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Changing Courses

By Larry Blumenfeld

Ganavya Doraiswamy Photo: You Look Lovely Photography; Rajna Swaminathan Photo: Indira Valey

At Harvard, a tight-knit community of artists and educators reconsiders how music is studied and played.

On a cold November night in Cambridge, Mass., a dozen musicians formed a tight circle inside Holden Chapel, a small brick building that is among the oldest structures within Harvard Yard. Here was Experimental Music Ensemble, taught by flutist and composer Claire Chase, who joined the Harvard University faculty in 2017. The class was focused on one section of “The Illusion of Permanence,” a work in progress by Rajna Swaminathan, for a commission from Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series.

Swaminathan, who grew up in Maryland, the daughter of immigrants from India, explained to the musicians that her piece was in part an effort to recover a bhajan, a devotional song dating back to the 16th century that she learned as a child, from her mother. It also expressed her present moment, “a way of facing myself,” Swaminathan said. “I grew up in Carnatic music. When I started working in the ‘creative music’ world, I found that I had a troubled relationship with notation. So this is me getting over my stubbornness about through-composed music.”

As the musicians worked through a five-note gesture, a section of the score was projected on a screen. Through several overlapping iterations of this gesture, Swaminathan touched on various tensions: her childhood roots and her now-flowering musical career; the cultures of her ancestry and her own American experience; and the methods of both classically trained and improvising musicians. This called for both a personal language for composition (Swaminathan’s score contained both traditional and non-traditional elements), and a context in which that language made sense.

The piece will eventually be performed by a chamber orchestra, including Swaminathan on her customary mrudangam, a barrel-shaped drum crafted from jackfruit wood and used in South Indian Carnatic music. The instrumentation among Chase’s students, including oboe, guitar, and Japanese koto, wasn’t indicative of any one tradition. Nor is Chase beholden to any particular conventions. Before taking up Swaminathan’s piece, she discussed the creation and presentation of new music, drawing upon her experience as co-founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble. At one point, she wondered aloud “whether we need to resuscitate or renovate the symphonic orchestra model.”

Swaminathan is one of only a handful of women who play the mrudangam professionally. She is quite likely its only practitioner improvising within ensembles that stretch the boundaries of what is now commonly called “creative music.” Her startling debut album, Of Agency and Abstraction, released last year, is filled with music of gravity and rigor that nonetheless sounds uplifting and accessible. Her mrudangam is the activating force within Rajas, the group she formed shortly after moving to New York in 2013 and named, as the liner notes relate, for a Sanskrit term signifying “the inner energy that compels us toward action, creation and change.”

Ganavya Doraiswamy and rajna Swaminathan

Photo: Adrien H. Tillmann

In Carnatic music, as in jazz, improvisation is the blood that feeds living tradition. Yet there are contrasts within Swaminathan’s union of approaches: Jazz derives from African polyrhythms, involving simultaneously interlocking cycles; in Carnatic music, rhythms are expressed in more linear fashion. She seems less interested in resolving this tension than relaxing into its possibilities. Her own compulsions are grounded in immersions; first, as a protégé of mrudangam master Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman; next, via collaborations in New York City jazz clubs; and currently, through her studies in Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry, a Harvard University doctoral program directed by pianist and composer Vijay Iyer.

In even the recent past, a musician like Swaminathan might not have found a welcoming home within the music department of a major American university. At Harvard, she now belongs to a tight-knit community focused on the very sorts of challenges she confronts. Iyer’s program is “specifically intended to create a space for things that didn’t exist before,” he told me, “and to rethink what did.”

“I'm still not sure how this will work,” Iyer told me in the kitchen of his Harlem home, in 2014, shortly after he’d been named Harvard’s inaugural Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts. Then, Harvard's catalog described his initial course as “an intensive, research-oriented workshop environment for advanced improviser-composers.” Like Iyer, who is also the child of immigrants from India, Swaminathan seeks through music less to fuse disparate styles than “to construct an identity,” she said. She’s also simply shaking off limitations. While in high school, she traveled regularly from her suburban Maryland home to India to perform. But Carnatic tradition is primarily vocal. “The further you make it,” she said about her chosen instrument, “the more you’re subservient.” For her, Iyer’s program held the promise of not just aesthetic freedom but also agency. Swaminathan was the first student admitted to Iyer’s Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry program. “I was kind of the guinea pig,” she said.

