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Talking dance, discipline and decolonization with Ami Dang

by Levi Dayan


[originally published February 2022]


Like many of us, Ami Dang - composer, educator and Oberlin alumnus - has been keeping herself very busy as the world has slowly opened up. Dang briefly worked as a visiting professor in the TIMARA program during the summer semester. Presently, she’s set to go on not one, but two back-to-back tours - one accompanying The Weather Station on the European wing of her tour, beginning only a few days after this article will have been published, and another immediately after with fellow Baltimoreans and (half) Obies, Beach House. On top of this, she is also in the process of working on a brand new record, her first full-length since 2019’s Parted Plains. I first interviewed Ami Dang in the fall of 2020 while I was working on what would become the first of many articles about pay equity for musicians in the streaming era, and in the summer of 2021, when she returned to the college as a visiting professor, I met her for the first time. I intended to write a profile of her the next semester but never had the chance, as she left her teaching position soon after. So it was a great pleasure to not only speak with her, but also see her perform live for the very first time this past Friday. Her performance weaved remarkable sitar and vocal techniques with throbbing electronics - including sub bass deep and heavy enough that it felt percussive at times - courtesy of her partner Zach Christensen. Her performance was a rare chance to witness a group of students - many of whom, based on those I talked to, were not entirely familiar with her music - discover and become entranced by a great artist in real time. In return, Dang seemed more genuinely joyful to be performing at the ‘Sco than any other artist I’ve had the chance to see. This sense of kindness and openness is something I’ve heard spoken to by both students and luminaries alike, and it was such a great pleasure to speak with her and have her share her kindness and her passion for music with me.

You’ve done a lot of work focusing on acoustic environments and the relationship between space and sound structures. How does that kind of work differ from playing at Sco or similar venues?

Honestly, I don't even feel like my practice has really been very focused on researching, or thinking about space and sound. I definitely think about it, but I don't feel like I spend a lot of time in my process, focusing on, like, any one specific site. And so I think I just kind of take every space for what it is, you know? I mean, I definitely appreciate when I'm in a space that really adds something to the performance, but for me, the ‘Sco is like the best neutral club. Because there's way worse than that. I mean, I performed at the cocktail hour of a wedding a few months ago. *laughs*

One thing that's nice about the ‘Sco is that the sound is great, those subs are really nice. For me, the number one thing hands down is a good sound system. And if the room is beautiful, but the sound system sucks, then that’s not ideal for me either, especially because in my music I use a lot of sub bass. Unless they bring in an outside system, a lot of concert halls aren’t equipped for that full range kind of electronic music. That's changing more, obviously, but they weren't really always designed for that.

Something I'm actually thinking about is doing more site specific work. I had kind of completely shifted to being a recording artist, but I do think of my work as sometimes more conceptual, and sometimes more research driven, even though ultimately it is just sort of experimental pop. Recently I’ve been thinking about working on a project that’s multimedia, or site specific, or more like an installation, as opposed to the typical thing of recording an album and touring it, which is very industry driven. I think of my work more as a process rather than a product.

What was your gateway into working within electronic music and then coming to the conservatory?

High school, for me. I mean, this was a different time when not everybody had GarageBand on their laptop. So I got exposed to ProTools by taking this music technology class my senior year of high school, which was the first time they offered it. But I think even before that, I was interested in timbrely electronics. I also took dance classes as a kid, which I was into at the time but don’t really do so much anymore. But I took ballet, jazz and modern, and it was actually more through dance that I was exposed to timbrely music than through my music education. I think maybe my dance teachers were looking for more left-of-center music than my music teachers, because I was in choir and also taking sitar lessons, which were very strictly situated in Hindustani classical music. So it was more through dance that I got interested in that kind of music, and then I was like “maybe if I take this music tech class, I’ll be able to record myself or record my voice and then see what I can do with it.”

I didn’t actually apply for TIMARA right away. I came here as a college student, and then my first semester, maybe during orientation, I found out about the TIMARA program, got into some of the first classes and then I applied to become a major. I was double degree for a bit, and then I dropped the non-TIMARA part of it.

It’s interesting that dance was your gateway into experimental music, considering the historical relationship between the two. I’m thinking particularly of John Cage and Merce Cunningham.

Exactly. And, in terms of artistry and choreography, I think contemporary dance is more widely supported than, let’s say, the funding of contemporary composition, which is the musical equivalent. I mean, most people are funding orchestras playing music that hasn’t been new for more than 100 years. Here, there’s a lot of people who uphold contemporary music - and you also have plenty of people who don’t - and out in the world it’s even slimmer. It speaks to the way music has developed in our culture, where there’s highbrow and there’s lowbrow, there’s serious art and there’s pop, there’s high art and there’s everybody else, there’s “Western” and “Other.”

