For MCA 50, ambient musician Lykanthea explores culture, history, and identity with her dream ensemble | Bleader

For MCA 50, ambient musician Lykanthea explores culture, history, and identity with her dream ensemble

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Members of the Lykanthea ensemble at a rehearsal for their MCA show: Collin McCanna, Bindu Poroori, Lakshmi Ramgopal, Lisa Mishra, and Lucy Little - SIERRA THOMPSON
  • Sierra Thompson
  • Members of the Lykanthea ensemble at a rehearsal for their MCA show: Collin McCanna, Bindu Poroori, Lakshmi Ramgopal, Lisa Mishra, and Lucy Little

For her hour-long Saturday-morning set at the Museum of Contemporary Art's 50th-anniversary celebration, MCA Hearts Chicago, Lakshmi Ramgopal has put together the biggest ensemble of her musical career. Though she's played in bands (most notably synth-pop duo Love and Radiation, with ensemble member Adele Nicholas) and enlisted the occasional musician to support her solo project, Lykanthea (which debuted in 2014 with the EP Migration), she's never attempted anything as ambitious as the nine-piece group she'll debut this weekend. Her MCA show will also add movement art and ritual to the music she plays as Lykanthea, elaborating on its nuanced expression of personal and collective identity.

Ramgopal lived in Chicago full-time when she released the Migration EP, but after graduating from the University of Chicago in 2016 with a PhD in classics, she moved to western Massachusetts and began teaching at Trinity College in Connecticut as a visiting assistant professor. She now splits her time between Massachusetts and Chicago: since beginning to assemble her ensemble in August, she's often flown out for a weekend to rehearse, then flown back east in time to teach her classics courses. "This is my first time directing something this big," Ramgopal says. "I actually don't think I would be able to do it if I didn't have so much experience teaching. You have to organize so many different things as a teacher. So many different people are coming at you with a huge range of backgrounds and abilities."

The entire group. Front row: Rosé Hernandez, Lisa Mishra, Olivia Hickner, Collin McCanna, Lakshmi Ramgopal, Adele Nicholas, assistant Dena Springer, and Bindu Poroori. Back row: Efrén Arcoiris, Lucy Little. - SIERRA THOMPSON
  • Sierra Thompson
  • The entire group. Front row: Rosé Hernandez, Lisa Mishra, Olivia Hickner, Collin McCanna, Lakshmi Ramgopal, Adele Nicholas, assistant Dena Springer, and Bindu Poroori. Back row: Efrén Arcoiris, Lucy Little.

Last year's invitation from the MCA spurred Ramgopal to put together what she calls "the chorus of my dreams." To accomplish in real time what she usually does with backing tracks and loops of her own voice, she recruited four singers: Nicholas (who cofounded Frontwoman Fest and leads the band Axons), Olivia Hickner, Lisa Mishra, and Bindu Poroori (cocurator at Salonathon and cofounder of arts collective Leela). Singing live with other people, Ramgopal says, adds depth and complexity that she's always wanted in her music. "The call-and-response parts of that EP work better when there are different kinds of voices," she explains. "The people I invited to sing with me all have very different voices and training in singing, and the result is this really interesting combination of textures. A couple of us are trained in South Indian styles of singing, and other people are not at all. It's this complicated melding of sound that I couldn't achieve on the EP, but I can now on the stage."

For most previous Lykanthea performances, Ramgopal has relied on synths and electronic processing to ramp up the scale of her sound, which rests on her voice and the drones of a sruti box. In this group, she's added drummer Collin McCanna, who's worked with her to adapt percussion from Hindu funerals for a trap set, and violinist Lucy Little. Below you can hear a few rehearsal recordings of retooled Migration songs.
Lykanthea's MCA performance will also include newer material derived from a sound installation called Maalai that Ramgopal developed at Logan Square's Comfort Station over the summer. While Migration's lyrics draw upon Sumerian mythology, Maalai comes from a more personal place. In June, Ramgopal's grandmother died suddenly. "She's my last grandparent, and she was also basically a third parent. My earliest memories are of her," she says. "Losing someone like that was a shock to my system, in terms of the loss of self-knowledge that it represented. There are so many things about her that I never got to ask about." After her grandmother's death, Ramgopal began piecing together sound work that addresses history, memory, diaspora, and identity. "I've been thinking a lot about family histories, particularly histories that are passed down from one woman to another within a single matrilineal line."

Till now, Ramgopal has mostly kept the specifics of her personal experience out of her music. "I'm in my 30s and thinking, 'What am I creating? What does it mean to be creating as an Indian woman?'" she says. "My brother just had a baby, and I'm thinking a lot about what I would want her to know about me. I'm thinking about myself in the way I think about my grandmother, almost as an embodied history of knowledge and culture. What do I have to pass on? What is it about me that's Indian? I didn't really ever think about this stuff when I was in my 20s, but I'm thinking about it a lot now, and I think that has to do with my grandmother's death and this particular political moment as well."

