5 Questions to Juhi Bansal (composer, conductor, teacher)

Composer Juhi Bansal was brought up in India and Hong Kong, and she grew up playing the piano and listening to both Western European and Indian classical music. She has written extensively for chamber ensembles, orchestra, and voice, and she is currently on the faculty of Pasadena City College, after having moved to the United States at 17 to study computer science and composition.

Bridging the two subjects, she is working with librettist Neil Aitken on an opera, Enchantress of Numbers, about the 19th century English mathematician and early computer programmer, Ada Lovelace. The daughter of Anne Isabella Milbanke and poet Lord Byron, Lovelace was given the moniker “Enchantress of Numbers” by her friend Charles Babbage, a mathematician who pioneered mechanical computation. Aitken–a poet himself–is an expert on Babbage and has authored a book in verse called Babbage’s Dream. In 2016, Bansal set to music the opening poem of the book in a collaboration with Aitken called Begin. In February 2020, artists from LA Opera and students and faculty from Pasadena City College premiered Bansal’s We Look to the Stars, a cantata celebrating the diversity of the human experience through stories from different cultures about the night sky.

You recently became a U.S. citizen. What was that process like, and what does it mean for you–especially in the midst of the pandemic and the extreme polarisation of the political and social environments in the United States?

Besides the paperwork, it was actually a much more self-reflective process than I anticipated since for me, this wasn’t simply a question of acquiring American citizenship, but also wrestling with what it meant to give up my Indian passport (as India doesn’t allow for dual citizenship). And because I struggled so much with that initial decision to even apply for citizenship here, I found myself reading a lot about U.S. history from various perspectives, wanting to understand how we got to where we are now in terms of politics and culture. The thing I found most surprising as I read is that while there is a lot in American politics and history that I find deeply troublesome, there is also much that I admire in what the country was intended to be. 

One of the things I admire most–because this is not the case everywhere–is having the freedom to discuss complex topics without fear, and to be able to engage with people I both agree and disagree with, hopefully to find better solutions through an understanding of each other’s perspectives. What’s frightening about this increasing polarization right now is how quick to anger we are all becoming, to read a disagreement on any topic as personal, malicious attacks. I think the pandemic has been so extraordinarily difficult for most people–and that difficulty is exacerbated by underlying issues and inequalities–that we’re starting to see people who disagree with us as enemies instead of just people with different perspectives.

I think many of the conversations that are coming to the foreground right now are critically important ones, and we have to be able to discuss them and work together to address inequalities that fall more heavily on some than others. At the same time, I think it’s crucial that we hold onto the value of open dialogue and freedom to disagree as we have these conversations, because, as many of us have seen in other times and cultures, shutting down difficult conversations never leads to better solutions for anyone.  

Senate Revisions to House-passed Amendments to the Constitution (draft of Bill of Rights), September 9, 1789, page 1--Photo via https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/bor

Senate Revisions to House-passed Amendments to the Constitution (draft of Bill of Rights), September 9, 1789, page 1–Photo via https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/bor

Following the murder of George Floyd and the continuing Black Lives Matter protests, many cultural and academic institutions have published diversity and inclusion statements committing to change. Do you see real change happening in our industry for BIPOC musicians and people from other historically marginalised groups?

I think I am more optimistic than many musicians because in the specific area where I work, writing contemporary music, the last ten years have already brought enormous changes in terms of supporting and celebrating diversity in the field. Fifteen years ago, I remember going to new music concerts as a student and really noticing every time someone not Caucasian was performing because it was so unusual. Nowadays when I attend the same concerts, the group of musicians is typically so diverse that you just expect to see people from a wide range of demographics as you walk in. Now, I’m very well aware that these changes haven’t yet worked their way up to the highest levels of the largest institutions, and there are many areas woefully behind in terms of celebrating diversity. But I think we should be optimistic because of the many people within our field that have already been, quietly and steadily, championing at a grassroots level for greater inclusion over the last few decades. 

My hope is that raising awareness of these issues over the last few months might help push some of these changes into larger and more risk-averse organizations that have tended to be slower to embrace the changing demographic makeup of our field. At the same time, I do worry that in the pressing desire to make changes rapidly in response to this highly visible issue, some organizations are jumping to solutions and statements that are quick and easy but not effective.

