The first sounds I hear in Kolkata are the car horns. Composed of dissonant intervals, they rip the air apart with pointalistic short-long abrasions. The car horns are incessant and fascinating. The local driving style involves closing the side mirrors and using the horn to communicate your position to other vehicles. In Kolkata, drivers don’t look for each other so much as they listen for each other.
On a humid day in August 2013, I was standing on one of Kolkata’s many flat rooftops listening to the traffic below. Looking out across the city, my rooftop seemed like a single concrete island among thousands of concrete islands stretching to the horizon. Swirling around me was an ocean of sound. The braying vehicles wove through a landscape of activity as thousands of people navigated the city’s concrete passageways. This human friction produced a sonic canvas of indistinguishable voices occasionally punctuated by the call of a daab-wallah or the clang of ritual metal. Obscured within the marketplace babble, almost spectrally, were the upper partial cries, chirps, and songs of various crows, finches, and mynas as they competed for scraps of food and the best perch. This mid-range chatter was bolstered by the deep lumbering growl of construction machinery and generators whose abyssal drone could be felt as much as heard. As I stood amidst the sound of a thousand worlds colliding, the evening call to prayer emerged out of the soundscape. The call’s percussive language and oscillating pitches soloistically framed the other sounds below. I realized that I was no longer listening to a cacophonous urban din but an aleatoric composition. Every sonic layer was fulfilled. Rhythmic densities ebbed and flowed over drones and textures of sound. Unexpected events gave the piece form, and gluing it all together was a luminous melody. This was the symphonic noise of Kolkata, City of Joy.
I will never forget that day. I came to India on a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies with the purpose of studying Hindustani evening and night ragas. After ten months, I left Kolkata with an expanded view of the relationship between noise, music, and environment. This paradigm shift challenged previous notions I held about identifying sound and clarified the role of the listener within sonic experiences.
In the Ear of the Listener
The soundscape I experienced while standing on the rooftop in Kolkata taught me that music is a choice the listener makes and that the difference between music and noise is a matter of perspective. Bart Kosko highlights this subjectivity when he writes, “Noise is a signal that we don’t like.” In this statement, Kosko places music and noise at the mercy of personal taste rather than impartial observation. This has profound implications for what music is, how it is forged, and who gets to represent it. When the difference between music and noise is a matter of perception, the listener becomes more responsible than the sound generator for music creation. This focus on the listener is partially enabled by music’s existence as a purely cognitive experience and our ability to mentally organize sound into systems like tonality.
The listener’s role in music creation is elevated because the act of music making is taking place in the brain rather than objectively in the air. Daniel Levitin outlines this concept in his book This is Your Brain on Music when discussing the human conception of pitch. He writes:
The word pitch refers to the mental representation an organism has of the fundamental frequency of sound. That is, pitch is a purely psychological phenomenon related to the frequency of vibrating air molecules. By “psychological,” I mean that it is entirely in our heads, not in the world-out-there; it is the end product of a chain of mental events that gives rise to an entirely subjective, internal mental representation or quality. Sound waves—molecules of air vibrating at various frequencies—do not themselves have pitch. Their motion and oscillation can be measured, but it takes a human (or animal) brain to map them to that internal quality we call pitch.
Levitin’s account of pitch cognition can be broadened to explain the threshold between music and noise. The nature of music existing purely as a mental process allows adaptation, behavior, and choice to play a role in how we perceive sound. This was exemplified when the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring was reviewed as “close to noise” by some members of the press, while for others “Stravinsky was hailed as a genius.” This mental flexibility allows us to reframe sonic information through active choices and indexical experiences. Limited only by the confines of the mind, our musical acuity can be sharpened to include the full range of sounds we are capable of hearing, including noise.
