Pic by Anna Azarov

INTERVIEW: Shruti Kumar

Hi Shruti, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

SHRUTI: It’s been a wild couple years, but we’re keeping on keeping on and I’m so happy to live in this shifting artistic time. Thanks for having me for a chat!

Can you talk to us more about your new work “SALT”?

SHRUTI: I’ve always been fascinated by how a single word can spark many different meanings. Consequently, they can cause division or create solidarity. Salt is a particularly visceral example of a multifaceted word— it is a fundamental mineral compound, abundant in nature and edible. Texturally it can be angular or ground; it can make us pucker and cringe while also being essential to our taste and satisfaction. Its physical form has so many angles and shapes. We can be “salty” – an adjective once used to mean lustful or lascivious, now taken as down-to-earth, coarse, embittered, or downright sassy. Ultimately all these adjectives used to describe “salty” take on their own connotations depending on our associations and experiences. Our history shapes how we express and receive words. Each application of a word to an event or memory colors it uniquely for every individual person. As an Indian American in the first generation of the post-independence Indian diaspora the word “salt” holds gravity in its centrality to the 1930 Salt March (also known as the Salt Satyagraha or Dandi March), which was an act of nonviolent civil disobedience in colonial India led by Mohandas Gandhi — a moment in time that directly inspired this piece’s presentation and form.

What if we consider this phenomenon adding a layer of nonverbal communication — music? I’ve always been drawn to see where music can provide glue or shed light when words are limiting. Using the many gestures and textures within a string orchestra and synthesizers, paired with technology and cross-genre production techniques – SALT delves into variances in expression that create different responses for listeners. The delivery of the players can change depending on the ensembles’ interpretations. Many of the score notes for each variation of the core theme are alike to “in protest” / “in earnest” / “inquisitively” / “with conviction” — and these are all distinctly interpreted instructions by the performers, who then must strike a balance as an ensemble. The electronics woven through are also directly triggered by variances in delivery. So in essence, the piece aims to highlight nuance and find overarching commonality on the side of both the players and their audience. With this piece, I hope to celebrate our individuality and diverse perspectives while also creating a shared experience.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this piece?

SHRUTI: This piece has actually been through a few iterations. I think something I’ve enjoyed returning to with this album has been the opportunity to let my music evolve over time alongside workshops, added collaborators, and a back and forth between how it’s been realized by different players, spaces, mediums, and how it’s grown. I often find myself working on records or scores with fast turnarounds and carving space for this parallel project to incubate has been incredibly rewarding in its reflection of all of my musical influences and endeavors.

This piece was first a commission for string quartet by Chamber House LA, courtesy of fellow composer Dabney Morris. It was the first time in a long time that I wrote away from the computer, was able to test ideas with the Kroma Quartet, and hop into a creative process where I wasn’t entirely sure what the end result would be. That grey area is pretty magical for me.

This first performance was what actually led me to my residency in London in 2019 — a conversation with an audience member set events in motion that resulted in the experience that brought together the entire record. Initially, I got in the studio with five musician friends of mine (Stephanie Matthews, Crystal Alforque, Marta Honer, Ro Rowan, and engineer Jasmine Chen) to create a recorded version. Given my recording studio tendencies we actually ended up recording in layers in segments using pedals, gear, a tape machine, and other studio goodies which had me leaving w ingredients more than a final product — a collecting sensibility that has also been thread of this album’s creation. The approach then began to shift from a live rendering to a recorded concept and I began to puzzle-piece and produce the varied elements I had. Many of the original elements still appear throughout the full album.

In 2020 as the global political climate was rapidly evolving I became more preoccupied with how we communicate. I was far from the USA during the presidential primaries and felt a different sense of urgency. The view from abroad really highlighted our verbal walls — I found it striking that many people postured as disagreeing while holding the same fundamental values. Conversely, a dilution of words created a false sense of misplaced nationalism and lack of nuance. As strikes and protests were amplified around the world I also found the marked difference in approaches interesting. How do we communicate protest? There was no wrong way, but in an increasingly digital world I struggled to find weight and productivity in a lot of words that were simply regurgitated without a voice behind them. The singular faceless assertions alongside the collective tide became louder to me as they increasingly ricocheted off of more faceless responses. I noticed some people being afraid to share their opinions as a result. Being in the UK for the first extended time in my life, I was also immersed in my own family’s history and relationship with peaceful protest and as all these forces came together SALT took on a larger shape in my head and became the bigger orchestral experiment it is now. An experiment in expression and response under the banner of one simple melodic theme — without words or coded language.

