ListN Up: Rajna Swaminathan (October 15, 2021)

ListN Up is a weekly series of artist-curated playlists that offer an intimate sonic portrait of contemporary artists by showcasing the diverse and stylistically varied music that influences their creative practice. 

Rajna Swaminathan is an improviser, composer, and scholar whose creative research is driven by a search for resonance and fluidity among aesthetic worlds. She moves between mrudangam, voice, and piano, and leads the ensemble RAJAS, whose sound has been described by the New York Times as “unlike any other on the scene.” Rajna holds a PhD in Music (Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry) from Harvard University and is currently an Assistant Professor at UC Irvine.

Over the course of the pandemic, we all entered different realms of time and connectedness. I found that, in the absence of live music, I entered these spaces of intense, repeated listening. Certain songs and recordings had a particularly soothing effect, pulling me into a spiral of resonance. The more I grew familiar with their deeper contours, the more it felt like I could live inside them, like they became a layer of my skin. This playlist is an ode to music that invites immersive and transformative listening, letting us find and lose ourselves within.

Dhuha by Amir ElSaffar and Rivers of Sound

Amir’s music has taught me much about the beauty in intentional chaos, about the ecstasy of collision and collective metamorphosis. This music is like a multifaceted prism that you can wander through infinitely, as an improviser and as a listener.

Yaro Kisi Qatil Se by Mehdi Hassan

This is just one track from an album that was possibly my most repeated listening this year, accompanying my drives through the incredible Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. Transported by Mehdi Hassan’s tender, undulating voice, I sang along, trying to internalize every detail.

Destination Freedom (Excerpt) by Yvette Janine Jackson

Earlier this year, I had the chance to be a part of Yvette’s Radio Opera Workshop, and it was incredible to get to know her process of conjuring narratives and blurred temporalities through soundscape. This music invites new kinds of listening and emplacement.

Let’s Go Out and Play by Ganavya and friends

I’m deeply grateful that this was my first live performance after the onset of the pandemic. Ganavya’s inclusive and heart-oriented mode of composing, which brought this convergence of beloved friends to play together, moved me in unfathomable ways. In this collection of prayers and poems, she interweaves worlds into the fabric of a beautiful, lilting melody.

Partita No. 2 in D minor by J.S. Bach, performed by Jennifer Koh

In the midst of a study while writing a short solo piece for Jennifer Koh, I found myself intensely drawn toward certain moments in the Partita. I didn’t expect to connect to Bach quite in this way, and was pleasantly surprised to hear how these textures subtly found their way into my musical voice.

Ye Duniya Agar Mil by S.D. Burman, performed by Mohammed Rafi

I first heard this song a couple of years ago during a trip to Joshua Tree National Park with my father, who shares (and is the reason for) my love of old Indian film songs. Like the curious shape of the Joshua tree, there was something mysterious in this song that drew me into a spiral, and I insisted on playing it on repeat as we drove through the park.

Enjoy Enjaami by Dhee ft. Arivu

Here’s some more road trip music, effervescent with energy. Encountering this song (and the stunning video) had me transfixed with joy and delight, as it seemed to paint new fields of relation and possibility through its play with language and rhythm.

Borne by Rajna Swaminathan, performed by Del Sol Quartet

I’m including just one piece of my own here because of Del Sol’s dazzling rendition of it. This music was created through repeated listening to a piano improvisation I recorded. Hearing the quartet’s sound through the gorgeous resonance of San Francisco’s Old First Presbyterian Church, I feel inundated in the nuances and undercurrents.

formwelas 1-3 by Esperanza Spalding

This music feels otherworldly and yet deeply of this world and its uncanny potentialities. Embracing the role of music in guiding the spirit, each formwela is offered as a balm with a clear intention for the process of immersion.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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