ALBUM REVIEW: Sophia Subbayya Vastek’s Histories

by Maggie Molloy

In Indian classical music, a raga is like a melodic mode or scale—but with more depth than the scales of Western music. Far from just a simple collection of notes, a raga is a musical framework which holds emotional significance and symbolic associations with season, time, and mood.

Ragas are just one of the overarching musical ideas at work in pianist Sophia Subbayya Vastek’s new album, Histories. Using her Indian heritage as a jumping off point, the album explores the intersections between her own cultural backgrounds, using a traditionally Western instrument to meditate on scales, modes, harmonies, intervals, and ideas inspired by East and South Asian musical traditions.

Composer Michael Harrison’s two contributions to the album most closely embody this blend of European and Indian musical styles. Both are scored for tanpura (a long-necked plucked lute), tabla (small hand drums), and piano in just intonation (as opposed to equal temperament)—and both are performed by the composer (tanpura), Nitin Mitta (tabla), and Vastek (piano).

The first, “Jaunpuri,” is based on a traditional Indian raga, but shaped with Western compositional notation, structures, and harmony. An embellished piano melody twirls and spins through a buzzing tabla and tanpura trance, building in intensity until the circling rhythmic cycles spin out into a breathtaking piano rhapsody. Vastek’s fingers fly through the rapturous piano solo with passion and profound tenderness, almost as though the melodies were born in her bones.

Harrison’s other work, “Hijaz Prelude,” is more somber in tone, showcasing Vastek’s graceful touch and emotive phrasing. Based on the modal harmonies of a raga most often associated with morning, the introspective prelude combines a Western, arpeggiated keyboard figure with the patient, steady pulse of the tabla and the textured vibrations of the tanpura, rich with reverberating overtones.

If Harrison’s compositions speak to the music of Vastek’s Indian heritage, then Donnacha Dennehy’s contribution represents Vastek’s Western background. Dennehy’s 15-minute “Stainless Staining” for piano and soundtrack is based on a fundamental low G# (lower than the lowest note on a piano). The soundtrack is comprised of audio samples from pianos which have been retuned to showcase a massive harmonic spectrum of 100 overtones based on that one single pitch. Performed on an equal temperament piano, the resulting concoction immerses the listener in a thick cloud of harmony—but with a pulsating rhythm that swirls the overtone series into a dizzying trance.

Scattered between the works of Harrison and Dennehy is the music of John Cage, a composer whose work was famously influenced by East and South Asian cultures (and in particular by his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism). Vastek moves to a prepared piano for her performances of Cage’s musing and meditative “She is Asleep” (a wordless duet with soprano Megan Schubert), and captures the percussive heartbeat of Cage’s pulsating prepared piano solo “A Room” with equal warmth.

Interspersed throughout the album are three separate performances of Cage’s ethereal “Dream” (for unprepared piano), each played in a different octave across the keyboard. Vastek’s fingers float freely from one translucent note to the next, the pedal blurring all of it into a beautiful and hazy dreamscape. The album closes with the highest-pitched rendition, drifting softly upward until the music evaporates into silence.

It’s a far cry from the impassioned piano rhapsody that started off the album, yet Vastek is equally at home in both worlds. In just under an hour, she travels from Indian ragas on a just-intoned piano to an immersive exploration of the overtone series, and all the way through to Cage’s prepared piano and pedal-laced dreamscapes.

The result is both an homage to Vastek’s own individual histories but also a beautiful mosaic of the larger cultural intersections of our world—and how we weave those histories together through music.

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