In terms of Indian Classical music, are there any musicians that influenced you or that you are particularly fond of?

Good question. I’ll be honest, I don’t follow as much Indian Classical as much as I feel like I should *laughs*, or people think I have. But there’s this amazing singer, Kaushiko Chakraborty. She’s just out of this world, has insane control over her voice, I mean it’s just wild. Her work is really phenomenal. Also, really, my guru, Anupam Mahajan. I took a gap semester while I was here at Oberlin, I came here and then kind of realized there wasn’t really support for Indian Classical music, or at least not the level where I was. And then I ended up taking a gap semester and going to New Delhi, and I established a relationship with my guru there. I took voice lessons too, and also tabla lessons, which I only ever did during that time. But it gave me a really solid foundation for understanding tal - rhythm in Indian music. And so I just took all these intensive music lessons in Indian music during that era. She’s a phenomenal player, she has not been recognized nearly enough for her work.

Relatedly, during your performance last night you talked about how you incorporate the sitar into a non-traditional context, which irritates some people, but you view it as just the only natural form of expression for your music. Are there any people who you’ve taken influence from in terms of using the sitar in that kind of non-traditional setting? Because at the same time, people have been decontextualizing the sitar for decades.

Yeah, that’s true. It was so popular in the West in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with the Beatles and whatever else, and definitely that influence was there for me. It’s funny, because I don’t have a ton of fans of that generation, but then every so often, there’ll be like a 60-something year old head at a show who’s like “yeah, I haven’t seen a sitar in 40 years!” But I can’t really point to any specific artists. I think for me it was kind of like growing up within this household where there was kind of a cultural clash. My parents are pretty religious, kind of conservative, and the soundscape at home was Bollywood, Indian Classical, Light Classical, and my family is Sikh, so Sikh religious music. And then, you know, top 40, everything else I listened to and that my sisters and my friends listened to, and also what I heard in dance class. So to me it’s just like such a natural expression, and what I make comes out of all of that more than any specific artist.

It’s funny, as I was asking that question I was trying to think of non-conventional usage of the sitar outside of The Beatles, ‘60s/’70s pop music and also corny New Age-type stuff, and I was drawing a blank. What was coming to mind for me was less so music incorporating the sitar and more the kind of Indian-influenced music that represents more of a genuine cultural exchange, like the Coltranes and Terry Riley.

Yeah totally, 100%. Definitely stuff like La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, the Dream House, and they learned from Pandit Pran Nath, all of that is amazing. And of course, Phillip Glass. I did listen to that Phillip Glass and Ravi Shankar collaboration, and I’ve listened to that album Einstein on the Beach so much. That has definitely influenced my work, and also validated it to some extent. I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of cycles of asking myself “should I be making this? Do people like this? Is this interesting? Why am I doing this? What is cool?” Because there’s a lot of those questions when you make any kind of art form. And so then, when you see that there is a history and a lineage to this music, it helps validate your work. I mean, my family is not very artistic, my parents were always like “hey, just keep tinkering with your noise making… things,” *laughs* and my sisters are all like “I just like your sitar clean, without all the other stuff.” You know, you hear that a lot when you’re making music that doesn’t really have a frame of reference for most mainstream listeners. So then hearing something like the Indian Classical influence on Einstein on the Beach was huge.

It’s interesting how that works, where it’s like on one hand it’s music that’s given this unfair, kind of embarrassing connotation because of trends in the 60s/70s, but then on the other hand, it’s also one of the foundational building blocks of contemporary music.

Yeah, and I think on the other side too, I’ve reflected a lot on the way oldies Bollywood has affected my work. That music is so straightforward, you know, it’s like pop music in India, but when you listen to Bollywood music from the ‘40s through the ‘70s, it has that warm quality that all music from that era had. Like, you can hear that tape delay on the vocalists from that era, and that’s not what they’re doing now. But I feel like that has influenced me a lot, because I was thinking “ok, how can I take those effects or that timbre quality and take that further?” Back then there were all these really twangy sitar choruses and it sounds like there’s 10 people playing sitar on one track. And that music is all mids and trebles because obviously in that era there was no sub bass or bass, and then you combine that with my interest in electronic music, deep house, and also hearing that music on huge systems. Something I love about live music is that it’s a tangible, physical experience just as much as it is an aural experience. You can feel the music in your body more so in a live hall than if you’re listening to a recording at home.

