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Interview with Ish S

img  Tobias Fischer

The sound art scene of India is still comparatively small. And yet, its dispersed and still largely unorganised state has opened a wealth of creative opportunities for the passionate few. Ish S is one of them. Head of the Sound Reasons music label, organiser of various workshops and curator of a major festival on the one hand as well as an artist with his feet in installation work and albums, his influence has not just made itself felt at home, but abroad as well. On two complex compilations, Ish has laid out his fields of interest in collaboration with an international ensemble of artists, reflecting on how sounds inform the world around us and vice versa. Despite the deep philosophical questions underlying his work, his releases so far have been surprisingly accessible and colorful, running the gamut from crisp microsound explorations to dub rhythms, from free-floating drone work to musique concrete indebted collages of field recordings. The questions running through these pieces are no different from the ones raised by sound artists anywhere else, yet the responses can be intriguingly personal and different. It may still be small. But clearly, India's sound art scene has a lot to give to the world already.

Contact with other cultures is often not just a window into something new, but also a chance to see one's own identity more clearly. How was this for you, with regard to Sound Reasons?
I agree. If I am not mistaken, Kant has said that the most important journey for a man in his lifetime is across two cultures. In the case of Sound Reasons 't0' I feel that this aspect has already been an important part of the CD as most of the artists in this compilation were already immersed in two cultures and were constantly switching between them. Like Gennady Lavrentiev from Russia who is a western classical musician trained in violin then studied the Indian percussion instrument tabla for over 10 years. This unique journey across Russian and Indian music reflects in his works when it comes to the aesthetics of playing and composing. The experience and knowledge gained after making his contact from western classical music towards the Indian side - musically and sonically - has given him the capability to compose and perform very intricate music which is reflected in the track called 'freeze' with his project called 'Back to frank'

As an artist I feel it becomes very important to re-live your own music and art through the reflection of other Cultures and practices. Its part of the creative journey of the mind. A lot of artists on the Sound Reason 't0' CD including me belong to this space.


Do you feel as though globalism is hurting our sense of identity?
Globalism is not hurting identity, but in another discourse it is definitely affecting world politics and local democracies through a super control mechanism of the so called 'free market' (WTO/ IMF / World Bank included) and banking cartels. But as far as identity goes - I feel the new identity process(s) that have been initiated after the so called globalism in the third world is just the residue of itself. Here we can bring in references to the modern man and other consumer culture oriented approaches - but these are more based on confusion than on singularity of identity. I really don't think that identity can be hurt by globalism and probably the local education system and the local government can dent it more than globalism.

'Identity as a subject' is a well spread lunch buffet for social theorists which often becomes a part of the sub-text to a number of their papers. To generalise on identity is very hip and mostly naïve and so it is with cities. I think everything including urban identity and the cities we live in are always in a Flux and ever evolving, that's the truth of it. We can interpret them but can never represent them. In terms of representation, the maximum we can do is to represent out thoughts which is eventually into action.

Presently I feel in India that we could not be in darker times in terms of free speech and medieval moral policing. There is a sort of local (state level) extremism in the context of identity and religion which a lot of times is spurting out in violence. If this is a part of the Indian Identity then we can do without it. This change is not portrayed in Galleries via modern and post-modern art but on the streets outside sometimes in protest to the content of the Exhibition inside the gallery. In India, there are authors who can not speak in public and painters whose paintings can not be exhibited. Anxiety, violence and frustration have become a norm for people defining their identity. It's pretty fucked up.

Another point is that urban India were I have grown up is very different from the rural space. Corporations along with the government are trying to snatch the 'rural/ tribal way' of life and in turn their Identity so that they can mine their lands and cut their trees and give them some sort of stupid education and economic system that only feeds the powerful. The rural and the tribal identity is under threat and I feel that it is a more important discourse than the so called urban post-modern Identity. All I can can say is that it in a few places like Orissa in India the Tribal Identity and land situation is quite similar to what is happening in Amazonian Forests of Peru, Ecuador and Brazil


In which way do you also see cities as sources of great creative power?
Cities are generative and always multi-layered. One can not see through them or understand the cities at once or through singular pattern and approach. Cities have their own psychology and hybridness through which the inhabitants interact with them. It's not the structures or the buildings that make up the city, rather it is the experiences of the people that make up the city. I agree to the fact that sound has a big role in representing the acoustic realities, but as the most abstract of all the art forms 'sound' has an even more important function to play in the imaginative realm. Cities are the pool of purest sounds as cities generate a lot of different kinds of sounds and these will very much differ from Delhi to Munich to Rio.

Sound never manifests physically and like an experience it has to be felt or heard. For me, a city sometimes is just the subject and serves as a starting point from which I can focus or derive something new as a process. Indian cities are abundant in a rich array of sounds and there is lot of material from which compositional martial can be abstracted. The way this material is used depends on the aesthetics of the composer.

