Arushi Jain – Under The Lilac Sky

Under The Lilac Sky, the closing track from Arushi Jain’s album of the same name, is a startling thing. Moving through a series of gorgeously built patterns for modular synth that spiral around each other like double helixes, it’s a composition that can place you in an entirely different emotional and psychic realm to the quotidian spaces of our daily surroundings, while still serving the everyday needs and desires of the listener. In Jain’s embrace both of modular synthesis and the Indian classical tradition that forms the backbone of her musical education, we can find an experimenter’s eye for possibility and detail, alongside a sensitivity to time, place and mood: a drive towards the evocative through the ritual and the sensual.

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It has taken Jain a little while to find her metier. Growing up in her extended family home in Delhi, she started singing with her family at age eight, embracing a collective musicality that eventually would have her train vocally at both the Ravi Shankar Institute and Prayag Hindustani Music School. Relocating to the US for college, she immersed herself in computer science, temporarily abandoning music. Eventually, though, she returned to those roots via electronic music, studying at Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University, California, and finding her way, through trial and error,
to modular synthesis.

It certainly makes an abstract kind of sense for an artist to cross back over from computer science to synthesis – they’re both about getting under the hood and digging into the nuts and bolts of the thing. Jain’s music and compositions are certainly grounded by a strong capacity to tease out the possibilities proffered by her modular rack, something you can hear on the download and cassette releases she has quietly distributed over the past few years under the name OSE, such as 2019’s lovely With & Without. That album, a set of interpretations of ragas, sets the parameters for what Jain achieves on her debut under her own name.

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One of the many achievements of Under The Lilac Sky – beyond its arresting tenor, its everyday beauty – is the relationships that Jain develops between electronic music and modular synthesis, and the tradition of Indian (particularly Hindustani) classical music that she continues to draw from. It’s a deep, symbiotic connection Jain is exploring, not a translation or transposition so much as a ludic but deeply felt interpretation of the music that the artist grew up singing and studying. Some of Lilac Sky was composed for Jain’s sunset performance at the Magnetic Fields Festival in Rajasthan, India; with that in mind, she has drawn sensitively from evening ragas of the Hindustani tradition, notably desh, khamaj and kafi.

This context is important for grabbing hold of the nuance of Jain’s compositions here, but it’s not essential to be across the intricacies of Indian classical music to appreciate what she’s doing throughout Lilac Sky. Opening with Richer Than Blood, the album immediately embraces both the expansive and the intimate, with sky-strafing trails of tone shooting arcs across the stereo spectrum as Jain’s vocals slip between the folds of texture. It’s a particularly resonant opener for Jain: “The track itself is rather simple, on purpose,” she says, “just like my relationship with Indian classical music is. Simple, but deep.”

From there, the album moves through several distinct yet complementary approaches to modular synth sound design. Look How Far We Have Come sets mellifluous arpeggiations adrift, the lightness of their touch belying Jain’s sturdy compositional gambit. On The Sun Swirls Within You, much like the album’s opener, Jain is singing a dadra (which she explains is a “light classical vocal compositional style”) in raga desh, allowing the hypnotic warp and weft of the vocal ornamentation to pirouette across a thick, abraded drone. “I decided to sing this old composition without any traditional percussive aesthetics,” she says, “and instead decided to pair it with a drone and light percussive sounds composed of samples of my voice that were granulated and stretched to
sound percussive.”

There’s something deeply arresting about the way Jain allows these compositions to sit, patiently, and explore the multiple nuances of the caverns of tonology she’s teasing from this deceptively simple intersection of modular synthesis and voice. And while there are many current practitioners of modular synthesis her work could stand alongside, Jain also connects with a broader, at times subterranean history of electronics – the appealing blankness of AFRI Studios or Asmus Tietchens; the quizzical drifts of Miki Yui, and of Sonic Boom’s Experimental Audio Research project. However you hear it, though, Jain’s embrace of the power of texturology, coupled with her transliterations of Indian classical music, makes for profoundly affecting listening.