Questions of Identity

How do we straddle the line between individuality and the cosmos without becoming homogenized masses or superficial categories?

Written By

Aakash Mittal

The day I first listened to Rudresh Mahanthappa’s album Black Water will always remain fixed in my mind. It was my junior year of college and I was majoring in saxophone performance at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Rudresh’s music was recommended to me by one of my first mentors—NYC saxophonist Dave Pietro. After an impassioned tirade during which I cornered Dave and relayed my artistic goals, he responded, “You should check out Rudresh Mahanthappa. He’s already doing something like that.”[1] I ordered the album that day. When Black Water finally arrived in the mail, I tore off the plastic wrap and put the disc in my boom box. Rudresh’s sound exploded from the speakers. It was raw and buzzy. I could hear the energy and power of the air pressure he was using within his tone. The phrases floated in time, almost hinting of the alaap[2] while simultaneously referencing the unapologetic vocal quality of an early blues singer. After a handful of such phrases framed by silence, Mahanthappa’s last melody was in time. The sounds of Vijay Iyer, Francois Moutin, and Elliot Humberto Kavee erupted into layers of pulse that pushed and pulled each other in various directions. The tension was visceral. Life was just as exciting, challenging, joyful, and painful as this sound. Excitement welled up inside of me. In those first thirty seconds I discovered the artistic direction that I would pursue for the next eight years.

When I first discovered their music in 2005, Rudresh and Vijay became my first “brown heroes.” Experiencing their work and personalities informed my identity during some of my formative years. Here were two artists whose names shared the same phonetics as my own, whose South Asian heritage hinted at shared experiences, and—most importantly—whose creative approach to sound and design fueled my imagination. Their musical statements offered something real about the Indian-American experience while remaining devoid of kitschy stereotypes or forced Indian classical vocabulary. Yet, there was another element to their sound that I wasn’t able to articulate at the time. What made Black Water so compelling for me was the intersection of identity with the universal elements of creativity.

Some of the largest hurdles I have faced since saxophonist/composer Hafez Modirzadeh challenged me to explore fundamental aspects of music at the Banff workshop in 2013[3] were the questions of identity that emerged throughout the process. Universality appears to be in conflict with a number of artistic values such as plurality, cultural expression, and political statement.[4] Following the release of the first essay in this series, I received comments from readers denouncing the inevitable homogenization of culture as a result of such thinking. When universality was first presented to me in 2013, I wouldn’t have fully disagreed with them. The concept is exciting as well as a bit unnerving. Exploring Hafez and Vijay’s ideas seemed to require an element of creative destruction. I had to be willing to loosen the grip on my previous belief systems in order to investigate the ubiquitous components of sound making. I have to admit that it was (and continues to be) challenging. I had spent the greater part of my twenties with an artistic mission of expressing my Indian-American hybridity.[5] Creating non-idiomatic art seemed to throw all of that into question. What is my music about when it isn’t about mutating Indian concepts? Who am I when I delve into the fundamentals of creativity? How do I describe my work to a listener without my standard narrative?

The artistic journey harbors the potential to sacrifice the ego and reach toward broader concepts of sound and creativity.

During this “existential crisis,” I happened to be reading Winter Music by composer John Luther Adams. I stumbled across a phrase that caught my attention. Adams wrote, “I hope to move beyond self-expression and the limits of my own imagination to a deeper awareness of the sound itself. I’m most deeply moved when the music has little or nothing to do with self-expression.”[6] Adams’s words helped clarify my struggle. Striving to create art from a universal mindset is akin to creating music that transcends individualism. Rather than telling stories about personal experiences, we can contribute to an idea elevated beyond the self. This is not to say that Adams’s music is devoid of expression or narrative. On the contrary, his work is deeply rooted in sonifying the natural world and it tells a story of spellbinding environments and forces. Adams has succeeded in creating music about ideas that elevate beyond his own life. This is not an abandonment of personal experience. Personal experience is a gateway into the universal. The artistic journey harbors the potential to sacrifice the ego and reach toward broader concepts of sound and creativity.


This inquiry into the universal inspired me to examine my interest in Hindustani raga music through a different lens. Rather than delve into the idiomatic language of raga phrases, guitarist/composer Julius Schwing and I created an improvisation form that utilized a slow additive melodic process similar to the one I had learned from Prattyush Banerjee in Kolkata.[7] Shapes enlists composed melodies (mostly a series of intervals without a specific rhythm) and a corresponding set of pitches (any octave is acceptable) to structure melodic improvisation. The piece is comprised of five such sections and, when played linearly, each section adds a new pitch/interval to the previous cell. In performance, an ensemble member can play the melody of a section and thereby cue the rest of the ensemble to improvise within the confines of that section’s set of notes. As the music unfolds, each new pitch reframes the sonic relationships of the whole. Julius and I wanted to create something that would slowly and almost imperceptibly change color over a period of time while leaving the ensemble free to make rhythm and timbre choices within the melodic structure.


This work is an attempt to create from a place between the universal and cultural. The structure of the additive process and the long extemporization within a strict set of pitches is partially inspired by our experiences with raga music. Yet nothing about this piece sounds particularly “Indian.” Our intent is an experience of sound divorced from metaphor and self-expression that is also open to interpretation and arrangement. Julius and I continue to compose with this form and have adopted the Greek term Chrôma (defined as “saturation of a color”) to describe the series of pieces.


