Sunday, November 04, 2018

The Sounds Of A City

German sound artist Lisa Premke, who spent two months at Fort Kochi, put up an unusual sound installation

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the Berlin-based sound artist Lisa Premke walked on the streets of Fort Kochi, in end July, her ears pricked up. There were so many sounds: the noisy exhaust of an auto-rickshaw, the blaring of a car horn, the blast of the horn of a ferry from the nearby backwaters, loud conversations among people in the different languages of English, Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi. This was followed by the muezzin’s call for prayer from the local mosque. And when there seemed a break in the noise, she could hear the cawing of the crows and the chirping of sparrows.

“The loud sounds occurred so often, there was a constant rhythm,” says Lisa,
who had come as a participant of a two-month residency programme of the Goethe-Institut in Bangalore.

Lisa says that in Kochi, the sounds were not singular. “Instead, they were all mixed up together,” says Lisa. “Because of the humidity, the sounds carried long and far. But since the buildings did not have sleek surfaces – most had crevices, pock-marked concrete walls, and green moss, the sounds did not bounce back. So, the sounds entered everywhere. I would compare it to an early morning fog. Surprisingly, it did not get on my nerves at all. On the other hand, it was rather calming.”

And it was in Kochi that Lisa heard some sounds for the first time. One was the fall of the monsoon rain. “When it fell on a roof made of an asbestos sheet, it made a different sound than when it fell on a tiled roof, or when it hit concrete walls and vehicles,” she says. “Nature was creating its own pattern of sounds.”

The monsoon set a dominating rhythm to the life around. “When it rained, life slowed down,” says Lisa. “People waited patiently. And after an hour when it stopped raining, life continued at its usual pace.”

Of course, Lisa was heartbroken to see the widespread destruction wrought about by the floods. “It was so sad,” she says.

But the most unique sound she heard was through an excursion. One night, she, along with a friend, went into the backwaters and recorded the sounds of thousands of frogs as they let out their once-a-year mating cry. “It was a like a choir,” she says, with a smile.

Lisa spent days going mulling over her experiences at her Pepper House studio which faced the backwaters. And finally, she came up with an installation, in which she hung thin, long chains on bamboo rods across the hall. And when the breeze blew through the windows, the chains swayed creating a tinkling sound, or it could be the sound of rain falling, or glass breaking into small pieces. In her own way, Lisa had created a unique sound.

And in December, during the Kochi Muziris Biennale, she will take this installation outside, so that the crowds can enjoy the chains swinging in the open breeze and making a noise.

Meanwhile, when asked to compare the sounds of Kochi and Berlin, Lisa, who has a Masters of Sound Degree from the Glasgow School of Arts, says, “The sound in Kochi is like when you play music on the sound system while you are working – you get used to the constant background noise. In terms of sound, Berlin is quiet. But when the sound happens, like a car horn blowing, it is very loud. That is because it usually hits against the sleek surfaces of buildings and bounces back very hard. So, it can get irritating, unlike in

As to how she got interested in sound, in the first place, Lisa says that it has something to do with her childhood in Hanover, Germany. “There were distinct seasons, so in summer you could hear the sounds of birds, but this stopped in winter when the snow fell and the temperatures went to - 14 degrees Centigrade,”  says Lisa. “So, you end up doing 'active listening.' And when you hear something you know exactly what it is. I got fascinated by sounds at that age.”  

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