Vinthya Perinpanathan- A Composer, Violinist and DJ exploring her Sri Lankan Musical Heritage
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Vinthya Perinpanathan is a composer, violinist and DJ studying for her Masters in Composition at the Unviersity of Manchester. Originally born in Holland to a multi-faith Sri Lankan family, her parents moved to the South of England when she was two years old, and Vinthya subsequently moved to Manchester to begin her undregraduate studies in 2017. Although staunchly trained in Western-Classical composition and performance, in more recent years, Vinthya has begun exploring Sri Lankan and South Asian music in more depth, in her research, her electronic music-making and, perhaps most notably, in her fusion-inspired compositions.
"I'm in Manchester because I studied my undergraduate here, and now I'm doing a part time composition Master's. My undergraduate was in music, I studied at the University of Manchester, and I've always been interested in music and wanted to do music, but I was Western classically trained. And since coming to Manchester, I kind of, I still stayed really Western-Classical and didn't really delve out that much." "In Sri Lanka, there's the Tamil Hindu community and the Buddhist community- my dad's from Tamil, Hindu and my mum's from the Buddhist, so I'm interested in all this music."
Vinthya's Musical Life History
Vinthya grew up in a family where music-making was valued. Although her parents themselves did not come from musical backgrounds, they wanted Vinthya and her two siblings to each learn musical instruments. Beginning a training in Western-Classical music as a British-Sri Lankan child growing up in Hertfordshire presented its own challenges, but throughout her secondary education, Vinthya gained valuable experience in musical ensemble and orchestral playing:
"My brother and sister played clarinet and piano and I played the violin, I started when I was seven. And I went to like, my local towns’s Saturday music school for lessons, and I started with lessons at school, but my teacher was really like, not nice to me. I think she said - I don't remember because I was young - but my mum's always said that she was like, quite racist. I don't know how true that is, so I don't want to say that for definite, but there is potential but that was the case. So I started at the Saturday school, and then like, a couple of years after private lessons, I joined the orchestra and the string group, and I stayed there. Even though it was like quite an intermediate beginner-y level one, I stayed there, even when I started doing lessons with a different teacher through my secondary school, because, um, I don't know, I feel like the experience is good, because the orchestra was quite, I don't want to say low-level, but it didn't really like, play proper symphonies or works. So I was promoted to be the leader of that orchestra, and I thought it was just good experience - like, leadership experience, tutoring younger students, and I thought it would just come in handy, so I stayed with them."
During her Western-Classical musical education, Vinthya did also have some exposure to traditional Sri Lankan music-making, although at the time, her interests were more inclined towards learning to play in a Western-Classical musical style: "One of my dad's accounting clients... did kind of a Sri Lankan music school in London, and I went for a few dance lessons and a few vocal lessons. But that was when I was really young, and I just wanted to do Western Classical music - it was embarrassing to be doing something like that outside of school [laughs]. So I kind of neglected it, and now I'm obviously kicking myself."
Vinthya's affinity for musical composition fully came to light during her GCSE years, which solidified her decision to pursue an undergraduate degree in Music and a career path as a musician; she considers the support of her teachers to be a notable factor in her musical development.
"So at GCSE, I think, is when my love of competition really flourished, because I just like seem to get it, and my teachers were always really supportive… [they] would be like, "wow, these ideas are great". Just, I feel like, hearing stuff like that, even though I'm, obviously I was only a 14-year-old and they were experienced musicians, and what I'd written probably wasn't like Beethoven or anything, but I think they could see potential, and then that kind of made me see the potential in myself? I feel like composition always played to my strengths."
Vinthya's Journey to Music-Making at Manchester
When considering where she wanted to study music, Vinthya aimed ambitiously- her decision to move and study in Manchester was due in part both to the accolades of the University's music department, but also due to the multicultural aspects of the city:
"I came to Manchester in 2012 to see a football game, and I loved the city. And I think it's like - I'm from Hertfordshire, technically... [but] I was just always in London, and I worked in London. So Manchester was kind of like the cheaper, smaller, like, still-as-cool version of London. I don't know, I just, I just loved it. I loved the uni, I liked all the modules that were on offer."
"It's multicultural, it's a city. I guess, like I would never even think of moving to like, a small-town uni, because I don't want to be the only ethnic minority there. Not even because I'd feel uncomfortable, because obviously being a, like, Western Classical musician, I'm used to being that person [laughs], I went to quite a white school, but I don't know, I just like meeting people from lots of different places, being open-minded."
Vinthya's journey to unviersity was not without its challenges; after initially missing her conditional A Level grades, she remained set on studying at Manchester, and took a gap year, during which she worked and retook some of her coursework. During this time, she landed a prestigious job with the composer Gabriel Prokofiev, which further solidified her passion for music and her understanding of the music industry:
"I was really close to an A [at A Level], but I didn't get an A, so Manchester rejected me! [laughs] I was, I was so besotted with and obsessed with the idea of going to the University of Manchester- it was the only place I wanted to go. So I took a year out, I wrote another string quartet... And I got an unconditional actually from Manchester."
