Interview with Prism Percussion, a San Francisco-based percussion duo

Prism Percussion is a San Francisco-based percussion duo founded in 2018. Modern Marimba had the opportunity to collaborate with the duo (Divesh Karamchandani and Elizabeth Hall) on a consortium commission along with composer Steph Davis, performer Britton-René Collins, and chamber music group Spectrum Ensemble.

1. How did Prism Percussion meet and form its mission?

We met at the Zeltsman Marimba Festival in 2011 and then continued to connect at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. At first, our focus was just to create something together and see where it went, but it immediately became apparent as we tried to program recitals, that there was a lack of diversity in a lot of the mainstream duo material and that’s something both of us are passionate about. We decided to make championing and commissioning works by Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Women, and Queer composers an intentional and clearly stated part of our mission.

2. What initially drew you to the marimba?

Elizabeth: I was initially drawn to the beauty of the instrument and its expressive power. As a vocalist as well, I think playing the marimba has a lot in common with singing and has the potential to play similar lyrical lines.

Divesh: I made the transition from strings to percussion in high school. I was assigned to the front ensemble in our high school marching band and started learning the marimba. I instantly fell in love. Over the course of my high school and undergraduate studies, my love for the marimba grew tremendously. I felt proud of my skill sets. I enjoyed playing a variety of repertoire. I felt like I could not just play music, but evoke emotions and tell a story. Perhaps it was my personal therapy and a way to escape the chaos of my personal life. Either way, I enjoyed the trance-like feeling of playing the marimba.

Later, in graduate studies, I became extremely self-conscious of my playing. I started to close in, was shy about performing marimba, and started to develop a love-hate relationship with the instrument. Why? I felt like I was relearning how to play and it was a vulnerable experience having to perform at what felt like a lower level than my colleagues. I knew that I was getting better but my inner saboteur would only focus on what needed improvement. It was a tough battle and I feel like I still fight it now occasionally. However, I have grown to love my sound and approach to the instrument again and am continually impressed with what I can accomplish.

3. What piece in your repertoire is most personal to you?

Divesh: There are so many pieces that hold sentimental value so it is difficult to just choose one. A few that come to mind: 

  • “Transit” by Nicholas Pavkovic (which is Prism Percussion’s first commission), 
  • “Prism” by Keiko Abe (it was one of the first solos I performed where I truly felt like a great marimba player), 
  • “The Mind is Like Water” by Kevin Day (my first marimba performance after almost a year of a pandemic), and 
  • “Histoire du Tango” by Astor Piazzolla (played on my first professional chamber music gig).

Elizabeth: Our first commission, which was Transit for marimba, vibraphone, and keyboard by Nick Pavkovic is very special to us because it is a collaboration with our mentor and has been growing as we grow. So far we have two movements complete and are hoping to commission a third movement as part of our next season.

I also wanted to mention “Fin, for now” by Derek Tywoniuk for two players on one vibraphone. It was a really incredible experience to learn and play this piece. It requires vulnerability and verbally sharing your response to different prompts while playing, which led to really intimate and special performances as well as rehearsals. Both players are speaking at the same time so it has this feeling of conversation.

4. Who have been your mentors and do you currently have mentors?

Divesh: My mentors are Jack Van Geem, who was my teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Jacob Nissly, with whom I meet occasionally for coaching. Both have similar musical concepts but very different approaches in execution which has been quite enriching.

Elizabeth: Nick Pavkovic and Jack van Geem are our mentors. Pavkovic was pivotal in the inception of Prism Percussion and composed our first commission, a trio for marimba, vibraphone, and keyboard (with him on keyboard). Jack Van Geem is our teacher and mentor from our graduate studies at the SF Conservatory of Music. Even outside of the academic setting, Van Geem continues to provide us with musical and professional guidance to ensure the impact and longevity of our music endeavors!

5. What is your favorite marimba solo?

Divesh: It’s a tough call between “Land” by Takatsugu Muramatsu and “Khan Variations” by Alejandro Viñao. “Land” is just so beautiful and is the epitome of tranquility and “Khan Variations” is this incredible dance around the marimba based on this simple yet beautiful melody.

