative project that brings together musicians from Indian classical and jazz idioms. She frequently teaches workshops on South Indian rhythm, most notably at the Banff International Workshop and PASIC. In addition to her performance career, Swaminathan is currently pursuing a PhD at Harvard University, and is writing a dissertation bridging the ideas of Carnatic music in the South Asian diaspora, the role of the arts in community activism, and cross-cultural improvisation. In her words, she’s hoping “to find more points of contact between those two worlds” of academic study and performance practice.
The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making the time to chat! Where are you now?
Rajna Swaminathan: I’m in Wyoming near the Montana border, at an artist residency called Ucross. I’ve been here for about a month already, and will be here for a couple more days. I’ve been working on new music, a lot of which will be played at The Jazz Gallery, and have more generally been composing for my dissertation project, writing the dissertation, and thinking about different configurations of musicians. A lot of the music I’ve written here is for the configuration of the upcoming show at the Gallery next week, and from there, ideally, it’ll evolve to suit other ensembles.
TJG: Has it been a good residency? Sometimes it’s hard to write music for a group when you’re isolated.
RS: It is hard in isolation, and on top of that, I haven’t played with this particular group and in this specific configuration before. I’ve played a lot with María, but I haven’t played my music with any of the other folks. It’s going to be interesting to start rehearsing next week. It’s an experiment, so it’ll be cool.
TJG: How did this experiment come to life?
RS: It’s funny, the idea began as a text between me, María, and a vocalist named Ganavya. We were talking about doing a performance where we read poetry and create some music around it. Ganavya wasn’t available for this Jazz Gallery date, so I ended up finding other people and, as things go, the idea became something else. The group got bigger, and I thought, “I’ll write some new music for this group,” and it’ll be more of an open thing, though we may incorporate poetry if people feel moved to do so. So far, the plan is to play my new compositions, which are different from what I usually do, in that they’re more loose. Usually my writing features a gridded, polyrhythmic framework. There’s a little of that in this music, but my idea is to create a more interpretive situation. There are a lot of great sensibilities in these musicians, so I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out.
TJG: What underlying form do you anticipate these interpretive experiments taking? If someone were to come to the show, and wanted to be hip to what you’ll be doing onstage, what might they listen for?
RS: At this point, I’m not sure if there will be one specific thing they should listen for. Some people who have heard my music before may be surprised by how little driving rhythm there is, and how my playing will probably end up becoming more textural. I’ll be singing as well, so that’s different and equally experimental. The loose time is where you’ll here something more experimental happening.
TJG: It’ll be interesting to hear how things open up, especially with Linda and Joel. I’ve seen some videos of you playing with María, and you have great musical chemistry.
RS: I’ve known María since 2011, so we’ve played a lot. We used to practice together all the time when we both lived in New York, so I feel like we can hear each other think, and have a strong understanding of anticipation, in terms of what we’re going to play or how we move through different pieces. We ‘get’ each other in this really special way, and it’s a joy to play with her.
TJG: For our readers who may not know what a mridangam is, could you describe the instrument, its context in the bigger picture of South Indian music, and your relationship with the instrument?
RS: Sure. The mridangam is a barrel-shaped instrument, probably most similar to the tabla in North India. Basically, there are two classical music systems in India: The North Indian is referred to as Hindustani music, and the South Indian is referred to as Carnatic music. Just like the tabla is used in Hindustani music as an accompanying instrument, the mridangam is the counterpart in South Indian music. It’s also used quite frequently for South Indian classical dance performances. There’s a collection of instruments throughout India which employ similar technology to be able to be tuned and to create sound, such as the pakhawaj in North India. Depending on the size, these instruments create slightly different timbres and resonances. You’ll find that the mridangam is more muted than a tabla, which has this overwhelming resonance. The mridangam, by contrast, is geared toward creating intricate, punchy rhythms.
I grew up playing Carnatic music and accompanying dance performances on the mridangam, so I have a lot of experience touring the US and India performing. A few years ago, I began to branch out and meet folks in the creative music scene. I tried to learn as much as I could about different approaches, particularly the polyrhythmic obsession that people have, which gave me a new perspective. This pursuit has, over the past few years, driven me to experiment and write new music. I studied piano growing up, and I mostly compose on piano now, so I’ve found ways of integrating a number of influences. Over the past few years, my approach to the mridangam has gotten pretty far from what it is in purely traditional circumstances. I’ve played a lot with the texture and timbre of the instrument, as well as phrases that might sit well in different contexts. My sound has been shaped over time by trial and error, and ends up somehow feeding into my relationship with the instrument. I would say that I feel like I’ve gone beyond what’s considered the traditional way of playing the mridangam.
TJG: While I’m more familiar with North Indian music, my sense of South Indian performance is that it’s both rigorously theoretical, while at the same time leaving more room for group improvisation. I seem to hear about more South Indian musicians branching into creative directions and working across genres, and on Jazz Speaks we interview a lot of people with deep roots in Indian Classical Music.
