Dr Tanya Ekanayaka (Tanya Nissani Ilangakkone Ekanayaka, born May 6th, 1977), is an award winning and internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan-British contemporary virtuoso composer-pianist and one of the world’s most prolific female composer-pianists noted for her pioneering portfolio of published trans-genre compositions for solo piano.
She is also the first Sri Lankan composer, in history, to have entire albums of original music released globally by an international record label.
Composing exclusively for solo piano and since comparatively recent years performing only her own music, her compositions are published in recorded format owing to a distinguishing feature of her artistry and memory. Her compositions, though precisely constructed and containing no improvisation, are entirely unscored by her, and instead reside naturally and precisely frozen in her memory once evolved.
Classically trained with a background in South Asian and world musics, she is also a scholar with a transdisciplinary academic background in literature, linguistics, critical theory and musicology as well as being a record producer. All her commercial releases to date have been produced by her.
Reflecting on the beauty, diversity, simplicity and complexity of life, being, and nature, her compositions tell stories straddling the imagined and real, and are consequently inspired by a wide array of musical genres, styles and languages of her homeland and from around the world as well as the natural world while concurrently drawing on her own lived experiences. Accordingly, Tanya Ekanayaka's creative practice serves to expand the musical imprint of the piano across cultures, regions and spaces mostly un-associated with the piano repertoire and therefore beyond its mostly European roots with which the piano repertoire is primarily associated while simultaneously focusing on the beauty, resilience, inherent diversity, and fragility of life and the natural world.
The various conceptual and philosophical dimensions informing her artistry stem from her own deeply varied multicultural, musical and multilingual backgrounds as well as her transdisciplinary background. In this sense, Tanya Ekanayaka’s compositions may be seen as re-presenting her own cultures while also conflating diverse musical genres and eras within contemporary and organic entities.
In 2015, Tanya Ekanayaka’s debut album of compositions for solo piano composed, performed and produced by her, titled 'REINVENTIONS: RHAPSODIES FOR PIANO' was released worldwide by Naxos Records (Grand Piano).
Her composition 'Adahas: Of Wings Of Roots' is also featured on the 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. Specifically, 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.
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 transcreations of ten of the eighteen ancient Sri Lankan vannams. Her second solo album ‘Twelve Piano Prisms’ includes transcreations of traditional Sri Lankan melodies, among them the remaining eight vannams not represented in her debut album as well as transcreations of parts of traditional and folk melodies of Armenia, China, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
Tanya Ekanayaka’s 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.
On 4th March 2022, a 10-CD limited edition boxset titled ‘THREE CENTURIES OF FEMALE COMPOSERS’ comprising works for solo piano by among the greatest female piano composers of all time was released worldwide by Naxos Records (Grand Piano) in celebration of International Women’s Day 2022. CD-9 of this set comprises eight of Tanya Ekanayaka’s most recent compositions found in her solo album ‘The Planets & Humanity – Piano Reflections’.
In September 2022, a limited edition 6-CD boxset titled ‘PERFECT MOODS – CONTEMPLATIVE, CONTEMPORARY PIANO MINIATURES’ was released worldwide by Naxos Records (Grand Piano). CD- 5 of this boxset comprises 12 of Tanya Ekanayaka’s critically acclaimed compositions for solo piano, performed by her and forming her solo album ‘Twelve Piano Prisms’.
Tanya Ekanayaka’s fourth solo album, a double album of 43 compositions for solo piano composed, performed and produced by her, titled '18 PIANO SUTRAS & 25 SOUTH ASIAN PIANISMS' was released globally by Naxos Records (Naxos World) in April 2023. Composed in 2021/2022, the compositions draw inspiration from 40 languages and 42 secular song containing lyrics in each of the languages. Most of the compositions are the first of their kind in that historically, they represent the first compositions for solo piano inspired by the vast majority of the languages.
The first collection of 18 Sutras draws inspiration from 18 languages which are endangered, critically endangered, at risk, threatened, very old, no longer spoken, and in some cases extinct, and secular folk songs involving lyrics in these languages, spread across Earth’s six continents containing permanent human habitation.
The 25 South Asian Pianisms of the second collection are inspired by 22 languages, some of which are also threatened or endangered, of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, The Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the eight nations comprising Tanya Ekanayaka’s native region of South Asia and secular folk songs with lyrics in these languages.
The titles of the 43 compositions on the album are of 40 languages. The 40 languages inspiring ‘18 PIANO SUTRAS & 25 SOUTH ASIAN PIANISMS’ are, Ainu, Bantawa, Bengali, Bhutanese Nepali, Bumthang, Chakma, Chamorro, Dari, Dhivehi, Dzongkha, Efé, Garifuna, Hindi, Kannada, Karaim, Khowar, Koda, Kolyma Yukaghir, Konomihu, Kuna, Mordvinic, Nepali, Nyangatom, Odia, Pashto, Puluwat, Shaninawa, Shimaore, Sindhi, Sinhala, Sogdian, Sri Lankan English/English, Sri Lankan Malay, Sri Lankan Tamil, Tharu, Trinidad Bhojpuri, Tsimané, Urdu, Vedda and Wahgi.
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 and 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 given highly acclaimed solo recitals often to capacity audiences at leading international concert venues in Europe, North America and Asia.
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 (awarded in 2007), and a Doctorate for her interdisciplinary research in Linguistics and Musicology also from Edinburgh University (awarded in June, 2011), 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 musico-linguistic theoretical model designed to explain the differences. Part of this work is published in a book chapter authored by her appearing in the edited book, Handbook of Asian Englishes (Wiley-Blackwell, 2020). Tanya Ekanayaka is 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 also regards her compositions as ‘autobiographical’ moments. In addition to being influenced by her multilingual, multicultural and transdisciplinary backgrounds, she attributes her compositional style to her unusual memory, 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 mountains 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.
Her creative practice developed slowly over several decades as part of her efforts as a young girl studying classical piano, to contextualise her deepening relationship with the piano in relation to the complex European colonial historical roots of the piano in Sri Lanka, its place in a post-independence Sri Lanka, and fact that it remains part of the country’s evolving musical and cultural heritage coupled with her discovery at an early age, that there appeared to be no works for solo piano composed by a South Asian female composer. The piano was introduced to Sri Lanka during 443 years of successive European colonisation which ended in 1948. It is studied by many and is recognised by millions across the country. Studied also by those taking music as a subject at primary, secondary and further level education, pianos can be found in many Sri Lankan state and private schools, feature in many school and public musical activities and are also found and studied in some universities in addition to being found in many homes.
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 benefitted from guidance of 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.
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 numerous international media across the globe - 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), Latvijas Radio (Latvia), ARD Broadcasting (Germany) ABC Radio (Australia), Radio Proglas (Czech Republic), RNE (Spain) and Radio France International are some of them.
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 pioneered a music composition project on a purely voluntary basis aimed at assisting Sri Lankan school children recovering from the civil war that ravaged the nation for thirty years as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds from other parts of the country. Working personally with over 1100 Sri Lankan school children, her workshops in the northern and north-eastern parts of the country reportedly represented the first time school children from a range of schools in these regions had gathered together since the war began thirty year prior, as part of inventing and performing their own original music collectively.
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.