Can you talk to us about the video/visualization? Are there plans for more videos?

SHRUTI: For me, music is nonverbal storytelling. When paired with lyrics or poetry (as is done in later pieces in the record) it is enhanced in one way. When paired with visuals, another nonverbal medium, it is enhanced in quite another. I’ve always been drawn to the full interdisciplinary package; perhaps this is what drew me to film scoring and song writing in the first place. I have long collaborated with certain visual artists throughout my career — married my live shows to visual experiments from my director peers, and paired my music with a supportive community of digital artists. The videos paired with SALT are created by the inimitable Ellie Pritts, who I’ve known for years. She also did the single art, paired with photography by Anna Azarov. Ellie blurs beginnings and endings in her work — subverting where ideas wax and wane — especially in her depictions of nature. I found this especially impactful with SALT; her visuals embody the push and pull throughout the piece and the way that subtle shifts in color and speed within the same frame can change the way we receive the art.

“SALT” comes off your new album Nodding Terms — what’s the story behind the album’s title?

SHRUTI: Almost two decades ago, a very dear friend of mine introduced me to the book “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion. In it, is an essay “On Keeping A Notebook” in which she describes her relationship with her former selves:

“It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing “How High the Moon” on the car radio. (You see I still have the scenes, but I no longer perceive myself among those present, no longer could ever improvise the dialogue.) The other one, a twenty-three-year-old, bothers me more. She was always a good deal of trouble, and I suspect she will reappear when I least want to see her, skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with her vulnerability and ignorance, an apparition all the more insistent for being so long banished.

It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.”

Creating this album was very much an exercise in revisiting all my former musical selves. I began my career young (at age 4 at the piano) and throughout my wanderings have sometimes abandoned sensibilities I’ve loved for fear of being “too classical for pop” or “too theatrical for electronic” or “too beat driven for classical” — at the end of the day this was me proving to myself that I could tell a story with an album including all of my influences and experiences from solo at the piano, to synths and beats, to distorted bass, to vocals and harp, to orchestra with a rapper. Of course made possible by the incredible list of collaborators who, like me, were excited to mix/eliminate genres. And so we all hopefully had a chance to nod to some musical parts of ourselves we hadn’t said hi to in a while.

How was the recording and writing process?

SHRUTI: I feel as though I’ve covered a bit of this — but aside from those stories of collecting, writing, and evolving production, I feel it important to note that the engineers involved in the recording were pivotal to the process. As my original sessions were canceled when studios shuttered around the world in March 2020, much of the record was completed over lockdown all over the world. Tying it all together was no small feat. Fiona Cruikshank tracked the LCO at Church Studios in London while I zoomed in from LA, Eva Reistad mixed the orchestra, overdubbed players, and my electronics and synths together in Los Angeles, and Heba Kadry mastered it in New York. These three women are the best in the game as far as I’m concerned and I was very lucky to have them in the three cities where this album was created. It is not lost on me that their giant talents were crucial to making my wildest ideas a reality, and I feel honored that they joined me.

What led you to team up and and collaborate with Hugh Brunt and the London Contemporary Orchestra?

SHRUTI: I have been a long time fan of the London Contemporary Orchestra, and during my time in London had the pleasure of attending many of their performances and befriending their members alongside their composer collaborators. My musical family in London was very quick to make me feel at home with them — down to weekly zoom parties in the early, dark days of staying at home and staying inspired — and I knew fairly early on into knowing them that they were the right characters for collaboration. They are not afraid of ‘getting weird’ (as I often say in studios) — and where I might have felt reluctant to try things with other ensembles, everyone involved met me with an air of “absolutely — and what about this, too?” They made me more excited to make my record, which is pretty much the best reason to make music with anyone else.

Hugh was a fast responder to my hopes of making a remote string orchestra session in the middle of multiple lockdowns happen, and I am forever grateful. This felt at times like a Herculean feat with the logistics of having all the players safely in a room together — distanced, yet still able to hear each other and play as one. Hugh completely made me confident in this process, alongside Fiona Cruikshank, who handled the tech logistics of having me on multiple screens and audio outs from LA feel like no big deal. This was the first time I had not been in the room for an orchestral recording of my music — and Hugh was an excellent partner in making sure he understood my vision, handling my long list of notes and ideas, and communicating them to his players. He also made sure to run the session in a way that I could get all my ideas as ingredients rather than one final result — as I mentioned this was essential to my producing the final result with my electronics. All in all their sense of adventure and professionalism made this a no brainer and I hope to work with them more in the future.