For example, I think there is a larger, important conversation we are not having–and we need to have–about arts education or the lack thereof in this country, and how this disproportionately affects lower income students. I personally would love to see more organizations investing in a real way in creating opportunities for younger students without access to music education to be exposed to it, to receive training, and to support them through scholarships and mentorships towards participating in public performances, music competitions, auditions, festivals, etc. Many of the problems that lead to inadequate representation at the highest levels of music organizations begin with a lack of opportunities at earlier levels, and I personally would love to see this very real problem addressed by more of the organizations wanting to be a part of improving these disparities.

How have your conversations with students about pursuing a life and career in music changed since the beginning of the pandemic?

There’s just so much uncertainty right now that I can’t pretend to have concrete answers for my students, just general advice that I think has always been relevant to our field, heightened in relation to this crisis. For example, in the face of this uncertainty, one thing every musician is having to do is to be adaptable–to look at the changing rules for performance, new medical advice about performing, funding and grants, ticket sales and the like, and reimagine how to proceed for this month, this Fall, next year and onwards. And that necessitates not only an ability to pivot and be extremely flexible in reimagining plans, but also to have the business skills to see where the opportunities lie in this landscape, to create your own opportunities, and to have sufficient technological awareness and skills to be able to adapt. These four elements–flexibility, creating your own opportunities, business skills, and technological skills–have been at the core of working as a musician at least as long as I have been doing it, and I think in this time we find that they are all the more critical. 

What advice did you receive from mentors when you were deciding to become a composer, and did you have to face detractors?

There is a wonderful piece of advice that one of my teachers gave me a long time ago that has stayed with me ever since. She said that (speaking of being a woman composer) I would run into both circumstances where people would not take me seriously because I am a woman, but also situations where I would find opportunities precisely because I am a woman. And fifteen years on from that conversation, she has been completely right. That same premise has also held with my work as someone from another country and culture–it has come with advantages and disadvantages both. Fortunately I’ve been lucky to have some truly wonderful mentors over the years, and really just prefer to focus on the work that’s important to me and people I enjoy working with. 

Ada Lovelace and Luigi Menabrea in The Enchantress of Numbers--Photo by Recording.La

Ada Lovelace and Luigi Menabrea in Enchantress of Numbers–Photo by Recording.La

You’re making an opera about Ada Lovelace, a brilliant polymath who defied the social mores of her time. What first got you interested in her story and what has the process been like so far in creating the opera?

I first learned about Ada through Neil Aitken, the librettist for this opera and a poet with whom I’ve worked for years on various projects. Neil and I both share a background in computer science, so when he first told me about Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace and their work trying to create the first computer in the mid-19th century, I was fascinated not only by her story as a wildly unconventional, brilliant, and flawed woman, but also by the way she brought together science and math with a real creative vision in imagining what computers might enable in the future.  

One of the things that has been really exciting for me during Covid is that while Neil and I initially started developing this opera for adults, we were asked this summer by LA Opera to adapt it into an opera that will be taken to schools, where students will be coached to act and sing as the chorus with professional singers. What has been really wonderful about this version of the show is that it brings together many themes that make Ada’s story relevant to students today: standing up to social pressure; thinking for yourself and deciding who you want to be; supporting girls, specifically in STEM but also in a broader sense of defining their own paths; and highlighting the way that arts and sciences together deepen your ability to find creative solutions to all kinds of problems. There is also something satisfyingly apt about telling Ada’s story digitally (the project will initially be presented during Covid as an animated opera, using technology to put together recorded audio and animation in a collaboration between students, coaches, teachers and professional musicians).

 

UNEVEN MEASURES is a series dedicated to amplifying today’s women, trans, and nonbinary artists on the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment leading up to the 2020 presidential election. This series is made possible through a generous grant from The Elizabeth & Michel Sorel Charitable Organization Inc. to the American Composers Forum and their partnership with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The Sorel Organization is committed to supporting gender equity in music and addressing systemic inequities by providing greater visibility for women musicians from underrepresented communities.