July 30, 2021
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The Act Of Listening

I did my best to escape music as a child, running very fast whenever my mother tried to teach me the Tagore songs she sang so beautifully, but my genes ensured music would eventually return to me, or I to it...

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The Act Of Listening

I did my best to escape music as a child, running very fast whenever my mother tried to teach me the Tagore songs she sang so beautifully, but my genes ensured music would eventually return to me, or I to it. On the other hand, the desire to be a writer, or someone who dealt with words, came early: from wanting to be the commander of an army, I graduated quite seamlessly toward the ambition of being a famous poet and sage by the time I was eight or nine. Still, growing up in the microcosm of a nuclear family located in a 12th-storey apartment in Mumbai, I was surrounded by music. There was my mother, of course, possessed of an extraordinary voice that never wavered from perfect pitch. There were other kinds of music as well: the songs of the Raj Kapoor film Sangam, which I had by heart when I was three, then duly forgot – as you might forget a language you're fluent in in early childhood. Both my parents were admirers of Julie Andrews, and brought the recording of the West End production of My Fair Lady back to India when they returned from London in 1961.

My father bought a hi-fi in 1970, and received two complimentary records in the process. I made a sudden leap from Julie Andrews towards the Bee Gees' delectable early pop sound, and the Who's mixture of lovely melodies and discomforting lyrics. That year, on a Polydor compilation, I heard the transfixing opening riff of Hey Joe, as well as James Last's brassy version of Never on a Sunday. This first wave of listening was eclectic, if not downright erratic.

For an Indian apartment, my home was, by Indian standards, relatively silent – given the fact that we were on the 12th floor. This must have been an early, and subterranean, cause of unhappiness. My memory of growing up in Mumbai is vaguely, but firmly, unhappy: I always presumed this had to do with the loneliness of being an only child, and the stratospheric nature of my father's corporate life. But I now see I've felt unhappy whenever I've been surrounded by silence – as I was as an undergraduate in London – and been content when sound is at hand: such as in my uncle's two-storey house in Kolkata, and in the second-storey flat in Bandra in suburban Mumbai to which my parents moved after my father retired. Living closer to ground level makes it easier, in a country with a warm climate, to listen and be continually distracted.

My intolerance of silence is something I became more aware of after moving to England as an undergraduate in 1983. Sitting in a studio flat in Warren Street with the windows shut, I began to recall how sound would ramify around my uncle's house in south Calcutta, always suggesting an elsewhere; around this time, I became aware that the soundtracks in Satyajit Ray's and Jean Renoir's films were as intent on capturing this elsewhere as they were in attending to the main story. This dimension of the world – its constantly shuffling, coughing, whistling, semi-visible presence – would go into my first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, set in the Kolkata I visited as a boy. When I'm asked what continuities exist between my practice as a writer and as a musician, I'm at a loss; except, now, I can begin to acknowledge that the act of listening is a thread running through both.

Meanwhile, by the time I reached London, my musical propensities had taken an unexpected turn: I'd discovered the beauty and difficulty of Indian classical vocal music, and begun an arduous regime of training. At the same time, I stringently shut out 80s popular western music; this state of affairs continued till I returned to India in 1999. Scott Fitzgerald, wryly analysing the effects of his decades-long alcoholism on his career, said it was as if he'd been asleep for 20 years. I, in the 16 years I lived in England, eventually became a published writer and a concert performer in Indian classical music, while behaving as if western popular music no longer existed. This idiosyncratic mental geography I'd created made it possible, in the early years of the 21st century, for my project in experimental music to come into being. It was a project that required disorientation, discontinuity and surprise, and for listening and remembering to suddenly come together.

In 1999, on moving to Calcutta, I'd begun to play my old records again. And, listening to a posthumous release of Hendrix playing the blues, I started, for a while, to hear doubly – to hear the Indian raga in the blues scale, and vice versa. This was because both the blues and certain Indian ragas are pentatonic: they have five notes. One morning, as I was practising raga Todi, I had my first experience of what I now call a "mishearing": I thought I heard the riff to Layla in a handful of notes I'd been singing. A few days later, a recording of the Santoor (a Kashmiri stringed classical instrument) being played innocuously in a hotel lobby seemed to embark inexplicably on Auld Lang Syne before returning to raga Bhupali. These peculiar transitions were made possible by the recurrence of the pentatonic on different traditions; they were also enabled by 20 years of, in a sense, aural slumber, and of now beginning to recover, in a new but accidental way, what I'd long ago heard and cast aside.

When I think of how I make my daily journey from writing to music, and back again (which, in a sense, I'm enacting at the moment), I grope for analogies. It's not a question of being able to "do" various things. I can cite two analogous activities: global travel (which has defined my life for about 30 years) and writing bilingually.

To begin with the first: when I leave India, it is, each time, a great wrench, because I'm essentially casting myself aside – it's a little death. I struggle against it, but, in the country of arrival, I begin to let go, to form new alliances, to learn and see. Echoes and chance concordances direct me: in a street in Geneva or Brussels, I'll see a floor or wall or balcony that I've seen in Kolkata. These resonances complicate my certainties about history; those inert categories, "east" and "west", start to disintegrate. Something similar happens in my music. How, in my new album, Rodrigo's Concierto des Arunjuez, raga Kafi, Leonard Cohen's Famous Blue Raincoat and two Hindi film songs come together in one long piece? It's like the resonances you discover, after years of travel, in a foreign city; when, unexpectedly, the correct comparison comes to you, bringing back to the world a memory you thought was dead.

As for writing in two languages, I think of the Indian poet Arun Kolatkar, who composed two great oeuvres in Marathi and English respectively. "I keep a pencil sharpened at both ends," he wrote in his notebook; and the same shrewd insight holds for the artist moving between art-forms and genres. Music and writing are different languages, and each offers certain opportunities while foreclosing others; just as you become a slightly changed human being when you switch to French after speaking in English. When something stimulates me these days, when, say, I'm arrested by a sound, I ask myself what its best home might be: a story, an essay, a paragraph, a song? And then, after weighing the question, I take the plunge.


Amit Chaudhuri's second CD Found Music is just out in the UK. BBC has an interesting radio programme. More information is available here

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