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Hemant Sreekumar on Being One of India’s Earliest Noise Artists

The New Delhi-bred, Bengaluru-based producer tells us how he went from electric bass to coding and using algorithms in the span of two decades

Anurag Tagat May 28, 2018

Hemant Sreekumar. Photo: Rana Ghose

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As a child, Hemant Sreekumar took pleasure in destroying toys and eventually, from the mid-Nineties, magnetic tapes, radio transistors, tape machines, “super de-tuned bass guitar” and amplifiers, among other things. He tells me something you’d probably never hear from an artist. “Not having any formal musical background, of course, was vastly helpful – since I could approach acoustics as a standalone physical phenomena – and didn’t have to honor Western/Indian systems of scale, harmony and taste.”

For about nine years – between 1994 and 2003 – Sreekumar took apart old, unused cassettes of devotional albums as well as other tools and paraphernalia. He played bass from 1997 onwards, while he was studying art history in Vadodara, which he calls “the breakthrough mind- expanding instrument.” He had recently pored over profiles of experimental artists such as UK’s Throbbing Gristle and Germany’s industrial/noise act Einstürzende Neubauten in a second-hand 1995 issue of Guitar World magazine, which “left a very vivid impression.” Sreekumar took to the de-tuned bass sound to explore “drone-based soundscapes and machinic percussion.” He added to that his explorations in radio static, white noise textures and even bird and insect sounds. “My uncle was an ornithologist and I picked up a keen listening habit of insect and bird sounds from,” he says. Unlike his uncle, Sreekumar wasn’t too excited about identifying them, but more into “the acoustic properties of the sharp rises and falls or the sustained drone of these creatures.”

Understandably, none of Sreekumar’s work found its way into a club setting at any point. The first opportunities to showcase his sound came with performance artists, who were “most open to the totally abstract renderings of contemporary art,” according to him. New Delhi-based Amitesh Grover’s modern theater piece Ritual Oppari Mourning featured sound by Sreekumar in Fribourg, Switzerland, and later on, curator Shazeb Sheikh called on him for the Blackout Festival in Basel in 2012. He recalls a performance called We Need to Find God from last year’s Power Station of Art event in Shanghai. “That performance had a Hindi and Urdu poetry recitation by Bhagwati Prasad with very slow percussion and a soundscape of raw signals.”

Of course, things have changed around. In the last three years. Artist and event company REProduce Artists have regularly called on Sreekumar (as well as fellow noise and experimental sound artists such as Bengaluru’s frontrunners Indian Sonic Research Organization, Leh-born artist SISTER, New Delhi’s Jamblu and more) for their Listening Room gig series, as both organizer and artist. Last month, Sreekumar found a place on underground metal series Trendslaughter Fest’s lineup alongside black metal and death metal bands in Bengaluru. “Both power noise and metal are thematically obsessed with the dark side of civilization,” he says when asked about the common ground between his work and everyone else at Trendslaughter.  He throws in words like “religious mind control,” “insanity,” “violence” and “torture” as connecting points.

Hear a live version of “Techie Commits Suicide”

That’s certainly what anyone experiencing Sreekumar’s live set would associate his harsh power noise and sound art with as well. It’s intentionally uncomfortable to hear and watch – even with the imposing holograph-like visuals of crosses, pentagrams and more. While working at New Delhi-based contemporary art non-profit Khoj, Hemant briefly spent time with the more modern digital audio workstations but got bored of the “track view-based studio simulation” and turned to code and algorithms for sound.

Divided By Zero, his first album comprising three pieces, was released in March. Compositions such as “Post Industrial Lunar Worship,” “Divided By Zero” and “Techie Commits Suicide” have all previously been performed and released in some form or the other, but never in its original form. Composed on the Pure Data environment, Hemant calls his creative palette “very frugal.” He adds, “There is only a basic sine wave generator and a white noise generator – the rest is a series of filters working on these signals. Artistically it’s very sculptural and explores various inherently machinic sounds.”

To put out an album, Sreekumar adhered to some rules of music publishing, these works of code and data became tracks with a stipulated length that could now be stored media, were given titles and accompanied by a visual aid, one that may be understood as album art. He says quite straightforwardly, “The album format was a pretty efficient method to archive the work from these years.” Canadian imprint Lead Lozenges even took on releasing it on tape, in something that’s as close as it gets to a full circle moment. He says, “I was pretty overjoyed to explore this medium after over 15 years.”

Explore ‘Divided By Zero’ here

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