How do you go about balancing all of your influences?

SHRUTI: It’s never felt like balancing to me. It’s freeing myself of the judgement to do it — the judgment that comes from a fear of not being understood if we mix many musical approaches together. The way I approach writing, it all comes from the same well, and it all feels like the same process. I’ve never understood the need to pigeon hole — even down to titles. For me composing and producing feel very much the same — why is there a need to address the distinctions? Similarly — while it might be a longer game — as the inspirer Joan Didion said “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms” with all our influences. It might be harder to find platforms that immediately embrace you, but if you have the luxury of making a living while carving out space for your own writing you might as well allow yourself some freedom to tap into all the sounds you love.

You started your career very young. What role does your upbringing have in your music today?

SHRUTI: I did start very young — was playing piano at 4, and playing professionally not long after. It’s hard to say what role my past has in my present, but I think the main takeaway right now is that it has afforded me the privilege of time to grow and wander with music. I don’t believe it’s necessary to start young, but if you do, music becomes like a limb. Something I can’t remember living without. At times it was tough — growing up is not without its trials and tests and doing it alongside music can stretch us to our limits. This doesn’t have to be an inherently bad thing, but the industry does not always make it seem like positive growth. However, I think I’m mainly grateful that this long relationship I’ve had with music has allowed a comfort with the “language” that allows me to keep learning and changing in a way that maybe I’d be less adventurous in trying if I had started later in life.

Where do you find inspiration when composing?

SHRUTI: All art. Other artists. My community. My collaborators. My memories. A stranger at a coffee shop. It’s really everywhere if I’m in the mood to be inspired.

What else is happening next in your world?

SHRUTI: Some exciting things for the new year. Along with this release I hope to have some live shows in the mix around the world, some digital interactive experiences, and some other big collaborations (soon to be announced.) I am currently scoring a feature and producing two albums for other artists that should also be flying the nest in 2022 — looking forward to sharing!

Listen to SALT on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/0xelV9CvHiFIjbyncvVBLw

Follow Shruti on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tamingoftheshruti

SHRUTI KUMAR (shrutikumar.com) is a Los Angeles-based composer, producer, and Julliard alumnus, whose multifaceted career and wanderlust with music has found her work featured in the likes of The National Geographic, NPR, FOX India, A24, Google, Apple+, and the 2016 Rio Olympics.

A genre-spanning songwriter-producer, Kumar has produced for artists Julia Nunes and Shungudzo, and has forthcoming collaborations with Koreatown Oddity and Alev Lenz. While in New York, her compositions crossed both the film and theater mediums, and she collaborated with groups such as Bang on a Can. Now in Los Angeles, she has spent time working at Remote Control Productions (Henry Jackman, Hans Zimmer), and working with pop producers/labels (SONY, XL, Universal) on arrangements & orchestrations in varying capacities for artists including Alicia Keys, No Doubt, Nas, and Vampire Weekend.

Kumar has performed or had her work performed at venues ranging from The Walt Disney Concert Hall to Carnegie Hall, The National Gallery to (le) Poisson Rouge. In February 2018, she arranged and musical directed a hybrid orchestral set with Shirley Manson (Garbage) and Fiona Apple as a part of the GXRLSCHOOL festival. In March 2019, her work with GXRLSCHOOL continued, where she composed, arranged, and conducted for BREATHEWATCHLISTENTOUCH: The work and music of Yoko Ono with the Los Angeles Philharmonic — which the Los Angeles Times called, “A vision for the way forward.

She co-composed the score to Bollywood feature Hanuman Da Damdaar (dir. Ruchi Narain), and indie feature Trivia Night (dir. Robert Gregson). More recently, she scored festival favorite Passage (dir. Asavari Kumar), as well as Esther in Wonderland (dir. Stephanie Bollag), which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival 2021. She is currently working with director Christian Coppola on his upcoming film Daddy.

Kumar began her musical career at age 4 as a pianist, and began composing shortly thereafter. Starting at The Juilliard School at just 11, Shruti’s ability with music stems from her classical roots. After exposure to musical theatre, performing both on stage and in pit orchestras, she soon began fusing different styles, writing songs in addition to her concert music, landing her on the The Late Show with David Letterman. Shruti completed her undergraduate studies at both Juilliard and Columbia University, and her master’s degree in film scoring at New York University.

Shruti hosts the dublab radio showLet’s Shake On It, bringing together musicians from around the world and producing collaborations. She is currently an adjunct instructor at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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