Demystifying Sound, Remystifying Sense: Free.wav 2.0 Sonic Arts Residency

Demystifying Sound, Remystifying Sense: Free.wav 2.0 Sonic Arts Residency

Bhoomi Farms

June 8, 2023
Sukanya Deb
Bhoomi Farms

On my first evening at Bhoomi Farms, while I was chatting with Bint Mbareh and Nicolás Jaar, an electrical fuse blew, immersing us in complete darkness and the farm’s natural soundscape. Further across the farm, Aditya Kapoor and the participants who had arrived before Free.wav 2.0 officially began were tweaking with an assemblage of electronics at the Gazebo—the “highest density of technology” in the region, a participant furtively noted—from which the same harmonized sonic environment was recorded, warped, and played back. This synthesized warbling of insects returned to us as produced sound, creating a duet with their natural vocalizations until it became impossible to differentiate one from the other. An unintended preview of what was to come over the next week, we participants and instructors would go on to train our ears in close listening, charting across diverse physical, political, and sonic terrain and encountering several such instances of the total synthesis of sound, from the organic to the simulated.

Free.wav 2.0, a sonic arts and electronic music residency, took place in March 2023 at Bhoomi Farms, a family-run fruit farm amid the riverine landscape of Attapadi, Kerala, India, and the protected tropical rainforest of Silent Valley National Park. Hosted by Nithin Shams and curated in collaboration with Aditya Kapoor, Free.wav 2.0 emphasized open exchange and introduced tools, frameworks, and concepts that could be deployed fluidly in sound production. During the residency, which I was invited to attend as a writer-in-residence, sixteen participants were led to engage in sonic speculation and to think about (deep) listening as a layered practice with political and aesthetic potential. The intensive program tethered us to the soundscape of the farm, topography of the region, and Attapadi’s history. For the last half-century, Attapadi has been a site of people-led environmental activism and conservation, including the successful protest of a hydroelectric dam project that threatened to flood an ecologically significant forest area, which has since become Silent Valley National Park. 1 The Bhavani River, which runs alongside Bhoomi Farms, served as a site for collective exploration and an axis for discovery of the landscape, transmitting stories of the region’s environmental movements, migrations, and displacements of indigenous communities.

View of the Bhavani River and the bankside path through wilderness. Photo: Neelansh Mittra.

The driving forces behind Free.wav 2.0’s practical modules were the demystification of sound and music production and the remystification of the sensible, as rooted in critiques of various systems, including knowledge, and nationalism, economics. Drawing on the history of displacement of indigenous communities in the region and informed by the instructing artists’ own research and politics, the modules assembled a toolkit of sorts, offering strategies for listening to sound anew and incorporating this sonic and material vocabulary into musical and experimental productions that could take shape through the participants’ individual practices. Nicolás Jaar, a musician and artist; Aditya Kapoor (Flux Vortex), an artist, producer, and musician; and Krishna Jhaveri, a sound artist, musician and mix engineer, led practical modules on sonic and musical composition, sound synthesis and mixing, and sound perception and field recording, respectively. Sound researcher and artist Bint Mbareh led a module exploring materialist readings of sound and music in lived contexts, in collaboration with Jaar. Rana Ghose, a filmmaker and producer of REProduce Artists, led a module on livestreaming that considered the technical elements of online broadcasting and the aesthetics of circulation. Musician and artist Nithin Shams led a deep-listening session on sonic meditation in which the drone provided a central sonic quality, and software engineer Jagannath Sampath led demonstrations of his open-source digital synthesizer and visualization tool DIN is Noise. As part of these programs, participants engaged and experimented with Ableton Live, a widely used digital audio workstation, and Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), an open-source broadcasting and video-editing software. A key architectural conduit for this pedagogy was the Gazebo, a roofed, circular pavilion at the center of the farm that doubled as a space for formal classes and informal jam sessions in collective free time. The Gazebo’s exposure to the elements allowed all environmental sound—from birds, insects, and lizards, and the movement of wind and water—to seamlessly blend into produced sounds and transgress supposed barriers between the “natural” and “synthetic,” inviting participants to experience and contribute to a complex sonic dimension.

