Amirtha Kidambi: music of reaction

I basically felt that even on a personal level, for myself and my own sanity, on From Untruth I needed to express some things very directly. I love abstract and instrumental music and improvising without lyrics, but there’s something about the moment and what is happening that made me want to put out some kind of a reaction.

Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska

For anyone who follows the New York music scene, Amirtha Kidambi is a familiar figure. In recent years she’s been a powerhouse of activity, getting involved in a number of new projects: starting from Seven Teares with Charlie Looker (with whom I spoke about Extra Life over ten years ago), the amazing Code Girl recorded last year with Mary Halvorson, her cooperation with Lea Bertucci, to projects such as Robert Ashley’s opera or Lines of Light, which will hopefully soon be released in physical format.

Nonetheless, she still regards Elder Ones as her most important group: the quartet offering an original blend of Carnatic music, drones, free jazz, and even electronica. Their first record, Holy Science, was released in 2016 – a breath of fresh air, successfully combining tradition and improvisation using a very modern language. Northern Spy have just released their second album, From Untruth, where the musicians (Amirtha is accompanied by saxophonist Matt Nelson, drummer Max Jaffe and bassist Nick Dunston) take their sound even further. The four tracks are a tour de force of Kidambi’s compositional ideas in the form of lengthy suites. The quartet brilliantly integrates organic, very impulsive music, almost punk-like in its raw energy, with involved texts commenting on the present day. Kidambi reacts to reality, combining different aesthetics in a thoroughly contemporary and fresh way. Her message is topical, and her musical language consistent and distinct. I asked Amirtha Kidambi about the origins of this language and how it has evolved over the years, but also about the role of music and tradition in contemporary world.

Jakub Knera: How did you start playing music?

Amirtha Kidambi: The way I started was through Hindu devotional singing. Since I was three or four years old, I participated in weekly group singing sessions dedicated to devotional music called bhajan. Now I know a lot of people familiar with them from the Alice Coltrane records that came out in past couple of years. That’s the same song form – it’s called bhajan, a type of Hindu worship music. That’s how I first remember getting involved in singing. I also started playing harmonium in devotional music, but I was always singing when I was in choirs since I was a kid – through school, high school when I started playing guitar and doing songwriting and started bands.

Later, you were also involved in many musical activities.

In high school I sang in a jazz band and when I went to college, I started studying Western classical music. I had this indie music background but in school I ended up studying what is default in America – Western classical, whether you want to or not. It exposed me to a lot of really interesting contemporary and avantgarde composers.

What brought on your interest in jazz?

I was already listening a lot of jazz in high school and I was obsessed with John Coltrane. Once I got into the classical avantgarde in college I got more into this – listening to Ornette Coleman, finding the late Coltrane records, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. At the same time, I was listening to Stravinsky, Luigi Nono and different modern composers. It was coming from a kind of community and worship tradition, but also from school and researching music by myself. It was in pre-internet days: checking music at the library, reading magazines, finding the band names and trying to find them in record stores like how we used to do.

How important was the community and your family in developing your interest in music?

It was both – in the Hindu community we just always sing together all the time. It was a regular part of our daily life and daily practice both at home and with a bigger community. But I was also singing all day long by myself (laughs), whether I was in my room or I put the headphones on – there’s a lot of pictures where I’m singing to Michael Jackson (laughs). When I started playing guitar, I printed out tabs and was constantly learning songs. It was part of the community and I was really intensely curious about music. From a very young age I knew that this is what I wanted to do.  I wanted to be a musician since I was a kid.

Since music was always part of your daily life, what made you want to combine that with formal education?

I just wanted to learn more so badly. I never had any lessons when I was a kid, I never took piano or voice lessons. I wanted study that, learn composition, learn about music as much as I possibly could. When I went to college, I used to think that this is the way to do this but – at that time – my parents were not really encouraging me to pursue music in college. For them music is something you can do for fun, enjoyment, for worship but not for real in life (laughs). It was kind of a struggle, but I had so much curiosity about it and I felt like I had not received any training. I wanted it – I had my first piano lesson in college, it was very important to me to be on a high level of training because I was really self-taught. I felt it was important.

Are your parents still sceptical about your music career or has bringing tradition into what you do proved somewhat helpful?

It took a very long time for them to come around. I was doing classical music, singing Bach and all the stuff which they didn’t get it. The whole notated music and the way of making music didn’t touch them. After I moved to New York they saw I was so serious about it and started to write my own music. Then they started to encourage me and pay attention – also because of what you’ve said: they saw that I was bringing in my traditions from growing up and blending them with things from Indian music but also the language of improvised music and free jazz.

In 2012 I worked at Issue Project Room where Cecil Taylor played a solo. He’s one of my heroes and I sent my mum a YouTube video of him playing solo just to show what I was doing. She watched it and was like “he’s a genius, the music is just flowing through him, that’s amazing” – and I was shocked. She didn’t like or understand Bach, but she immediately got Cecil! I think it’s because music is so important in India – it translates very easily.

