A Moment of Mishearing

The following is the text and approximate blueprint for a programme involving words, sound, and music that was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 13 November 2010.


[Birdcall; the sound of sparrows, extract from “Freewheeling Jog” is introduced then begins to fade out.] Sometime in the nineteenth century, the Tagore family, located in the spacious mansion Nilmoni Tagore had built in Jorasanko in North Calcutta, acquired a piano. The reason for this isn’t clear, except that a certain curiosity and openness, a widening cosmopolitanism and a restless upward mobility marked—as it did many Bengali families of the time—the Tagores. [Opening bars of Dvorak’s Humoresque are played.] The arrival of the piano must have comprised a moment of excitement and possibility. One of Rabindranath’s older brothers—by Rabindranath I mean the poet we generically know as “Tagore”—was the gifted and (no other adjective but this well-worn one comes to mind) flamboyant Jyotirindranath. It was Jyotirindranath who began to compose songs on the piano in the 1870s, and was admired and then emulated by his star-struck younger brother. In what way Jyotirindranath learnt the piano—there would have been no shortage of teachers—or if he ever did is obscure; the songs were mainly a new type of devotional addressed to the nameless, transcendent divinity of the recent reformist church within Hinduism that the pianist’s father had helped found. The sound of the piano must have facilitated this new mood, this shift from the Radha and Krishna of the old devotionals to the high-minded unitarianism that now hung over this world. [The sound of the tanpura, the drone, overlays the last two sentences.]

But clearly Jyotirindranath was also at play on the instrument, using it to explore all kinds of transitions and departures—as his younger brother would famously do later, incorporating in his songs a profusion of borrowed material, from the Indian dhrupad to the outline of ragas, from Bengali devotionals to folk tunes and Irish drinking songs. Well before the poet Tagore accomplished his oeuvre in music, Jyotirindranath was producing strange hybrids. [A section from Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert, part 1, where he is shouting while playing, is introduced.] None of these are known today, because they seem to have been performed primarily for a private audience—performed and then (probably with the various unhappinesses accruing to his life, including his young wife’s suicide) over time forgotten. But, given his involvement with theatre (a cause also for domestic trouble), some of this experimentation reached the public ear. His nephew Abanindranath remarks in his memoir that a Bengali production of Othello contained, as part of Desdemona’s “Willow Song,” a musical variation called “Italian Jhinjit.” [Women’s voices in the background, speaking in Bengali.] Italian Jhinjit! Talk about strange bedfellows. “Jhinjit” is colloquial for Jhinjoti, a raga of exceptional sweetness; how did it become Italian?

I first heard of Italian Jhinjit at a dinner party from a professor of theatre and expert on Tagore in Calcutta, who was also, incidentally, a jazz buff. [Sound of a door closing; footsteps; voices. Indian classical music: raga Jhinjhoti] This was late 2004; I told him I’d begun work on a project in music—it was going to bring together disparate and, sometimes, apparently incongruous elements: a raga, a rock riff from a well-known song, a jazz standard. “One of the pieces in the repertoire is called Spanish Bhairav,” I said, “for the way Bhairav echoes certain Spanish melodies. Another moves from raga Todi to Clapton’s ‘Layla.’” He listened without bemusement. “You’re going back to Jyotirindranath’s experiment. To when he sat at the piano in Jorasanko. ‘Italian Jhinjit.’” That was first occasion on which I heard that puzzling name. [Door closing; footsteps. Extract from Koln concert.]

I mention these details not only to construct a lineage, or to unearth an unsuspected convergence—because the music I’m interested in is all about convergence—but to invoke the household, and the nature of life at home, integral to my project. I don’t know what growing up in the 1860s was like for Tagore, although, in his memoirs, he suggests he was surrounded by sound and image. [The ticking of a clock; alarm goes off.] By the early twentieth century, when he’s recounting that childhood, “the ghosts,” he remarks, “are gone.”

