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Audeze speaks to composer and instrumentalist Rajna Swaminathan

Rajna Swaminathan is an explorer of resonance, memory, and collective movement in sound— her creative mediums for this practice have been mrudangam, piano, voice, and writing. She investigates strategies for moving beyond and transforming the many inherited borders and categories we carry within us. Her primary instrument is the mrudangam, but she also plays piano and sings as part of the extraordinary music she creates.
"The sound has a stunning depth and clarity, enriching the listening experience with a level of detail that allows for greater care and transparency in the mixing process."
-Rajna Swaminathan
Here's our talk with Rajna:

Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?

What resonates most for me at the moment is the latest suite of music that I wrote for my band RAJAS, titled Apertures. It was slated to premiere last year, but due to the pandemic, we were only able to rehearse and record the music last January.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

I’ve been an improviser throughout my life— someone who listens and responds in the moment, supporting those around me. In recent years, I’m coming to understand myself as a composer— to me that word means someone who curates an occasion for people to inhabit, get to know themselves and each other, and ultimately channel a force that’s larger than all of us.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I grew up in a musical family— my dad plays the mrudangam, too, my mom was a singer and dancer, and my sister Anjna is a violinist and composer. I studied mrudangam, voice, and, briefly, dance, which were all in the South Indian tradition, and simultaneously I took Western classical piano lessons. I ultimately chose to focus on the mrudangam, but I kept singing and composing music on the piano. In my youth, I was immersed in Karnatik (South Indian classical) music and Indian film music— particularly the music my parents listened to when they were in India during the late 50’s through the early 70’s. I also listened to a lot of alternative and experimental rock. Around 2011, when I began to collaborate and study with musicians in the jazz and creative music scenes in New York, I began immersing myself more in that sound world— I was interested in different approaches to improvisation. In recent years, I’ve been drawn toward music that defies genre and style altogether.

Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

Some of the folks I’ve collaborated and studied with over the years have been a huge influence on me. For instance, Vijay Iyer, who initially helped me find my way through the vast aesthetics of the creative music world, has also been my advisor for the last 6 years at a new PhD program at Harvard University called Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry. His music taught me deeply about the possibilities for bridging various South Indian musical ideas with African diasporic polyrhythmic structures. My longtime collaborators Anjna Swaminathan (my sister), María Grand, Miles Okazaki, Stephan Crump, and Amir ElSaffar are also important influences— they have all been part of my band RAJAS, and I’ve worked out major concepts and ideas with them. The biggest guiding force for me in recent years has been my partner, vocalist-composer Ganavya Doraiswamy. It’s because of her encouragement that I began singing and playing piano in performances— her compassionate and spiritually rooted approach to her practice has profoundly impacted my ethical orientation in music.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

I remember getting quite frustrated whenever I encountered Western notation, and the assumption that I could easily read it. Even though I had learned piano for many years, I never felt fluent in it, and it was also at odds with how I perceived rhythm and form from the South Indian musical perspective. My early scores for my band RAJAS were incredibly minimal, as I wanted to focus on improvisation as much as possible. It felt like a chore to translate my ideas into a system that I didn’t fully understand at the time. I still think it’s unfortunate that one cultural system has come to dominate our understanding of musicianship. However, since that time, I have started composing more, learning to work — and play—  with this notation system. My struggle with it was necessary, and it amounted to me establishing my own relationship with it. In retrospect, I wish I didn’t let the pressure to understand this system overwhelm me so much— I wish that I could go back and tell myself that I could approach it on my own terms.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I haven’t worked very deeply with headphones, though they have become more important as everything has gone virtual in the last year. I mainly use them to listen to mixes of things I’ve recorded, and to be able to listen to music in an immersive way.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

My main advice is to always try to stay honest with yourself and go deep into the paths that give you joy. It’s so easy to get caught up in a role or story, to absorb external ideas of expectation, success, and virtuosity. It’s something I’m still learning how to do with more clarity, and I have been graced with wise friends and mentors who help me orient and trust myself through those confusing moments. Whatever you have to offer to the world— if you do it with sincerity, compassion, and love— will resonate in a way that nourishes you and those around you.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them so far?

I’ve been using the Audeze LCD-1 headphones to listen to mixes of a duo album I recently recorded with guitarist Miles Okazaki. The sound has a stunning depth and clarity, enriching the listening experience with a level of detail that allows for greater care and transparency in the mixing process. I look forward to spending more time with these headphones while listening, for work and pleasure.