Me and Konrad Bayer formed an electro post-sampling duo called diFfuSed beats to explore city sounds. We started with Delhi and set to explore the whole spectrum of sound, ambient and field recordings and synthesis. This was one of most artistically exploratory times of my life as this association with Konrad lead to the creation of some very interesting works. I guess the fundamental difference between 'sound Art ' and music is that sound art involves the listener into a sonic space in different ways where an artist can reflect upon a personal space or on the world around him/her.' In our works the microphone becomes an important instrument along with the audio editing softwares, the audio process comprises of isolating sounds, manipulating them while focusing on the small details which can be kept afloat using additional electronics (like delay, loops) along with Hardware/software synthesizing. The other important aspect, that is, the emotive content of these sounds then depends on which context they are placed in or juxtaposed with. We pay special interest to these activities of sounds, that is, different sounds coming from different places, producing a sonic sculpture which is sonorous.


Are the different projects you're involved in possibly attempts at representing the many different facets of urban life in their uniqueness rather than amalgamating them into a cross-over approach?
These multiplicities were very important for me to reach my present form as an artist and they will be very important for my future development. I trained as a Western classical guitar player for some time and later on picked up various other styles like bossa nova and jazz by myself. The journey into electronic music along with sound art followed up after college. I am still immersed in these styles and genres and I think it also keep me from slipping into boredom of a single kind of music. I can work on an abstract 'sound installation', practice my cheap rendition of Satie's Gymnopédie and play live electro music set the same day. I love this multiplicity of involvement with music. So my different sound / music projects are in a way representing the many different aspects of artistic life rather than urban life. I have been very fortunate to be working with great acoustic and electronic musicians while working on these projects and I hope to continue this experience in the future.

I strongly feel that the time required and the creative space produced by an artist for his/her development along with it's evolution is quite subjective. Somehow, one can say the artist's life is directly influenced by the urban city life and this is true for a lot of my works, barring the few works I composed in the mountains or near the sea.

As the creative processes in my various projects are hardly linear or are rarely repeated I feel I was always trying to represent / express the important aspect of sound and music via my different projects. The city was an important space where all this was happening and was sometimes the subject of few of the works. The album 't0' was totally a city/urban experience. In other words, the cross-over elements within the projects and various approaches as mentioned in your question is elementary when the works are created by the same artist. This can be seen across my projects also as a lot sounds and works between that projects are aesthetically and creatively overlapping each other.


How, more generally, do you see the relationship between field recordings and music? It seems to have been an essential aspect of Sound Reasons ...
I feel music is a part of the whole sonic experience for me. Sound encompasses everything. I has some sort of underlying attachment to sound itself and I have been exploring this with the various sound projects. The representation of sound and its immersive experience(s) of the listener/ observer is very important for me. Obviously these aspects have been the important moulding factor of the 't0' CD. In this case my point of view is best described by the words of Claude Debussy - “you learn orchestration far better by listening to the sounds of leaves rustling in the wind than by consulting handbooks”.

Debussy further describes music as the expression of the movement of water and the play of curves described by the change of breezes. Here he encourages the composer to read the 'Book of nature' and listen to the sounds around them. For us while we were making Sound reason 't0' it was the city and its sounds that were fuelling our works and the technological fact that we could record, sample reinterpret these sounds into the compositions hence became the tools. Judging by his love for the 'sounds of nature' I guess that if Debussy was alive now he would have been on the same page as us.


In how far can sounds and sound art as the process of organising them act as a documentation of the transformational processes our world is undergoing? How would you describe the relationship between a field recording and a particular place or event it is trying to capture?
I think I can quote Debussy here again on his quote about listening to the leaves, rivers and nature. Obviously representation can be in many forms but more I work with sound the more I feel that it very subjective and sometimes very different from representation and objects.

The notion of 'idea and concept' becomes a compulsion in the post conceptual art scene but for me its only fun as a starting point and furthermore, when I work with sound more I am relying on my instinct and my subjective experience of the same, very much like improvising on some sort of music, where there is indeterminacy along with actions and reactions . These fill up the space after the concept has ended. Here the process of creation also becomes very important in moulding the sound work or music in question. Even though I continuously have an objective reference to sound as a protagonist of sorts, but now I now wonder if the real part can go missing in such a relationship.

I think one of the most interesting points of sound is what an artist is trying to capture while recording and what is experienced by the listener/ observer at an installation or a performance. There is a whole universe between them to discover and inhabit while experiencing. I think here again the abstract and non-locational, non- hierarchical property of sound will come into play. As a sound 'played back' of a small market in a village plays on the imagination of the listener to re-create itself. The listener will make up his/ her own place, somewhere they have already been through a slice of their memory or more creatively will envisage the same through their imagination. Here the artist calls the listener into the work and in-turn another place which both of them really create together as an exchange and this is the power of sound art.

