Eye Contact with the City: A Discourse on Contemporary Urban Sounds

Creator's Statement

This recorded conversation takes its departure from a critical listening to a sound work elegy for Bangalore (Chattopadhyay, 2013a, b, c) originated from an award-winning project Eye Contact with the City (Chattopadhyay, 2010 – 2013).[1] Originally produced for and aired at Resonance FM, London as part of an interview project Sensing Cities,[2] the dialogue between artists and researchers Budhaditya Chattopadhyay and Maria Papadomanolaki aims to develop a discourse on contemporary urban sounds. While responding to the interviewer/interlocutor Papadomanolaki, Chattopadhyay contextualizes his work within a body of research and artistic practice as well as recurrent thought-stream, and conceptualizes the sound work stressing on the notions of urban alienation and the lapses in the (aural) memory through frenzied navigation in the contemporary cities, arguing for the contemplative listening as a strategy for empowerment and emancipation.

Elegy as a form denotes melancholia and lamentation especially for the dead or the passed away. In the work elegy for Bangalore,[3] the poetics of elegy is explored towards the expression of sorrow over the passing of time, affecting detachment, decay and departures in aural memory within the transfiguring landscape of a city. The passing of time forces the disappearance of the hitherto known landscapes from the immediate sight into pervasive emergence of a megalopolis that is under rapid growth and development. Stemming out of intense phenomenological experience embedded in a psychogeographic practice of dérive (Sadler, 1999; Bassett, 2004; Coverley, 2010) in an Indian city and its complex sound world, the work represents a sonic construct that investigates the processes of unadulterated listening to the city under dynamic transformation. Working on the assumption that passage of time can be captured employing a contemplative and poetic mood of elegiac pacing as a methodology of listening to contemporary urban sounds, this work uses indolence in order to facilitate meditative and in-depth observation of the city involving a keen sense of temporality and spatial history that reshapes memory associations disconnected and erased in the pervasive passing of time.

The primary material for the work was gathered in six months of extensive fieldwork. The audio composition took two more years to take a final shape. The sounds that were gathered during the extensive field recording undertaken at different locations of Bangalore City, embody the imagery of urban growth, exemplified by the enormous metro-rail constructions. This disruption occurs in an anticipation of idleness quite typical of Bangalore and similar to that of other Indian cities. Sounds restored from the collection of used reel-to-reel tapes found at the flea market provide insights into this idleness within the city’s endangered memories. Apart from being mere auditory information extracted from the industrial environment of the construction sites, the field recordings are the impressions, reflections, and musings of a nomadic listener. They are intensive and inclusive of the phenomenological experience of attentive and expanded listening and recording at various locations in the city.

These recordings can also be considered as the location study and field research towards developing the composition. The primary layer of sound as industrial drone formulates the quintessential continuo on which tones and textures from used and damaged tapes are posited and re-contextualised as the secondary layer of experience. The city of Bangalore, the protagonist in this work, appears as the third layer in terms of various traffic rumbles and minute vibrations in buildings. These recordings have augmented the imaginary, surreal cityscape by framing the fleeting, transient impermanence of sounding urban growth. The strategy of the composition primarily remains a digital-acoustic mediation of recognisable environmental sounds and contexts; the aim has been to evoke the listener’s spatial association, pre-cognition, and imagination of the city that is currently in a state of slow decomposition. In this context, the conversation between Chattopadhyay and Papadomanolaki helps to locate the transcendental potentials embedded in the work towards conceptualizing a number of issues the artists have been concerned with, namely urban sound, contemplation, listening and memory.

Works Cited

Basset, K. 2004. “Walking as an Aesthetic Practice and a Critical Tool: Some Psychogeographic Experiments.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 28(3), 397-410.

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya. 2013a. “Auditory Situations: Notes from Nowhere.” Journal of Sonic Studies. Special Issue, Sonic Epistemologies, 4.

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya. 2013b . Elegy for Bangalore. Frankfurt am Main: Gruenrekorder.

