I hear footsteps, maybe sandals dragging on the smooth concrete floor, and the chatter from multiple conversations around me. In the inky red blackness behind my closed eyelids I hear the distant drone and myriad horn pitches of traffic, my memory discerning autorickshaw from bus from motorbike. Punctuating them are the crunching grind-and-screech of a machine cutting metal. A kilometre overhead, the roar of multiple aeroplane engines. Closer by, behind me to the right, the flap of wings, a few fervent caws and the binary noises of a computer starting-up. The sounds of people around me, breathing, shuffling in their seats, scratching and adjusting their clothes, breathing, some calm, some loud, my own breath, the sound of the breeze...
I am seated in a circle with eight others in a small open courtyard between the two small rooms that make up the Indian Sonic Research Organisation or, more cheekily, ISRO. Two veritable legends of sound art are leading the circle in a session of Deep Listening, a concept innovated by famed artist Pauline Oliveros. In these sessions you close your eyes and just listen with your mind’s ear, in a completely non-judgemental way, to any sound from a spherical arc as far as your ears can hear. “Deep Listening asks you to engage with the world, but it asks you to think of all sounds as potentially equal, which is a very egalitarian way of thinking about things and very political,” says Cathy Lane, a sound artist, composer and a professor at the University of the Arts in London.
The other legend co-leading the last day of this three-day workshop is Viv Corringham. She’s a New York-based artist and singer who has been exploring sound for decades, first in music bands, then through improvised and experimental music, and finally evolving her own practice and process. “I thought of recording sounds of a place and incorporating improvised voice. I loved walking every day around London, so I thought, ‘why don’t I sing with London?’ And that’s what I started doing. I also learned at the time about binaural microphones that go into your ears, or near your ears, and they are very tiny and discreet so nobody knows you’re recording. I didn’t want to disrupt what was happening in the street. My favourite was singing with a construction site. Once I started listening to it I realised how many layers there were and how many different kinds of sounds there were. It was like singing with an orchestra in some ways,” she says, sharing an insight into one of the many approaches to sound exploration. Corringham also has a series of shadow walks, where she asks people to take her on a walk in their home town that has some meaning to them. On the walks she improvises vocals, jamming with the sounds she encounters. She’s done these sonic walks all over the world, with all kinds of people, as “everyone carries a history.”
India is no stranger to the importance of sound. “From our traditional roots, we have artists who make musical instruments that are highly evolved and sophisticated. Even in our mythology, the first thing in our universe is a sound. We’ve always had these architectural spaces where sound was a very important part. Even something like film, we’re probably one of the few cultures where a film is interrupted by a song-and-dance routine, which most people don’t like but is a weird part of our cultural history. So, across high culture or low culture, sound does play an important role in India,” says Yashas Shetty (39), professor and artist-in-residence at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. He adds that the sound art scene is “sort of growing now. There are a lot of artists who use sound as a medium”. He is also the driving force behind the sonic research organisation ISRO, which organised the workshop with Corringham and Lane at the old Srishti campus in Yelahanka, North Bengaluru.
The organisation is dedicated to the exploration of sound and the DIY creation of instruments using discarded electronics and analogue equipment, and found objects. The members also “proliferate sound art and experimental music” through pedagogy, performances and workshops.
Lane agrees with Shetty about India’s ancient sound traditions and wonders whether “it has ever been explored as a sound methodology or system of thinking about sound. Maybe it’s explored much more through religion or philosophy or music. I think it would be really interesting to tease that out, the traditions of sound within India”.
While the past gives us deep-rooted connections, the present aural map of India is far more complex and, for many locals, an omnipresent stressor. For outsiders, though, it has long held a magnetic pull, from contemporary composers like Philip Glass and John Cage, to pioneer sound artists like Hildegard Westerkamp right down to Corringham, who says, “It’s incredible, just layer upon layer upon layer. It’s very exciting to me. It’s not muddy, though. The traffic sounds are a bit different. People seem to think that traffic sounds are the same everywhere, and it really isn’t. You have all the ‘beep, beep, beep, beep’ [does them in different volumes and pitches]. In New York, for example, it turns out to be an undifferentiated mass of sound that fills up the whole space. I’m not finding that here. I can hear things very clearly and separately.” Both Lane and Corringham also do acknowledge the mental illness that can be caused by constant exposure to high decibels of noise.
Besides being friends, the two women also use sound as a medium to draw attention to the human experience, whether internal or external. In her piece ‘Where Am I?’ Lane sits behind a screen, obfuscated from the audience, microphone in hand. Eight speakers arranged in an arc play a careful mix of field recordings, including some by her. At one point during the 20-minute presentation you can hear the words “Where am I?” and “I am here” in various combinations and volumes, coming out of different speakers, while Lane whispers or speaks the same words live from behind the screen. The psycho-spatial subterfuge of this approach leaves you wondering which of those utterances were live and which recorded, and how that affects our sense of where we are. “Basically, everybody experiences sounds — everybody makes sound, but what’s really interesting — the first thing — who is allowed to make sound and where they’re allowed to make it. Whose sound gets recorded, whose gets ignored, and how loud a sound they’re making and who’s listening,” Lane says, making us think a little more deeply about a sense we often take for granted.
Even with all this sonic exposure, sound art is still in the realm of grey area, often overlapping with other forms of music or art practices. Lane breaks it down with clarity, “I would say it’s a way of exploring the world through sound. But it’s also a way of using sound as an artistic tool, the same way you might use clay or photography, to tell something about the world and the way you hear it around you. I would say that music obeys one set of laws. Sound art is kind of making its own boundaries, so it’s pushing at the boundaries of what you can do with sound all the time. It can have documentary elements that are more difficult to get in music. Or it can have very sensual elements.”
Field recordings make for an important factor in the origins and practice of sound art. As with other contemporary art forms and practices, the idea of objectivity is met with a certain scepticism.
“Many of these things have been dominated by primary viewpoints. Viewpoints that become normalised and normative. And I think this is true of many disciplines and artistic processes. The normative practice is often a particular subject position that people regard as being ‘the one’. It just so happens that in the world I live in, the subject position is that of a white male. And white men actually tend to believe in objective opinions. But the truth that they might be telling or showing might be theirs, but it’s not everybody’s. So I think that a field recording should, and does show a subjective stance. The idea of being objective is, frankly, ridiculous and it’s time that people caught up with that,” Lane reasons.
What they do regard as objectively true is the idea that visuals still take primary position. Sound art is still relatively new and there are many challenges in its presentation as an authentic, self-sufficient medium without the need for other mediums as bolsters. But this should not be mistaken for a lack of relevance. Sound plays an integral part in our lives, though relegated to the background and vilified as noise pollution. As Corringham gleefully states during the workshop, “you can’t close your ears like you do your eyes, so it’s all coming in whether you want it or not”.
This universality of sound is at the heart of its rising importance, especially in an age of swiftly accelerating technology. “I think, in terms of media and new technology, sound is becoming increasingly relevant in terms of being very instructional. Every cab drive I’ve been in since I’ve been in Bangalore, they’re listening to a voice coming out of the phone, telling them where to go. Soon those artificial voices are going to be everywhere. Things are going to be talking to us too much and they’re going to be programmed by people who we probably don’t agree with. It’s going to be one of the new interfaces. It already is. Rather than touching something or clicking, we now speak to technology,” signs off Lane, adding that she doesn’t like this answer, but it is definitely the future that awaits the world in the realm of sound.
Hari Adivarekar is an independent photojournalist based in Bengaluru and Mumbai