Signal to noise

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on January 20, 2018
Static flying: Hemant Sreekumar, who works as a data visualiser, has been experimenting with noise since 1986, when he started self-hypnosis using radio static

Static flying: Hemant Sreekumar, who works as a data visualiser, has been experimenting with noise since 1986, when he started self-hypnosis using radio static

Anti-melody: Ruhail Kaizer, a guitarist who performs noise music under the moniker S I S T E R

Anti-melody: Ruhail Kaizer, a guitarist who performs noise music under the moniker S I S T E R

Three’s a noise: The Kolkata-based trio Jessop&Co makes oppressive, harsh noise music inspired by industrial sounds. Photo: Vivek Gupta

Three’s a noise: The Kolkata-based trio Jessop&Co makes oppressive, harsh noise music inspired by industrial sounds. Photo: Vivek Gupta

Three’s a noise: The Kolkata-based trio Jessop&Co makes oppressive, harsh noise music inspired by industrial sounds. Photo: Vivek Gupta

Three’s a noise: The Kolkata-based trio Jessop&Co makes oppressive, harsh noise music inspired by industrial sounds. Photo: Vivek Gupta

Indian artistes are warming up to noise music, a genre that discards the harmonious and melodic information peddled by popular genres

“I want to understand this, but I just don’t get it.”

A local hardcore punk musician tells me this as we share a smoke outside the St Jude’s Bakery in Bandra, Mumbai. The ‘it’ he’s talking about is the wall of noise that greets us as we open the bakery-turned-performance space’s door and head back inside. The black-walled room is pitch-dark, with the only light coming from a projector beaming visuals of a decomposing animal corpse onto a wall. Incense wafts down from the mezzanine balcony, where a long-haired young man wearing all black bangs out a slow, ominous beat on a single black drum. A squalling, screeching wall of feedback and white noise blasts out of the speakers. His eerie, reverb-laden wails serve as a counterpoint to the monolithic slab of static noise that hits you like a punch to the gut. Within five minutes, the room is two-thirds empty. The crowd rushes out of the door as if physically repelled by the harsh sounds. Only the bravest and the most curious remain.

Later, a friend walks up to me and says that the 20-minute performance “felt like therapy”. Another later tells Rana Ghose — who organised the performance as part of an event called the Listening Room sessions — that it was a cathartic experience, “like being suspended in this sea of frequencies and not really knowing where it was going to go, but just being able to let go”. The young man producing this sea of frequencies is Ruhail Kaizer (who performs under the moniker S I S T E R), one of a small but growing number of Indian musicians dabbling in the obscure, avant-gardist and often terrifying genre known as noise music.

The idea of noise as music has its roots in the early 20th century during the rise of modernism. Its earliest proponent was Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo, whose 1913 manifesto L’Arte dei Rumori ( The Art of Noises) envisioned a music crafted from the “infinite variety of noise-sounds”, which would replace the “restricted circle” of traditional musical sounds. His ideas were taken up by the European avant-garde, with both the Dadaists and the Soviets embracing noise’s disruptive qualities. Their investigations into the nature of sound and noise would be furthered by a series of musicians on the classical fringe, especially Edgard Varèse and John Cage.

In the 1980s, these ideas would break out from the confines of academia and the radical art fringe to wage war on mainstream pop culture. Many concurrent noise scenes arose, including the dystopian anti-music of early industrial music, the nihilistic noise rock of New York’s ‘no wave’ movement and the hostile, violent power-electronics scene. Contemporary noise finds its mecca in Japan, where artistes like Merzbow and Hijôkaidan continue to push the genre’s boundaries. What unites all these diverse musics is their antipathy to harmony and melody and their explorations of sound and texture.

Indian noise music, too, can trace its roots to the 1980s, with the pioneering work of Hemant Sreekumar. The Delhi-based data visualiser (at advertising agency w+k) has been experimenting with noise music since 1986, when he started self-hypnosis using radio static. “It started with the buzz you hear when the antennae is not tuned to any station,” he says.

“Experiments/cut-ups of magnetic tapes, squished VHS tapes, sounds of mixers, motors, electricity, rhythmic mechanical sounds, sparks, mosquitoes, bird calls, invisible insects, barking dogs, construction sites, fire: all these have been a source of fascination, introspection, self-hypnosis and meditation to me.”

Initially drawn to the nihilism of industrial music, Sreekumar draws influence from Japanese noise, the industrial music of Einsturzende Neubaten and Throbbing Gristle, and the art drone of Stockhausen and Steve Reich. As an art history major, he’s well aware of noise’s lineage in Dada, Surrealism and early Soviet avant-garde. For Sreekumar, noise is “total submission to acoustic textures, discarding all the ‘civilisational’ harmonic and melodic information from music — appreciating ambient acoustics and taking it to overdrive.”

Sreekumar’s music emerges from the manipulation of software that he codes himself, designing generative processes that can be triggered using MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controllers. He’s been doing public interventions in Delhi’s urban spaces for years, setting up his equipment in subways and underpasses to capture the “crescendo of urban modernity” as his raw material for “an acoustic interrogation of the city as a noise machine”. In 2014, he started Disquiet, an annual live event focused on noise and other dissonant music, cementing his position as a mentor and inspiration for the nascent noise scene in India — mostly composed of 20-25-year-old misanthropes with a fetish for harsh acoustics.

