Name: Ami Dang
Nationality: South Asian-American
Occupation: Vocalist, sitarist, composer, producer
Current Release: Meditations Mixtape Vol. 1 on Leaving Records
Recommendations: Nailah Hunter, Spells (EP); Infinity Knives, “In the Mouth of Sadness ft. Bobbi Rush and Tyler Moonlight
If you enjoyed this interview with Ami Dang, visit her website, bandcamp profile or facebook page to stay up to date with his music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing and producing music when I was 17 or 18. At the time, I was probably listening to various Top 40 on the radio and trip hop and other mainstream electronic music. I was also playing sitar and had taken voice lessons on and off during my teenage years. I have played an instrument for as long as I can remember.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
For better or worse, something I learned early on was that nothing really mattered--that all the rules could be broken. Even instruments were optional. But my problem was that I didn’t know and fully comprehend the rules that I was expected to break--this was when I was in college studying electronic music composition and arts technology.
Years later, I’m finally fully embracing the fact that for me, some kind of structure is crucial. I struggled to create something from nothing in the early days. I think I took what I knew from Hindustani classical music and that structure and applied it to electronic music through loops, textures and timbres.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
As I mentioned above, it has taken me a while to embrace structure and rules, which don’t have to be traditional or emulate anyone else, but it’s helpful for me to work within a framework of my own choosing.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
A lot of the setup is dependent on how much money I have been able to spend on it. My voice, sitar, and the computer are my primary instruments. I bought a new sitar this year, and I’m very happy with the sound of the new instrument. I started out by working in the studios at the conservatory where I did my bachelor’s, and those studios had a lot of amazing gear and resources. We had an old Arp and lots of nice FX processors.
When I left school, I was at a loss for a while without any gear of my own other than my sitar and my computer. Over time, I became interested in pedals, loopers, samplers, and then back to the computer to become a better producer with VSTs, etc., and now my partner is dabbling in modular synthesizers. We’re making work together, so I could say I’m getting into modular gear, but the truth is, I know very little about it.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
For me, the question is, what don’t machines excel at? But I know the answer--it’s emotion. Humans emote. Even machines can randomize, but nothing will replace a human body manifesting music onstage. I love using technology to create and manipulate sounds, but I’ll never take for granted the fact that it’s the composer/performer who expresses the music.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I write the tonal aspects (typically using MIDI) and use virtual instruments to determine the timbre of the sounds. I also use FX plug ins, and they’re usually very important as part of my compositional process. As in, the delays and reverbs (etc.) that I use tend to be pretty specific, and a piece doesn’t always work in the way that I want it to if those get replaced.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I much prefer to work in person or where there’s some sort of accountability involved. (I’m not as good with file sharing collaborations.) But it usually isn’t a big deal because, when people reach out to me, they often want me to play sitar (that’s the number one request!) or sing or to help with overall ideas. Since the lockdown, I’ve been collaborating with my partner here and there, although, now, we’re trying to work on music together for eight hours a day--whether it’s his music, my music, one of our joint projects or a sound design/composition assignment we’re working on. I’ve never had the time or space devoted to this kind of focused collaboration, and I’m looking forward to it.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
For better or worse, I don’t have a fixed routine. When I work on music, that’s what I’m doing. I also do freelance work (grant writing) that is unrelated to composition and performance (except for when I’m writing grants for my own work). I don’t think there’s a way to integrate my administrative work into my music unless I’m listening back to my work when I do admin work, but for me, that doesn’t really work because I can’t focus on timbres, the mixes, the structure, etc. when I’m writing emails, grant narratives, or social media posts, for example.
I’m a habitual procrastinator--to the extent that it must be something pathological or a psychological problem. This leads to me putting off practicing my instruments and creating music until I must get something done. Since I know this, I try to give myself deadlines (sometimes through booking performances, for example) or some kind of structure or system to make sure that I make music. I have a lot of guilt around not creating music every day. It’s something I’m working on.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Every piece or album starts with an idea or theme. The idea or theme could be a mood, tone, message, or listening function. When I created my album Parted Plains, it began as a series of studies (or etudes) for sitar and electronics. That was the point. During the creation of these pieces, I was thinking about a Punjabi folktale, a Romeo and Juliet-type of story called Sohni. (I was engaged at the time, and my parents disapproved of my partner, so these kinds of stories resonated with me to some extent.)
