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Experimental Jazz Quartet Amirtha Kidambi and Elder Ones Transcend Sound, Mind, and Body

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Experimental musician Amirtha Kidambi and her jazz quartet Elder Ones performed in UCI’s first in-person music event of the year at Winifred Smith Hall on Sept. 30. 

UCI students and faculty were invited to listen in on a pre-concert conversation between Kidambi and assistant professor of music Rajna Swaminathan. Co-sponsored by the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and the Gassmann Electronic Music Series, the concert was also part of UCI’s Illuminations: The Chancellor’s Arts & Culture Initiative, a program that seeks to expose students of all backgrounds to cultural and creative arts.

Led by vocalist Kidambi, the electronic jazz ensemble includes Matt Nelson on soprano saxophone, Eva Lawitts on cello, and Max Jaffe on drums and sensory percussion. The four, in conjunction with Kidambi’s synthesizer and harmonium arrangements, weave a blanket of melancholic, emotional and sparingly dissonant orchestration. As a quartet, Elder Ones perform Kidambi’s own compositions –– most of which recall moments of socio-political turmoil from the past year –– and seamlessly integrate space for each of Elder Ones’ members to improvise extended solos. The group’s instrumentation, which ricochets between melodic and dissonant, aptly reflects the weight of the subject matter. 

Photo by Jon Reyna

According to Kidambi, their first piece of the evening, “Third Space,” was written in response to the killing of Asian women that occurred in Atlanta, Georgia earlier this year and grapples with Kidambi’s own relationship with an Asian identity in the face of white male nationalism. The group’s collective dynamic instrumentation gives way to feelings of anger, disbelief and melancholy as Kidambi’s voice rises above Nelson’s wavered soprano sax and Lawitts’s heavy bass layer. 

Their second piece, “Devkar (Farmer Song),” was co-written by Kidambi and Booker Stardrum, a Los Angeles-based experimental composer and percussionist. The track was originally composed for the short film “Golden Jubilee (2021)” by Suneil Sanzgiri, an Indian American artist whose multimodal work dismantles systems of oppression and structural violence within cultural and historical contexts. Per Kidambi, the piece is dually inspired by and dedicated to the 2020 Indian farmer strike –– otherwise known as the largest labor strike in human history. 

Photo by Jon Reyna

Following suit was “The Great Lie,” where Kidambi’s select moments of spoken word slip into eerily sung vocals that bounce between battle cries, operatics, and meditative chants.

In introducing the final piece, Kidambi names “New Monuments” an homage to the nationwide racial justice movement that found its footing in the summer of 2020. Despite starting soft and slow, the piece inevitably turns sour as it recalls the grim, perpetual reality of racial violence against people of color.

All four of the concert’s pieces culminated in a swell of warbling vocals, thudding bass plucks and sporadic drum hits. When played concomitantly, the sound of Kidambi’s vocals and Nelson’s soprano sax resemble a conversation between friends, where moments of agreement are measured in simultaneous bouts of intensity and frustration. Kidambi’s vocals –– intimate, raw, erratic –– pitted against Jaffe’s complex time signatures and free-form percussive work, elicit waves of visceral emotion from the audience. 

Kidambi’s fundamentals are grounded in traditional Hindu chants, Carnatic music and free jazz, whose repertoires, in her words, “form a basis for [her] entire approach to music, both sonically and philosophically.” In addition, Kidambi’s spiritual-sonic work intuitively recalls avant-garde jazz pioneers Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane and composer Edgard Varèse, among others. 

With only four tracks on the set list, Kidambi and Elder Ones allow themselves the leeway to move freely with regards to time and sound –– an ebb and flow rhythm that grew familiar as the performance carried on. The group’s sprawling sonic experimentation hinged on bouts of improvisation and free jazz sensibilities –– in other words, a breaking of the mold.

While Kidambi’s vocals often paired well with the group’s sound, her voice occasionally seemed to inhibit the otherwise cohesiveness of the ensemble’s jazzy, electronic-twinged sonic palette. And yet, that sense of distance between vocalization and instrumentation lends itself to the group’s dynamism as a whole. The dissonance, the tug and pull between Kidambi’s intentional, sharp voice and Elder Ones’ rich, lively soundscapes, forms a sort of sonic liminal space that leaves listeners caught between worlds.

What remains of the night’s performance is a smorgasbord of sound, of music moments strewn together: the warbled dialog of Nelson’s saxophone; a sea of drones, built upon itself from Kidambi’s analog synthesizer and harmonium; the weight of silence in and out of completed pieces. Here, every bit of sound works to pull forth an already forward-thinking abstract sound. Further, the quartet’s quick, particular attention to detail effectively contrasted their ability to form lush, extended beds of sound. From Lawitts’ full-bodied thumping of the bass to Jaffe’s frenzied, physical state of percussive chaos, each member was as completely overtaken by their sound as was the audience. 

Kidambi and Elder Ones’ latest album, “From Untruth,” is available on all streaming services.

​​Mia Hammett is an Entertainment Editor for the 2021-2022 school year. She can be reached at entertainment@newuniversity.org.