Constructing an Identity, And Delving Deeper: Rajna Swaminathan On Making Music With Vijay Iyer

Rajna Swaminathan/ photo by Jaimie Milner

I’m looking forward to pianist Vijay Iyer’s performance on March 7th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; there, before the dramatic Temple of Dendur, Iyer will display the deep rapport and driving sense of exploration that makes his new trio CD, “Break Stuff” (ECM), his most accessible recording to date as well as his most daring.

If the most popular distillation of Iyer’s aesthetic is his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, his music flows in multiple streams. And it absorbs various streams of influence. As I wrote in a Wall Street Journal piece last year:

Mr. Iyer places himself more within lineages than genres. “I’m here because of a series of generous African-American people who let me be here,” he said, particularly those connected to Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who shared musical concepts and a larger sense of artistic ambition.

There’s another lineage into which he, the son of immigrants from India, was born. That influence, overt in some other projects, is finely ingrained even in sections of the new album. He seeks a perhaps radical yet logical unity of these heritages—his note to one trio album cites “the Brown and Black Atlantic.”

Listeners could immerse themselves in several of Iyer’s modes of musical expression, swim in more than one of his streams, during his recent six-night stand at The Stone in Manhattan’s East Village. I caught only the opening set, which included Rajna Swaminathan on mrudangam (a percussion instrument in Carnatic music); Anjna Swaminathan (Rajna’s sister) on violin, and Graham Haynes, playing cornet, and sometimes triggering electronic sounds and loops from a laptop.

After the set, I asked Iyer about the combination of piano and mrudangam, whose rhythmic and tonal qualities seemed especially complementary. Iyer told me he’d been thinking about that blend for a very long time. I ended up having an email exchange with Rajna Swaminathan, simply out of curiosity. Her replies were so focused and revealing about the nature, pleasures and challenges of such collaborations, that I’ve included it here in full, with her permission.

Her replies speak about much more than cross-cultural collaboration. Yet, were I an editor, I’d be deciding between two as to which is the perfect pull-quote:

I would say that working with Vijay has rather resonated with me on the level of our mutual experience as Indian Americans, and that sense of community pervades the music we make. I think that’s a deeper connection and purpose—it’s not just about nostalgia or emotion for Carnatic music, but about constructing an identity and experience around us.

With any two traditions, it’s not hard to find the outer layer of “affinity”- but when you delve deeper, you find the nuances that reflect the great contrast in perspectives.

Vijay mentioned that he’s known you since you were quite young. When did you start making music with him?

I met Vijay when I was about 8 years old. He was on a project led by [saxophonist and composer] Steve Coleman, which involved a collaboration with my guru, Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. At the time, Sivaraman was staying at our house (my parents had sponsored his visit), and so I got to meet Steve, Vijay, and the other musicians on the project. My parents kept in touch with Steve and Vijay over the years. After a few years of playing mrudangam seriously, I was seeking to branch out and collaborate with musicians from other genres, so I reconnected with both of them and eventually started studying with Steve. In 2012, I got a grant from the University of Maryland to conduct collaborative fieldwork in New York, and got to play with and learn from Vijay and a whole network of artists on the jazz/creative music scene. Since then, Vijay has involved me in a few of his projects.

I know the two pieces you played at The Stone were essentially improvised, using some ideas or tropes as basis. It sounded like the last one involved some ideas you and your sister had in mind. How did these take shape?

We had just rehearsed for the Stone the afternoon of the 20th, and we discussed some possible textures and rhythmic ideas that we could use to launch expanded improvisations. One of these was a fragment composed by Anjna, and there were some rhythmic frameworks I suggested as well. The music was rhythmically grounded yet open and fluid—a small variation in improvisation, and the ensemble might collectively shift to a new time feel or rhythmic shape. It’s really an explosion of possibilities from one short idea or framework, and we all contribute to its form and dynamic.

Since you and Vijay were both exposed early on to Carnatic tradition, do you think there’s a special or natural affinity between the improvisational techniques and rhythms of that tradition and of what we’d call jazz improvisation?

It’s easy for Carnatic music and jazz to be tied together due to their common improvisatory nature. However, through my studies with Steve Coleman — specifically delving into the polyrhythmic traditions that underlie jazz — I found the South Indian perspective to be very distinct. Any perceived similarity is largely on the level of musical texture and density of notes. To generalize, South Indian rhythm is more linear and horizontal in its development of an aesthetic arc. “Jazz” improvisation uses the song form as a cycle, and involves a more vertical exploration of complementary/interlocking shapes and rhythms. With any two traditions, it’s not hard to find the outer layer of “affinity”- but when you delve deeper, you find the nuances that reflect the great contrast in perspectives. Certainly, Vijay has made a great effort to incorporate South Indian rhythmic ideas into his music, which has made it easier for me to understand what is going on and find a space for the mrudangam. But like in any collaboration, over time more possibilities and subtleties emerge.

Is there something enticing or even magical about the blend of your instrument and piano, which I don’t imagine happens in Carnatic music?

There is something fascinating about the juxtaposition of piano and mrudangam. I studied classical piano for about 8 years and still improvise/compose on the piano. So I definitely feel a connection to the instrument, and see a similarity with mrudangam in that it is inherently rhythm-oriented yet provides beautiful tonalities and resonance at the same time. There isn’t really a comparable instrument in Carnatic music contexts, so the piano/mrudangam combination is something that I have sought to explore more. When playing with pianists, the roles of melody and rhythm are interchangeable: I don’t always have to hold down the rhythmic form– I can play more melodically/texturally if I feel inclined to, or vice versa.

I know you’ve worked with other musicians I follow, such as Steve Coleman, who you’ve mentioned as a primary influence, as does Vijay. Is there something unique for you about working with Vijay? And does that have to do with his grounding in South Indian music, or is it about something else?

I guess I already answered this question to an extent, but I will say that Carnatic music (primarily driven by a vocal tradition) as an entity is somewhat distinct from South Indian rhythm, which is an overall perspective that stretches across multiple performance contexts, including classical dance forms, other percussion traditions (including Kerala temple processions), and solo mrudangam. Vijay has incorporated an abstract set of rhythmic possibilities and an overall ethos (hinting at Indian raga tonalities and dynamics) largely from listening to Carnatic music, which helps create a connection when we play together. But I would define “grounding” as something tied to the cultural practice of South Indian music (in any context), and it reveals subtleties in time feel, aesthetic choices, and intent. If you look at it that way, playing with Vijay means playing with someone with a “grounding” in the jazz tradition, since his choices are still inflected by playing for that community of listeners. My playing, though largely inflected by performing in South Indian music and dance contexts, has recently been influenced by performing in creative music and jazz situations. I would say that working with Vijay has rather resonated with me on the level of our mutual experience as Indian Americans, and that sense of community pervades the music we make. I think that’s a deeper connection and purpose—it’s not just about nostalgia or emotion for Carnatic music, but about constructing an identity and experience around us.

(For more about Rajna Swaminathan, go here. For more about Anjna Swaminathan, whose playing is similarly compelling, go here.)

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