In Conversation with Aakash Mittal

 Heralded as “A fiery alto saxophonist and prolific composer” by the Star Tribune, Aakash Mittal is a rising star in creative music. A Creative and Performing Arts Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies, he was in Kolkata recently leading a quartet at the Congo Square Jazz Festival. In an exclusive interview with Saranya Mukherjee, Aakash talks about his project and how music helps in burgeoning a sense of friendship with his listeners. 

 Firstly, tell us a little bit about your fellowship in India: what are the new experiences that you’ve had here and what do you aim to take back with you after this trip?
I am studying music in India with a Performing and Creative Arts Fellowship from the American Institute of Indian studies. My exact project is twofold. First, I am studying Hindustani Classical music and am working to perform the music authentically on the saxophone. Secondly, I am studying evening and night ragas with the goal of composing a new series of pieces that explore the Indian sense of night music in tandem with the western Nocturne.

Simply living in India as a working member of society has been a new experience and a life long dream. I love experiencing daily life in Kolkata as a student and working musician. Other experiences include the all night festival at the Sangeet Research Academy. I had heard about the all night music festivals in India but never experienced them. In a single weekend I listened to twenty-one hours of classical music. It was amazing to watch the sun come up while world-class artists were performing.
 It’s fascinating that your father was an Indian man who went to the States while you are essentially from America, revisiting India. Do you see your experience as something unique or is there an underlying trend in this cultural exchange? Is coming to study and live in India more of a discovery for you or is it more of a reconnection?
My desire to come to India was partially inspired by creating a connection to my heritage. I feel that every time I come to India I learn new things about my father and what it must have been like for him to grow up here. In another sense I have been interested in the experience of immigration. I have always wanted to know what it would be like to live in another country and have to create ones own community. I wanted to live abroad long enough to no longer to be part of a neighborhood instead of being just another tourist. In that sense I would say coming to India is more of a discovery rather than a reconnection. I grew up with fragments of Indian culture and living in Kolkata is certainly an opportunity to experience India authentically. However, living here is not about “filling in the gaps” of my Indianess. Instead I have learned that India is a complex country with a million different worlds for millions of different people. In my own way I feel welcome here and that I have found my place.

I do think there is an underlying trend in cultural exchange between Indian and the US. I believe the exchange between India and the US has increased in the last number of years. There are more and more Indians moving to the US and numerous Ango-Americans who are visiting and working in India. I believe there is exchange happening on all levels. Art is always a reflection of the times in which it is created. It makes sense to me that artists from South Asia and the US are looking to each other for collaboration, ideas, and inspiration.
What was it like growing up in the USA, in Texas? How has it shaped your ideas about music and about life?
I grew up in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, TX. At the time I lived there I never had ambitions to pursue a career in music. However, looking back on it, living in Texas laid the groundwork for my musical journey. At that time Oak Cliff was considered the most diverse part of Dallas. I attended school with students of varying ethnic and social backgrounds. I interacted with people who didn’t speak English on a regular basis. This is important because I believe it helped to solidify my world view.

My mother was a painter and teacher at the time. She was part of the visual arts scene in Dallas and through that I experienced a world of artists, musicians, and dancers interacting and collaborating. She used to have parties where musicians would jam in the living room, record ideas would be finalized, and artists would discuss their upcoming show. At the time it seemed normal but now I can see that environment helped solidify the arts as a lifestyle that I wanted to pursue.

It was also in Dallas that I first started playing music. I started with clarinet and our school band had a reputation for winning at the elementary contests. I had a music teacher named Don Gersh who was very passionate and would push us hard (too hard by some students standards) to do our best. It was a great lesson in taking music seriously. This was not just a hobby it was a commitment and we needed to work hard and do our best. It is hard to imagine I would be the musician I am today with out the environment and the people of Dallas.

You had mentioned in an interview that you hope your music helped you make friendships. How instrumental has music been for you as far as discovering your own identity and creating meaningful relationships are concerned?
My musical journey has been synonymous with crafting my personal identity. In the same way that writers have to “write what you know” musicians play their personality. In high school and early college my goal was to be a “jazz” musician. As a result my music reflected that and the music I composed followed traditional jazz formats. From mid college to now I became interested in exploring my identity as an Indian-American. I was hungry to learn as much as I could about India and Indian music. I worked to bring in literal Indian music components such as raga phrases and rhythmic cadences into my composing. I worked to incorporate the flavor of Indian gamakas and meend into my improvisation.

