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Amirtha Kidambi’s music is drawn to catharsis and community

The avant-garde composer and performer comes to Madison with the Elder Ones ensemble on March 31 for Tone Madison’s co-presented show with Arts + Lit Lab.

The avant-garde composer and performer comes to Madison with the Elder Ones ensemble on March 31 for Tone Madison’s co-presented show with Arts + Lit Lab.

Header Image: A simple collage featuring a recent artist portrait of Amirtha Kidambi taken by Peter Kerlin (left), and Elder Ones’ two records released on Northern Spy—”Holy Science” (2016) and “From Untruth” (2019)—which feature the (slightly cropped) artwork of Justin D. Hopkins (right).

Whether as a vocal performer, lead composer, or both, Amirtha Kidambi’s musical ambition in the last decade has been irrepressibly passionate. From her early career as a vocalist in collaboration with artists and acts like Sequins And Skeletons, Seaven Teares, Darius Jones, and Elizabeth-Caroline Unit, Kidambi has been forging a singular path in the greater New York avant-garde musical community.

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She’s gone on to achieve renown in more recent projects like Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, duos with sound artist Lea Bertucci and guitarist Matteo Liberatore, Lines Of Light vocal quartet, and Elder Ones—who will be performing at Arts + Literature Laboratory this Thursday, March 31, at 7 p.m., in a show presented by Tone Madison. Kidambi has continued to develop her literal voice, musical curiosity, and identity, maintaining a significant dialogue between formal composition and wide-ranging improvisation.

Elder Ones, who released their debut album, Holy Science, in 2016 on Northern Spy Records, was a band formed in the midst of Eric Garner protests and in response to social and political unrest, Kidambi writes. The record features distinctively lengthy compositions augmented by Kidambi’s sharply uneasy harmonium playing and wordless, rhythmic lyrics that borrow from Western solfège and Carnatic music of Southern India. Elder Ones’ follow-up in 2019, From Untruth, was just as politically fierce as their first, and found Kidambi shifting to an even darker tone with English-language lyrics that reflect on everything from obscene income inequality to colonialism. At this Arts + Literature Laboratory show, the band will consist of Kidambi on vocals, synth, and harmonium, as well as Matt Nelson on soprano sax, Eva Lawitts on bass, Lester St. Louis on cello, and Jason Nazary on drums.

Kidambi caught up with Tone Madison via email to talk about what’s changed in her musical and personal life since the start of the pandemic, Elder Ones’ roots in activism and organizing, hybridity and her development as a vocalist, shedding the “jazz” association for Creative Music, meditation (musical and otherwise), fondness for Pakistani singer Nahid Aktar, a recent collaboration with filmmaker and fellow South Asian artist Suneil Sanzgiri in Golden Jubilee (2021), and future covers that may involve the musical director of Alice Coltrane ashram singers, Surya Botafasina.

Tone Madison: Firstly, I just want to ask—how are you doing? How has your focus shifted over the course of the pandemic in terms of what you may have been working on in early 2020 versus now, in early 2022? Has it been rewarding or freeing to have more time to work independently, or has quarantine posed significant challenges?

Amirtha Kidambi: I’m doing okay, although things seem as unstable as ever. I actually finally got Covid recently and had to cancel rehearsals and a concert, losing income again and having to reschedule things. It seems until isolation restrictions change, Covid will continue to impact our performing and touring as musicians and ability to make a living. I’ve been working with Music Worker’s Alliance in an initiative led by Marc Ribot to try to address these issues in this period of returning to music.

The quarantine was interesting to me. I certainly took up projects that likely would not have happened otherwise. I learned to play alto saxophone and spent a lot more time studying and listening. Out of that came a duo with Maria Grand where I both sing and play and I’ve been incorporating the sax more in free improvised settings with my singing. I had time to study Carnatic voice more regularly, and just sit and think in a way that I didn’t have the opportunity to. 

