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Of Agency and Abstraction

by Rajna Swaminathan

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Offering 06:42
Vigil 10:03
Departures 04:35
Communitas 03:22
Retrograde 06:58
Rush 07:09
Vagabonds 06:24
Yathi 07:12


The title of the album was conceived by Ganavya, who uttered these two words together in a moment of epiphany while we were in conversation with another fellow artist during the summer of 2017: the amount of agency we believe we have determines our relationship with abstraction. These words have remained with me over time, swirling together in different ways in my musical and intellectual life.
Agency is often defined in contrast to structure, manifesting in its residual effects: chaos, deviation, uncertainty, improvisation. If agency is one kind of flight from the tangible realm, then abstraction is another. Abstraction involves a sublimation of the material, the embodied. It could also involve what philosopher Édouard Glissant has called a “right to opacity,” or the liberty to remain unknowable within the gaze of power (Poetics of Relation). In this way, agency and abstraction are united in their associations with one of the most troubled concepts of music and of the human condition: freedom.
In working on this music, I have grappled with abstracting my inner life into the beauty of musical symmetries and counterpoints, finding joy in the sensations they spark. I have found an urgency to avoid the escapist fantasies that abstraction can spin, choosing instead to speak my truth directly and to listen with vulnerability. As an ensemble, we have explored how these abstracted forms can speak — and even dance — and what kinds of individual and collective agency are hidden within, as seeds for us to nurture. And finally, each one of us have surrendered to our mutual and inner opacities, seeking gentle alignments and blurred boundaries through the shared time and movement occasioned by the music. Ultimately, we are not concerned with trafficking in sensations of freedom; instead, we revel in our multiplicity, in the hopes that our playful and prayerful meditations inspire further play and prayer.


released April 26, 2019

Recorded at The Samurai Hotel Recording Studio in Astoria, NY or New York, NY on December 18-20, 2017. Engineered by David Stoller. Mixed and mastered by Liberty Ellman on May 3 and July 25, 2018.

Vijay Iyer, co-producer

RAJAS Ensemble:
Rajna Swaminathan (mrudangam)
Ganavya Doraiswamy (vocal)
María Grand (tenor saxophone)
Amir ElSaffar (trumpet)
Anjna Swaminathan (violin)
Miles Okazaki (guitar)
Stephan Crump (bass)

Anjna Swaminathan, co-composer of “Offering” (track 1)
Ganavya Doraiswamy, co-arrangement credit on “Departures” (track 4) and lyrics on “Vagabonds” (track 1)

|| RAJAS || This ensemble is named after the Sanskrit word for the inner energy that compels us toward action, creation, and change. In Hindu philosophy, it is one of the three guna-s, or human qualities: rajas (passion/action), tamas (destruction/chaos), and sattva (goodness/balance). Formed in 2013, and taking on different configurations over the years, RAJAS has brought together a network of like-minded improvisers from multiple/overlapping traditions to experiment with new horizons of relation through hybrid forms, textures, and sensibilities. Though this album primarily features my original compositions, the dynamic trajectories that the music takes have been built through a deeply collaborative process: the unique ways in which each musician carried these forms have left a lasting impression. These pieces will continue to evolve as we keep learning how to align and coexist with one another…


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Rajna Swaminathan New York, New York

Rajna Swaminathan is an acclaimed mrudangam (South Indian percussion) artist and composer. She is a protégé of mrudangam maestro Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, and tours regularly with several renowned Indian classical musicians, most notably her mentor, vocalist T.M. Krishna. Rajna is one of only a handful of women who play the mrudangam professionally. ... more

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