“The Best Honey Comes From Many Wildflowers:” An Interview with Kamala Sankaram

David Johnston

Kamala Sankaram, one of our 2011-12 Con Edison Composers-in-Residence, chatted with us over email about her famous collaborators, her upcoming steampunk chamber opera, and how experimental NY sounds go over in the Ukraine.

You’ve had some really cool, interesting collaborators – the Wooster Group, Philip Glass Ensemble, Anthony Braxton.  How has working with more established artists affected your own work?

I feel really lucky to have worked with such great people for a couple of reasons- First; it’s really given me insight into the process of creating a work. Each of these artists has their own way of working, from beginning to end. Being present for all or part of that process has given me new techniques to add to my own toolkit. Second, working with more established artists has given me the inspiration and drive to push myself. People like Liz LeCompte (Co-Founding Member, Director of the Wooster Group) have always pursued their own, unique vision. And it’s not something that everyone always understands. But here she is, twenty years after the Group began, with an iconic status in the theater world. You could say the same thing about Philip Glass or Anthony Braxton. I hear a lot of talk about how art is dead because “the masses” don’t understand innovation. Being around people who have found success without compromising their vision proves to me that audiences understand more than we give them credit for, and that it’s possible to succeed in making art without compromise.

You’re a vocalist as well.  Does performing inform your own composing?

Being a performer has always informed my compositional process. For me, thinking about how the piece is going to be performed is just as important as the structure behind the piece. Most of my music has some kind of narrative arc embedded in it, even if the piece is purely instrumental. I’ve actually written stage directions into many of my scores. Some of them are as simple as describing how the players should be arranged in the space, but I have also asked the instrumentalists to do movements and to act.

You’re working on an opera about Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who suffered an “honor” rape.  What drew you to this material? It’s pretty horrific stuff.

I’ve always been very interested in politics. I think the danger in talking about politics is that it’s easy for people to divorce themselves from what they’re actually talking about. This is particularly true in arguments that involve some kind of cultural relativism. We’ve come a long way, but the treatment of women in many countries is still horrific. Yet, it’s something that people shy away from thinking about, perhaps because we don’t have a way to process the emotions that go along with this feeling of horror.  I think that art can give us a way into this discussion. Emotions are universal. Music is universal. And so, I think music as a means to open up the emotional, human element of a political discussion makes a lot of sense. I’m drawn to Mukhtar’s story in particular because she has not allowed what happened to her to drag her down. If anything, it has made her stronger, even through the repeated acquittals of her rapists by the Pakistani government. It’s my hope that presenting this kind of material in a familiar, human way will both make people aware that it exists and will spur them on to get involved in solving the problem.

You’re active in the downtown music scene and theater as well.  Collective Unconscious, HERE, Bushwick Starr.  Anything in particular draw you to that world?

I love the intimacy and the immediacy of the downtown scene. I love the scrappiness of it. You have people whose budgets are less than 1/60th of the Spiderman budget doing things that would make your jaw drop. At HERE alone, there are people working with Butoh, making robotic bunraku puppets, making theater with found text and the audience as actors… it’s all very, very good! The thing that I’ve noticed most about the downtown scene is that it’s made up of a lot of very passionate, smart people, who are doing what they’re doing because they love it.

There’s a great video on your site of your group Anti-Social Music performing experimental New York music on what looks like a Russian daytime talk show, Odessa TV.  You’re explaining to the host that it’s text by Hunter S. Thompson, about the election of Schwarzenegger in California, and someone is translating it into Russian for the hosts.  You’ve got to tell us what that gig was like.

It was pretty amazing. Anti-Social Music did a tour of several cities in Ukraine: Odessa, Lvov, Ivano Frankivsk, Kiev, and the Carpathian Mountains. Many of the people we played for had little to no experience with contemporary music, so the reactions we got were totally genuine. Some people loved it. Some people seemed uncomfortable. Everyone was eager to serenade us with traditional Ukrainian songs (which are beautiful!) afterward.  The most interesting concert was for the Hutsuls in the Carpathian Mountains.  People talked through the entire concert. Some people left after the first piece. It was very difficult to keep going, but at the end, they actually gave us a standing ovation! The mayor of the village gave us a dinner after the concert. His take on the evening stuck with me. He said it was important for people to hear many kinds of music, especially music that they weren’t used to because “the best honey comes from many wildflowers.” Sometimes, living in New York, we forget how lucky we are to have so many wildflowers, and that sometimes people love what you’re doing, even if they don’t seem to be paying attention.

What’s rewarding about being a composer in NYC? What’s challenging?

New York is a great city because it’s full of smart, educated, curious people who are interested in music. New York is challenging because it’s also full of smart, educated, talented composers who are making interesting music. So, the trick is to find your people. They’re out there, but it may take a little while to find them. That’s the best lesson I’ve learned from being here- if you’re persistent and passionate, you’ll find your niche.

What are you looking forward to with the Con Edison Musicians’ Residency?

I’m really looking forward to getting my opera, “Miranda” ready for its January production date. There have been a lot of changes since our last workshop, and I’m very excited to work them in. I’m also going to be working on “The Thumbprint of Mukhtar Mai” with librettist Susan Yankowitz. I’m planning on bringing several musical collaborators in to work on different ideas for the piece, including specialists in Indian and Bulgarian music. I’m hoping to have them do open workshops in their areas of expertise: how do you sing Carnatic and Bulgarian music? How do you do bols? It’s going to be fun for me to do some in-depth training in other types of singing. I’m also hoping to invite the kids from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus– I think they’d really enjoy it!

What’s next?

Well, I have “Miranda” coming up in January. I’m doing a couple of concerts with Anthony Braxton at Roulette in October. I’m touring with Taylor Ho Bynum’s group Positive Catastrophe in November. My Yma Sumac/Bollywood/Spaghetti Western band is up and running. It’s going to be a great fall!

“Miranda,” a “60 minute steampunk murder-mystery chamber opera,” runs Jan. 12-21, 2012 at HERE. Check out the video preview below.

Kamala Sankaram plays with Anthony Braxton at Roulette Oct 7 and 8.


Miranda: Scene 1 from Kamala Sankaram on Vimeo.


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