Can electronic music tell a story about who we are? Debashis Sinha talks about his LP for Establishment, The White Dog, and how everything from Toronto noodle bowls to Bengali field recordings got involved.
The Canadian artist has a unique knack for melding live percussion techniques and electro-acoustic sound with digital manipulation, and in The White Dog, he dives deep into his own Bengali heritage. Just don’t think of “world music.” What emerges is deeply his and composed in a way that’s entirely electro-acoustic in course, not a pastiche of someone else’s musical tradition glued onto some beats. And that’s what drew me to it – this is really the sound of the culture of Debashis, the individual.
And that seems connected to what electronic music production can be – where its relative ease and accessibility can allow us to focus on our own performance technique and a deeper sense of expression. So it’s a great chance not just to explore this album, but what that trip in this work might say to the rest of us.
CDM’s label side project Establishment put out the new release. I spoke to Debashis just after he finished a trip to Germany and a live performance of the album at our event in Berlin. He writes us from his home Toronto.
First, the album:
I want to start with this journey you took across India. What was that experience like? How did you manage to gather research while in that process?
I’ve been to India many times to travel on my own since I turned 18 – usually I spend time with family in and near Kolkata, West Bengal and then travel around, backpacking style. Since the days of Walkman cassette recorders, I’ve always carried something with me to record sound. I didn’t have a real agenda in mind when I started doing it – it was the time of cassettes, really, so in my mind there wasn’t much I could do with these recordings – but it seemed like an important process to undertake. I never really knew what I was going to do with them. I had no knowledge of what sound art was, or radio art, or electroacoustic music. I switched on the recorder when I felt I had to – I just knew I had to collect these sounds, somehow, for me.
As the years went on and I understood the possibilities for using sound captured in the wild on both a conceptual and technical level, and with the advent of tools to use them easily, I found that to my surprise that the act of recording (when in India, at least) didn’t really change. I still felt I was documenting something that was personal and vital to my identity or heart, and the urge to turn on the recorder still came from a very deep place. It could easily have been that I gathered field sound in response to or in order to complete some kind of musical idea, but every time I tried to turn on the recorder in order to gather “assets” for my music, I found myself resisting. So in the end I just let it be, safe in the knowledge that whatever I gathered had a function for me, and may (or may not) in future have a function for my music or sound work. It didn’t feel authentic to gather sound otherwise.
Even though this is your own heritage, I suppose it’s simultaneously something foreign. How did you relate to that, both before and after the trip?
My father moved to Winnipeg, in the center of Canada, almost 60 years ago, and at the time there were next to no Indian (i.e. people from India) there. I grew up knowing all the brown people in the city. It was a different time, and the community was so small, and from all over India and the subcontinent. Passing on art, stories, myth and music was important, but not so much language, and it was easy to feel overwhelmed – I think that passing on of culture operated very differently from family to family, with no overall cultural support at large to bolster that identity for us.
My mom – who used to dance with Uday Shankar’s troupe would corral all the community children to choreograph “dance-dramas” based on Hindu myths. The first wave of Indian people in Winnipeg finally built the first Hindu temple in my childhood – until then we would congregate in people’s basement altars, or in apartment building common rooms.
There was definitely a relationship with India, but it was one that left me what I call “in/between” cultures. I had to find my own way to incorporate my cultural heritage with my life in Canada. For a long time, I had two parallel lives — which seemed to work fine, but when I started getting serious about music it became something I really had to wrestle with. On the one hand, there was this deep and rich musical heritage that I had tenuous connections to. On the other hand, I was also interested in the 2-Tone music of the UK, American hardcore, and experimental music. I took tabla lessons in my youth, as I was interested in and playing drums, but I knew enough to know I would never be a classical player, and had no interest in pursuing that path, understanding even then that my practice would be eclectic.
I did have a desire to contribute to my Indian heritage from where I sat – to express somehow that “in/between”-ness. And the various trips I undertook on my own to India since I was a young person were in part an effort to explore what that expression might take, whether I knew it or not. The collections of field recordings (audio and later video) became a parcel of sound that somehow was a thread to my practice in Canada on the “world music” stage and later in the realms of sound art and composition.
One of the projects I do is a durational improvised concert called “The (X) Music Conference”, which is modeled after the all-night classical music concerts that take place across India. They start in the evening and the headliner usually goes on around 4am and plays for 3 or more hours. Listening to music for that long, and all night, does something to your brain. I wanted to give that experience to audience members, but I’m only one person, so my concert starts at midnight and goes to 7am. There is tea and other snacks, and people can sit or lie down. I wanted to actualize this idea of form (the classical music concert) suffused with my own content (sound improvisations) – it was a way to connect the music culture of India to my own practice. Using field recordings in my solo work is another, or re-presenting/-imagining Hindu myths another.