It definitely makes sense that Indian music has had such a major influence on new music. At the same time, you were talking a little bit about how there are these rigid structures and rules within Indian musical forms. And it feels like with any form of contemporary music, there’s always some sort of deconstruction of these structures. How do you square those two things with your music?

I mean, I hated sitar in the beginning because my mom kind of did the tiger mom thing of, like, “it’s 10 PM and you haven’t practiced? You have to practice before you go to bed.” I definitely grew up in that environment, and as much as I resented it at the time, obviously, it’s made me in some ways a better musician. But I think I just do not have the discipline or rigor to do what it takes to be *just* a classical player, in any way, as opposed to just doing what I want. So I just didn’t have the discipline, but I love music so much, and in some ways I think that can drive you to create and think of something new and different, because it’s so inspiring.

Answering the new music part, it’s interesting because there are people who are exclusively interested in the avant-garde. I mean, I like harsh noise music, I like new music, I like Indian classical, but I also love pop music. And this probably goes back to me growing up as a dancer, but I love dance music too. I remember at one point, as an undergrad, I was really not at all making pop music, I was trying to make very abstract work, which was kind of the definition of new music. I was also doing interdisciplinary work, like working with dancers and doing video art and installation. And then I remember just hanging out with friends singing some top 40 song and some of my friends were like “why don’t you ever make pop music? You love pop music!” I feel like I’m constantly working between the elements of Indian Classical music and the elements of avant-garde, and even within avant-garde, the highbrow sort of New Music and the “lowbrow” noise music. I fell into a noise scene right after college, and was playing totally disgusting basements and warehouses with other harsh noise artists. And that was really a huge influence on my work for a spell, but also I still liked pop music, so there’s always a push and pull.

That idea that everything has to either fall in line with a specific kind of rigid structure or become its own rigid structure is pervasive, especially within academia, and even within new music.

I mean, don’t get me started on academia. I was shocked at how little the music curriculum has changed in between when I was here as a student and when I came back as a visiting professor. I mean, they’re just now finally fucking starting to talk about decolonizing the curriculum and that’s still gonna take another two generations to happen, if it fucking happens. The way that Western conservatories are accredited, there’s no room for music that is “Other,” like pop, or folk. I mean, there’s room for jazz, but even the way they treat it, it’s like they have a chokehold on what is and isn’t jazz. And to me, it just doesn’t make any fucking sense, because the reason we have so many people who are just so attatched to very traditional composition from composers who died 100 years ago or more is because of the way it’s been taught. The curricula that art schools have, where you basically have to learn a little bit of every medium, and you’re taught in this very multidisciplinary way, feels totally different. You focus on something specifically, but it can be on anything, it can be on a concept, it can be on a process, it can be on a medium, but it doesn’t have to be any one thing. If music were taught that way, our cultural landscape would just be entirely different. The way we interface with music, around the world, is a systemic failure.

Oh, absolutely. Especially in America, where there's basically no funding for anything.

Right. And I’m still dealing with it, not here but out in the world. I left because I got a job with a small nonprofit called New Music USA which is a wonderful organization, but I’m also dealing with it in a different role, interfacing with people who all have their own musical tastes, musical references and backgrounds. So, I combat that everywhere. I mean, as a visiting professor, you don’t have any power over changing the curriculum. Even higher up, with more progressive forward-looking conservatory faculty, there’s no one person who can make that change.

Which is kind of ironic given our slogan. One person can change the world, but no one person can change the curriculum.

Yeah, no. And the other thing is these conservatories around the country, they’re all keeping with each other but they still can’t give up on maintaining white privilege.

What’s the process been for working on your new album?

This album is a little more singer-songwriter with an electronic production focus, as opposed to Parted Plains, which started with just me throwing on some droney electronics and jamming on sitar, and then as the process of making the album unfolded it became more composed. I'm not a very prolific lyricist, but when I do write lyrics, I always want to say something meaningful. And so this album is definitely imbued with some of my critique of our society, of the world and what’s happening. A few of the songs were written during the pandemic, a few were written earlier, I think the earliest song goes back to 2015 or 2017. I do this a lot, where I’ll start a track, drop it, then come back to it like a year or two later. So a couple of the songs on the album have been kind of lurking around for a while and have gone through some iterations. And then this is probably common in most of my music, except for Parted Plains, but even though I’m not overtly religious I’ve always been really inspired by Sikh music. So, I’ll adopt basically a hymn or a verse from Sikh scripture, called a Shabad, and it’s all about achieving a peaceful and self-satisfied state of mind, and once you do, being less emotionally affected by the world and what’s around you. I think that’s a very relevant kind of thing to contemplate. I mean, we’ve all been there.

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