Dr. Tanya Ekanayaka (Tanya Nissani Ilangakkone Ekanayaka, born May 6th, 1977), is an award winning and internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan-British composer-pianist and one of the world’s leading South Asian woman composer-pianists noted for her pioneering portfolio of works for solo piano.
Composing exclusively for solo piano and since recent years performing only her own works for solo piano, Tanya Ekanayaka is classically trained with a background in popular and South Asian musics and also a record producer and musicologist in addition to being a highly qualified linguist. Her creative practice seeks to render the piano more inclusive as well contribute to decolonising the piano.
In 2015, Tanya Ekanayaka became the first Sri Lankan composer in history to have an entire album of original works released globally by an international record label following the 2015 release of her debut album of compositions for solo piano composed, performed and produced by her, titled 'REINVENTIONS: RHAPSODIES FOR PIANO' released by Naxos Records (Grand Piano).
Her composition 'Adahas: Of Wings Of Roots' is also featured in the more recent Naxos Records (Grand Piano) release titled 'THE KEY COLLECTION: THREE CENTURIES OF RARE KEYBOARD GEMS' released in 2017.
Tanya Ekanayaka’s second solo album of her own works for solo piano performed and produced by her, titled ‘ TWELVE PIANO PRISMS’ was released worldwide by Naxos Records (Grand Piano) in September 2018. Comprising twelve independent yet also interconnected works which evolved in 2016 and 2017, the album extends the concept introduced by Tanya Ekanayaka in her debut album while also exploring a new concept.
Her third solo album of her own works for solo piano performed and produced by her, titled ‘THE PLANETS & HUMANITY – PIANO REFLECTIONS’ was released worldwide by Naxos Records (Grand Piano) on May 14th 2021. The eight works of this album correspond to reflections on the eight planets of our solar system and the seven continents comprising our home, Earth. With the exception of ‘Earth – Life’ and ‘Mercury with Antarctica’ embedded within each work are trans-created echoes of fragments of six secular traditional melodies belonging to six traditional communities of Earth’s six continents containing permanent human habitation, namely, Africa, Asia, Australia/Oceania, Europe, North America and South America. The peoples whose music thus inspires the works, are the Asháninka, Cree, Gond, Hadzabe, Numbulwar and Sámi. In the case of Antarctica which is paired with Mercury, the work represents an imagined connection between them through a reflection on elements which may render them both similar and distinct. ‘Earth – Life’, a reflection on pain, resilience hope and healing is dedicated to each and every human being confronted by the Covid-19 global pandemic.
The presence of transcreated echoes of fragments of secular melodies originating from traditional communities in Tanya Ekanayaka’s works is not a representation of the musics or their peoples as she maintains that such representation can only be achieved by the respective peoples themselves. Specifically, these are deeply personal reflections where Tanya Ekanayaka seeks to honour these musics and their communities having been personally and artistically inspired by the musics, being herself a minority within the sphere of the canon of piano composers as a South Asian female composer evolving music exclusively for solo piano and working to expand the narrative of the piano.
Tanya Ekanayaka began studying the piano when she was just five years old. She made her debut public recital appearance at the age of twelve, performed her first concerto (Mozart's Piano Concerto K.488), at sixteen with the SOSL (Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka), as joint winner and youngest competitor of the SOSL biennial concerto competition and has since performed in renowned international concert venues in Asia, Europe and the United States.
Consistent with her interdisciplinary background, she holds a Bachelor of Arts (BA) Honours degree in English Literature and Linguistics from the University of Peradeniya, a Master of Science (MSc) degree in Linguistics and English Language from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and a Doctorate for her interdisciplinary research in Linguistics and Musicology also from Edinburgh University where she has been involved in part-time academic teaching since 2007. Her doctoral research addressed questions relating to whether there are differences between communities’ collective perception of language in particular language mixing in music (i.e. songs) and their perception of language and/or language mixing in non-musical environments. Having discovered interesting differences between them her research included the formulation of a theoretical model designed to explain the differences. Tanya Ekanayaka is also a Fellow of the Trinity College of Music London (FTCL), and a Licentiate of both the Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music (LRSM), and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (LGSMD) UK. The Guildhall school awarded her its Professional Performer's Diploma (PPD) in 1999.
Tanya Ekanayaka’s compositions are regarded as representing new and exciting musical genres. Her compositions in her debut album comprise the integration of unusual adaptations of melodies belonging to Sri Lankan indigenous and popular musics (many of which have not been adapted for the piano or harmonised), with musical motifs inspired by the tonal centres of the other compositions which formed a given recital programme she was performing. Among a range of adaptations of traditional Sri Lankan melodies incorporated within the works of this album are adaptions of ten of the eighteen ancient Sri Lankan vannams. Her second solo album ‘Twelve Piano Prisms’ includes adaptations of traditional Sri Lankan melodies, among them the remaining eight vannams not represented in her debut album as well as adaptations of parts of traditional and folk melodies of Armenia, China, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The twelve prisms share thematic and structural features which lend them to be connected in any combination with short improvisatory sequences to form new extended works.