I think the most important purpose of the sound artists is to make the audience listen because most of them are only used to hearing. There is an immersive property of sound which the listener has to be taken to and has to be lead though the work via the subjective and objective references of sounds and synthesis. I try to explore these perspectives and juxtapositions in the projects 4th World Orchestra and diFfuSeD beats. I am right now finishing work on an album of diFfuSeD beats and it will be out in a months time on our 'sound reasons' label. .


On his purely field-recording-based „Landscape in Metamorphoses“, Budhaditya Chattopadhyay pointed towards Tumbani, which went from being a green pasture into one of the busiest industrial belts of Bengal-Bihar border in India in just a few years. Is there, do you think, a new chance for sound art and music to become political again?
I really don't think that music or art can be political any more. It surely can be controversial and then in-turn can claim a place in the short term memory of the media or the politics. But personally for me being political is not about initiating an article in a newspaper or an argument at a seminar. Being political is to initiate ground level work and then to change. Art does not have a role to play politics since the popular part of art has over a period of time become naïve and elitist. Contemporary art is not a product of culture but of the markets, trends and the fad curves. All of us are products of this market as we tend towards an equilibrium, or so we think.

Having said that, I feel that art can interpret the political and anything in the universe for that matter. Interpretation of politics is not politics. I also feel that – in so may ways - 'the personal is political' and that makes whatever art being produced by that artist political too. Apart from this, I think the only way art can start becoming political is by existing outside the system of  economics, galleries and the institutions that run/ promote it, that is, to initialise art as politics it has to exist outside of its own politics and economics. It will ensure that art will not become a tool for propaganda and if at all this will just only initiate the process of being political, and it can go anywhere from there.

Now that I've gone through what I have just said again, I think it is a bit naïve.


In how far is this aspect becoming urgent in a country which, as the Tumbani-example shows, is changing as rapidly as India? How would you, for example, describe the changes you're home-city of Delhi is currently undergoing in terms of its sonic landscape?
I think these examples of Tumbani should be studied for the impact on environment and health. I strongly feel that this blind faith in God and tall buildings should be avoided in modern India. A better understanding of the the ingenious ecosystems should be elementary in development processes of any type. We can not develop any more on the blueprints of the past 100 years, these have proven themselves to be totally disastrous in the past. It will be very stupid for us to blindly follow then. There has to be a deeper understanding of what the future will mould and not just of the needs of the present. I feel the most important decisions in the next few decades will not 'be what to do or develop' but it will be 'what not to do' and technology will play an important role in it.

Delhi has been undergoing massive amounts of changes in the past two decades and the the whole process escalated towards the commonwealth games in 2010. Barring the usual development of the metro train, random buildings and roads, there have been no such significant changes in the city instead of price rise of rent and other essential goods. Traffic has become even more chaotic, which I though was never possible.

But apart from all this, Delhi has become a very interesting city to be in, along with the artists and musical endeavours the overall creative efforts in the city have really escalated in the last 10 years. I feel as an artist that Delhi is one of the best places to be in and there is constant production, creation and exhibitions of outstanding work spanning from the traditional to contemporary forms of music, art and other expressions.


Talking to Japanese Sound Artist Yui Onodera about a similar set of questions, he suggested that if we listen closely, we can still hear the subtle nuances of a particular location. Do you share his optimism?
Yes, I do agree with Yui on this point. Listening is the most important aspect of human beings and it is the most ignored also. As an artist working with sound, these listening and re-listening processes have always been a revelation for me. I believe there is no real theory, one only has to listen.

One can completely make out the subtle nuances of a particular location from a recording. I never had to log any sounds that I have recorded till now. I always remember the time and the place of the recording, even when hearing it after years. Sometimes it is a very nostalgic experience for me to hear these recordings and to revisit these spaces / places again in my memory and imagination. There is also quite a bit to explore about the recordings and when I install them as a piece of art I then try to build a kind of movement between these places eventually intersecting with the personal spaces interpreted by synthesis and sampling. I will be soon installing one work composed with various recordings of Zurich which was done during my Pro-Helvetia (Swiss Arts Council) Artist residency there in 2010.

As these recordings always portrays something more about the space or a relative space. I have another understanding of listening, that is to do with the evolution and ears. As an evolutionary being we can wilfully stop seeing, stop talking, stop any physical action and even stop breathing for a couple of minutes. But we really can not physically stop hearing. To do this we have to put two fingers in our ears and as we know it really does not stop anything but a small spectrum of frequencies. I feel there is bigger evolutionary propose for the ears being designed the way they are. It could be because we have to hear something more important that we have not yet heard, maybe it has to do with tuning into some other place. And as artists we have a great responsibility to make people listen and fine tune their sensibilities and experiences.

Ish S interview by Tobias Fischer
Images by Jean Van Eisentanz

Homepage: Ish S / Sound Reasons