Shankar Barua

I live in Delhi. And as I sit down to write this little piece, at a desk in the living room of the apartment that I share with my wife, there’s the beep-beeping downstairs of a van calling to some of my neighbours that it is on its weekly visit to provide them certain discounted consumables that it regularly fetches in on behalf of a local consumer cooperative.

There’s also the usual white hum of the neighbourhood coming in through the french doors of the verandah near me, to commingle with the usual white hum of the apartment itself; of the refrigerator, the ceiling fans, the air-conditioner, the air-conditioner’s transformer, a drip in the bathroom, and what not.


 
The image above is Naukuchiatal, one of several lakes near Sattal in the Lower Himalayan Range.


In the near distance outside, there are the occasional voices of gardeners and security staff on the grounds below. A motor vehicle grumbles by every now and again. A vegetable vendor shrilly cries out his wares. Somebody’s booster-pump is letting out the unmistakable whine that they all do when the ball-cocks of their respective rooftop water-tanks shut up.

A door slams somewhere. There’s an unexplained series of thuds. A gaggle of children titter by. A commercial jetliner flies low overhead, on an occasional landing-path into nearby Indira Gandhi International Airport. Stray dogs bark madly, as one squeals desperately. A car siren goes off.

And yet, as we are located in a pretty verdant colony, that directly abuts one of the largest green spreads of the city, there is in amongst it all often the songs and calls of several different species of bird, and also the random chirping of squirrels; always a bit raucous in the relative silence of early mornings, but also always substantially reduced and lost amidst so many other sounds through the rest of every day.

When Joel Chadabe first asked me to contribute to the Ear to the Earth blog, it struck me that all of this was a pretty good expression of how some of the sounds of the earth are so rapidly disappearing all around us every day these days. And also, how ever-new sounds arise everyday.

At first, I thought to record and isolate specific sounds from this ambience so as to recombine them into a careful collage that would somehow ‘encapsulate’ this ongoing phenomenon in at least an acceptable-if not aesthetic-manner. However, what immediately came up along this stream of thought was that, whereas I would certainly want to use some specific sounds in particular, every sound available was inescapably, inseparably, and very, very randomly just a part of an overarching and always-unpredictable flow of different sounds that make up the entire soundscape of my environment.

In fact, I had much earlier thought to record just the sound that came up to our apartment almost every day, of a vegetable vendor who periodically visited the locality on a horse-cart, wailing out his trade the while. But, every time I consciously heard him and also remembered that intent was just too late in his visit, or too inconvenient a time, for me to pull out my recorder.

And so, I thought to instead begin with just the isolated sounds of ‘nature’ that are still sort of available to me in my normal life. What I intended to do was to hopefully make clean recordings of the birds, insects, and other forest sounds that I live amongst when I am up in our little homemade home in Sattal in the foothills of the Himalaya, where I try to spend much of my time.

 
My friend Sanjay Chatterji and I made homes a few hundred yards apart from each other on a north-facing slope here about 20 years ago, thinking that nobody else would ever do anything so silly, which hopefully meant we’d have the area largely to ourselves till Kingdom Come. The place in general was quite a birding destination at the time, and also hosted a mind-boggling variety of butterflies and moths, along with the mandatory snakes, pine-martens, squirrels, deer, wild boar, leopards, and so on. Sanjay himself is quite the birder, and has continuously had about a half-dozen bowls scattered around his property freshly charged with clean water everyday since he first moved in. On one occasion, upon undertaking to note down the names of every species of birds he saw from his sit-out on a single day, he tallied up a total of 27!

The red cross in the satellite-view below marks the location of this house of ours.

 

 
In any case, my opportunity came July-August, when I spent about 5 weeks up there through the peak of the monsoon.

The first thing I did was to generally record my outdoor environment to see how my recorder would manage on its own, which yielded that there was just too much ambient sound to be dealt with. And so, I decided to somehow go directional.

Looking around my home and workshop, it took me a few days to finally settle upon a plastic salad-bowl as being the most conveniently handy thing to work with. It wasn’t very much like the standard parabolic shape recommended for such usage, but, when i looked at it from the side, it did seem to me that sound-waves from the front would tend to bounce/converge *approximately* towards a point ... while sound-waves from the sides would largely be blocked out.

With that decided, I bolted a handle onto the side of the bowl, together with a small limb inside the centre of the bowl, along which I could slide a small stereo microphone back and forth, to find the best focus.

 

 
There was sadly a bit of a hum when I listened into the signal, but I decided it was something that could be filtered out later on, since it held steady. Other than that though, the construct worked wonderfully well, as far as i was concerned.

What I hadn’t bargained for though, was that there was almost always something beyond and behind whatever I wished to record. When I pointed my device horizontally at birds in the tops of the trees below me to the north, there was the background sound of traffic on the road across the valley, a kilometre beyond. When I pointed it downwards into the bushes beneath the same trees, the various background sounds of the households below me came into focus. When I listened eastwards, there were the sounds of the staff of the complex of cottages nearby going about their daily business, with barking dogs and cooking clatter coming from the village homes beyond. To the west, there were the sounds of construction crews at work or at leisure. And, listening up the slope towards the south didn’t go very long without the sound of occasional human and vehicular traffic.

In the end, by the time I was suddenly called back to Delhi mid-August, I had collected about a half-dozen acceptable recordings, ranged in duration from some 2 minutes to about 10.

When I managed to finally get around to working with these recordings in Delhi early-September, the first order of business was to clean up and optimize the files, and also split them up into more than 20 smaller files, with each manifesting just a single specific sound-portrait; some with just a bird or two cooing or chirruping; some with birds and a motor vehicle; some with birds and random village sounds, and so on.

From these, I selected 8 sound-portraits, ranged from 20 seconds to almost 7 minutes in duration, and carefully assembled them into some sort of ‘order' as multiple tracks. Three of the files were overlapped quite substantially, with the others set into sequence before and after.

On top of that assemblage, partway through, I serially faded a regular and unchanging elementary drum-beat and bass-line in and out, set subtly to about the average rate of a human heartbeat (86 bpm) and, finally overlaid it all with a bit of guitar, as well as a sparse and almost randomized series of percussion sounds and effects, before ending with just birds and a distant barking dog.

It may all sound a bit of a mishmash to some, but to my mind, there is specific intent in every aspect of it all. In effect, there is something I seek to sort of ‘say’, or actually even make the listener unconsciously ‘feel’, through the piece.

Here, have a listen.

 
Shankar Barua, New Delhi, September 18, 2017