Interview with Nina Shekhar

The west coast premiere of Nina Shekhar’s solo cello piece, Cajón, will be given on March 10th and 11th. I had a chance to speak with Nina about her studies in composition and chemical engineering, her search for self-identity between her American and Indian backgrounds, and of course, about her exciting work.

Irene Kim: How’d you get started in music?

Nina Shekhar: When I was really young, my brother took piano lessons first, since he is eight years older than me. And I would sit in and watch him play in his lessons. Finally my parents said,  “OK, let’s let her have piano lessons, too.” So, I started on piano, and I would write short little melodies. I didn’t have much theory knowledge then, but one time, when I played one of these phrases, my brother overheard it and thought it was interesting. So, with his more advanced knowledge, he transformed my mini-phrases into a larger, more substantial piece. And the funny thing is that we submitted the piece to a children’s magazine and they published it, but I felt so guilty because my name was on it even though it was mostly my brother’s work! After piano, I also took flute lessons, and now I consider it my main instrument. I stopped writing until a little before high school; I was going through a lot of personal things at the time, so writing became an emotional escape for me. I didn’t take composition lessons until right before applying to colleges; and miraculously I ended up in a wonderfully supportive composition program at the University of Michigan!  I’m so grateful to all of my mentors—both musical and personal—who have believed in me when I was trying to ride music’s steep learning curve.

IK: I saw that you also play saxophone!

NS: Yeah, I played some jazz saxophone earlier. Our jazz band actually got to play in the Detroit International Jazz Festival a couple of times, which was such a cool experience. I also started learning sitar recently—I’m so excited because I finally have some calluses and it doesn’t hurt to play anymore! Learning the sitar is such an awesome experience because it’s helped me navigate my hybridized cultural and musical identity. I did listen to Indian classical music growing up, but I never was able to formally study the theory behind Hindustani and Carnatic music the same way I was able to study Western music theory. But through learning the sitar, I’m slowly learning a lot of the terms and concepts behind Indian classical music. And it’s funny how a lot of these specific techniques are things I had noticed from when I listened to Indian classical recordings as a kid, but I never knew there were actual names for them! So my recent studies in Indian classical music have given validation to my previous musical observations, and now I’m better able to understand how Indian music has influenced my writing.

IK: Do you still perform on all of these instruments?

NS: I’m sad that I haven’t been able to actively practice all of these instruments recently because I also majored in chemical engineering, which took up a lot of my time and energy!  But I’m grateful that I was able to keep up with my studies on the flute because performing has really influenced my writing. The relationship that composers have with performers is so important, and by performing themselves, composers are better able to understand our performers’ needs. When I write, I think a lot about means of communication. Composers communicate to performers, who in turn communicate to the audience. And because performers are so essential to this communication process, I think it’s necessary for composers to put ourselves in performers’ shoes. The physicality of performing is so important to communicating emotion. I think a lot about what physical positions I’m putting performers in, and by building in a mix of uncomfortable and relaxed positions, performers’ physical movements can communicate a sort of tension-and-release to the audience and to explore a wide range of emotional spaces.

IK: What are your current projects?

NS: I just finished a reed quintet, and it’s a fun piece that draws off of some Indian raags and improvisatory rhythms more deliberately. And I also recently wrote a ridiculous piece called Zoo Song for singing flutist, in which the flutist takes on the character of a child who wants to be all kinds of different animals and uses various extended techniques to make chicken, donkey, and pig noises on the flute. I love writing pieces for children’s audiences (I wrote a piece about a food fight last year, which was so much fun!). I write a lot of my own texts in my vocal music, and I’m currently writing a choir piece that explores my own personal experiences with self-esteem and self-image growing up, how the media portrays what is considered beautiful in society, and how it differs based on your race.

IK: It is so meaningful that you’re writing about that. I wonder what your experience was like growing up in Michigan as an Indian-American.

NS: I grew up in a small, predominantly white suburb outside of Detroit. As an Indian-American, I had a hard time figuring out my identity. In India, people speak so many different languages depending on what region they’re from, and my parents each spoke different languages: my mother is from Kerala and speaks Malayalam, and my father is from Karnataka and speaks Kannada, so their only common language is English. That meant that my brother and I only learned English growing up, which made me feel somewhat removed from my Indian heritage. On top of that, I have some bad food allergies—I’m allergic to chickpeas.

IK: What…?

NS: I know!! I can’t eat hummus! And chickpeas are pretty common in Indian cuisine, so I avoided Indian restaurants a lot of the time. All these things made me feel removed, but I was still always very proud of my Indian heritage. I grew up eating my mom’s chicken curry next to hamburgers. I always had this hybridized personal identity, but that was so normal to me.  And my musical identity was similarly hybridized; I would not only listen to classical, jazz, and rock, but also Bollywood and Indian classical music. I find it strange when people tell me I should be this or that, because as an Indian-American, there’s a hyphen in there, and I’m not one or the other, I’m both.

IK: I feel you. As a Korean-American, I’ve been through similar experiences of trying to bridge the dichotomy of cultures. So continuing with this duality, what’s it like to balance your chemical engineering studies with your musical life?                 