I think with the development of the various facets of my sound practice, I’ve found a way to incorporate this “form and content” approach, allowing the way that my cultural heritage functions in my psyche to express itself through the tools I use in various ways. It wasn’t an easy process to come to this balance, but along the way I played music with a lot of amazing people that encouraged me in my explorations.
In terms of integrating what you learned, what was the process of applying that material to your work? How did your work change from its usual idioms?
I went through a long process of compartmentalizing when I discovered (and consumer technology supported) producing electroacoustic work easily. When I was concentrating on playing live music with others on the stage, I spent a lot of time studying various drumming traditions under masters all over – Cairo, Athens, NYC, LA, Toronto – and that was really what kept me curious and driven, knowing I was only glimpsing something that was almost unknowable completely.
As the “world music” industry developed, though, I found the “story” of playing music based on these traditions less and less engaging, and the straight folk festival concert format more and more trivial – fun, but trivial – in some ways. I was driven to tell stories with sound in ways that were more satisfying to me, that ran deeper. These field recordings were a way in, and I made my first record with this in mind – Quell. I simply sat down and gathered my ideas and field recordings, and started to work. It was the first time I really sustained an artistic intention all the way through a major project on my own. As I gained facility with my tools, and as I became more educated on what was out there in the world of this kind of sound practice, I found myself seeking these kinds of sound contexts more and more.
However, what I also started to do was eschew my percussion experience. I’m not sure why, but it was a long time before I gave myself permission to introduce more musical and percussion elements into the sound art type of work I was producing. I think in retrospect I was making up rules that I thought applied, in an effort to navigate this new world of sound production – maybe that was what was happening. I think now I’m finding a balance between music, sound, and story that feels good to me. It took a while though.
I’m curious about how you constructed this. You’ve talked a bit about assembling materials over a longer span of time (which is interesting, too, as I know Robert is working the same way). As we come along on this journey of the album, what are we hearing; how did it come together? I know some of it is live… how did you then organize it?
This balance between the various facets of my sound practice is a delicate one, but it’s also driven by instinct, because really, instinct is all I have to depend on. Whereas before I would give myself very strict parameters about how or what I would produce for a given project, now I’m more comfortable drawing from many kinds of sound production practice.
Many of the pieces on The White Dog started as small ideas – procedural or mixing explorations. The “Harmonium” pieces were from a remix of the soundtrack to a video art piece I made at the Banff Centre in Canada, where I wanted to make that video piece a kind of club project. “entr’acte” is from a live concert I did with prepared guitar and laptop accompanying the works of Canadian visual artist Clive Holden. Tracks on other records were part of scores for contemporary dance choreographer Peggy Baker (who has been a huge influence on how I make music, speaking of being open). What brought all these pieces together was in a large part instinct, but also a kind of story that I felt was being told. This cross pollination of an implied dramatic thread is important to me.
And there’s some really beautiful range of percussion and the like. What are the sources for the record? How did you layer them?
I’ve quite a collection, and luckily I’ve built that collection through real relationships with the instruments, both technical and emotional/spiritual. They aren’t just cool sounds (although they’re that, too) — but each has a kind of voice that I’ve explored and understood in how I play it. In that regard, it’s pretty clear to me what instrument needs to be played or added as I build a track.
Something new happens when you add a live person playing a real thing inside an electronic environment. It’s something I feel is a deep part of my voice. It’s not the only way to hear a person inside a piece of music, but it;s the way I put myself in my works. I love metallic sounds, and sounds with a lot of sustain, or power. I’m intrigued by how percussion can be a texture as well as a rhythm, so that is something I explore. I’m a huge fan of French percussionist Le Quan Ninh, so the bass-drum-as-tabletop is a big part of my live setup and also my studio setup.
This programmatic element is part of what makes this so compelling to me as a full LP. How has your experience in the theater imprinted on your musical narratives?
My theater work encompasses a wide range of theater practice – from very experimental and small to quite large stages. Usually I do both the sound design and the music, meaning pretty much anything coming out of a speaker from sound effects to music.
My inspiration starts from many non-musical places. That’s mostly, the text/story, but not always — anything could spark a cue, from the set design to the director’s ideas to even how an actor moves. Being open to these elements has made me a better composer, as I often end up reacting to something that someone says or does, and follow a path that ends up in music that I never would have made on my own. It has also made me understand better how to tell stories, or rather maybe how not to – the importance of inviting the audience into the construction of the story and the emotion of it in real time. Making the listener lean forward instead of lean back, if you get me.