Formal classes began with “Introduction to Sound Editing,” Jaar’s module on Ableton Live, which introduced participants to composition, sampling, and production. Like several other sessions over the course of the residency, Jaar’s involved a meditative listening exercises in which participants paid attention to their immediate soundscape, rich with waves from the environment and the breathing, shuffling bodies in proximity. Participants were encouraged to share their experiences of sound from these few minutes of intentional listening and to notice the directions from which sounds were being received, a practice in sound localization that would help us attune ourselves to the “pan” feature of Ableton Live. During the module, Jaar emphasized ways of making sound and music production accessible while subverting the prescriptive user flows of the Ableton software so that participants might expand their understanding of a workstation usually associated with electronic music toward new uses. Jaar proposed Ableton Live as a set of tools, in its most fundamental sense, that enables sonic, musical, or cinematic composition and with which sound acquires or mimics space; to demonstrate this argument, he created an improvised sonic scenography with multiple transitions that was at once auditory, spatial, and palpable. The first exercise in Jaar’s introductory module was to take familiar sounds and make them unrecognizable through chopping, cutting, pasting, splitting, panning, duplicating, layering, and automating, a sample set of functions that he considered fundamental to sound production. Several exercises in the residency purposefully denaturalized sense—that is, perception and comprehension of the sensible—an outcome of repeated listenings and useful confusions that arose from fragmenting and redistributing sonic stimuli. 2 Jaar also sought to challenge the naturalized acculturation of the software interface and critique its ideological premise: in Ableton Live, time is necessarily read from left to right, indicative of its Western origins, and composition is contained within a default grid, which strictly regiments time. As the module progressed, Jaar switched off the software’s grid to generate a “natural” rhythm and an imperfect sonic “groove.”

To describe sound or music, one often reaches for likeness or simile. Noting this critical gap within language, one can consider the oscillation between sense and its expression as a means for experiencing sound anew: we participants heard birdsong as the whir of a CPU and the rhythmic murmur of electronic static as an insect’s hum. The sensory apparatus of the self was figured as a shifting density of atmospheric molecules, individual attention, and memory, as well as the material dimension of an auditory setup, all of which contributed to what Jhaveri called the “sonic aggregate” in his introductory session “Auditory Stimulus: A Physics of Sound and Vibration.” In the session, Jhaveri also talked about how listening can “extend beyond our species” and how research in the field of bioacoustics has shown that certain species of birds, such as the Great Tit (Parus major) or the European blackbird (Turdus merula), have adapted their vocalizations to respond to the noise pollution of urban environments. 3 Diving deeper into Ableton, Jhaveri introduced the workstation’s spectrogram to participants as a tool for framing the “spectral mode” of listening to the frequencies within the human auditory bandwidth (20–20000 Hz). Participants were instructed to recognize specific ranges within this spectrum and describe what they represented in their own words, a practice in demystifying sound and listening, calling upon words like “muddy,” “screechy,” “stabby,” “sibilant,” “sour,” and “glossy” to extract certain sonic qualities. 4 Participants were then encouraged to challenge their cognitive perception of sound and engage with multiple layers through which one could “read” sound or visually abstract it using tools like Ableton Live and DIN is Noise.

Krishna Jhaveri conducting a presentation at the Gazebo, Bhoomi Farms. Photo: Neelansh Mittra.

Throughout his modules, Jhaveri spoke about various modes of listening, expanding on the spectral form discussed in previous sessions toward critical, spatial, and analytical modes of interpreting sound. Understanding sound as a set of frequencies, Jhaveri also discussed sound’s cognitive and bodily perception, referring to phasing and the Shepard tone (auditory illusions) and the mere-exposure effect (a cognitive bias). (Frisson, a psycho-physiological response to stimulus, was also brought up in a later session with Jaar.) Expanding on this idea, Jhaveri proposed spectral information—the frequency spectrum, the bandwidth of human hearing—as being the material that one works with to make music, elements of the “sonic sculpture” one shapes to suit one’s aesthetic needs. “Sculpture” as a metaphor for sound and discussions about shaping “material” recurred in sessions with Jagannath Sampath and Kapoor and were made legible with the equalizer function in Ableton Live. Leading the module “Introduction to Synthesis,” Kapoor demonstrated how the sine wave provided a building block for sound—frequency, amplitude, and wavelength—using Ableton’s digital oscilloscope and spectrogram functions.