6. What are some diverse educational materials that you teach to your students?

Divesh: “Spatial Studies” by Josh Jones, “Momentum” by Patricia Islas, intermediate level solos by Ivan Trevino, and a variety of method books and repertoire by Joe W. Moore III

7. How do you work towards anti-oppression beyond the music performance aspect of your work?

Divesh: I work predominantly with BIPOC students and students from low socioeconomic communities. While most of my work and impact are music-related, I also find myself having to provide mentorship and other support to these students. For example, students from AAPI communities can participate in music for fun but are pressured by their parents to pursue a technology-related career. So, my role as teacher shifts to professional mentorship and providing resources to help the student and parents develop a better understanding of musical professions: performance, teaching, admin, tech, and so many more. This conversation with parents is not that uncommon for me as it was similar to my musical journey. 

I also have parents who really want their students to partake in private music lessons during their academic years but can not afford my usual rate for lessons. So, I provide a sliding scale that is better attainable. I respect that the parents want to ensure I am able to make an income but I also want to make sure I do not turn away a student who wants help. So far, I have been able to find a middle ground with everyone. 

I usually provide a few free coachings to all students who are preparing for honor band/orchestra or college/university auditions. I was very fortunate to have similar support as I prepared for my university and conservatory auditions and so I want to make sure I pay it forward.

In summary, I would say my work is really to uplift students and provide ample opportunities to help them succeed in their musical endeavors. Since my life is music, I invest my energy and resources in elevating the voices of musicians who come from traditionally marginalized communities. 

Elizabeth: We commission works individually and through consortiums like New Works Project to highlight and celebrate diverse composers, we donate individually and as a duo to support causes we believe in, we try to partner with and support organizations that we see as doing great work like Lift Music Fund who work to help underrepresented students overcome financial barriers to music, and we try to add our voice to the conversation when we see injustice. 

8. How did the pandemic affect your work?

Divesh: Like most, I lost a handful of performing opportunities during the pandemic. I also lost some coaching opportunities at the start of the pandemic. The majority of my teaching gigs are in/affiliated with public schools. So, once the pandemic hit and schools were shut down, I immediately lost work. Thankfully, a handful of my teaching gigs were reinstated within 4-6 weeks. Now, I am busier than before, teaching-wise at least. We are also seeing in-person performances startup so, hopefully, it will only be a matter of time before I am gigging at a rate as prior to the pandemic.

Elizabeth: We had to delay an out-of-state tour and had to cancel plans for an in-person season. We pivoted to a digital focus and spent time to create our website, focus on virtual performance opportunities, focus on virtual collaborations, and spent time recording to build up our library of digital assets. We shifted our meetings to Zoom and wore masks as we interacted in person. 

9. What are some less glamorous, behind-the-scenes skills that you’ve learned and use over the years, that you didn’t learn in school?

Divesh: As musicians and entrepreneurs, we have to possess skills to help us run our business. So, I have developed skills to help me create a website, record video, and audio, edit video and audio, financial management, concert production, grant writing, etc.

Elizabeth: We have started to fine-tune program creation that utilizes small instruments, few instruments, or re-uses the same instruments for a few pieces, which is important in a non-school environment where you must transport and either own or borrow all the instruments you need for a program. There’s also a lot of administrative skills that are necessary to run a percussion duo, anything from website creation, making agendas for meetings, to writing grant applications.

10. What other projects/jobs do you do to make a living?

Divesh: Elizabeth freelances and works as a database administrator for an environmentally focused nonprofit called Save the Redwoods League. I am a full-time musician! I have been very fortunate to rely solely on performing and teaching music for income. While I do not have one full-time position, I have plenty of part-time gigs which equal out to full-time work.

11. Favorite music creators?

Elizabeth: I really admire the Living Earth Show, I think they exemplify high-level artistry and have really inspiring collaborations to feature diverse musical voices. Every concert is at a non-standard performance venue, can be an immersive experience, and there’s always a big party afterward.

A few others: San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, the Silk Road Ensemble, and The Living Earth Show.

12. What are you listening to right now?

Divesh: Bessie Smith’s album “Chattanooga Gal”

Elizabeth: Jamison Ross’ album All for One

13. What are some of your thoughts about the environmental ethics of marimba manufacturing in the United States and abroad?

Divesh: The obvious answer is the effect marimba production has on rosewood trees in Central America. I know, understand, and appreciate the beautiful sound an aged rosewood tree makes. However, this isn’t sustainable since rosewood trees take a long time to mature and even though companies are planting trees for future use, this cannot undo the damage we have already caused. Also, we will not see the final result of the companies’ efforts during our time on this beautiful planet.

To do my part, I bought a used instrument many years ago. Not only was I able to put an older instrument back into use, thus eliminating the possible waste of existing rosewood keys, but I also prevented the need to manufacture a new instrument for me. The instrument is a 4.3 marimba. One day I will own a 5-octave marimba, but for now, I would rather use my 20+-year-old marimba to help elevate repertoire for smaller-range marimbas.