“It was more than being a guinea pig,” Iyer later told me. “It was like being the first seed in the planting of a forest. Rajna displayed immense ingenuity and courage when she arrived in New York City and started mixing it up with all kinds of musicians. Her very existence as a woman playing her chosen instrument questioned aspects of the Carnatic tradition she had studied as well as within the creative music scene she threw herself into.” Her work with Iyer and at Harvard in general has, Swaminathan said, “helped me find the courage to do a lot of things that I probably would not have done had I stayed in New York. It’s been a lesson in dissolving false boundaries and false beliefs.”

""This is not a fight to be fought alone. It's a collective project that we each bring different kinds of expertise to." - Rajna Swaminathan

The centerpiece of Swaminathan’s recent album is a four-part suite. In its first section, “Departures,” one voice emerges as singularly compelling, moving from urgent pleas to near-whispers, sometimes adhering to the structures of the devotional singing in which she is expert, other times improvising in response to instrumental phrases. That voice belongs to Ganavya Doraiswamy, who was the second musician admitted to Iyer’s Harvard doctoral program. Iyer recalls being stunned not only by the power and expressiveness of her singing but also by similar qualities in her scholarly writing, particularly her master’s thesis for a graduate program in ethnomusicology at the University of California at Los Angeles, which focused on Ankhrasmation, the musical language developed by trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith. “It was not at all a pedestrian academic thesis,” said Iyer, who has worked closely with Smith. “There was something unusually compassionate and patient and humble about it. She seemed to get something about the essence of Wadada’s work, about its meaning for musicians like me and her.”

Doraiswamy was born in New York and spent her early childhood in Jacksonville, Fla., before moving to India, her parents’ birthplace, when she was seven—first to a small village, Sengottai, and later to the city of Chennai. There she was trained as a vocalist, dancer, and multi-instrumentalist. She learned to play the jalatharangam, a near-extinct instrument championed by her late paternal grandmother. She immersed herself for more than a decade in the varakari tradition of singing abhangs, devotional poems written by Hindu saints. Though she trained in the dance art form of Bharatanatyam, she left India for the United States the day after her final dance performance; her legs were giving way due to injuries. Later, after returning to music, she was awarded one of Berklee's first Post-Graduate Fellowships, at the school’s campus in Valencia, Spain.

While in Spain, Doraiswamy recorded an album, Aikyam: Onnu, for which she drew upon, among other material, centuries-old spiritual poetry, Tamil anticolonial songs and American jazz standards. Some tracks combine familiar jazz pieces, such as Miles Davis’s “Nardis” and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” with abhangs she learned in India. “I did not understand yet what this word “jazz” meant,” she said. “I still had the affect of Indian music. Because the words to some of these songs felt strange to me, I sat down, counted the number of syllables and translated to the language that was most familiar to me, Tamil. It was an opportunity for all of my selves to calmly coexist with each other.” The music sounds assured and of one piece and yet it marks just the beginning of a path Doraiswamy is now well along, for which study and performance provide equal senses of direction. What she absorbed most from her exposure to Wadada Leo Smith (who she has worked with) and what she has subsequently pursued within Iyer’s program, is “intentional specificity,” she said. “I had never seen that. And culturally, I didn’t know you had the right to that. I wanted to know how to do that. To be able to say, ‘This is what I want for my performance.’ This is the direction I want my music to go in.”

If Iyer’s program holds a key to such empowerment, it is itself evidence of a door flung open at Harvard to fascinating possibilities. It owes in part to a 2008 report from a Task Force on the Arts, following university president Drew Faust’s request for “an ambitious rethinking of the place of arts practice at Harvard.” In the music department, this has meant a willingness to question long-held orthodoxies.

