Roulette TV visits composer and our Van Lier Fellow Anjna Swaminathan in her home to discuss her latest project premiering Monday, November 16th. Rivers Above, Floods Below is an homage to the experience of immigrants, reflected in the meteorological phenomenon of “atmospheric rivers,” large bodies of water which collect in the atmosphere above the tropics and later rain down in a different place entirely. This work considers the possibility that much like these bodies of celestial water, our homes, too, are not stationary, but exist in the very possibility of our migration. Our global collective relies on a memory of homelands that have been colonized, spliced, and severed time and time again, but while we are so often nostalgic for a home that is broken, we more easily find community in new lands that don’t feel beholden to the same burdens of conflict and status quo. Much like the rivers brewing and creating movements above, Swaminathan considers the massive rivers of protestors who have flooded the streets against injustice in recent months. What if this, too, is a deluge of cosmic importance?
Anjna Swaminathan is a queer multidisciplinary artist, composer, violinist, vocalist, writer, theatre artist, and dramaturg. As an artist with a passion for sociopolitical work, community building, and critical consciousness, her artistic practice is an extension of her activist spirit. Informed by her rigorous training in the Carnatic and Hindustani music traditions of India, Anjna creates in New York’s vibrant creative music and improvisatory scene, in hybrid classical compositional work, and in her own multidisciplinary projects. She is a disciple of violin maestro Parur Sri M. S. Gopalakrishnan and Mysore Sri H.K. Narasimhamurthy and continues her training in Hindustani music with Samarth Nagarkar. Since 2018, Anjna has been under the compositional mentorship of Gabriela Lena Frank with whom she is exploring the creative possibilities of using Western Classical notation as a mode of communication for her deeply rooted Indian classical compositional and improvisational ideas. As an educator, Anjna has a strong commitment to mindfulness-based music-making, socially conscious and empathetic principles, and expression-oriented rigorous practice.
For her Commission at Roulette, Anjna Swaminathan presents WOVEN: Entangled Memorabilia—a multidisciplinary work that brings together original music, poetry, and improvisation to meditate on personal, cultural, and artistic rituals of nostalgia, loss, and mourning. The project was initially inspired by the works of Indian Malayali painter and artist Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906) and Tamil poet Subramania Bharati (1882–1921), both late 19th to early 20th century artists who were integral to shaping images of women as vessels for Indian national identity during the movement against the British Raj.
Tell us about yourself and what you do.
My name is Anjna Swaminathan and I am a violinist, composer, vocalist, theatre artist and educator. I was primarily trained in the Carnatic (South Indian) art music tradition, but my creative work has branched out to include Hindustani music, creative music, western classical music, new music, spoken word, and theatre. I’m committed to creating artistic and activist work that considers the multitude of histories, privileges, and marginalizations that each of us carries.
Describe the project you are developing for Roulette.
For my commission at Roulette, I’m very excited to be presenting the latest exploration of WOVEN, a philosophical, political and artistic project that has lived and matured with me for over eight years. This iteration is entitled WOVEN: Entangled Memorabilia features seven string instrumentalists including Stephan Crump (bass), Naseem Alatrash (cello), a string quartet/Greek chorus featuring Leerone Hakami (violin), Manami Mizumoto (violin), Lauren Siess (viola), and Thapelo Masita (cello). I’m excited to work with these wonderful musicians (and people!) to explore ideas of ritual, memory, loss, attachment, abandonment, and many other ideas of nostalgia and memorabilia that we carry within ourselves, our instruments and our interconnectivity as human beings. Something I am particularly excited about for this performance is that I have tapped into my diverse community of artists, thinkers, immigrants, and people who have graciously offered their personal vocal reflections on these subjects to help build the sonic landscape of the work.
What is influencing your work right now?
Personal and communal mental health. I’ve been increasingly recognizing that the issues that come up for me are not only connected to internal questions, traumas, and experiences but also to communal ones—and even ancestral ones. In January of 2018*, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder after a long battle with anxiety, depression, and other chronic manifestations of an unmanaged mental health issue. In naming and facing the patterns of fear, attachment, and misunderstanding that directed many of my decisions and impulses until then, I have gained a deeper empathy for the cultural nostalgia, collective feelings of abandonment, and communal anxieties that cripple much of society today—regardless of political and cultural allegiances. My diagnosis, as well as the conversations, realizations, and resolutions that I have experienced since then, have contributed to a greater sense of vulnerability in my music, and an attraction to inviting a larger community to be vulnerable with me in our shared art-making. I’m very grateful that the artists involved in the performance and production of WOVEN: Entangled Memorabilia are equally enthralled and nurtured by the leap into honesty, vulnerability, and sharing that this project invites them to take.
How did your interest in your work begin?
This project was initially a response to frustrations with the funeral rituals surrounding my mother’s death in 2010. As a rebellious 18-year old, I thought that researching the intentions behind the rituals might give me some direction in coping with her death—or at least give me some intellectual rationale for resisting the process of coping. Since then, it has transformed to consider rituals of memorializing in which we partake outside of a funeral space and more recently, it has been about memory and how it exists in the body, cultural, and mythical nostalgia and its personal and political implications, as well as the chronic resonances of ancestral trauma.
How long have you lived in New York City, and what brought you here?
I have lived in New York City for almost five years! I came here for music—mostly following my sister Rajna Swaminathan, a musician who had built a small community for herself here. I’d initially planned to move here to get away from the relative lack of musical community that I felt in Maryland, but after I attended the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in the summer of 2014 and got the opportunity to work with amazing musical elders—particularly women of color like Imani Uzuri and Jen Shyu—I began to see a potential for New York to be a space to free my artistic voice and lean into a community of people like me who not only survived, but thrived in sharing their full selves.
Anjna Swaminathan’s WOVEN: Entangled Memorabilia takes place on Sunday, April 28th 2019 at 8pm with performers: bassist Stephan Crump, cellists Naseem Alatrash and Aaron Stokes, violinists Leerone Hakami and Manami Mizumoto, and violist Lauren Siess.
*Correction: In the printed version of this article, Swaminathan’s diagnosis with BPD was reported as occurring in January of 2017; this version has been corrected to reflect the true year: 2018.