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#WomenToTheFore 8: Mingo Rajandi

We talk to Mingo Rajandi, composer, musician and creator of interdisciplinary projects about her work. Originally from Estonia, Mingo is now based in Brussels.

How would you describe what you do?
I'm a composer and musician who mainly works on interdisciplinary projects. My work in recent years has been more in a theatre environment. I see myself as the creator of different projects, trying to invent new forms of art. Also I write music and perform with my own band. And then sometimes I get commissions from other musicians from the more academic scene.

I’m from Estonia and live in Brussels, where I moved during the pandemic. Most of my work is still in Estonia; I’m one of those rare people in this city who goes back to their home country to work and lives here, not the other way around. 

You originally studied acting and theatre studies at university. What led you to music and composition?
I learnt music as a child but as an obstinate teenager I refused to continue. The classic approach to learning music was not for me! I played the piano but learning it felt very manual somehow. It was so dry, all dead men who lived in Vienna and it felt like it had nothing to do with me.

Kind of by accident, I ended up studying acting. Later I realised that music, acting and creating art projects is something I’ve done all my life. As a child, a friend and I created and performed a new piece of music or theatre every week. We went through all the genres - music, videos, dance, puppet theatre, opera - everything! I always thought it was a child’s game but now I see it’s the same path I’ve been walking on all the time.

My ambition has always been to be really good in what I do. I didn't feel I was good enough as an actor and being mediocre wasn't an option.

And it was just another coincidence actually, that led me to the double bass. During my acting studies, I had ‘fake played’ some instruments in a play. When I picked up the bass, I felt something and other people commented that it really suited me. So I went to study the bass at a music school when I was 24 years old and everybody else was 16 or 17 and had been playing in bands in their garages all their life.

So it was quite a crazy thing to do and my friends and family were doubtful, no one believed in me. But I continued, and early on I started to compose. At the time I didn't think of myself as a composer at all. I was just trying to create music and haven’t stopped since then.

Can you say more about your relationship with the double bass?
I really like the role of this instrument in a band. I have my own bands and my projects and I'm the lead figure there, but still when I play music, I don't feel the need to play solos unless it's really justified musically. I like to be in the lower end of the music, have it next to my body and feel the vibrations and to be the one who keeps it together. It feels good.

How do you think your acting training influenced your development as a musician?
It was really valuable training. When I started studying music, I realised that there were things that I knew that fellow students didn't. It wasn't so much about performing, it was more about how to listen to the others. I think it's one of the most difficult things to learn when you start your studies as a musician, to really train yourself to listen to others. 

And obviously it gave me lots of experience of being on stage: confidence, how to be in contact with the others on stage and how to share that energy with the audience, how to be present here and now. In my interdisciplinary projects over the last ten years, I’ve started to put everything together and have gone back towards theatre, not as an actor but as someone who can have different roles.

How did your early career develop as a composer and musician? 
I started to compose my first pieces - at first they were rough sketches - when I had been playing the bass for about two years. I was in a band and we played everyone’s compositions, but mostly it was me who composed. 

It was a laboratory for me where I could test my ideas with great musicians who were ready to try out my things. I’ve had great colleagues and other students who have taught me so much, much more than my formal teachers. 

I went to the Music Academy and I completed a bachelor degree in jazz double bass and then after that I did my masters in composing. After that I tried to find my way into the more academic composing scene, but I wasn’t really welcomed there - the perception was that I was already ruined by jazz and all that - and I didn’t get commissions.

So I decided to move on with my own projects and I found people who value me as I am. Back then I formed a large ensemble with people from different scenes just to experiment and develop a more sustainable way to play my music. I wanted to move away from rushing from a premiere straight on to a new piece and instead work in a deeper and more thorough way.

Do you have any particular inspirations or influences on your composing? Does your background as an Estonian influence your music? 
Yeah, I'm always listening to so much different stuff. I've never been kind of true to any style. I'm not rooted in this folk singing culture that is very strong in Estonia. But I think that it has influenced me still. In recent years I have been lucky to work with an Estonian musician Erki Pärnoja whom I have admired since we studied together. He has always been such a source of inspiration for me. And of course Jacob Collier. To me he is the Mozart of our times.

My influences often come from other art forms besides music. Like literature, especially poetry. I see music also very visually, in colours and textures. And sometimes I copy into my music what I've seen in paintings or theatre pieces.

In recent years I’ve been so inspired by Kae Tempest, for example. I absolutely love what they do. And Hollie McNish whose texts I have used several times as lyrics to my songs. I'm actually very much a text person. I love Laurie Anderson’s work and David Lang’s. They’re involved in all aspects of their projects, they don’t just do music but see everything more widely. 

Joni Mitchell is someone who has endlessly given me inspiration. It’s like she’s somehow present in everything I've done.


One of the things you're known for is your collaboration across and within different art forms. Can you tell us how you approach these and what you look for in your artistic partners?
People are the most important thing in anything I do. And through the years, I've become more and more conscious about who I do things with. I have finally found a few very precious people with whom I could do anything. 

It’s about sharing a view on life, and the rest falls into place if the people are right. When you’re working on really big projects, you spend so much time with those people, so it has to be quality time, you have to enjoy yourself. So it's important that you respect each other and share a sense of humour, you need to be fascinated by those people. 