When I started to really focus on improvisation my parents came to see Elder Ones – our first big concert in New York – and were very excited. They saw the harmonium, improvising, then I was singing in Carnegie Hall, I got New York Times articles – parents love that so then they understand: “OK, she’s serious”.

Do you think that Hindu and Carnatic music helped you get more into improvised music? Was it an important aspect of the process?

Yeah! I think there’s definitely a connection. I remember hearing “A Love Supreme” for the first time when I was maybe fifteen or sixteen and I was so blown away. It reminded me very naturally of the music I was singing already with drone, ka ind of modality and the ideas about it and chanting. I heard some connection and later when I was more and more into free jazz music, my ear was already prepared. It was a couple of things: I listened to Indian music but also hardcore and metal in high school, and then there was R’n’B and hip-hop too. There was something about one that was coming from an African-American tradition with the singing tradition I was really interested in but also the kind of aggression of punk with political and revolutionary ideas. I was always into heavy sounds.

In a way going from punk rock or hardcore to free-jazz is pretty natural. There are different instruments and different music but the feeling behind it can be similar.

Elder Ones is your first group as a bandleader. But you also play with many amazing musicians like Charlie Looker, Mary Halvorson or Lea Bertucci with whom you’re just about to release an album. Code Girl with Mary is one of the most amazing records from 2018, not just because of the music but also the lyrics and vocals.

New York is so interesting in that the scenes between DIY, rock, experimental music and jazz just cross very easily. I met Mary because I was collaborating with Charlie Looker on Seven Teares. I met Darius Jones from the band Little Women and started to work with him and became more and more connected to improv and jazz scene. Mary and Charlie had played together – she saw the Seven Teares show and that’s how she had the idea of vocal music written for me. She had this idea for years after seeing that band and it’s funny how old these things lead one to the other.

I wouldn’t connect her with songs and lyrics.

She played in a band called People with Kevin Shea which was more like a rock band. She writes a lyrics there and sings – a kind of short songs. She likes writing lyrics, but she wanted – as she said – a real singer who can improvise. She made some sketches of songs and we went back and forth. She never really worked with a vocalist so she wasn’t sure if I wanted to improvise with it that way but I said “if you let me try some things you can say if you are interested or not”. We had some sessions, I improvised, to some solos and then she totally liked it. For me, her lyrics are so cool, and I was a huge fan of band People and Mary’s music for a very long time. Playing with Code Girl Quintet is amazing – that project has given me a lot of exposure to people who wouldn’t have found my music before. Mary crosses between the experimental world and she gets a lot of attention from the jazz scene. I never really considered myself a jazz musician in that traditional way, but now because of that band I feel she has opened me up to a lot of new and different listeners.

And then you have a feature in Downbeat.

Yeah (laughs). I never thought my band would have something like that. I think it’s partly because of Code Girl where I show how I can improvise in this kind of context.

Comparing to it your duo with Lea Bertucci – this is very minimal.

We’ve been playing for years but in all different contexts: with her and alto saxophone, with me and harmonium, acoustic stuff, sessions with other musicians. I told her one day that I’m really interested in improvising with electronics, but I don’t know anything and I’m not that interested in digital interferences. I tried Ableton and pedals on my own and I decided I don’t like it and I don’t like the feeling of digital interference. She told me about her tape machine and the idea of improvising with it. We’ve just started getting together for duo sessions with reel to reel tape machine and my voice. It goes into it and Lea is touching the tape, puling it and pressing the reels, manipulating it, but I also have a dry signal so I can go away from the tape machine and interact with loops. It’s very unpredictable! When you use Ableton or pedals it’s predictable but when someone is improvising it’s not. You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a very physical kind of music. I hope the record will come out later this year.

Talking about voice, do you think there’s a kind of renaissance for using the voice in modern and alternative music? From Code Girl through projects like Roomful of Teeth to even Animal Collective.

I think it was always there. I think it was always there, but I think there’s a few reasons why voice wasn’t taken seriously, particularly in the avant-garde. Maybe not in classical music where it was always pretty prominent with Berio or even Stockhausen. There’s a ton of vocal music! I feel like a part of the problem in jazz for so long was a sort consideration that singer was standing in the front of the bands. A part of it is a huge gender problem – voice was always gendered as very female. A part of why we have kind of new resurgence of voice is a couple of things.

There were always a lot of vocalists but jazz became such an instrumental music. It went away further and further – voice was just about technically and sort of shredding on saxophone. These are very masculine ideas. As singers we’ve had to reassert ourselves and say: “look, we can be also virtuoso, sensitive at the same time but you have to take us seriously”. If there are more singing women, it’s partly because of the progress in terms of gender equity in jazz and improvised music which maybe wasn’t there for so long. It changes but honestly there’s been vocalists working their asses off for many years, but they haven’t got a lot of recognition. If you would say to Fay Victor that there’s vocal renaissance, it would annoy her. She’s been doing it for decades!

