Sunday, October 9th, 2016
ACF’s 2016 summer development intern, Henry Dykstal, conducted a series of interviews with our incoming cohort of board members. Meet Asha Srinivasan! After reading her interview, learn even more about her here.
1. How did music come into your life as something you wanted to pursue as your life’s calling?
Music has always been a central aspect of my life; my mother is a singer and my grandparents were also avid supporters of music. When we emigrated to the U.S. in 1989, my musical world expanded from Indian classical and film music to include Western classical, pop, and rock music. On weekends, I was learning Carnatic vocal music (South Indian classical style) and during schooldays, I was in the school choir. Similarly, I learned to play the keyboard by listening to my mother practice with her Indian music band, but I also was enrolled in beginning piano lessons. So, I was always immersed in two rich musical cultures simultaneously. I absolutely loved singing in choir and participated in community and state choirs as a high-school student. Being an alto, I enjoyed hearing the way all of the choral parts fit together and I was fascinated by the progression of harmony and counterpoint. Music satisfied my penchant for puzzles and figuring things out. So, analyzing music was a great pleasure that naturally led me to composing music, experimenting with how sounds could be put together. It’s no surprise that I started composing choral music first. It was never with lyrics (I was not really good with creating words), but that was less important to me than learning how to develop a musical idea abstractly and how to create harmonic progressions that were perhaps surprising or unexpected. In college, my experiments in composition had a very fertile environment to grow in. Learning all I could about music history, music analysis, and taking composition lessons, it all felt very natural to me and created the context I needed to better understand music. During my undergraduate studies, I enjoyed studying a variety of subjects and my list of courses was truly liberal in nature, but the combination of my early exploration of composition and the incredibly supportive music professors I had at Goucher College pushed me to pursue music further.
2. What is your history with the American Composers Forum, and how did you make the decision to accept becoming a board member?
I became a member of ACF early in my career. As a graduate student, I was encouraged to join as many composer organizations as possible to get familiar with the professional field beyond academia and to pursue opportunities through the opportunity lists that are distributed. Since moving to Wisconsin, I have also attended an ACF workshop (“Making Music Work”) and judged an ACF competition (Jerome Fund). Being on the board of ACF is a new step in my career and I look forward to getting an inside view on how a professional organization in my field functions, what are the difficulties it faces, how decisions are made, and so on. I also look forward to contributing my own experiences and perspective on the composition field to the discussions while hearing what other colleagues have to say. I am excited by the breadth of experiences and backgrounds of the other board members and am eager to learn and share with the group.
3. Can you describe your writing process?
My writing process usually starts with some research. When I’m writing a piece for a commission, I have conversations with the performers about their instruments, their musical preferences, etc. I study the medium I’m writing for and get a better sense of the repertoire and sound. If I’m writing a piece which uses Indian music influences, I explore various concepts of Indian music that have fascinated me and do some research on those concepts, listen to recordings, make transcriptions if needed, and basically try to follow various paths of interest. That often will lead me to some concept or premise for the piece. Then I need a quiet space to just think and jot down ideas on blank paper. I start imagining the shape of the piece, how it will begin, where and how it will grow, etc. I try to graph these on blank paper and that gives me something more concrete to work with. This form graph may change quite a bit as I get down to actually composing the details of the piece, but it gives me a general framework to hold my ideas. Then I start creating the specifics. I sing musical gestures and play them on the piano, trying different permutations, etc. Once I have something that interests me, I write the musical ideas down on paper with pencil. Depending on the piece, I might make various sketches of modes, harmonies, rhythms, etc. Then I start putting the details together, from the beginning. Many times what I start composing may not end up as the beginning, but I tend to start linearly at first. And, from there I just try to grow the piece in ways that seems best. There’s a lot of revising and editing as I go, as I critique my work every session, constantly sculpting it into shape.
4. What is your approach to teaching composition as compared to your own works? Do you teach what you practice, or do you go your own course in both?
Teaching influences composing and vice versa, very much so. My aim in composition lessons is to help my students achieve their intentions and fulfill the potential of their musical ideas to the best of their abilities. In giving critique, I certainly draw upon my own experience as a composer, which includes my composition work, but also includes what I’ve learned from going to festivals, conferences, etc. The process of critiquing my students’ work is incredibly enlightening for me in my own work. It makes me better at self-critique and paying attention to detail. My students also inspire me through their imagination and creativity. I enjoy watching them blossom through their four or five years studying composition and hearing what they do after they graduate as well.
5. You’ve worked in electronic music. Does the writing process for that vary in any way to music composed for acoustic instruments for you?
It does and doesn’t. Some aspects are similar. I still think about drama, tension, energy, and shape in the same ways. I think more deeply about timbre, register, and sonic detail when I work within the electronic medium. I tend to like composing fixed media, but the writing process is significantly slower because of the meticulous detail in shaping the sounds and textures in time. It’s a lot like writing an orchestra piece or concerto each time.
6. What projects are you currently working on?
I’m writing a piece for oboe and electronics that is directly inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. The piece weaves together abstract and natural sounds, highlighting many of the core ideas Kimmerer poses in her beautifully written book. It is commissioned by oboist Sara Fraker, who is at University of Arizona. We plan to premiere the piece at her institution in February.