Music for (prepared) bicycles

Music for (prepared) bicycles
(after John Cage & Marcel Duchamp), 2012

A bicycle ride in the city brings together Gandhi Duchamp, and Cage

Noise is inescapable on streets of Mumbai. Be it aggressive honkers, the eager hawkers or the constant din of its teeming millions, this city overwhelms the auditory senses. But for French artist Caecilia Tripp, who has been living in Mumbai for the past two months, the city's noise is music in disguise. For a film project titled Music for (prepared) bicycles (after John Cage & Marcel Duchamp), which will be screened at Clark House and Alliance Française this fortnight, Tripp has recorded the journey of a bicycle through the city.

Tripp's cycle was no ordinary vehicle. Nor was she a passive listener. The artist altered the wheels of the bicycle to include electric guitar strings in place of a few metal spokes on the wheels. Once the vehicle is set in motion, the tuned strings are strummed with the help of playing cards affixed to the wheel. The interaction between the accidental sounds produced by the cycle and the constant stream of noise on Mumbai's streets is at the heart of Tripp's film.

The French artist straddles several sources of inspiration for this project. First, there is the widespread street trick of attaching a playing card to a bicycle wheel to make it sound like a motorbike that inspired Tripp to make her own modifications. "This is a vernacular practice found all over the world," she noted. "It is used usually by teenagers in socially disregarded suburbs. If you are from such a place, you are invisible. But with this technique you become visible; everybody hears you arriving." The second influence that shaped Tripp's bicycle was experimental American composer John Cage, who is best known for his 1952 piece 4'33" in which musicians are instructed to play no instruments, allowing the audience to listen to the sounds of the surroundings. In the 1950s, Cage also created music compositions on a "prepared piano", which involved altering the sound of the instrument by placing objects between its strings. Through this project, Tripp wanted to bring Cage to the street. "He once said that the real noise is on Sixth Avenue in New York. But Mumbai is so much louder," she said. Tripp also acknowledges the influence of conceptual French artist Marcel Duchamp, who famously exhibited a urinal, to underscore the idea that the realisation of a work of art depends on the perception of the viewer.

Music for (prepared) bicycles (after John Cage & Marcel Duchamp) follows a bicycle through the city passing through August Kranti Maidan, Churchgate, Sassoon Dock, Laxmi Mills in Byculla and Sewri's mud flats. The procession was shot in the first week of April, with artist Nikhil Raunak, who works with Clark House on other projects, riding the cycle. Tripp chose places where the city was on the move in order to capture its most vivid sounds. "The music of the bicycle gets mixed with the surroundings," said Tripp. "In the end you have a live participatory score." At Clark House, the screening will be accompanied by still photographs and the "prepared bicycle" which was used in the film.

Tripp plans to repeat this project in six other cities, including Rio de Janeiro, Hanoi and Gwangju. But it is no accident that she chose to hold the launch show in Mumbai. Home to the beginning of the Quit India Movement, Tripp wants to highlight the city's, and the country's, ties with Mahatma Gandhi as well as Cage's interest in Indian music and philosophy. Moreover, through her experimental music score, Tripp hopes to tease out both the figures' involvement with civil disobedience and its relevance in contemporary times. "Cage’s music was almost anarchic for the time during which he worked," she said. "Both Cage and Gandhi read and were inspired by [American philosopher] Henry David Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience and they both used it in radical ways. Now, more than ever, with Occupy Wall Street and the crumbling of capitalism, it is important to bring this music of change to the streets."

By Zeenat Nagree on April 27 2012 4.30am