This practice of collaborative storytelling of course has impact on my solo work (and vice versa) – it’s made me find a voice that is more rooted in story, in comparison to when I was spending all my time in bands. I think it’s made my work deeper and simpler in many ways — distilled it, maybe — so that the story becomes the main focus. Of course when I say “story” I mean not necessarily an explicit narrative, but something that draws the listener from end to end. This is really what drives the collecting and composition of a group of tracks for me (as well as the tracks themselves) and even my improvisations.
Oh, and on the narrative side – what’s going on with Buddha here, actually, as narrated by the ever Buddha-like Robert Lippok [composer/artist on Raster Media]?
I asked Robert Lippok to record some text for me many years ago, a kind of reimagining the mind of Gautama Buddha under the bodhi tree in the days leading to his enlightenment. I had this idea that maybe what was going through his mind might not have been what we may imagine when we think of the myth itself. I’m not sure where this idea came from – although I’m sure that hearing many different versions of the same myths from various sources while growing up had its effect – but it was something I thought was interesting. I do this often with my works (see above link to Kailash) and again, it’s a way I feel I can contribute to the understanding of my own cultural heritage in a way that is rooted in both my ancestor’s history as well as my own.
And of course, when one thinks of what the Buddha might have sounded like, I defy you to find someone who sounds more perfect than Robert Lippok.
Techno is some kind of undercurrent for this label, maybe not in the strict definition of the genre… I wonder actually if you could talk a bit about pattern and structure. There are these rhythms throughout that are really hypnotic, that regularity seems really important. How do you go about thinking about those musical structures?
The rhythms I seem drawn to run the gamut of time signatures and tempos. Of course, this comes from my studies of various music traditions and repertoire (Arabic, Greek, Turkish, West Asian, south Indian…). As a hand percussionist for many years playing and studying music from various cultures, I found a lot of parallels and cross talk particularly in the rhythms of the material I encountered. I delighted in finding the groove in various tempos and time signatures. There is a certain lilt to any rhythm; if you put your mind and hands to it, the muscles will reveal this lilt. At the same time, the sound material of electronic music I find very satisfying and clear. I’m at best a middling recording engineer, so capturing audio is not my forte – working in the box I find way easier. As I developed skills in programming and sound design, I seemed to be drawn to trying to express the rhythms I’ve encountered in my life with new tools and sounds.
Regularity and grid is important in rhythm – even breaking the grid, or stretching it to its breaking point has a place. (You can hear this very well in south Indian music, among others.) This grid undercurrent is the basis of electronic music and the tools used to make it. The juxtaposition of the human element with various degrees of quantization of electronic sound is something I think I’ll never stop exploring. Even working strongly with a grid has a kind of energy and urgency to it if you’re playing acoustic instruments. There’s a lot to dive into, and I’m planning to work with that idea a lot more for the next release(s).
And where does Alvin Lucier fit in, amidst this Bengali context?
The real interest for me in creating art lies in actualizing ideas, and Lucier is perhaps one of the masters of this – taking an idea of sound and making it real and spellbinding. “Ng Ta (Lucier Mix)” was a piece I started to make with a number of noodle bowls I found in Toronto’s Chinatown – the white ones with blue fishes on them. The (over)tones and rhythms of the piece as it came together reminded me of a piece I’m really interested in performing, “Silver Streetcar for The Orchestra”, a piece for amplified triangle by Lucier. Essentially the musician plays an amplified triangle, muting and playing it in various places for the duration of the piece. It’s an incredible meditation, and to me Ng Ta on The White Dog is a meditation as well – it certainly came together in that way. And so the title.
I wrestle with the degree with which I invoke my cultural heritage in my work. Sometimes it’s very close to the surface, and the work is derived very directly from Hindu myth say, or field recordings from Kolkata. Sometimes it simmers in other ways, and with varying strength. I struggle with allowing it to be expressed instinctually or more directly and with more intent. Ultimately, the music I make is from me, and all those ideas apply whether or not I think of them consciously.
One of the problems I have with the term “world music” is it’s a marketing term to allow the lumping together of basically “music not made by white people”, which is ludicrous (as well as other harsher words that could apply). To that end, the urge to classify my music as “Indian” in some way, while true, can also be a misnomer or an “out” for lazy listening. There are a billion people in India, I believe, and more on the subcontinent and abroad. Why wouldn’t a track like “entr’acte” be “Indian”? On the other hand, why would it? I’m also a product of the west. How can I manage those worlds and expectations and still be authentic? It’s something I work on and think about all the time – but not when I’m actually making music, thank goodness.
