Interview: Toby Ramaswamy (416 Club Commission)
Musician Toby Ramaswamy will be one of the artists performing pieces as part of the 416 Club Commission series which will be taking place Jan 27 – 29 at the Cedar Cultural Center (Ramaswamy’s piece will be on the 27th). Toby was kind enough to meet with us to discuss his project as well as some of the disparate music influences that come together in his work.
Reviler: Please tell us a little about yourself as well as how this project came about.
TR: I’m a local drummer and composer. I play in Sonic Intension, William Within, Aubades, and Almitra. I am also one of the directors for the experimental music group Six Families.
I’m half Indian, so I’ve been around Indian music for a long time. I’ve been studying it as a percussionist off and on for the last 7 years, and growing up I went to a lot of IMSOM (Indian Music Society of Minnesota) concerts with my dad. Some time last year, a friend of mine (Jaak Jensen, who plays in the ensemble), turned me on to the Rhys Chatham piece A Crimson Grail. When I heard it for the first time, I absolutely loved the textures, and I had the weird feeling that it was musically related to the Indian music I’d been listening to for so long. I got this idea of combining the two somehow, but I wasn’t sure how/if it would be possible. I was also having a lot of conversations at the time about what it meant to grow up with Indian heritage in America, and this seemed like it would be a good way for me to explore that concept a little further. So that made me want to do it even more. I think I was also really attracted to the sheer ridiculousness of a large electric guitar ensemble. It forced me to think about writing in ways I wasn’t used to at all.
Reviler: Who else is involved with putting this on and how did you go about finding/involving them?
TR: The Cedar’s 416 Club series, of course, is the only reason I actually get to do this crazy project. A month or so after I first got the idea, I went with Six Families to a Cedar Artist Group meeting where they discussed the 416 Club (6Fam was looking into grant options at the time). We found out pretty quickly the 416 isn’t aimed at organizations, but I realized that it might be the perfect opportunity to make this piece actually happen. The people at the Cedar were really supportive, so I submitted a proposal and luckily was one of the people selected by the board.
As far as the actual ensemble, I have a fantastic guitar orchestra consisting of Alex Brodsky, Cody Nelson, Daniel McCausland, Eric Mayson, Jaak Jensen, Jon Hoffman, Josh Olson, Julian Manzara, Katie Hare, Kyle Swanson, Ross Koeberl, Sean Schultz, Tom Steffes, and Zach McCormick. Finding guitarists to play was actually one of the easier parts; I know a lot of great guitarists from playing shows around here for the past few years. I made a list of every guitarist I could think of who I really liked as a person/player, and I think I had 12 or 13 right there. I had a few people hear about it from friends and ask to be part of the group as well. And there are still a few guitarists who I would have loved to have in the ensemble but didn’t have space for. I think it would have been a lot harder if I’d been writing for 15 flutes, or something like that.
Reviler: What would you like people to take away with them from your piece?
TR: The piece is pretty weird, partially just because it draws from such disparate influences, and partially because I still don’t entirely know what I’m doing. A lot of it is me experimenting with ideas. I’m a little afraid that it’ll upset the Indian music traditionalists, and that it won’t satisfy the experimental music fans. I guess I’d like people to try to take it on it’s own terms as a piece of music. I also would love if people listening would think about it in terms of Indian and American culture playing with and through each other. That was my generative impulse when I was writing it, and even though it’s represented in a very abstract sense, I think it’s still there in the piece. It really is very personal for me in that way. On the other hand, once it’s out there, it’s out of my control. If people take away anything from it I’d be pretty thrilled.
Reviler: So what are some of the musical influences that can tell us a bit about where you are coming from?
TR: Just an example of some of the Indian music I inherited from my dad. This is not actually Hindustani music, which is from North India; this is Carnatic music, from South India. I was exposed to both styles through his CD collection, as well as through the incredible work of IMSOM, a local organization that brings some of India’s finest musicians to Minneapolis.
Brij Bhushan Kabra
TR: Definitely the biggest influence on this project. Hearing this is what first gave me the idea to do anything like this. It’s written for 400 electric guitars, and it’s just so incredibly beautiful. Of course, it sounds quite a lot different than any of the Indian music I’ve linked, but something about the hypnotic calmness of it really reminded me of the Alaap section of an Indian performance. Indian music has always reminded me of dreaming, and I think this has some of that same quality. There’s also some controlled improvisation in this piece, which is something I’m really fascinated by. I think controlled group improvisation yields some of the most natural and beautiful textures imaginable, and I use it a few times in the piece.
Glenn Branca Symphony 1
TR: Glenn Branca is a lot rawer than Chatham, especially in his later work. He’s the one who’s affiliated with Sonic Youth, and it shows. At first I only looked into Branca because of his connection with Chatham, but in the end that rawness was really influential on my writing as well. They share a fondness for large groups and slow, linear development, but Branca isn’t afraid to get loud and noisy and messy. I tried to incorporate a little bit of both approaches when I was working on the piece.