I also ramped up my political organizing, deepened my relationship to my neighborhood and NYC, and spent more quality time with friends. I actually was able to play quite a bit outdoors and in interesting situations safely, and I really enjoyed the act of making music in public, in a way that was super accessible to people who wouldn’t come across it otherwise. It seemed like after all the Netflix-binging, people were really interested in “experiences.” 

I was dying to play music again live and tour, obviously, but I am missing the slowness and the absence of the hustle. It’s been an adjustment going back to it, with a considerable amount of anxiety that I didn’t expect. Once I’m actually in the room playing for an audience, though, it has been really great. I got to tour again in 2021, and people were so appreciative and hungry for it. That felt good.

Tone Madison: Perhaps directly related to the last questions, the Elder Ones performing ensemble underwent a lineup change since From Untruth was released in the spring of 2019 (as it did after your 2016 debut record Holy Science as well). Eva Lawitts is now on bass. Is she playing electric bass guitar or contrabass? Has Lawitts altered the band’s sound, the writing process, or how you intend to approach forthcoming live performances?

Amirtha Kidambi: Yes, very much related to the pandemic we had two band members leave NYC; Nick Dunston moved to Berlin and Max Jaffe to Los Angeles. The current line-up features Eva Lawitts on upright and effects, Jason Nazary on drums/electronics and the addition of Lester St. Louis on cello, with Matt Nelson and I as the original members.

Every new member completely alters the sound and character of the band, which is a part of the process that I love and why I’m drawn to improvised music in the first place. The compositions are just vehicles for playing, communicating, and communing with each other and the audience/listener. The real core of it is the individual character of each person’s improvisational, musical, and instrumental language and how they can be themselves within the structure I’ve provided. I try not to have much ego about the pieces themselves, and really let our collective playing inform how they are shaped and arranged. I’ve always written pretty minimal parts for that reason and have a lot of repetition so we can really mine and explore the limited materials. 

Of course the compositions have a certain character, and I think that’s important, but the players are the heart of the thing. Each person alters the sound, and through playing the pieces more with them, I adjust my approach to the writing and forms. It’s more of a long-term process than me just writing in isolation and handing people charts, which is one of the reasons we’re doing this Midwest tour!

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Tone Madison: The most vividly recognizable aspect of the band, especially on From Untruth, are your vocals and lyricism, which confront the politics of racial injustice as well as wealth inequality, imperialism, and colonialism. And I’d say it’s inextricable; you can’t listen to Elder Ones and not feel the music anchored in that spiritual voice of the oppressed. Would you be willing to talk a bit more candidly about the dedication of the first record to Eric Garner? And could you also speak to the inclusion of an inlay photo on From Untruth, which shows the Women Of The Quilt India movement protesting British rule in Chennai?

Amirtha Kidambi: This band truly formed in the midst of protest and in response to social and political unrest. Max Jaffe, Brandon Lopez, and I first played together at a benefit concert for Mike Brown, organized by Matana Roberts under the banner of Musicians Against Police Brutality. I eventually co-organized many subsequent events with Matana, and that work has a lot to do with the formation and direction of Elder Ones.

After adding Matt Nelson, I started writing for the band, and [“Dvapara Yuga (For Eric Garner)”] was the first thing that I composed. I had seen the video and was paralyzed, then started singing and this composition just came out. It was the only way at the moment that I knew how to process the brutality and inhumanity of that act, one that we’ve now witnessed countless times through cell phone video, followed by cataclysmic moments of protest.

From Untruth was written in the period leading up to Trump’s election and just after the inauguration. We were actually on the road in November 2016 and played in Cleveland the night it happened. The music became a way to react to that horror in real time, and provided much needed catharsis for us and the audiences as well. I was grateful to have an outlet in which I could scream. I was also in grad school at Columbia ingesting a huge amount of critical theory and postcolonial scholarship, which had an enormous impact on my thinking. Because I was always still involved with grassroots activism, it was never just theoretical for me. 