In order to turn noise into music, our mind has to organize sonic information. If we continue down the track of pitch cognition outlined by Daniel Levitin, we will eventually encounter the systemization of pitch into tonality. This ability to index sound, and its relationship to symbolism, offers a possible model for how we may alter noise perception. Musicologist and evolutionary biologist Gary Tomlinson discusses the emergence of tonality in his book A Million Years of Music.
[T]onality, a pervasive tendency if not universal feature of pitch organization in musicking, shows systematicity and combinatorial hierarchy, both characteristic of the symbol; but tonality shows neither categorical distinction nor a rule-governance tantamount to a grammar, and it symbolizes nothing.
The absence of “categorical distinction,” “rule-governance,” and symbolism within tonality enables a plurality of methods for defining and organizing sound. If the fundamental qualities of tonality include system creation, as well as hierarchies of thought and behavior, can the concept of tonality be expanded to include sounds other than pitch? Can we engineer tonalities out of any sound we experience? Perhaps what I experienced in Kolkata was a psychological adjustment. I went from hearing a cacophonous city ruckus to perceiving a hierarchy of sounds while mentally forming a system of frequency layers and rhythmic textures. If music only exists in our mind’s ability to organize sound, then the only boundary is the listener’s imagination. Perhaps that is the difference between music and noise.
Later that year, following one of my lessons with Prattyush Banerjee, I was traveling by bus through the Kolkata noise-scape. It was a weeknight like any other. The air’s pale humidity weighed on my skin, and I could smell the fragrance of burning trash, petrol, and incense unique to Indian cities. The bus came to my stop at the Gariahat crossing, one of Kolkata’s largest outdoor marketplaces.
As I hopped off the bus, I was met with extraordinary sights and sounds. The metal gate that had always enclosed a Kali shrine was thrown open. A display of colored fruit covered the normally empty wooden platform. While chanting cadential phrases, a priest sat among the offerings and occasionally drowned out his own voice by ringing a small bell. The sound that permeated the air was hammered metal and the repetitive thumping of sticks on a large vertical drum. My mind was fixated on categorizing sound. Was this ritual? The context was a Kali shrine. Was this performance? There was an audience of passersby. Was it a jam session? There appeared to be an element of casual improvisation.
What I failed to articulate at the time was that the power of collective sound making could encompass and advance beyond all of my labels. Kolkata was flush with these sonic events, and I encountered them almost daily. The orchestral noise of the city was constantly augmented with the sounds of polyrhythmic hammering, invented instruments, and exalted cries. There was no monetary exchange that occurs in busking, and there appeared to be no agenda beyond resonating the air in celebration. People came together to make music without the same goals or identity restrictions I was accustomed to in the United States. In Kolkata, you did not need to be a “musician” to play music. It affirmed a belief I have long held as an educator: that music making is not the providence of musicians but belongs to everyone. Collective sound making is fundamental to our nature.
Without words to describe these events, and lacking a suitable understanding of what I was experiencing, I affectionately referred to the sounds as “street music.” In the context of a city lush with artistic scenes, street music seemed to embody Tomlinson’s organizing principals of “systematicity” and “combinatorial hierarchy” while being simultaneously devoid of “category,” “grammar,” and “symbolism.” Street music was sound making for the air itself, just as city noise was a symphony of human activity. Both were sounds framed by location and context. This realization uncovered an important aspect of universal music: The environment.
Environment frames our improvised existence through the structure of physical boundaries, the supply of material affordances, and the pressures of nature. Just by existing in time and space, our actions and thoughts are continuously relating to and reflecting off of the world around us. Our surroundings physically shape the vibrations we create and amplify our noises with their sympathetic resonances. Environments are so integral to culture that referring to location when talking about music is difficult to avoid. We habitually refer to East Coast and West Coast jazz, North and South Indian music, French and German schools of clarinet playing. When we try to separate music from location, we often suffer the same consequences as creating genre. Music becomes detached from the people who create it. Our habitats act as a powerful symbol for communities and the music they create. Locations contextualize our noises, fuel our identities, and shape our experiences through the shared navigation of affordances and pressures. The environment is a form that our creative existence traverses.