"At the time [of my gap year], I was working as Gabriel Prokofiev’s personal assistant, which is always kind of my claim to fame [laughs]... [I did] an internship with his non-classical label. And I think, I don't know, I think he was just really impressed with the work I was doing, and he just, I don't know, probably wanted to help out a young student who had a love for music. So he asked if I was interested in doing kind of, personal assistant type jobs, like emails and just keeping track of like, organising folders and for music and compositions. To be entrusted with that kind of work by someone so high profile was an honour, obviously."
It was this job with Gabriel Prokofiev that gave Vinthya a now formative experience in attending a South Asian musical showcase in Manchester:
"When I said [to Gabriel Prokofiev] that I was going to Manchester... He got me two tickets to go to this South Asian inspired dance, music and dance together. And it was at the Lowry, it was during freshers, actually, I went with the first friend I’d made who lived with me. … We went to the Lowry and we saw this amazing, like Indian dance and music show at the Lowry."
Exploring South Asian Musical Fusion
Throughout her undergrad, the focus of Vinthya's compositions and performance was largely within the Western-Classical musical tradition. Her direction changed in her second university year, when she participated in a composition opportunity involving her own Sri Lankan and heritage. It was this experience that inspired Vinthya to explore more aspects of British-South Asian musical fusion.
"I did this composition summer school at Purcell School, in the South, and the woman who was one of the runners of that project, I had her on Facebook, and in my second year, I was just scrolling through Facebook, and she'd kind of put out this call to all composers who had heritage in the Commonwealth to write a piece that was influenced by their country, country of origin, mine being Sri Lankan, and so I wrote a piece for tabla and cello... So I submitted it, and I went to this kind of award startup thing that she'd organized, because she wants to get more people with heritage in the Commonwealth to play… And that started, kind of, my interest in going back to my roots, I’d say."
"They performed [this piece] that one time in April, and then again, last September, and this was the Indian Embassy, I'm pretty sure, just for like a small musical event. And at this event, where my piece was played, the second one, Kuljit Bhamra had also written pieces for tabla and string quartet and those were played as well, and that's when it really clicked, because I'd done a piece, and it was like, "Oh, that's cool. I've done something like that now, maybe I'll do more", but then then he'd done a fusion piece... I just wanted to write stuff like that, when I'd seen that he'd written stuff like that, because it really was fusion- the violins weren't playing in an Indian classical way; they were playing how I play in a string quartet, Western Classically... It was like, second violin, viola, cello, violin, and then he was there in the middle, and then kind of like, opened out like a fan. And I just thought, what a great ensemble."
After this experience, Vinthya became more set in incorporating Sri Lankan and South Asian influences into her own compositions at university, as part of her own portfolio; whilst Western-Classical music departments are often not geared towards musical fusion within composition, she found a space where she could explore more aspects of musical fusion.
"I then showed this piece to my tutor, Camden Reeves, at the beginning of third year, and I said to him that for my free composition, which would be my final piece that I submit for my undergraduate degree, would it be possible to write something with Sri Lankan influences and with South Asian influences- like ragas, and talas- and kind of make a fusion piece, and he was really perplexed and didn't really understand why it was a question, or why I thought I'd get a low mark if I did stuff like that, and that I'm not confined to contemporary western classical music, and I can kind of do whatever I want. So yeah, he filled me with loads of confidence."
Learning, Researching and Composing South Asian Music
More recently, Vinthya has had an increasing interest in learning traditional Sri Lankan and South Asian classical music, in part to aid her compositional interest in musical fusion. She reflects on the cultural differences of learning South Asian music versus her Western Classical musical education:
"Like a lot of Indian and classical music is- [learning Sri Lankan music as a child] was just really strict, and if you don't show that you're really devoted, and you're putting the hours in and practising and want to get better, they're not gonna kind of spoon-feed you and try and make you do it. And I think because I didn't really practice, or show them that I was super super interested in it, they, they didn't... I was so young, you see- they didn't like, not teach me, or like, try and not get me involved, but they definitely weren't trying extra hard with me just because I'd been Western-Classically trained first, or because they knew my dad, like they.. It's kind of like if you want to do it, then, then they'll let you- then they'll do it."
More recently, Vinthya has reflected on the commitments she would be prepared to give to aid her musicianship in her adult life, partly through research and correspondences with South Asian musicians and tutors:
"I had this meeting with Chloë [Alaghband-Zadeh]... And she was just giving me some advice for like my future plans and telling me about some teacher. And I asked her about prices of the lessons and stuff, and she said that one of the teachers, she told me the standard rate, and then she said, "this teacher also says, if you show that you are really devoted to music, and that you are going to, if you kind of showed that this is what your life is about kind of thing, then she'd do it for free. So I feel like that's definitely like, a traditional thing there, that it is up to you to kind of, demonstrate your love and your passion for it, and then they will help you forever."