Among them are Anupal Adhikary, Subhojyoti Sen Sarma and Sabyasachi Chowdhury, three kids from Kolkata who create oppressive, harsh noise as Jessop&Co. Their name is borrowed from a coach-building factory that shared a wall with Adhikary and Chowdhury’s school, and which also served as one of their main inspirations.

“We were always surrounded by noise,” says Chowdhury, who does visuals for the group and also works on their home-built DIY instrumentation. “We could always hear things from that factory. I remember the desolation of the place, it seemed completely empty but there were always these loud industrial sounds.”

Jessop&Co’s sound depends largely on analogue circuitry and equipment rather than software. Adhikary’s father runs a PA rental business in Kolkata and has an arsenal of old musical gear that the trio are constantly experimenting with. At the St Jude’s Bakery event, Adhikary generated massive walls of noise using a sound object they had built themselves. But whether it’s Jessop&Co’s analogue tinkering or Sreekumar’s self-coded software, they both share the noise musician’s fascination with technology and the will to master it.

Ruhail Kaizer aka S I S T E R came to noise music through a more traditional trajectory. A Leh resident currently studying in New Delhi, he’s an extreme metal fan who plays guitars in grindcore band Bonefvcker. Extreme metal exists on the same continuum of harsh, outsider music as noise, so it wasn’t surprising that Kaizer soon found himself listening to No Wave, industrial and eventually Japanoise. He started recording his own efforts at noise and power electronics on his girlfriend’s iPad before taking it live at a Listening Room Sessions event in Delhi. S I S T E R’s music is more meditative and structured than his peers’, with Gregorian chants, percussion and manipulated — but still recognisably human — vocals forming familiar shapes within the noise. But it was still too much for one member of the audience, who had a seizure during his set.

For Kaizer, the charm of noise music lies in the duality between the physical pain these frequencies often cause, and the euphoria it can induce. “The idea is to destroy the bubble of optimism which is force-fed everywhere through media and religion, introduce realism, allow people to stare at their own corpses,” he says.

India’s noise practitioners are a diverse bunch. At one end you have 20-year-old newcomer Nishant Mittal aka Pills, who sculpts post-rockish soundscapes out of white noise and completed his first show on May 1. At the other, you have veteran sound artistes like Vinny Bhagat and the Indian Sonic Research Organisation, who experiment with drones and DIY instruments. And beyond this core, you also have a growing number of artistes who incorporate noise as an element in more traditionally structured music. Experimental producers like Delhi-based soundscape artiste Jamblu, Mumbai’s Aditya Nandwana and even Bengaluru’s wilfully lo-fi punk band Hoirong, use noise as a major sonic element of their sound. In this, they offer a partial fulfilment of Russolo’s vision of a music in which noise-sounds take the place of pure sounds.

But while some of these artistes have been around for a while, they have never been in the spotlight before now. In the last couple of years, India’s noise musicians have emerged from their bedrooms into our SoundCloud playlists and performance venues. There have been more public performances by noise musicians in the first half of 2016 than in the two years before that. It’s still an incredibly small scene, but there is a definite upsurge of interest in overdriven effects pedals and screeching synths. Why now?

Listening Room organiser Rana Ghose, who runs Delhi-based artist agency Reproduce Artists, believes that there have always been kids tinkering around with drones and noise in the privacy of their own homes. We just didn’t know about it because there were no avenues for them to come out and perform. “I’ve met many patrons who speak to me after the session who say ‘Oh my God, I had no idea people make this kind of music here, I also do as well,’” he says. “And they might very well play the next session.”

Ghose also believes that noise’s emergence might have something to do with the “real sense of loss” young people feel as they try to negotiate their existence through political realities that might be deeply offensive and problematic. “After all, noise music is one of the more visceral, immediate ways that you can shake people out of their complacency.”

Another factor could be technology. Aditya Nandwana — who was inspired to make his own music by a Jessop&Co set at a Listening Room Sessions event at Mumbai’s Project 88 Gallery — believes so.

The indie scene veteran, who builds his own guitar pedals as Animal Factory Amplification says, “Today, musicians have access to ridiculous effects like tremolos that vary in speed the harder you play them, or bitcrusher effects that can turn your $5,000 guitar into an AM radio.”

So where does the noise scene go from here? Ghose is optimistic, believing that as events like Disquiet and Listening Room Sessions open up more spaces and audiences to noise music, it will set off a virtuous cycle. Noise will never compete with Bollywood, but there is definitely space for a small, independent ecosystem of noise musicians, venues and fans. What that ecosystem will look like is still a puzzle. It’s hard to imagine noise musicians ever playing inside a regular Mumbai nightclub, drawing in crowds so that the venue can sell alcohol.

“I don’t know, should noise become a thing?” asks Chowdhury. “It should not just be background music to drinking and partying. Those people would leave the minute the set starts anyway. It should have its own space where people treat it as an art form, rather than the gig-bar-sponsor space.”

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based freelance writer

Published on May 27, 2016

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