I’m curious about your live set, how you were working with the Novation controllers, and how you were looping, etc.
My live sets are always, always constructed differently – I’m horrible that way. I design new effects chains and different ways of using my outboard MIDI gear depending on the context. I might use contact mics on a kalimba and a prepared guitar for one show, and then a bunch of external percussion that I loop and chop live for another, and for another just my voice, and for yet another only field recordings from India. I’ve used Ableton Live to drive a lot of sound installations as well, using follow actions on clips (“any” comes in handy a lot), and I’ve even made some installations that do the same thing with live input (making sure I have a 5 second delay on that input has….been occasionally useful, shall we say).
The concert I put together for The White Dog project is one that I try and keep live as much as possible. It’s important to me to make sure there is room in the set for me to react to the room or the moment of performance – this is generally true for my live shows, but since I’m re-presenting songs that have a life on a record, finding a meaningful space for improv was trickier.
Essentially, I try and have as many physical knobs and faders as possible – either a Novation Launch Control XL or a Behringer BCR2000 [rotary controller], which is a fantastic piece of gear (I know – Behringer?!). I use a Launchpad Mini to launch clips and deal with grid-based effects, and I also have a little Launch Control mapped to the effects parameters and track views or effects I need to see and interact with quickly. Since I’m usually using both hands to play/mix, I always have a Logidy UMI3 to control live looping from a microphone. It’s a 3 button pedal which is luckily built like a tank, considering how many times I’ve dropped it. I program it in various ways depending on the project – for The White Dog concerts with MIDI learn in the Ableton looper to record/overdub, undo and clear button, but the Logidy software allows you to go a lot deeper. I have the option to feed up to 3 effects chains, which I sometimes switch on the fly with dummy clips.
The Max For Live community has been amazing and I often keep some kind of chopper on one of the effect chains, and use the User mode on the Launchpad Mini to punch in and out or alter the length of the loop or whatnot. Sometimes I keep controls for another looper on that grid.
Basically, if you want an overview – I’m triggering clips, and have a live mic that I use for percussion and voice for the looper. I try and keep the mixer in a 1:1 relationship with what’s being played/played back/routed to effects because I’m old school – I find it tricky to do much jumping around when I’m playing live instruments. It’s not the most complicated setup but it gets the job done, and I feel like I’ve struck a balance between electronics and live percussion, at least for this project.
What else are you listening to? Do you find that your musical diet is part of keeping you creative, or is it somehow partly separate?
I jump back and forth – sometimes I listen to tons of music with an ear to try and expand my mind, sometimes just to enjoy myself. Sometimes I stop listening to music just because I’m making a lot on my own. One thing I try to always take care of is my mind. I try to keep it open and curious, and try to always find new ideas to ponder. I am inspired by a lot of different things – paintings, visual art, music, sound art, books – and in general I’m really curious about how people make an idea manifest – science, art, economics, architecture, fashion, it doesn’t matter. Looking into or trying to derive that jump from the mind idea to the actual real life expression of it I find endlessly fascinating and inspiring, even when I’m not totally sure how it might have happened. It’s the guessing that fuels me.
That being said, at the moment I’m listening to lots of things that I feel are percolating some ideas in me for future projects, and most of it coming from digging around the amazing Bandcamp site. Frank Bretschneider turned me on to goat(jp), which is an incredible quartet from Japan with amazing rhythmic and textural muscle. I’ve rediscovered the fun of listening to lots of Stereolab, who always seem to release the same record but still make it sound fresh. Our pal Robert Lippok just released a new record and I am so down with it – he always makes music that straddles the emotional and the electronic, which is something I’m so interested in doing.
I continue to make my way through the catalog of French percussionist Le Quan Ninh, who is an absolute warrior in his solo percussion improvisations. Tanya Tagaq is an unbelievable singer from Canada – I’m sure many of the people reading this know of her – and her live band, drummer Jean Martin, violinist Jesse Zubot, and choirmaster Christine Duncan, an tremendous improv vocalist in her own right are unstoppable. We have a great free music scene in Toronto, and I love so many of the musicians who are active in it, many of them internationally known – Nick Fraser (drummer/composer), Lina Allemano (trumpet), Andrew Downing (cello/composer), Brodie West (sax) – not to mention folks like Sandro Perri and Ryan Driver. They’ve really lit a fire under me to be fierce and in the moment – listening to them is a recurring lesson in what it means to be really punk rock.
Buy and download the album now on Bandcamp.