Composer Ravi Kittappa talks about MMW’s Decantations

New this year for Make Music Winter is composer Ravi Kittappa‘s piece Decantations.  Kittappa wrote this piece as part of a call for scores for Make Music New York several years ago, and while the piece has not been performed in NYC, it has been successfully produced three times around the Midwest.  On December 21st, it will at last make its New York premiere.  MMNY’s Dave Ruder sat down last week to talk with Kittappa and pianist Karl Larson, who is helping organize this performance, about sruti boxes (instruments from India that create drones), Astoria, and the evolution of this piece:

Dave Ruder:  Could you start by saying a little bit about Decantations and how it came about with that call for scores for the first Make Music Winter?

Ravi Kittappa:  Well so this piece is Decantations III, the other two pieces, I and II. The first one I did as a piece at Bang on a Can Summer Institute Festival and Karl played on that piece, actually. The inspiration for the idea of the Decantations is the instrument, the sruti box. Basically my experience was in India, seeing this instrument that I find very beautiful – simple drones from these reeds – used in a bunch of different contexts. It can be used as kind of a substitute for a tambura with improvising musicians, but it’s also used in contexts that are more religious or spiritual. And Decantations means, it’s a reference to chanting. A lot of places where I would see this instrument used was in the context of chanting. And specifically in India I would see children, for example, chanting 128 names for a Hindu God, in a language they don’t understand, without being able to read, and this is really just indoctrination. And so I wanted to free this instrument from that kind of context. For me I think these drones, they open your ears up, you know, you listen to all the sounds around. And I think in Decantations III particularly, it really opens your ears up because you’re listening to everything around and the way that the sounds meld, and you really get into this kind of meditative state which is kind of ironic with the anti-chant kind of idea, but –

DR:  It’s non-denomenational?

RK:  Yeah yeah exactly!

Karl Larson:  Yeah secular meditation.

RK:  Secular meditation, indeed. So there’s a certain brainwashing effect of chanting, sort of indoctrinating people. And I see it in the United States where people are chanting Sanskrit, and have no idea what they’re saying. And so I want people to be able to enter into that drone and explore those sounds, and the sound-world that it’s part of, which happens in Carnatic music for example where you’re just improvising over the background. I want to go into that background.

DR:  Is that also true for Decantations I and II? Were they coming out of a similar context, just with different instrumentation or a different outlet?

RK:  Yeah, Decantations I was written for the Bang on a Can All Star combination. It was an exploration of those drone sounds, and kind of moving around those sounds. And just the context of having these musicians playing sruti box. That sort of flips things around, too – you know, especially these highly trained musicians playing something very simple. Decantations II happened because the singer Amanda DeBoer Bartlett was there, she said, “oh the piece is about chanting, well, shouldn’t you have a vocal version?” And I said, it’s kind of this anti-chanting thing, kind of, but then that made a lot of sense and I ended up writing a piece, Decantations II, for Quince, her ensemble, and they recorded it, it’s on their album.

But Decantations I was actually the first time I collaborated with Karl, He has been a long-time collaborator since then. It was through Karl’s encouragement that this piece, Decantations III, was premiered in Madison, WI, and he’s facilitated every performance of the piece – Madison, and Bowling Green, OH for the Bowling Green New Music Festival, and he was part of performance at Minot Modern in North Dakota. Karl’s my Collaborator in Permutations as well, and I’ve written a solo piece for him.

KL:  Maybe we should talk a little bit about what it’s like to perform [Decantations III]. There’s these different pods of musicians, and some people are playing sruti boxes, and some people are playing electronics that you play off your phone with a handheld speaker. Other people who play more portable instruments like small woodwinds, violin or viola, things of that nature, are playing these drones and then these sets of pitches that correspond with what’s going on with the sruti boxes. So we have these limitations to what we can play, but at the same time you’re free to move around these pitches. It’s very improvisatory, and it’s an interesting listening experience because it’s really rare to do something like that while moving around in space, and there’s something about being mobile and hearing these sounds kind of twist around you, and when you pass other groups hearing kind of a really, really slow doppler effect going on, the crescendo and diminuendo of other groups approaching and leaving, and the blend of the different harmonies that the two groups are playing, it’s a really special moment.

RK:  Yeah for me, those are the moments I love, the way that it engages the sound world that’s going on. There’s kind of a guerrilla aspect to the piece too. The first time we played it in Madison I remember walking down the street and there was a lady, I don’t know about 50 paces in front of us, we were going around the capitol and at some point she just stops dead in her tracks and turns around and says “Oh, that’s what that is.”

DR:  She just thought it was in her head.

RK:  Right. And there is this aspect of, when the other groups are coming towards you it’s like, wait, am I hearing that? Or is that the sound of the industry here? Especially for example, at the beginning of the piece it’s just one pitch, and, it’s a hum, and it could be something completely technological.

DR:  And when you have something as smooth as a sruti box or an accordion, something where you’re not hearing the articulation, it’s just going to fade into the background.

RK:  That’s right.

KL:  And as it’s coming at you from a distance, the moment that you start to notice it is kind of imperceptible, it just kind of seeps into your consciousness, you probably realize that it’s happening, moments after you are actually able to hear it, you have to sift out everything else and be like “Oh! There’s some organized sound happening, what is going on?”

DR:  So, I’m curious, because a lot of what you’re talking about is true for so much of what Make Music NY does – and I’m wondering, when you wrote it, what your experience with public performance was, (specifically Make Music NY, or more general site-specific) and how that fit in to a concept, and how that’s evolved over the various performances of it.

RK:  Well, when I wrote it, I think there was a call that referenced Phil Kline, and Unsilent Night and I think that’s a really cool piece, and definitely had a lot of inspiration from that, and I was excited to meet Phil and get his feedback. I think he called Decantations III “an elegant drone parade”, and I think that’s a pretty apt description. I mean he got it, right away. And so as far as engaging the public, I don’t want to politicize the piece too much in talking about anti-chant or whatever but there is this idea of reclaiming this instrument and letting people know about it. I got a bunch of these boxes custom-made in India and I’ve actually given them to people, as gifts to kids and stuff, and they just love it. It’s a beautiful thing to just chill out for a while and hang out with this instrument and hang out with yourself. That’s where the public engagement of it really connected with me. It’s a simple instrument, I think the simplicity of the piece connects with a lot of people. I like the fact, for example this piece I wrote for Karl [Diasporas, see below] is incredibly difficult. I do write that kind of music, but there’s something really satisfying for me to have friends who are going to bring their children who are going to play on the piece, so that’s really exciting.

DR:  Can you also talk about [staging the piece in] Athens Square, what specifics of Astoria you think are going to kind of interact and how that matches the development of the piece?

RK:  I live in California now, but before that I lived in Astoria for about 12 years, and I’ve seen it change a lot. I’m really curious and excited to see that 30th Ave is really lively, and I’m excited to see what the reactions from people walking on the street are going to be. I think there are going to be people joining in and following along and seeing what’s going on, that guerrilla aspect of it. That location, 30th Ave, to me, is the heart of Astoria, too, it’s right in the middle. There’s a lot of activity – Athens Square Park is just on the other side of 31st St. I was very conscious of the fact that all three groups will be going under the elevated train and sort of around that area, so there’s a lot of sonic potential there for happenstance, and I’m very excited about that.

DR:  And at 3 o’clock on a Monday, kids getting out of school, it’s just going to be full bustle.

RK:  Full bustle, indeed yeah, I think so!


thanks to Brian McCorkle for help with transcription!