Now I am just beginning a new phase. At the Banff International Workshop saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh inspired me to “move beyond ethnic stylizations and create music that is universally artistic.” Right now I am using my time in India to explore Indian and American musical vocabulary as sound elements with emotional content. Specifically I am working to abstract what I am learning in the Indian tradition to find sounds that create a genuine “feel” without being confined to a sense of genre. These ideas are not wholly my own. We are always indebted to our gurus. In this case Vijay Iyer, Hafez Modirzadeh, and Prattyush Banerjee. Personally, I feel very comfortable with my Indian-American identity now. Living in Kolkata has been challenging me to grow even more as a person. Every day I am confronted with the things I need to learn.

Regarding relationships music is a social art form. Not just between performers and audiences but artist to artist, artist to presenter, etc. I believe that this collaborative necessity in music is one of its strengths. Every level of existing as a musician and as an artist is about relationships. In that sense to grow as a musician we also have to grow as a communicator, grow as a listener, grow in our compassion, and grow in our responsibility to the community. In one of Vijay Iyer’s essays he wrote that, “music is the sound of ourselves-the joyful noise of people doing things together, the artful sound of unsilent interaction…” I have felt that becoming better at cultivating relationships is just as important as practicing scales and arpeggios.
 How would you encourage your listeners to discover abstracts like friendship through your music, or any music for that matter?
When I make a recording I feel that we are documenting specific relationships as much as compositions and improvisations. In that sense when you are listening to a recording or a live performance you are listening to relationships that have been cultivated over time with many shared experiences and the music comes out of that. As you said, it is abstract, so I don’t think you will always hear it in a literal way although literal interactions and experiences might be noticeable in the performance.
So what does music represent for you? What were your expectations when you first took up music as a vocation?
I always want to laugh when I think of my expectations back then. My expectations have changed a lot since I was in High School and I decided I wanted to be a professional musician. At that time I thought I would spend a few years touring with a swing band like people used to do back in the 1940’s. I also thought I would be a sideman who played in all styles in a variety of bands. Of course I figured out pretty quickly that swing bands don’t really exist any more and my goals also changed to wanting to lead my own projects as a composer/performer.

Music represents a lot of different things too me. Probably too many to properly talk about here. Music represents a voice and language to me. This language is deeply personal in that each musician has a unique sound and approach. Yet the language is social and it has to be spoken with others. We work to learn vocabulary and grammar and to make the music more expressive and dynamic. It also represents a lifetime journey. There are many varied arrival points along the way that act as markers or celebrations but there is never a final arrival. I feel I am always seeking to better express my experiences, my environments, and my imagination. I also feel the music changes as I change. Music as also been a great mentor to me always bringing me back to the right path even when I stray.

When I was fourteen years old had the fortune of studying with a faculty of professional musicians from all over the US at a jazz camp. During one of the faculty concerts at the camp it struck me that becoming a musician was not just about having fun on stage but about becoming the type of person I wanted to become. I saw these musicians as having personal qualities that I wanted such as self-confidence, ambition, work ethic, creativity, etc. I realized the journey was not just a professional one but a personal one as well.
Speaking about performing, what has your experience been like playing for Indian audiences? Is it easier to connect with the audience here or back at home in the US?
I have really enjoyed playing for Indian audiences. I have mainly performed for Kolkata audiences so I can only speak to that experience. I have found them to be very receptive to my music including some of the abstract pieces that can be challenging to listen to. In that sense they are very receptive and open minded or at least willing to try something new. I have only had good attendance for performances. Maybe that is just a bit of luck but I have yet to play for an empty hall. The difference with the American audience is that there is less familiarity with American improvised music. I think Kolkata audiences listen to my music in a different context than American audiences. I feel good about that though. I don’t want the music to only be listened to in an American context. My goal is to create something that reaches beyond that.
What are your plans for the future? Are you working on an album? Do we get to see more performances by you anytime soon?
My future plans are to compose some new music for a quartet or quintet and record a new album by the end of my stay in India. I would like to return and continue my studies and work with other musicians in India with the goal of developing my composing and improvising vocabulary. My upcoming performance is on January 10th at the AIIS conference in New Delhi. I have some other performances coming up around India as well.

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