“The old stereotype was that Harvard is a place where music was seen but not heard,” Ingrid Monson, who is Quincy Jones Professor of African American music at Harvard and chair of the music department, told me one morning at her office. “We were more interested in the study of scores. We had theorists and composers. The faculty had debates about what it means to have an improviser on faculty, and how that relates to composition and to performance. The hard sell is always around the boundaries of ‘what is composition?’ But Vijay’s career trajectory had already crossed all these lines. His Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry program embraces these questions and more.”

The Ritual Ensemble, Harvard Musicians, Rajna Swaminathan, Yosvanny Terry, Ganavya Doraiswamy, Vijay Iyer

Left to Right: Rajna Swaminathan, Yosvanny Terry, Ganavya Doraiswamy, and Vijay Iyer
Photo: Vivek Bald

The faculty of Harvard’s music department has lately grown to include musicians and scholars whose expansive careers and ideas overlap in real and conceptual ways. One evening at Holden Chapel, Yosvany Terry, an alto saxophonist who grew up in Camagüey, Cuba, stood in the middle of his “Cuban Counterpoint” class, playing the chekeré, the beaded gourd used for percussion that his father taught him to play, as his students worked through Arsenio Rodriguez’s “Dile a Catalina.” Later, one student led a spirited discussion, billed as “Danzón as Genre or Performance Complex?” Terry, who joined the faculty in 2015, replaced a position focused on jazz theory and improvisation. “I told the department that I could do that, but that I also could do something more interesting,” he said. “That was like music to their ears.”

Another evening in that same space, pianist and singer Samora Pinderhughes, who is enrolled in Iyer’s program, debuted a piece in progress in collaboration with a fellow student during a songwriting class taught by bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, who joined the faculty in 2017. Spalding encouraged students to mine their personal histories in order to isolate an event and a feeling, and to combine these experiences into one composition. “That class breaks my heart and puts it back together every Monday,” said Doraiswamy, who serves as its teaching fellow. “There’s no syllabus, but there’s a social contract of trust that we will show up for each other and be there for each other without judgment. Not a single time has someone disrespected that line.”

Back at the music building one morning, Iyer talked to the students in his “Critical Listening” class about the complicated relationship between listening and form, mentioning at one point how “a piece composes itself in real time.” The PhD program he designed is rigorous and disciplined, but its object is largely a process of stripping away. Last year one of his classes was called simply “Musicality” (“What do we value in music?” he posed to me; “what makes it music?”). He seeks broadly to elevate, as he cited in the liner note to one of his trio recordings, understandings of the legacies of “the Brown and Black Atlantic.” This Spring, he will teach “Black Speculative Musicalities,” focused on “radical sonic imaginings of the African diaspora.”

“Part of my agenda at Harvard is to help people rethink fundamentals,” Iyer said. “It’s also to help people who create music to assume different kinds of leadership roles and to think of themselves as instigators.” The Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry program is not geared toward any one kind of musician, except perhaps what Wadada Leo Smith means by the term “creative musician”—“somebody such that if you replace them in the music, then the music is not the same.”

Swaminathan’s time at Harvard has helped her to “find that inner audacity to be able to break boundaries,” she said. “The community that has grown here is touching to me, and it’s a reminder that this is not a fight to be fought alone. It’s a collective project that we each bring different kinds of expertise to. And we get inspired by the way each person brings their fight, the way they choose to create ripples around themselves.”

At her Cambridge apartment one evening, as the living room window grew ablaze with a sunset bursting through lifting cloud cover, Doraiswamy talked about mining songs and histories, as she was trained to do at an early age, but also interrogating and rewriting these histories, as she now strives to do. Colleagues often ask why she would return to school for yet another degree just as her own musical career takes shape. “I don’t have an easy answer,” she said, “but I also couldn’t have imagined that a place like this existed.” Then she caught herself. “Yet, in some ways, this is not so different from Senkottai, the village I landed in when I was seven. I feel like I’ve traveled very far just to find my way back home.”

Larry Blumenfeld writes regularly about music for The Wall Street Journal and is editor-at-large of Jazziz magazine. He was the 2019 Jeanette K. Watson Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at Syracuse University.

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