Can archaeoacoustics help understand how peoples' acoustic sensibilities evolved?

“The acoustic sensitivity we had before is gone,” says journalist-turned sound artist Umashankar Mantravadi.

“The Greeks saw constellations from among hundreds of stars and could identify shapes within. Now we see just a few stars from those constellations and wonder how the Greeks saw shapes in them. The stars are still there and if we remove all the light and dust we have put in the sky, we will be able to see them.”

It is the same with sound, Umashankar explained in a chat before his recent talk, ‘Archaeology of Listening Practices’ organized by the IFA at the Teri Complex.

The talk drew from Umashankar’s project in archaeoacoustics (the study of acoustic properties of an archaeological site or object), an area of research dealing with the sound properties of ancient theatre/performance spaces. He has received an IFA grant with support from Titan Company Limited to complete his project. He is collaborating with Nida Ghouse, a curator and ex-IFA grantee and Lawrence Abu Hamdan, a sound artist from Lebanon.

“We have added so much noise to the way we live that we can no longer hear the detail of sound. If you were living in the 5th century and your friend redecorated his house, you would hear the change in the room before you saw it. That is because even a new cushion would create a new sound in the room,” he explains.

“One of the things I do is to measure acoustics in ancient sites in order to reconstruct their original sound.”

As part of his project, Umashankar has done the acoustic mapping of two ancient performance sites — Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh and Vadakkamnathan Temple in Kerala. The project would not only help add the dimension of sound to the understanding of their history but is also an attempt to interpret the significance of their acoustic properties in their conservation.

“I started working on measuring the acoustic properties of ancient spaces in 1996. I started with what looked like a theatre space in Odisha. I was asked to do those measurements by a theatre research scholar. I was not happy with those measurements because I did not see how they gave an impression of what happened there, acoustically,” recalls Umashankar who has been a sound artist since 1976 and was instrumental in setting up and maintaining the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (part of the American Institute of Indian Studies) in Gurgaon.

“That’s when I got in touch with a professor in the University of Parma called Angelo Farina, who had been conducting such measurements in 13th century performance spaces in Northern Italy. He gave me insights for my research and also a software that I could use to interpret my recordings.”

By 1996, the International Organization for Standardization had already come up with a set of measurements that needed to be done in order to complete the acoustic measurements of a space. Umashankar then returned to Rani Gumpha, a site that is located close to Bhubaneswar to conduct more measurements but the project was stalled till recently.

“By then I had realized that in order to take these measurements I needed to tap into a method called ambisonics which records sound in three dimensions with four capsules,” he explains.

“The only problem was that ambisonic mics in 1997 cost over 20,000 dollars and needed to be carried in two trunks. There was no way I could get a grant for that amount and even if I did, how would I transport them? That’s when I decided to make my own, because I am a hobbyist.”

The result was the acclaimed ‘Brahma’ mic (named for its tetrahedral nature). “What I do to take these measurements now is to play a sine sweep that starts from the lowest frequencies and goes up to the highest frequency. I can also pop a balloon for this. The mike then records the sound and gives something called an ‘impulse response’ which is a tiny file that, when processed, contains all the acoustic information about that space.”

The project (which he has recently taken up, post retirement) has several implications. Umashankar suspects that there was an acoustic sensibility in India, based on all three of his readings. But he needs to do more research to establish the premise.

“And, there is very little information, especially about ancient theatre. The existing books are simply manuals which all seem related to each other, yet are obscure.”

One of his ambitions is to set up a web platform where these acoustic properties, from across sites, are available to be experienced from various angles.

“My idea is also to create an archive of these measurements organized by place, region, date and time so that people can see how the acoustic sensibilities of people changed over time, especially with the advent of industrialization.”

For instance, as he realised with the ancient performance site at the Vadakkamnathan Temple, there would have been loud drums being played simultaneously with the singing.

“Now, if you don’t put a mike before the singer, you would not be able to hear the singing. But the performance itself, naturally, predated the inventor of the mike. How then would the performance take place? One interpretation is that when there is no background noise, it is possible to hear soft sounds in the presence of loud sounds.”

Umashankar’s measurements will help recreate these ancient performance traditions in the acoustic environments created at these sites.

“We would then know what the performance would have sounded like in those days. Some of these experiments can even lead to a serious understanding of how the brain works, through these contexts. Sound is an important element of our construction of the world. So one needs to understand how it worked in the earlier days and how it works now.”

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 7:17:36 PM |

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