AS A TEENAGER IN MID-LATE-1990S America, I used to think electronic music was strictly the reserve of all-night events held in dirty industrial warehouses and deserted forest clearings. These nights were always referred to as parties and never raves—years of bad press had given the word ‘rave’ seedy drug-culture connotations. Parties were advertised on brightly coloured laser-printed fliers that were passed on at other events by teenagers in baggy pants and Adidas tennis visors. The event locations were not disclosed until the night of: attendees had to call info-lines, phone numbers printed on the backs of the fliers. While this last-minute scramble lent to the proceedings a certain air of mystery, the real reason for this secrecy was to keep the police from gate-crashing. An ocean and a continent away in Europe, more liberal attitudes towards nightlife meant that electronic music had long since penetrated the mainstream.
It’s now normal to hear electronic music in commercial nightclubs across the world. India has a burgeoning electronic music scene of its own, with venues such as Mumbai’s Blue Frog and record labels like Delhi’s DadA Music helping electronic beats stay afloat in a scene previously dominated by Bollywood remixes and American hip-hop. And although the masses in India are becoming increasingly accustomed to hearing this music, the genre still remains, for the most part, restricted to nightclubs. And while electronic music is now widely associated with dancing and revelry, it certainly didn’t start that way.
Electronic is rooted in the tradition of ‘art music,’ a descendant of Western classical that challenges structural conventions and oftentimes requires attentive listening to be appreciated fully. Nowadays, some six-plus decades after the emergence of electronic production technology, this music has begun to regain acceptance in the notoriously critical art world, especially in the West, where the tradition of sound art, or sonic art, can be traced back to the early part of the 20th century. In India, electronic sounds are still inextricable from both popular and club music, although these notions are beginning to change. People are now beginning to take note of the flexibility and infinite musical possibility that electronic production offers, and partnerships between musicians and visual artists are being forged that may help electronic music move into spaces where it would previously have been rejected.
ELECTRONIC MUSIC DATES BACK to mid-18th century France, when Jesuit priest Jean-Baptiste Thillais Delaborde invented the clavecin électrique, a keyboard instrument that employed static electrical charges to cause small metal clappers to hit bells. But electronic music as we know it today has is roots in post-WWII Europe. Although the vacuum tube, a device that allows for the amplification and modification of electrical signals such as sound waves, emerged in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the first electro-acoustic sound studios were founded and the earliest forms of what could be dubbed contemporary electronic music, namely musique concrète in France and elektronische musik in Germany, began to surface.
Musique concrète originated in Paris, where new technology, specifically the magnetic audio tape, allowed avant-garde composers of the era to record, edit and fuse naturally occurring, or non-instrumentally produced sounds into a musical composition. Pierre Schaeffer, a radio broadcast engineer and composer who spearheaded this genre, didn’t follow the traditional approach to the standard Western classical tradition. He experimented with tape looping and splicing, setting the stage for the normalisation of sampling and looping in contemporary musical production. One of the earliest composers to work out of Schaeffer’s studio was Karlheinz Stockhausen, a classically trained musician and music theorist who returned to his native Cologne in 1953 and began to develop what would come to be known as elektronische musik. Stockhausen continued to experiment throughout the 1950s and 60s, using the medium of electronic music with hopes of discovering new sounds, rather than just replicating sounds that could already be created by instruments or vocal chords. His compositions, and those of his contemporaries, were largely restricted to the domains of academia, however, and despite Stockhausen’s groundbreaking work in the field of electronic music, he was still a composer, not a pop star.
Although musicians had been experimenting with electronic sounds for quite some time, it was bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream and composers like Brian Eno (considered the father of Ambient music) that helped spur synthesised sounds into popular music. The emergence of New Wave and Industrial music in the late 1970s and early 80s continued to familiarise mainstream listeners to electronic sounds. A big turning point in electronic production came in 1982 with the advent of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) communications protocol, which allowed musicians to control and synchronise multiple electronic instruments through single sources (such as keyboards). Soon after, musicians began to use this technology along with analogue synthesisers, drum machines and sequencers, and, later on, personal computers, to create multilayered electronic dance music. That’s when the flurry of electronic genres began to develop, first House and Techno and later Trance, Drum and Bass and a slew of other genres and subgenres that are collectively referred to as electronic dance music today.
In India, a homegrown form of electronic music and related subculture emerged in the early 1990s, influenced largely by foreign flower children who had moved to Goa in the early 1970s. The sound was called Goa Trance, and for a long time it was considered India’s only major contribution to electronic dance music. Well into the 1990s, electronic music was known to but a handful of well-travelled and well-heeled people—it was hardly a nightclub mainstay. Moreover, the cultural climate was different. PV Narasimha Rao’s liberalisation policies were still fresh and the Internet was mostly the domain of computer geeks, thus widespread exposure to global trends did not happen at the click-of-a-button speed they do today. Slowly but surely, more and more electronic DJs and producers began springing up across the country, a phenomenon that began to avalanche when high-speed Internet and file-sharing became popular, giving budding performers and electronic music fans access to sounds from across the globe. Electronic music had finally penetrated club life across the subcontinent.