Jhaveri subsequently led a session on field recording, contextualizing the practice within histories of ethnography and colonialism. In a practical exercise, participants received Zoom recorders, geophones (to detect ground vibrations), and hydrophones (to record sound waves in water) and set out to capture sounds encountered among the farm’s topography. We also made use of binaural recorders fit with prosthetic ears, which added an uncanny source of likeness and illustrated Bint and Jaar’s later speculation on the auditory organ being a “dam.” 5 Among Jhaveri’s questions about the discipline’s supposed objectivity and its subsequent othering were “Can you make a listening be heard?” and “What is the ‘field’ in field recording?”. In addition to discussion on how microphones reproduce our own filters and biases, the hourlong exercise allowed for exploration into different modes of listening, in which geophones and hydrophones amplified the “unmediated” human listening experience. Following the exploration, the recordings that participants created from sound waves in the air, water, ground, and their own bodies were fed into Ableton Live as samples to produce individual tracks.

A zoom recorder hung from a tree to capture atmospheric sound, part of Krishna Jhaveri’s module “Introduction to Field Recording.” Photo: Neelansh Mittra.

Lasting only a week but containing enough material for a semester-long course, the residency immersed participants in a flood of new experiences of sound, considering the regulation and flow of sonic information through one’s own sensory and cognitive specificities. In the module “Water in Your Ear,” led by Bint and Jaar, participants engaged with their conception of “flows” and regulation, as well as these terms’ political underpinnings in relation to state disenfranchisement and alienation. Through several conversations over the course of the residency, Bint and Jaar detailed the atomization of the Palestinian people and the circuitous intrastate routes that they must take as results of Israeli policy. In this context, regulated movements become flows, and as Bint and Jaar proposed, sound and song could transmit political gestures and stories within them, making state borders permeable and leaky. In the last few years, Jaar has deepened his political and pedagogical engagement with music and sound through archival research in Chile and on-the-ground music production classes in Palestine. In 2020 and 2022, Jaar, who is of Palestinian, Chilean, and French descent, was invited by the Dar Jacir Organization to teach groups of students from various creative fields in Bethlehem and at the Alrowwad Center in Aida Refugee Camp. In collaboration with Dar Jacir in 2018, Jaar worked on reconfiguring the organization’s food shack into a community production studio and a space to conduct classes with neighborhood children. Such inhabited contexts allowed us participants to imagine the radical potential of subversive informational flows and exchange in the face of extreme political realities.

Bint’s artistic practice focuses on communal singing and water bodies as mediums of storytelling, where collecting oral histories through rain-summoning songs and rituals has been the crux of her research. “Water is that place that holds a lot of nodes,” Bint said, “one of them is political, one is deeply spiritual or religious, and one is very much related to absence, whereas another is obviously life-giving and loving and caring. If we’re talking about what water can do as a medium, it is such a potent way to tell a story. I find water as most effective and emotive [for telling] a lot of stories of love, hope and justice, and deep sadness. I grew up Palestinian in a place that has been systematically denied its access to natural water resources. You can get humongous fines for collecting rainwater, even when water literally falls on your land. If you make an active effort to make your land a water catchment or build a water well that is not licensed, you can never get a license for a water well. That means that essentially people’s livelihoods are threatened, restricted, and limited.”

Bint Mbareh recording and listening with hydrophone during a field recording session. Photo: Neelansh Mitra.

“Water in Your Ear” took shape as group exercises, with the dam as a conceptual catchment and framework, through conversation and collective readings and experiences. During sessions split over three days, we explored listening with water as a medium for sound and learned about the local history of Attapadi. We listened to each other underwater (through hydrophones and our own ears) and explored how water regulation can play out as political decisions within a localized context. Embarking on a trek along the Bhavani River to the Ranganathapuram check dam and a neighboring farm—an exploration without much pretext—we took in the wilderness anew in a configuration resembling a human chain, which created a sense of mutual trust among the group. As we propelled our bodies across crumbly ground and nettles, our senses were invigorated with the overpowering smell of wild curry leaves. This culminated in a discussion about our personal experiences of this temporary collectivity and how sound and music could be agents in resisting erasure.

