Coast Guard Musician’s Work Transcends Boundaries

CDR Adam Williamson, CDR Krystyn Pecora • America's MusiciansJuly 2023 • July 16, 2023

Traveling more than 7,000 miles away from New London, Ct. to Chennai, India, Musician First Class (MU1) Meera Gudipati has learned first-hand how music can be a universal language through her continued work with the South Asian Symphony Foundation.

Gudipati was recently invited by the former Indian ambassador to the United States and Indian Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, to participate in the South Asian Symphony Orchestra concert, Peace Notes.  This event was created in an effort to bring the people of Indo-Pacific countries together to perform a concert in India as part of a peace mission.  

As part of this, she worked with musicians from eight nations throughout southern Asia through both musical instruction and cultural exchanges. During the nine day visit held in the summer of 2022, she noted the musicians “formed relationships through music” as they collaborated with music as their common language. 

This program is just one of many cultural opportunities that Gudipati has participated in as part of the U.S. Coast Guard Band for the past four years. “The people are so great in this organization,” she remarked emphatically when discussing her travels and experiences playing with the band in venues such as The White House. 

Gudipati commented how this experience allowed the musicians to connect with America and Americans, a country they typically only see in the news. She also took the opportunity to get in touch with her own Indian heritage by getting fitted for her first sari, which she recently wore for her grandmother.

Gudipati said the event allowed the participants to “focus on similarities beyond historical conflict,” and appreciated how the opportunity helped her better understand the “infrastructure and education in South Asia.”

The concert itself brought together a wide range of musical pieces from the works of Johannes Brahms to compositions familiar in Indian pop culture. “Making music with such diversity is a feat of its own,” she remarked. Yet an experience such as this, where a diverse team of international musicians collaborated together for a cohesive concert, demonstrated how music can transcend boundaries, even language. 

This was not the first time that Gudipati transcended cultural boundaries, in fact much of her life was spent doing just that. Emigrating to the United States from Germany at a young age, she had to learn a new language while navigating a foreign social environment. “I found my first close friends (in the United States) in my chamber ensemble at the Colburn community school in Los Angeles, which was a more diverse setting than Dusseldorf had been,” explains Gudipati. This setting allowed her to explore her Indian heritage for the first time, attending live Indian classical concerts, taking lessons with a bansuri guru, and incorporating both Western and Indian motifs into her own improvised performances. Gudipati says of this musical and cultural merger, “this was the first time I felt unity of my German and South Asian identities, which I had previously seen as disparate. I realized that what I found in music, above all, was belonging, which led me to dedicate my life to music.”

Gudipati went on to earn a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Music degree from the Yale School of Music. Though her orchestral ambitions remained while at Yale, she began to cultivate an interest in composition. Gudipati signed up for a composition class with Pulitzer Prize winning composer David Lang, where she became even more fascinated with creating new expressive sounds inspired by her heritage. “I found that composition could unite my conservatory flute training with my previously abandoned interests in Indian classical music,” Gudipati explained. 

After winning the co-principal flute position with the United States Coast Guard Band in 2018, Gudipati found a home that allowed for her wide-ranging, multi-cultural musical interests to flourish. Gudipati reflects on her first years in the Coast Guard Band, “seeing the diversity of interests [in the Coast Guard Band] helped me realize it was okay, even encouraged, to explore my eclectic interest such as Indian classical music, composing, electronics, commissioning, and community engagement. I started bansuri lessons in New York City and learned how to improvise in the Hindustani tradition.” She has continued to explore and develop her Western and Indian inspired compositional language, taking on a myriad of commissions for instruments with electronics, and writing a work for wind band. “I composed Bhagalu (Halves/Parts),” states Gudipati, “a wind ensemble piece that explores the German and South Asian parts of my life by drawing from raga Bhairav and Western counterpoint.” Gudipati noted how engaged her Coast Guard Band colleagues were during the rehearsals and recording of Bhagalu, “my colleagues rehearsed with more engagement, asking about stylistic articulations, accents and note bends. I want to foster this growth by continuing to advocate for commissioning and composing pieces that challenge comfort zones and test new frontiers.” 

Gudipati now aims to immerse herself full-time in composition and Indian classical music, and will begin a doctoral program at the City University of New York in the Fall of 2023 where she will continue to transcend cultural boundaries a create a world of belonging through her unique musical voice.

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