Composing Between Traditions: Combining South Asian and European Musical Culture by Vinthya Perinpanathan
I am a British-Sri Lankan composer, violinist and DJ based in London, due to begin my PhD research in Sri Lankan ritualistic and religious music at the University of Manchester, in September 2023. After receiving what I would now deem a life altering Christmas present at the age of seven, I trained as a Western Classical violinist in London. This passage into the world of music led me to perform in orchestras and smaller ensembles throughout childhood, while also studying the subject throughout school, sixth form and University, always with a keen interest in the creation of new sounds, while also deeply inspired by previous composers’ techniques and styles. My ambitions now lie in carving out my own compositional practice.
Over the last three years, my compositions have been centred around the combination of Western and South Asian music idioms, old and new. My interest in cross-cultural composition was first sparked by a commission I received for the Commonwealth Resounds Awards Ceremony. The brief specified for the piece to take influence from the composer’s heritage, and so my duo for tabla and cello, ‘Sri Pada’, was born. Due to my training as a Western Classical violinist however, it was only after writing this piece that I discovered the tabla is not a common instrument in the southern region of the subcontinent. A very similar instrument does exist, however, in the Carnatic (South Indian Classical) music tradition: the mridangam. To me, this experience demonstrated the gap in my knowledge of South Asian music traditions, and so, given my Sri Lankan heritage, I became extremely eager to learn more.
In 2020, during the final year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Manchester, I used the available, virtual resources to learn more about Carnatic music, a music tradition also practiced widely in Sri Lanka. I dedicated time to familiarising myself with the Carnatic ragas (modes), talas (time cycles), composition structure, performance practices and techniques, and everything else that interested me about this music idiom. In this year, I took a shining to Konnokol, an ancient art form which can be described as a verbal performance of percussion syllables. This practice formed my inspiration for the duo I submitted as part of my portfolio, ‘The Second Quarter of the Night’ for violin and percussion, which has yet to be performed!
During my part-time master’s, now focussing solely on Composition, I continued to take inspiration from both Western and South Asian music idioms. Still under lockdown restrictions, my compositional output during 2020/21 comprises of solo works, most notably, my ‘Caprice in Raga Kharaharapriya’ for solo violin – a virtuosic solo, centred around this Raga, which explores numerous timbres of both Western and South Asian violin performance. I am most pleased with outcome of my muted, senza vibrato, sliding main theme of the piece, which pays ode to the timbre produced by the Ravanahatha – an ancient Sri Lankan stringed instrument, also bowed; suggested to be an ancestor of the violin. This piece was premiered by the brilliant Marc Danel in April 2021. It was a dream come true to work with Marc, having watched him perform alongside The University of Manchester’s quartet in resident, Quatour Danel, throughout my undergraduate course. Owing much to his support, the piece has since received multiple international performances.
Fast forward to the summer of 2022, where I was grateful to receive premieres of two new works. The first, a commissioned string quartet, performed by the ADAM Quartet at the Nederlandse StrijkKwartet Academie (NSKA) Strijkkwartet Festival, in Utrecht, for their 20th Anniversary. ‘Flight UL505’ is named after the flight boarded by my cousin and her family as they immigrated to the UK in early March 2022. While composing the piece, I reflected deeply on the different challenges faced by my own parents, and the life they were leaving behind, when they had journeyed to the West. Given the emotional context of the work, it truly was a full circle moment when my parents and I drove to Utrecht for this first performance, where we resided between 1998-2001.
The second piece to be premiered was my trio for Carnatic Indian vocalist, violin and vibraphone. This piece was written as part of the Manasamitra Mentoring Scheme 2021/22. The very talented Supriya Nagarajan not only mentored me throughout the year, but also performed my work alongside Sammy Okumachin (violin) and Tom Hall (vibraphone). Supriya was great to work with and I learned how to collaborate with musicians who do not read Western notation – a necessary skill for cross-cultural composers! She guided me on what information was needed in order for her to perform alongside others who would be reading from a score, and thus, I devised my own notation which worked very successfully! This piece focussed on the three types of Carnatic vocal improvisation: Alpana, Thanam and Swaram. Using the meditative Raga Bowli, I composed music for instruments which complimented both the strong attack and rhythmical of Thanam technique, as well as the melismatic and sustained nature of Alpana improvisation. Recording day was the make or break moment, and I’m pleased to share that this day, despite the challenges that came with it being the hottest day in 2022, filled me with confidence in my ability to bring these two contrasting music idioms together.
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Due to the meaning behind Carnatic Ragas, my recent compositional process has used the choice of Raga as a starting point for any piece. I had previously been interested in exploring the numerous musical languages which could be assigned to the various properties of water and its infinite forms; to this end, I began the compositional process by searching for an appropriate Raga. It was almost too perfect when I discovered Raga Amritavarshini, a pentatonic Raga which holds a legendary association with causing rain or showers. Although much of the imagery and initial inspiration for Varshini, the title of the work meaning goddess of rain, was derived from such ancient and programmatic tales, the repetitive musical material is drawn from the composer’s love of two contrasting, yet appropriate, musical traditions: Techno and Konnakol. Both music idioms are monotonous and enchanting, which I felt fitting for a piece essentially inspired by the idea of a rain dance. Both musics lend themselves to unapologetic repetition, creating the sense of ritual and inducing rain. The added challenge of recreating these musical elements for a concert hall performance was extremely satisfying. To compose a piece for Trio Sonorité which combines such an eclectic range of my musical inspirations has been extremely fun. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Illuminate Women’s Music for commissioning this work!
Written by Vinthya Perinpanathan