Shama Rahman interview: sound, sitar music and Antarctica

It’s not every day that you meet some­body who’s set foot on the ice world of Antarc­ti­ca. And it’s rar­er still to meet some­body who’s played the sitar there.

Shama Rah­man has done both. This musi­cian, sci­en­tist and explor­er was part of the Antarc­tic Bien­nale, the first ever art expe­di­tion to the shores of Antarc­ti­ca, com­mis­sioned by Alexan­der Pono­marev, with a col­lec­tive of inter­na­tion­al artists, and now show­ing at the Venice Biennale.

Rahman’s inquis­i­tive and tire­less­ly cre­ative per­son­al­i­ty has dri­ven her to cre­ate genre-blend­ing musi­cal com­po­si­tions, spo­ken word pieces, the­atri­cal per­for­mances, instal­la­tions, and numer­ous exper­i­ments with audio­vi­su­al technologies.

Short­ly before her per­for­mance at the recent Antarc­tic Pavil­ion open­ing at the Venice Bien­nale (on May 11; the exhi­bi­tion runs until August), Fringe Fre­quen­cy spoke with Rahman.

Here, she dis­cuss­es how her trip to the Earth’s south­ern­most con­ti­nent – a place with per­haps the most chal­leng­ing cli­mate on our plan­et, unspoiled by human hands, a world of ice, snow and sur­re­al wildlife, as mer­ci­less and mighty as it is strange and beau­ti­ful – has impact­ed on her work. What it’s actu­al­ly like to play the sitar, what peo­ple can expect from her forth­com­ing album, Truth BeTold, and what chal­lenges she faces as an inde­pen­dent musician.

How are you? How’s life been lately?
Shama Rah­man: Real­ly good. I’m going to go home and pack rather rapid­ly, because I’m fly­ing out to Venice for the Bien­nale where they’re going show the Antarc­tic pavilion.

Will peo­ple be able to see what you’ve per­formed at the Bien­nale here in the UK?
I was told there was going to be a whole pro­gramme of exhi­bi­tions up until 2018. I did see UK on the list of coun­tries. But, when that’s going to be I don’t know.

OK. You men­tioned in your inter­view on the BBC’s Front Row that you com­posed a new piece of music, ‘ReSound’, for the Bien­nale. Will peo­ple be able to hear this work at any UK shows?
Not yet, because I haven’t ful­ly fin­ished it.

Basi­cal­ly, I took a cou­ple of hydrophones to Antarc­ti­ca. These are micro­phones that you can immerse in water and with­stand cold. I want­ed to cap­ture that under­wa­ter ani­mal life: whales and seals, pen­guins on the land, and also ice sounds.

What I’m doing is incor­po­rat­ing these sounds into a new com­po­si­tion. All the under­wa­ter stuff is also quite noisy, acousti­cal­ly speak­ing. So, it takes a lit­tle bit of time to clean – you just basi­cal­ly hear white noise, and, then, every once in a while, you hear a beau­ti­ful, res­o­nant whale call. So, yeah, it’s all process.

I’ve been using the Roli Seaboard Rise [syn­the­siz­ers] to cre­ate these new pieces, because they allow very organ­ic move­ment with the syn­the­siz­er and elec­tron­ic sounds, things like that. So, that’s the idea to cre­ate ‘ReSound’ as an elec­tro-acoustic piece.

I also have this idea of it as an instal­la­tion, per­haps… I’d like to cre­ate a more embod­ied expe­ri­ence for people.

You cer­tain­ly like to try lots of dif­fer­ent things. You’re’s first artist-in-res­i­dence using their wear­able tech glove for com­pos­ing, right?

That’s right. I was the first artist-in-res­i­dence with a wear­able tech glove. And for the Antarc­tic, I got spon­sored by Roli, who are a pio­neer­ing synth com­pa­ny. They’ve got this real­ly inter­est­ing new mate­r­i­al for their synths, which allows for a dif­fer­ent form of slid­ing, so you can get all the notes in between, unlike you nor­mal­ly would on a piano. That’s real­ly cool.

I’m very inter­est­ed in this inter­sec­tion between the dig­i­tal and the ana­logue; things that feel like organ­ic tech­nol­o­gy, you know?

