We’ve all heard the saying – music is truly universal. But, how many musicians can truly claim to “know” and “feel” the truth of this statement? Meet Vasundhara Gupta, young musician and sound designer from the Berklee School of Music in Boston – “ Every class that I took at Berklee had 9 out of 10 musicians drawn from different parts of the world,” she said in wonderment. She used that exposure and has moved forward in ways that truly demonstrate confidence and artistic leadership.
Growing up in Kolkata in a large joint family with cousins, uncles, and aunts, the musical influences in her life were varied and started when she was very young; some relatives listened to Western classical music, her father listened to the Beatles, her brother to Bryan Adams and her mother to Hindustani music. From this musical amalgam, emerged a keen student of Hindustani music groomed under the watchful eyes of her mother and grandmother. Both of them played the Hawaiian slide guitar and even when she went on vacations to her maternal grandmother;s house in Varanasi, lessons continued through the hot, summer months. This early discipline nurtured the young girl and soon she was singing and practicing on her own with true love and dedication.
In high school, unsure of what to do next, a friend’s suggestion to apply to the Berklee School of Music changed her life. She first went to Mumbai for 3 rounds of interviews with music professors from Berklee. The fact that her in-person interview with two professors turned out to be an impromptu jam session must have guaranteed her admission to the highly selective institution, I surmise, as she talks of how her mind opened to global musical influences on arrival in Boston. Sound producer, sound engineer, music orchestrator – when she heard these various paths to making and producing music, her first reaction as a student was to exclaim – “My God – you can do so much in music! “I was amazed that all of these pursuits originated from that same place within – a deep love for music,” she said with visible excitement.
Apart from these various career paths that opened up in front of her, her musical sense resonated with an understanding of history, migration and acculturation. For instance, she was able to examine Indian music, the music that she was most familiar with, “in a different way.” The Middle Eastern Berklee ensembles, bore the same root as forms of Indian music since they originated in Persia centuries ago, she realized. She described the Berklee environment as “an explosion” of music from all over the world that stimulated her fertile artistic mind in myriad ways.
As part of the Indian ensemble at Berklee, she took on leadership roles, and helped produce mega shows that involved multiple moving parts in terms of sound design, production and performance. “I gained a lot of confidence as a musician as well, since I was encouraged to sing solo sharing the stage with eminent musicians like Vijay Prakash.” AR Rahman, Shankar Mahadevan and Shreya Ghoshal were the other artists who worked with the students through their work with the Indian ensemble.
Given these multicultural musical influences, it is no surprise that her first collaboration in college was a multicultural one with Olivie Perez, a Spanish pianist. “We didn’t know each other’s capabilities and slowly we learnt a lot about listening, and through musical sensitivity developed a piece together.” Here’s a clip of their performance together.
Live Performance of ‘Together’ at Berklee Performance Centre in 2015:
Song from an EP released in Dec. 2017:
The name she chose for her first EP – One – reveals the coming together of this growing international musical sensibility within her. Fittingly, the journey for this EP started in Spain, moved to Kolkata and then came together at Boston. All the music was composed, produced, mixed and recorded by her. Using her ear for music, she has also been working in all aspects related to sound post-production at Slick Sounds in Southern California under David F. Van Slyke, a formidable name in the music business.
Talking of her dream of bringing artists on various paths – dancers, visual artists, writers and musicians within one physical space to create art, Vasundhara seems poised, confident of her unique musical abilities while articulating her vision – something that only artistic leaders can do at such a young age!
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine.