Have you ever considered impossible sounds? Not sounds that exist at a frequency you can’t hear, but sounds that exist as an impossibility. An auditory illusion that counters the concept of something ‘real’. And in its impossibility, how do we experience it? Through illusions. Illusions are a way to explain the realities we live in. Or, one could argue, create the realities we live in. Time and space are humanity’s biggest lies, existing merely on the scope of our perception. That scope by and in itself is so weak that at some point we have made those illusions our reality. An excuse with import – we calling it alter ego, dream, hallucination, reason, hope or heaven. Sometimes we call it art. Surabhi Saraf’s sound performance ‘Spinning Four’ is layered with illusions. A familiar sound, the whirring of a fan, is initially experienced as what it is. A few minutes into the performance, the distortions begin. The impossibility lies in the textures of sounds: a combination of Surabhis hum, the fans whir, and all of a sudden your eyes start to listen to the fractured images, dancing with the shadows of the performer and her objects. Your eyes start to listen and your ears start to see.
The Fuschia Tree: What was it like to have a liberal arts education first in India and then in the United States? In what ways has it affected your work?
Surabhi Saraf: While Indore is no Mumbai or Delhi, it is very diverse and progressive in its own way. I have a wonderful family and they always supported me in whatever I did. Likewise, the faculty at MSU Baroda was phenomenal, really fostering experimentation. But when is comes to infrastructure and resources, especially in art and tech, the DIY culture in the US along with outstanding graduate programs makes it much easier to try new ideas. I do feel that my projects have become a lot more ambitious technically. In India, you always need ‘a guy’ to do things, and while this is slowly changing as more and more young people become interested in new media art, it is a very small fraction.
TFT: Have you had a structured way of working on your projects, or do you surprise yourself? Has there been work that’s come out of nowhere unexpectedly and worked in a way that you hadn’t planned?
SS: I’m constantly challenging myself and rethinking the norm. Every project takes shape around an idea, so there’s usually some structure, but if something different presents itself, I follow that lead. In fact, every time I start a project, I feel like I’m starting from scratch – trying to assimilate new experiences and realize my visions. As exciting as that is, with the thrill of new beginnings comes the humility of knowing that there’s still so much more to learn and do. I’m trying to tell a story that is made of my experiences and learnings, but I don’t know what exactly it is; I know the parts, but the sum of the parts is usually emergent and greater than the whole.
Whenever inspiration strikes, it brings with it tension and release, and it’s usually a single well-defined moment of realization that occurs when I’m sitting. When I get obsessed with something, it is with me constantly, whether I’m moving or stationary. The inspiration usually comes during the release. Basically, the idea brews and germinates in my head. I feel the most inspired at performances and concerts; I am still, but watching movement.
TFT: Where does it all start – in your head or heart or soul?
SS: I usually start from a very intuitive place; I have a lot of trust in that feeling. Once I’ve decided what I want to do, I start connecting all the dots, finding the threads that weave together my works and ideas...and then the idea starts to make sense. It’s very comforting. More recently, I’ve been trying to arrive at a deeper understanding of ‘intuition’ based on my past experiences, and it’s a really interesting and fun exercise in pattern recognition.
More specifically, with respect to my process, consider a sound composition. I would pick one interesting sound around me and then build from there, sometimes extracting frequencies, sometimes short loops or patterns and then repeating, multiplying and fragmenting. I usually start with a casual improvised session in the studio, making very long recordings and intuitively playing with sounds. Once I have enough material from the jam session, I begin the actual composition. This composition also acts as my score for performing the pieces live. In some sense, that process for me is quite traditional, in that I always use a structure, an abstract narrative, deciding on a start, middle and end.
TFT: Do everyday sounds – like the melody of an egg frying in a pan – have an influence on your work?
SS: I am extremely sensitive to sounds and get distracted by them quite easily, so yes, of course I notice anything new and interesting that’s happening around me, but I won’t necessarily start working with it right away. All that just gets stored in my memory sound bank, and when a project comes along in which I need something like, I would pick up my recorder and go looking for it. Sometimes I find it, sometimes I don’t, but one way or another it always works out. This is truer for familiar situations; in new places and settings I try to always carry me recorder with me. But what keeps me going everyday in my studio is music – I am constantly looking for new music that challenges me and put me out of my comfort zone.
For me, every day is a composition made of several sequences of attacks, suspends and releases – these movements are fundamental concepts in both music and dance. It is very elemental to life as well – tension and release – and then, there is flow. In my head you’ll definitely hear more of an orchestra of me trying to make sense of all the different elements from music, contemporary dance, visual art, sound art, performance and science...inspiration from each of these elements occupy a space in my head, while I try to distill the voices and compose my own.
TFT: What about other senses such as sight, touch, smell...do they play into your work as well?
