There are so many musicians and performers today. How can you differentiate yourself from them? What can you do to make your music unique? Dr. Ambi Subramaniam, shares what he does to try to create different music, what his influences were, and his learning curve.
How many hours do you practise the violin?
It has been quite erratic since lockdown started, I was practising quite a bit – 9 to 10 hours a day, and then I was doing a lot of Western classical violin. Then, for a couple of months, I was doing a lot of piano.
Do you feel one helps the other?
Oh yeah, for sure and I think it unlocks a different side of music for me because the way I approach the piano is different from the way I think as a violinist, and I feel I enjoy composing with the piano. Because I feel that my relative lack of skill with the piano helps me write better lines. Sometimes, if you have the instrument in your hands, like if I have the violin, I am always worried about writing things for me specifically. So, you write things that you can play, you try to do something that you know works for you but then when I’m playing the piano I’m thinking more of melody, more of the composition. I’m kind of decoupling the ‘me playing’ part versus the ‘me composing’ part.
Is it because the piano can be used with all songs?
That’s one reason. But also, nowadays, I really enjoy writing for different people. If I am doing a collaboration, I enjoy the process of studying the other person’s work and writing something that will really sound good for them or bring out the best in them. So, then when you are thinking of them, automatically your pieces will start sounding different.
So, this is an effort from your side to be different from who you are? To make your music distinct…
Yes, and it ends up pushing me in different directions as well. Because then, if I’m writing different pieces that are not specifically meant for my strengths or to hide my weaknesses, then, once I have the violin in my hand and I have to record, I am also forced to play in a different way that suits the songs. Or try different things that I may not have done if I had just started playing the violin.
Interesting! What have you learnt musically?
So growing up, we learnt Carnatic singing, Carnatic violin, Western violin, and piano. We, actually, learnt the piano for a number of years, but I kind of stopped somewhere in the middle.
What have group performances and playing in a band taught you?
Nowadays, I look at things very differently from the way I used to look at them before. Earlier, I would say, ‘this is the piano line I wrote, this is the guitar line I wrote, and if somebody forgets their lines I should be able to play that so the song goes in the right direction.
But now, I think the idea is to give everyone their space where they can do their best and then if you are able to embellish what everyone is doing then it doesn’t really matter what you, as an individual, are playing. Again, I think, overall, everyone is doing their best and you are adding sprinkles to the top. Then, the overall performance is so much better and you realise as you get older that this whole thing of wanting to shine and wanting to be the star, wanting to do something virtuosic and impressive – all these things can be totally meaningless. You want to be in a situation where you are making good music and everyone is doing their best. I find that if I am trying to do everything and worrying about all those things and as a result I am not giving anybody their space to do their thing, then at the end of the day, the overall output is much less.
What has changed now?
I try to make sure that at different points, different people are leading the way they want to, and I try to play based on what they are doing also. And I realise that that is a lot easier in an improvised setting but even in a Carnatic setting, sometimes there is the concept of a main and side artiste, where one person is the creativity and everybody else is accompanying. I completely disagree with that, in the sense that if you open it up to percussion artists, like the mridangam or ghatam or tabla player, sometimes they will take it in a completely different direction, which is great.
You are creating as an ensemble. It works well because you may not have the best day but it might be the gig of his life for your keyboard player! Or on that day, your drummer might just be landing everything. If that’s the case I give them a little more space. In concerts, you will always find a space for yourself. We are in a position to do this because we have also written the pieces, so you know what direction you want it to head in, so you can always add some lines. Some days, the keyboard player we work with – Frijo – he will just take it somewhere else and when he is in that mood, I don’t want to lose that at all. So, you see how you can add things so that the overall output is good and some days if I am in a good space, I will take it forward.
So, it is also a question of knowing your ensemble and once that environment of ‘give and take’ is there, every time you play, you find that perfect balance.
Do you have a preference – solo or playing with your father (Dr. L Subramaniam) or in the band?
Not really, I enjoy the fact that every day can be different and I really enjoy the fact that we can do different things with different challenges – tomorrow is going to be a completely different situation. It pushes you to think in a different way. So, I do enjoy all of these things. If I had to do only one thing every day for six months, I would probably not be happy.
Have you ever played in an orchestra?
For a very brief period when I was 8 or 9. I was learning with a Western violin teacher, and there was an orchestra. We used to practise once in a while; there weren’t too many performances – we may have done one or two. Playing in a group, in a community – listening to others playing…that was something I enjoyed. But of course, there are situations now where we play with a lot of orchestras and different ensembles, but that is as a soloist – so a different capacity.
Is it more difficult to listen to someone playing while maintaining your own note and tone than giving a solo performance though the pressure is all on you there?
I would say the skill set required is different. If you are playing as a soloist, the skill required is a lot more – on a technical level. Whether you are leading or following, you still have to be able to listen to everybody else at the same time. Even in a Carnatic context, (unless you are playing by yourself), when you are playing with the mridangam or tabla, you have to be able to listen to the other person and adapt. So, the way I play changes a lot based on who I am playing with. Because each mridangam player has different strengths and they take you in a different direction. If I am able to do my part well but also create a structure where people I am playing with are also able to do that and give their best, then, at the end, you get a much better performance.
It’s important to keep working on building skill levels in whatever excites you.
What sort of music did you grow up listening to?
I listened to different genres of music. As siblings, we all liked different styles of music. Obviously a lot of Indian and Western classical. We also listened to contemporary and world music. My dad would collaborate with amazing artistes from different parts of the world. When you meet them and see the music that they do…it would be music you would never have heard before.
There was this incredible musician from Senegal. He was playing the kora. It was an instrument I had never seen before. You don’t know what to expect. Another time, when we were travelling, we met an Irish fiddler. You realise that when you are listening to music in the pop or contemporary space, and then you listen to it in its pure form, it’s very different. It breaks stereotypes in your head. I’m sure it’s the same when people listen to some form of classical music in Bollywood versus listening to classical music as it is. Not to say that one is better than the other. But it will sound very different.
The purer version versus freestyle…
The thing is if you were to listen to Bollywood and your perception of classical music comes from there, say for someone who is not Indian, if they go to a concert, they are not going to be listening to the same thing. So, I think those experiences are very interesting for me. You listen to an Arabic riff or an oud playing in a Sting song, you think you have an idea but when you go there and listen to the traditional music there, it’s very different.
Is it something that has to grow on you?
I think it is important to have an open mind. One style is not better than the other but everybody has their preferences. One person may fall in love with a style of music immediately. For somebody else, it may not be as appealing. As an artiste, if you are looking at broadening your horizon, it’s important to stick with that and find…There may be styles that you don’t like the first 5 times you listen to them. But the sixth time, you might find something you really like in it. That can help you grow as an artiste.
Any favourite singers or musicians apart from your father?
Plenty. There are a few violinists I like – one from Russia, another from Hungary, and the USA. There’s an obsession with saying ‘best’ and ‘favourite’. You look at these incredible musicians from around the world and there is no way of comparing them.
Dr. Ambi Subramaniam is a violinist, composer, educator, and Co-Founder of SaPa. He started performing on stage when he was six years old, and was described as the “new king of Indian classical violin” by the Times of India and ‘India’s 24-year-old Itzhak Perlman’ by Ozy Magazine.