ListN Up: Sophia Subbayya Vastek (April 24, 2020)

ListN Up is a series of weekly artist-curated playlists. Born from a desire to keep artists sharing and connected during times of isolation, ListN Up is sponsored by American Composers Forum/innova Recordings, with new releases every Friday on I CARE IF YOU LISTEN.

Pianist Sophia Subbayya Vastek, described as playing with “passion and profound tenderness” (Second Inversion) and with “serene strokes and lyrical beauty” (Brooklyn Rail), maintains a multifaceted life as a performer, educator, local organizer, and event producer and curator. In addition to her work as a performer, she is a co-founder of Organ Colossal, a not-for-profit organization based out of her hometown of Troy, NY that brings musicians of different backgrounds together into collaborative spaces. She is also co-founder and curator of the Lift Series, an experiential concert series taking place at the historic Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Her first full-length album Histories was released on innova Recordings, produced by multiple Grammy-winning engineer Adam Abeshouse.

I live in Troy, New York, a beautiful city that sits along the Hudson River, just north of Albany. It has been one of my greatest privileges to get to know this place, its people, its businesses, and its dreams. And to call it home. My heart bursts with pride for this city, and my heart has broken apart to see its people hurting. I know that I am extraordinarily lucky to have this kind of community to lean on at a time like this, and I don’t take that for granted. Amidst so much uncertainty right now, the one thing I know for sure is that I have to do what I can in caring for my neighbors and caring for the fragile local ecosystems of which I’m a part. I live and work in musical worlds because I’ve found that music has a singular way of bringing people together into a shared experience, which forges stronger communities. In celebration of my local community, and neighbors everywhere, I’m sharing a playlist that showcases some of the astonishing talent that we have here in the New York Capital Region. While we can’t experience this music together in a physical sense, we can communally listen across time and space and remember that we are all so deeply interconnected.

Ordinary Talk by Half Waif

Sitting in the dark
Dreaming up a song
Crying in my coffee
Doing it all wrong
Everybody knows it’s ordinary talk
Walking to the lake
Getting in my car
Folding up the laundry
Taking it too hard
Everybody knows it’s how we fall apart

Every time I listen to this song, I am moved to tears. This video, released just a few months ago, was shot in Troy, directed by Troy-based filmmaker Kenna Hynes, and stars a roomful of incredible Troy-based artists holding each other and dancing together…. was this a lifetime ago? I’ve cried in my coffee more than a few times since we’ve started isolating. There is a grief in this moment that is hard to understand and hard to reconcile. But it does seem to make itself known in the ordinary things: folding laundry, sitting in the dark. Let us all recognize the sheer magnitude of this existential moment we find ourselves in. You can buy the full album here.

 Take That by The Sea The Sea

Give me a hammer
a chisel and some time
the will to crack it open
one more broken paradigm

So much ado of violence
in the silence something else

I just adore this wife/husband indie-folk duo and the way their voices lovingly support each other. This song has been filling me with a sense of both imaginary hope and concrete purpose. I’ve been reflecting on these lyrics: violence takes center stage, but what awaits us in the silence? A better future, I hope. You can buy the full album here.

Canticle (live) by Sam Torres

Time is behaving strangely these days.  I’ve been trying to lean into this strangeness.  Canticle is an ongoing project from saxophonist and electronic musician Sam Torres.  I’ve heard him perform versions of this music a dozen times over the years, and it always takes me to a place where time bends and curves and slows.  I’ve come to see this particular iteration of Canticle as a beautiful analogy for the meditation process.  We begin with chatter – the chatter of our minds. As the chatter fades away and the music takes over, we slowly realize that the chatter never truly went away: it has been seamlessly enveloped into a greater whole. You can buy the track here.

Fire Under Water by Girl Blue

Fire under water
I go down, down, down, down, down
But I come up burning every time

Girl Blue has one of those powerful voices that makes you sit upright, especially when heard live. If you have the chance to hear her perform, do it. This song is a reminder that we all burn brightly, even when we’re down. We have so much strength in us; the will to rise will come. Let your body move to this one.

