Composer and vocalist Ritika Ganguly is one of six 2017 Cedar Commissions artists. Her project, debuting on February 3rd (get tickets here), is a place where poem meets song. It explores the inherent musicality of literature straddling 19th century Bengal to contemporary New Delhi to Victorian England to 20th century Chile. Ganguly is collaborating with Mexican and Indian musicians to render this poetry into musical patterns that draw on the Baul heritage of Bengali music, North Indian music, and Neo Soul, incorporating instrumentation not commonly used with these genres, including the bansuri, acoustic guitar, and the cajón.
It thrills me to be working in Bangla. It is the language I inhabit, my home in the world. I remember how some eighteen summers ago, when my grandma sat me down and taught me the Bangla alphabet, I was mesmerized at the world of music that it unbolted for me. I was training then in a genre of Bangla music that is also simultaneously considered the finest Bangla (written) literature, but I had been transcribing, all this time, the heard Bangla word first into Hindi – the default language taught in schools in New Delhi – and then rendering it into spoken (or sung) Bangla! To experience a word in the written form, and to see it sitting amidst other words, replete with punctuation, rhyme, and line breaks, made the logic of the melody fall into place at once. So many years and cities later, here I am, revisiting once again the relationship between literature and music, thanks to this open-minded music grant that allows musicians to take unique and fresh risks.
My new musical work is a completely new experience and experiment, where really all I’m doing is following the inherent resonance of the written and spoken word, and going where it takes me. I’m working with poems from a diverse body of written and oral literature straddling 19th century Bengal, Victorian England, 20th century Chile, and contemporary New Delhi. If I had to translate into music the emotive content of a poem as I read or hear it, what would that translation sound like? This has been the most compelling question driving the project and steering it back every time I’ve drifted. For instance, if I’m reading a poem by the Romantic poet William Blake or by the Sufi mystic poet Lalon Shah (writing roughly during the same period but responding to remarkably different social realities), what is the pitch, tonality, and inflection of that poem for me? How does that change when I know the poet deeply as a person; for instance, when I read Kaveri Ganguly’s poems in Bangla or Shamu Ganguly’s translations of Lalon’s poetry into Spanish? How does my voice – my musical instrument – interpret that poem and make it into song?
For this reason, my compositions for this project refuse to sit comfortably in any particular genre of music. There are elements of the stirred, insistent, and adamantly interrogative mode of Baul music, of the quietness of Raag Bhairavi (within the Hindustani musical tradition), and of the contemplative plea of Shyama Sangeet (within the Bangla musical tradition). I couldn’t be luckier with my choice of collaborating musicians, since Nathalie Ramirez and Nikhil Mawkin have brought in just the Bossa and the African inspired and Latin rhythms that the compositions were hungry for. Nikhil Mawkin’s aptitude for musical arrangement, his nimbleness on the guitar, and Nathalie Ramirez’s articulation of the bansuri and the western concert flute has given this project life. Long-distance collaboration halfway across the world has also meant that we have relied on unusual modes of communicating musical ideas via Skype, Whatsapp audio, and Evernote (yes!), but that has only made the role of layering in the process of music-making plain and glaring and exquisite for me.
The Cedar Commissions is The Cedar’s flagship program for emerging artists made possible with a grant from the Jerome Foundation. Since its launch in 2011, The Cedar has commissioned and showcased new work by more than 30 local, emerging composers and musicians. Buy tickets for the 2017 Cedar Commissions here.