There’s something satisfying about the seesaw between disparate pursuits: alternating between periods of analytical problem-solving and long, mentally unfurling stretches of creative practice. Each mode of thinking enriches the other. The music of Sarmistha Talukdar goes a step further by engaging in these practices simultaneously. Through her project Tavishi, she converges her interest in musical composition with her work as a scientist, converting research data into cascades of rhythm and ripples of harmony, while using sound as a unique lens through which to reconsider the patterns and structures present in her research. The end product is a beautiful, somewhat mysterious intersection of Indian music, ambient shimmer, crooks of atonality and sudden bursts of noise.
Tavishi’s latest album, Boundaries, came out on cassette back in May via Trrash Records. 100% of the proceedings from the tape are going to the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, which works to address and end violence, with a specific focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities across Virginia. Below, Sarmistha and I discuss data sonification, amino acid sequences and confronting stage fright.
Your music centres on the intersection between science and sound, which are two areas I’m particularly fascinated with (albeit from an amateur standpoint in both instances). When and how did these two interests start to converge for you?
I have always been drawn to different forms of creativity, be it art, music or science. My interest in science, art and music all started at a very young age. But it was not until I was pursuing my Ph.D. studies that I started taking some music lessons. While I was learning about notes and chords it all seemed like math to me. I could see mathematical patterns in music. I started wondering if I could convert mathematical equations into music. I would often wonder how that would sound: mechanical or melodic? I also came across musical renderings of scientific constants like Pi, Tau and Phi. At the same time, I discovered experimental, avant garde and atonal/noise music. I would also often think a lot about information – that it is lot like energy, it can be transformed from one form into another. I feel we do this every day in our daily lives without realising. The universe itself, according to some theories, is like a multi-dimensional hologram of information/data, etched on the fabric of space-time. When I started my postdoctoral studies, I started wondering if my research data could be converted into music. Soon I realised that data could be transformed into atonal or rhythmic textures and soundscapes and that was how I started my experiments in data sonification.
“Notch signalling pathway” was composed by converting amino acid sequences into music. I’d love to know more about how this conversion process works, as I sense that there’s a dialogue taking place between the predetermined sequencing and aesthetically-driven artistic intention (in terms of instrument choice, mixing etc). What inspired you to use these amino acid sequences as a compositional basis? If it isn’t too complicated to explain, how do you set about mapping these sequences onto musical parameters?
The relationship between biological sequences and music has a very interesting history. In the book Gödel Escher Bach, Douglas Hofstadter highlights similarities between genes and music. Joel Sternheimer, who is a physicist, composer and mathematician was one of the people who came up with the theoretical method for converting biological sequences. There is a really good research article that describes this process in detail. Just like the chords are made up of notes, and have letters to identify them (C, D, E etc), proteins are made up of different amino acids, and these amino acids also have names to identify them (Valine, leucine, tyrosine etc).
So what I did was to assign a scale, sound origin, and note to different amino acids. For example, in the track, there are multiple proteins, and I assigned different sounds (bells to one protein, leads to another protein). Then I assigned different notes/chords to the different amino acids in the sequence. So a protein sequence having say: valine- leucine- tyrosine- leucine- valine- tryosine becomes CDEDCE in the musical notation. The length of the notes would correspond to the real time it takes for each amino acid/protein to come after the next.
In our bodies and cells, different molecules/proteins read these amino sequences like information, very much like a musician may read a musical score. Just like there are repeating sets of sequences/motifs, there are repeating patterns and chord progressions in music. I feel the two are not that different! As I was tinkering around the idea of converting data into music, I wanted to see if I could convert something from my research into music. I was working on this pathway called Notch signalling pathway in cancer stem cells, and I discovered really interesting ways that different protein molecules like Notch, C-myc, MDA-9 interact with each other, and how one interaction triggers another reaction and so forth. This is the link on my study if anyone is interested. I tried to convert how these molecules interact in real life. The first trigger is what keeps the entire signalling pathway on going. So musically/compositionally, the first trigger kind of becomes a drone that slowly becomes the background while new interactions/musical tension keep happening in the foreground.
You work with a curious array of different inspirations and compositional forces. As well as the basis in scientific research, you also bring together elements of Indian classical music with the more abstract shapes of western noise and ambient music. Often these elements cohere quite organically, although there’s often an energetic tension bristling in the space between them. Are you drawn to the challenge of making these disparate elements coexist, or does this combination of sources feel natural to you?
The combination of different inspirations and sources feel very natural to me, in fact I am compelled to express myself that way. I am from India, and four years ago I moved to US to work as a postdoctoral scientist. It is very natural to struggle, learn and work around the culture shock after arriving in any new country. Because of my past and present experiences, the different aspects of my life are always trying to work with each other. I am trying to find myself in a western society that is very new and different to me, while holding on to my roots and my identity of being an Indian. I often experience being in two complete polar opposite situations at the same time. I find myself at the same time in conflicting conditions of eastern and western culture, science/logic and emotion/empathy, calm and stress, or noise and ambience. And I think these tensions innately end up manifesting in my music. In Boundaries, I try to explore the overlapping boundaries from different worlds that have made their way in my day to day life.
I’m intrigued as to whether your scientific research feeds into your sound practice or vice versa. Does Tavishi offer a way to process or reflect upon your scientific work? By presenting certain scientific premises through sound, are you ever led to think differently about the way you approach your research?
