Pieces of Sound

I hum to myself a lot. All these pieces of sound that rattle inside my head, like this non-stop radio station playing my favorite and non-favorite tunes, they sort of simmer and then overflow. Not complete songs, mind you, those only play when I am really bored, and I haven’t been bored in a long while now. What I hum are just fragments of tunes, sonic branches that come and go as they please.

It’s a harmless habit that inches more towards annoying  if you are the person sitting next to me in office. Somewhat creepy if I am doing it in the bus and you’re sitting next to me, so I don’t.

It could be worse. There was this time in college when I absentmindedly whistled in class. I did not do it on purpose, I swear, but the subject and the lecture were boring and the tunes, they wouldn’t just stop. I do not blame the lecturer for thinking someone was trying to disrupt his class. He took it in his stride initially – would just stop and look around trying to read the faces of the students sitting in the general direction of where the sound came from. It sort of helped that I do not pucker my lips when I whistle.

I consciously stopped doing that. It was stupid. But some of my classmates felt more mischievous than I did, and began using it as a  thing to disrupt the class. The next time it happened, the lecturer threw a fit and refused to take any more classes until the culprit came to his room and apologized. Nobody did, and finally I went and confessed to having done it before. He was remarkably nice about it, I remember, just asked me not to do it again and came back to take classes from the next day. I am not sure he believed me saying that I had not done it that time.

The other major class disruption had to do with the bassline of ‘Urvasi’, back in school. It’s possible for an impressionable fifteen-year old to come up with a way to generate something similar to the sound of a synth-bass from the back of his throat. It’s also completely possible for said fifteen-year-old to figure out that others cannot localize the source of a sound produced that way, especially if one keep a straight face. Someday, when I am back in Guwahati, I want to confess to Rana-sir that I was the guy messing with his Advanced Mathematics class, and not someone playing Kaadhalan from the road, and that it was not necessary to shut all the windows every day before class to block that sound. This was done totally on purpose, oh man, I was a total douchebag.

On the plus side, I do hum in tune. It’s loathsome to be in tune when the song in question is Mika’s ‘Grace Kelly’, but I manage.

On the hum-list right now:

  • The first few lines of Zeb & Haniya’s Chup, especially the main trumpet line.
  • Random lines from the Rock Star album. The lines translate to “All that I wish to say/is ruined/by the words I employ”. I also try to hum parts of the first song of the album, called ‘Phir Se Ud Chalaa’, which is devilishly tough to transcribe on a single vocal line, let me tell you.
  • The main bass-groove in the Attack the Block OST.
  • The opening to ‘Tom’s Diner’ by Suzanne Vega.

It’s interesting – well, maybe just to myself, but that’s the whole point of this blog, isn’t it? – that some of these tracks just come out of nowhere. The Rock Star tracks are fairly obvious. ‘Chup’ comes from my recent rediscovery of the Zeb/Haniya album thanks to the Dewarists episode that I talked about a few days ago. Attack the Block, when I began humming it and realized what I was doing, became a mystery to me, until I realized that the bass-line is somewhat similar to a loop that plays in Monsters Ate My Condo. (Which is this awesome iPad game that I am playing at the moment, and it has gotten me interested enough to miss my bus-stop a few times)

Funny things happen. ‘Sahara’, from the Sivaji OST began playing in my head when I was reading Richard Starkings’ Elephantmen, because Sahara is the name of one of the characters in the series. That morphed into an upbeat rendition of the ending of Dil Se, which I’ve mentioned earlier as the inspiration behind the main melody of Sahara, and suddenly became a mashup of the opening melody to ‘Tom’s Diner’ and Fallulah’s Bridges’.

That’s not just it. The guitar and trumpet line from ‘Chup’ are trying very hard to remind me of ‘Mrs Robinson’, and I have no idea why. ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ floats in every now and then too.

It gets awkward sometimes. Especially when I’m humming something and someone asks me what the tune is, and I realize that I have to backtrack, in my head, to figure out what it was. That takes time. And makes me appear completely stupid.

The worst it gets is when I pause and realize that I am in the middle of a tune that I should not really be humming. ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’, for example, the song by Deep Blue Something. Or ‘Two of Us’ by the Beatles. That’s when I shake myself out of it and change channels, in my head. Some pieces of sound do not belong there anymore.


Björk- Crystalline

Medulla was the last Björk album I listened to with religious intensity. After that, there was a parting of ways, a stupid feeling that she had peaked and it would be embarrassing to have her newer output wash away the intensity of old. But back then, once upon a time, Björk was Music 101.  Her alien-accented voice not only turned my knees to jelly, it also represented an expansion of my consciousness. She taught me that music need not always be comforting and happiness-inducing, that it was not necessary for the words in a song to rhyme, that discordance can transport you to a new world. My knowledge and my appreciation of music became inconsequential, it felt like I knew nothing. She challenged my taste, she made me hunger, and I fell in love.

I would be distorting facts to suit the point at hand if I said that everything I subsequently listened to was because of Björk. But I’ll admit this: the kind of music I love and actively seek features female artistes twiddling knobs and going bat-shit crazy with their voices. I attribute this completely to my not-quite-adolescent slobbering over her, and the need to satisfy the musical hunger she brought into my life.

‘Crystalline’ from Biophilia, her latest album, is not a song, in my opinion. It’s a synaesthetic experience, especially if you own an iDevice. The song saw life as an App, where you had to guide a gliding object through three-dimensional tunnels, picking up crystals on the way. What you pick determined what you heard. Instead of being a distraction, the game became a mesmerizing visual interpretation of the musical experience. Suddenly, Björk has found a new way of crawling out of my headphones into the hidden places of my brain.

Side note: The tinkling chord progression that cocoons the majority of the track is played on the gameleste, a combination of the Indonesian Gamelan and the celesta that was commissioned by Björk for this album. There’s a lovely Youtube video that shows the making of the instrument, here.


It is easy to say that the last minute of the song, where the drums cut loose, is the Epic Win moment of the album. But listen closer. If the beat were a living thing, I would say that the composer almost eases it into that last minute. When the song begins, the beat tiptoes into the sound-scape tentatively, a bass kick at a time, and then tries to settle into a hissy groove. But like a petulant child that cannot decide how best to draw attention to itself, it tries to be oh-so-quiet; then froths and seethes, trying to attach itself to the loop sailing smoothly by in whatever way it can. Björk’s voice flirts again and again with the percussion in subtle ways – the rolling ‘r’ when she rhymes “with our hearts” with “quartz”, of the drawn-out sibilance of her “polygonssss”. But it is also the voice that keeps the beat in check, forcing it to morph into different rhythmic sub-explosions in course of the song as it tries to break free of the claustrophobic layers of chorus and gamelesta. Until that crucial last minute when, as the chimes fade away, the drums declare independence. It is pure, gleeful sonic destruction, and one can almost imagine her standing on one side and smiling at her creation as it lays waste to the house that the song built, the impotent sputters and fizzes transformed into violent, happy percussion patterns.

It ends the same way it begins – without warning. And I am in love again.