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Mukul Patel: Speak Slowly after the Tone


On the telephone, artist Wolfgang Staehle stated that I should get out of the house, that we all should get out of the house. ‘It is a kind of exercise.’ He suggested a small gathering at 149 Ludlow. The ground floor was being prepped for a sound installation by THE THING residency artist Mukul Patel, and a table could be set centre to host 8 to 10 people, sipping on bouillabaisse.

It is a very grand idea, indeed, to have a dinner party and an installation simultaneously. I was there.

The nonchalant hostess, Gisela Ehrenfried, floated through the empty space in a flowing black dress, dripping off her small frame like Gena Rowlands in Positano. Wolf began by mopping. He had an aire--there is no task too big or too small. Meanwhile, Mukul was manipulating fields of data on his laptop set at the bar--as though he was the bartender--pouring out a mixture of quivering and exalted sounds.

mukul patel sound environment

Mukul was unassuming, British, a sharp Indian good-look with fingers like a pianist, or a sarodist. But as the dinner party came together, I could not determine whether I was listening to Mukul creating music for the evening or in ‘exercise’ for the performance two days away. I took a chair next to his at the table, although it was not the first question I asked.

AG - First let me ask, am I listening to an exercise or a work?

MP - Perhaps that is an interesting question. In what way, more specifically.

AG - Take something like Queneau’s Exercises de Styles, or Spoerri’s Topographie Anecdotée du Hasard, I consider these a kind of exercise in narratology. Or like Cage’s 4’33” that seems to exist as an experiment--as a thing in itself.

MP - Well, a relevant definition of ‘exercise’ from the OED would be something like a task or activity to practice or test a skill, or a process or activity carried out for a specific purpose, or the use or application of a faculty, right, or process,. Whereas, the same dictionary would give the relevant definition of a ‘work’ as a literary or musical composition or other piece of fine art. But let’s ignore this definition of ‘work’ which seems useless! If we take the first definition of ‘exercise,’ then I'd agree that Queneau's piece is primarily an exercise. Since it declares itself as such, we can also leave it at that. Though, if I had to defend its status as a ‘work,’ then for me, its comic qualities suffice. But I don't think it needs redemption. Cage's 4'33" seems to be an entirely different matter to me, and I am approaching it with little knowledge of the commentary. It is a conceptually well defined piece, albeit an experimental one, since its outcome is not determined. And while it is an exercise by the
second and third definitions, it is not by the first. While I might subject others to an incomplete work, I would hope that I never mistakenly present an exercise--first definition-- as anything but that. We at ambientTV.NET are conducting a series of exercises called The Spy School, which turns surveillance technology against the operators, sous-veillance, which demonstrates what is possible with widely-available devices, and provides a toolkit. But there is a work emerging from this, Manu Luksch's film "Faceless", which is conceptually whole, and which has a coherent aesthetic. While it deploys many of the techniques of the Spy School exercises, it is conceived and presented very differently.

mukul patel sound environment

Across the table from us, the architect Jee Won Kim chimed in with an import-export scheme, while the Danish artist, Jakob Boeskov, responded with a doomsday weapon scheme. Such is the tangential nature of a dinner party.

AG - Earlier you mentioned that much of Electronica does not seem concerned with a linear narrative structure.

MP - What I meant precisely was that much contemporary electronic music does not seem to be interested in structure. Let's avoid the term ‘Electronica,’ which I think means something very specific in the US. We could just talk about music. (How much music today is non-electronic? As soon as you have an amplifier in the chain... I think it was Björk who once gave a pithy description of "techno" as music made with electricity. There are two time scales over which structure could be explored much more in electronic music: First, over intervals of seconds. Whether its in the dance club, lounge, or serious concert hall, too few composers and performers break out of rhythmic cycles of 4s, 8s, 16s. So much of what I hear is rectilinear. Where is the triangular music, or the heptagonal? Is it the legacy of rock? Secondly, over the duration of the "work", and particularly in the forum of dance clubs, where DJs or bands typically play 1–4 hours, there is a lack of overarching structure. The DJ, or increasingly, iPodJ, has access to an unlimited catalogue. Sarasvati, the Indian goddess of music, is lost in an ocean of sonic possibilities without her instrument to help her navigate. In the club, the audience is similarly lost unless the DJ accepts the responsibility to steer a passage-–beautiful, terrifying, efficient-–but few DJs know where they're starting from and where they're going to. Or perhaps more generously, few are willing to explore unusual routes in public. We could blame the commercial boom in electronic music, or--what could be thought of as a response to this--the fracturing of scenes into micronations of sound.

