ALBUM REVIEW: Sophia Subbayya Vastek’s Histories


by Maggie Molloy

In Indian classical music, a raga is like a melodic mode or scale—but with more depth than the scales of Western music. Far from just a simple collection of notes, a raga is a musical framework which holds emotional significance and symbolic associations with season, time, and mood.

Ragas are just one of the overarching musical ideas at work in pianist Sophia Subbayya Vastek’s new album, Histories. Using her Indian heritage as a jumping off point, the album explores the intersections between her own cultural backgrounds, using a traditionally Western instrument to meditate on scales, modes, harmonies, intervals, and ideas inspired by East and South Asian musical traditions.

Composer Michael Harrison’s two contributions to the album most closely embody this blend of European and Indian musical styles. Both are scored for tanpura (a long-necked plucked lute), tabla (small hand drums), and piano in just intonation (as opposed to equal temperament)—and both are performed by the composer (tanpura), Nitin Mitta (tabla), and Vastek (piano).

The first, “Jaunpuri,” is based on a traditional Indian raga, but shaped with Western compositional notation, structures, and harmony. An embellished piano melody twirls and spins through a buzzing tabla and tanpura trance, building in intensity until the circling rhythmic cycles spin out into a breathtaking piano rhapsody. Vastek’s fingers fly through the rapturous piano solo with passion and profound tenderness, almost as though the melodies were born in her bones.

Harrison’s other work, “Hijaz Prelude,” is more somber in tone, showcasing Vastek’s graceful touch and emotive phrasing. Based on the modal harmonies of a raga most often associated with morning, the introspective prelude combines a Western, arpeggiated keyboard figure with the patient, steady pulse of the tabla and the textured vibrations of the tanpura, rich with reverberating overtones.

If Harrison’s compositions speak to the music of Vastek’s Indian heritage, then Donnacha Dennehy’s contribution represents Vastek’s Western background. Dennehy’s 15-minute “Stainless Staining” for piano and soundtrack is based on a fundamental low G# (lower than the lowest note on a piano). The soundtrack is comprised of audio samples from pianos which have been retuned to showcase a massive harmonic spectrum of 100 overtones based on that one single pitch. Performed on an equal temperament piano, the resulting concoction immerses the listener in a thick cloud of harmony—but with a pulsating rhythm that swirls the overtone series into a dizzying trance.

Scattered between the works of Harrison and Dennehy is the music of John Cage, a composer whose work was famously influenced by East and South Asian cultures (and in particular by his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism). Vastek moves to a prepared piano for her performances of Cage’s musing and meditative “She is Asleep” (a wordless duet with soprano Megan Schubert), and captures the percussive heartbeat of Cage’s pulsating prepared piano solo “A Room” with equal warmth.

Interspersed throughout the album are three separate performances of Cage’s ethereal “Dream” (for unprepared piano), each played in a different octave across the keyboard. Vastek’s fingers float freely from one translucent note to the next, the pedal blurring all of it into a beautiful and hazy dreamscape. The album closes with the highest-pitched rendition, drifting softly upward until the music evaporates into silence.

It’s a far cry from the impassioned piano rhapsody that started off the album, yet Vastek is equally at home in both worlds. In just under an hour, she travels from Indian ragas on a just-intoned piano to an immersive exploration of the overtone series, and all the way through to Cage’s prepared piano and pedal-laced dreamscapes.

The result is both an homage to Vastek’s own individual histories but also a beautiful mosaic of the larger cultural intersections of our world—and how we weave those histories together through music.

Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part VII

by Maggie MolloyCage_Diary

This post is part of a series on John Cages “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse). For earlier installments of the series, please visit: Introduction, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and Part VI.

If I had to come up with a visual for how I imagine John Cage writing his “Diary,” it would probably be Cage standing over a kitchen counter and placing all of his thoughts, memories, musings, and musical philosophies in a high-speed blender—probably along with some mushrooms from his latest mycology expedition.

