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Deepti Navaratna: The Carnatic Voice Goes Contemporary

One music is written down and followed to the last note. The other leaves ample room—and in fact insists upon—individual interpretation. One resounds with harmony, with the other emphasizes the perfection of monody. Yet these two musical traditions—Western classical and Indian classical—can resonate beautifully together, with the right musician uniting them.
Deepti Navaratna does just this. She is the first Carnatic (South Indian classical) vocalist to apply her traditional training—with its emphasis on spontaneous creation and intricate ornamentation—to contemporary Western classical pieces. On KA (release: November 5th, 2013), Navaratna’s mesmerizing Raaga essays find new explorative vistas co-conspired by celebrated South Asian-heritage composer Sirish Korde. Written for carnatic soprano and instrumental ensemble, the work takes this Ka duality as its central idiom. In the Vedas, Ka occupies both question and answer. Similarly, the song cycle explores the unifying duality of voice and instrument, percussion and melody, and, perhaps most prominently, a synthesis in the seemingly insurmountable differences in Eastern and Western music.

Watch title track video for 'Ka' here:

In bridging two seemingly incompatible traditions, the singer finds poignant silences, delicate microtones, and spaces for improvisation. “I love the contemplative yet adventurous edge to such music-making,” Navaratna muses. “In exploring new frontiers for contemporary classical music, I am able to use my traditional wisdom more consciously and in a different yet purposeful quest for beauty through sound.”
Recognized for her 'particularly lovely and bewitching voice’ (Boston Globe, 2010), Deepti Navaratna's music embodies a rare mix of classical wisdom, expressivity and virtuosity. Her long-standing immersion and training in South Indian Classical music under several gurus such as Rohini Manjunath and T.V Gopalakrishnan informs a musical persona that is deeply rooted in the South Indian classical idiom.

An empanelled artiste of All India Radio since 2000, she topped the All India Radio’s National Music competition twice in the categories of Carnatic and light classical music in 1999 and 2000. She was featured as a Youth Ambassador for the Arts at the prestigious National Youth Festival hosted by the Government of India in 1999 and 2001. After moving to the United States, she has received several distinctions as a traditional musician such as Cambridge Arts Council Grant (2011), Emerging Artist Award from St.Botolph Foundation (2011) and the Traditional & Ethnic Arts Fellowship from the Utah Arts Council (2009). Her music has been featured at premiere performing spaces in the United States such as Asia Society (New York City), Symphony Space (New York City), Jordan Hall (Boston), Harvard Arts Museum (Cambridge), Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), Yale School of music (New Haven, CT), Peabody Essex Museum (Salem) among others. She is the artistic director of the 'Carnatic Alchemy Project' which combines artistic and entrepreneurial activities towards re-presenting South Indian classical music for contemporary and mainstream audiences. Not content to sing solely in the traditional Carnatic context, Navaratna has collaborated with Persian and Turkish traditional musicians, with jazz composers, and with exploratory improvising musicians like MacArthur Fellow and pianist Ran Blake. A polymath whose domains of expertise span the sciences and humanities, Deepti holds a doctorate degree in Neuroscience and is currently on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. An author of several international peer-reviewed original research articles and book chapters, her scientific work focuses on the etiology of diabetic complications in the brain.

Composer of the CD, Shirish Korde is celebrated for “integrating and synthesizing music of diverse cultures into breathtaking works of complex expressive layers”. His works have been performed by orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, The New Zealand Symphony, Boston Philharmonic, the National Polish Radio Orchestra; and ensembles such as The Boston Musica Viva, Da Capo Chamber Players, The Ensemble Modern and others. “I have never encountered a musician and a performer as gifted as Deepti Navaratna. Working and collaborating with her has been one of my most fulfilling artistic projects,” comments Korde. “Her knowledge of different vocal traditions has allowed her to think “outside” the rigid aesthetic framework of the karnatic vocal tradition. She incorporates many of the best aspects of the vocal traditions of Hindustani as well as Carnatic traditions, as well as a wide range of world traditions and has developed a truly flexible, unique and beautiful instrument.”

Though several Carnatic instrumentalists, respected players like L. Subramanian, have experimented with Western Classical forms and sounds, Navaratna is the first vocalist to do so, to adapt the different vocal sensibilities and approaches to Western classical forms and instrumental accompaniment. Her voice soars and slips in and out of Korde’s intriguing instrumentation on pieces like “Jai Durga,” a solo that moves through many ragas and intertwines with the sparse, stirring performance of Boston Musica Viva, one of Boston’s premiere contemporary music ensembles.

Finding the bridge between the two traditions demanded intense commitment, as well as close work with her fellow musicians, like cellist Jan Müller who worked with Navaratna on Korde’s duet, “Anuswara.” On “Anuswara,” Navaratna reveals the full potential of the dialogue, using Korde’s adaptation and reframing of classical Carnatic improvisations within a Western classical compositional dynamic. In sharp contrast, however, is the title work of the cycle, Ka, which features an almost violent opposition between almost every possible aspect--Indian and Western percussion, between sung rhythm and instrumental rhythm, between text and nonsense syllables. This opposition arises slowly from the simple electronic tamboura drone, however, quickly accumulates to an almost overwhelming wall of sound.

Navaratna’s intensive training in India served her well and helped her move from moment to moment. “Even in a three-hour long Carnatic concert, it’s not all fluid and loose. A singer moves between structures in time, and aims to keep the fluidity between the structures, all while infusing chaos into those planned structures.”

The interplay between structure and spontaneity, between rich harmony and the delicate nuances of the raga, reveals how two traditions can talk to each other, in a meaningful, striking dialogue. “It’s very labor intensive,” Navaratna notes. “You have to be really tolerant of each other’s shortcomings, and not everyone is ready for this kind of a collaborative adventure. But when you can take music out of its traditional context and find new ways to engage with it, it feels profoundly worth that effort.” KA, in its playful stance between musics, allows a deeper integration of structures, practices, and ideas, setting aside the clichés of fusion and allowing musicians like Navaratna to seriously engage with sounds, not merely toss together elements from various cultures.

The results retain their deep ties to long histories of music making—yet present something radical and fresh. By taking on the great divide between Carnatic and Western classical, Navaratna shines a light on the beauties of both, bringing a new perspective and a gorgeous voice to a promising new direction in composition and performance.