RS: It’s funny, because there’s something of a myth surrounding Indian music and Jazz, like, “You can easily mix them because they’re both improvised.” With that mindset, you can actually get yourself into some knots. If you really look deep enough, there are fundamental differences in the rhythmic approach, and negotiating those differences requires study and thought about how to combine different rhythmic elements.
TJG: This feeds into what you’re doing at Harvard, which is a cross-cultural study on improvisation, correct?
RS: Yes—it’s not limited to that, but developing a vocabulary about this idea is one of the things that drew me towards wanting to do a dissertation. There’s the theory of improvisation, which is one thing, and has certain currency in academia. But then there’s the physical needing to have things get into your body, and that part is hard to get across with words. It’s about listening, immersing yourself, and studying with the senses. The academic study and physical practice are related, but I find that in the process of writing the dissertation, I’m coming across so much nuanced material that’s not necessarily theoretical. With this kind of material, I can’t necessarily internalize it in a verbal, theoretical way. Instead, I needed to sit with something for a little while, and allow my body to absorb it in that way.
TJG: Could you give a specific musical example?
RS: Sure. I find that I’ve been using my body to keep time more than I did when I was just playing in the traditional circuit. It’s partially that, when you’re playing Carnatic music, a lot of your sensory input is geared toward creating music linearly, because everybody’s improvising, and the whole idea behind what “sounds like a good improvisation” to people in that community is when people match note-for-note what you’re playing, and can even anticipate and play the exact same pattern as you. There’s a lot of repetition and unison–not that there isn’t counterpoint–but I feel like you’re trained in a totally different way. When I started studying polyrhythms and interacting more with polyphonic creative music, the core idea was totally different. My instincts to mirror or reflect were met with responses like, “Why don’t you try to play something different, something complementary, something supportive but not just mimicking exactly what someone else played?”
In thinking about that, my approach to the instrument can change by thinking of it as something that’s supporting a polyphonic situation, rather than a more linear or paired-down melodic line. One pragmatic consequence is that a lot of people hear the bass-end of the mridangam and associate it with the kick drum of the drum set. That’s been an interesting parallel that I’ve had to work around. It is certainly used to mark entrances in Carnatic music, but it can also be in the middle of a phrase, and people don’t necessarily hear that low tone as the “one” or the downbeat in Carnatic music. Playing around with that in a way where I also have the ability to mark certain points in a harmonic progression is different than what I would normally do. Normally I’m just dealing with one time cycle–and there’s a little bit of dealing with the end of the cycle to resolve it–but trying to arrange all the mridangam strokes in such a way that I’m also marking a harmonic progression is a different, new way of thinking and physically relating to the instrument.
TJG: Some of what you’ve been saying seems to recall an idea that I hear about a lot in improvised music, regarding how independent someone should be while improvising. These two practices, Carnatic music and “jazz” or “creative music,” seem to provide independence in different ways, which wraps around to what you were saying at the beginning of our conversation, in terms of improvising with this new band at The Jazz Gallery. Do you think about independence while composing?
RS: That’s interesting. I tend to think more in terms of different textures. I do think about what people can contribute in terms of moving certain forms forward. I joke about this sometimes, but I don’t really believe in playing “solo.” I try to create duo or trio spaces, and think of those as little textures. Of course, within those “features,” people have certain levels of independence. But I’m not thinking a lot about independence so much as I’m thinking about how people are responding to each other, creating more occasions for people to respond in different ways, and building on different types of forms and textures.
TJG: In what ways is your performance career integrated into your academic work at Harvard?
RS: It’s an ongoing process of integration. I’m about three and a half years in now, and I’m beyond the halfway point. Early on, when I was doing my coursework, I definitely had a hard time figuring out exactly where my creative work was going to fit in with my writing and reading. That research was feeding my playing in a certain way, but I wasn’t sure how receptive the faculty would be to having some performance or creative element in the dissertation. Now I have a clearer idea, and it seems like it’ll be a cross between what composition students do and what ethnomusicologists do: There’s going to be a solid written aspect, which will respond to some of the ideas I’ve been dealing with in creating music. Then there will be a portfolio of sorts that will go along with the dissertation. Right now I’m thinking of the two as going on parallel tracks, connecting at different points.
I’m currently taking a semester off from teaching at Harvard, so that’s why I’ve been able to do these artist residencies, which has been nourishing for me. This time has allowed me to get back into the process of composing. Things emerge from that process. I’ve done a fair amount of reading and engagement with theory, and so those things come up from time to time as I’m working through a creative problem. I’ve been trying to keep track of the process as it goes, and hopefully it finds its way into the dissertation as well, in terms of outlining priorities and challenges. As a scholar, you can get into nitty-gritty detail about music in a particular social context, but how much are you actually integrating it with what happens day-to-day in the creative process? I’m hoping to do that a bit more, to find more points of contact between those two worlds.
Rajna Swaminathan’s Mangal plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, December 12, 2018. The concert is co-presented with Brooklyn Raga Massive. The group features Ms. Swaminathan on mridangam, María Grand on tenor saxophone, Linda May Han Oh on bass, Joel Ross on vibraphone, and Imani Uzuri on vocals. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.