Alt Notes #8 | Raeghnya Zutshi

For the first Alt Notes feature of 2016, I got to speak to one of Ireland’s most exciting choral performers and composers, Raeghnya Zutshi. Zutshi has performed with some of Ireland’s most prominent choral groups including Trinity and Boydell singers, The Mornington Singers, New Dublin Voices and Irish Youth Chamber Choir.

Her performance background and vocal style has produced some haunting and involving works for choir and voice, further informing her instrumental works with strong and soaring melodies taking the forefront. With a varied collection of pieces and styles, Zutshi gave a fascinating insight into the art of writing for choir and the influences behind her musical style.

What made you want to start composing?

Raeghnya Zutshi: I think the compositional gene was in my bones from a very early age. I started playing the piano when I was 6 and my interest was always focused on improvising and creating new melodies instead of doing the ‘diligent practicing’. My mother had aspirations of becoming a pianist but instead found herself in medical school, but her love for music played a critical role in developing my interest in the subject. I longed to play like her, fast-forwarding through the hours of practicing, and began playing by ear, listening and attempting to imitate her when she played.


This then evolved to further creativity, as melodies shifted and became my own. We moved to Dublin when I was 10 and this interest continued on the side until I got to my final year in secondary school. I hadn’t really considered the option of studying music in university up until then, but finally decided to take the plunge, pursuing the dream of becoming a composer and musician.

How would you describe your music?

I was always a huge film fan from an early age! As my interest in music grew, I began paying more attention to the music that accompanied films, wondering about how this factored in. It was such an intriguing area, being responsible for creating music that not only accompanied great films, but also had a role in shaping peoples’ emotions and reactions. With this interest in film music, my compositional style has always revolved around the idea of creating a picture or image.

I do leave my program notes open to interpretation at times, but I thoroughly enjoy creating a scenario for listeners to enjoy exploring their own imaginations. My favourite part always comes post-performance, as various audience members approach me, commenting on images they could identify in my pieces. It’s wonderful being able to create these ideas from mere music!

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How do you begin writing a piece and does your creative process evolve as you write?

As a pianist, most ideas of mine are realised on the piano, regardless of the specific instrumentation I write for. I can spend hours coming up with some core material, but this does have a tendency of changing as I put pen to paper, and focus on specific instrumental techniques. I welcome opportunities to work with performers on more than one project. It gives me a further insight into them as individuals, which is then a perfect setting to attempt composing a part that would be further suited to them, as individuals.

The composition is not fully complete until that performance is finished, and being able to write something that is specifically suited to an individual player is always the end goal. I have added sections of aleatoric movement or improvisation, and this ensures that no two performances will ever be alike, with elements being added by each performer being factored into the piece itself.

As a vocalist, do you find you can express yourself compositionally when writing for voice or choir in particular?

Most definitely! I have been a choral singer for over 10 years now, and I relish an opportunity to compose for a choir, even more if they’re a group I’ve had an opportunity to perform with and get to know personally. There are many techniques that are unique to the voice alone, and this is an important part that always keeps me captivated in this area of composition. A challenge when writing for voice is choosing the right text. Again, I always focus on my idea of illustrating, painting the relevant image in the best way, and this is always at the top of my priority list when picking a text.

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In what ways might writing a composition for a vocal ensemble be different than writing an instrumental piece?

Like writing for any instrument, one needs to understand how a choir functions. My years of experience definitely gives me an advantage there, but certain factors need to be taken into consideration including ranges, blending, breathing, alongside paying close attention to what is comfortable for the voice to undergo.

This is why I prefer composing for a choir that I’ve had a chance to know, being able to focus on singers as individuals, as well as the choir as a whole. One recent experience was a performance of my piece ‘Ahtunowhiho’, which was performed by the female choral ensemble, Dulciana, under the direction of Eoghan Desmond. Having had the opportunity to sing with them for the year, I really got to know the group, giving me an invaluable insight to composing a piece that I though would be unique to them, which it was!

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I love using elements of pentatonic scales, especially when composing aleatoric passages for choir. Having this ‘Cloud of Sound’ is a sound that is truly unique to the voice, and again, giving the performers an opportunity to make it their own as each singer plays a role in creating this ‘Cloud’.

I do chop and change them, exploring combining the five pentatonic notes with some of the other seven notes that are left in the scale. It creates such a spine-tingling moment, as a choir grow from silence to song in a matter of minutes!

You have noted before that you have been influenced by many different cultures in your compositions. What was it about these different musical cultures that you incorporated into your work?

Having grown up in Singapore, I was heavily influenced by the multiculturalism that surrounded me. We celebrated different events every year, giving me an opportunity to experience Chinese, Malay and Indian traditions alongside the popular Western events. Our move to Dublin, and the U.S. gave me that inspiration to find a way to replicate those sounds using more conventional instruments from the orchestra, creating a way to fuse these two styles, bringing together music from the Eastern and Western musical traditions.

Two of my pieces, ‘Blossoms in Ryoan-Ji’ and ‘Dragon Dance’ really explore these ideas, including specific compositional elements like parallel fourths and pentatonic scales, creating a sound that is more unique to oriental music. Listening to them always takes me home!

Any new pieces you can tell me about?

Not just as yet. I’ve got some ideas but nothing set in stone. As a Hindu, I would really like to dedicate some time to seeing how I can fuse elements of Indian classical music with Western music. Think it’s on my list of future compositions, so that will be a work in progress over the coming while.

I have also had an interest in wildlife conservation from a young age, and this was a theme that I finally dedicated some time to in 2015. It featured in three of my pieces that were premiered last year: Ahtunowhiho, Kiwidinok and Whispers in the Wild. I would really like to explore this further, alongside working on more choral pieces in 2016.