Vinthya is continuing to expand her knowledge and experience of Sri Lankan and South Asian fusion music in Manchester, through playing with fusion ensembles in the city and her own personal listening, but also through both South Asian Classical performance and academic research:
"I still haven't decided if I want to learn violin, vocal or like, sitar or veena, but I just think learning an instrument will help me learn the music. And I think.. Learning something completely new would be super fun, but also super expensive [laughs]. Vocal stuff might be a bit more affordable, but it also just depends on funding- if I can get any through the uni... I've been really struggling [with research], there's lots of reading out there on Indian Classical Music, but there's little to none on Sri Lankan Classical music, or just music of Sri Lanka in general... I was doing some reading a while ago before my Masters had started, this professor from India... He explained that it could be possible to construct kind of Sinhalese music, which maybe didn't even properly exist- and I don't know if it even does now- by using like typical Sri Lankan folk melodies... Traditional Sinhalese music was neglected because of how popular Indian music was And there's these five different [musical types], and I've recognised a couple of the names, but not all of them... So there's just like these traditional things that I've done a tiny, tiny bit of research into it, but I still don't really know them that well. And the goal is to kind of know it really well, so I can use them when I want to write music."
Vinthya's DJing and the South Asian Underground Music Scene
In addition to her classical and fusion-based music-making, in more recent times Vinthya has explored her love of electronic dance music through DJing. She is heavily influenced and inspired by the South Asian undergorund music scene in her own music production:
"I'm also like a DJ, and I'm really into electronic dance music, so that also feeds into my compositions because I like doing minimalist stuff, and a lot of repeating sounds, sort of music. And just, I don't know, taking inspiration from everything. And even in my kind of like, mixes, and when I am performing more electronic dance music stuff on like DJ decks, and even then I'm always looking for fusion music. There's the Asian underground scene from the 90s, and that kind of fuses like, jungle drum and bass with the sounds of South Asia, and sitars and tablas- there's loads of the composers and producers like Nitin Sawhney, Talvin Singh, State of Bengal, loads of people who had origins in South Asian countries, and were really [formative] in creative fusion music. So I mean, I'm interested in writing tracks like that, but also writing fusion pieces and compositions for acoustic instruments, and music and electronic instruments."
"I always kind of like, really wanted to DJ, because I just love the music. I'd love to just, I don't know, try it- I never necessarily wanted to be a DJ, or do anything to do wth DJing, but then because of lockdown, and that last student loan that I wasn't going to spend on food or going out or anything [laughs], I decided to find some decks and speakers. And I've just like really run away with it... I think I just really like the sounds- like the sitar sound, the tabla, the tampura sounds, the veena sounds, and especially the vocal sounds... A lot of Asian underground music, it's jungle Drum and Bass beats with sitar sound and stuff, and then I've found a lot of like beautiful south South Asian vocals in that music as well... I've always always been really picky with vocals, especially female vocals, and I think something there must be something subconscious in the back of my brain that just really finds South Asian vocalists just... I just think it's stunning." For Vinthya, her various interests in music-making all relate towards her general musicianship as an enriching interest: "I really enjoy it. And I don't know, I think it's good to take influence- Camden always says take influence from everything you do, like electronic dance music, Asian music, Western Classical violinist music- whatever music you know, and you like, use it in whatever you want."
Vinthya's British-Sri Lankan Identity
Although Vinthya feels that her Sri Lankan heritage is well-received in the circles that she inhabits, in her experience, there is little Sri Lankan representation in Manchester itself:
"Because I'm from London, I feel like there's a lot more Sri Lankan representation there- so the Curry Mile, there's like, no Sri Lankan food, there's no Sri Lankan-type delicacies or like, traditional food, there's not really any Sri Lankan people there, or any Sri Lankan-owned businesses there... I don't think there's ever been like a Tamil celebration here- there's no Sri Lankan New Year celebrations in April, there's no Vesak celebrations, there's no Poya celebrations, but then there's not that many in London either, it's just the UK really."
Vinthya also speaks of the difficulties accepting the dualities of her identity as a British-South Asian person growing up in an area of the UK that lacks diversity; she feels that in her adulthood, she is attempting to culturally and musically reconcile these different aspects of her identity:
"I grew up in kind of like, a really British like… I just grew up in a really white town... And our cousins- we're not really close to our cousins, but they all grew up in really Tamil London. And I feel like they have no issue celebrating their culture, but then they’re also, they don't really... I do agree that they don't really integrate with British society, either. I feel like that getting the balance- I feel like I was far too Western, and they’re too Tamil. And actually the beauty is in the middle, and kind of appreciate the beauty of both. And that's what I'm trying to do now, and not judge them as being so integrated in their own culture, and so like, so traditional, not judge them for that.. And then not judge people who are really Westernised and don't know anything about their culture- just kind of, I don’t know, be accepting of everyone."
Sri Pada (see audio)
The music Vinthya has selected for this research profile is Sri Pada, the piece for cello and tabla that she wrote for the Commonwealth Resounds project- this is the piece that sparked her interest in Western-Classical and Sri Lankan musical fusion. The piece is named for Sri Pada, a mountain in central Sri Lanka.
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Vinthya Perinpanathan- A Composer, Violinist and DJ exploring her Sri Lankan Musical Heritage
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