Aakash Mittal's Sound, Noise, and Voice
Saxophonist and composer Aakash Mittal grew up on American swing and big band jazz before he began delving into the world of Hindustani music. As leader of the Awaz Trio, he created Nocturne, a series of pieces that deconstructs five Hindustani evening and night ragas, which they'll perform in a free show at the David Rubenstein Atrium on Thursday, September 27. Before the show, presented in collaboration with The India Center Foundation and Asian American Arts Alliance, Mittal sat down with fellow saxophone player, Asian American Arts Alliance Van Lier Fellow, and Brooklyn Raga Massive collective member Pawan Benjamin to talk about the concept of Awaz, a Hindi-Urdu word that changes meaning depending on the context.
Pawan Benjamin: So, Aakash, tell me about your musical upbringing.
Aakash Mittal: My initial training was playing clarinet in wind band in school in Dallas, Texas, where I grew up. I remember being in third grade and they had an assembly in the gym with a wind ensemble. I hadn't played an instrument ever, and the band came in and they went from playing quietly to loudly, and I felt this emotional surge. I remember sitting there on the floor with all the other third-graders and hearing this band get louder and thinking, "Oh my gosh, that's so cool. I want to do that." I like that it started without knowing anything about genre; it was just the sound going from quiet to loud.
PB: Simple dynamics that reached you immediately.
AM: Yeah, I think there's something important and visceral about that.
PB: After clarinet in school, who were some of your musical inspirations?
AM: Fast-forward to middle school. I really got into the swing revival that was happening in the mid- to late-'90s, and so the first music I started claiming on my own was the Royal Crown Revue and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. I would literally go out dancing three nights a week to live bands. My parents were supercool and let me go out to clubs. And that got me studying the history of that music, the Lindy hop and the Savoy Ballroom and Frankie Manning. So that led to listening to Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
PB: Dance-oriented music rather than what we think of as instrumental jazz?
AM: Totally. It was the gateway into big-band jazz, and that's when I was like, "I want to play for dancers. I need to get a saxophone." I think the relationship of sound to movement was very important, and it's still important to me, including the set that I'm playing at the Atrium on September 27. As I write music, it's as much about bodies moving at different tempos at the same time.
PB: So, getting to Awaz Trio at the Atrium. Awaz means sound or noise, right? In Hindi.
AM: Yeah, what I dug about it is that Awaz can mean "noise," "sound," or "voice," depending on context. So, when you see Awaz Do on the back of trucks in South Asia, I always assumed that meant "make sound" or "make noise," not "make voice," but you can also use it in things like, "Your voice is very beautiful." I love that this word encompasses three different identities that change based on context.
"Improvisation is the most normal thing we do: improvising constantly through life."
PB: What inspires Awaz Trio? How do you put your music together?
AM: For me, the improvisational aspect of the music is a core element. Improvisation is the most normal thing we do: improvising constantly through life. And for me personally, I really enjoy it. That's what hooked me into that music. That and, of course, form. A lot of the music I'm going play at the Atrium deals with form. Not always form in the sense that jazz or Hindustani music uses a cycle or a 32-bar song, where it repeats, and the game is: What can you do within that structure? In some ways, the form is the linear aspect of the piece, framed by these events. I would say all this music is linear in the sense that it rarely repeats a theme or comes back to the section that happened in the beginning. It often starts in one place and moves through three, four, or five different places, and you end up somewhere completely different. Conceptually, it very much relates to Hindustani music.
PB: Speaking of which, you received a grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies to study in Kolkata, India. Tell me about that experience.
AM: I studied with Prattyush Banerjee, who's a great sarod player and one of the older disciples of Buddhadev Dasgupta, who recently passed away. So, he's moving into a higher role of responsibility within that gharānā [musical family or lineage] at this point. He's an incredible person and teacher, and I feel very fortunate to have worked with him since 2009. This A.I.I.S. grant was my chance to live in Kolkata and work with him regularly, to have the energy and time to share. I studied Hindustani night ragas to have that traditional study and pedagogy inform the concert at Lincoln Center.
PB: Was the training difficult to get into, versus your background in Western music and saxophone? Did you have to recalibrate your brain a little bit?
AM: Yeah, absolutely, a major recalibration. I felt like a beginner again. In the U.S. I make my living playing saxophone and I'm a professional and being in this aural-tradition place and learning a whole a form of music that was new to me… I really felt like a kid again. I almost didn't feel like I knew the instrument, because I was trying to deal with sounds that don't really work on saxophone.
