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