By Asha Tamirisa, Primary Researcher, 2022–2023 The Kitchen L.A.B. Research Residency. Published as part of The Kitchen L.A.B. Research Residency x Simons Foundation x School for Poetic Computation.
September 22, 2023
What follows is a heavily edited transcription of a roundtable discussion undertaken as part of The Kitchen's 2022–2023 L.A.B. Research Residency (the full conversation can be streamed on September 27 at 7pm EDT as part of the series Instruments of the Black Gooey Universe On Air on Montez Press Radio). My research began with the question of how archival conventions and tools foreclose recognition of the Global South's influence on American experimental sonic practices. As part of this inquiry, I invited a brilliant group of artists and scholars into conversation— Rajna Swaminathan, Sharmi Basu, Budhaditya Chattopadhyay, and Amirtha Kidambi—to discuss the complex relationships between sonic aesthetics of the Global South and American avant-garde sonic arts. While rooted in this historical and conceptual question, this conversation locates us as a group of South Asian artists working amidst these historical phenomena. We started with introductions and continued with a discussion on how sound can manifest colonial and post-colonial relations, and how we might assess the impact of these relations in terms of material access, discourse, and how we see the world around us. The conversation also touches on how typical archival conventions fail to capture the complexity of these relations.
Rajna Swaminathan (RS): My name is Rajna Swaminathan. I play the mridangam, which is a South Indian percussion instrument. I grew up performing in Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam contexts and since that time I've moved more in an intercultural space, and I'm also simultaneously questioning what intercultural exactly means because as we move through these encounters, we also expand...and so the question of what those borders are also sort of seems to dissipate. One of the huge influences for me in the last ten years has been through artists in the African American Creative Music scene. So that has been a really important influence in how–and the sort of devices through which–I experiment, not only in my compositions for improvising ensembles or for through-composed situations, but also an influence on my instrument...thinking through what noise means on my instrument or dissonance...and thinking through what form and structure mean, both understanding what it has meant in a classical context, but also thinking through the ways that these ideas persist even in experimental contexts...
Budhaditya Chattopadhyay (BC): I'm Budhaditya currently from the Netherlands where I have lived for the last few years. I think my interest working with sound experimentally started when I got a cassette player when I was eight, and I started recording sounds around me. I realized that the more I'm coming close to an object that is producing sound, the more prominent and present it is, and the more I go distant from the object...the room, the spatiality, the architecture is also present in the recording. So recording became a fascination for me for many years and that was at the core of my practice with sound recording. And then I moved to Kolkata where I started studying at the National Film School. There I kind of was molded, exposing myself to world cinema, classical music, and before film school I was also trained in singing...and playing tanpura accompanying my mother on the stage. That training helped me quite a lot to understand the temporalities, spatialities of classical and traditional music in India. And I was also exposed to folk music, Indigenous music, so to speak, because where I grew up, it was on the border of Jharkhand...I grew up listening to their drums and evening performances. So different influences, although I have trouble with the word influence...rather than influence, maybe sound is such a medium that is always making connections. So maybe different connections were built. My work is rooted in this primacy of relationality, inter-subjectivity, or interconnection. And I often find manifestations of these ideas in the work of the Global South artists, for example, a kind of horizontality, a kind of equity. And so my work emerges from this horizontal, non-hierarchical worldview...
Sharmi Basu (SB): Hi. My name is Sharmi. I kind of run the gamut around experimental music. I came up in a pseudo-classical training modality. And then as an adult really delved into the noise music world...I would take broken instruments and lick my fingers and stick them in the back of them or play a violin with the butter knife. It was a lot of play. I came up in an environment that was extremely racist and misogynist, and also at a high-tension political point in the 2010s, the Occupy Movement. My coming of age was through these really intense musical moments and political moments. So, I create noise music or experimental music...and do a lot of multimedia installation. I write zines and do a lot of political education through sound specifically around decolonizing sound and the idea of taking methods of sound making and integrating them into struggle or vice versa. And I also do a lot of arts organizing.