PB: Sure, but you get into it, and it's another thing.
AM: There's another aspect of the aural tradition: not dealing with sheet music. My whole life has been about sound and notation. So my ear training suddenly needed to be so good that I could learn and remember music quickly. It was hard. It still is hard.
PB: What made you want to study Indian music?
AM: There was a sense of exploring my identity as an Indian-American person, getting to know my father's side of the family. One of my favorite things about visiting India, apart from music, is I always feel like I learn something new about him, even though he passed away in 2011. When I go, there are enough similarities that I go, "Man, that stuff my dad used to do that I was embarrassed by, or found annoying, here it's totally normal," you know?
PB: Can you give me an example?
AM: When I was a kid, my dad and sister and I would sleep on the floor even though we had three bedrooms that were empty, because why use a bedroom when you can all just sleep on the floor? And then I visit a family in India and that's what they do, too, and I was like, Oh, okay, this is normal, you know.
PB: Yeah. Is there a direct parallel in the music to that?
AM: Absolutely. The music has been an important journey for me in developing my identity as South Asian and American, and the sense of otherness that comes from that: where you exist in both places, but also don't exist in either. Discovering Hindustani music was my gateway to exploring my name, my heritage, and feeling pride for my heritage, whereas before I felt neutrality. Sometimes it was this thing that made me an outsider, especially growing up in Texas. No one can pronounce my name. Or when I said I was Indian they would always respond, "What tribe are you from?" No one got it. So, to answer your question: Yes, they are inextricably tied.
PB: Do you consider your music jazz or new classical music?
AM: It exists at the intersection of jazz, Hindustani, and new music, and of course, as usual, those labels don't feel satisfying. And yet you don't want to reject those continuums that have brought you here, right?
PB: As saxophone players, so much of our musical legacy is in jazz and Black American music. You're at the intersection, which is a fun, inspirational place to be.
AM: I would even argue about what raga music is. We have this debate in Brooklyn Raga Massive: Do we call it raga music or classical music? And that's a debate in the Indian community as well. Prattyush calls it raga music, and he has a whole essay about why it shouldn't be called classical music.
PB: What would you like the audience to take away from the Atrium concert?
AM: One series I'm playing is titled Nocturne. The idea is that nighttime isn't just a pastoral, peaceful state that we get through the European tradition of John Field or Chopin nocturnes. In our contemporary world, especially in urban settings, nighttime is often the place of tremendous density.
AM: Awaz, noise, sound, an explosion of energy and people. Especially in South Asia, when the heat of the day subsides, that's when everyone comes out to shop and hang and play. During festival time, like Durga Puja, everyone would be out all night long playing drums, partying…. Nighttime can also be about human friction and collision and energy and momentum and noise. There's so much traffic, and I'm fascinated by that city noise as well, and I try to capture that in the music.
PB: What's next for you as a composer?
AM: I'm writing a large ensemble wind symphony piece for Lawrence University called Somay Raga: four movements, each one a different raga. Nothing delves into Western chromaticism. In a way it's the opposite of what I did with the Nocturne series. How do you take an orchestra and only play music within the raga tradition? I think that if someone trained in this music heard it, they would say, "I kind of hear it, but it's also just you." That's premiering this spring by eight different programs, including one in Sydney, Australia.
PB: And you've been writing vocal music?
AM: Yeah, that's new. I did a workshop in Banff and wrote my first vocal ensemble piece, which was cool. I'm interested in writing stuff that's not intentionally dealing with South Asian identity but other aspects of myself, maybe something more universal. Inspired by people like Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill.
PB: Getting outside of your own identity for inspiration.
AM: Totally. Like people who are really dealing with sound, ways to structure sound and ways to think creatively. I've been really inspired by Milford Graves, who I studied with. He does so much with healing and biology and other intersections. But I keep returning to this fascination with Hindustani music. It's like gravity. I'm definitely in orbit!
Multi-instrumentalist and composer Pawan Benjamin has collaborated with artists such as Roscoe Mitchell, Ranjit Barot, Taufiq Qureshi, Rez Abbasi, Mark Cary, Candido Camero, and Bill T. Jones among others. His debut album, Tinte Baja, was released in March 2018.