Ramgopal explored these issues in rehearsals for the MCA set. Poroori and Mishra are also Indian-American (Poroori is Telugu, Mishra is Odia, and Ramgopal is Tamil), and the three of them worked to adapt music from Maalai. "The song 'Maalai' will take up the last 20 minutes of the performance," says Ramgopal. "Bindu and I developed the MCA version as a way for she and Lisa Mishra and I to think about the ways we engage with our identities as Indian femmes, especially in light of the combination of things we know and don't know about our respective backgrounds." In addition to new music (you can hear a short rehearsal recording below), the last section of the performance will incorporate recordings from the installation of Ramgopal speaking with her mother and grandmother, in English and Tamil, about her grandmother's childhood in India during British colonial rule.
"One of the big elements of the performance is going to be floral symbolism from an explicitly Indian cultural perspective," says Ramgopal. "The word 'maalai' in Tamil means 'garland.' At the MCA, Bindu is going to be creating a jasmine garland live onstage and putting it in my hair. Those elements are all extremely meaningful to us, because Bindu and I grew up with our grandmothers putting jasmine flowers in our hair. That smell and the shape and the look of the flower has so much important cultural and religious significance for us."

The flowers used in the performance will come from Vivek Flowers, an Indian florist in Schaumburg that also supplied the Comfort Station installation. Ramgopal commissioned custom sari blouses for the Indian-American members of the ensemble from Sky Cubacub, who makes gender-neutral, accessible custom clothing as Rebirth Garments. "Sky and I have talked a little about our interest in finding ways to create costumes and garments that reflect our respective cultural identities but aren't necessarily traditional," says Ramgopal. "I don't consider myself a traditional Indian woman by any means. I've struggled a lot with that, so the idea of creating garments that push against the idea of what's normal or traditional worked really well for me. Working with Sky was a no-brainer."

While the MCA performance directly engages with South Indian traditions, Ramgopal also wants to make room for everyone else in the ensemble. "We've had a lot of interesting conversations about how to put together a performance that feels cohesive and that is also respectful of all the different identities that people are bringing to it," she says. "For me, it was important to deal with certain specific South Indian ideas about femininity and identity, culture and history, but I'm working with a lot of artists who don't share that background."

The first people Ramgopal reached out to after receiving the MCA's invitation were Rosé Hernandez and Efrén Arcoiris of Burning Orchid, performance artists whose work disentangles themes of gender, queerness, and decolonization. "Burning Orchid is interested in embodying abstract ideas. That works really well with what Bindu and I have developed for Maalai," Ramgopal says. "They're going to be doing a lot of sculptural, abstract, loose movements during the last half of the performance. A lot of their work is partially improvisational. I'm not even doing a whole lot of direction for them, because they really are their own entity. It makes more sense for them to bring what they feel is right to the performance."

Adele Nicholas, Collin McCanna, Bindu Poroori, Lakshmi Ramgopal, Lucy Little, and Olivia Hickner at rehearsal - SIERRA THOMPSON
  • Sierra Thompson
  • Adele Nicholas, Collin McCanna, Bindu Poroori, Lakshmi Ramgopal, Lucy Little, and Olivia Hickner at rehearsal

Ramgopal doubts that communication between cultures benefits from an effort to universalize the message. "Even though we're dealing with culturally specific ideas, I think the more specific you are, the more it can speak to people who don't necessarily share your background," she says. "The people I invited to the performance were the people I knew were going to be able to create something complex and nuanced with me. I don't see identity as being monolithic. I can describe myself in so many different ways: as an Indian, as an Indian-American, as an American, as a woman, and so on. My own identity is so complicated and so fraught as a second-generation Indian woman who often feels trapped among different cultural expectations. It makes sense to work with an incredibly diverse cast of artists, because we're creating a performance that has its own complex identity. We're reflecting everyone's particular identities while creating a cohesive whole. There is so much that's positive to mine in the spaces that we don't share with other people."

The process of remaking her music with so many collaborators has led Ramgopal to a turning point. She's been playing songs from Migration for more than three years, touring the United States and Europe, and she feels that performing them with this ensemble is her cue to finally retire them and move on to her next project. "I've always felt that my music is best performed with other people. Now that I'm doing that with eight other people, it does feel like a good-bye. It's a transition into the next step," she says. "I've grown so much in the two months that I've been working on this project, thinking about sound and movement and how movement changes the way you understand sound. For me personally, it's a completely different approach to performance."

Ramgopal hopes that saying good-bye to her old music will be cathartic. She's excited to realize the songs in a way she never could without this group. "This is the first time I've been presented with a situation where I've had to think big," she says. "I feel like I'm finally performing the songs as they were always meant to be performed."

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