Toby Ramaswamy's 15-Piece Guitar Orchestra Will Blow Your Face Off

Toby Ramaswamy | Cedar Cultural Center | Tuesday, January 27
When you hear the words "15-piece guitar orchestra," you may think that it's merely a wall of sound. For his 416 Club Commission at the Cedar Cultural Center, Toby Ramaswamy has crafted an elaborate, well thought-out composition that highlights each person's contribution.

Before his performance at the Cedar on Tuesday night, Toby sat down with Gimme Noise and shared the planning that goes with collaborating with 14 other musicians on what could possibly be one the most ambitious acts that takes place on the Cedar stage this year.
Gimme Noise: Tell me about the 416 Club Commission. How did you become involved and chosen to be a part of this?

Toby Ramaswamy: The 416 Club Commission is this great series the Cedar does every year, where they pick six local musicians to compose a half hour of new music, and give them funding and a night to perform it.

I first got involved when I went to an information session last March as part of the experimental music organization 6 Families. We found out pretty quickly that the 416 Club isn't really geared towards organizations, but while we were there I realized it might be a good fit for this Indian music/guitar music thing I'd had kicking around my head for a while.

How did you come up with the idea to do a performance with 15 guitars?

I was listening to Rhys Chatham's incredible piece "A Crimson Grail" (recommended to me by one of my guitarists, Jaak Jensen), which is written for 400 electric guitars. For some reason it reminded me of Hindustani music, and I got interested in trying to explore the way the two kinds of music intersect. I originally proposed 20 electric guitars, but the board at the Cedar pointed out that probably wouldn't fit on the stage.

How did you go about composing your piece? Have you had experience composing something like this before? How does North Indian music play into the evening?

I've composed before, but never anything like this. I'm really not great with notation, so my writing process was mostly mapping out ideas in a notebook, and then recording them myself to see how they sounded. And then editing, and re-recording, and editing, and re-recording. It was a time-consuming but rewarding process.

North Indian music provides the melodic and structural basis for the entire piece. Before I started writing, I took 3 months of Hindustani vocal lessons with Matt Rahaim and Pooja Pavan, who are both incredible teachers. I got a very basic understanding of the Hindustani system of improvisation from them, as well as some traditional melodies. I then took those melodies and systems and tried to translate them onto 15 electric guitars.

Who is part of the orchestra?

Alex Brodsky, Cody Nelson, Daniel McCausland, Eric Mayson, Jaak Jensen, Jon Hoffman, Josh Olson, Julian Manzara, Katie Hare, Kyle Swanson, Ross Koeberl, Sean Schultz, Tom Steffes, and Zach McCormick. All play electric guitar and pedals.

How did rehearsals work out?

With so many people playing, it's been tricky to schedule rehearsals. The way it looks right now, we're never actually going to have a complete rehearsal. I think the maximum number of people we'll have rehearsing at one time will be twelve. Luckily, there isn't one guitar part that the whole piece hinges on. We can run through things as a smaller group and still get a good sense for how it sounds. That being said, I'm really excited to finally hear it played with all 15 people.

With so many musicians onstage, how does each person contribute while standing out?

I tried to write the piece so that everyone has a section where they're more prominent, and then some sections where they're more in the background. The guitarists are all doing a really great job of playing to that contrast. They've also done a great job of coming together as an ensemble. It's an unusual instrumentation; I was originally worried about everyone standing out too much and not sounding cohesive. But everyone who's playing in the orchestra has put a lot of work into getting the music and the group sounding good, and I'm really grateful for that.

What are you excited to share at the Cedar?

I'm looking forward to finally performing this music that has been such a huge part of my life for the last five months. I can't wait to hear it in the Cedar space, show it to my friends and family, and (finally) hear it played by the full ensemble. It's a really exciting prospect.

Toby Ramaswamy will bring his 15-piece guitar orchestra to the Cedar Cultural Center on Tuesday, January 27, 2015 with Israel Vega for his Cedar 416 Club Commission.
All ages, $5, 7 p.m.
Purchase tickets here.


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