A few months later, I was asked to create a live score to a section of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the first feature length animated film from 1926 by German filmmaker and animator Lotte Reiniger. As a South-Asian American composer and musician creating music along to visualized story--the intricate animations that tell a story that’s a part of One Thousand and One Nights--I was forced to consider the cultural appropriation of the film and how all of the folktales that I have read (or seen) from the Middle East and South Asia are actually Western translations or adaptations. Then I was interested in reclaiming these stories through my music and decolonizing them.
My decision to create Meditations Mixtape, Vol. I, was driven by the desire to fill a needed role during the coronavirus crisis--to make music that is used for healing, introspection, and to uplift humanity. I had never embarked on music that was intended to be for meditating, so this was a bit difficult at first.
I wanted the pieces to be soothing and still but also progress slowly. I also intentionally used traditionally consonant harmony in these works to evoke tranquility rather than confusion and anxiety. We are already experiencing enough of that right now. But moving forward, I want to explore more emotional progression within a single piece of music, especially within the meditations.
You have to go into a dark place sometimes to see the light, that is, to truly appreciate happiness and harmony, you need to have also experienced sadness.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The biggest distraction is technology and the internet. And yet I also use technology in my work, and that makes it very difficult for me to dig deeply into my work and focus. I would also love to create during a time where I don’t owe anyone anything--no emails to respond to, no performances to prepare for, no meals to cook or house to clean, no work deadlines due. But that isn’t the reality of today. I almost always have something looming over me! Exercise helps.
Honestly, I don’t know … I don’t think I have found the “ideal state.” Ask me next year, maybe?
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I typically think a lot about how I’m going to perform a piece live when I’m working on record work in the studio. My process doesn’t always unfold as jams in real time, so this can create friction when I want to do something for a recording, but I’m unsure if I will be able to realize it in an interesting way in a live performance. I let go of this idea for my latest EP, Meditations Mixape, Vol. I, because I’m not planning any major touring cycle for this album due to the coronavirus crisis.
It was quite freeing to let go of any notions of what the live production might be like. However, I really enjoy playing live and experiencing the energy in the room with the audience. Performing in virtual spaces, i.e. “livestreams,” do not evoke the same sentiment.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
With modern electronic production, including using soft synths, for example, you are choosing a timbre (or ‘sound’), but many of them move and change over time according to the parameters that an LFO might control. Therefore, when a sound evolves over time, it will affect the overall composition. Of course, certain sounds may also be better suited for bass and treble, mid-low, etc., so those are also going to sit in your composition in a certain way according to which frequencies resonate most or how you EQ them.
Another aspect is using “sound” in a more legato or rhythmic way. You can use sounds with sharp attacks (like a piano or sitar, for instance) in a rhythmic way but a drone or long-held note is going to produce a completely different result that inherently changes the composition. I try to find balance between all of these elements in my music and/or choose what I want to be the focus of a piece, a more rhythmic or striking melody or maybe something more legato.
The “sound” and composition can’t be separated; they are interdependent.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I know the “brown note” hasn’t been proven, but my organs have definitely been moved by music! For anyone who has stood in a room with live music, you have witnessed the way that music vibrates not only in your ears but throughout your body. (I’m not a synaesthetic so I don’t see colors or taste sound.) But for me, playing music live is extremely important because the transference of sound as vibration in the body and creating energy in the room among a community of people isn’t something you can really achieve with a recording.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
To me, creating art and music is a spiritual practice, as is demanding social justice. While my work isn’t always inherently political, I’m not afraid to express strong political opinions against systemic racism and inequity, workers’ rights, immigration rights, anti-sexual harassment and rape culture, and income inequality, to name a few.
I go to protests, sign petitions and occasionally call my representatives to express my concerns. I try to be an active citizen and to exercise my civil liberties. While some of my work is about certain concepts relating to politics and identity, until this point I haven’t created art that enacts social change, but I strongly support others who create this work.
I am also a freelance grant writer, and I have helps raise funds for FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, for example.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
The notion of the “music industry” has engulfed music more than I would like for it to … music will always exist even if it isn’t commodified. My vision would be for more artists to get better opportunities to play and distribute their music fairly and for the streaming services to pay artists more money.
And beyond that, this notion of musicians as celebrities would not exist, and music would truly be an extension of a community’s creation and celebration.