SS: Most of my works are multisensory...sometimes it’s the image that drives the sound, sometimes the sound gives me ideas for the visual. But there have been instances when I had the idea of both of them at the same time. Either way, they usually go hand in hand; I’m constantly evaluating them as being part of the same fabric.
With respect to touch, I recently heard this phrase in one of the Radiolab podcasts: “Sound is like touch at a distance”. I was quite fascinated by this idea. I have been interested in the physicality of sound through architecture for a while now. I’ve also explored the tactile element of sound through wind, using fans as a source for the sound as well as the visuals, most recently in my performance Spinning Four. I am really interested in creating architectural soundscapes – the visual panorama of sounds bouncing off and shaped by things around us. So in that sense again, sight and sound and touch are all related. Smell is the sense I’ve explored the least, partly because my auditory sense is much sharper than my olfactory sense.
TFT: Moving from Indian classical to experimental is quite a shift...tell us a little bit more about that.
SS: I feel like Indian classical music is more omnipresent in me as a person. I don’t actively start working from a raga or such, as I didn’t get to a point in my training where I could start composing or writing melodies. But I do find myself often using a drone from an electric fan or tone from the sine wave as a shruti box, on top of which I would sing long tones.
Until the fall of 2005, my ideas of music were quite conventional, and I was completely unaware of sound as an art form. It was during the process of collaborating with a musician for the sound of my second video when I was exposed to the work of John Cage, Alvin Lucier, Philip Glass, Maryanne Amacher and many more, and was completely blown away. I was immediately drawn to their work and I remember my friend describing 4:33 to me, and how absolutely fascinated I was with the idea. It was as if someone had opened a new door to the world of sound. I also remember being particularly moved by Brian Eno's Music for the Airport. In the summer of 2006 I went for a residency in New Delhi at Khoj, and this is where I first started working with sound as a medium. I created my first sound installation/performance using the sound of an aging ceiling fan in my studio.
TFT: Tell us about how your album Illuminen manifested...
Illuminen was like a documentation encapsulating my sound design and live performance practice from last 5 years. It came together quite organically, but at the core the compositions emerged from me trying to experiment with different ways of sculpting my vocals, and then seeing what other sounds could I blend them with. My voice was really my only instrument, since I don’t play any instruments, except the laptop, which is becoming more of a norm in electronic music in general.
Most of the tracks on the album were conceptualized as live performances for voice and electronics, along with other field and studio recordings of sounds from my everyday life. From frequencies of electromechanical vintage fans to sounds of birds and fire, to grains being poured into different bowls, to pure electronic sine waves and pink noise. My goal was to weave a tapestry of sounds, layered, multiplied and fragmented, creating textures and immersive soundscapes that reflected my sensibilities.
TFT: How do you view your audience and what they must take with them from your performances? How have your performances been received by the Indian audience?
SS: I believe in the idea that we’re all connected by these invisible threads – whether you want to call this ‘collective consciousness’ or something else, the underlying philosophy remains the same. We’re all sharing this space and time together in this universe. My goal is to bring people together and make them aware of these connections. I like to play with universal ideas through personal stories, whether it is the sound of grains or folding clothes, and use them to nudge the audience’s state of mind, increasing awareness and reception through heightened senses. Ultimately, if the audience walks away with a memorable experience, my work is successful.
My experience with the Indian audience has been limited, but I can say it is quite exciting to see how receptive people were, especially to the experimental sound performance at the Goethe Institutes in Mumbai and Delhi this past January. I wish I could talk to everyone in the audience and ask them about their experience in the space – it’s a great way to learn more about the audience.
TFT: Any future projects in the pipeline?
SS: I’m trying to gain a deeper understanding of movement as a concept in its broadest sense, and building a new body of work around these ideas. Movement in body, movement in machines and the brain, collaborating with scientists, programmers, choreographers, wearable tech designers and other artists...it’s quite exciting!
I recently started working with sound recordings of different kinds of machines in my father’s pharmaceutical factory back at home in Indore. My family bought the factory the same year I was born, so I have literally seen it grow with me, and I have all these childhood memories of going to the different machine rooms and just being fascinated by watching the powder converted into tablets and capsules. I’ve always been fascinated by machines in general but never formed any personal connection to them, but this time when I went to India and visited the factory, all I heard was sounds. This is going to be the source material for my second album.
I am also working with a neuroscientist to better understand music cognition, psychoacoustics and the universality of music and emotions. This research will inform a large-scale multimedia installation creating a 30 minute long expanded cinematic experience through senses. And, finally, an entirely new gesture-controlled environment using inspiration from contemporary dance and incorporating improvised movement to generate sound through the body.
As told to Meenakshi Thirukode, a.k.a Em Tee, a writer, cultural producer and recently appointed head of the New Media Department at Bushwick Film Festival. She and her three alter egos live in New York.
Surabhi Saraf is a new media artist, composer and performer who uses her background in experimental sound and Indian classical music to create audio and video works.
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