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya. 2013c. Interview in In the Field: The Art of Field Recording. Lane, Cathy, & Carlyle, Angus (eds.). London: Uniformbooks.

Coverley, Merlin. 2010. Psychogeography. Herts: Pocket Essentials.

Sadler, Simon. 1999. The Situationist City. London: The MIT press.

Self, Will. 2007. Psychogeography. London: Bloomsbury.


Budhaditya Chattopadhyay is an Indian-born media artist, researcher, and writer, with a PhD in sound studies from Leiden University, The Netherlands. Prior to his PhD, Chattopadhyay has graduated from the national film school of India specializing in sound, and received a Master of Arts degree in new media/sound art from Aarhus University, Denmark. Chattopadhyay’s work questions the materiality, site-specificity and objecthood of sound, and addresses the aspects of contingency, contemplation, mindfulness and transcendence inherent in listening. His artistic practice intends to shift the emphasis from object to situation and from immersion to discourse in the realm of sound and media art. Chattopadhyay has received numerous fellowships, residencies and international awards, and his works have been widely exhibited, performed or presented. Chattopadhyay has an extensive body of scholarly publication in the areas of contemporary media, cinema and sound studies in leading peer-reviewed journals.

Maria Papadomanolaki is a Greek sound practitioner and researcher currently based in London.  Her work and research focus on creating collaborative listening experiences, often in sites associated with transience. Either in the form of telemetatic soundwalks, outdoors listening events, durational broadcasts or workshops, Papadomanolaki is interested in investigating sound in response to placemaking, perception and memory. Papadomanolaki has presented her work and research at galleries, conferences and festivals in Europe, UK and the US. She is a founding member of SoundCamp collective and has co-edited the publications Transmission Arts: Artists & Airwaves (PAJ Publications, 2011) and sounds remote (SoundCamp/Uniformbooks, 2016).

[2] Sensing Cities investigates the themes of urban exploration and narrative through the use of sound, writing and new media art. It aims to create an initial understanding of the processes behind artists, writers and specific projects and to raise questions about perceiving, creating and narrating place, be that fictional, real, internal or external. Sensing Cities brings together different creative approaches that engage with personal or collective memory and history, transience, listening, recording, sensing, voice, words, walking and locative art. Past interviewees: Viv Corringham, Dan Scott, Daniela Cascella, Iain Sinclair, Francesca Panetta, Tom Wolseley, Olivia Bellas, Joel Cahen, Ian Rawes. See the online archive of Sensing Cities: https://sensingcities.wordpress.com/

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay’s audio work elegy for Bangalore—from the portion we hear at the beginning of this piece—is somehow both lush yet dry, both warm and ghostlike, grounded in reality and yet decidedly surreal. This compelling sound world has been relegated, literally, to the margins of this discussion, providing a sonic frame for a 30-minute conversation between Chattopadhyay and Maria Papadomanolaki that delves into the experience of urban sound environments. As our interlocutors’ conversation unfolds, their familiarity with the work contrasts with the listener's. The full 56-minute recording is available on a CD released in 2013 on the German label Gruenrekorder, and seeking out this recording would seem to be a prerequisite for fully appreciating the dialogue. However, decisions have been made about the interview's production that are surprising and disarming, such as the hushed level and relatively poor quality of the voice recording. We are allowed to hear each speaker fumble their words, lapse into contemplative silence, repeat their ideas, and negotiate the flow of conversation in ways that a more traditional approach to editing for radio would eliminate. We can tell by a change in voice when a question is being asked spontaneously and when it is being read. The unfiltered quality draws us closer to the speakers, exposing their editorial decisions while reinforcing the idea that we are listening in on a private conversation. 

As they talk, a profile emerges of the interests and listening techniques that inform Chattopadhyay’s practice. He undertakes a “contemplative listening” that distances the listener from the sounds heard, allowing one’s observations to remain detached.  Such a listener is not part of the heard environment, but a nomadic and individuated presence. As the conversation wraps up, he further refines the description of his practice to “hyperlistening,” a technique where sounds are heard in constant juxtaposition with memories of other, similar sounds drawn from previous experiences.  The central role of memory in this listening methodology explains the “elegy” of the title – this style of listening is inherently nostalgic and melancholic.  This technique also has the effect of making the experience of any place a universal experience of every similar place the listener has encountered, which is a critical feature of this work's aspiration.

