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excerpt from PLAY IT BY EAR.pdf

If I let myself slip back to my teen years in the early 1980s, I can get overwhelmed with memories of music. At first it’s just a hint—a few lines of lyric or an instrumental riff—but then, rushing headlong, there comes a whole synesthetic embodiment of vibe and emotion, an endless loop of colors and lights sliding by like the reflection on the inside of a windshield, car in motion, heading slowly back up the Garden State Parkway from the shore. I hear the sweet, sweet piano and harmonica opening of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” and I am there again, in the back seat of some friend’s vehicle (American-made muscle, two long heavy doors, sticky vinyl interior—borrowed from an older brother or maybe a mother who will spend the day holding her breath until we all get home in one piece). I am gritty from hours at the beach, comfortable in my heat-soaked skin, reaffirmed for a moment in my shaky sense of belonging, as I and my girlfriends all smile and wave out the windows at some cute older guys in a Jeep stuck in traffic next to us. Under the highway lights their smooth tanned hides shine like diamond dust.
PDF icon excerpt from PLAY IT BY EAR.pdf

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About Sandy

Baltimore City

When I die and my ashes are shot beyond Earth’s atmosphere by a colossal space cannon, my virtual tombstone should flash STILL RESTLESS. "Rest In Peace" will never apply. It takes most of us a long time to become exactly who we are. In my case, I've had to work and wait and work some more to understand that my comfort zone is actually a no-comfort zone. I searched for years for my supposed one true path before recognizing that there was no such thing for me.  Most of my peers were still young... more

personal memoir: PLAY IT BY EAR: AN AMERICAN ANTHEM (excerpt)

I am currently seeking agent representation and publication of my first creative nonfiction book, a personal memoir with an embedded cultural/historical argument. PLAY IT BY EAR: An American Anthem is about trying to heal childhood damage and forge a stable identity through music—a quest fueled by need, talent, and pure joy, but rife with pitfalls. It's the story of a mature woman listening back on nearly 40 years to hear the themes & variations of her life.

Born here in 1965—same year the USA stopped deliberately blocking non-white immigrants—I was the arts-obsessed daughter of doctors who’d come from India. Unhappily married, and damaged by their own families, they were often verbally abusive and emotionally irresponsible. My mother grew up penniless, my father grew up rich, but from both, I got the poisonous message that a child’s only real worth is measured in dollars earned and class status attained.

Fired up on radio hits, rock anthems, and Broadway showstoppers, I wanted no part of this perverse value system. I was an American girl: brash, loud, opinionated. I’d become a singer, actor, writer, star. Auteur, even. My relatives belittled me, because I didn’t conform to Indian good-girlhood or the extended family’s fundamentalist Christianity. I also refused to go to medical school. Why be a miserable salary-slave like Mom and Dad? But friends, teachers, other Americans understood. It was my citizen’s birthright to do what I loved (and eventually the money would follow….right?)

I lived this credo in my head but didn’t get very far in the world. I was hampered by pain, rage, and the paradoxical help/hindrance of upper-middle-class privilege. Successful as a journalist, I tried writing novels but hit parent-induced emotional roadblocks. During a terrible infertility struggle, I went into near-suicidal crisis, almost upending my marriage and abandoning motherhood. I so feared losing myself in household misery again.

What saved me was a late, serious return to music. In my mid-30s I started working as a pianist and singer. My depression abated; I regained youthful confidence, found marital balance, and became a much better mother than my own. My newfound obsession with improvisational jazz—where listening and empathy are foundational skills—plus the instant bond with my adopted infant son, together unearthed a capacity for unconditional love (as well as a surprising new knack for writing original songs).

There were ironies, though. Yearning for the spotlight, was I reinforcing my parents’ self-absorption and neediness? Turning my passion into a career, had I merely found another way to equate personal value with dollars earned (CDs sold, gigs booked, MySpace fans added…)? This reduction of self-worth to net worth was no mere immigrant mindset but a deeply, darkly American one: an ascendant force that had perverted our sense of commonwealth, damaged our self-image as a nation of immigrants and landed us a financial con artist as president. It was the culture in which I too had been helplessly steeped since girlhood.

