3 September 2009

An Auto Sonata

TRISHA GUPTA meets the man who made the sound of Delhi’s auto-rickshaws part of the India Art Summit

IT’S A regular Saturday in New Delhi’s Connaught Place. A post-lunch crowd ambles along, window-shopping. The soft murmur of afternoon traffic on the Inner Circle is slowly turning into a louder buzz. Suddenly, above the cars, buses, auto-rickshaws and taxis comes a series of honks – sharp and staccato ones followed by a long, low-pitched tone. A cavalcade of flag-embellished auto-rickshaws is turning past E Block, honking in choreographed unison. Passers-by stop to look, someone tries to hail one, while one autowallah waves as he drives past. Things are already odd enough, but then a white man in yellow pyjamas darts nimbly into the street, holding up a hand as if to stop the traffic. It takes a minute to realize that he’s only taking a photo.

The pyjama-clad man is Geert-Jan Hobijn, and the honking autos are his idea. Hobijn is known in international music circles as the founder of Staalplaat Soundsystem, an Amsterdam-based initiative that he began with friends in 1982. Staalplaat (Dutch for steelplate; ‘plaat’ also means disc, thus record) has a reputation for supporting weird and wonderful sounds, “expanding the boundaries of what we call ‘music’”. One piece Hobijn remembers fondly was inspired by Dadaist poetry: a voice repeating ad infinitum the phrase, “The minister regrets these statements”, removing one syllable each time round so the sound becomes less intelligible and more abstract. Another was an Austrian yodeling song, cut up and reassembled. “This was before digital editing,” he points out.

Staalplaat is now a forum for sound artists, an organisation network with a music label, an e-zine, a radio program, a shop and a distribution company and Hobijn has moved from being a dogged releaser of other people’s quirky sounds to creating his own. “In 2000, I began making music with objects not usually seen as ‘musical’ – vacuum cleaners, kitchen mixers, tumble dryers.” In 2005, a museum in the north German city of Kiel invited him to “use the building as an instrument”. The idea of an increase in scale was exciting, but not easy. “You can’t bang on a building, or drill holes in it.” What he finally created involved moving soundboxes, some placed on children’s tricycles. “People could hear thuds and sirens, but couldn’t see where they were coming from. Of course, the Germans thought it was about the war,” Hobijn smiles wryly.

HOBIJN ISN’T keen on art being message-y: “Like this 48C festival you had in Delhi, it was too political, too environmental for me. I’d say, leave that to Greenpeace.” Yet his work is clearly connected to what’s around him. “Man’s first compositions were based on the birds. But now we are alienated from the sounds around us, ‘noise’, we call it. As a contemporary urban person, I want to make music from these sounds.” When he arrived in Delhi last October to do a residency with Khoj, the first thing that struck him was the traffic. “That’s the sound of Delhi. Of most modern cities, actually. Only here, it’s louder.” He decided to take the city’s chaotic sounds and overlay them with something seemingly similar, but actually structured and discrete. The performance involved remotely triggering the horns of 30 auto-rickshaws as they moved around the concentric circles of Connaught Place, creating a “moving sound choreography”. “When you hear a single horn, you think: that’s loud! When you hear 30 horns in synch, you think: hmm, why isn’t that louder? I just want to make people listen differently.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 35, Dated September 05, 2009

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