Last Friday in Buckley Recital Hall, Tomal Hossain ’17 presented his original composition, “Kundalini Rising.” Comprising of voices and electronics, Hossain’s work involved seven movements of musical material that correspond with the ethical and psychological associations espoused by each of the seven chakras. Hossain talked about the process of creating this piece and how he combined his music background with the material he’s learned while at Amherst.
Q: How would you describe your thesis and the process of creating it?
A: I’m a music and computer science double major, and I’m doing a Five College certificate program in ethnomusicology, which is really cool. I decided that I would do a thesis when I started hearing music at Amherst my first year here. I didn’t know what I wanted to do concretely until the beginning of my junior year, and I didn’t start writing my thesis until second semester junior year so it’s been exactly a year since I started. My thesis is not really a choral work, although it involves multiple voices. It consisted of a vocal ensemble and two laptops. Basically the parts for the music were between four and eight vocal lines, so there’s an entirely acoustic vocal part to the piece which can be performed just on it’s own. Initially I thought I would just do voices. I was mostly inspired by one group that came to Amherst my freshman year called “Room Full of Teeth,” which you can describe as contemporary classical music, and it’s purely a cappella. I guess it’s worth mentioning that I did a cappella my first three years at Amherst as well as choir, so all that stuff really persuaded me to do a piece that primarily featured voices. So the laptop component comes in as an added overlay of effects and samples and random clips that I compiled over the last several months. I also constructed some of them on a keyboard and patches and things like that. So all of that is meant to be subsidiary to the acoustic vocal work itself. But I didn’t want it to be purely acoustic because I did take a course on electro-acoustic improvisation, and I really like all forms of electronic music. Popular dance music and scholarly academic electro-acoustic composition or electro-acoustic improv, all of that is really cool in my opinion. I want to have a little bit of that to make it — don’t want to say avant-garde — but less traditional choral music because that’s very often what happens in Buckley, where the work was presented. So it’s nice … engage in a synchronism of what I’ve learned in my classes because in one class I learned how to write music that sounds pleasant when harmonized vocally. There’s an entire class on that, called “harmony and counterpoint.” There’s an entire course on the electroacoustic stuff so I wanted the project to be a way of me drawing on all the little things that I’ve learned in my music classes and my ethnomusicology courses and also my computer science classes in such a way that was syncretic for my own learning experience and for the sake of doing something less traditional and unique.
Q: What was your experience working with your thesis advisors and pushing the boundaries with the music department?
A: The entire process was so smooth. I was given three different advisors for my thesis, which is kind of out of the ordinary because most people with music theses end up with just one advisor. But I had one for choral conducting, Mallorie Chernin, one for composing, Eric Sawyer, and one for electronics and just general logistic stuff, Jayson Robinson. So I met with these three people pretty much on a weekly basis this past semester, not entirely in isolation. I would mention what I was doing with my other two advisors in any given meeting. For the most part, it was these watertight components that I could work on in isolation and then it all came together during the final stretch of rehearsals I held during interterm. So all the different avenues of input kind of came together then. It could have been done if I didn’t have all this guidance, but because of their guidance it turned out so much better. My advisors were super conducive to me, suggesting things that were out of the ordinary. They never stepped on anything I wanted to do but at the same time offered things that would help me in my own process. It was a perfect balance.
Q: What was the most challenging part of the process?
A: Conducting rehearsals was challenging for me. It taught me how important rehearsal technique is and how important it is to have a goal and a plan. Also, to be able to conduct rehearsals with multiple vocal parts it’s helpful to be able to plunk out parts on the piano, so you need to be an adept sight-reader, which I’m not. So I came to Amherst College with basically no music reading experience because I had only done traditional South Asian music. I had no real familiarity with the western staff notation, which I used for my piece. But it’s one thing to be able to compose in a given notation system, and it’s another thing to be fluent in reading it. So that was tough for me, but luckily I had some good sight-readers in my group so they were able to help me out with directing and playing piano parts. My advisors also helped fill in the gap, especially Mallorie and Eric, who would help play parts while I conducted. The other difficulty with rehearsals was the use of my voice because my voice has actually been injured for about a year or so. I’m primarily a singer myself, but I haven’t sung in a year now. Even speaking can be very difficult for me so being able to project and have a commanding presence over a group of people with a compromised voice is not easy. But it worked out.
Q: How did your experience with music before coming to Amherst influence your thesis?
A: Before Amherst I mostly did traditional Bengali music and Hindustani classical music, which is prevalent throughout northern India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan for the most part. That’s the music I grew up with, which is entirely an oral tradition and an art form that emphasizes improvisation. I knew I wanted to do something that would challenge me and wasn’t entirely in line with my musical background. If I wanted to, I could have done something that was mostly improvisation and something that was in line with my Hindustani vocal experience, but instead I wanted to do something that was more composed. So all the vocal parts were written out, as well as one of the laptop parts. The only thing that was improvised was my own laptop interludes. I interjected them between movements of the overall piece, which was just standard electro-acoustic improvisation. Other than that it was all pre-composed. Nonetheless, I feel that because of my background as a Hindustani singer, a lot of my pieces include musical phrases that are characteristic of Hindustani classical music. Most obviously, every single movement of my piece is semi-modeled after a given melodic system in Hindustani music called “ragas.” I model each of my works on one of these melodic systemic identities or frameworks for improvisation; there are about seven ragas that I ended up working with and exploring. I also introduced elements of Hindustani music’s rhythm and meter in my piece as well, which is perhaps not as evident as my use of melodic material from Hindustani music. But the rhythmic stuff does crop up in my piece every now and then, and the rhythmic cycles or system’s identities are called “tala.”
Q: What do you hope the performers and the audience walked away from the experience with?
A: I was really keen on making sure the influence of Hindustani music in my work came out to the audience. I wanted to convey my musical background and I wanted to maybe pique people’s interest in that kind of music. Nonetheless, I still wanted to back away from just doing a strict Hindustani classical music performance, because that happens everywhere. I definitely wanted that to just be implied in the music, so that the audience has some sort of familiarity with the music when they leave the auditorium. I wanted to convince people of the power of the human voice, which I’m a huge fan of. I wanted people’s interests to be piqued in regards to meditation and spiritual thinking and practice, although my text was not overtly spiritual. They draw from the practice of a king of yoga called sahaja yoga which is primarily meditational. So I wanted people to be thinking about that and maybe spark their curiosity, because I believe meditation is a great thing and also consider spirituality, which is the more general umbrella term that meditations falls under.
Interview edited for clarity.