I actu­al­ly run a small, art-sci­ence start-up, called Jugu­lar Pro­duc­tions. Under­neath that, I do lots of dif­fer­ent things: from cross-dis­ci­pli­nary dis­cus­sion salons, or inter­ac­tive instal­la­tions, events, the­atre per­for­mances… Yeah, for me, every­thing is very multidisciplinary.

What was it like to be in Antarc­ti­ca? Very few peo­ple will go there in entire lifetime.
Yeah. I was very, very lucky to able to do that. It’s always been a dream of mine to be an explor­er. When I heard I was going to go, I was like: “this is incred­i­ble!” It was like the real­i­sa­tion of a dream.

When I was there… You see pic­tures and videos of glac­i­ers, but, to get a full embod­ied expe­ri­ence of the whole thing was… It was the moment I heard the whales, under­wa­ter, that I felt like I’d arrived in Antarctica.

In order to do that, we had to take these lit­tle rafts – rub­ber rafts, called zodi­acs – out from the ship. Small, lit­tle things, in the mid­dle of the water, lots of wind – at one point, I think was 25 knots [28 mph winds]. I was on my hands and knees on the floor of the zodi­ac, chuck­ing these hydrophones over the side, and I had no idea what to expect.

I’d delib­er­ate­ly not looked these sounds up before. So, when they first came through I couldn’t believe my ears. It was like: “Am I real­ly hear­ing what I think I’m hear­ing?” For me, the musi­cal, or the sound ele­ment, real­ly brought it home to me.

And there were moments, like on the last day of the glac­i­er area, which is called Par­adise Bay.

With the land­ings on this project, there were so many artists that it was quite a pro­duc­tion feat. So, there was a lot of doing, doing, doing. One of the artists came up with the bril­liant idea of sched­ul­ing 30 min­utes where we would just do noth­ing. Just be there, and let Antarc­ti­ca imprint upon us – rather than record­ing, talk­ing, all that sort of thing.

That moved me so much. I just felt like some­thing inside me shift­ed. Some­thing. I have no idea what it was. It felt like I was… you know, I was over­look­ing the bay, there were these lit­tle ice floats float­ing, and then they all kind of aligned. (Laughs)

Yes, def­i­nite­ly! I just felt like there was some­thing, a pat­tern. And I felt less, um… Appar­ent­ly, we’re liv­ing in the (sic) anthro­pocen­tric era. I felt lot less anthro­pocen­tric, which I didn’t even realise was my per­spec­tive until that moment. At that point, I felt much more for Antarc­ti­ca, the uni­verse, the world… it’s one of those places that makes you con­nect to the rest of the world. I came away feel­ing mys­te­ri­ous­ly pro­tec­tive of Antarc­ti­ca, and I hadn’t expect­ed to, necessarily.

And how did you end up get­ting cho­sen for the project in the first place?
Well, I got asked to put in pro­pos­als. One of them was about ‘ReSound’ [a new piece using sounds record­ed in Antarc­ti­ca], anoth­er pro­pos­al was to per­form, which with the sitar was an art instal­la­tion in itself, and also because of the art-sci­ence that I do. I think I was asked to help facil­i­tate that thought process, because that’s one of the ethos of the Bien­nale. And I did a cross-dis­ci­pli­nary salon on pre­cise­ly the sub­ject of art-science.

To be hon­est, I think it was very well curat­ed in the sense that all of us got on. We all seemed to be on the same sort of mind-wave. For that to hap­pen, over such close prox­im­i­ty, for the two weeks we were there or longer, is quite incred­i­ble. So, there must have been some­thing. And we’re all very much look­ing for­ward to see­ing each oth­er in Venice [on May 11].

And how does it feel to have been the first sitar play­er to per­form in Antarctica?
It was real­ly cool. I was wor­ried about the tem­per­ate, and the effect it could have on the mate­r­i­al [as the instru­ment is made from sea­soned toon wood]. But it actu­al­ly proved to be quite hardy. It was me that felt more effect­ed by the cold.

But, also the sounds and the echoes and the res­o­nances with ice, it’s quite a dif­fer­ent thing. Nor­mal­ly I per­form with a full band, as well. Play­ing the sitar, I don’t only play in the tra­di­tion­al con­text, I take it out into dif­fer­ent gen­res, like jazz, elec­tron­i­ca, singer-song­writer pieces, that sort of thing.