I GOT MY FIRST TASTE of electronic music in India in early 2007, not in a nightclub or a beach party in Goa, but in what some might consider a rather unusual location: in the gardens of a swanky restaurant on the edge of Delhi’s historic Lodhi Gardens. The garden’s many trees were draped with twinkling fairy lights and stretched strips of white nylon adorned the trellises, illuminated in the night by glowing black lights. At the DJ console was musician Nikhel Mahajan playing as Sattyananda (the moniker he uses when playing and creating Ambient, or ‘chill out,’ music). The crowd was much more diverse than what one would expect to find at an electronic music event in India then. In the grass in front of the stage twirled a mix of smiling 20-somethings who could have stepped out of the late 1960s were it not for their conspicuous tattoos and facial piercings. A row of round tables had been set up behind the impromptu dance floor, where older couples sat and sipped wine while curiously observing the spectacle in front of them. At the very back of the venue was the bar—this was the reserve of Gucci-clad socialites who whiled away the night exchanging air kisses and tight-smiled pleasantries, pausing only to howl orders at the restaurant’s nonplussed barmen. Sattyananda’s choice of music—soothing ambient sounds tinged with a touch of psychedelia—was certainly a far cry from the speaker-thumping Drum and Bass that defined the parties of my youth. So it was not that surprising that such a diverse group of people were enjoying the electronic grooves. Mahajan later told me he reckons ‘chill out’ music is perhaps the only form of electronic music that can easily transcend generations to withstand the test of time.
Two and a half years later I visited the same garden restaurant. I had come for an event billed as Parallel Dimensions: an outdoor multimedia experiment. Mahajan was performing, playing ‘chill out’ music just as he had been three years before and the crowd was just as diverse. A few fairy lights remained in the trees, but the décor, like the music, had been taken to a new—more inspired—level. Where I had once seen swarms of blissful dancers was now a glowing seven by seven metre cube, made up of hundreds of rectangular strips of mesh that lent a fragmented look to the installation. Mahajan played his set from inside the cube, the strips partially obscuring him from the view of the audience. Next to him sat the brain behind the installation: Avinash Kumar, one half of audiovisual electronic band called Basic Love of Things (B.L.O.T). Both men had their eyes fixed on the screens of the laptops in front of them, Mahajan shifting through layers of sound while Kumar manipulated six projectors pointed at the installation, the green laser designs he had come up with for the night dancing in perfect sync with the music. Kumar’s role was that of the VJ, or visual jockey, the co-navigator in an experience that merges the visual with the aural to create a more comprehensive sensory experience than could be achieved with stationary decorations alone.
WITH THE HELP OF visual elements, electronic music is now beginning to foray into the art space in India, and one of the few enthusiasts of this fusion is the Delhi-based audiovisual duo of B.L.O.T, which brings visual arts and electronic sounds together. And while B.L.O.T does perform regularly at nightclubs across the capital, they certainly don’t restrict themselves to one type of venue, being as suited to art galleries as they are to discotheques.
I meet Kumar and his partner in B.L.O.T, Gaurav Malaker, early in one morning in Hauz Khas Village, south Delhi’s most gentrified artists’ enclave. Kumar chats on the phone about flight tickets to Europe as we walk into the massive deer sanctuary that skirts the village. By the time we find a spot to sit, next to huge cages filled with herds of grazing deer and the occasional peacock, he’s hung up and begun apologising for talking on the phone, explaining that he and Malaker had a flight to Berlin to catch that night and Kumar wanted to postpone it by a day. He simply had too much going on in Delhi and needed all the time he could get to tend to his many projects.
This would not be B.L.O.T’s first trip to Europe. Last year they toured the continent, playing shows in France, Holland and Germany. Kumar even performed his visuals at London’s acclaimed Southbank Centre. Through their exploration of the audiovisual world in western Europe, they realised that the small but emerging audiovisual scene in India is comparable to what is happening internationally. “After travelling to Europe and seeing things more closely, I realise that some of the things we do [in India] could happen anywhere in the world,” says Kumar. “Some better things are happening here sometimes.”
When not busy planning and performing their unique audiovisual shows, the boys from B.L.O.T spend their time creating installations, programming their own arts and music festival and even curating for an art café. Kumar has a solid foundation in the arts. After studying product design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), he opened a design studio, Quicksand, where he started getting involved in making films. He had already been thinking about VJing when he teamed up with Malaker and former B.L.O.T member Akshar Pillai in 2007. “Then it all came together,” says Kumar. Malaker, the musical half of B.L.O.T, trained as a lawyer and spent the initial months of B.L.O.T practising law by day and devoting his nights to music. “I would be dozing off while trying to go through huge piles of legal documents,” he says. Malaker finally decided to take up music full-time a little over a year ago. He has since begun producing his own tracks in the studio he shares with fellow music producer Madhav Shorey, with whom he runs a record label called Qilla Records.
