Shastra is a community of artists dedicated to creating meaningful, cross-cultural music that connects great musical traditions of India and the West. Through festivals, recordings, educational events, and commissioning initiatives, we are a nexus for musicians to share their artistry and bring this music to the world.

Michael Harrison’s Project with Mashkoor Ali Khan receives New Music USA Commission

Shastra is excited to share composer Michael Harrison’s recent collaboration with his vocal guru Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan. Harrison spoke about this beautiful new work and his decades-long engagement with Hindustani music – including pure intonation applied to Western instruments –  at the Shastra Symposium 2016. Listen to “Tarana” here:

“Last month I was honored to have the opportunity to share four of my recent works with the most amazing group of cross cultural musicians at the Shastra Symposium. The work that captured the most attention was a Tarana, which is part of a collaborative CD with my Indian vocal guru Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan creating new works for multi-track Indian vocals, just intonation piano, tabla and tanpura. The project received a New Music USA commission and the recording and production was sponsored by American Academy of Indian Classical Music. The works are being composed using the basic structures and materials of North Indian classical music including raga, tala, alap, bandishes, gamaka, taans, and structured improvisation; but the juice comes from adding compositional structures, multi-tracking and piano, such that the Western hallmarks of harmony and polyphony become integral elements of the music.

“Tarana features Mashkoor Ali Khan singing one of his rare and old traditional taranas in raga Yaman Kalyan. He and guest vocalist Daisy Press also sing composed taans, harmony parts and countermelodies, with tabla played by Meghashyam Keshav, a disciple of Pt. Anindo Chatterjee, just intonation piano and tanpura played by me, and co-produced by Chris Botta at Staple Chest Audio. Although Indian classical music usually includes a lot of improvisation, this work is completely notated; yet the tightly structured 6-minute work still allows for the music to come alive. Because Ustad is a master of a centuries old aural tradition, he has never needed to read music. Therefore we developed most of his parts based on things that he already knew, with countermelodies and harmony parts that he learned by ear.

“To provide a little background for my work on this project, since 1978 I have studied and practiced singing Indian ragas on a daily basis, first as a disciple of the late Pandit Pran Nath, and his two foremost Western disciples, composers La Monte Young and Terry Riley, and since 1999 as a disciple of Mashkoor Ali Khan. When I was first getting started, La Monte encouraged me to study and practice the music in its pure form rather than creating hybrids. Whether consciously or not, I took his advice to the extreme. As a result, although practicing Indian music has profoundly influenced my life and work from the beginning, it has only been the past five years that I have directly used materials from the genre in my original works. La Monte’s advice enabled me to dive much deeper into the music; and decades later, with relatively equal training and background in both Western and Indian classical music, it comes naturally for me to merge elements from these diverse traditions. As a result over the past few years I have shifted my riyaz (daily practice) from singing with the tanpura, to singing and playing ragas on the just intonation piano. It is incredibly rewarding to start each day by exploring the merging of the two musical traditions that I love best. Now I am more excited than ever about the possibilities, and it is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to collaborate with my Ustad!

“You can hear Tarana and other related works and receive updates by “following” our project here: New Music USA Profile.”

– Michael Harrison

Shastra hires Jessica Johnson!

Shastra is thrilled to announce the appointment of Dr. Jessica Johnson as Managing Director of Development.  Jessica comes to Shastra with many years of experience in the non-profit world and she will be helping us take Shastra to the next level.


Dr. Jessica Johnson has served as Manager of Education and Community Engagement at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Director of the Hishmeh Music Education Project at William Paterson University, and the Communications Manager and Development Assistant at the JCC on the Palisades Thurnaur School of Music. In addition to her administrative roles, Ms. Johnson was a founding member and flutist for the new music group Alarm Will Sound, which the New York Times calls “one of the most vital and original ensembles on the American Music scene.” She has presented to K-12 audiences as an artist for Young Audiences and the New Performing Arts Residency Program, and has taught at the University of Rochester, the University of Wisconsin Madison, Messiah College and Edgewood College.  Dr. Johnson earned her degrees from the University of Michigan (BFA), the Eastman School of Music (MM), and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (DMA).

Arranging with Hindustani Music – LA Summer Intensive 2016 – Desiree Robinson

This summer, Shastra hosted a workshop for young composers who wanted to learn to work with Hindustani musicians. Co-taught by Hindustani singer Saili Oak and Western composer Reena Esmail, Arranging with Hindustani Music (AWHM) gave students the opportunity to learn about Hindustani music, and understand how it interfaced with their knowledge of western composition. The workshop culminated in a reading of bhajan arrangements with string quartet and Hindustani vocals.

Desiree Robinson, a young composer and participant in AWHM came to Los Angeles from Lafayette, Louisiana to attend the workshop. Listen to her arrangement of the Hindustani bhajan Mhari Surata, and read about her experience at AWHM below:


Composer Desiree Robinson discusses her arrangement of Mhari Surata with Reena Esmail

“Over this summer I have had that absolute privilege to study, arrange, and write Hindustani music with Reena Esmail and Saili Oak. As a composer, I am always seeking new ways to use my skills and techniques. On Friday, April 29th, 2016 I was deeply contemplating about what I should do with my time over the summer. On that day, I just so happened to come across a post on Composers’ Site about a workshop targeted specifically for undergraduate Western composers to learn about and experiment with Hindustani music. It was a bit of a stretch because the deadline to apply was May 1st, but after hearing about it, looking more into Reena’s and Saili’s work, and discovering how unique this workshop was, I could not let an opportunity of this caliber pass me by without at least trying for it. Not to mention that it was far-fetched because it was taking place all the way on the West Coast and the furthest west I had been at the time was Texas.