I had to take an ampli­fi­er out there with me as well. I was trig­ger­ing sam­ples and back­ing tracks through Able­ton on my lap­top. We had an audi­ence of seals, pen­guins, and few of the oth­er Bien­nale par­tic­i­pants. So, it was quite incred­i­ble to be per­form­ing my songs there – par­tic­u­lar­ly songs from my album Truth BeTold.

It’s sort of the­mat­i­cal­ly linked as well, because I cre­at­ed Truth BeTold using audio field record­ings of dif­fer­ent water forms from around the world. Each one of the songs using dif­fer­ent bits, so one could be a bab­bling brook, or it could the sea, or it could be the rain. Each one of the songs is lyri­cal­ly and metaphor­i­cal­ly linked to these dif­fer­ent water forms, as if they were per­tain­ing to the dif­fer­ent faces, phas­es and moods that we have as human beings.

It’s almost like dif­fer­ent life stages through the album. I guess the one thing I was miss­ing was ice – because it’s all about water. So, that came full cir­cle (Laughs). That was real­ly incredible.

And what is it like to play the sitar? The instrument’s long neck makes it look like a very dif­fi­cult object to play, let alone master.
Yeah, it is. I had to actu­al­ly take up more phys­i­cal activ­i­ty in order to be able to play it. Stuff like yoga, dance, and oth­er things to strength­en myself.

I don’t know whether that says any­thing about the sitar or whether it says I’m very weak, I don’t know (Laughs). But, yeah, you do need quite a lot of strength in your fin­gers. I know that it’s kind of equiv­a­lent to how bass play­ers see their strength. It’s a lot of strain on par­tic­u­lar fingers.

So, you have to be quite aware of your musi­cal and phys­i­cal health to stay a strong and robust play­er. And it’s good to (sic) be med­i­ta­tive as well when you’re play­ing it, because all of the acoustics and vibra­tions go through your body, as it’s so close to your body.

I don’t know if you know this, but peo­ple sit quite fun­ni­ly when they play it. You put one foot under­neath you, and sit in a cross-legged fash­ion, and sort of bal­ance the bowl of the sitar on the inner sole of one of your feet. And, then, you kind of cre­ate a bal­ance ful­crum between that and the strik­ing arm.

So, there’s a lit­tle bit to do before you start play­ing. When you first start to play the strings are like cheese cut­ters (Laughs) – they’re very sharp. So, yeah: pain! Pain before pleasure!

It cer­tain­ly seems like you have to cre­ate a bond with the instrument.
Yeah, for sure. When I first bought the one you see in the pic­tures, I bought it in India. It came on my jour­ney all the way from India.

It stays with me quite a lot. It’s like my sec­ond voice. It’s a very sonorous, melo­di­ous instru­ment. There’s things you can do melod­i­cal­ly that are quite dif­fi­cult to do with any oth­er instrument.

We want­ed to talk a lit­tle bit about your upcom­ing album, Truth BeTold. You ran a Kick­starter cam­paign between April 10 and May 10, 2016, and you man­aged to exceed your fund­ing goal of £1,500. How was that process, and what has it meant for the album?
When I start­ed it I didn’t realise how much of your time it required. It requires 110 per cent, once you start it. You have to do reg­u­lar updates. You have to remind peo­ple how many days left they have to con­tribute. You have to think about real­ly cool rewards.

So, the process itself was a def­i­nite learn­ing process. Also, it was a real­ly cool way of let­ting peo­ple know about the process of record­ing, because we had it filmed. It was the first time I’d used a piece of wear­able tech­nol­o­gy [the glove] through­out the record­ing of an album, whilst play­ing with live and impro­vis­ing musicians.

So, I had to keep in mind there were tem­po changes with the live drum­mer, and impro­vis­ing with the glove… because you can pro­gram in a synth sound, so you can play a synth with it, for exam­ple. So, that, whilst also play­ing the sitar, and singing, that whole thing was quite fas­ci­nat­ing for a lot of people.

And then, we per­formed it at the South­bank Cen­tre [dur­ing the 2016 Alche­my Fes­ti­val]. Part of the fundraise was to cre­ate a spe­cial, sto­ry­telling, immer­sive mul­ti­me­dia per­for­mance of the work. It was kind of the full vision of it. It paid for some of the artists’ fees – the South­bank also helped out in terms of pro­vid­ing us with some of the fee rolls, the tech­ni­cal sup­port, and rehearsal space. So, it all linked in real­ly well.

