COLUMN: Thornton junior has two musical traditions

It took a long time for Geetha Somayajula to set her sights on being a music major. She’s always enjoyed singing in choirs and playing the piano, but she never saw it as a viable career path.

But two things helped her. Now, as a junior majoring in choral music and business administration, she’s found her way.

The first was a transformative experience during high school. She brought a ticket stub to our interview.

“The first time I saw Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony when was I was 16,” Somayajula said. “I saw it with the San Francisco Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas performing — I love him. That was the moment I thought I was going to do music as a minor, and I didn’t know the extent to which I wanted to do it.”

But she still had one problem — convincing her parents that she really wanted to pursue a degree in choral and sacred music.

“My Hindu parents were quite shocked that I picked that for a degree,” Somayajula said.

However, Somayajula won them over by drawing an analogy between Western classical music and south Indian classical sacred music.

“I was born into a very traditional south Indian family. My mom loves classical Carnatic south Indian music,” Somayajula said. “My grandfather was a lecturer on classical south Indian Carnatic music — back in rural India he was a college professor, so I think in our family, high art was something that my parents really enjoyed.”

It’s her grounding in Carnatic tradition that has helped her excel as a singer of Western classical music. Somayajula told me that she has always felt a strong correspondence between her training in Western and south Indian classical music. It’s in the world of pop music that she said took some time to find her niche.

“From the day I was born, [my mom] was taking me to Carnatic music concerts,” Somayajula said. “So I think I was very accustomed to sit upright in a concert [and] clap when you’re supposed to. So I never felt like it was unnatural for me. But it’s tough though, when you’re growing up and everyone knows the Beatles and Michael Jackson and stuff. I never had cultural context for that, so that music came later for me.”

But that also meant that when she started listening to pop music, it was with an attentive ear. Because of her second major, Somayajula is now interested in learning more about pop music’s ubiquitous presence in culture.

Somayajula’s double major sometimes divides her sympathies between the practical impulse to balance the ledger and her artistic reverence for music — especially classical music, which has been on uncertain financial footing lately.

“As a business major, do you ever listen to music thinking, who’s going to buy this?” I asked.

“It makes you kind of sad actually, when you are a business major and you go to the LA Chamber Orchestra,” Somayajula said. “I’m very cognizant of how revenues are paying out. And the advancement of classical music — that’s really important to me.”

But Somayajula remains aware that this kind of bottom-line thinking puts many music purists off. She hopes musicians can let go of some of the stodgiest strictures of performance practice to welcome new listeners into the fold, while still maintaining a reverent atmosphere that puts the focus on the music.

“You have to strike the right balance,” Somayajula said. “There’s like, an old school and a new school. In order to make this music accessible — because it is — I think it’s just the way that we market it and portray it that alienates people.”

Somayajula offered a few examples of local groups that she things are hitting this balance on the nose.

“I’m really inspired by Kaleidoscope and Wild Up, and the exciting initiatives they’re doing at the Phil,” Somayajulia said. “The LA Master Chorale is doing more pops concerts. These are good things because this music is important. It’s the education, I think, that we are lacking.”

“Education” means both for musicians to learn more about streamlining their operations and marketing effectively and for the general public to have a deeper understanding of classical music and high art from a young age, as she elaborated. That made me curious about her career goals going forward, and she offered two compellingly different answers.

Somayajula is considering delving deeper into Carnatic music. She recommended one work to give me a sense of how challenging south Indian music can be: a set of five pieces called the “Pancharatna Krithis” by the composer Thyagaraja. Geetha’s favorite is the last from that set.

“It’s called ‘Endaro Mahanubhavulu’ and it’s about the great saints of music … Even though [Thyagaraja] was like the greatest composer of all time, he was also a very religious and humble man. When I hear that music, it makes me feel grateful for all the fantastic Indian and Western music education that I’ve had. And it’s just a fantastic piece too,” Somayajula said.

Though she’s heard the piece since a young age — it’s also a favorite of her mother’s — Geetha has never been able to perform it.

“In my Carnatic music study, I still have a long way to go to be that technically adept,” she said. “Once I graduate, I’d really like to get a master’s degree in choral music. I’d really like to continue to work on crossing over — things from other cultures.”

In India, rather than study at a university or conservatory, she would seek a tutor to take her on as a protege. But Geetha’s immediate goals have her looking another direction: She wants to join an a cappella group like the one she had in high school.

“It’s like an alter ego that I kind of miss sometimes,” she said. “I’m not in a cappella here, but I think next year I might. I think my voice is growing stronger and as I grow as a singer I’m more able to adapt to different vocal styles. It’s something that’s hard to do when you’re growing in one vocal style.”

For now, Geetha continues to be deeply invested in her study of the Western canon. Rather than keep her from enjoying other styles of music, her classical study deepens her understanding of her own voice — and her artistic person.

Wherever music takes her next, I am inspired by her reverence for music. It means she can sing in a way that’s truly inspired — once the books are balanced, anyway.

Max Kapur is a junior majoring in jazz studies and East Asian languages and culture. His column,  “Ears to Hear,” runs Thursdays.