What new projects are you currently working on? What excites you about what's next for you artistically?
I’ve been commissioned to do a new programme for Jazzkaar Festival in the Spring. The project is called "Werewolves". I'm working around the fascinating subject of "the stranger". Who is a stranger and who belongs with us? Throughout history people who have been seen as a bit different have been called witches or werewolves. And the witch hunt is still going on in today's world. Yet, everyone wants to belong somewhere. So I'm trying to bring those issues to the surface in my music.

The werewolf theme has become the central thing in my life at the moment and feels like a natural continuation of my previous project, Elajannad (or The Beastesses). 

I’m also adapting Elajannad for a radio play. It grew out of a collaboration with Eva Koldits, a well-known theatre director and actor in Estonia, during a period when the Estonian Me Too movement came to the surface and lots of scandals were emerging.

We both wanted to do something about women and she was interested in something based on the Greek tragedies from the perspective of the women. That’s how it kicked off. We started to read and talk about the female figures in these stories and this led to conversations about our own lives and the stories of our mothers. 

In the end the work became about the life of a woman, but that woman could be any woman. The same stories keep repeating throughout history and things haven't actually changed that much. We are talking about the impossible choices in a woman's life, where whichever turn one takes, it will lead to blame and regret. But they want to live and survive. It's about courage and forgiveness.

I wrote the music for this and we have included texts from contemporary writers like Hollie McNish, Nora Ikstena and our dramaturg, the poet Berit Kaschan among others. And some we wrote ourselves. It’s a project that is spreading and growing. We performed it with two actors and a band. And last year I recorded the music and released it as an album. Now there is a radio play to develop.


Who are the women/non-binary people you work with who inspire you the most, or which female / non-binary composers and artists are you most excited about at the moment?
I’ve already talked about my admiration for Kae Tempest, Laurie Andersen and Joni Mitchell. 

I’ve been very much inspired by an Estonian musician called Maarja Nuut who is an incredibly uncompromising and honest artist. She takes risks and u-turns to follow her calling and fascination in music even if it would seem more logical to continue with something that the audience wants. I know she dropped a flourishing path just because it wasn't interesting to her anymore. I really admire that. I also really love the work of a Finnish artist Linda Fredriksson.

Why does this risk-taking approach resonate with you so much?
I feel that each project I do is a huge risk. I'm always doing something I have never done before. I'm inventing a new format or trying to put myself into a position where I've never been before. It’s a terribly uncomfortable way of living but I'm addicted to it I guess.

Have there been particular challenges for you as a woman artist and composer?
A harsh moment for me was discovering that the treatment I had been getting from quite a few male colleagues wasn't actually how they were with everyone else. Somehow they had taken the liberty to let loose with me, while I had always thought that this is just the way they are. 

Many times I’ve been in a rehearsal when I’ve made a huge effort to get everything right, to take care of everyone and tape their music and bring them coffees and make everything as good as I can. Then they are just late and they come unprepared and waste time in the rehearsal talking. I remember situations where I've just stood there in silence, watching this and thinking what I should do for them to notice me?

And when I found out that the same people are behaving completely differently with other musicians (men), that made me wake up. And since then I've talked about that with other female musicians and they have been through similar situations, many times. So I think that sharing these experiences is extremely important and we have to make a change. Also it’s our responsibility towards our younger colleagues.

I also realised that it's not a conscious behaviour. It's still rooted so deep down in men. Not every man of course, but some think that a woman doesn't need to be taken as seriously or you can make fun of them or not prepare or say things that are disrespectful. Even if you disguise it as jokes.

This issue has to be worked on from different angles. Firstly, one shouldn't tolerate disrespectful behaviour. Women should be aware of this and notice these patterns. Secondly, we need more women musicians. And not just pianists and singers and flute players but drummers, bass players, guitar players, composers and band leaders.

You’re going to be involved in a mentorship programme with EJN. Is there advice that you would give to young people embarking on a career in creative music? 
I think that you can't give advice to anyone who isn't ready to take the advice and I think that when we are very young, it’s just impossible to understand some things if you haven't personally been through a certain number of experiences, whether they are failures, or crises. You just need that time and those experiences.
Instead you can ask young people questions, and make them think about what they want, get them to visualise their dreams, analyse themselves and the reality. If you're asked a question, then you're forced to go deep inside yourself and answer that question for yourself. 

So I think that's the work that we all need to do constantly. Ask ourselves those uncomfortable questions. I had a mentor in Martel Ollerenshaw through a scheme with Music Estonia, and she asked me many questions without trying to lead me anywhere. And I think that this was the most precious work and it helped me to clarify a lot for myself.

What are your aspirations for the future, what ambitions do you still want to fulfil?
I want to continue doing what I do, composing and playing music, creating art with people I share something deep with. Obviously I would like to have my music played more, get better commissions, earn more money. But I know that there is a clear limit to how much better things can go. On a larger scale everything will stay pretty much the same and there will not be a radical upgrade in the exterior conditions. 

So the only thing that I can make better and change is my own approach to life. I think that as a generally stressed person - and always very doubtful in myself - I need to change that and work on myself and my mental approach to life and work. I'd like to feel better being me. That's my biggest aspiration.

Music is what fills most of my day so I have to come to a more peaceful state in my head and body and learn to enjoy it more.

Artistically I consider myself a story teller. I want to work with people who I can do this with. Through telling stories I'm getting to know the world and myself.

And I'm glad that there are a few people with whom I can really dig deep. I'm so grateful for that.

All photos by Virge Viertek



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