The story that we seemed to be enacting in “Water in Your Ear,” as individuals and a collective, was woven together in a concluding session led by Bint, in which we read aloud the essay “Nubian Historiography and the Eternally Beating River of Return” by Alia Mossallam. 6 The chapter discusses the singing of oral histories, considering specifically the displacement of the Nubian people indigenous to the section of the Nile in southern Egypt and northern Sudan now regulated by the Aswan Dam. Displacement became a part of the Nubian people’s lyrical vocabulary, constructing stories of migration, experiences of resettlement from riverbanks to the desert, and the triumph of the Nile. 7 Their original land and its mapping were maintained in their names and songs, which continued to disperse and flow as oral history. In the local context of Bhoomi Farms, Attapadi originally consisted of community land that was sustained by sixty Adivasi families, predominantly from the Irula, Muduga, and Kurumba tribes. 8 Shamsudhin Moosa and Wahida Ibrahim, Shams’s parents, introduced participants to the historical ecological negotiations in Attapadi, and farm cook Jameela Beerankutty, groundskeeper Jagadeeshan Sangarappan, and ex-priest and archeologist Mani Parampett relayed these local histories. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Adivasi communities took over leases from the government and started cooperative estates for tea, cardamom, and rubber. Once Kerala became a state within India, Malayalis and Tamils from the plains began settling in the region, buying land at throwaway rates from Adivasi families. 9 By the 1970s, the region was no longer under tribal law because of demographic changes and the formalization of Kerala’s administrative unit within the Indian state, after which conceptions of land, access, and sustenance changed. What was once community land for equal and distributed use was now privatized into India’s competitive market economy. Drawing parallels with the displacement of indigenous communities in Egypt and India, with their links to marketization, modernization, and the formation of nation-states, we caught glimpses into how states expand their territory. In lieu of addressing our immediate context through India’s complex caste-driven social and political economy as inherent to the formation of the nation-state and contemporary politics, “Water in Your Ear” challenged fixed, pervasive structures of power, knowledge, and time with instances of political resistance in sound and song. Reformulating listening through the noise of navigating the wilderness and the medium of water and with renewed clarity in song and sound, we listened with our bodies while sharing slices in time.

Participants cross the Rangannathan check dam on the way to a neighboring farm during the module “Water in Your Ear.” Photo: Nithin Shams.

Language and knowledge take shape through dominant formalized systems, with sound as their carrier. The inherent resistance of Nubian oral history, Adivasi tribes’ self-sustaining and community-driven practice of ethics, and Bint and Jaar’s political pedagogy provided insight into organic localized infra-networks that could resist subsumption. Expanding on alternative approaches to circulation and engagement, Rana Ghose’s module “Introduction to Livestreaming” offered a new understanding of such a network. During the pandemic, Ghose experimented with livestreams, which were broadcasted as live talk shows devised and produced in collaboration with musicians and artists from the REProduce Artists collective. Ghose introduced participants to the open-source software OBS, which he used for these streams, as a means of subverting the major social media platforms that dominate aesthetic production and circulation. Ghose’s demonstration of OBS encouraged participants to envision livestreaming as live productions, proposing it as a digital workspace for producing sets and scenes that could be adapted, recorded, and broadcasted. Any form of media available as a file or link could be added to one’s workstation, framed by one’s aesthetic requirements, and even incorporated into filmmaking and editing. When separated from the beast of corporate social media, “streaming” could be reframed as a mode of circulation, distribution, provocation, and subterfuge, which is especially apparent in Ghose’s own filmic style, with its subversion of limitless content production and allowance for different systems to emerge in potential unscripted aesthetic alliances.

Introducing the open-source digital synthesizer DIN is Noise, Jagannath Sampath, its creator, explained how the software uses Bézier curves, a mathematical function often applied in digital animation and graphic representation, to control tones, ranges, and pitches. Notably, the Bézier curve approximates real-world trajectories in virtual environments to model hypothetical scenarios, which makes it useful for military training and operations, as Sampath discussed. While Jaar noted in “Introduction to Sound Editing” how the terms “attack,” “release,” and “arm” have been adopted from a militarized vocabulary to music production software, Sampath sought to dismantle the militaristic dimension of this language by employing exaggeration and caricature as modes of critique and playfully using the “drone” as a visual denotation of musical tones. He described digital space as endless and demonstrated his software’s approach to standardized musical scales through a fluid grid logic, where the expanse of digital space, tonality, and pitch could infinitely regress or progress with a scroll. When switched on, DIN is Noise’s “gravity” function brought the drones back to the virtual ground, so to speak, with their paths determined by either manual or mathematical projection. DIN is Noise has a range of use cases and experimentations, from teaching formal music to live production. Through mathematical function, Sampath’s drones mirrored their real-world counterpart, which has been used to advance neocolonial warfare around the world. The drone took on a new life in DIN is Noise, as Sampath demonstrated covert functions within the software, which he programmed from virtual line-based political maps scrubbed of territorial distinctions—and thus removed from the grid—to rapturously critique nationalistic frameworks that tether geography to ideology. The “drone” refers to a sustained note, chord, or set of sounds, as well as to the sound in Hindustani classical music produced by instruments like the tanpura and sarangi, which Sampath discussed as an initial inspiration for DIN is Noise.