My story begins not with childhood, but with moving to Calcutta in 1999, after roughly sixteen years in England. Working and writing at home, my wife near me, she not having resumed work herself because our daughter was nine months old, my aging parents—whose only child I am—always nearby, the perennial hired help moving in and out of the apartment, I was constantly encircled and encroached upon by movement. [Women’s voices. Short extract from Koln concert, part 1, in which Jarrett is thumping the piano.] My writing flourished in these conditions; I began to see why certain French philosophers would always go to the café to write and think. To be among people you’re completely familiar with, or, on the other hand, those you don’t know at all, as in a café or on a street, is to be perfectly solitary, and in a state of composure; you’re free to pursue your preoccupations, imaginary though these might be, and constantly, even unguardedly, absorb your environment. [Sparrows in the background; extract from Freewheeling Jog playing.] It is, in a sense, the opposite of the sociability of a party, where you might feel down-hearted and alone, suddenly aware of invisible limits, not necessarily wanting to talk to the person you’re talking to, wishing you were somewhere else. [A single high organ note on a synthesiser gets louder, then fades.]

This apartment, like almost everywhere else in Calcutta, has not only light but sound coming into it from every side. It’s nowhere near Jorasanko in the old town in the north; this is the south, in a plush residential neighbourhood full of trees and the houses of the once-privileged classes that are being torn down swiftly and all the time for the new apartment buildings to come up. Birdcall, human voices, hammering, traffic noises from the main road form my horizon of hearing when I’m in the bedroom, and the large windows are open. [Jarrett, from part 2, tapping his feet and playing in 4/4.] But there’s also music, because right next door is the Calcutta School of Music, whose second-story terrace I can amply gaze upon from my eighth-storey perspective, and where, particularly when paying no attention, I can hear children practising Indian classical modes, recordings of swing music, emphatic drum solos, tentative jabs at the trumpet, and, of course, piano scales. [Repetitive sound of Chinese pentatonic being practised on acoustic guitar; played by myself at home.] There’s another slightly faraway sound which comes to me at different hours of the day, that could be termed musical—the muezzin’s call to prayer from the two or three mosques in Park Circus. [Dvorak: from Humoresque—violin and piano] This call is clearly audible (though still remote) at half past four in the morning, when I’ve sleepwalked to the bathroom; gradually my ear awakens to the whining tone, translates, then realises it is quite beautiful. In half a minute, the bathroom is pristinely silent, and the ear discerns yet another muezzin, but singing in another key, creating a short-lived, unintended dissonance that no one but the steadfastly devout is listening to. For the rest of the day, it won’t be easy to hear them again, because of the veil created by the traffic, the fizz of cooking, even the hushed transit of the ceiling fan. [A hissing sound overlays the previous sentence.] All sound’s potentially music, said John Cage; but all music is also sound—that is, something with not just a tonal but a physical and social life. I find it increasingly hard to tell, living as and where I do, when sound turns to music and music turns to sound. Speaking of Cage, I should mention that I hear silence quite differently in this apartment. Listening to 4’33”—the famous piece of silence where Cage is actually asking us to hear carefully what happens in that brief span of time—is hardly comparable, I suspect, to experiencing it in Oxford or at the Barbican. Here, 4’33” means the sound of my daughter talking, a tap being opened, a spatula being put down, two women conversing in the background: all this is contained within the performance. [Women speaking to each other in German.] When the same piece is executed in a concert hall in London, it becomes much more predictably about silence; you see clearly, during the unfolding of the work, how much English concert-goers resemble commuters on the Tube, attentive, knees pressed together, eyes focussed strategically not on any one human being but on the near distance. The train vibrates; silence becomes habitable; in the concert hall, you suddenly think of Cage’s mysterious impulse when you hear someone cough. [Again, a single high organ note on a synthesiser gets louder, then fades, in the course of the previous and the next two sentences. A door closes.]

Each time I’ve returned to England in the last twenty-seven years, entered my room or flat or studio apartment and closed the door behind me, I’ve heard one thing in the first few moments: silence. It’s an indescribable but unmistakable sound: high-pitched and narrow, bearing upon the eardrum. It could be, of course, as an engineer once informed Cage in a soundproof room, the sound of one’s nervous system—but I think not. [Sound of thumping.] It is an admonitory sound, protected and even fostered by regulation and the law; it is the mad foundation of order, and I only ever hear it in the West. I’m intimidated by it; then, in a few minutes, I stop hearing it, just as, in India, during whole stretches of time, I no longer hear the intricate and intrusive array of sounds around me. [Sudden loud car horn.] In the room in England, I begin making tea, or making phone calls; and then the reproving signal that was plainly audible upon my arrival has vanished—only to confront me again when I make the journey back from India to the room the following year. These are the indisputable moods and situations in which my sense of a certain music and language has been working itself out ever since I can recall.