Amirtha Kidambi (AK): I'm Amirtha Kidambi. I'm a composer, performer, vocalist, improviser. I really struggle with describing my practice in a singular way, but I’d say counter-hegemonic...that's the theme, running through all of the various aesthetics. I grew up singing bhajans–that was really huge, that communal, ecstatic, transcendent practice...and I was a Bharatanatyam dancer, but also played guitar, was very involved with the punk and underground hip hop scenes in the Bay Area as a listener...then was in post-rock and punk bands in LA. I came to New York primarily for the DIY music scene, but I was studying classical music at the same time. So I was always sort of in tension with whatever I was doing and with my training. The AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians ] is a big thread for me...reading George Lewis's A Power Stronger Than Itself tied everything together, 'cause I'd also been an organizer. And then seeing things like the AACM that, as a musical collective being organized in the same way structurally and philosophically as the Black Panthers...that it was DIY, that it was collective. It was really, really huge for me. And then in New York I also got very involved in organizing with Matana Roberts Musicians Against Police Brutality...and more recently trying to organize among South Asian artists, I started a collective called South Asian Artists in Diaspora. And so yeah, I've used words like free jazz, free improvisation, noise, electronic music, new music, avant-garde, experimental music all over the place in what I practice, and Creative Music is probably the most resonant for me.
BC: I think the question of coloniality…manifests in this relationship [of Global South sonic aesthetics and American avant garde music]. Like if we think about, let's say La Monte Young or John Cage, perhaps they had good intentions, but the way they acted a lot can be questioned. Like, for example, of course we know Dream House...the kind of respect that La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela paid to the thirty years of training they received from Pran Nath. But when it comes to registering those thoughts into discourse...those voices are marginalized. We don't find any historicization of sonic arts or sound arts contributions from Global South artists, South Asian artists. There is no history written in which these exchanges were discussed at length. So that is a big problem to deal with, and that comes from a colonial-built structure. The way, for example, the credits that were given to La Monte Young as the father of ambient music...were not recognizing the contributions to ambient music—Indian drone, tampura drone as textures contributed. And that lack of citation is a major problem. When history is written of sounding arts or sonic arts and experimental music, those connections are not discussed enough or not at all.
SB: I think the thing that again gets lost in these surface questions of appropriation is the why, right? Why do we care? Is it just that, oh, they got all the credit, I'm mad. You know? No. That's not why. Does anyone have ownership over rhythms of sound? Who knows, you know what I mean? But I think the bigger question again is what is the consequence of these relationships.
If we're really just talking about what is colonialism, what is it to have to navigate such an insidious disease that is capitalist white supremacy that is literally taking every single body and attempting to either use it for profit—a very linear one-dimensional profit—or attempting to own the thing itself...those are the things that we're dealing with when we're thinking about what colonialism is and what that looks like on a material level. The diasporic history is very complicated. But then our ancestral history, which is also defined by a very real, very recent colonization...that's why these things are even relevant, why influence or appropriation or any of these things are even relevant because it actually results in the materiality of what resources are available and what people are seen as people versus not: collectively how we see each other even.
AK: It [these surface questions of appropriation] also kind of misses what is the historical context of La Monte Young and Terry Riley being exposed to these sounds. It's in a post-colonial period. It's in the aftermath and the wake of all of these global independent struggles. It's in the context of the Immigration Act of 1965, which was really hard won and fought because of the civil rights movement of Black Americans in the United States. You know, so the entrance of all those yogis into New York and California is part of that because of law in the United States changing on the backs of this really, really intense uprising that was in response to really awful violence in Black and Brown communities in the United States.
RS: You know, for me, it's not that I ever encountered these [American minimalist] works as canon during the time that I was coming up as a musician. I think for me, it came much later, actually within the past few years. But as I was listening, I was thinking, on the formal level, there are so many similarities because what we call appropriation, right, is formal appropriation. But I thought, well, actually there's so much missing here in terms of intention, in terms of context, social kinds of relationships. I had this wonderful professor during grad school, Sindhu Revuluri, who taught this class called Music and Empire, and she got me to think about this in a very different way. So much of musicological study of Orientalism is about appropriation and about talking about certain ornaments that came from this place or that place. And it sort of leads to this idea of almost like a taxonomy of where things come from. Instead, Revuluri suggested that we actually look at it in terms of people trying to identify who they are in relation to and who they're not. And so as I was listening, I was trying to think through, well, this is less about, oh, there's a drone or there's this kind of vocalization or element of time that comes from this part of the world, but what is being worked through here? The histories of people just holding onto the forms without actually caring about the context. And I think Steve Reich famously said, I want to think African but not sound African. What are the things that lead to those sorts of statements? What is being prioritized here? And I wonder how can we also not fall into the trap of prioritizing the same things which are form and structure and so-called tangible or provable elements of sound? The other scholar I want to point to is Jose Muñoz, who is a queer theorist who talked a lot about this, a lot about how we even think of evidence and considering it from a queer perspective of what is real is not always what is provable or what is archivable even, but it has to do with what's sort of in between and almost unseen and fleeting. And it makes me think: how do we actually address this without it becoming a kind of counter mastery? Like, oh, it's not there in the archive, so we need to then come up with another archive. That to me, it's not really about that, but...it’s about our relationship to the archive and what kind of value we give it. Can we actually learn to exist in relation to an archive knowing that it's incomplete, knowing that it's partial and relational and fluid? It's a complicated story. And also those complications live on through us...but thinking through kind of forward momentum for me has been like, well, how am I reproducing some of these structures in myself?
