Indian violinist, composer and conductor L. Subramaniam has had an illustrious career thus far. He has performed with artists like Stephane Grappelli, Herbie Hancock, Jean-Luc Ponty and the New York Philharmonic; written scores for several films; earned a Grammy nomination; and essentially created the global music concept. This Thursday night, he performs at the Freer Gallery. The ATM team recently caught up with him to chat pre-concert.
What can you tell us about what you have planned for Thursday’s concert?
This will be a concert with me and my son Ambi—two violins with two Indian percussion. I think this is my first time I’m bringing my son to play at the Smithsonian. It will be straight Indian classical music. We will do a lot of improvisations, and also there are fixed compositions.
Music has been a big part of your family.
My father was a professional musician who used to sing and play the violin. He was a professor of music. Then, my mother used to sing and play harmonium, which is a kind of a keyboard, and veena, which is another kind of instrument. So music has been always there. From the time we were born, we listened to my father and mother practicing and playing and teaching.
Was it important to you that your children take it up as well?
Yes. Culturally, my father was of the opinion that one has to know some art form so it will give a different dimension to one’s life. I became a medical doctor and then I quit the whole thing and continued my music. My children are also studying. My daughter has finished her law degree but has continued to do her singing. My son is doing business management courses. It’s very important to me that they continue music in addition to their education. Later on, they should do whatever their heart says.
Was it hard for you to choose between medicine and music?
No, not really. In those days, a musician’s life was very hard. Violin was an accompaniment instrument until my father changed the whole thing and made it into a solo instrument. I always wanted to be a musician but when I started playing concerts I also wanted to have some kind of a degree as a backup. But then I never used it. So I just finished my medicine, registered as a general practitioner, but then continued as a musician.
Did you ever see any similarities between the two—music and medicine?
Everything has a scientific approach, even music, especially in the South Indian carnatic music that I practice. It’s very complex. It’s very scientifically based. It’s all very methodical.
How would you describe the carnatic music that you play?
The carnatic music is probably one of the oldest musical systems and definitely the oldest system in India. It started from Samaveda. There are four Vedas. Vedas are Sanskrit sophisticated texts, which were chanted by a priest.
You’ve had many honors bestowed upon you, one being the title of Padma Bhushan, recognizing distinguished service to the nation, from the president of India. What was that like?
Getting honors is always great, in my own country or outside of India. But also what I enjoy more than anything is performing with artists of different genres, because I believe in the global concept of music. That gives me intense pleasure and satisfaction.
What is it about global music that appeals to you?
Before, western classical music was its own genre. Jazz was its own genre. There was no crossover between the different parts of the world. We started this concept in the 70s when we had artists from different parts of the world—African, Chinese, Indian, Western artists—collaborate. That kind of thing caught on. Every time you do it, it gives you some surprise element, because there’s improvisation involved with it. That’s the beauty of the global fusion concert. We try to create a platform where different artists can sit and perform, expressing themselves and bringing their own color, flavor and emotion to the written melody.