On Rigor, Grammar, and the Path to Expression: An Indian classical musician steps towards music notation
written by Anjna Swaminathan
2018 GLFCAM Lucy and Jacob Frank Fellow, Cycle 5
It was the night before December 1st, 2017 and the deadline for the GLFCAM Bahlest Eeble Readings application loomed over me. I’d made my way through the majority of the application, much of which involved questions about musical/compositional process, training, and who and what I would bring to a proverbial desert island. A dear friend and musical comrade had nominated me for the program and I was pleasantly surprised by the openness and ease of the application’s questions. Just then, I was hit with a doubtful procrastinator’s worst nightmare: A request for sample scores of 3 compositions.
Having been trained primarily in Indian classical music and having worked mostly with jazz/creative musicians who often learned by ear, my scores were sparse, rough, badly written outlines and in no way application worthy! After an initial flurry of doubt and frustration, I reached out to Gabriela and asked if it was really worth my applying. Perhaps my friend had not clarified to her that I was “not that kind of composer,” I thought to myself. Gabriela and Joel, her assistant, responded with encouragement and openness. They asked that I submit what I had and said that my training in a different tradition piqued their interest even more! I pieced together what fragments of “dots and lines” I knew and so began a guided journey into a new music - new music!
Since January, I have been steeped in a rigorous study of western music notation, something that I have vague memories of from childhood Suzuki violin lessons, but in which I have no formal training. Upon our first call, Gabriela strongly encouraged me to study this new language with depth. In her bubbly, cheerful and generous way, she pulled up her calendar and said, “Okay, you have a meeting with me for January 18, 2023. I’m giving you five years to get fluent in this. Because the world needs you to be.” She quickly put me in touch with GLFCAM composer fellow and Juilliard student, Marco-Adrián Ramos (Cycles 2 and 7), a wonderful violinist and composer who met with me in New York and generously guided me through various terms and techniques to integrate into my score - many of which I’d been using as an improviser without realizing they were legitimate techniques! Ordinarily, such a session would overwhelm me with information and riddle me with insecurities - “Am I really cut out for this program? Why did she let me in? I have to learn all of this by when?!” I have attended many a residency where I am the ethnic outlier, or the one everyone scoffs at when I bring in a piece asking “So, how do you feel about learning this by ear?” But this push from Gabriela was far different. Energetically, it felt like something that was beyond grammar, beyond rigor, and about something much deeper.
As a fellow woman of color, Gabriela understands the limits of form, but also acknowledges the importance of form when it comes to accessibility, recognition and artistic growth. My post-colonial cynicism (already burdened by an instrument – the violin – that is perhaps the musical definition of a colonial hangover) had always kept me from going too deep into western music notation. “Why should I learn it? Let them learn it by ear!” was always my thought, but Gabriela wisely reminded me that this rigor, this work was about gaining something, not about giving something up. Indeed, my not writing in an accessible language like sheet music, would be like a poet refusing to learn to read and write in a more accessible language. The more you know, the more your art can spread, and the more your art spreads, the more you can move people with your message, she kindly reminded me.
And so began my reconnection with western music, but more importantly a newfound understanding of rigor, grammar, and the path to free expression. It has been joyous, motivating, and sometimes downright frustrating (especially when the software engraving program Sibelius’s playback function badly reproduces glissandos), but this process of learning a new language with so much love, support and guidance from fellow composers, Gabriela, Marco, and the open minded (and open hearted) players of the Del Sol String Quartet has been a reminder of what rigor can look like when it is a means to something greater.
It has been just over a week since I left Boonville, CA after my Cycle Five residency and the mountain air along with the lessons of our time together seem to have drifted into the New York hustle with me. It’s a strange and happy dissonance to carry memories like these into a city that seldom sleeps let alone pauses to breathe, but when wise words and soft silences from such residencies appear for even a moment in New York, it is a great gift. Earlier this week, a student came to my home for his first lesson in a few weeks. He is a masterful western classical musician, composer and improviser, but found his way to Indian music as an opportunity to surrender to learning again. It has been humbling to witness an established musician allow himself to be a true beginner. It takes vulnerability to go there, and through lessons with him, I’d found inspiration and calm in my own process of learning a new language.
“I’m wondering if we can try something different today. Can you humor me?” he asked as he walked in. He placed his instrument down and asked if we could go on a walk instead of our regular lesson. What followed was a fruitful and reflective conversation about rigor and what it means to music making. Having had a tumultuous relationship with learning music as a child, and having spent much of his adult life unlearning the negative thought loops that kept him from surrendering to musical expression, putting himself in a new situation of in depth study took an immense amount of courage. He’d been finding his way around a new music, a new instrument and a completely new grammar, and the rigor of learning a new vocabulary was beginning to get in the way of his ability to appreciate or even feel the music that entranced him in the first place. It felt like I was hearing my own story told back to me.
Indeed, rigor had been something I too was bombarded with when I studied Carnatic Indian music as a child. It was to a point that music felt less like an art form and more like math (ironically, calculus was my favorite subject growing up because of how artful a formula could look!). Now, when faced with the challenge of a new grammar, be it Hindustani music, creative music or Western classical music, I am often burdened by this same fear. Will rigor stand in the way of beauty? Can one ever transcend rigor and access that thing that makes music more than correctness? More than vocabulary?
Perhaps the greatest lessons that I’ve learned from these first interactions with Gabriela and the beautiful community at the Academy are not about composition at all. As an educator and as a student, I will always see rigor as an integral part of art-making. But there is a way to reframe rigor not as the end goal, but as the path to a higher form of expression and a stepping stone to deeper artistic blossoming. This is the gift of a program like GLFCAM. Rigor, grammar, and vocabulary, these seemingly superficial and often frustrating aspects of artmaking, go hand in hand with community, cross-cultural understanding, and unadulterated creative potential. This feeling of ecstacy in making a crescendo mark on my score for the first time and hearing it come to life - this is what rigor is about! It’s about the utter joy of expansion, communication and expression. And now I see, it’s always worth the work, but it is so good to be reminded that this isn’t just work! It is much much more and I am so thankful to Gabriela for bringing this energy not only to GLFCAM, but to all our lives as we continue this journey of artistic and personal exploration.
Anjna Swaminathan is a versatile composer and artist in the field of South Indian Carnatic Violin. A disciple of the late violin maestro Parur Sri M.S. Gopalakrishnan and Mysore Sri H.K. Narasimhamurthy, she performs regularly in Carnatic, Hindustani and creative music settings. Find out more on Anjna's bio page.