I guess the shift more recently for me which is reflected in that inlay of the Women Of The Quit India anti-colonial/Independence movement in Chennai is one that connects all these systemic issues on a more historical and global scale, and also a personal one as someone of the South Asian diaspora. I think the new material reflects this, as I was writing about fascism here and around the globe, vaccine apartheid, Anti-Asian violence and diaspora identity, the Racial Justice movement and the Farmer’s Protests in India, as well as the labor protests here in the United States.

With the war raging in Ukraine (and the fallout in Afghanistan and the war in Yemen), the music continues to allow me to process these in real-time events as they happen, and hopefully will do the same for an audience.

Tone Madison: For the first time in a while, I listened to the chilling plea and lament “Eat The Rich,” the opening piece on From Untruth. I was obviously struck so intensely by the chant of “Eat the rich / Or die starving,” which forced me to reflect even more than when I sat down to listen to the record in full a few years ago. It’s emphatically urgent. Since then, there have been more timid political posturing and slogans to “tax the rich” amid their wealth growing 40 to 60% (in varying reports) during the pandemic.

We do need music that is more stirring than pacifying or distracting in the present moment. What role do you think music still has in affecting change? For forthcoming material, what are you pulling from—what has inspired you—in terms of global affairs and social movements?

Amirtha Kidambi: Personally, I’ve always been drawn to catharsis—things that stir, incite, ignite or instigate something. I’ve never been much for escape, but I think that catharsis can be healing and that there is something about sitting with what is happening that is important. It’s almost like meditation, which is not necessarily a peaceful activity but hopefully a peace-cultivating one. When one meditates, a lot of anxiety can arise, and part of what you’re doing is learning to be with that and understand pain, grief, suffering etc. as a natural fact. That is how I interpret it at least from my Hindu upbringing and my own practice. I guess that’s what the music of this particular project is about. Rather than a concert being a setting where we just exchange formalities and polite chatter, it’s one that takes all that anxiety and fear we’ve been feeling everyday and brings it into focus, in community with other people.

And, look, I wrote “Eat The Rich” sometime in 2016, and I wholeheartedly stand behind that statement. Maybe now more than ever as crisis capitalism is thriving, from post-pandemic inflation, to price gouging with fuel, ongoing vaccine apartheid, and arms dealing.

Tone Madison: The first time I actually heard you perform was in sonorous duets with Charlie Looker in the avant-progressive folk / early music band Seaven Teares back in 2013, so you can imagine my discovery when a few years later I first put on Holy Science and heard you singing on “Sathya Yuga” not in any language, but just syllabically, like a variation on solfège, or the age-old ‘do-re-mi’ scale in Western music.

But there’s obviously more going on than just my limited perception and ear in this context, as your style includes elements of Carnatic music of South India, and bhajan, Hindu devotional music. Although it’s difficult for me to put into words why I’m so moved, the appeal is in that union of Western and Eastern approaches. Your voice and control of melody feel so dramatically inviting and universal. I’m reminded of Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance, in a way.

Could you talk about your training as a vocalist that led to a fondness for wordless vocals and scatting? Why did you shift to more English-language vocals on From Untruth? Will future Elder Ones performances, or this upcoming show at Arts + Literature Laboratory on March 31, feature a mix of the two, or even other languages?

Amirtha Kidambi: The East-West hybridity is truly just a literal result of my identity. It’s not that simple, of course, but I grew up singing in choirs at the same time I was singing Hindu devotional music or bhajans (a form audiences may be familiar with from Alice Coltrane ashram recordings). I was playing guitar and going to punk shows, while I was dancing Bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance accompanied by a Carnatic ensemble. I was studying Carnatic vocal music as a way to almost deconstruct or deprogram my operatic western classical training, which remains a big part of my technique no matter how much I try (though, it is a big part of me and I’m accepting that). 