In 1983, in a studio apartment in Warren Street, not far from University College London, silence quickly gave way to “Relax!” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. [Extract, when the word ”relax” isn’t being used; repetition of “when you want come.”] An excellent song; but to my ears, noise, and noise I still wouldn’t have any idea what to do with. I had grown up with Western popular music. My father had gone to a shop called Melody next to Strand Cinema in Bombay and bought our first hi-fi in 1970. [Extract from Freewheeling Jog.] The purchase came with a gift: two complimentary records—a Polydor compilation and The Best of The Who. How I blushed and fidgeted with inner excitement while listening to “I Can See For Miles”! At twelve, I started to learn the guitar, and, in a few months, could play and sing the Bee Gees’ “Words” and other songs. But, at the age of sixteen, I began to undergo an extraordinary conversion. [Sparrows.] Not only did I begin to listen to Indian classical music; I wanted to sing in the North Indian classical tradition. This was, though, easier desired than accomplished; and so my days arranged themselves around a pattern of repetitive and exhausting vocal exercises. [Again, sound of Chinese pentatonic being practised on acoustic guitar; played by myself.] Not only did my practising exceed what my guru, my music teacher, expected of me—softly, he’d caution me to practise less—but I performed an ideological and cultural volte-face as well. I believed, now, that my recent urge to be Neil Young or Ian Anderson was deeply inauthentic; that I’d been embraced by Indian classical music, and that I would be made complete by it, establishing, through it, a continuity between my immemorial “Indianness” and the world I was part of in Bombay. But Bombay itself was changing; the immense apartment we’d moved to on the twenty-fifth storey of a building in Cuffe Parade after my father became chief executive overlooked the construction of an even more immense penthouse, in which the builder’s daughter and son in law would one day live. [Tabla playing at great speed.] And, at the same time, the American singer-songwriters I’d adored, with their long hair, bent monk- or nun-like over acoustic guitars, partly in denial of the world and partly in subtle ministration, unexpectedly turned antediluvian—they left their footprint and were gone before the universal onrush, in restaurants, festivals, and houses, of disco, synthesised and sequenced music. I arrived in London with a small, custom-made tanpura. During my sixteen years in England, I pretended—and it was easy to do—that there was no Western popular music.  Around me, sounds changed and shifted, from “Relax!” to “Karma Chameleon” to the perceived threat of “Here we go! Here we go!” to the clicking of heels at 5 pm as temps marched to Warren Street Tube Station to the deathly calm of Sundays and, later, the inert desolation of Christmas, lightened only by the self-absorbed agitations of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. [Woman’s voice from the film, calling, ‘Henry! Henry!’]

I moved back to India—as I’d always intended to do—in 1999. I was, again, a different man from the sixteen-year-old ideologue for whom Indian music became a prism through which to view the world, and the lonely young misfit who came to London in 1983. I was now married; I had a six-month-old daughter who announced her needs with what sounded to me like a distinctly musical wail. And I’d lost something of my familiar antagonistic polarities, and begun to listen to my old record collection. An album had come out, very posthumously, of Hendrix playing the blues; I found myself listening to it. [Luxuriant acoustic blues licks from Hendrix album.] I could hear certain Indian ragas in what he was playing—like Dhani, Jog, Malkauns—not because I’d gone looking for them, but in a way that one becomes aware, one day, of another dimension to an outline: like, for instance, the duck-rabbit, Wittgenstein’s famous mutant. [Opening line of Cream’s “I Feel Free.”] Or it could have been something else—an echo returning from what I’d forgotten, made possible by the fact that the blues is based on the very same five-note or pentatonic scale that these ragas emerge from. But reminding me that listening isn’t only about naming, but about accident.