You can buy Girl Blue’s music here, or you can support her work on Patreon.

Chase the Sun by the Early Mays

See the river’s down, birds fly
from this ground that we’ve run dry
I combed the land, I shaped the dirt,
I built my house on broken earth.

 All these chimes, all these chimes,
All these chimes call me to rise.

Emily Pinkerton, one half of the folk/traditional ensemble the Early Mays, has been a powerful inspiration to me and an important part of my community upstate. I adore Emily’s voice, which carries this title track from the Early Mays’ latest album. The group is deeply studied in American traditional music, and while this album is a mixture of original and traditional material, there’s a clear and beautiful reverence for the Appalachian musical sources they’re drawing from. “Chase the Sun” is a haunting, original tune by Emily, with lyrics that call us to examine the house we’ve built on broken earth, and rise. Buy the album here.

We Are Rising by Taína Asili

Together we can raise the vibration
Through art action and imagination
Respect, love and communication
And love for our future generation
Intersectional, inclusive we come
Collective power is how this is won
We keep rising like the fire of the sun
will rise like the sun
will rise like the sun
One for a billion a billion for one

This anthem by social justice artist Taína Asili was produced in collaboration with One Billion Rising, a campaign and mass action to end violence against women around the world. I had the immense privilege of presenting Taína a few months ago on a series I curate at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall; Taina’s powerful vibrations resonated throughout us all that evening and I’ll never forget it. This song is a call to solidarity and communal power. Listen to it, rise, and dance your heart out. Learn more about One Billion Rising and find out how you can be involved, and you can buy Taína’s music here.

in manus tuas by Caroline Shaw, performed by Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti

As Anne says in her liner notes for this piece, “Caroline’s music is frequently about stretching out the experience of one moment, and often about experiencing music itself….” Much like the stretching of time that occurs in Sam Torres’ “Canticle,” I experience this piece, and Anne’s beautiful performance of it, like a single breath.  As we peel back the layers of this single moment, there is infinitely more to discover. You can buy the album here.

Red Rocking Chair (from Rounder Songs) by  Emily Pinkerton and Patrick Burke with NOW Ensemble

This is another project from Emily Pinkerton (of the Early Mays, above), in collaboration with her husband, composer Patrick Burke, and NOW Ensemble.  You’ll recognize Emily’s otherworldly voice right away. I love this album for how it seamlessly blends the sounds of North American old time music and classical chamber music while still staying true to both sources.  It feels effortless, in no small part because of Patrick’s beautiful and skillful arranging and composing. The album is stunning. You can buy the album here.

Won’t Feel It by Julia Alsarraf

Pull me out of the flames; I need to lay low
Someday, maybe I won’t feel it burning in my bones
Pull me out of the wreckage; let me go now

Julia’s got one of those great, deep voices that conveys an old soul within. To feel great loss means to have loved greatly, which brings to mind a lyric from another of her songs: “That’s how we know our heart’s still alive.” This song reminds me to hold and touch my loved ones whenever I can, and to simply let go of those who don’t lift me up. Life is too short and too uncertain to do otherwise. This track can be found on Julia’s upcoming EP, which you can preorder here.

Prelude in D-flat Major by Lili Boulanger performed by Sophia Subbayya Vastek

I’m ending this playlist with an enigmatic little piece by Lili Boulanger, a composer that I’ve held close to my heart for over a decade now. Composed when she was 17, the work was signed and dated but likely never finished because of its lack of markings. This piece gives me so much to chew on. Every time I perform it, I find something new. Right before mandated business closures, I was given a last-minute opportunity to record in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, which is an acoustical wonder and a historic gem. The world was rapidly changing around us, though we didn’t know the full extent then. This tiny, questioning work, recorded in that precarious moment at the Troy Music Hall, ends almost as soon as it begins. It provides no answers. Rather, it reflects and refracts our hopes, fears, uncertainties, and imaginings. You can buy the full album here.

Want more from Sophia Subbayya Vastek?

Learn more about her first full-length album Histories via innova Recordings.

Read Bruce Russell’s 5 Questions to Sophia Subbayya Vastek on I CARE IF YOU LISTEN.