Words by David C. Obenour
Our histories can leave a mark on us.
The upright piano that Sophia Subbayya Vastek wrote and recorded her first album of original compositions had a mark. For a time, it had been housed in a space in upstate New York where a hate group had gathered. Raffles for automatic weapons, horrific antisemitic traditions, and vicious speech against others ran rampant as it sat silently in a corner.
Our histories don’t need to define us though.
Coming into the possession of a friend, from the first notes played on it Sophia heard something unique. It had a story it needed to tell. A story that was more than the short period of time when hate filled the air around it. A story that lasted over a century and was filled with warmth and intimacy and softness. Not hatred.
Off Shelf: There’s a fascinating story behind the humble upright piano you recorded In Our Softening on – housed in a space that once hosted hate group gatherings. How aware of its background were you before having played it?
Sophia Subbayya Vastek: I knew the history from the start. A friend of mine had bought the building and converted it into his home and art studio – he’s an incredible visual artist. I’m pretty sure he was telling me the story of the previous occupants the first time I came to visit, which would have been long before I played the piano.
OS: How do you think knowing that story influenced how you heard its sound?
SSV: Stories have so much power. The history has certainly influenced how I hear the piano. However, the first time that I played this instrument, I wasn’t thinking about its history or the building that it was in. I was a pianist in a candy shop. There was an immediate love affair happening and I was just in awe of the sound that I was hearing. This was back in 2020, so the story and my memory are mingling a little bit in my mind, but I think pretty quickly after I was offered the piano, I started putting together the pieces about what this piano meant. And from then on, of course, the story absolutely influenced how I heard it. The story imbues the piano with meaning, but it also doesn’t define it. There are a lot of people listening to this album who don’t know anything about the piano’s history, and I really like that actually. It means that the music is moving into new spheres of meaning, which is what you want to happen when you release something – for the music to move beyond your own attached narratives.
OS: Did any part of you anthropomorphize it? What story did you give to its experience, then and now as you’ve taken it in?
SSV: No, I don’t believe I’ve anthropomorphized the piano. That said, I think it’s taken on some mythological traits in my mind. The piano was built in 1902, so there’s only a tiny portion of its lifetime that I know anything about. But I like to think that its time being around a hate group is insignificant in scope compared to the joy it hopefully gave folks for decades before that. And of course, it’s now continuing to inspire music and joy through me. Ultimately, this is why I made the record, and why I make music in general. It’s about reaching out, sharing our humanity, letting others know that we’re not alone in this big, scary world. This piano felt like a gift from the universe. And gifts are meant to be recirculated in one form or another. This is where the power of gifts lie, in keeping them moving.
OS: How much range do you feel it has? Are there only particular types of songs you’d want to play on it?
SSV: This piano just begs for textural, delicate, intimate music. Making any kind of art requires listening to our environment and our tools, and not forcing our will. Instruments tell us what to play on them if we listen. For instance, a lot of the big, classical piano repertoire would fall flat on this piano because it just doesn’t have the clarity and power that you need for that kind of music. Any mode of transmission that gets music heard in unexpected, unpretentious, and accessible ways is a good thing. But it has to be effective.
OS: Have you performed these pieces on other pianos? Has it given you more of an appreciation to the individuality in tone and story for each?
SSV: Yes, at this point I’ve performed most of the pieces on other pianos. Sometimes I feel that it works, sometimes not. It depends on the piano and the particular song. But playing these pieces on other pianos has definitely taught me a lot about the music. I’ve heard new things in them and I’ve played them in different ways. And I’ve had to let go of the idealized way that I’d like them to be heard. It’s a good lesson for any musician to challenge themselves to hear their music in new ways and still create effective ways of interacting with that music.
And no, I think I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the individuality of pianos, which is why I took to this particular piano so quickly. Pianos are such incredible feats of engineering. They all have a particular soul. But some pianos you just connect with on a really deep level. There’s something indescribable and different about them.
OS: You also worked with dancer, Alvaro Gonzalez-Dupuy and choreographer, Antonio Ramos for the video for The Seas That Made Us. How did their involvement deepen the story of the piano and song for you?
SSV: Lyle Kash, who directed the video, was crucial as well in developing the soul of that video. I went to him with crumbs for ideas, and he intuitively understood the feeling that I was going for. I met Lyle and Antonio over a year ago at an artist residency, and we really connected. On a side note, which ultimately feels related to your question, Lyle and Antonio also have a beautiful relationship. The fact that they collaborated on this video feels meaningful, because the love that they have for each other is embedded in this project. Collaborating with artists who you also have a deep friendship with adds so many layers. And what the video and song are ultimately trying to communicate has to do with fellowship and the ties that bind us. All of it – it’s all woven together.
OS: This is your second album, but first of original compositions – if I’m correcting in reading. Knowing of the story of the instrument, had you written the pieces before or after having played it?
SSV: I started writing the first time I touched the piano. It inspired everything. Nothing from this album came before the piano.
OS: You talk about the album as a “invitation to remain permeable and receptive to change,” and I was hoping you could expound on that.
SSV: Well, to get to the very core of the record, this idea of “softness” is what drives everything. And I’m talking about softness in a very generous and expansive way. For me, music is prayer-like. I left organized religion when I was a kid, but I think I’ve been finding my way back to my own sense of religion through music ever since. What is religion except asking the big questions and finding some semblance of meaning through those big questions? Prayer is reaching out to the unknown, or the divine. And music does just that. With this album, I was creating a prayer for myself, and ultimately for the world. I’m praying for softness, kindness, generosity, and nuance within myself, so that I can be a beacon of those traits outwards. We’re all just clumsily reaching out and saying, “here I am, I’m human and flawed and you’re not alone”. So the album is an invitation to be soft, together.
OS: It may be a hard question to break apart, but are these songs representative of what you’d consider to be your style or are they more related to the circumstances of their creation?
SSV: Well, I would say it’s representative of my style if I created it, right? I don’t believe that this album will turn out to be some weird anomaly in the history of my work, but even if it ended up that way, it would still be the style that I was working in at this time. However, I do feel that this album unlocked something for me. The new music that I’m working on is very much an extension and expansion of the style of this album. “In Our Softening” feels like just the beginning in many ways, and that’s exciting to me. That said, while it’s really different from my first album “Histories”, we don’t create art in a vacuum. Even if someone takes what appears to be a hard left turn. It’s all connected.