Between 2013 and 2014 I lived in Kolkata, India, with the assistance of a performing arts fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies. My project was to compose a series of nocturnes drawing from the Hindustani concept of evening and night ragas. One of the pieces that emerged from this project utilized the tonal element of Indian percussion alongside Western instrumentation. The improvisation form was a musical game that generated accelerating and decelerating densities. The piece that surfaced was named Gestures by guitarist Nishad Pandey, who performed in the work’s premiere at the Delhi Habitat Centre.

When writing Gestures, I wanted to illuminate the sound of Indian percussion rather than the idiomatic language of South Asian music. The composition highlights the tonal pitches of the mridangam or tabla by beginning and ending symmetrically with a long tone in unison with the percussionist’s tonic note. As each new section is introduced, tone clusters framed by silence morph into overlapping sustain and eventually imply a sense of pulse. In sections five and six, the ensemble enters a pulsivity[8] game. The musicians are directed to simultaneously pulse on a single note without playing at the same tempo. The music develops as the performers improvise changes in pitch and pulse while simultaneously avoiding unison tempos, creating a mutating polyrhythmic soundscape. The texture builds in momentum until it erupts in a cacophonous energetic “free for all” in section eight.


Gestures is an exploration of the fundamental ideas I was thinking about at the time. I wanted to structure an improvisation that would prioritize sound over idiom, create the experience of shifting densities without implying a metaphor, and give agency to the performer. In many ways the piece is simply a form of evolving tempos and a series of events that the ensemble navigates symmetrically. The universal component is the positioning of musical fundamentals such as pulse and density. Yet this, too, was inspired by my experiences with Indian communities. I first heard un-metered pulse within improvisation during the jor and jhala sections of a sitar recital.

It would be wrong to call Shapes and Gestures “universal” any more than my previous works were specifically “ethnic.” These compositions simply occupy a segment in my ongoing continuum. They are as much a product of my interactions within communities and my experiences of environments as they are of my imagination. Hafez’s challenge to explore the universal, Vijay’s denouncement of genre, Kolkata’s ambient noise, Milford’s study of the heartbeat, and Rudresh’s raw, visceral sound have also had a significant impact on my work. Not only have they invited me to re-examine who I am and how I create music, they have challenged me to inquire into the nature of what music is and “what it can be.”[9]

How do we straddle the line between individuality and the cosmos without becoming homogenized masses or superficial categories?

After composing these musical works I still had to confront my questions of identity. How do I reconcile my experience of culture, personal narrative, and ethnicity with the fundamental elements of biology, environment, and sound? How do we straddle the line between individuality and the cosmos without becoming homogenized masses or superficial categories? Through the process of writing these essays I realized that universalism and cultural distinctiveness are bound together.[10] Our identities generate a continuum that mutates and changes within the boundaries of our lives. Throughout the unquantifiable spectrum of our experiences are pillars of the universal: our communities, our bodies, the places we inhabit, and the noises we make along the way. Perhaps our creative potential is best met when we explore the tension between these paradigms and discover what emerges from the depths of our imagination. The fundamental mainstays of creativity can bolster every cultural statement just as the distinctiveness of our individuality and communities can impact creativity itself. Our identities and the sounds we make offer us a path through the unknown. All we need is the courage to follow.


1. This is how I remember my conversation with Dave Pietro.

2. Alaap translates to English as “introduction.” In raga music it is often an improvisation without a sense of pulse.

3. In response to my first essay, Hafez reminded me that he likely talked about a “universal tonic.” Hafez avoids the specific phrase “universal music” because of its association with the popular phrase “music is a universal language.” The two ideas are distinct.

4. This was made clear to me an email response to my first essay in this series by author Matt Moore.

5. My interest was not Indian-jazz fusion. At the time, I used the evolution and adoption of    vocabulary within language as a metaphor to express my vision. In the same way that cultures are not static but are continuously interacting and influencing each other, I wanted to create music that utilized vocabulary from all of my interests in the hopes that music with its own identity would emerge.

6. Kyle Gann quotes Adams in the forward. Adams, John Luther. Winter Music: Composing the North. Wesleyan University Press, 2004. pp. xvii

7. I am referring to studying the alaap portion of a raga performance with Prattyush Banerjee. In Hindustani music the alaap often involves a process of incrementally introducing each note and phrase of the raga.

8. Hafez Modirzadeh relates pulsivity to periodicity as complementary forces. He defines periodicity as fixed rhythmic cycles whereas pulsivity is fluid rhythmic cycles.

9. This is a reference to something Vijay Iyer said while I was at the Banff Workshop. “It’s not just about what music is but what it can be.”

10. I relate this cosmically to the way zero and infinity not only exist simultaneously but are necessary to predict how the universe functions. On the surface they appear to be polar opposites but actually work in tandem just like universal and cultural creativity.


Teresa Louis, Matt Moore, Jayanthi Bunyan, and Meera Dugal for reading and reviewing these essays. Molly Sheridan, Frank Oteri, and NewMusicBox for giving me this opportunity and your ongoing support of the new music community. Rudresh Mahanthappa and Dave Pietro for the encouragement, support, and amazing hangs over the years. Brooklyn Public Libraries for providing a quiet and air conditioned space in which I could work.