AG - So, you say there are a few artists exploring these unusual routes.

MP - Yes. For instance, in a set in Montreal in the late 1990s, Kid Koala was turning records in 4/4 time round by hand, juggling the beats into waltz time, spinning a 30-minute story punctuated by sly and self-deprecating jokes. On their Tsuginepu EP, Asa-Chang and Junray construct a song that is superficially modern Japanese--the sonic material is spoken word and sine tones--but structurally, classical Indian, in a time cycle of 12. And recently I heard an astonishing piece by Jonathan Harvey, performed by the Arditti String Quartet with electronic manipulation and spatialisation by Gilbert Nouno.

mukul patel sound environment

At the end of the table, three women clustered around artist Christoph Draeger--Heidrun, Ruth, and Nasanin. For a moment, at least, they listened to Christoph as though they might hear something of resonance.

AG - The audience, the reader--What are you providing? What void are you hoping to fill? What experience?

MP - To be specific about this piece, and literal.., there is a space--not quite a void--on the ground floor of 149 Ludlow. It will be occupied by the sounds of speech, and a light situation that I will create, but also by various bodies doing things quite independently of my intention. I provide an environment, and some people play in it. Perhaps, during and after the installation people will describe a range of experiences to me that I would not have imagined. The piece is a work-in-progress: conceptually, it is not realised. I already know that I want to further develop the way that the piece is read through the recitations of Sanskrit and Japanese phonemes. And in general, I want to research more into phonetics and the possible historical links between South Asian and South East Asian languages. But in terms of pure sound and light in space, I expect to be satisfied--an aesthetic dimension that will, perhaps, draw people off the street.

mukul patel sound environment

The artist Simone Huelser turned to me--her beautiful long neck extended and asked, “What are you up to?” I didn’t know how to answer and turned back to Mukul.

AG - So, what are you up to?

MP - Today? Tomorrow? The next?

AG - The next.

mukul patel sound environment

MP - I feel like I've only just started working with sound and language. So, more of the same, only different. I aim for my work to be true to its medium, to be internally consistent, to cohere with its environment, and to jolt. It's difficult to achieve all those things at once, but if you do it, then there's the possibility of striking an illuminating impact with the user, audience. In Indian art music, authority is shared between the audience and the improvising performer. In Music as a Gradual Process, Steve Reich discusses a music that does not privilege the composer, and that is forthright about its own making. I have a definition of ambient works--those that make everything that is not them, appear as a performance. These are not themes in a manifesto, but I keep them in mind. Also, I want to trace histories. This is one way that a work can have a political dimension without becoming reactive.

mukul patel sound environment

AG - To trace histories sounds like a wonderful journey. Unfortunately, it seems to me that once you begin to trace it, you will be compelled to resolve it.

MP - Any resolution that happens is temporary and contingent. I'm committed to rigour, but I'm highly allergic to most conceptions of purity, which deny the evolution and migration of form. Ali Akbar Khan, for me the most significant Indian musician of the 20th century, and one whose sensitivity to classical forms is exemplary, once in response to a question about Indian versus Western musics, said, “Music is music, like a potato is a potato.” In light of recent battles over patents and ownership, rice would make for a richer metaphor, but the simple, banal truth that long-term historical understanding brings about identification with the other, remains.

AG - It is totally unreasonable of me to monopolize so much of your time at a dinner party, but I am thinking of making this into an interview. I don’t know how it will be structured, the tempo, the rhythmic cycle, allegorical or abstract, but I do think that it will be a kind of exercise.

mukul patel sound environment

MP - I suppose, you mean, a conversation.

AG - Yes.

*installation images by Jee Won Kim