Indian pianist-composer Aman Mahajan plays improvised music as a medium of expression, interaction and exploration, influenced by a diversity of traditional and contemporary forms of music from around the world. His 2019 solo piano album REFUGE is a reflective set of musical themes exploring ideas of home and paying homage to inward journeys.
Mahajan is presently based in Bangalore, immersed in his solo piano project REFUGE, and collaborations including Tinctures with Berlin-based guitarist Nishad Pandey, a duo with vocalist Radha Thomas, and cross-cultural trio Mystik Vibes with percussionist Muthu Kumar and flautist Amith Nadig. Focussed on the contemporary improvised music scene in India, Mahajan teaches privately at his piano studio in Bangalore, and has been a returning faculty member at the Global Music Institute, Greater Noida.
The First Bond
Thanks to my mother, I began formal education on the piano at the age of 4. I’ve been playing the piano almost ever since I can remember – I remember learning left and right using the treble and bass clefs. My father also used to enjoy playing around on my first Casio keyboard to keep me entertained, probably my introduction to improvised music!
A Course That Ran
A study of music has definitely been part of the natural course of my life. Beginning formal education on the piano at a young age, I studied classical music throughout school, developing an interest in jazz and improvised music when I was around fifteen. Dennis Powell, my music teacher in school encouraged me a lot, and was formative in these early years. Later, a guitarist friend Arjun Chandran and I used to explore jazz standards together, playing in a jazz group in Hyderabad, where I’m from. When I was eighteen, I moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music, to study jazz and music synthesis/production. As with most jazz-influenced musicians, the study and practice of music continues through one’s life, even without a teacher or institution. I’ve lately been trying to do justice in my practice to a couple of lessons I took with Shai Maestro, one of my favourite pianists.
Refuge – A Collection
Refuge is a collection of pieces and my first solo piano album: a musical scrapbook documenting some of my explorations. This is music that has improvisation at its focus, borrowing from a variety of musical styles and ideas. Taking refuge in music is a way for me to break away from genre-based thinking, trying to focus on pure expression as much as possible.
Tinctures - Fruition and Concept
Guitarist Nishad Pandey and I have known each other for quite a few years now and our friendship has always been based on playing freely improvised music together, as a way to talk to each other! To take this forward, in October 2016, we spent a few weeks together in Bangalore to compose some music together – that’s how Tinctures was born. Nishad moved to Berlin soon after, and we’ve continued the collaboration composing, improvising, performing and conducting workshops in both countries, and more recently by making an album over the internet during the pandemic.
‘Tinctures’ has connotations of mixtures, traces of things. As the music we make is not defined by one genre or style, but rather by concepts, musical games, and blending ideas from all kinds of genres together, we thought it was an apt name.
"Heads and Tales" AND "Moments, Remote"
Our first album Heads and Tales has been partially released on Bandcamp, as we wait for the pandemic to pass so that our German record label wismART can officially release the entire album. That hasn’t stopped us from moving on to creating our second album online – Moments, Remote, based on finding ways to explore making interactive music over distance and through the latency inherent in internet connections.
The music we make is explorative, experimental, interactive. We often look at it as exploring the nature of consonance and dissonance with the piano and guitar. Our imagination is fuelled by a variety of sources – musical games, poetry and works of art, musical or mathematical concepts… we take a certain amount of pride (and risk!) in attempting to explore these various themes together through music, often in a freely improvised fashion.
Streaming services, though not a source of revenue, provide great avenues in terms of listenership. The struggles are of course, reaching out to new audiences and getting paid for the years of time, energy and finances put into composing, practising, recording, mixing and releasing an album. Bandcamp has been a great resource to connect us directly to our listeners. My first album Refuge was released with Subcontinental Records last year, as well as a duo album with Radha Thomas, Bangalore Blues. A few singles from the first Tinctures album, Heads and Tales are available exclusively on bandcamp.
For me, a highlight concert was definitely the release of my solo piano album Refuge last year. The music was well-received, and the first set of limited edition posters was sold out within a few days. Performing solo piano at the Bangalore International Center was a treat and the audience was lovely and very responsive.
Teaching the Art
I teach privately from my piano studio in Bangalore— of course, the classes are online now. Most of my students are professional musicians interested in expanding their approach and vocabulary, quite in the same direction that I am. Teaching for me is definitely as rewarding as practising, writing music or performing, as it enables me to share what I’m working on, build a community, and contribute in a small way to developing the music scene in India.
I’ve never had to second guess my choice of career. I’ve been fortunate to study at a good music school and had the privilege of starting out without financial worries. Having said that, music has supported me for the past fifteen years, and I’ve been able to constantly move in the direction of greater artistic freedom. It’s been very fulfilling to travel, collaborate with other musicians and perform for international audiences.
I remember being told quite often that it would be a tough life as a freelance musician. I didn’t realize the difficulty could be in the form of how frantic the days get at times, as you’re basically single-handedly running a small business in addition to taking care of practice and the creative side of things. Internal balance, relationships with others, and one’s own mental health are things that require constant care and attention.
The Pandemonium Effect
Although the pandemic situation has curtailed travel plans completely, as a solo pianist, it has also provided me the opportunity to stay home and practise. As Tinctures, we received a grant from the Goethe-Institut Germany to create our first online album, Moments, Remote. So it’s been quite a fertile period, though it’s been tough not being able to meet and play with other musicians in real time!
Real Life to Reel Life
During the lockdown, another interesting activity that happened was a weekly piano hang on Zoom, spearheaded by New-York-based Indian pianist Sharik Hasan. All of us were quite amazed and inspired at the number of Indian pianists playing and studying jazz and improvised music. There are now a lot of younger pianists (and musicians in general) interested in this kind of music, which is very encouraging to see.
On the Anvil
A trip to Berlin is definitely on the cards, where Nishad and I plan to compose new music for Tinctures as part of a new project exploring the perception of ambient sound. We’re excited for the release of our first album Heads and Tales later this year, as we finish work on Moments, Remote.
I’ve also started a new project called #poetryatthepiano, a series of piano pieces improvised in response to my mother Urmila Mahajan’s poetry.
Well, thank you once again for spending time with us, giving us valuable insight into your career. We wish you all the very best of luck in your endeavors. See you soon at a concert.
Thank you for doing this! The questions were quite detailed and thought-provoking… kept me busy for a while.
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