‘We don’t listen anymore... we hear through our eyes’

Shruti Hussain
Thursday, 28 February 2019

Akash Sharma believes that sound is heritage and is on a mission to catalogue acoustic signatures of heritage structures across India

Akash Sharma is an experimental artist exploring electro-acoustic improvisation, data manipulation, algorithmic compositions, and sensor-based music. The founding director of Sound.Codes — a sound research lab, he lives between a Himalayan village and Mumbai.

He spoke to us while in Pune for a Sound and Body performance called Sonic Skins at TIFA, about his long standing initiative to preserve the acoustic signatures of historic and heritage spaces in India.

What prompted you to think that sound can be heritage and needs to be recorded and archived?
I wanted some Indian sounds, like sounds of caves or certain temples. But I did not have access to any of these because you don’t get these sounds. Also, Indian historical spaces are tuned purely by acute hearing like in temples you find the space for the mridangam player or the tanpura or the vocalist is very much defined. 

The space is shaping the sounds of all these instrumentations. The design and architecture is helping sound propagate in a specific way. And these spaces are quite old, being constructed in 6 or 7 AD. The Brahminical and the Buddhist caves are also tuned in a way where human voice enables the natural resonating frequency of the structure itself. So this helped create a peaceful environment in viharas and caves where monks and travellers could meditate. 

Has this been attempted before?
No, it’s quite new. As a discipline, this is a very new and comes under archeo-acoustics that is archeology and acoustics. When we transmit information in traditional methods like language, photographs, video or text, there is a distortion of information. The loss of information is an innate quality. I feel the loss of quality in sound is at the extreme corner of the spectrum. 

This intuition came from the proto-Sanskrit chants. Sanskrit later became a script which we now know but the Vedic chants are not exactly Sanskrit, they are proto-Sanskrit. The monks or the pandits of that time essentially used their body when they recited these chants. This information transmission from generation to generation has remained constant. Sound is the only medium in this sense. So I feel that the designers or architects when they designed these viharas, caves, temples or forts used instead of instrumentation, acute hearing to design these specific spaces. 

How do you compare the specific signatures of sounds in places of worship?
All the places of worship, be it a mosque, temple or church, have a very peculiar long reverberance; the sound stays there for a longer time. I feel this staying of the sound or greater resonance is responsible for the trigger for spirituality, that ‘something is bigger than life’ feeling. 

Does sound behave in a different manner in rock cut architecture? 
In the case of Ajanta and Ellora, Kanheri caves and the temples of Hampi, the pillars are tuned to a specific taal or note. So when played in consonance, it is like a percussion instrument. As an audience, to me, the entire structure is resonating and producing this idea of taal. Also, it’s rather amazing, it’s really hard to compute how they figured that ‘oh I will cut this rock this specific millimeter and I will have this specific frequency’ because there is no undo if you have a chisel wrong and you have to start all over again. These caves, specifically Kanheri and Ajanta took 800 years to complete. It’s not one individual doing it but 8 to 10 generations of people working on it. 

Are there any previous studies done on this?
Yes,  Archeological Survey of India (ASI) did study the Hampi records and later on the British museum too. During the colonial period, the ASI was very much active and a piece of a rock was cut from Hampi and taken to London to be studied. Till date, we do not know what instrumentation was used 1800 to 2000 years earlier to analyse the textural quality in sounds. All the acoustic instruments are rather modern as they are only about 100 years old. My intuition says it’s acute hearing. We don’t listen anymore. I think the post-industrial human race has lost the idea of listening. We hear through our eyes.

What is the time period you are following?
I went across the timeline from prehistoric to around 1700s. I am trying to follow the Chalukya, Hoyasalas, Kalachuri dynasty, from 3 AD to 11 AD. This is the time where we see sculpting as an art exploded  and it really became a discipline in the early Chalukyan period. 

Do you think the sounds of the historic structures you recorded must have sounded different when they were made as compared to the present day?
As a lived experience definitely,  but what I capture is not essentially the audible sound but how the sound physically behaves in that geometry and material. Technically speaking, what I do is create a test signal which goes from 1 hertz all the way to 48,000 hertz. Then I keep a microphone in the space and 1 hertz goes in the space, interacts with the geometry of the space. Some of the energy is absorbed while some is reflected back. This happens twice, thrice five times, n times. The sound bounces in the space and same time and this happens for 2 hertz or 3, and goes all the way to 48000 hertz. So as a data set, what I get is what frequency is absorbed by how much and how much of that specific frequency is reflected back into the space. So if this is computed, you get an impulse response of the space.

 This becomes digital information of how sound is fundamentally propagating in that particular space. As a lived experience, we now have digital data of these spaces, so I can attach a microphone and perceive to be standing in that space. 

How did you create an exhibit for people to experience the sound of historic spaces?
I kept sensors in the room and four speakers in a quadraphonic environment. The four speakers created a hemisphere of sound and sensors were tracking the people. On the floor I wrote a small time line, so one could walk in time and move across these spaces and the speakers would play that sound in space. One could hear the sound morphing from a church to a cave and temple as one walked around the room. It is like walking in space, in time and sound; like walking through the sound essentially. 

How do you intend this digital information of sound to be put to use by people?
Fundamentally, it is an archive and a repository of Indian heritage sound. Other than academic use, producers and musicians can use it as a reverberation of a cave or temple. Architects can use to study the ideas of acoustics employed in that age and how the modern instrument can drive the idea of lived experiences. Sound in a space is very essential for certain things and I feel modern structures don’t pay much attention to sound.

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