So, we’ve just had some of the 360 video footage come back from [the South­bank per­for­mance]. The idea was that we have the band on stage, and we had a pro­jec­tion screen behind us and in front of us, and then we had dancers implant­ed in the audi­ence. So, hope­ful­ly, the whole thing evoked the char­ac­ters and sto­ries of each one of the songs.

Each one of the songs is split by a sto­ry­telling inter­lude, like a poet­ry inter­lude. So, I, as sto­ry­teller, would inter­act with the dancers. When I was inter­act­ing, the gloves would influ­ence the visu­als, which would also influ­ence the music, and, then that in turn would influ­ence how I would organ­i­cal­ly want to react with the dancers. So, that was the idea of cre­at­ing a sto­ry­telling loop.

The Kick­starter was a good thing for that. It allowed us to print hard­copies of the album, too. From that, I’ve been able to get more inter­est for it. For exam­ple, we had a Chan­nel 4 Sun­day Brunch appearance.

Your love of music, art, and tech­nol­o­gy is very broad. You have a very inquis­i­tive mind, don’t you?
Yeah, I’m curi­ous. I always have been since I was a kid. I’m just quite inter­est­ed in pos­si­bil­i­ties: if you dream it, it’ll hap­pen one day, right?

I’ve always been inter­est­ed in dif­fer­ent areas. I got into sci­ence through draw­ing and biol­o­gy. Appar­ent­ly, it’s not such a weird route – a lot of peo­ple used to do it in the 17th and 18th century.

What was the tough­est moment for you in the cre­ation of your new album?
Fundrais­ing was a huge part of it, to be hon­est. We’re inde­pen­dent artists. I actu­al­ly got an emerg­ing excel­lence award two years pri­or to actu­al­ly mak­ing the album, because there wasn’t enough for that either.

So, it kind of came togeth­er with the Kick­starter, with the emerg­ing excel­lence award, and then with the Southbank.

The go-ahead came for the South­bank in Jan­u­ary [2016], and we had to put it togeth­er by May [2016], which was a huge under­tak­ing. So, I had to record it – and also, the glove res­i­den­cy came though, too – so, every­thing hap­pened with­in six months.

Obvi­ous­ly, a lot of the music had been done before. But, to realise it in that par­tic­u­lar arrange­ment, and record it, mas­ter it, work with the dancers, the visu­al artists, while also learn­ing a new tech­nol­o­gy [the glove], and incor­po­rat­ing it with con­fi­dence… all that was fascinating.

It’s great that we per­formed it at a fes­ti­val, called Alche­my, because it real­ly felt like an alchem­i­cal process.

But you can imag­ine the pres­sures and stress­es of time, fundrais­ing, and all the rest of it, all com­ing together.

When will peo­ple be able to hear the final album?
The album is fin­ished. It’s now up on pre-order at Band­camp. That is the full ver­sion of it. The phys­i­cal edi­tion might end up being a lim­it­ed edi­tion, because we’re think­ing of hav­ing a more com­pact dig­i­tal ver­sion high­light­ing just the songs.

The idea is to have a sin­gle release around Sep­tem­ber time, because we’re play­ing Besti­val – they invit­ed us as one of the upcom­ing bands to watch, so we’re real­ly excit­ed about that. And maybe anoth­er sin­gle just before Christ­mas, in Novem­ber. And, then, I’m hop­ing the album will come out Jan­u­ary or Feb­ru­ary [2018].

It’s one of those things that takes a long process.

Final­ly, where can peo­ple catch you live, or on tour, in Lon­don, and the rest of the UK?
We’re per­form­ing at Besti­val on Sep­tem­ber 8. And think there’s a cou­ple more fes­ti­vals in the sum­mer. I’m just wait­ing for the details.

After that we’ll hope­ful­ly be hav­ing a sin­gle launch in Sep­tem­ber, and anoth­er in Novem­ber. And then, I’m putting togeth­er a tour to go with the launch of the album for springtime.

I’ll be per­form­ing with a full band or solo, like I did in Antarc­ti­ca. So, it’s about being flexible.

Truth BeTold is avail­able for pre-order on Shama Rahman’s Band­camp page. You can find out more about the Antrac­tic Bien­nale here. And see Rahman’s oth­er projects on her web­site.

Images: Eugene Kasper­spy (main image; body image of Shama with sitar); all images cour­tesy of Shama Rahman