Now I must return to that previously-mentioned location: the household in Calcutta. [Once more, repetitive sound of Chinese pentatonic being practised by myself on acoustic guitar at home.]  Here, sitting on my bed at 10 a.m. in the white kurta and pyjamas I’d slept in, I thought I heard, midway through practising the morning raga Todi, the riff to “Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes in a handful of notes I’d just sung. [Two low glissandoes of a raga being played on a veena.] After completing the hour-long exercise, I turned to my wife and said, ‘Do you know what I just heard?’ and, after demonstrating what I meant, asked: ‘Do you think one could make a piece of music out of this?’ [Opening riff from the original record.] Another moment of mishearing followed a few days later, in the same unpremeditated fashion, when I was standing in the lobby of a newly-opened hotel on the grim Calcutta EMS Bypass. The typical hotel Indian classical Muzak was my ambience—the santoor, whose tinny, glossy notes I was trying successfully to ignore, when it seemed to launch, without prior notice, into “Auld Lang Syne.” I listened intently; but, in a few moments, the music had gone back to being the raga it was, Bhupali, a pentatonic identical to the Highlands scale from which the Scottish melody was derived. My project had such non-serious beginnings. [Sound of laughter from the end of ‘We Were Talking’ in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; then, during the next sentence, the opening of Sgt Pepper’s, with the ‘one-two-three-four’.] When it was finally ready for performance, I called it “This Is Not Fusion.” People responded by saying, “Of course it’s fusion,” just as—and I’m introducing an analogy here, not making a comparison—they exclaimed, “Of course it’s a pipe!’ upon viewing Magritte’s “This Is Not a Pipe.” [Extract from The ‘Layla’ Riff to Todi, approx 3 mins.]

What’s the difference between listening as an inescapable fact of everyday existence, and the sort of activity I’m trying to get a handle on? The answer isn’t clear. I could hazard a guess—perhaps the latter involves an element of chance discovery that makes irrelevant our usual poles of attentiveness and inattention? [A meditative Tagore song in the background, from a recording by my mother.] I was spending the winter in Berlin at the end of the year in which my project had its first outing, and I was allowed to be at once solitary and constantly in the midst of things in that city by the fact that I knew no German; that is, presence predominated over instruction, proximity over sense. Once, on an U-Bahn train, I studied a tall, gaunt-looking man as he made a short but dense speech while holding aloft a copy of Motz, the newspaper sold everywhere in Berlin by the homeless and the unemployed. His earnest, childlike sing-song led me to presume, for no reason, that he was East European or Russian, and reminded me, as it happens, of the tune of a Vengaboys’ hit I didn’t know I’d even heard in those days when disco still hadn’t lost its grip on our world. Sound has the characteristics of music, true: but the same is true—when I think, say, of disco—the other way round. The concatenation becomes, as in an endless game of “pass the parcel,” infinite. [Cheerful seventies party music.] And what of the spoken word itself? Communication often precedes understanding, T.S. Eliot helpfully declared; and Tagore, reading Herbert Spencer, reflects that the speaking voice is full of emotion and is, thus, itself a kind of music. My mother, a singer of Tagore songs, always says that the treatment of a song needs no added emotion, and should be easy as speaking—although speaking didn’t seem at all easy to that anxious man on the U-Bahn train.


[Play ‘Motz’ from the CD, “This Is Not Fusion.”]




Thank you for listening kindly

And sparing me a second.

I know you’re sitting blindly

And thinking of the weekend.

I sell a paper called Motz,

It really is a treasure.

I live not far from Ostkreuz,

I’m not a man of leisure.


My father was from Russia,

My mother was from heaven.

They killed him with inertia

When I was just eleven.

When she left me alone

My faith had started crumbling.

Somebody picked a stone,

I saw the wall come tumbling.


Since then I’ve wandered freely

From Ahrensfelde to Spandau.

I’ve worked for two years nearly

But I don’t have a job now.

Tomorrow I will walk it

To the employment bureau.

Meanwhile do check your pocket

And please give me a euro.


And if you have no small change

I’ll settle for a smile.

I know you think that it’s strange

I’ve been singing for a mile.

Thank you for listening kindly

And sparing me a second.

I know you’re sitting blindly

And thinking of the weekend.