Sounds of a vanishing silence

A swamp glade captured for If We Vanish

A swamp glade captured for If We Vanish | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When ‘Sound of Silence’ was released in 1964, little would Simon & Garfunkel have realised their song would be a portent of things to come. Now, half a century later, with vast swathes of the Earth’s quiet places having been reduced to a few pockets scattered around the planet, the danger of natural silence vanishing is very real.

“Sound is changing dramatically every day and going by our research, natural silence may not exist for much longer; we’ve got a few more decades at best,” says Nikhil Nagaraj, a Bengaluru-based sound artist. Together with fellow sound artist Felix Deufel from Leipzig, Germany and their team, the duo captured the beauty, mysticism and astounding clarity of the quiet as experienced in the mountain forests of India’s Western Ghats and the high-altitude cold deserts of the Himalayas.

Cold deserts of the Himalayas for the If We Vanish project

Cold deserts of the Himalayas for the If We Vanish project | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

During a 40-day expedition to map the soundscape — a measure of the biodiversity of a region’s flora and fauna — Nikhil and Felix, accompanied by photographer Phil Jungschlaeger and videographer Xenia Gorodnia, used different 3D audio formats to capture the quiet of some of the few pristine places in India before they disappeared. The upcoming exhibition, ‘If We Vanish,’ embodies that research.

“I met Felix in 2017 during a workshop at The Indian Sonic Research Organisation in Bengaluru where he was an artist-in-residence. The following year I was an artist-in-residence in Germany. We soon became friends and by 2019, we started developing ideas that we could work on together,” says Nikhil.

Nikhil Nagaraj

Nikhil Nagaraj | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

While ‘surround sound’ might be one way a layman would describe their work, sound artists operate in a different league altogether, taking into consideration factors such as elevation and range, using specific speakers and production tools to enhance the hearing experience. “We create sound installations and abstract compositions for events and exhibitions, working with 3D audio which simulates our natural hearing,” says Felix.

Felix Deufel

Felix Deufel | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In November 2021, the team presented their research titled ‘If We Vanish,’ as a performance, encapsulating the different interpretations of silence. “There were performances by Ronita Mookerji from Bangalore and visual artist Tobias Feldmeir from Berlin which was presented at ZiMMT, the Centre for Immersive media, arts, music and technology in Leipzig, following which it came to Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru in December 2021,” says Felix.

Talking about the upcoming exhibition, Nikhil says, “We don’t see this as another edition of ‘If We Vanish’ — it is an ongoing topic and is spread over multiple projects. While our first was a performance based on different types of silence, this one is an exhibition focused on natural silence.”

“Human sounds interfere with natural sounds and that affects the health and well being of the environment. There is so much human sound, we can’t hear the sounds of Nature,” he adds.

The team behind If We Vanish

The team behind If We Vanish | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Felix explains the impact of noise pollution on Nature. “Birds learn particular calls in their lifetime and noisy interruptions prevent them from acquiring that training. As a result, they are unable to communicate with each other about food or potential danger. This is a small example of how noise pollution is affecting the ecosystem; it can be seen in far greater magnitude throughout the animal kingdom.”

Perhaps one aspect which city dwellers and non-sound artists may not grasp is the impact of aeroplanes flying over these areas. “The frequency of planes was more at night; there seems to be no particular protected area that is free from noise pollution, at least in India,” says Nikhil.

Throughout their work, the team has refrained from naming these areas to prevent an invasion of tourists out to experience something new. “For this project, our team carried out intense research in protected rain forests of India and the Himalayas. It was frustrating to see how one could see plastic pollution even in these protected areas,” laments Felix.

Rainforests as captured by the team for If We Vanish

Rainforests as captured by the team for If We Vanish | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Since there has been no frame of reference in this field until now, the team hopes their work will serve as a starting point for other researchers to gauge the health of the environment.

The ‘If We Vanish’ exhibition is a collection of sonic and visual data. The video installation displays different ecosystems and environments while the listening room is equipped with a 32-speaker 3D sound system playing natural soundscapes. Since both are in a constant loop, visitors to the exhibition can enjoy the experience for as long as they like.

Biophony: produced by non-human life forms
Geophony: non-biological natural sound
Anthrophony: human-generated noise

“Each time it loops, it takes on a new personality and you hear new details. Similarly, you’ll never see the same thing twice as the images are bigger than what the eye can take in at once; you tend to focus on one thing at a time,” says Nikhil.

Felix adds that since it is an immersive experience, each visitor to the exhibition would encounter the passage of time differently.

Rainforests as captured by the team for If We Vanish

Rainforests as captured by the team for If We Vanish | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The team will be contributing their work to the archives of the National Centre for Biological Science in Bengaluru and it will be available to scientists, researchers, artists and others interested in this field, for reference.

While ‘If We Vanish’ focuses on the expanses of natural silence, if human beings were to vanish, those spaces would endure.

‘If We Vanish’ will be exhibited at Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, Bengaluru from May 7-10. Interested parties can follow their work on Instagram @if_we_vanish or email the team at

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2022 9:12:28 am |