It also depends on what writers started to get interested but also curators or labels too influence on how it is seen. That’s why I was always writing for vocal ensembles. I started one last year for commission Lines of Light – improvised music with just vocals. I’m hoping to put that out next year because I do want to highlight voice as instrument.

And what did the recording process look like with From Untruth? For Holy Science you were composing solo and then adopting the music for a band. Here you already knew who would play it.

It changes a lot, one was personal: Nick Dunston is playing bass, while on the first record it was Brendon Lopez, they are different players. It’s like you say they’re playing so much better, especially Matt and Max with whom I’ve played for a very long time. I felt much clearer on what I wanted to do. The first album was very explorative for me – I have never written for a band but also using the harmonium which is not traditionally found in the context of this kind of music. It was really an exploration and once I figured out how harmonium can work in this music, I wanted to go away from it, and I wanted to add something new. I added a synthesizer because I was thinking a lot about my relationship with technology. It’s a polyphonic analogue synth but I was thinking about how harmonium can almost sound like an early synthesizer – it has a very square wave tone. I was almost thinking what if I could play these two things together but on the records, I overdub them a little bit.

Max Jaffe is using electronic sensory percussion in his solo works.

I saw his solo set and it was very interesting – those things came very naturally in the same time. I knew that for these records – maybe because of the political moment, as I started writing it in early 2017, right after the election – this one won’t be a meditative and kind of drone-base record. It’s very different in the musical material and what I’m expressing is very different.

To me, these electronic elements are not like a new language – I see them as a tool used to develop your language. It’s especially clear in the middle part of “Dance of the Subaltern”.

It’s funny because I still use a lot of traditional ideas or techniques, Carnatic or south Indian techniques. But bringing these elements I wanted to feel a bit organic. Max has a volume pedal for Sensory Percussion – he still makes mostly natural drum sounds, but he can very simultaneously bring out the electronics by just using this volume pedal. It never has to be the whole idea all the time. That duo that you are talking about Dance is me and Max – I’m doing synth improv and he’s doing the sensory percussion and it’s like you are not sure which is coming from which – both are disembodied. It’s been fun for me just to explore it. Synthesizer for me is still very musical interface causes it’s a keyboard instrument. You can make the sound how you wanted and it’s a bit accidental and unpredictable. I like it.

You also wrote the lyrics.

It’s maybe the biggest difference. It is kind of protest music – as we are still in this period of political turmoil – and I feel I just needed to say certain things, not abstractly but directly and literally.

Even the titles show it: “Eat the Rich”, “Decolonize the Mind”.

There are protest pieces and I feel pretty clear about the idea. Drone or that kind of sound which was on Holy Science didn’t really feel like the aesthetic for me. We have much more angular, sort of atonal melodies, maybe a lot of harsher sounds. Improv is much freer, there’s a part of pieces which are fully improv. It has to be different, even though it’s still jumping off similar ideas.

You wrote “Dvapara Yuga (For Eric Garner)” on the previous record.

It was always there but I wanted to take it more out of the abstract level and make it more literal. It was a more clear process to write now because I have more sense of who I am as a composer but I also understand the band dynamics a lot better. Also, adding new things can create a kind of different impact for compositions – even the electronics has change how I think about the band.

Jim McHugh of Sunwatchers told me that even though they are not playing punk music, the kind of aesthetics and the method is similar. Your new album From Untruth has the same kind of energy and emotionality. Do you believe that music shouldn’t be abstract and should react to what’s happening?

I basically felt that even on a personal level, for myself and my own sanity, I needed to express some things very directly. I love abstract and instrumental music and improvising without lyrics, but there’s something about the moment and what is happening that made me want to put out some kind of a reaction.

The tradition of protest in free jazz is very long. Coming out from the civil right movement and especially in that period of disillusion in the 70s – there are so many records you can look at that cross between the ideas of spiritual jazz, free and all these different musicians. Because I can look back at this history especially in African American tradition of protest in improvised music, there’s a lot of models and inspirations for these kind of ideas. And kind of reactionary rock, punk music and things like this. This is a part of tradition. I know that music matters and what we say on stage matters. It may not change the whole world in a direct way, but I know it provides a sense of relief for the audience.

But also for you.

Yes! When I scream these words on stage and hopefully it will get people thinking in a more conscious way about certain things. I talk about colonialism and that we are still dealing with these systems that colonialisms and racism have created. You know, it’s not a party music for sure (laughs) but it can still be deeply fun and exciting to watch but also should make you feel something. Look, every time you read one of the shooting stories you start to feel “it’s just terrible”. What can we do? I want to kind of jar people awake.

From Untruth is out now via Northern Spy Records.