***
For the Baker Portfolio, I am including just the first two sections out of five total in the book, as it's still an unsold manuscript.

  • excerpt for Baker Portfolio PLAY IT BY EAR.pdf

    FROM *PLAY IT BY EAR: AN AMERICAN ANTHEM* (memoir) We—the band—had not invited requests, but still someone decided to shout at us from the bar: DO YOU DO ANY SINATRA? I glanced toward the voice and saw a slope-shouldered, balding middle-aged white guy in wire-rimmed glasses—a man whose entire mien screamed I AM A DEPRESSED GOVERNMENT FUNCTIONARY—sitting alone with his hands choked up around a glass of red wine. With somewhat forced enthusiasm I pulled “Fly Me To The Moon” out of my vocal fake-book. It was a simple harmonic progression, but I hadn’t gotten around to memorizing it and I wasn’t expert enough to puzzle it out on the spot. I started snapping my fingers. Uh-one (snap), uh-two (snap), uh-one two three fo’. I rolled a fat two-handed Fm7 into the keys and went from there. The band came in at the accidentally too-slow tempo I requested and we chugged through the intro. This had never been one of my favorite songs but that wasn’t supposed to matter. When I started to sing, I could hear myself going sharp, which made me tense, which made me go sharper. The morose gentleman listened politely but didn’t smile, clap, or acknowledge his fulfilled request in any way. After a couple more tunes he left the place without a glance toward the bandstand. I tried not to take it personally. *This is my dream. I am living my dream.*
    PDF icon excerpt for Baker Portfolio PLAY IT BY EAR.pdf

CD in progress: INNOCENT MONSTER (2019-2020 estimated)

INNOCENT MONSTER (estimated 2019-2020) These are DEMO tracks for a CD-in-progress of ten or more original songs. My co-producer is Pete Strobl, a fantastic musician who has moved to Baltimore County after decades in the LA rock scene. Pete has a deep background as a trained opera tenor, a longtime bassist and musical director for various touring rock bands, a recording studio manager, and a producer. But his true calling is as a vocal coach: teaching already-pro-level musicians how to sing in a scientifically grounded manner, to create the most beautiful and authentic sound they can. I was lucky to begin working with him this past February. Within a few weeks, he had retrained my breathing mechanics, helped me shed bad habits, and started uncovering my "real" sound. A few more months went by and my voice was cleaner, purer, more "me" than it had since grade school. The perceived difference between my speaking voice and my singing voice almost disappeared.

If you contrast, for example, my ten-year-old video performances of "The Neighbors" or "Petting Zoo" with the new demo tracks recorded in December 2018, I think you'll hear the stark difference right away.

  • INNOCENT MONSTER (CD in progress) by Sandy Asirvatham

    DEMO versions (piano/voice only) of songs I intend to release as a full band, studio recording with the help of my co-producer, Pete Strobl. Estimated completion late 2019 or early 2020, depending on how quickly I can gather funds and recruit the right personnel. My dream band lineup will include drums, electric bass, rock guitar, background vocalists, and jazz-funk horn section. The songs themselves tend to have dark, paranoid, weirdly humorous lyrics...and yet the melodies turn out lovely and the grooves are nearly danceable.
  • older version of "The Neighbors"

    Posted so you can hear (I hope) the improvement in my vocal skills and approach between this video from 2009 and my demo tracks today.
  • "Petting Zoo" by Sandy Asirvatham, pianist and singer-songwriter

    A ten-year-old performance of "Petting Zoo" to contrast with my new demo recording.

soundtrack composition: Theo and John Talk Nonsense (2018)

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  • Theo and John Talk Nonsense by Sandy Asirvatham

    My first film composition commission. These are demo tracks I recorded on my home piano, to serve as the main themes upon which I'd improvise a soundtrack for the film Theo and John Talk Nonsense, an art documentary by NYC-based novelist and filmmaker John Reed.

studio CD and major concert: MOBTOWN MOON (2013)

Mobtown Moon studio CD (released May 2013) is a new interpretation of Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon album, co-produced by me and ellen cherry with the participation of 40 outstanding Baltimore-based musicians in rock, jazz, classical, hip-hop and other styles of music.