Nicolás Jaar and Jagannath Sampath jam at the Gazebo on the last night of Free.wav 2.0. Photo: Neelansh Mittra.

In the space between each of the modules, in which participants discovered potent frameworks for encountering sound, material, and music, lay critical engagement. The activation of tools, space, and sonic information and the experience of illegibility and inexpressibility became two sides of the same coin: an overflow of emotions can threaten political order as Palestinian lullabies can transmit revolutionary potential, which Bint explored. Sound travels faster in water than in air, and oceans have become sites for sonic communication between marine species and, increasingly, the machinery of resource extraction. Jaar discussed how “silence” is an impossibility in our physical environment, which lacks the kind of spatial vacuum necessary to maintain it; to this end, he demonstrated how digital silence was actually tonal static, manipulating a straight line in Ableton’s equalizer function into crests and troughs.

Silence is never truly silent, as our world is perpetually brimming with sound, electromagnetic pulses, and white noise. In a deep listening session led by Shams, “Adnos III” by Éliane Radigue was played so that the drone of the song melded into the farm’s natural soundscape of rhythmic hums and sporadic chirps. We closed our eyes in the evening twilight, and listened closely for the duration in collective quiet, most of us reclined on the Gazebo’s wood floor. Our minds and bodies were open to the sonic environment, in harmony with sustained vibrations.


In the 1960s and 1970s, Bhoomi Farms’s own Shamsudhin Moosa, a sculptor and artist and Nithin’s father, was involved in conducting the ecological impact study on the forest and the Save Silent Valley movement.


This previewed sampling sessions later in the week in which Jaar recorded his own voice to supply the “original sound” that he then warped to create a drum kit, which was then channeled into a track mixed live.


Bioacoustics is the scientific study of sound production and reception within animals, including humans. In 1926, the Yugoslavian biologist and entomologist Ivan Regen, known for his early contributions to the field, studied the alternating vocalizations among katydids (a type of North American cricket) and achieved a response to artificial chirping sounds from the male species. This sample experiment complicates the false dichotomy between “artificial” and “natural” sound. See .


In a later Ableton session led by Jaar, reading sound spectrally involved identifying how certain sounds, like a clap or a snap, could be translated visually.


See .


Approximately 48,000 Nubian people were resettled in the desert around Kom Ombo, Egypt, as part of the building of Aswan Dam in 1952, which Gamal Abdel Nassar, then president of Egypt, upheld as a part of his modernizing agenda. Displaced Nubians were called Tahjir, and this suffix was added to their names. Tahjir is the Arabic word for “displacing” or “migrating,” which did not have a counterpart in the Nubian language Fadjiki. See Alia Mossallam, “Nubian Historiography and the Eternally Beating River of Return,” in Rights of Future Generations: Propositions, ed. Andrea Bagnato, Adrian Lahoud (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2022), 148–62.


For musical references from Alia Mossallam’s research on Nubian historiography, see .


Adivasi is a term meaning “original inhabitants” and used to denote various indigenous communities in South Asia.


India gained its independence from British colonization in 1947 in a handover of powers and the integration of the Princely States; India became a republic in 1950 with the formation of its constitution. However, the territorial extent of contemporary India is the result of gradual acquisition, which continued decades even after Independence.

Technology, Land & territory, Nature & Ecology, Education, Music, Anthropology & Ethnography
Sound Art, Decolonization, History, Environment, Geography, Palestine, Indian Subcontinent

Sukanya Deb is a writer and curator whose interest lies in the intersections of contemporary art, culture, technology and their material propositions and is inhabited through exhibitory, digital, and print formats. She has worked extensively in programming and curation within the arts sector, which has broadened her interest in generating and experimenting with existing infrastructures for support, collaborative exchange, and dissemination. She was a recipient of India Foundation for the Arts’ 25x25 Grant, and her writing has been featured in publications such as STIRworld, ASAP | Art, Critical Collective, Write | Art | Connect, AQNB, and The Quietus.

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