Crown Point Press

Photo courtesy of Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press.

Cage did, in fact, love to cook—and he even shared some of his favorite mushroom recipes in the October 1965 issue of Vogue magazine. (I’m not joking—click here for some Morels à la John Cage.)

Much like his cooking, Cage’s diary is a heterogeneous mixture of many different things. And although Cage used chance operations to determine the word count, colors, typefaces, letters per line, and patterns of indentation, the actual content of the diary is actually surprisingly organic.

“Imitation of nature in her manner of operation, traditionally the artist’s function, is now what everyone has to do,” Cage says in his typical deadpan delivery. “Complicate your garden so it’s surprising like uncultivated land.”

Cage’s chance operations allowed him to imitate nature in an unexpected way—it allowed him to make music and art that existed outside of the mind’s operations. In nature, any number of things may happen or not happen; in the grand scheme of things, we as humans actually have very little control over its course of events. Nature operates in meaningless ways and likewise, Cage made music out of meaningless chance operations.

Rather than trying to control nature (or in this case, rather than trying to control the music), Cage opened himself up to the possibilities and found beauty in the surprises—simple pleasures in the uncultivated land.

“National Wildlife Refuges: museumization of wilderness,” Cage says. “Controlled folly.”

Cage’s interest in nature extended into his writing and his visual art as well—particularly in the etchings and fire prints he created at Crown Point Press during the last 15 years of his life.

ENINKA30

John Cage | EninKa No. 30, 1986. | Number 30 from a series of 50 smoked paper monotypes with branding on gampi paper chine-collé | Image Size: 24½x18½” | Publisher: Crown Point Press Printer: Marcia Bartholme

“It seemed to me that to be able to engrave required a certain calmness,” Cage said during one of his first visits to the studio. “And it’s that calmness that I’ve been, one way or another, approaching in my music, my writing, and so forth.”

Cage also sought calmness and oneness with nature through his study of Zen Buddhism with Suzuki Daisetz.

“One has not understood Zen until one has forgotten it,” Cage quotes solemnly.

Suzuki and Cage in 1962

John Cage with D.T. Suzuki in 1962.

Cage was also inspired by a number of other influential 20th century thinkers. In fact, while reading his diary it becomes quite clear what other writers Cage was reading at the time he wrote each of the eight parts. In Part VII, he favors the ever-Marxist military leader Mao Tse-tung, the maverick social critic Ivan Illich, and, as always, the famous futurist and philosopher Buckminster Fuller (who Cage affectionately refers to as “Bucky”).

“Just as, in Buddhism, denial of cause and effect arose from the realization that everything’s caused by everything else, so Illich’s society without school isn’t different from Fuller’s society with nothing but school,” Cage says distantly. “Illich and Fuller: All there is to do is live and learn.”

Like most great visionaries of this day and age, Cage had a less-than-traditional academic path. He took his education into his own hands, and he never stopped learning.

“Left college end of sophomore year,” he says monotonously into my right ear. “Refused honorary degrees. Reinforcement, positive or negative, is besides the point.”

The point is to learn, and to stretch oneself intellectually, artistically, and creatively. For Cage, institutionalized learning simply didn’t facilitate that sort of self-exploration.

“It would be better to have no school at all than the schools we now have,” he says with surprising conviction. “Encouraged, instead of frightened, children could learn several languages before reaching age of four, at that age engaging in the invention of their own languages. Play’d be play instead of being, as now, release of repressed anger.”

After all, somewhere in this creativity—somewhere in these secret languages—lies the key to improving the world.

“If we could change our language, that’s to say the way we think,” Cage whispers into my left ear, “We’d probably be able to swing the revolution.”

If we could just change the way we think, we could free ourselves from the confines and complications of a broken and weary world.

“A newspaperman wrote asking me to send’im my philosophy in a nutshell,” Cage says dryly. “Get out of whatever cage you happen to be in.”

Go to the next installment: Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part VIII