Our genre-defying version of this classic album highlights the lyrical and melodic beauty of the original, by taking the songs out of their stadium-rock context and reconsidering them from a grown-up, singer-focused perspective. Baltimore CityPaper called it "wildly eclectic yet consistently absorbing," while both CityPaper and Baltimore Magazine awarded it their respective "Best of Baltimore" honors. The CD has received coverage in many music blogs and we’ve been interviewed by several Internet and terrestrial radio stations around the nation. So far, we have been overwhelmed and grateful for the positive response to our venture.

We're especially proud that we were able to create a beautiful, unique, meaningful music product showcasing the tremendous talents of our friends and colleagues here in Charm City. Already, this project has spawned all sorts of new partnerships and creative ideas.

ORIGIN

I conceived the project in 2009 while listening to the original Floyd recording, which remains very moving and relevant four decades after its release. 2009 was a dark time in the country: we were reeling from the aftershocks of a global market meltdown and the beginning of an endless recession; we were still at war, still paranoid, still so at odds with each other politically, still in denial about things like growing income inequality and potentially catastrophic global climate change.

Personally, I was feeling the weight of unhappy current events, and also suffering my own private confusions. Listening at this time to Dark Side was a source of comfort and connection. It reminded me that every era of human history has been dark, has been filled with war and want, one way or another.

MUSICAL MISSION

As a jazz person, my inclination was to take this beautiful, sometimes sad, sometimes angry music and respond to it with meaning, in the same way that master jazz composers responded to Tin Pan Alley favorites or great European classical composers responded to the folk songs of their childhood: by revisiting, reinterpreting, and reinventing.

What I also wanted to do was avoid the traditional “tribute” album that simply recreates the original songs in the same form but with different players. There are already way too many Pink Floyd cover bands in existence and I have no interest in that kind of shallow mimicry.

I had a demonstrated knack for making interesting arrangements, but this kind of project was significantly more ambitious and potentially tricky. After all, many millions of people love the original album, which is still a perennial bestseller. To "mess" with these beloved songs was to take some amount of personal and professional risk, for sure--especially because it represented a fairly great leap compared with my earlier work.

COLLABORATIVE EFFORT

In 2010 I spoke about the project with my friend, award-winning singer-songwriter ellen cherry, who immediately loved the idea and met it with a vision of her own: to make a true Baltimore collaboration that demonstrated the depth and breadth of musical talent we have in this town. We created a partnership to make this dual vision happen, and then set to work: making two demo song recordings, fundraising through individual donors and grantmakers, partnering with local nonprofit collaborators (especially the Hearing and Speech Agency and MammoJam), developing a production and promotional timeline (we were determined to release the record in spring 2013, close to the 40th anniversary of the original recording’s release), recruiting and scheduling many busy musicians (which occasionally felt like herding cats), and doing all the executive work required to put together such a massive collaboration.

As the chief arranger, I was directly responsible for the arrangement/instrumentation/sonic details of 10 of our 12 tracks, and indirectly for 2 more done in collaboration with the instrumentalists who played on them. (ellen took over the arranging for one track entirely, and she is also fully responsible for art-directing our beautiful album cover and for our entire project “look.”)