I think it works both ways. I think different forms of creativity feed each other. They help in noticing the hidden patterns and structures in one system, that are more visible in the other system. Science definitely visibly feeds into my music, but my music process and live performance experiences also help me in my research. Sequential music composition helps me create flowcharts for experimental design. Just as I feel genetic sequences are similar to compositional music scores, I feel that the different textures, tensions in music helps me see patterns and analogies in research, while help me cope with the frustrations of research. Progress in scientific research comes at the cost of many failed experiments, hypothesis and analogies. Tavishi, apart from letting me express my emotions, also helps me tackle things head on like stage fright, which is helpful during conferences and presentations. The name “Tavishi” means “courage” in my language, and I chose this name so as to find courage to explore new things, be it in music, arts, science or life.
“Cancer” is the longest track on Boundaries by some stretch (16 minutes). From my perspective, it’s also the album’s strangest piece, driven by a stream of toneless, slowly modulated noise, laced with samples of voices (one of which describes the potential links between cancer and pesticide use in crops). Could you tell me more about the creation of the piece? How did you arrive at that gush of noise at the centre of the record, and how did you set about selecting the vocal samples for the piece?
“Cancer” was created from the catalogue of somatic mutations that are found in cancer. The gush of noise at the centre of the track comes from overlaying the sounds of hundreds of mutation data, these are mutations that accumulate, and are common, in the different types of cancers. “Cancer” was created to reflect on the scientific and social aspect of cancer. Cancers start off slowly, from mutations, and then after reaching a certain stage, it grows exponentially and if untreated, then ends with the patient. The morbidity associated with cancer also follows a similar pattern. I tried to express the darkness with atonal noise that was generated from the data. However, cancer does not just originate from the mutations; agents in our environment often cause this deadly phenomenon.
As a cancer biologist, it often feels like an oxymoron to be working on possible therapies when we are surrounded, if not bombarded, by cancer causing agents, like pesticides, linings in food containers and pollution. Some of the vocal samples are excerpts from pesticide representatives who have commented that these pesticides are even safe enough to drink, and when someone offered a glass of pesticides they refused of course, saying they were not a fool to do so. Industries like tobacco and pesticides make profits by selling us poison, while affecting so many in the process. Are they not using science in the process of making these commercially acceptable poisons? What is the use of science, if not helping the society? Cancer is most prevalent in marginalised people. I started working in this field, like many others, because I lost a close relative to it. One of the voice samples is from a woman in an Indian village, talking about her experience in dealing with a loved one suffering from cancer, and how she feels about the health industry. Who really benefits from all the hard work of the scientists? Is it the people who need it the most or just the 1%? Is it the industries? “Cancer” tries to reflect on these questions and raise awareness.
It looks like you’ve had a busy 2017 in terms of live performances, with several more dates on the horizon too. How does your approach to live performance differ to the process used to compose your recorded music?
In live performances, I feel there are no second takes. I cannot take the best from different parts and put them together. My live performances involve live looping, modulating multiple samples individually in real time, using vocals and adding additional effects. In recorded music, I can mix elements differently and add layers after I listen to my first draft of recordings. Live performances add spontaneity and tension while recorded music is more structured. Some of my live performances have turned out better than the recorded ones.
I see that Tavishi recently celebrated its first birthday. It seems that you’ve accomplish so much in that time. How do you feel about the project’s first year of existence?
I feel incredibly lucky to have received so much support and encouragement from fellow artists as well as the audience. I feel I have learnt so much about music, its possibilities, as well as myself, in this one year. I have found that music is not only a multi-disciplinary medium of expression and exploration, but also a great medium to empathetically connect with people, share experiences, listen, learn from others, talk about social issues and grow as a human being.
I see that you’re also part of an improvisatory collective called Womajich Dialyseiz, which sounds awesome. Could you tell me more about that?
When I was still stumbling on how to go forward with music, I discovered this amazing thing called improvisational music. This was a few months before Tavishi was born. I was trying to merge Indian classical music with western music, and I was trying to make peace with the different rules that classical music comes with. Indian classical music is very intricate and complex, and if I dare say, more complex than western music. But Indian classical music also has a rich and ancient history of improvisation. I was getting stuck in the rigidity of the rules, trying to control the flow of music, and to bend it to how I wanted it to be, while being true to the different rules of the ragas, and I would get very frustrated. At the same time, I started paying more attention to improvisation, and listening to other artists and going with the flow, instead of controlling it. I had just started exploring the local music scene. The music scene, just like the fields of arts and science, is not very kind to women.
So I started a little collective with fellow musicians, to have a little safe creative space where we could explore music. It was really great to be with artists from so many diverse backgrounds and skill sets, trying to listen, learn and improvise, and make music that is so different from what we individually are used to. In time our collective grew, and now we are comprised of many women, femmes and non-binary artists. We named our collective Womajich Dialyseiz, and each letter of our name stands for a femme experimental musician who has influenced us in some way. Our improvisation collective now does more than just improvise: we not only perform, but curate music and art shows, organize benefit events, fundraisers for different causes, film screenings, host workshops on music technology and try to help our community in whatever ways we can.
What’s on the horizon for your music and your research?
I am working on getting some of my new solo music released soon. I am trying to gather up courage to do somethings that I have not done before or feel uncomfortable about. In Boundaries, I totally avoided the use of vocals, but I am trying to have an album that will have all vocal tracks. I am also collaborating with different sound and film artists on some new projects. I have some out of town performances coming up soon and I am really excited about them. I met many amazing artists in this one year and I hope to meet more!
In research, I am trying to finish up multiple projects that I have been working on for quite some time. I have projects on glioma, neuroblastoma, prostate, and breast cancer that I am currently working on. My area of research is on studying a small, unique, and therapy resistant population of cells within the tumour, called cancer stem cells, and I am hoping to find new ways to target them. Maybe I will be inspired by science again musically in new ways as well.