Through absorbing and periodically recalling the excerpt that kicks off the conversation, we can begin to guess at how these ideas manifest in elegy for Bangalore, though our understanding feels incomplete. In presenting this interview as a sound recording, the producers could have chosen to connect Chattopadhyay's words to the body of work he is describing by, for example, interspersing illustrative clips throughout the conversation. The missed opportunities here are perplexing. However, we are not left entirely empty-handed. At one point in the discussion, Chattopadhyay says of his concepts, “If you experience an Indian city, then you’d understand this better.” Even those uninitiated to the urban Indian soundscape, and without access to a copy of elegy for Bangalore, will find here a formula for a sort of universal listening to cities, and an implicit invitation to "hyperlisten" to one's own environment.

Reviewer Bio:

Stephan Moore is a sound artist, designer, composer, improviser, coder, teacher, and curator based in Chicago. His creative work manifests as electronic studio compositions, improvisational outbursts, sound installations, scores for collaborative performances, algorithmic compositions, interactive art, and sound designs for unusual circumstances. He is the curator of sound art for the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, organizing annual exhibitions since 2014. He is also the president of Isobel Audio LLC, which builds and sells his Hemisphere loudspeakers. He was the music coordinator and touring sound engineer of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (2004-10), and has worked with Pauline Oliveros, Anthony McCall, and Animal Collective, among many others. He is a senior lecturer in the Sound Arts and Industries program at Northwestern University. 

Eye Contact was originally produced for the Sensing Cities program on Resonance.fm, a London-based community arts station. The model for this audiography is the radio interview, perhaps the form most familiar to readers of this special issue from time listening to NPR, the BBC, and similar national broadcast institutions. While the content of Chattopadhyay and Papadomanolaki’s dialogue is highly engaging and covers a territory that will be familiar to sound artists – who often walk a distinction between the embodied, place-specific sound art inspired by the work of R. Murray Schafer and the more abstract approach to sound art linked to Pierre Schaeffer (see Rosati and Bhagat, 2020) – it shows little of the high-end technical polish we typically associate with large national broadcasters. As Moore details in his response, the audio is roughly-hewn and little effort has been made to smooth edits and repetitions. Many venturing in to the world of audiography might find their work sounding a lot like this, and should look at whether or not preserving roughness or attempting to eliminate it to make the work more immersive and “professional-sounding” fits with the objectives of their work.

Does it fit for Chattopadhyay? Twice in their discourse, the artist and interviewer discuss themes of distance and detachment. The first comes about half-way through the piece, as Chattopadhyay reflects upon what it felt like to return to recordings he made in Bangalore long after the recording process itself while he was back in Europe. He emphasizes that when it came time for layering and processing, these recordings “came back to him as objects,” shedding their strong attachment to the city. Instead of being reminded of an embodied experience, he became especially cognizant of feelings of melancholy and nostalgia through which that experience had become mediated. Later in the discussion, the conversation turns to a different version of this same theme, as Chattopadhyay explains how the overwhelming environment of Indian cities encouraged him to develop “contemplative distance” – the opposite of “immersion” – even an alienation and thoughtful marginality. Like the distance created by the time lapse between recording and editing, developing a sense of contemplative distance is constitutive of an identity. “Without having a contemplative distance,” he explains, “I would never imagine myself nomadic.” Would a smoother, easier style of recording and mixing the discussion have captured this spirit as well? In expressing a nomadic aesthetic, Chattopadhyay and Papadomanolaki’s discourse on audiography takes an anti-immersive approach.

Work Cited

Bhagat, Alexis and Lauren Rosati. 2020. “’Listen My Heart:” Sound Art, Cinema, and the Problems with Surround Sound” in Indian Sound Cultures, Indian Sound Citizenship. Ed. Laura Brueck, Jacob Smith and Neil Verma. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.