ListN Up: Shruthi Rajasekar (February 11, 2022)

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. 

Shruthi Rajasekar is an Indian-American composer and vocalist exploring identity, community, and joy. Described as “lushly beguiling music” by The Times, Rajasekar’s work draws from her unique dual background in the Carnatic (South Indian classical) and Western classical idioms. Her music is performed in venues across the USA, Europe, and Asia, including a recent premiere at the UN Climate Change Conference COP26.

Hello, my name is Shruthi Rajasekar. I’m a composer and vocalist, and I’m excited to be sharing this ListN Up playlist with you. Each piece features string instruments, including the South Asian world of strings — particularly focusing on two that have really influenced my musical language: the Saraswati veena of the Carnatic tradition (which my mother, Nirmala Rajasekar, is an exponent of) and the tambura, which establishes the drone of Indian music. It also features works by artists of other traditions, working with other combinations of strings instruments, who have greatly inspired me. Thank you for joining me on this journey of strings!

Thanam in Bahudari by Smt. Nirmala Rajasekar, Thanjavur Sri K. Murugaboopathi, Sri Sriram Iyer, and Sri Balaji Chandran

This improvised piece is led by my mother on the Saraswati veena with exciting reactive accompaniment from the percussionists. “Bahudari” is the name of the raga; “thanam,” the type of improvisation, is a speciality of the veena, owing to the instrument’s unique ability to punctuate rhythms with its tala strings. The ephemeral nature of this form of composition greatly inspires me: the artists create – and then move onto the next in a lifetime of improvs.

Akilandeshwari by Sri Muttuswami Dikshidar, performed by Smt. Nirmala Rajasekar, Sri Raghavendra Rao, Thanjavur Sri K. Murugaboopathi, and Sri V. Suresh

Sri Mutthuswami Dikshidar (1775-1835) was known as the “vainika-gayaka” (veena playing/singing) composer, and it’s special to experience his repertoire interpreted on his instrument. The beginning alapana improvisation features an interplay of different string timbres – tambura (drone), veena, and Carnatic violin.

Dying Is A Wild Night by Emma O’Halloran, performed by Argus Quartet

I love Emma O’Halloran’s music, particularly her pacing and her emotional expressiveness – and this fantastic string quartet employs both in spades.

Respiri by Juri Seo, performed by Argus Quartet

Written in honor of Jonathan Harvey, Respiri is a stunning expression of catharsis. Every time I hear the final 1.5 minutes of the piece, my heart aches in the best possible way.

So Ja Re, performed by Ustad Sultan Khan and Ustad Zakir Hussain

In this gorgeous rendition of a Rajasthani lori (lullaby), legendary sarangi performer Ustad Sultan Khan sings and plays the string instrument alongside stirring accompaniment from tabla virtuoso Ustad Zakir Hussain. The soothing text: “Sleep, while I sing you a lullaby.”

Ted’s Dream by Michelle Kinney and Peter Linman, performed by Maithree

Ted’s Dream is joyous and transportive. In Maithree’s performance, the acrobatic cello plays alongside veena, clarinet, daf, and mridangam.

Daedalus by Errollyn Wallen, performed by Errollyn Wallen and the Brodsky Quartet

In the early days of the pandemic, I listened to this song on repeat, letting Errollyn Wallen’s captivating voice reassure me that everything would be alright: “Yes, you can find him.”

Spiraling Scrolls by Alex Ho, performed by Reylon Yount, Scott Lygate, and Paul Silverthorne

This haunting piece about distance and displacement features the co-directors of Tangram (Alex Ho, composer, and Reylon Yount, yangqin player) and performers from the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). The British-Chinese arts collective Tangram explores transcultural identity, and this piece, which brings together Chinese and Western instruments, is emblematic of the depth of their work.

Marejada by Angélica Negrón, performed by Kronos Quartet

Angélica Negrón’s beautiful string quartet rests on a bed of sound featuring field recordings made in Puerto Rico. With its flexibility and grace, the score is a blueprint for how to meaningfully make physically-distanced music.

String Petals by Shruthi Rajasekar and Reylon Yount/Mantawoman

I have been collaborating with artist Reylon Yount/Mantawoman in a shared exploration of Asian-Americaness. At our recent residency at Britten Pears Arts, we opened our live set with this entirely-improvised piece of yangqin, vocals, and piano that weaves together the traditions we come from and our evolving artistic identities.


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