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Q&A with Shruthi Rajasekar

If you see something that doesn’t look right,
speak to staff or text British Transport Police
on 61016. We’ll sort it. See it. Say it. Sorted.
Crown Copyright. Used by permission

Shruthi Rajasekar’s brilliant new piece, Sorted., was inspired by her personal experience of travelling on the British public transport network. There is genuine humour in the piece – that of an American fresh to the delights of journeying by train, rather than the “gallows humour” of regular commuters condemned to delays, cancellations and overcrowded carriages – but important issues relating to our modern existence lie close to the surface.

In this short interview, we invited Shruthi to reflect on aspects of her time in the UK, during which she undertook an MMus in Ethnomusicology at SOAS (University of London) and an MMus in Composition at the RNCM in Manchester, and her responses are an important reminder that we should all be aware of societal dangers that, unless checked, may emerge as an unwelcome adjunct to the growing power of the state.

Coming from your home in Minnesota, in the mid-west of the USA, what were your first impressions of living in the UK?

SR: I came to the UK having been raised on a steady diet of Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton and P. G. Wodehouse – this literature that my Indian family adores is but one by-product of the British Empire’s postcolonial legacy. In some ways, these books were very good preparation! I have found the emphasis on “correctness” of behaviour to be both endearing and sometimes humorous.


Were there any particular challenges that stood out for you?

Photo credit: Roscoe Rutter

SR: During those first few months of living in the UK, I was politely but clearly corrected on many matters: where one should stand on escalators, the use of plastic bags in supermarkets, how one should prepare tea, the true definition of “biscuit”, whether one should walk on the grass, when one should arrive for trains, and so forth. That’s where the setting of “Right. We’ll sort it” from bar 43 onwards in the Tenor line comes from – that part can be dramatically sung in a way that radiates confidence, with maybe a tiny smidge of priggishness, too, but very earnest nonetheless!

Photo credit: Bala's Clicks (Prakash Bala)

Occasionally, I struggled with what I perceived as rigidness. I’ll never forget how in my very first week of living there, I booked the wrong outgoing ticket; I was new to navigating the National Rail website and was totally bewildered by all the different train companies available. Somehow I was able to board the train in London but when I got down in the new city, and tried to exit through the turnstile, I was stopped and told that I had to buy a fresh ticket to leave the station. Never mind that I had paid a fortune on the first one, and was very clearly new to the country (not to mention, had very little £ in my just-opened bank account!) – those were the rules, or so I was informed. I’m embarrassed to say that I cried! In response, I received a reassuring pat on the back, encouragement to be more careful in the future, and was then presented with the card machine to pay. 🙂

You could easily be forgiven if the frustrating experiences, which I can at least assure you are shared by us all, and the nonsensical rules and regulations you reference had caused you to turn your back on the UK rail system.

SR: Somehow, this mistake of mine did not turn me off train travel, though, and it became one of my very favourite things to do while living there; I have now seen more of the UK than I have of the US! I must commend your country on the excellent railcard schemes, not to mention the extensive network of public transportation – long may these facilities continue.

As for interpersonal interactions, I have been fortunate to get to know the hearts and minds of my wonderful colleagues and collaborators in the UK. It took a couple of months, perhaps, for us to go beyond the formalness of the culture and slip into casualness, but I feel so lucky that the people I have met and worked with there are some of the most generous, caring and thoughtful humans I have ever known.

Your reaction to the “See it. Say it. Sorted.” announcements is fascinating. The typical everyday commuter hears it so often that they most likely switch off after a while. But your processing of the message evidently followed a different path.

SR: The unceasingly regular announcement caused my US American friends and me lots of giggles. In my experience of USA/American English, we don’t quite use the word “sorted” like that – things get “sorted out” perhaps, but we don’t necessarily refer to a completed task as “it’s been sorted”. So, in a way, it was a new word for me, and even more amusing when I initially misheard it as “sordid”! But I came to see beyond the humour and catchiness of the slogan when my British colleague Joanna Ward, a composer who had undergone teacher-training, shared her experience with me of being trained to look out for “terrorist behaviour” amongst primary school students, and relayed how teachers are sometimes encouraged to listen in on students’ conversations about their parents. This practice went horribly wrong in a separate instance when, I understand, something was misinterpreted and a peaceful religious gathering of parents was wrongly thought by law enforcement to be terrorist activity.

That is a terrible situation to have arisen. How did knowledge of this impact on your thoughts?

SR: All of us sometimes feel “instinctively” unsafe in certain circumstances, but I guess I’d like for people to consider a bit how those “instincts” have been shaped – for example, sometimes these training materials depict the villain every time as having a particular appearance. Likewise, I’d say that a slogan telling us to “look out” makes us excessively alert, potentially to the point of paranoia.

Photo credit: Bala’s Clicks (Prakash Bala)

I know that you allude to this question of suspicion in the music (for example from bar 81 onwards and the Alto solo at bar 95), but I wonder what overall message you would like your singers and audiences to take on board?

SR: My hope is that the piece’s takeaway is not to exercise vigilance but, rather, to consider the ways we’ve been asked by governments to be vigilantes on our neighbours, how we’re potentially encouraged to be suspicious of each other. Law enforcement looking into suspicious activity is one thing, perhaps, but for regular citizens to take on that role – it’s too much power, for one, and I believe it breeds mistrust, not to mention that it is the antithesis of community. And as a person of colour, I’ve often been on the receiving end of those suspicious looks!

Having said that, I have not provided detailed notes dictating this in the score. I prefer to leave some space for interpretation so that performers and listeners can form their own impressions.

Sorted. is available to purchase either as a printed title by post, or as a digital download with a 30-copy print licence. Follow the link for further information about the piece and to view a sample score.

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