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Feeling the Music Go Through You – A Conversation with Sophia Subbayya Vastek

Sophia Vastek

Memory is so unforgiving sometimes. As such, I don’t quite remember the first time I met Sophia Subbayya Vastek but I do remember somehow beginning to follow her on Instagram and WOW! She would post the most amazing performance snippets and honestly, I fell in love with her work. Then I find out she is deeply integrated into the music scene in Troy (specifically the Troy Music Hall) and that was enough for me, I just had to know more! As the interview unfolded, I realized I had found a kindred soul. Much of what she said resonated with me regarding mind set, performance spaces and shared experiences. So, lets get to it!

Photo by Kiki Vassilikas

Please let us know a bit about your practice. Are you a full time performer? Do you have any other creative gigs you do to pay the bills?

I’m a musician (pianist and composer), educator, and producer/event organizer. And, I am a full-time musician. My days are all music-focused.

I’m glad you asked about paying the bills. I encounter a lot of resistance about discussing how creatives organize their finances. Ugh, there’s so much shame and baggage built up in the creative economy…. especially about money, which is a topic that I’ve been working to unpack for myself for years.

Before the pandemic, performing was a bigger part of my income. During the pandemic, my teaching studio grew to be a very important part of my life. This actually became a wonderful and liberating thing for me. I love teaching. Because of having a larger teaching studio, I’m now able to perform when I want, when it’s meaningful, and right. I spent so many years agonizing about whether I was performing enough and in the right venues. Fuck it. I realized that there are so many other aspects to my musicianship that I hadn’t been nurturing. I went full-tilt into exploring composing during the pandemic.

Photo by Kiki Vassilikas

Can you talk a little about your approach to your own compositions and playing?

Playing the piano doesn’t mean a thing to me unless it’s part of a shared experience. Music is a truly magical thing that effects people both physically and ephemerally. It’s sound waves literally hitting your body! How magical is that? When I create music that gives voice to my own feelings, it will in turn give voice to something in someone else. The Gift by Lewis Hyde had a huge influence on my creativity. Seeing what we do as a gift is life-changing. When we put something out into the world, it’s no longer ours – it belongs to others – and that’s a very empowering and humbling concept.

Many people don’t realize that it takes painstaking time, work and care to create music and spaces that feel “right.” I look at what I do as engineering experiences. Whether it’s my own music and performing, or presenting another performance, I’m thinking about what that experience is going to be like for both the listener and performer. Like, how the sound system is going to interact with the acoustics in the space and how it’s going to reach a listener’s ear. You can have the most amazing performer or the most amazing music but if the experience isn’t right, it will fall flat. There are many variables that help create magical experiences beyond just the music itself.

Photo by Jill Steinberg

Can you talk a little about what brought you to Troy (Upstate) and where you were before that?

Before we got married, my husband Sam and I lived in New York City and then Baltimore for a while. We were involved with an artist residency program in the Capital Region and had been coming to the area for a few years.  Sam also did a residency at EMPAC. We really fell in love with Troy and decided to move here, because we wanted a more stable home base where we could put down roots. We love it here!

Photo by Beth Mikalonis

I see that in addition to being a composer and performer that you produce events for venues with musicians as well. Can you tell us more about that…is that your 501c3 Organ Colossal?

I’ve run various music series’ in other cities, organized concerts, etc. It was a natural next step to put structure around what I’ve already been doing for a while. I founded ‘Organ Colossal’ with Sam. We produce and present concerts around town like the ‘Lift Series’ in collaboration with the Troy Music Hall. We’re a young organization, but we’ve got big plans for this coming year. We have the most amazing board of directors. There is a lot of thought and care that must go in to bringing people together and creating spaces that are equitable and caring. I can’t imagine doing this work without a team of people that bring different perspectives to the vision.

Photo by Kiki Vassilikas

With the current state of affairs, live music which was coming back strong seems not be totally out of the woods with our ongoing health crisis. Do you have plans on how to deal with that to keep the flame alive?

I’m very optimistic. I don’t think keeping the flame alive is ever going to be the issue. It’s become clear that live music is as important as ever. I have to come back to music as a magic thing – what happens when people experience live music together is totally irreplaceable. Sound waves moving through bodies – your own body and the bodies next to you – create a bond of shared experience. We need these experiences to give voice to the deepest things that we feel that go unprocessed.

Photo by Kiki Vassilikas

What else would you like to share? Anything we should know about coming up in the near future? Visions or goals?

My next album that is coming out mid-2022. It’s different from everything else that I’ve put out. It’s scary! This music represents a side of my creativity that I haven’t been able to give voice to until recently. I never gave myself the space to slow down and explore it. The new album is soft, intimate, and enveloping. It’s my own music, recorded on my piano with the best audio engineer in the state, my husband (I’m not biased!). Doing it in my home gave me the freedom to be as vulnerable as possible.

Organ Colossal is in the planning stages of some exciting new projects. We’re committed to creating accessible spaces for music, so we’re moving in a direction that involves more public, open-call work. The next concert on the Lift Series is coming up on on Feb. 23 is Warp Trio (a fantastic genre-bending chamber ensemble). After that, power trio Super 400 (regional superheros!) is slated for March 23. Follow our Instagram page or sign up to my mailing list to keep up to date on future shows and programming.

IG: @sophiavastek

IG: Organ Colossal: @organcolossal

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