“When I reflect on my experiences through the workshop, I could not possibly be happier with my decision to take a leap of faith and move to Los Angeles, California from Lafayette, LA considering all that I gained. The summer intensive kept me on my toes and helped me learn a lot about myself as well as Hindustani music. My goal was to soak up as much as I could. This workshop was eye-opening and fun for all seven of the musicians involved. Though just about everything about this program was tough and challenging, I’d do it again because it was well worth it! It was a bittersweet moment once it was finished, but we will definitely cross paths again now that we have all learned so much on the journey together.”

– Desiree Robinson, AWHM Participant

The Courage of Collaboration: Middle School Students Expermient in Cross-Cultural Music Making

IMG_2643Over the years, there have been increasing instances where prominent professional musicians from Indian and Western traditions collaborate with one another. But this story is about a collaboration that took place at the very seminal stages of these musicians lives: A group of middle schoolers in New Jersey with a very forward-thinking music teacher forged a beautiful pathway to collaboration for his students this past fall.

Brian McGowan is a middle school orchestra teacher in Basking Ridge, NJ. He writes, “At the start of the school year, a young 8th grade student emailed me asking me if it would be possible for her to play Sitar with the Orchestra.  Other than a few tracks of Ravi Shankar on my iPod, I had no experience with Indian music. I was interested to see how this would work, and naively replied “sure” and told her to bring in the Sitar.”

Within that first meeting, McGowan knew he had jumped into the deep end. “The young student’s presentation confused me when she placed the sitar on her bare foot and played from the floor, but also captivated me with the interesting timbre.  I realized this was a larger project than I originally thought as I could see she was taught aurally and did not read any Western notation.”

At this point McGowan realized he had a very important choice to make. “I realize this would have been a good time to back away from this project, with these obvious complexities, but I couldn’t allow that to be the case.   Our orchestra program is certainly rooted in the classic repertoire of the great masters.  But in addition to that, I have always tried to give every class a musical experience that was completely different, and this was that opportunity.”


Hindustani and Western notation for Raag Malkauns, side by side

“I decided I would put my MA in composition to use and take one of the Sitar’s student’s Raags and write something around it for the orchestra to play.  The only problem was I still did not have enough knowledge about Indian Music to translate what she was doing to what we could do along with her.” It was at this point, McGowan reached out to Shastra Co-AD, Reena Esmail for a little help, and where we first became aware of this beautiful collaboration.

The young sitar player (who due to privacy reasons, we are unable to refer to by name here)  had never performed with Western instruments before. She says, ”At first I was nervous rehearing with the orchestra, because I knew it was so new for everyone and it took a little time to get used to it.” Already, she began to grasp some of the issues even professional musicians face in Indian/Western collaboration. She found it difficult to tune with the Western instruments, and challenging to start in the middle of a piece (in Western music, we often call out bar numbers and everyone begins to play, but in Hindustani music, because of the lack of notation, this rehearsal method is completely foreign). Ultimately, though, she found her way into the music: “When we performed, I was very excited and was happy we did it”.

Ultimately, McGowan’s orchestration of Raag Malkauns for Sitar and string orchestra was premiered at the school’s Winter Concert in December 2015. “There were plenty of challenges along the way for me writing the parts, and the students playing in a style unlike they have ever attempted.  But we all felt a great sense of achievement at the completion of this project!”

Collaboration takes courage. It took courage for a middle school sitar player to approach a Western orchestra teacher and ask to take part in a musical tradition she had never studied. It took courage for that teacher to say yes, and create a musical environment in which she could feel included and free to express herself. It took courage for the middle school students in the orchestra, many encountering Indian music for the first time, to approach this new challenge with curiosity and flexibility. And while they certainly learned volumes about each other’s musical cultures, the deeper lessons they took away from this experience – generosity, open-mindedness, inclusion, and the reward of cross-disciplinary collaboration – will stay with them for a lifetime.

Shastra Festival Call for Proposals EXTENDED!

The deadline to submit a proposal to the Shastra Symposium 2016 has been EXTENDED TO MARCH 1, 2016!

Due to some lag time with various postings of our call for proposals, we are receiving requests for late submissions. We have decided to extend our deadline to accommodate potential presenters who are just hearing about the Symposium. Thank you to everyone who has submitted so far, and we look forward to seeing the incoming proposals as well!

Please click here for more information on how to submit a proposal.

Thanks,The Shastra Team

Cross-Cultural Conversations at the Gen Y Raga Forum

2015-11-19-IndianRaga-CollageLast month the Gen Y Raga Forum took place at Lincoln Center, in New York City. It featured many incredible Indian-trained musicians whose life and work has been based in the US. Two concerts were followed by a panel discussion on, “the creative process and personal significance of playing Indian classical music as a young person in the U.S., how we can re-imagine the conversation of cultural appropriation and genuine collaboration, and the spaces and programs that are fueling the music’s preservation and growth.”

Musicians featured in this event included
Sriram Emani, Founder of IndianRaga;
Neel Murgai, Musician/Composer/Co-founder of Brooklyn Raga Massive
Roopa Mahadevan, Singer/IndianRaga Fellow
Rajna Swaminathan, Composer/Mrudangam player/Leader of RAJAS (Rajna was featured on the Shastra Festival last April)
Miles Okazaki, Guitarist/Member of RAJAS

These discussions are so important, and we are excited to see them happening with greater frequency in both the Indian and Western musical communities.

For the full article, click here.