BC: Sound as a medium...doesn't think about hierarchies, but making connections is like the central act of sounds traveling from one body to the other. And that sense of non-hierarchical relationality that sound represents is something we also need to understand: that whatever happens ultimately will find an equitable playground. So if we think of rewriting the history, I think we need to understand sound's relational capacity.
AK: There's all these loose configurations [between sound artists and musicians]...loose connections and they're conversing with each other. The Kitchen is a place where this was happening constantly. But then, of course, when the archival work happens and when the canonization happens, all these things get written out. So when I was researching Robert Ashley, he constantly was talking about Duke Ellington, but then he was always associated with new music and Cage and all these people, and it didn't make any sense. And that's with a white new music composer being really misunderstood in this way.
SB: The work that I did at The Kitchen was very specifically around this: what is tagging? So we have these terms. We have noise. We have jazz. We have whatever. And then who are we able to find through this process of looking through these terms. Robert Ashley could be a good example...find the flyer that he's on and the opener of who opened for him or maybe who he opened for, but that person is not in the archive, but Robert Ashley is because they're the white person that is being identified.
The people who are identified are consistently the same person versus all of the other people who they are associated with, who in essence have also given this person their identity...like all these folks, part of their appeal is their association to Orientalism. Right? The Kitchen archive...I was looking for queer people of color, noise, sound artists, and queer and trans folks of color. And it was really hard to find [them], but you know for example that Blondie was hanging out with DJ Jazzy Jeff. Again, the connections, I think, are important.
AK: In a way, if the archive should do anything, I'm less interested in who influenced whom or what than I am in like, here's the story of all of these different complicated people and all of the complicated networks of where they're coming from, where their work is currently. And also to look at tradition as being an emergent thing, that there's not this binary of modernity versus tradition. That tradition is not fixed, that it is constantly changing and evolving. And that our relation to that tradition is what is making it do that over time. You know? And so it's not like this is Indian classical music. It sits here. It's an object. And these folks are taking stuff out of this well. It's also changing and morphing and living with it over time. So it is very, very complicated. And I think the way that it is written about is a big thing. The way that journalists talk about it, the way that festivals curate. The way that scholars look at it, I think just the more people, the more voices you get to talk about their very, very, very diverse experiences, to me, that's maybe the most important thing about if an archive is to exist. That's what I want to know about. Like Sharmi said, who's hanging out with whom? That's as important somehow as what is in my music.
*I'd like to thank the round table participants, Rajna Swaminathan, Sharmi Basu, Amirtha Kidambi, and Budhaditya Chattopadhyay for their willingness to participate in this conversation. I’d also like to thank Alison Burstein, Daniella Brito, Angelique Rosales Salgado, Alex Waterman, Tiri Kananuruk, Galen McDonald, Chakeiya Richmond, American Artist, Taylor Levy, and Che-Wei Wang. *
Sharmi Basu is a multimedia performance artist, curator, composer, and arts organizer born and based in the unceded territories of Chochenyo Ohlone peoples, also known as Oakland, CA. They create sound and performance pieces that address vulnerability, accountability, and experiences of diaspora by creating new narratives for decolonial thinking toward individual and collective liberation. Their primary performance project, Beast Nest, shows us that the abstract and immaterial experiences of trauma can be transformed through the process of creation in art and sound. They believe that transcending the emotional landscape through active presence is the key to accessing multidimensionality and work with these ideas in their Sound and Liberation workshops, their curatorial projects, and their BIPOC improvisation group, the Mara Performance Collective. They received their MFA from Mills College and have hosted a number of workshops internationally that center on sound healing, decolonization, and conflict & accountability, as well as technical skill-shares. They have performed for SFMOMA, YBCA, San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, Cluster Festival, Ableton Loop, the International Symposium of Improvised Music, Soundwave SF, Human Resources LA, and many other spaces throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. They have exhibited work at Coaxial, Southern Exposure, SOMArts, Counterpulse, Gray Area, and the Smithsonian.
