Arts Illustrated

September 10, 2020

Surround Sound

The eternal connection between space and sound, between silence and sound and between memory and sound are the visceral creators of experience, for those who care to listen

Gautam Bhatia

Like art bought expressly for the drawing room wall, music too has become a distraction. It fills space with a mesmerising paralytic defeat of the spirit, essential to the new commercial existence where everything bleaches into purposeless background. In suburban malls and office elevators, for instance, we hear the music of Muzak, the tinkling of digitised fountains taming large crowds, never changing tone, even in the forced bright light of atrium and glass lobbies, with the constant drone of the air-conditioning, a noise to cover all noise. At one time, to hear had something to do with listening, but listening has become too much effort. Sound and white noise is now one and the same thing. Noise, speech, music, sound byte… there is little difference. Today, the loss of sound, the ability to discern, is a sacred loss, the loss of an ancient sense.

Image Credit: Gautam Bhatia

‘The music,’ someone said, while listening intently, ‘seems to be travelling across a great distance.’ It is the hallmark of all sound that space, time and physical depth of distance bestows uncanny value to acoustics. Such sound – a flute heard in a mountain valley, a violin in the depth of a London subway tunnel, even water dripping in a cavernous bathroom – possesses space beyond the instrument; the atmosphere may be part resonance, part amplification, but always essential sensory containment. The container then becomes the essential middle charge, the space between the instrument and the human ear. It adds the pulse and silence so critical to the note itself, to the discovery of sound.

Image Credit: Jay Bhatia

I once listened to music in a mountain room at the edge of a promontory overlooking a valley in Himachal. It was the end of the day. The shortened evening light had deepened into a grey haze and submerged the valley in its wintry gloom. Combined with the shifting characteristics of light, the sounds were adrift in the haze, creating an unintended long reverberation, a resonance that lingered. The valley subjected the music to its own physics. No descriptions applied, no formula of design, nothing that said that this was the right place for the sound, that one music hall was better than the other, or the acoustics of an amphitheatre were less than those of a Northern valley. None of the precise definitions of space can convey the essence of sound itself. Each containment only modifies and resurrects, and leaves you with an impression, a conception created in body and mind, a deepening sound that stays, and sifts briefly in memory. In the end, it becomes a reminder of the place itself.

Image Credit: Gautam Bhatia

For me, being accustomed to the noise of the city, everything was new and different; the landscape around extended the commonplace into the realm of daily discoveries. Unaccustomed to mountain life, even the slightest change in air, heat, sound and shadow made me look at things more closely, examine them as if they were occurring for the first time. So used to the murky light of the city, the sun rose up and poured its liquid light, thick as cream, into the creases of the mountain. There was never any colour in the light, only an intensity that threw sharp shifting glints on the mountain tops; when a truck entered the range on a road far away, it reverberated, till the engine noise disappeared behind the mountain. For that short duration when its sound invaded the valley, it gave physical definition to space. Whatever the stimulus, it affected everything. A crow sailed across; I followed its path through the valley, watching its enlarged shadow dipping up and down with the land, till it moved away, a speck, to another range. At that moment, all the daily trials and rituals, the ambitions and desires and failures appeared unreliable and inconsequential; the silence – intense, melancholic and euphoric – suspended in a state of no emotion. For a brief flicker, it made me feel immortal, part of the eternal logic of things. In the solitude, I felt a strange geographical privacy, as if I too was part of the geology of the place. The valley was the room where it all happened. I was just the fly on its walls.

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