In many ways the range of cultures that emerge from unique environments is the best argument against universalism. How can universal music exist when each setting affects the sounds we create? Isn’t the array of diverse terrain from which cultures and music arise enough to signify distinct categories? I don’t believe Hafez Modirzadeh was advocating a rejection of cultural diversity when he encouraged me to explore the idea of universal music. Rather, he was challenging me to penetrate a world of endless multiplicity in order to discover the fundamental properties that tie all of these sound-locations together. In his essay “On the Convergence Liberation of Makam X,” Hafez Modirzadeh writes:
[W]hen two or more idioms’ acoustical and rhythmic sensibilities are practiced together without compromising the integrity of each, distinctions are enhanced at a focal point rather than blurred, creating another context that sustains rather than dissolves traditional elements, ultimately allowing for all to flourish both within and beyond the boundaries of culture.
Idiomatic music can act as a gateway towards the universal through its relationship to environment. In the same way that time and space are inseparable, communities and the music they make are united through the shared action of creating sound in relation to space. Simply put, culture emerges from this interaction of biology (people) with environment. At the beginning of A Million Years of Music, Gary Tomlinson describes this interaction as a continuous feedback loop. The loop begins when environments influence organisms through selective pressures such as “affordances” and “constraints.” Following that “[o]rganismal impact in reshaping selective terrain includes activities, behaviors learned in a lifetime and passed on to later generations, i.e. culture.” Later, Tomlinson includes a model of the organism and environment feedback loop with a cultural feedback loop inside. As organisms develop they generate a “formalized cultural system that stands outside of co-evolutionary feedback.” This secondary feedback loop is called the cultural epicycle.
Using Tomlinson’s model as inspiration we can draw our own picture of a sound-environment feedback loop with one addition: within the cultural epicycle I have added a musical epicycle.
The musical epicycle is a result of “thinking at a distance.” As Tomlinson writes, “[Thinking at a distance] developed alongside a ‘release from proximity” whereby humans gradually gained the capacity to imagine things not present to the senses[].” Tomlinson’s “release from proximity” is what allows us to create sonic environments within cultural epicycles. Musicking feeds back between individual listening, decision-making, and sound generation on one side, and the “at a distance” sonic architecture that exists within ensembles, compositions, and noise environments on the other side. During my time in Kolkata, the ambient city noises and street music contributed to my personal feedback loops, just as my perceptions, behavior, and choices impacted the city.
A number of artistic questions surface when we examine the role of environment in music making. While creating we can ask ourselves: What do we want to contribute to physical, social, and musical environments? If we are simply resonating the world around us, how does that affect artistic choices? Knowing that music exists purely in the mind of the listener equalizes the playing field for all participants. Art becomes a choice made by the experiencer, liberating us from previous constraints and opening up a world of environmental sounds to explore. We are no longer limited to performer-audience models, allowing us to expand our sonic palette through inclusive social-artistic dynamics. Noise can become music, the streets can be our concert halls, and every listener can be an artist.
These ideas surfaced throughout Kolkata’s Durga Pooja festival as I stumbled upon unidentifiable soundscapes of street music and city noise. Thousands of art installations dotted West Bengal, establishing a framework and form to the event. I was submerged in an ocean of sound and activity. The experience simultaneously encompassed what we would call performance art, music festival, art installation, and a myriad of other terms. These labels are not important. What I realize now is that I was experiencing an environment of explosive creativity, and it was quite possibly the most universal composition I have ever heard.
Teresa Louis, Matt Moore, Jayanthi Bunyan, and Meera Dugal for reading and reviewing these essays. Molly Sheridan, Frank Oteri, and New Music USA for giving me this opportunity and your ongoing support of the new music community. American Institute of Indian Studies for artistic support through the performing arts fellowship. Brooklyn Public Libraries for providing a quiet and air conditioned space in which I could work.