Arts & Culture

Rajna Swaminathan – “Of Agency And Abstraction” – Out April 26th on Biophilia Records

Of Agency and Abstraction, the highly anticipated debut album by percussionist, composer, and vocalist Rajna Swaminathan, will be released on April 26, 2019 byBiophilia Records. Swaminathan (mrudangam, voice) is joined by her long-standing ensemble RAJAS, which has, since its inception in 2013, featured a rotating cast of New-York-based improvisers from the Indian classical and creative music scenes. Of Agency and Abstraction features a unique configuration of stunning and sensitive improvisers:Anjna Swaminathan (violin), María Grand (tenor saxophone), Miles Okazaki (guitar), andStephan Crump (bass), along with guest artists Ganavya (voice) and Amir ElSaffar(trumpet).

With deep roots in the South Indian tradition of Karnatik music, Swaminathan has carved out a distinctive space for herself as a young innovator in the New York jazz and creative music scene. Expanding the horizons of the mrudangam, a barrel-shaped drum, Swaminathan has deftly adapted her technique over the years to suit various musical contexts: Amir ElSaffar’s 17-piece Rivers of Sound ensemble, the elaborate cross-cultural productions of Ragamala Dance (Minneapolis), myriad ensembles led by acclaimed pianist-composer Vijay Iyer, and the experimental forays of eminent Karnatik vocalist T.M. Krishna. Culling from these vast experiences as a freelancer, Swaminathan’s phenomenal debut reveals a breathtaking command over a wide range of compositional sensibilities, and the nuances of each sonic palette are intertwined with a rare ease.

The album is co-produced by Vijay Iyer, who has been Swaminathan’s mentor and collaborator since she first entered the New York jazz scene in 2011. Swaminathan is also Iyer’s student in a groundbreaking new doctoral program for “Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry” at Harvard University’s music department. The kinship between their approaches is evident in their mutual passion for rhythmic multiplicity and for finding new expressions for South Asian musical sensibilities. Of Agency and Abstraction serves as a kind of musical manifesto, illustrating the various trajectories Swaminathan has taken in her experiments over the years with RAJAS, an ensemble she formed upon first moving to New York City. The ensemble is named after rajas, a Sanskrit term in Hindu philosophy referring to “the inner energy that compels us toward action, creation, and change”.

As the Financial Times has said of her compositions for RAJAS, they have “wedded beauty by courting chaos, with the methods of loose-knit latter-day jazz at the service of a recognisably South-Asian melody and pulse.” The album, as Swaminathan offers in the liner notes, is intended to reflect this interspersing of beauty and chaos through its ruminations on agency, as a force of “chaos, deviation, uncertainty, improvisation,” andabstraction, a “sublimation of the material, the embodied.” Indeed, the music bears witness to the many refractions of agency and abstraction through her life and creative process, particularly in their shared “associations with one of the most troubled concepts of music and of the human condition: freedom.” Ultimately, as Swaminathan states, the music is not concerned with expressing freedom, but instead bodies forth “playful and prayerful meditations.”

The album opens energetically with the jovial “Offering,” based on the raga (melodic mode) Gavati and featuring a lively percussive dialogue between Swaminathan and Miles Okazaki. The carefully honed sound of the core quintet continues through “Peregrination” and “Vigil,” diving into lithe, otherworldly textures and intricate rhythmic metamorphoses. Noteworthy in the quintet sound is the way that violinist Anjna Swaminathan’s (Rajna’s sister) daring glides dance between her South Indian roots and experimental string techniques. Her fluid expressivity, in combination with Stephan Crump’s agile touch on the bass, allow the ensemble to journey through a galaxy of resonance and intonation.

The centerpiece of the album is an epic suite of four compositions (“Departures”/“Ripple Effect”/“Communitas”/“Retrograde”), driven initially by Ganavya’s strikingly powerful voice, and opening into a lush latticework of horn and string conversations, all held together with undulating percussive currents. Ganavya improvises with excerpts of centuries-old Marathi mystic poems, bestowing both a peaceful benediction (Sant Dnyaneshwar’s Pasayadan, in “Departures”) and an unwavering cry for the world to acknowledge the divinity in all people (Kanhopatra’s Dhanya Dhanya, in “Ripple Effect”).

Coming out of the suite — which concludes with a sinuous duo improvisation by María Grand and Amir ElSaffar — we hear an array of pieces woven from various sonic fabrics: the gentle ballad “Chasing the Gradient” with its twinkling guitar throughline; the initially wistful “Rush,” which gives way unexpectedly into a whirlwind of angular strokes; the lyrical and buoyant “Vagabonds;” and the mysterious, eccentric curves of “Tangled Hierarchy.” The album closes with “Yathi,” which features Swaminathan’s husky voice circling hypnotically in and out of the ensemble tapestry with raga-based ornamentations, eventually merging with Ganavya’s voice (improvising through the remaining verses of Sant Dnyaneshwar’s Pasayadan) and finding denouement in a pensive swirl of sound.

Swaminathan was born into a musical family in Maryland, and first started studying mrudangam from her father, P.K. Swaminathan. She then became a protegé of mrudangam legend Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, and eventually established a name for herself in Karnatik music, one of the few female percussionists to do so. Since 2011, she has increasingly dedicated her time to emerging projects and collaborations in the New York creative music scene. Swaminathan began her doctoral studies at Harvard in 2015, and has continued her work as a freelancer and bandleader alongside her scholarly pursuits.

RELEASE DATE: April 26th, 2019 via Biophilia Records

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News and art, national and local. Began as alternative weekly in 1990 in Buffalo, NY. Publishing content online since 1996.

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