Notes from a Studio
Photograph By Somdeb Sengupta
The embers of my cigarette snuff out as they fall onto the concrete, wet due to the drizzle. Transfixed, I stare at the dying orange glow while the cold wind bites at my body. Shadowy snatches of music waft into my ears. It’s April 2018, and The Rohan Ganguli Quartet is thundering upstairs in the studio as the first storm of spring looms in the sky above.
When I return, the four musicians are standing against each wall of the rectangular live room of BlooperHouse Studios, facing one another. There is no barrier to eye contact, which is critical to the set-up for jamming-based music. I have a front-row seat on the other side of the glass panel, behind the console with the engineer.
Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and shades, keyboardist Arunava Chatterjee looks like he is out for a stroll on the beach. But the haunting chords coming out of his fingers tell a very different tale. They herald the passage into an intricate soundscape where the guitar slowly intones scattered motifs and the drums emulate timpani. I feel as if I am listening to an 18th-century orchestra. The song, Acquiesce, then climbs to hair-raising climaxes, riding on blasts of the alto saxophone played by Rie Ona.
A guitarist and prolific blues player, Ganguli is working on his debut solo album. He first gained recognition in 2001 as part of Cognac, a group of young, fresh talent from Kolkata who used their own material at a time when original indie music was a nonstarter and only a handful of multi-city festivals were operating in the country. Then, he made his bones playing with seminal Indian rock band The Supersonics (2006 to 2015) and still leads the blues ensemble Big Family, which he’s been with since 2011. His solo music is heavily informed by jazz, but it eventually took a drastic turn toward an indescribable entity that draws from various genres.
The album encapsulates his experience of Kolkata, his hometown. “I’ve not sat down to write any of these songs. They came to me in bursts of inspiration, from real-life situations. Losing people, being in a city which is beautiful yet lazy…so it is pretty much a documentation of that, just not consciously,” says the 40-year-old Ganguli. The songs on King of Summer viscerally channel this indolence; they’re all marked by a soothing, light texture that only shifts in the feverish Acquiesce and the powerfully emotive Devotion.
King Of Summer
When they play the title track, a pleasant languor permeates the air, and their body language adapts to the meandering sonic flow. Ganguli sways idly from side to side. Aniruddh Saha, the drummer, moves his torso in sync with the leisurely time signature. Chatterjee is smiling while Ona is soaking in the music, eyes closed. Soon, she launches into solemn baritone notes that make the musical bed around which the guitar moves playfully for a while until the soaring crescendo.
“It captures the laziness of the city as well as its regal vibe,” Ganguli tells me later. “I was riding a steamer in the city’s northern part and saw that the skyline was full of beautiful old buildings. That gave me the idea for this song.”
Saha sprawls out on the black couch in the console room when they’re finished. Across the glass panel, Ona is practising lines for the next song while Abhibroto Mitra, the sound engineer, hovers around checking cables.
“Working in this band is terrific. I can do what I want to. The songs are really beautiful, and they come from a good space – his sincere love for music. I just listen to the songs and react to them,” says the energetic and jovial Saha, who transforms into a dynamic machine once behind the kit. In fact, Ganguli acknowledges that working with Saha pushed him onto the musical path he had subconsciously been drifting towards. The duo had been playing together for a year when Ganguli found himself in Delhi during a tour for a jazz compilation album in 2017. Here, Ona jammed on a couple of songs with them, and this collaboration helped him arrive at the sound he had been searching for.
Ona joins us and places her sax in its case. She plops herself onto the couch. “What are you guys talking about?” she asks.
“Rohan’s approach to songwriting,” I reply.
“Oh, it’s very interesting!” she exclaims. “After listening to his stuff, I had my own ideas for his songs. So when he invited me to jam, I could already see my alto sax lines in the songs.” Although she could not join their rehearsals in Kolkata because she lived in Gurugram at the time, Ona continuously listened to recordings. “When I compose my solo lines, I don’t really think from a chord or scale, I just listen to the song numerous times till my line comes naturally,” she says.
The band puts on a pre-recorded version of Blue Sky, which they will be recording live next. The instruments cruise like birds in flight, chasing each other. It evokes a sense of limitlessness, and the ambience in the studio expands as the sounds of the sax, guitar, drums and synthesiser continue to unfurl over the speakers.
During the post-listening session, Saha has an idea for an overdub. He picks up Ganguli’s guitar and makes screeching bends rather crudely. Waving frantically, he motions to Ganguli to take over and refine his idea. As a result, the latter part of the song has several screeching calls that closely resemble those of an eagle.
This freedom that Ganguli allows his bandmates sets him apart as a bandleader. Though he composed all the songs for King of Summer, he left room for the others to bring in their individual styles. “I do not want to tell anyone what they should play. I’ve already given what I had to give,” he says, swivelling in his chair.
