Samita Sinha on the voice, the body, and abstraction of tradition
Samita Sinha is one of the sound practitioners involved in the Rubin Museum's The World is Sound Exhibition. In a simplified explanation, her work deals with the body, the voice, and with certain musical traditions, Hindustani classical music among them. But, as is clear from this conversation with Sound American, her work can't be contained within these boundaries. She, instead, uses the traditions of her instrument and her training as tools to intuitively shape and sculpt motion, sound, and abstract tradition. In her own words, she's more interested in essence than in narrative, and her work creates a space that provides room for the audience to interpret, question, and experience.
Samita sat down with Sound American Editor, Nate Wooley, in early June to have a conversation about her history with sound, as well as her current trends of thought culminating in her new work for the World Is Sound exhibition.
Samita Sinha: Photo by Dean Moss
The World Is Sound
Sound American: It would be nice just to get an idea of what you grew up doing and how you found yourself involved with sound and movement and language.
Samita Sinha: Piano was my first instrument, when I was very young, but my real love was singing. I remember being 7 or 8 and playing the two or three records my family owned - the Sound of Music [laughs] and John Travolta and whatever I could get my hands on, and sing with them, alone in the living room.
My mother is Bengali, and Bengalis are known—to the point of parody—for their love of music and literature. She saw my inclination and wanted to pass “culture” onto me, so I found myself studying Indian classical voice at a Hindu temple in Flushing from age 10. The lessons were pretty basic—rote learning on a harmonium (points to the instrument in the corner). I didn’t fathom what I was learning until much later when I heard a classical recording (Kishori Amonkar’s Raag Ahir Bhairav) in college. But I kind of enjoyed those years of learning the pieces even without getting the whole—scales, compositions whose words I learned as a series of syllables, gliding through tones, the almost ugly beauty of taans (fast tone runs). My initial ignorance of the whole probably helped me to later take the music apart.
The temple lessons were a private world I kept separate from school life… I grew up in an insular and quite racist Italian/ Irish Catholic suburb performing in choirs and musicals—Handel, Mozart, Copland, Sondheim, Gershwin, playing the sole brown babushka in Fiddler on the Roof (staged when the Jewish music teacher came to town).
So, there is this sheer experience with sound and singing on the one hand, and this diasporic experience that (literally) colors it. At home we were told not to become American though of course the process of assimilation was underway for all of us, inevitably, violently, naturally.
Perhaps the greatest artistic influence in my early life were the intense women around me—mother, sister, grandmothers, goddesses we understood vaguely whose rites we experienced viscerally on childhood trips to India. It’s an amazing and difficult female energy: conflicted, contradictory, full of raw power that can go in any direction. And all this psychological residue from religion, colonialism, multiple patriarchies, assimilation.
SA: It's clear that your work is involved with much more than the voice, and that your voice is something that now combines and transcends the traditions you studied. What prompted the decision to deal with text and language?
SS: Yes, I think broadly about voice. My mind was blown open when I studied post-colonial literature at Yale. That gave me all these ways to think about how people forge identity through historical forces and entrenched systems of power, and helped me connect personal experience to a larger picture.
But even though concepts and language were formative in helping me understand the world, I am suspicious of containing and controlling the reality this way. Sound, particularly voice, is closer to the bone—more difficult and essential.
I speak several languages, and am interested in the in-between spaces of knowing and understanding. Like when you mostly know a language but don’t get nuances of humor or formality, the uncertainty that creates. Or, when you express yourself with sophistication in one language and sound like a child in another, how that traps you in your mind. Or when you lose fluency in a language that you knew as a child, how those sounds hold emotional currents without clear meaning.
When I went to India in my early 20s to study… on the one hand I was training in earnest, but it was charged by a search (perhaps naïve) for something—wisdom, a cosmic mother, a sense of self—that formed a kind of meta-noise around the training. Voice encompasses all of this.
SA: It's clear that you're dealing with abstraction but also with things that read to me, at least, like outbursts of energy that can't be contained by the body—and so ends up finding an expression through an outlet that is not "trained" but has a place outside tradition and is wholly your own. I'm drawn to that kind of work, so it's always fascinating to me to talk about how a person gets to the place where they can be conscious of how they deal with that sort of release in abstraction.