MUSICIANS ON THE ALBUM

Andrew Grimm (banjo)
Ben Frock (trumpet)
Brian Gundersdorf (vocals)
Brian Simms (piano, organ, accordion, vocals)
Bryan Young (bassoon)
Christian Stengle (drums)
Craig Alston (saxophone)
Cris Jacobs (vocals, guitar)
Dave Hadley (pedal steel)
David Ross (spoken word)
ellen cherry (vocals, cello, synths)
Eric Kennedy (drums)
Femi the DriFish (spoken word)
Frank Russo (drums)
Jake Leckie (bass)
Jeff Reed (bass)
Jen Smith (cello)
John Thomakos (drums)
Kate Zahradnik (viola)
Katie Graybeal (vocals)
Lea Gilmore (vocals)
Matt Everhart (bass)
Mike Gambone (drums)
Nick Currie (violin)
OrchKids choir (10 students with director Dion Cunningham)
Patrick Klink (vocals)
Russsell Kirk (saxophone)
Sandy Asirvatham (vocals, piano, synth keyboards)
Tim Anderson (cello)
Todd Marcus (clarinet)
Scott Smith (guitars, percussion, recording engineer)
Vincent Stringer (vocals)
Warren Boes (guitar)

CD RELEASE PARTY

We were thrilled to present our premiere performance of MOBTOWN MOON at the Kraushaar Auditorium in front of more than 800 fans. We had an incredible cast--not everyone from the album, but close. Thirty of Baltimore's finest musicians in rock, jazz, classical, hip-hop, gospel, bluegrass, and opera/choral music were crowded on that stage together, making music and listening to each other as the audience of 700+ watched in wonderment. By the time the Baltimore Choral Arts Society came on for the last two songs, there were 50 of us on that stage. The communal feeling of the event was palpable. People cried at some of their favorite old Pink Floyd songs, reinterpreted here and presented by some of their favorite local artists. It was a thrilling and moving evening for all of us.

ellen has been in many big shows, but this was a personal milestone for her in terms of the size, ambition, and authority she had over the performance details. I handled pre-show stuff like press and finances. By the time we started actually playing music, most of our hardest work was well behind us, and while we had some musical duties, we also had the opportunity to relax a bit and enjoy our incredible musical friends doing their thing.

I would have to rank 9/28/13 as one of the best days of my life, along with marrying my husband and adopting our son.

Getting to sing my version of "The Great Gig In the Sky" was also simply a 30-year dream-come-true.

But really the most satisfying thing was this: After the show, so many of our stellar musicians--Jen and Scott Smith of Naked Blue, Jonathan Gilmore, Brian Simms, Warren Boes, Andrew Grimm and Dave Hadley of June Star, Dave and Femi of the 5th L, Jake Leckie--so many of these fine and highly experienced performers said to us:

"That was one of the best shows I've ever been in, in my life."

AND:

"When can we do it again?"

That was the REAL dream come true: the joy and respect of peers.

  • Breathe, arranged by Sandy Asirvatham

    Breathe was the first song I arranged for MOBTOWN MOON, a massive 3-year project co-produced with ellen cherry. This is our "world premiere" performance at Kraushaar Auditorium in Baltimore County. Such a thrilling way to start off one of the best evenings of my life.
  • Money, arr. by S.A. and the band

    Andrew Grimm (of June Star) takes the lead at the Mobtown Moon premiere performance September 28, 2013 at Kraushaar Auditorium
  • Us and Them, arr. by S.A.

    In a way, this song was the kernel of the whole project. I used to play this arrangement and sing it myself in my quartet years ago, but for Mobtown Moon it was really an ideal vocal number for ellen's gorgeous plaintive sound. Hear it and try not to weep, people.
  • Any Colour You Like, arr. by S.A.

    I had fun taking the spacey guitar-jam elements of the original track and transforming them into a post-bop vehicle for the wild improvisations of Todd Marcus (bass clarinet), Derrick Michaels (saxophone), and Ben Frock (trumpet).
  • The Great Gig In The Sky, arr. by SA

    The single most challenging vocal performance I've ever allowed myself to do. I had some melodic ideas worked out based on what I'd done for the recording, but I wanted to allow for improvisation, too. It just kind of happened, and felt so easy, especially with the incredible support of the audience and the stellar playing of the band behind me. A profoundly meaningful personal moment. And also the only time when I really had to work hard during this show--otherwise, everybody else was doing all the heavy musical lifting.
  • Eclipse, arr. by S. A.

