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Interview with Composer Kamala Sankaram

The below interview by Kendra Preston Leonard, PhD is excerpted from the forthcoming issue of Early Modern Culture.


Listen to an excerpt of Kamala’s score for The Oresteia:


What can you tell us about the music for the production? Is it continuous? Focused on specific scenes or between scenes? What is the musical roadmap for the play?

The music for this play consists of continuous underscoring rather than transitional cues. My process for creating it has been to think of it as another design element, serving to highlight the dramatic beats in the text, much as a change in lighting would. The practical result of this approach has been to create music that is modular and layered. Subtle shifts in the musical texture are cued by lines in the text. Additionally, specific characters are associated with specific timbres: Agamemnon is accompanied by metallic sounds. Iphigenia is accompanied by a string melody. Apollo is the processed sound of a humpback whale.

The psychology of the sound world is intended to help navigate the shifts in time. The timbres that are used in the present are very different from those used in the past. The past is warm and human. The present is dark, heavy, and contains industrial and machine sounds.


How do you approach the play’s violence and trauma from a musical perspective?

Each act of violence in the play spurs another until the final moments when the Chorus decides to find a different way to create justice. I try to match these echoes of trauma through musical echoes: references to thematic material from the moment of violence. For example, as Electra talks with Clytemnestra about Agamemnon’s murder, the violin pizzicato motive from the murders emerges.


You’ve done a lot of work that draws on the music and sounds of multiple cultures. What has it been like creating music for a piece that is from ancient Greece but remains very modern in many ways?

In composing for a dramatic work, I’m interested in how music can create a sense of place. This is especially true for works like my opera Thumbprint, which take place in a specific country. However, the world of the STC Oresteia is more of a liminal space: somewhere between the past and the present, and without a specific sense of geographical location. Thus my approach has been to pay tribute to ancient Greek music without trying to specifically evoke it. The harmonic language of the piece is all based on Greek modes, but we don’t hear any Greek instruments, and I don’t use any references to ancient Greek music.


What questions do you wish I had asked here? What else would you like to tell people about the music?

Because we are building the rest of piece through an extended rehearsal process, it was important that the music also be written in response to the discoveries made in rehearsal. What this has meant is that, rather than going off and writing by myself as I would if I were writing an opera or concert music, I’m creating something very collaboratively.


The Oresteia begins April 30. Go behind-the-scenes in our four-part video series Staging an Epic.

Kendra Preston Leonard is a musicologist and music theorist whose work focuses on women and music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; and music and screen history, particularly music and adaptations of Shakespeare; and a librettist and poet. She is the author of five scholarly books and numerous book chapters and article, and is the Executive Director of the Silent Film Sound and Music Archive and the Head of Scholarship and Research for the Institute for Composer Diversity (SUNY-Fredonia).

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