NS: Technically, I finished all of my engineering coursework last year, but I’ll be graduating with both of my degrees at the end of this year. I worked as an engineering intern for a bit, but I hated the fact that I didn’t have as much time to compose when I did, so I realized that I really wanted to pursue a career in composition. But my engineering experiences did change my perceptions and my musical priorities. When I’m writing my music, I’m thinking, “Who am I trying to connect with?” And I don’t want to connect only with musicians, but with all people on a human level. I don’t like it when people use the word “accessibility” to mean dumbing down music for people to understand; when I think of reaching a wider audience, I think more about compassion. Everyone in the audience is really intelligent and has a unique knowledge base to bring to the table. My parents aren’t musicians, they both come from science backgrounds, and I often find that they’re better able to understand the emotional power of music because they’re not distracted by the technical details of what chord progressions we’re using or counterpoint rules. Everyone has their own experiences and something to contribute. I want my music to connect with people regardless of whether they’re musicians or not, and I want to understand who they are as human beings.

IK: And what about combining the two things, engineering with composition?

NS: Well, in the broader sense, having an engineering background helps me to look at social issues from both the artistic and technical side. I remember several musicians wanting to do a concert about the Flint water crisis. But when I asked them what they knew about the water crisis, they didn’t actually know really what had caused the problem. In my engineering classes, we had talked about the issue in depth, and we learned how the government changed the water source to the Flint River, the new water source was more acidic, and because proper corrosion inhibitors weren’t used, the pipes began leaching lead and other dangerous chemicals into the water. I don’t think it’s necessary to know all of these technical details in order to want to help solve a problem. But I do think it’s important to have the desire to learn about issues more in-depth, and this wonderfully strange combination of music and engineering has encouraged me to look at issues from multiple angles.

IK: Nice. And this must feed into the idea of reaching a wider audience, by relating to issues not only from a musical standpoint, but also from a broader human perspective. Let’s talk about your piece! The cajón—how did you come across it, and what’s your experience with it?

NS: I’ve always been really fascinated by the cajón, and what’s so special about it is that it requires a lot of technique to play it, even though its appearance might be so unassuming. My original idea for the piece was to include both a cello and a cajón. But I was writing this piece for a collaboration recital specifically between cellists and student composers, so using an actual percussionist was not an option! Because of that, I started trying to think out of the box (no pun intended!), and I wondered what if I turned the cello into a cajón? And I wanted to play around with different kinds of tapping and stomping. I love writing solo pieces, because it forces you to work closely with your performer to see what’s possible, and what they’re comfortable doing themselves and with their instrument. Originally, I wrote this piece with only one kind of tapping because I was afraid that other kinds of tapping might break something on the instrument! But I was lucky to work with an amazing cellist who loved experimenting with different sounds and allowed me to try many new things and pull him out of his comfort zone.

I also thought a lot about social contexts with this piece. The cajón is a Peruvian instrument, and titling a piece “Cajón” might set up an expectation that the piece will use traditional Peruvian rhythms or melodic patterns. But I didn’t think it would be genuine for me to use Peruvian musical ideas in this piece because I’m not Peruvian, and I felt like even after researching Peruvian music that my attempts at incorporating Peruvian traits would be a watered-down version compared to someone who actually grew up with it and had Peruvian music really infused into their soul. So instead, I placed the cajón into a new geographical context, exploring Indian and Arabic modes and rhythms that I was more familiar with. The piece draws off those genres in a looser sense, not strictly following specific rules of certain raags, but rather following general kinds of melodic and rhythmic patterns common to Indian and Arabic music.

IK: In itself, the piece is already so interesting and groovy. Is there anything you don’t want us to miss when we’re listening to the piece?

NS: A cajón player is able to capture so many different sounds and timbres just using their hands on the instrument, so I transferred some frame drumming techniques to the cello taps I was using, like by hitting the cello with the edge of their palms, rolling their hands, or their fingertips. From the very beginning, the cellist creates so many different timbres by tapping different parts of the cello, so it could be easy to miss the nuances of all the different tapping sounds that the performer will make all over the cello. The piece also includes some grace note taps that are done by the roll of a hand, and so little slight variations like those are something to look out for.

IK: Great! I’ll definitely be looking out for those things! I believe there are eight different tapping and stomping techniques that you use. I’ll see if I can catch all of them. What do you do for fun? Anything silly?

NS: This is so nerdy, but I love Googling random things and going down random wormholes. I play this game we like to call “Six Degrees of Wikipedia,” in which we’ll start with a random page and then click into the links in the article once, then again in that second linked page, and so on until we get to the sixth link and we see how totally far off we’ve gone from the initial page! I’m also obsessed with cooking shows even though I personally don’t cook very much. I do love cooking eggs, though. I cook a lot of eggs.

IK: Maybe we can cook some eggs together when you’re here. I look forward to seeing you in California soon!

NS: Me, too! Can’t wait!

IK: Thanks, Nina!

NS: Thank you!


Irene Kim