In this sense, each of Tanya Ekanayaka’s compositions may be seen as re-presenting her indigenous culture while also conflating diverse musical genres and eras within a contemporary and organic entity. Tanya Ekanayaka’s compositions evolve spontaneously, often when she is at the piano and remain precisely frozen in her memory. They have not been scored in any form.
Tanya Ekanayaka regards her compositions as deeply autobiographical ‘moments’. She attributes her compositional style to her unusual memory, multilingual and multicultural backgrounds as well as to being ambidextrous and having partial colour synaesthesia. She is a native speaker of English and Sinhala and grew up in the city of Kandy in Sri Lanka where she was exposed to a broad spectrum of musics from around the world from a very early age. Devoting endless hours to evolving original music for solo piano was how she attempted to comprehend and express the kaleidoscopic convergence of these various cultural and linguistic facets which seemed to define her. The philosophical and conceptual underpinnings of Tanya Ekanayaka’s published/recorded works are also very much influenced by her trans-disciplinary background as well has her creative practice which seeks to render the piano more inclusive.
In Sri Lanka, Tanya Ekanayaka studied the piano under the tutelage of her mother Indira Ekanayaka and later with Bridget Halpé. As an adult, her pianistic skills have benefitted from guidance by Colin Kingsley, John Kitchen, Raymond Monelle, Peter Nelson, Nigel Osborne, Jonathan Pasternack and Robin Zebaida.
Tanya Ekanayaka was appointed a member of the academic staff of the University of Peradeniya in 2003 shortly after graduating with her Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in the same year. She was a member of the university's academic staff as Assistant Lecturer in Linguistics and subsequently as Lecturer in Linguistics in the Department of English (Literature and Linguistics) from 2003 to 2005 and 2005 to 2011 respectively.
In 2010, Tanya Ekanayaka became the first Sri Lankan pianist to be invited to give a solo piano recital for the 'Pianists of the World' series at the world renowned recital venue, London’s St Martin-in- the- Fields. One of the oldest recital series of St Martin-in- the-Fields having been founded by the legendary Dame Myra Hess Tanya Ekanayaka’s programme concluded with the world première of her composition 'Adahas: of Wings of Roots'. This is the first composition by a Sri Lankan composer to be performed at this venue. The audience at this concert was reportedly among the largest audiences recorded at lunchtime concerts at St Martin-in- the-Fields.
Tanya Ekanayaka debuted in the USA in 2012 with a solo recital at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC (USA) following an invitation by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts which was followed by a performance at the Asia Society Concert Hall in New York. Performing to a capacity audience (the audience reportedly among the largest observed at this particular concert stage), Tanya Ekanayaka’s programme for her recital at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts incorporated the world première of two of her own compositions. They are the first compositions for the piano by a Sri Lankan composer to be performed at this venue. Tanya Ekanayaka has since given highly acclaimed solo recitals often to capacity audiences at leading international concert venues in Europe, the United States and Asia.
Other music related engagements have included among others, conducting lecture recitals at leading universities in the United States, Europe and Asia as well as serving on international panels of adjudicators at music festivals such as the ‘Hong Kong Schools Music and Speech Festival’, one of the largest of its kind in the world, in 2011, 2016 and 2021.
Tanya Ekanayaka's compositions have been featured and discussed on many international media, among them, BBC Radio World Service, BBC Radio Asian Network, BBC Radio 3, BBC World News Television, Naxos Classical Spotlight, New York Public Radio, Japanese Broadcasting Radio (NHK) and ABC Radio (Australia).
She is also Honorary Ambassador of Culture Exchange between China and Sri Lanka by appointment of the Sichuan Provincial Council for Promotion of International Cooperation and Investment of the People's Republic of China since December 2019, a position bestowed upon her following her highly successful debut recital tour and outreach work in China in 2019.
From 2012 to 2014, Tanya Ekanayaka also developed a pioneering music composition project on a purely voluntary basis aimed at empowering traumatised as well as underprivileged Sri Lankan children and youth recovering from the civil war that ravaged the nation for thirty years.
Tanya Ekanayaka is a direct descendant of the freedom fighter, King Edirimanne Suriya Bandara, alias King Dominicus Corea (1565-1598), on her maternal side and Ekanayaka Adiga, Prime Minister to King Parakramabahu VI (1410-1462), on her paternal side.