However, the most unorthodox decision he took was to not use a bass player – something which is relatively unheard of. The bass, with its low sound spectrum, is an integral part of Western music. Not only did this change the soundscape massively, but it also created a challenge for the musicians as they had to cover up the lower registers of the musical spectrum.
“The bass fills a huge part of the sonic space, and all of us were conscious of its absence – who’s gonna handle it, when and how? I had tuned my guitar to sound heavier. Even Aniruddh tuned his kit to a bass guitar’s frequency,” says Ganguli. Pointing towards Chatterjee, he continues, “The rest fell on Arunava, who did a great job covering up the space by playing bass-heavy chords. So between the three of us, we tried to fill the space so that it didn’t get missed.”
A soft-spoken guy, Chatterjee likes to go by the book, playing exact notations and knowing what is expected of him. Ganguli’s freestyle approach threw him off. “I am not accustomed to this kind of music at all, but they were kind enough to send me links of what they are looking for. That helped me to visualise their ideas,” he says.
The open-ended compositions require constant communication between band members, and it was therefore crucial that the songs be recorded as single takes to retain the free-flowing improvisations that come with jamming together. Ganguli needed this to be pulled off with minimal hassle. During an earlier session, he had been impressed by Mitra’s views on capturing a band at the source and not doing much post-production, and that’s how the young sound engineer came on board. I ask Mitra what preparations he had to make. “After listening to the references Rohan sent, I understood that the album definitely needed to be recorded live. So I put all four of them in the live room together,” he replies.
Usually, bands record first and then tour, but Ganguli did things the other way round. Doing concerts strengthened the band’s chemistry and allowed the songs to concretise into the desired shapes. And so they entered the studio backed by the pulsating energy of having played together onstage.
Before the recording process began, Mitra had placed Ganguli’s amp in a different chamber while plugging in the synthesiser directly so that the sounds of these two instruments could be recorded independently. The only problem was that because they were jamming, the drums and the saxophone were in the same room. So he placed them as far away as possible and tried out different mic placements to minimise sound leakage.
“The only bleed was the sax into the drums’ mic and vice versa. Usually, people think that instruments’ sounds leaking into others is bad, but that can always be used in a healthy way. That bleed adds ambience to the recording,” says Mitra, whose priority is to make the artists feel comfortable in the studio and allow them to focus on their art.
For that very reason, Mitra plays a Buddhist chant on the speakers and dims the lights before the band goes in to record the final song, Devotion. Ganguli had envisioned a smoky, dark soundscape after witnessing a puja for the tantric goddess Kali – an avatar of Durga – and wanted that spiritual vibe in the song.
Once the chanting ends, Saha jumps up from the couch and dashes to the live room, harking at Mitra to get mics set up as he wants to “try some things”. Ona goes outside while Chatterjee pulls out an iPad and plays atonal sounds that closely resemble an esraj. Ganguli silently observes Saha, who is pulling out a brass drinking glass, beaded bracelets, ghungroos and cowbells from a duffel bag.
“Look…he has a crazy look in his eyes,” comments Mitra before switching off the lights in the live room on Saha’s orders. And then, in complete darkness, Saha’s creative juices start flowing – he howls and screeches into the mic, creating eerie, wordless chants. Then, using the various “instruments”, he works up a frenzied soundscape that reverberates through the studio, like the inner sanctum of a temple in the throes of worship.
The hairs on my body stand up. Ganguli is still focused on Saha. Chatterjee has gone quiet. The silence is only broken when Ona rushes in with a piece of paper that has a Japanese poem written on it.
“This reminded me of a small village in Japan where a woman is seeing the sun set into the sea. She is talking to herself, wondering who might be on the other side. She looks 30 years into the future, and the scenery remains unchanged until she herself melts into the sea along with the sun. But till then, she keeps talking to herself,” she shares as the mic is still recording.
Ona’s narration of this courtship of illusionism becomes the only spoken element on the instrumental album. Her words will be laid over Saha’s chanting to form the first part of the song, lending it an even more supernatural air.
Then, the room fills up with one of the moodiest pieces of music I’ve ever heard. As the band is cooking up a menacing chaos, all the lights in the building suddenly go out, except for the ones in the studio. They keep playing, unaware. When they finish, Mitra lets out a long sigh as if a spirit is leaving his body. I am too stunned to speak.
Ona whispers, “This song has some mystic power in it.”
The atmosphere is unbearably intense. We all walk downstairs to get some fresh air, but it is raining heavily. The late afternoon sky has turned nearly black, and the wind is howling in rage. The storm is here in full force.