Rajna Swaminathan is an acclaimed mrudangam artist, composer, and scholar. Rajna has been described as “a vital new voice” (Pop Matters), creating “music of gravity and rigor… yet its overall effect is accessible and uplifting” (Wall Street Journal). In her music and research, she explores the undercurrents of rhythmic experience and emergent textures in collective improvisation.
One of only a few women who play the mrudangam professionally, Rajna received her creative foundation on the instrument from her father, P.K. Swaminathan, and mrudangam legend Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. Through extensive experience performing in the Karnatik music and bharatanatyam scenes, an affinity for various streams of South Asian film/popular music, and deep collaborative work in New York's jazz and creative music scene, Rajna developed experimental approaches to improvising on the mrudangam, piano, and voice.
Rajna’s orientation as an improviser-composer blossomed through a search for resonance and fluidity among musical forms and aesthetic worlds. Her ensemble RAJAS has been a prominent medium for her expansive compositions, which involve a lattice of rhythmic, textural, and modal approaches. The ensemble's sound has been described as “unlike any other on the scene” (New York Times), and their debut album, Of Agency and Abstraction (Biophilia Records, 2019), received much critical acclaim. A new record with RAJAS, titled Apertures was released on Ropeadope in April 2023.
Rajna’s scholarly work also intersects with her musical study and informs her creative curiosities. She was recently appointed as Assistant Professor of Music (Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology) at UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts. She holds a PhD in Music (Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry) from Harvard University, and degrees in Anthropology and French from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her dissertation, titled Time, Virtuosity, and Ethics Otherwise: Queer Resonances for Diasporic Play, catalyzes a creative dialogue between artistic and academic engagements with uncertainty and openness in geography, archive, and embodiment.
In addition to her work with RAJAS, Rajna has composed for JACK Quartet, Del Sol Quartet, violinists Jennifer Koh and Lucia Lin, among others. Recent commissions include the Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Sawdust, Chamber Music America New Jazz Works, and fellowships with the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music. Rajna performs extensively in ensembles led by Ganavya Doraiswamy, Amir ElSaffar, Vijay Iyer, and Aakash Mittal. Her interdisciplinary work has included collaborations with playwright Anu Yadav, visual artist Zahyr Lauren, the Ragamala Dance Company, dancer/choreographer Mythili Prakash, and poets Mahogany L. Browne, Sarah Kay, and Jon Sands.
Photo credit: Adrien H. Tillmann