It’s difficult to describe what makes a typical B.L.O.T performance because every experience brings with it new audio and visual components. Malaker takes care of the music, oftentimes playing minimal Techno, nothing too fast or overwhelming, which inadvertently makes it more accessible to listeners who have had little exposure to electronic dance music. Kumar mans the visuals—he’s fond of projectors, it seems, although he also uses plasma screens and other lighting techniques to create a sense of space with his performances. Moreover, he often incorporates visual décor, such as installations along the lines of the cube he did at Lodhi Gardens, and often has to spend a day or two on site just setting it up.
Recently, B.L.O.T has increasingly begun to take their music away from the club scene and more into art spaces. In late 2009, they began curating and programming for Mocha ArtHouse, a new arts café and performance space in Delhi. This led them to set up Technodrome, a quarterly arts and music festival that launched this February. “We try to combine arts, electronic music and workshops and to bring in new people and share what they are doing,” says Kumar. “We decided to start a small festival that kind of balances visual arts and electronic music. Broadly, urban arts is the theme. We want people to enjoy and experience artists who might not be so commercially popular but are still doing some good work. It was a good small beginning,” he continues, “but I think it went off pretty well.”
As Kumar finishes his sentence, Malaker pipes in. “I think it was a pretty big beginning,” he says. I have to agree with Malaker—the much talked-about festival, which was held over three days in multiple locations, drew in large crowds of people that were enthusiastic about the performances and digital arts shows and workshops being held. Technodrome brought in a few artists from overseas, adding an element of international collaboration while also exposing people everywhere to India’s growing audiovisual landscape and debunking “their theories that India is full of cows and chaos,” as Malaker puts it half-jokingly. “One of the artists was really kicked after the gig,” adds Kumar. “He said it was his best gig in eight months and that he wouldn’t have imagined Techno in New Delhi on a terrace at night.”
This January, B.L.O.T also contributed to ‘Ballard Estate,’ a multimedia art show at the Religare Arts Initiative gallery in Delhi aimed at connecting the writings of recently deceased British novelist JG Ballard with the Ballard Estate (of a different namesake) in Mumbai. B.L.O.T was called on to do an audiovisual performance to this effect, creating what Kumar calls “a little dystopian story,” seaming together Kumar’s visuals and Malaker’s bass-heavy compositions. This is just the beginning of B.L.O.T’s foray into the art world. “It’s a great cultural exchange between old and new cultures I think, and it’s an exciting space to work in,” says Kumar. “We are planning a series of group ‘art’ shows in public and private spaces this year that will better explain our intent with art, but in a nutshell, it revolves around the democratisation of the creation and consumption of art.”
CREATING SPACES FOR ELECTRONIC music outside of the club scene in India has been a long and slow process. Mahajan, whose music company Audio Ashram produced ‘Parallel Dimensions,’ is firm in his belief that electronic music can do so much more than just act as a soundtrack for partying. “People need to be open to the fact that not every electronic artist is about club music,” he says. “[Electronic music] is way beyond that…it’s a refined form of expression.” Talvin Singh, the world-renowned British tabla player and electronic producer best known for introducing Asian Underground music—a fusion of electronica and Indian classical sounds—to mainstream listeners worldwide, thinks similarly. “Electronic music can’t just exist in a nightclub, which is pretty much based on making money on drinks,” says Singh, who has exhibited his own sound and art installations from London to Mumbai. “It needs to be acknowledged as an art form.”
Interestingly, B.L.O.T takes this idea a step further, creating works that are suitable for art galleries and bringing them into nightlife venues, essentially exposing the electronic music scene to visual arts in the same way they have been exposing the arts world to electronic sound arts. “We really believe that art needs to be consumed on a more ordinary, everyday level, and so we really cherish not just getting our stuff to the art world, but also getting artistic practice and perspectives into the club scene,” says Kumar. “…what we are doing in the clubs has a lot of potential for the communication of ideas and content in an immersive manner. There are several special experiences inside clubs and electronic music environments that can be very influential on people—even simple things like a big room, sound, lighting or dance can be amazing when taken out of context and juxtaposed with other forms of media and experiences.”
Some would argue that this symbiosis might also have positive secondary effects that go beyond introducing people to new forms of expression. Singh says that in a world where culture is evolving and changing at record speed, documentation of cultural phenomena becomes increasingly necessary, and the visual can actually help preserve the audio just as it did in the olden days, back when people had records and CDs on their shelves and not just on hard drives. “Artefacts are so important,” he points out. “Even a vinyl or a record has a visual element, whereas nowadays it’s just MP3s.”
The relationship between the visual and the aural is nothing new. Choreographed dance performances set to specific scores can be traced to the earliest of civilisations. Sight and hearing are valued by most of us as the two most important senses; we use them above the other senses to recognise and communicate with each other, and while that which is seen need not be heard and vice versa, the two compliment each other so well that entire traditions of entertainment have thrived on bringing the two together, from opera to music videos, tap dancing to sound and light shows. By pairing visual components with electronic music, audiovisual artists are helping create a new space, and consequentially, new potential, for electronic music to flourish within the realm of the fine arts from which it originally emerged.