SS: Yes, I use the training to enter a space of not knowing and undoing. Now I’m working on giving this space both more and less form—what kind of compositional clarity is useful, what needs to remain undone, completed by the moment and the audience.
SA: Earlier you spoke about the process of abstracting this tradition. And, just now you mentioned dealing with two spaces during your time in India: the meta-space, which was a cultural tradition, political tradition, state-based tradition, and then a space that contained musical training. Do you count all that together when you're talking about this process of abstraction?
SS: Yes I do. Sometimes letting in so much life becomes too much—I guess those are the breaking points when energy cannot be contained. At the same time I am drawn to distillation, finding kernels of sound that hold complexity.
SA: Where did your connection with movement begin? In your pieces it seems inseparable from the presentation of sound.
SS: It started in Daria Fain’s class in 2009. Her class is very special, her own adaptation of Chinese energetics into a somatic practice for performers. It gave me access to substances in the body that I didn’t have to name or even understand, helped me see the voice as a full-body instrument, a membrane with the world.
So much converges in and on the body, in constant and chaotic flow. I started articulating this flow in voice, composing forms for this process.
SA: Risha [Lee, curator of the World is Sound] was telling me that your piece for The World Is Sound is kind of based on a deconstruction of certain words in Hindi.
SS: Yes. There are two voices. One is “thinking through” the alphabet, to get under the skin of language. That voice is both very present (in your ears) and also evoking a distant memory. The other voice is immediate, intoning abstracted fragments of Hindustani compositions, down to a single letter and tone-bend. The piece is a kind of conversation between the two voices.
The word for composition in Hindustani music is “bandish,” which literally means “tied”—a tying of tone, language, rhythm, inflection, phonemes. I untie the material, make an abstract language to give form to experiences that don’t fit into pre-existing forms.
SA: It's not a philosophical or linguistic practice.
SS: I suppose it’s intuitive…. and conceptual…. born of a certain necessity.
SA: Do you ever worry about, with the high level of abstraction of tradition you’re working within, whether the audience is going to come away from the piece with a meaning that is nowhere near what you intended?
SS: Yes! In the very beginning of this work I felt possessive of the meaning or intention, but I realized very quickly that allowing the differences of what each audience member brings in means letting go and saying yes, you are welcome to your reading. And, that ties back to language: Let me not fill my work with words, with meaning; instead let me empty words of meaning so it can be filled with meaning of another kind of experience, of another order that's more open. And actually, I feel kind of excited about it now, this wilderness of meaning.
SA: But, it's also very difficult because if you leave space for the audience to supply meaning, by supplying a meaning that's maybe abstract or leaving space for it to be misconstrued. I find it frightening to do something which that I know that people in the audience are all pouring bits of themselves into, and bits of themselves I may not want to be involved with [both laugh], but I still think it's a valuable experience.
SS: The space of my first work Cipher felt very crowded already with ghosts and history, so then to populate it with whoever is in the room was kind of magical but also frustrating because most people don't understand what the hell you're doing [both laugh]. But they go with it. They follow you somewhere, perhaps feel the shapes and resonances of those histories.
SA: I guess the real question is whether you think narratively when you think of your combination of sound, movement, and text, or whether you are thinking abstractly.
SS: I’m more interested in sensation and essence than in narrative. For example, right now I’m focusing in on the Hindu myth of Sati. Sati sacrifices herself by burning herself from the inside with the heat, or concentration, of her mind, and then she becomes the universe, reality itself. There’s this loaded image of Shiva (her lover) holding her calcified body and dancing his dance of fury and grief. To stop him from, through this dance, throwing the universe out of balance, the gods cut up Sati’s body, which falls to the ground in pieces. The last thing to land is her ashen vulva, on a site that is now a holy place. It’s an intense and foundational image.
So the myth becomes both a focus and a portal. It resonates with real life questions of agency and spirituality and sexuality, the shape of missiles, the question of what power is. I live with this material for a long time to finds its shapes and sensations… and varieties of silence.
The World is Sound is open now and will run through January 8th at the Rubin Museum. The Rubin is located at 150 W 17th Street, NY, NY. For more information and to buy tickets click here.