Seditious Sounds: On Conlon Nancarrow

by Gautam Pemmaraju


In a desultory speculative history, an affliction caused by the febrile May heat here in Bombay, I imagined a current day encounter between two old scheming radicals who spent their entire lifetimes up to no good—from global-trotting revolutionary activity to cloistered tomfoolery. I saw MN Roy, a founder of the Communist Party of India and the Mexican Communist Party slowly sipping tequila out of a slender glass with Conlon Nancarrow, a music composer of extraordinary conceptual depth and at one time, an American communist. Apart from a shared ideological space, these two remarkable men also shared a love for Mexico City—while Roy spent two intellectually formative, even revelatory, years in the sprawling city from 1917 to 1919, Nancarrow left America in protest twenty years later in 1940. He subsequently became a Mexican citizen and spent the rest of his life there. In my heat-induced visions, I saw the two eating fresh papaya (Nancarrow reportedly was very fond of them) and shooting the breeze. Perhaps they spoke of British spies, Bolsheviks, Hegelian dialectics, and radical humanism; my delirium did not reveal the nature of the conversation. I am more inclined to attribute things of a mundane nature to the encounter—the pleasing weather, Louis Armstrong, and seasonal fruits. It could well be that they were planning a night out at MN Roy's former house No 186, now a well-known ‘clandestine', ‘hip' night club in Mexico City (thanks to 3QD editor Robin Varghese for this gem), the irony of which is fecund with wild discursive possibilities.

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Reverberance, Reverence, Deliverance: Echoing the Otherworld

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Suave locus voci resonat conclusus

(How sweetly the enclosed space responds to the voice)

—Horace, Satires I, iv, 76 (in Doyle, P, Echo and Reverb:

Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900 – 1960; 2005)

The whispering gallery that runs along the inner periphery of the dome of Gol Gumbaz, the mausoleum of the medieval Bijapur sultan Muhammad Adil Shah (1626 – 56 CE) is an acoustic marvel. Multiple echoes of up to ten in number can be heard in the dome on a single clap. And a reasonably soft whisper can be heard across a distance of a hundred and thirty feet. The tourists visiting the place are mostly prone to whoop, shout, and clap with great enthusiasm, overwhelming the dome with dense sonic information. At quiet times though one can savour its rich, amplified reverberance—the timbre, colour and tone of the spoken word assumes an elevated quality, as if it were imbued by the sheen of something beyond earthly artifice.

Such sonic modulations appear to us to be of a higher order, sanctified by primordial forces. And in our own mimetic appropriations, of sermons and speeches, chants and songs, drones and dirges, we seek to texturize our words with an otherworldly aura. The use of delay effects in sound recording allows us then to ritualistically edify our anxieties and inadequacies and transpose them into reverberant solemnity.

The prosaic use of delay effects in recorded sound—echo and reverberation—has its place in modern times, but the phenomenon has for long resided in the realm of mystical experience. The Greco-Roman mythical character Echo, a nymph condemned to repeat all that she hears, is a tragic figure by all accounts. Rebuffed by Narcissus, the heartbroken Oread hides herself in woods, caves and mountain cliffs. She withers away there in loneliness, her flesh wasting away and bones turning into stone till all that is left is her voice. In this reduced, etheric spectral state, all she can do is to reply to anyone who calls out to her.

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