I think my gravitation towards wordless singing had a lot to do with the fact that writing lyrics always held me back from composing, and I was always so self-conscious when trying to write “songs.” I realized I was having musical ideas all the time; and without the burden of lyrics, I finally felt free to create and my pieces didn’t show up as song forms rather these kinds of freewheeling, sprawling multi-part compositions. I was also singing in a vocal ensemble of Darius Jones where his lyrics were a syllabic “Soul-fege” as he called it, mixing Western solfege with his own alien language. I got so used to singing and improvising in it, that it was natural to sing that way in the band. I felt the music was equally expressive to something with lyrics, or perhaps even more so because of the open interpretations it allowed. The vibe was clear, and the dedication to Eric Garner certainly set a tone.

I shifted back to lyrics, because once I finally felt free as a composer, I realized I didn’t need lyrics to fit some kind of song form. I just started writing a few short lines per piece—ones that could be twisted and transformed through repetition. A lot of my thoughts were informed by the political and postcolonial theory I was ingesting at the time. In the Trump era, the urgency to literally say something really took hold for me, and I wanted the music to be more explicitly protest-oriented. The new material is similar in that sense to From Untruth, maybe even more lyrics now! I’ve been wanting to write in other languages, namely my own which is Tamil, but haven’t yet gone in that direction in the band.

Tone Madison: If I’ve seemed to dwell on your voice, I do have an equal affinity for what you and your band bring to the compositions. Although I’m guessing you are often labeled as a jazz quartet, you cover a lot of sonic ground, from avant-garde and vocal jazz, to even more free-form electroacoustic improvisation, drone (more prominent on Holy Science), dark ambient (middle section of “From Untruth”), and even avant-prog in the density of rhythmic octave-jumping and general eclectic amalgam of styles in long-form compositions. What are some of your influences outside the realm of jazz who you’d like to spotlight or call more attention to?

Amirtha Kidambi: Yeah, jazz has always been a tricky and problematic term in some way, not just for me but throughout the history of the idiom. I tend to align with the term Creative Music for that reason, because it opens up a lot more freedom in terms of style or discipline and it’s politically aligned with the work and the tradition of the Association For The Advancement Of Creative Musicians (AACM). I do consider my work of that lineage, which is less a style and more a philosophy and approach.

I ingest a lot of music outside the jazz idiom. I think rock music is pretty huge for me, and when I was writing From Untruth, I could feel Sabbath vibes in “Eat The Rich.” I was obsessed with the energy of bands like Minor Threat growing up and the ecstatic energy of fast punk music and Riot Grrl in college. Obviously, Indian music looms large for me, but not just Carnatic and Bhajan. I love old Indian and Pakistan film music recordings from the ’60s and ’70s, and got pretty obsessed with the Pakistani singer Nahid Aktar.

I think I was listening to quite a lot of classic Arabic song while writing the last record, like Um Kalthoum. Of course, I think going to see live music where I live in New York is a huge influence. I see everything from avant-rock, to noise, to multi-channel sound art, traditional music and contemporary classical music. When I worked at the venue Issue Project Room for years, there were so many mind-blowing things I saw on a regular basis that shaped how I was thinking about music. Also, singing and playing the work of other composers such as Mary Halvorson or Robert Ashley has a big influence on me.

Tone Madison: There’s such richness to the polarity, the interplay of consonance and dissonance in Elder Ones. Some of that distinction is connected to your playing of a harmonium, or pump organ, which has an altogether different timbre than the more standard piano or keyboard in Western music. There’s a teetering tenseness to its sound, or at least the way you implement it in Elder Ones’ music. Do you have a long-enduring interest in the instrument, or was it something that struck you around the time when you were putting Elder Ones together as a group?

Amirtha Kidambi: I’ve been singing with harmonium since I was three [years old]. It’s the primary instrument in Hindu devotional music. I played it a bit in that context, but I bought my own on a trip to India in 2012 and started singing and improvising on my own with the instrument, and it felt so good to resonate with and tune to. I love its fragility, instability, and creakiness. It also feels like a true analog synthesizer to me, almost like this sawtooth wave. Adding synth kind of highlighted that electronic versus acoustic contrast, and I really liked moving through those spaces.