Budhaditya Chattopadhyay is a contemporary artist, researcher, and writer. Chattopadhyay produces works for large-scale installations and live performance addressing contemporary issues of environment and ecology, migration, race, and decoloniality. His works have been widely exhibited, performed, or presented across the globe. Chattopadhyay has an expansive body of scholarly publications in artistic research, media theory and aesthetics in leading peer-reviewed journals. He is the author of four books: The Nomadic Listener (2020), The Auditory Setting (2021), Between the Headphones (2021), and Sound Practices in the Global South (2022). Chattopadhyay holds a PhD in Artistic Research and Sound Studies from the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, Leiden University, and is currently a Visiting Professor at the Critical Media Lab, Basel, Switzerland.
Amirtha Kidambi is a musician, educator, activist, and organizer dedicated to the creation and performance of subversive music from free improvisation, avant-jazz, Indian music, experimental bands, and new music. Rooted in anti-racism, decolonization, and anti-capitalism, Kidambi is co-founder of South Asian Artists in Diaspora (SAAID) and, with Matana Roberts, co-organizer of Musicians Against Police Brutality. As the bandleader of the incendiary protest group Elder Ones, Kidambi has earned accolades from publications such as The New York Times, Pitchfork, and Wire Magazine. She has been recognized by Downbeat as a Rising Star in the female Vocalist, Composer, and Best Group categories. Kidambi's collaborations include projects with Mary Halvorson's sextet Code Girl, saxophonist Darius Jones in the duo Angels & Demons, bassist Luke Stewart in a duo setting, percussionist Matt Evans in Neti-Neti, and acclaimed composers Muhal Richard Abrams and Robert Ashley. Kidambi has performed at festivals and venues including Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Whitney Museum, MoMA PS1, Big Ears Festival and the Berliner Festspiele. She has been deeply engaged with teaching and decolonizing curriculum at Brooklyn College and the New School and will be a visiting professor at Bennington College in Fall 2024.
Rajna Swaminathan is an acclaimed mrudangam artist, composer, and scholar whose work explores the undercurrents of rhythmic experience and emergent textures in collective improvisation. She is one of only a few women who play the mrudangam professionally. Through extensive experience performing in the Karnatik music and bharatanatyam scenes, an affinity for various streams of South Asian film/popular music, and deep collaborative work in New York's jazz and creative music scene, she developed experimental approaches to improvising on the mrudangam, piano, and voice. Swaminathan’s ensemble RAJAS has been a prominent medium for her expansive compositions, which involve a lattice of rhythmic, textural, and modal approaches. The ensemble's debut album, Of Agency and Abstraction (Biophilia Records, 2019), received considerable critical acclaim. Their newest record, Apertures, was released by Ropeadope this year. Swaminathan was recently appointed Assistant Professor of Music (Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology) at UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts. She has composed for JACK Quartet, Del Sol Quartet, violinists Jennifer Koh, and Lucia Lin; been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Sawdust, and Chamber Music America New Jazz Works; and has been awarded a fellowship from the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music. She performs in ensembles led by Ganavya Doraiswamy, Amir ElSaffar, Vijay Iyer, and Aakash Mittal, and has collaborated with playwright Anu Yadav, visual artist Zahyr Lauren, the Ragamala Dance Company, dancer/choreographer Mythili Prakash, and poets Mahogany L. Browne, Sarah Kay, and Jon Sands.
Asha Tamirisa is an artist and researcher, primarily working with sound and video in performance and installation. Her work often explores matereality and metaphor, history and archives, and gender and technology. Tamirisa holds a Ph.D. in Computer Music and Multimedia and an M.A. in Modern Culture and Media from Brown University, and has taught at Street Level Youth Media, Brown University, RISD, and Bates College.
The Kitchen L.A.B. Research Residency is generously supported by the Simons Foundation, whose mission is to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. The Foundation’s Science, Society and Culture division seeks to provide opportunities for people to forge a connection to science—whether for the first time or a lifetime. Through their initiatives, they work to inspire a feeling of awe and wonder, foster connections between people and science, and support environments that provide a sense of belonging.