ListN Up: Juhi Bansal (June 26, 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 offers an intimate sonic portrait of contemporary artists by showcasing the diverse and stylistically varied music that influences their creative practice. This series is sponsored by American Composers Forum/innova Recordings with new releases every Friday on I CARE IF YOU LISTEN.

Described as “radiant and transcendent”, award-winning composer Juhi Bansal has received commissions from groups including the LA Philharmonic Association, LA Opera, the NY Virtuoso Singers, Oakland East Bay Symphony and many more. Her music features themes celebrating musical and cultural diversity, nature and the environment, and strong female role models. Her work is frequently performed internationally and is available on the Naxos, Albany and Roven Records Labels.

Hi, everyone! Thank you so much for swinging by to check out my playlist. We are still in partial lockdown in Los Angeles for COVID as I’m recording this, and one of the things that’s been very much in my mind through this chaos that has been 2020 is thinking about the role of music to inspire us, to inform us, to bring people together even when we’re locked down in our own individual places and our own homes. As an Indian composer who writes Western classical music, two of the themes that have always been incredibly important to me are embracing different cultures and learning from different cultures, and also listening to women’s voices. This playlist that I’ve put together is a short selection of pieces that bring these elements together. This is music from different styles, different cultures, different countries, all linked by being either written by notable women, performed by notable women, or about notable women, and in some cases, each piece might be a combination of all three. Since I grew up listening to mostly Indian music, you’ll find a lot of that in here, but I’ve also pulled in examples of composers and artists from elsewhere that I love, as well. I had to stop at nine pieces, but I have to tell you, this is a playlist that could have just gone on and on and on and on. In any case, I hope that you enjoy both the music and some of the stories about the women behind the music. Thank you so much for listening.

Raga Shuddh Sarang: Alap by Aruna Narayan Kalle

Aruna Narayan Kalle is the daughter of sarangi player Pandit Ram Narayan, renowned for his mastery of the instrument as well as popularizing it as a solo instrument in Hindustani music. In becoming the first female professional sarangi player, Narayan Kalle follows her father’s lineage, breaking with traditions that limited the instrument to supporting roles and its performers to men. The sarangi might just be my favorite instrument to listen to–there is something about that tone, color, and the raw expressiveness of her melodies that I find tremendously powerful.

Thumbprint by Kamala Sankaram and Susan Yankowitz

Thumbprint is an opera written by Indian-American composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Susan Yankowitz about Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani women who was gang-raped by order of a tribal council as punishment for her brother’s relationship with a women from another clan. Mukhtar spoke out, fighting for justice, and went on to use the money she received from the courts and donations to set up a girls’ school and refuge. The opera, written by Sankaram and featuring her in the lead role, leans on the composer’s eclectic style, dramatic vocal expression and creative use of timbres to tell the story. I love her use of a body percussion chorus to humanize the story at this moment.

Ham Bheekhak Bhaekhaaree Thaerae Thoo Nij Path Hai by Nina Kaur Virdee

I have to admit that I can’t find out much about Virdee. Other than a few recordings and one interview online, there seems to be very little information available about her. Nonetheless, her voice speaks volumes. I was in awe of her expressiveness, fluidity and range from the first recording I heard, and couldn’t NOT include her in this list. In the style of Kirana Gharana, she sings her own compositions on Sikh spiritual poetry. 

p r i s m by Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins, performed by Rebecca Jo Loeb and Anna Schubert

Pulitzer prize-winner p r i s m tackles an overlapping theme to Thumbprint, in a drastically different language and style. Reid and Perkins’ powerhouse opera tackles the aftermath and psychological effects of sexual assault. Juxtaposing sublime vocal and choral writing with club music and techno, Reid’s bold musical choices create an engaging, enthralling, wonderfully surprising dramatic work. 

J’en ai marre by Chiekha Rimitti

Known as the “mother of rai,” a style of Algerian music that has its origins in Bedouin folk music and that has been called the music of dissent, Chiekha Rimitti was one of the pioneers of the style. Singing of love, sex, alcohol, oppression and war and often facing censorship from the authorities, she defiantly wrote about what she thought was important. In her words: “I sang the life I had seen, my own history.” The title of this song, “J’en ai marre,” translates to “I’m fed up.”

Enchantress of Numbers by Juhi Bansal and Neil Aitken, performed by Alina Roitstein

My opera Enchantress of Numbers is about a woman that was troubled and troublesome, brilliant and far-sighted, and who struggled in every way against what society told her she was allowed to be. Ada Lovelace was a mathematician working in England in the 1830s and the daughter of poet Lord Byron, caught between her father’s hedonistic creativity and her mother’s desire to make her daughter as unlike him as possible. Her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine not only gave us the first algorithm, she far superseded the vision of the men around her in imagining how a computing machine might transform the world.

Chad Chad Jaana by Bhanwari Devi

In Rajasthani Bhopa-Bhopi folk tradition, husband and wife duos perform epic songs together that continue over five full nights, dusk till dawn. When Bhanwari Devi’s husband passed away, she continued singing these same songs alone, something unheard of in this style and tradition. The words tell stories of a folk deity called Pabuji, the music is often accompanied by illustration on painted scrolls depicting the events described.

Leino Songs by Kaija Saariaho, performed by Anu Komsi

While I am a great admirer of just about anything by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, her setting of four poems by Eino Leino for soprano and orchestra has quickly become one of my favorite works. Her dramatic orchestration and lyrical vocal writing combine in wonderfully evocative ways, creating a portentous atmosphere for Leino’s words to shine. 

A Dream by Rebecca Clarke, performed by Hélène Lindqvist and Philipp Vogler

Rebecca Clarke was one of few women in the first half of the 20th century to make her living in classical music as a performer, but more radically, she was a phenomenally talented composer, as well. She was the first female composition student at the Royal College of music in 1907, one of the first female members of a professional ensemble, and often had her music premiered under a male pseudonym. To this date many of her works remain unpublished. While performed occasionally, her beautiful songs and lush chamber music deserve much broader exposure.