Tone Madison: Further outside the jazz idiom, last year you released Neutral Love, an improvised record with guitarist Matteo Liberatore, on Astral Editions. It has a sparser sound than some of your other work, with just your voice, his electric guitar (and pedal effects). Do you have any other collaborative plans in the future with Liberatore? Or with sound artist Lea Bertucci (with whom you have two releases on Astral Spirits)?

Amirtha Kidambi: Matteo and I are still working together, and I love that project. When we discussed it conceptually, we were really interested in being still and not feeling the anxiety of having to do things and have a million ideas jumping from one to the other, which often happens in an improvised music context. I had a lot of anxiety during the pandemic (and still with war raging in Europe and one catastrophe after another), so I have a lot of trouble staying still personally. The project is truly a meditation, somewhere in the Feldman space [the seminal 20th century indeterminate composer], but improvised. We don’t really react to each other, just exist simultaneously and create a space, which we remain in for a long time. The feedback from audiences has been that it allows them to find that place of stillness that is hard to find right now. That’s pretty much the goal.

Tone Madison: It was thrilling to hear your music in one of the online Media City Film Festival‘s selections this year, Golden Jubilee, by Suneil Sanzgiri. The experimental short is a rich blend of media, including 16mm footage and digital animation, and it comments on everything from Sanzgiri’s father’s ancestral home and memory, Goa culture, American-produced propaganda, and colonial destruction as a result of mining manganese ore. Your haunting score, written in conjunction with percussionist Booker Stardrum and performed as a quartet (with Stardrum, Angela Morris, and Nathaniel Morgan), should sound familiar to fans of Elder Ones.

How did you come to work with Sanzgiri and Stardrum? You mentioned that you are collaborating with Sanzgiri again on a feature film, and production on that will be starting over the summer. Are you able to reveal a bit more about that project?

The two of you have started a South Asian Artists In Diaspora group that will bring together artists of diverse mediums, too. Ideally, moving forward, what do you envision for the feature film and the group?

Amirtha Kidambi: I’ve known Booker for years through the music scene in NYC and even sang with his old band Cloud Becomes Your Hand in an infamous Halloween show at Silent Barn.

I met Suneil through Booker (he’s a friend of Booker’s partner), and we immediately hit it off. His films feel like a direct analog to what I’m doing musically. They’re experimental, political, analog, digital, unorthodox in form and deeply political, more specifically dealing with the history of colonialism in India and neo-colonialism, capitalism, caste and other issues.

Golden Jubilee is actually the third film collaboration we’ve done. I’m not sure what his plans for the feature are, only that he will start filming it this summer. I’m a huge cinephile, so this is a super satisfying collaboration for me. It’s also thrilling for me to work with other South Asian artists, as I never really knew anyone else for so many years and felt very alone in my path. South Asian Artists in Diaspora has been a very important way to build community through activist and artistic work. I want to continue that work, for sure. It’s just been super busy since live music picked up again, but we will definitely regroup at some point.

Tone Madison: Lastly, to sate my own curiosity and to return to my introduction to you as an artist, I want to bring up a specific track that has had a hold on me. Although you didn’t arrange it, the Seaven Teares cover of Alice In Chains’ “Them Bones” is burned in my memory. It’s one of the weirdest and most original covers I’ve ever heard. It mutates a two-and-half-minute alternative metal song into a nearly seven-minute hellishly angular slowcore dirge. I think it’s something everyone needs to hear, haha.

If you recall, what was your reaction and impression when you were recording it? Had you covered any other pieces prior to this? Do you think you will reinterpret or re-arrange any cover songs yourself moving forward with Elder Ones or other projects?

Amirtha Kidambi: Yeah, that cover is truly amazing. I also loved doing the Julee Cruise cover [“The World Spins”] from Twin Peaks, which was released on the second Seaven Teares record from 2020. I’ve never done covers myself, but I’m actually planning something with Elder Ones in that zone, working with Surya Botafasina, a keyboardist and the musical director of the Alice Coltrane ashram singers. He grew up on the ashram and studied directly under Alice. We’re going to rework some bhajans from the tradition we both grew up in, which is where the music on those records comes from. More on that as it develops…

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