Hemant Sreekumar: Sculptor in sound
Radio static, mutilated tapes, motor engines: meet Hemant Sreekumar, the artist who uses noise as his canvas
Imagine that your body is afloat in a sensory deprivation tank. Your first reaction would be one of shock, as your mind desperately tries—and fails—to hold on to any kind of recognizable sensory input. But then, ever so slowly, you would start to relax. After a few minutes—maybe 5, maybe 15, who knows?—your mind would start to drift, becoming unmoored from both time and place. Maybe it would swoop towards the heavens, contemplating the big unanswerable questions about our existence. Or perhaps it would turn inwards, turning over the rocks of your memory to see what crawls out. And then imagine that, at the peak of your dissociative fugue, the calm is shattered by a sudden maelstrom, your mind and body buffeted by sudden, inescapable sensory overload. Replace the sensory deprivation tank in this scenario with a sea of white noise frequencies—and that’s basically what it feels like to watch Hemant Sreekumar perform live.
The past couple of years have seen the emergence of a number of avant-garde musical acts that dabble in noise and dissonance. In Kolkata, you have JESSOP&CO., two 20-somethings who make harsh walls of atonal sound with hammers, contact microphones and DIY noise machines. In Delhi, there’s Ruhail Kaizer aka S I S T E R, who blends Buddhist chants, drones and black metal to create aberrant squalls of devil’s noise, and Nishant Gill aka a maze, whose work belongs to the more ambient end of the noise spectrum. But when it comes to noise music in India, no one stands taller than Sreekumar.
The 38-year-old musician, artist and futurologist has been experimenting with dissonance since his early adolescence, at a time when few in India even knew this obscure genre existed. Today, he’s the tiny Indian noise scene’s reclusive godfather and its most successful proponent, producing music that’s a mesmerizing synthesis of ideas taken from information theory, abstract art, and the experimental fringe of punk rock.
“It was basically radio static that started it all," Sreekumar says over a Skype call from Bengaluru, where he moved from his hometown Delhi a year ago. As a child, he would stay up all night listening to radio stations from Russia on the short-wave radio. “But what really caught my attention was the static and weird sounds in between those frequencies. It was almost meditative."
By the time he was 15, he was experimenting with tape loops, cutting up bootleg tapes to mix snatches of A.R. Rahman melodies with the death metal march of bands like Cannibal Corpse. Other attempts at art-making included collages made from obituaries cut out of the newspaper, and creating sounds using magnets, broken clocks and anything else lying around that he could repurpose as an instrument. In this, he was unconsciously retracing the footsteps of many 20th century avant-gardists, such as Blixa Bargeld of the legendary German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. But in the pre-internet Delhi of the early 1990s, he had no way of knowing that (or even knowing that there was such a thing as an industrial band).
In fact, for the longest time, he didn’t even think of his early practice as art-making. “It was only in 1994-95, when I found this second-hand copy of a Guitar World special issue on industrial music, that I realized that my tinkering fit into this whole artistic legacy and history," he says. “But I never showed what I was doing to people. You couldn’t really have a conversation with anyone about textures or rubbing blades on a bass guitar string. They’d just think you’re weird."
He continued with his experiments in sound while studying at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda’s faculty of fine arts, making music using repurposed “trash" that was lying around in the school workshops. It was also during his art history classes there that he learnt about futurism, an early 20th century artistic and social movement in Italy that admired speed, violence, technology and the industrial city as signs of man’s triumph over nature. One of the key figures of the movement was Luigi Russolo, whose 1913 manifesto, “The Art Of Noises", envisioned a music crafted from the “infinite variety of noise-sounds", which would replace the “restricted circle" of traditional musical sounds. “I was blown away by the work of the futurists and the Dadaist art movement," says Sreekumar. “And when, a few years later, I heard all these Japanese artists making harsh noise, I saw this total correlation between the two scenes."
Stints at the Khōj International Artists’ Association in Delhi, and then at Compart in Bremen, followed. At Khōj, Sreekumar found himself working with cutting-edge sound artists from South Asia and beyond. At Compart, his work dealt largely with archiving early-1960s computer generative art. Both would feed into his subsequent practice. By the beginning of this decade, he had graduated from someone who experimented with noise and dissonance to a proper noise artist, creating lush, meditative soundscapes out of pure noise using code that he wrote himself. He began playing at performance art events in Delhi such as Harkat@Sarai, and started conducting public interventions—which he calls “interrogations of the city as a noise machine"—using a microphone, a battery-powered amp and a feedback generator. In 2013, he started Disquiet, an annual music event dedicated to noise and experimental music, “out of sheer boredom". The event ran for three years and would be instrumental in introducing Indian music audiences to the possibilities of noise.
“It really came from a love of abstract painting, to discover this sort of abstract sound," he says, when I ask what drove him to dive head-first into such a forbidding, obscure genre. It makes sense. Sound, after all, is the most abstract medium there is. “Also, it reminded me of my work with sculpture in Baroda. Working with white noise is like working with granite, you’re chipping into it, giving it shape."
For the longest time, Sreekumar refused to record his music, because he felt that the specificity of the space you were in, and the audience in front of you, were an important part of the experience. But last year, an out-of-the-blue phone call from a record-label owner in Edmonton, Canada, changed his mind. He spent nine months working on his first release, Divided By Zero, released as a limited-edition run of 20 tapes this March. He has also designed a micro-site (www.dividedbyzero.in), populated with a series of visual artworks derived from glitched out TV test signals. The three tracks on the tape are full of ritualistic, churning rhythms and warped, disorienting swirls of static. Between them, they present a dark, techno-dystopian vision of a future society reeling from the effects of automation, digital dependency and technology-worship. But as the title indicates, this dystopia is only one of an infinite series of possible futures. “It’s at this level where it’s total nonsense, but it also signifies infinity and endless possibilities," says Sreekumar.
He’s explaining the concept behind the record’s name, but it works just as well to explain the attraction of noise music in its entirety. “There’s this massive contradiction at its heart and that really appeals to me."