Elizabeth: I find the issue of sustainably sourcing rosewood concerning. Rosewood is a slow-growing wood that is overly harvested. I would encourage folks to look at alternatives to rosewood, look for used instruments, and I think companies that can restore bars and instruments and allow for longevity for already created instruments are important too. Also if you are looking to purchase a rosewood marimba new, make sure you understand how the company is sourcing the wood.  

14. What pushback/microaggressions/macro aggressions have you experienced in openly and actively doing your work?

Divesh: I had a very challenging start to my musical career. My parents and other members of the AAPI community did not understand what I could do with a music degree. I was frequently challenged and questioned about the possibility of financial success as a musician. It was very difficult to see my community work against me, not because they did not care for me, but because they were unaware of what success in the music industry was. I worked diligently to improve as an artist and slowly but surely won over everyone who questioned my success. Now, I have an incredibly loving and supportive family and community that is present for every step I take and I am eternally grateful for them.

I have also experienced homophobic remarks or attitudes from colleagues and it is disheartening to hear/see that their personal views affect their professional engagements. Since I was in high school, people questioned why a POC queer man was playing drums. This toxic masculinity is what has caused so many issues in the percussion and music community. Any person can learn to play any instrument should they desire, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or any other demographic. 

15. Is there anything you want to say to your white/non-Black colleagues and self-proclaimed allies in regards to racial justice? And the intersecting identities of class, sex, gender, (dis)ability?

Divesh: Thank you to those who are true allies and work to uplift non-white, BIPOC, AAPI, Queer, women, and all other non-cis white male artists and communities. We are grateful for your genuine support and willingness to look inwards first.

For those who claim to be allies, or just have not said/done anything, please consider that your inaction is complicity in oppression. Change is not easy nor will it come quickly BUT change can happen and it must start within yourself first. There are ample resources and opportunities to be involved, to contribute, to learn, and grow, and you must recognize that you are responsible for your own growth. So, that initiative and make an effort. You will be surprised how much of an impact you can make once you acknowledge the truth and work towards change.

Elizabeth: We all need to do more. The systems of white supremacy and accompanying/intersecting identity-based discrimination like classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia are pervasive and destructive. Listen to Black folks, centering voices of those with intersecting identities, learn from them and support them financially. Look for ways that injustice is showing up in your daily life and push back. Are you on a panel that only includes white speakers, or they make up the majority? Say something! Is an organization that you are performing with programming music that doesn’t reflect diversity? Suggest alternatives (BIPOC, only if it is safe to do so)! Make sure companies that you are financially supporting are in line with your values and doing anti-racist work. If you’re not sure where they stand, do some research or ask them.

16. What do you do to manage your mental health?

Elizabeth: I am very lucky to work with a therapist who helps support me in finding ways to keep things balanced. Mostly I have found that I am supported by practices like yoga and meditation, setting boundaries and saying no, and making sure I take time for judgment-free self-care, which can mean anything from getting enough sleep to watching a tv show to eating from my favorite Thai restaurant.     

Divesh: Music is not just a career; it is a lifestyle. I am very fortunate to have a partner who is not a musician but absolutely supportive of my lifestyle. Part of maintaining my mental health is just being able to chat with my partner about non-musical things. He has helped me develop a better work-life balance. We enjoy outdoor activities like hiking and camping, make time to cook together, connect safely with family and friends, and enjoy nights in watching movies.

17. What music makes you feel so happy when you’re in a bad funk?

Divesh: I love listening to music by divas like Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston.

Elizabeth: I have a shared playlist called Hope that I crowdsourced with some friends and that makes me happy. It’s an eclectic collection from many amazing artists like India. Arie, Rhiannon Giddens, Lady Gaga, Andra Day, Jason Isbell, and the Wailin’ Jennys. 

18. What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?

Divesh: Stop hiding who you are. Be proud of your heritage, learn more about it, and share it with your friends. Also, it’s okay to be queer and from the AAPI community. Embrace it and live your true life; people will still love and support you. Finally, no matter what anybody says, you can and will be a great musician!

Elizabeth: It’s ok to ask for help, it’s ok to love yourself. Don’t be afraid to show your true colors. Stay humble, stay open-minded, and treat every opportunity as a learning experience. 

19. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Thanks for providing us with this space, we are so grateful to be included in Marimba Mondays and love the work you are doing in the world.  

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