A 3-D landscape of sound

Keeril Makan

Award-winning composer Keeril Makan shares his distinctive creative process with MIT students


A superb music class can involve the close study of silence, says Keeril Makan, associate professor in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences' music section. For this composer, creating music means first detaching from sound — much as a Zen practitioner detaches from experience — and opening the “beginner’s mind."

A composer whose award-winning work has been performed in eight countries over the past five years, Makan comes to composition with years of classical training, expertise in theory and artistic discipline — and with the modus operandi to wear his training lightly, to always start afresh: Start with silence. Be aware of sound. Stay alert. Forms will emerge.

Makan’s finished works are the fruits of this process; his critically acclaimed 2008 CD, In Sound (Tzadik), and his recordings for American Voices, and Tear, are driving, haunting, exuberant explorations of silence, instrumental sound and deep emotion. "Frontiers are crossed in this music," says American Record Guide.

Sound is the palette

Makan credits an arts camp instructor for catalyzing his distinctive creative process. Recalling the instructor's words, Makan says, “He told us, ‘Composing is like painting. Time is your canvas, and sound is your palette. Now, go compose!’ There were no further instructions, no models to follow. I had to rely on music I knew or sounds I created, and I have worked that way ever since.”

Currently, Makan is sketching out ideas for the Sharoun Ensemble, a mini-orchestra comprising eight members of the Berlin Philharmonic. “The ensemble is the 'Schubert octet instrumentation,'" Makan explains, "an unusual combination of clarinet, bassoon, horn, string quartet and double bass.

"I’m just starting the piece, playing my violin, seeing what sounds that generates. I’ve become passionate about sound as a tactile experience. I create by physically interacting with the instrument. As I play, raw material develops. I record, listen, write down what I like. It’s a constant process of discovery.”

Makan approaches each of his musical works as a trek to an inner, 3-D landscape of sound. The portal to that world lies in experimentation, use of technology and a meditation practice. Makan's composition choices — editing, expanding sounds, inserting silence — are guided by intuition as well as training, and the whole process relies, he says, on an "I/Thou relationship with an instrument."

Intensively trained in the European tradition, Makan considers Western classical music "one example of world music — no more privileged than any other music tradition." His creative use of multiple influences and cultural traditions is an inspiring model at MIT, where many students in his theory and composition classes have equally layered inheritances.

Minimalism and multiple influences

Critics praise Makan’s compositions. One observes that his saxophone piece “Voice Within Voice” sidesteps the reed to utilize the whole instrument as an amplifier for the breath. Another describes Makan’s bold violin part in “The Noise Between Thoughts,” a passage that requires the musician to bow at a 45-degree angle and apply either too much pressure to create a strained sound, or too little, for a thin, restless sound. A third calls the meditative, mournful sounds in “Washed By Fire” as natural as breathing. A fourth is moved by the emotional voice of “In Sound,” a work of sonic art based on beautifully constructed noise-based compositions.

Makan describes himself as a violinist and classical musician working in the context of minimalism and of musical experimentation that embraces non-western influences, popular music, and technology. His influences include American composers John Cage, Steven Reich and Morton Feldman, and he is also engaged with the musical structures and instrumentation of the 18th and 19th centuries.

“A lot of what I do is in reaction to those structures," he explains, "although the sounds you hear in my music aren’t familiar, classical sounds. They are sounds I have created to be as tangible as possible. I have been influenced by all the music I’ve heard, by the composers who taught me, and by the culture of every place I’ve lived."

The child of an Indian father and Jewish mother, Makan grew up absorbing European classical music, Indian ragas, and the classic rock and roll of earlier decades. Makan says, "The 1980s was a bad decade for rock. I stuck with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Radiohead made the '90s interesting.”

An inspiring model

Makan's creative use of his layered influences and traditions is an inspiring model at MIT, where many of the students in music theory and composition classes have personal and musical backgrounds equally complex and layered. 

Makan teaches classes in harmony and counterpoint, advanced composition, and an introduction to composing for non-musicians, and sees that MIT students benefit greatly from music classes. “Music plays a very important role in an MIT education," he says. "It’s a place where students are exposed to open-endedness, to spiritual practices, and creative goals." 

One of the early projects in Makan's Intro to Composing for Non-Musicians requires students to spend 24 hours completely unplugged — no iPod, no netbooks, no apps, cells or texts — a “torture for them,” Makan admits. A later hands-on assignment — to compose a “soundwalk,” a treasure hunt for sounds that students assign their peers, is more palatable. The goal of these non-musical tasks is one he sets for himself whenever he starts a new composition: “Awareness of silence. Receptivity to environmental sounds, to footsteps, ventilators, or running water. Hearing the music of everyday life.”

Dream lightly

Makan’s creative journey is a dramatic arc of success in the world of composing. In the decade between 1994 and 2004, he graduated from Oberlin with a double major, a BA in religion and a BM in music composition from the Oberlin Conservatory. He began to win awards and commissions while working on his PhD in music composition at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2000, he was awarded both a Fulbright for study in Helsinki, Finland, and the George Ladd Prix de Paris for two years of study in Paris. In 2008, Makan won the Luciano Berio Prize in Music Composition and spent a “great and productive year” at the American Academy in Rome.

When in Rome, Makan completed “Dream Lightly,” for electric guitar and orchestra, commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra, and a trio for flute, viola and harp, commissioned by the Harvard Musical Association, for the school’s renowned violist, music professor Marcus Thompson, to be premiered in April 2011.

Professionally, Makan maintains the brisk pace and a global presence of a conservatory faculty member. His compositions were performed 53 times in seven countries between 2008 and 2009, including a nine-date tour for his piano piece “Afterglow” in Scotland. He has been an artist-in-residence five times since 2001, in the U.S., France, Germany and Italy. Since coming to MIT in 2006, he has served as an advisor to music minors and to freshmen, and is now a member of the Art and Science and Music Curriculum committees.

This spring, Makan plans to finish mixing his second CD, Target, being produced by Starkland Records. In 2011, he plans to work with MIT colleague Jay Scheib, professor of music and theater arts, on the first operatic adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s film, Persona. Scheib will write the libretto and Makan, the music.

“The film is an accurate depiction of the human suffering that results from having to have personae to get along in society," Makan says. "To Bergman, this was a horror. I don’t think it’s that dark. But I do think it’s about silence. I’ll start there."


Topics: Arts, Awards, honors and fellowships, Faculty, FAST festival, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), MIT150, Music, Research

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