    Jen Smith, Pat Klink, Brian Simms, and ellen cherry lead off the vocals, and then the Baltimore Choral Arts Society (director Tom Hall) blows the roof off
  • Time, arr. by SA and the band

    Brian Simms (of Speakers of the House) takes the lead at the Mobtown Moon premiere performance September 28, 2013 at Kraushaar Auditorium
  • On the Run, arr. by ellen cherry

    ellen's terrific reimagining of what originally was an electronics-only track. She likes to call its sound "banjo whales." That's the famous Grimm on banjo and Dave Hadley on pedal steel--both of June Star.
  • Brain Damage, arr. by S.A.

    Jonathan Gilmore takes the lead at the Mobtown Moon premiere performance September 28, 2013 at Kraushaar Auditorium

selected original song lyrics (from debut CD and new project)

I didn’t start writing songs until my late 30s, although I’d been working on reportage, fiction, and creative essays since my teen years. These lyrics, crafted over a prolific 5-year period, turned out to be a mix of little fictions and philosophical brooding. There’s a pessimism and paranoia that emerges unforced from me, and I try not to disavow those dark attitudes. For each song, I have a sense of its origin, or the resonant line or spark of story that started it…but I’m still amazed they turned out to be as cohesive, narrative, and visual as they did.

Selections below are from INNOCENT MONSTER (to be produced) and MEMOIR (2007).

fiction in progress: A TYRANT FALLS IN LOVE (novel) and ACCIDENTAL TRIO (screenplay)

In my 20s and early 30s, I struggled to write novels, started several, but never really learned how to move from an interesting premise through an actual plot to achieve a finished story. Some of this was a lack of skill (even after a fancy MFA degree); some of it was lack of emotional maturity and self-confidence. In my 40s, with some help from a writing mentor who understands the mechanics of storytelling, I finally finished a book, PLAY IT BY EAR. It's a memoir, but the mere fact that I've finished an entire manuscript, with a genuine narrative engine driving it, means I'm now getting flooded again with the same kinds of story ideas that descending on me regularly in my youth. To put it bluntly, I'm no longer a blocked writer, just a writer. Time and distraction are my only enemies. Out of a dozen ideas competing for attention, these two are the strongest right now. Attached are some of the preparations I've made for each of these visions. If it takes me years or decades to bring them to fruition, so be it.

A TYRANT FALLS IN LOVE will be a mock-epic, fake-historical novel inspired, indirectly, by the shock of Donald Trump's ascendance to the presidency in 2016. Like so many of us, I have been appalled and chastened to watch a classic authoritarian peresonality rise to power here. Trump is new on the American scene, yet by global standards he is a walking cliche. The narcissism, corruption, and comical self-glorification are straight out of the dictator playbook. Even his quasi-incestuous relationship with his daughter echoes ancient and premodern imperial history. I see A TYRANT FALLS IN LOVE as a tragicomic fable about human behavior: the perpetual dialecic between power-sharing and tyranny, freedom and repression, love and hatred, peace and war, selflessness and greed. The omniscient narrator will indulge in occasional anachronisms for humorous affect and to create a certain mythic resonance.

ACCIDENTIAL TRIO is something that began as a book in my mind, until I realized it would make much more sense as a movie, particularly because of the musical elements. The attached treatment-in-progress is very unfinished, as you'll see. I am showing you a bit of my midstream mess, revealing my process. But the first act description should paint a picture of the time, place, and characters. As they say in the brick-and-mortar world, pardon my dust.

early published work: short fiction & personal writing (90s-early 00s)

"Sheath" is one of the only short stories I've ever completed (I'm built for long work!). It was published in the Berkeley Fiction Review in 2000. The other pieces are more along the lines of personal essays, originally published under the column banner "Underwhelmed" at Baltimore CityPaper. In some ways, all this early work together can be taken as precursors to/practice for my finished memoir, PLAY IT BY EAR.

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