“But he, Siddhartha, where did he belong? Whose life would he share? Whose language would he speak?” These words of Hermann Hesse depict Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) at a pivotal point in his quest to find purpose in the world. He will soon find it, seeing one where he once saw many, finding that the seemingly unrelated are related.
Later in the same book, Siddhartha, is a chapter called “By the River,” which inspired the title of Indian-American composer Asha Srinivasan’s newest work, By the River of Savathi, that will be premiered on June 2nd and 3rd, in New York City, as part of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s “Notable Women Festival: A Celebration of Women Composers”—result of winning first prize, among seventy-four applicants between the ages of twenty and thirty, in the BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) Foundation’s Women’s Music Commission.
Like the protagonist in Hesse’s novel, Srinivasan has been discovering her distinct place in the world—this time, in the realm of music. “The whole process of composition is about learning what one’s voice is,” the composer recently told me via telephone. Finding one’s artistic voice, then translating it into a unique piece of music, is a tremendous challenge: countless composers try, only to find themselves, knowingly or unknowingly, imitating their predecessors.
“You don’t want to end up mimicking somebody—there’s always that fear. You want to try to be as unique as you can be, but at the same time you’re struggling with—can you create something new? Is there anything under the sun? But you are trying to create some kind of unique sound.”
Individuality is a formidable task that has faced artists since the beginning. Some, in trying to find uniqueness, have disregarded accepted conventions within their particular genre (think of Jackson Pollock, atop a ladder, drizzling paint onto a canvas). Others have invented new rules to be inserted into a pre-existing frame (Arnold Schoenberg developed a tonal system in which all twelve tones have equal importance—new rules regarding notes, but most other compositional conventions remaining intact). Still others have essentially adhered to the artistic status quo while outwardly displaying the face of rebellion (Glenn Gould, sitting on a tiny chair, adorned in tweed coat, cap, and scarf, may have looked the rebel, but he was still playing Bach).
At twenty-six years, Asha Srinivasan falls into none of these categories. She aims not for uniqueness for the sake of uniqueness, but for organic, expressive music. As her voice trails upward, indicating significant time spent pondering the subject, she emphasizes her philosophy behind composing. “I’m really trying hard just to think about what sounds good to me, what’s authentic to me, what moves me, without worrying about whether it’s really ‘new.’”
By ancestry alone, Srinivasan is an anomaly in the mostly white and East Asian field of western classical music. Born in Logan, Utah, she spent her formative years—ages two through nine—in Pondicherry, India (near Madras), before returning to the United States (Maryland, this time). She considers herself a hybrid. “I really think of myself as an American, but there’s always a link to being Indian. In some ways, now, I’m going through an investigative period of going back to my Indian roots—not just in music, but in general—because those years were a long time ago and I don’t really remember them.” Srinivasan embraces her Indian heritage, but stops short of holding it to the spotlight. This resistance toward promoting herself as “The Indian Classical Composer” has as much to do with her being both Indian and American as with her genuine humility. “I don’t want to just slap an Indian name on [a composition] because I’m Indian and say, ‘Hey, people will notice that.’ I’m aware of that factor, but I want it to be very authentic.”
When asked about the strikingly low presence of Indian students at music conservatories, she stresses the career risk associated with music as a profession. “It has everything to do with what is thought of as a good career. It has a lot to do with upbringing. That is something that I went through. My parents are very supportive, but they had a lot of reservations about my going into this field”—she laughs when noting that it was her mother, an amateur vocalist, who was most hesitant about her daughter’s decision—“I think they were more open-minded about everything to begin with, so they were willing to give me a chance, which is, I think, more rare.”
Although her memory of childhood in India is vague, Srinivasan was imprinted, at an early age, by Indian music—as a child she studied Carnatic (South Indian) vocal music. It wasn’t until much later, in a high school music theory class, that she began to seriously study western Classical music. In particular, she relished the opportunity to write music. “I started out by breaking the rules and seeing what would happen—coming up with different sounds.”
It was this search for new sounds that led Srinivasan, in her early student years, to write an abundance of music for computer-generated electronics. (One such piece is Falling: Samsaaram, which she describes as representing the movement between samsaaram (attachment) and nirvaanam (detachment). It is an unsettling work: bursts of violent noise periodically disrupt an eerie fabric of extraterrestrial sounds, jolting the listener at unexpected moments.) Although she still writes computer music, she thinks of it as a genre, not as a replacement for human performers. “Performers spend a lifetime working on their instruments. They’re going to have a certain degree of skill that a computer ‘performer’ doesn’t.”
Next year, Srinivasan is set to earn her doctorate of music at the University of Maryland. Despite still being a student, she has been making a mark in the classical music world—winning prizes for Kalpitha (string quartet), Alone, Dancing (flute and computer-generated electronics), and, most recently, BMI’s Women’s Music Commission.
Kalpitha (the title is a Carnatic term for composed, rather than improvised music) is a perfect example of Srinivasan’s hybrid classical/Carnatic style. A gradual crescendo brings the string quartet from virtual silence to subdued waves of sound, interrupted by melodic “sighs” that briefly evoke the first string quartet by early-20th-century composer Béla Bartók. The similarity to the Hungarian composer is brief, however, as the melody bends as seamlessly as wax in a lava-lamp, akin to the vocal slides in Carnatic vocal music. Broken into three attached movements, Kalpitha, a sizable work of sixteen minutes, takes the listener on a journey in which opposite ideas are synthesized: Movement I is plastic; Movement II is static. Movement III fuses the first two movements.
Kalpitha can be viewed as a metaphor of both Srinivasan the person and Srinivasan the composer: childhood in India, adulthood in America; Carnatic vocal study as a child, Western classical music as an adult. Rather than rejecting one, in favor of the other, she prefers to unite the two. Discussing her dual background, Srinivasan is content with her hybrid status. “I’m happy. I don’t want to become ‘Indian.’ I definitely feel strongly that I’m a true Indian-American, a true combination. And I love that… That’s one great thing—that I have both cultures.”
The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, with over seventy CDs and three Grammy Awards, is a new music force; few ensembles would be better suited to bringing new music to the public ear. By the River of Savathi will receive two premieres: Saturday, June 2nd, at 2 p.m., at the Chelsea Art Museum, and Sunday, June 3rd, at 3 p.m., at the Dia: Beacon. (Both venues are in Manhattan.)
Patrick Durek is a classical guitarist (new music proponent), as well as freelance journalist. He is based in northern NJ.