‘Indian Music Now:’ navigating dual identities

Third Angle New Music presents dance-enhanced music by contemporary Indian-American composers

When Sarah Tiedemann was growing up in Hillsboro in the 1980s, the city looked quite different than it does now. Its residents were mostly white, its identity mostly derived from its agricultural heritage. Now, Hillsboro is Oregon’s fourth largest city, many of its residents work in tech-related fields, and many are people of color from India and nearby nations.

“I’ve seen Washington County … evolve into a more diverse and inclusive area,” Tiedemann, artistic director of Third Angle New Music, wrote on the ensemble’s blog. So when she was planning the ensemble’s 2018-19 season, which involved “giving voice to different parts of Portland, to people who might not have been heard” in contemporary classical music, Tiedemann included a concert that reflects those evolving identities in music.

Third Angle commissioned new music from composer Nina Shekhar.

Many immigrants and their families feel tugged between where they came from and where they are, between tradition and reinvention or innovation. For their next concert, Indian Music Now, Tiedemann and other Third Angle musicians will play music by four American composers of Indian heritage, all inspired by notions of dual identities, and including original Indian-inspired dance choreographed by Portland’s Creative Laureate, Subashini Ganesan.

Worldwide, people of Indian descent number several times the U.S. population, and accordingly, the seven compositions traverse a wide expressive range. “I felt that it was important for the composers we programmed on this concert to be so diverse and varied in the music they’re creating,” Tiedemann told ArtsWatch. “Often we pigeonhole people whose cultures are less familiar to us. To be truly inclusive, we have to communicate a broader view of what a culture is. I wanted to show the diversity of how people with similar cultural backgrounds take off in different directions. Contemporary Western composers don’t fit into one niche, nor do Indian-American composers.”

Except for a pre-show sarangi and tamboura performance as the audience enters and a brief tabla appearance, instead of sitar, sarod, or other traditional Indian instruments, the seven compositions will be played on Western classical (flute, clarinet, piano) and electronic instruments. Like its earlier “Japanese Music Now” performances, the music will be recorded for future release on Third Angle’s record label. The ensemble also earlier staged a similar program featuring contemporary Chinese music.

Third Angle musicians performing in Indian Music Now, from left: pianist Susan Smith, electronicist Branic Howard, flutist Sarah Tiedemann, clarinetist Louis DeMartino.

Los Angeles composer Reena Esmail’s Jhula Jhule blends a folk tune sung to her by her grandmother with contemporary Western elements. (Imani Winds performed another Esmail composition at Chamber Music Northwest last year.) Wisconsin’s Asha Srinivasan based Bapu on a pair of iconic Indian songs. Shirish Korde’s Anusvara “reflects that meditative spirit a lot of people imagine when they think of Indian music,” Tiedemann said. Third Angle commissioned young Michigan composer Nina Shekhar to create a new work, Honk If You Love Me, based on urban Indian traffic sounds.

“The music reflects their experience growing up between two cultures,” Indian and American, Tiedemann explained, “and how the traditions of (North Indian) Hindustani in particular blend with Western music for all these composers. It’s also a juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary music and how each of those pairs of things rub up against each other. That’s reflected in the music itself and some of the choreography.”

Subashini Ganesan will perform her original choreography in ‘Indian Music Now.’

That choreography was created and will be performed by Ganesan, who studied classical Indian dance in Singapore. It’s an opportunity for her to continue to stretch beyond the traditional South Indian forms she teaches and her recent exploration of more abstract sounds, while still using “foundational technical moves based in Bharatanatyam,” she said. Often in traditional Indian dance performances, the music serves the dance, but “with this collaboration, I’m very cognizant of serving the composer’s vision. Being able to do a project like this where I really get to immerse myself into abstraction — that’s been super fun for me.”

Ganesan noted that Indian music and dance are evolving rapidly. “There’s a lot of discussion happening about what does it mean to be stretching Indian classical music and dance,” she told ArtsWatch. “How does experimentation sit with these traditional forms, and how does that bridge happen? More than just bridging audiences, how do we help each other appreciate this sort of in-between art being created? The bridges are slowly being created, and as always, the key is having the right ambassadors.”

She and Tiedemann hope this performance will help point the way forward for the next generation of Oregon creative artists who grapple with issues of dual identity and reconciling traditional and contemporary influences.

“With Indian Music Now I wanted not only to celebrate the increasing population of immigrants from South Asia, but also to celebrate the young people growing up within both cultures and to create a performance in which they can experience art created by people with experiences similar to their own,” Tiedemann wrote. “My dream is that a young person (or several) sitting in the audience will become inspired to try their own hand at composition.”

Third Angle New Music performs Indian Music Now at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, January 10-11 and 9 p.m. Friday, January 11, at New Expressive Works, 810 S.E. Belmont St. Portland; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19 at The Vault Theatre, 350 E. Main St., Hillsboro. Tickets online or 503-331-0301. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/Oregon Live. 

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