An Interview With Paul Purgas

Michael McKinney speaks to Paul Purgas about his various artistic endeavours being informed by the histories of cross-disciplinary practice, how he was finally able to find an access point into an...
By    October 2, 2023

Image via Pete Woodhead

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Spend enough time exploring any given culture and narratives will start to solidify. Dub emerged from Kingston’s soundsystem culture, grunge was first heard in dingy Seattle clubs, and Soweto gave birth to kwaito. But stories turn to spiderwebs, wrapping around each other and eventually taking forms that would be hardly imaginable at their genesis. Dub fed into dubstep, which itself birthed a million scenes and styles; every artistic movement has more big bangs than you can reasonably catalog. “Electronic music,” in as much as it is a unified scene, has critical regional hubs from all over the world: London and Lisbon, Ibiza and Durban, Baltimore and Berlin. But histories have a way of disappearing. Cassettes get discarded, vintage synthesizers collect dust, and narratives are simplified for the sake of straightforward description.

Paul Purgas has built a career upon questioning conventional histories. Again and again, he peels layers back and finds forgotten worlds. This interest in intersecting histories makes sense: he grew up in Bristol, a city with all sorts of tangled musical roots: punk, drum-and-bass, hardcore, industrial music. (As half of Emptyset, he has been pushing a cragged and dissonant vision of techno for over a decade.) Purgas studied architecture in university, and his solo practice reflects this. He is concerned with how sound occupies spaces, and how narratives and histories twist around each other to build sturdy foundations and false floors.

His latest project, which he has been exploring since 2017, is one of his most complex yet. Six years ago, he got in touch with the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, a multidisciplinary arts and design university in India. What started as an investigation into a synthesizer owned by David Tudor evolved into a historical excavation: Purgas came upon a box of cassettes containing electronic-music experiments recorded at the institute between 1969 and 1972. At that time, India was going through a reckoning with the legacy of a post-colonial existence, and the NID was exploring what Purgas calls a “utopian” vision for the future. Tablas, tanpuras, and modular synthesizers were all cut from the same cloth. Filmmaking, Hindi poetry, and John Cage were blurred into one. For a split second, anything was possible.

The NID Tapes: Electronic Music from India 1969-1972, a compilation that explores the sonic output of the Institute, is one of Purgas’s many avenues into this material. In 2020, he produced a radio documentary for the BBC, entitled Electronic India, and later this year, The MIT Press will release Subcontinental Synthesis, a series of essays on writings on the history and legacy of these recordings. This multifaceted exploration of the archives only underlines how singular they are: these recordings represent a moment in electronic music that is vanishingly brief but wildly exciting. In these tracks, you can hear all sorts of possible futures: proto-proto-techno and tape reels stretched into increasingly byzantine forms. A school of design turned in a vision of electronic music that, no matter how hermetic, suggested infinities. These recordings fit alongside all sorts of sonic histories, even as they sit outside of any of them.

In advance of the release of The NID Tapes, we had a chance to speak with Paul Purgas, digging into how he came to find these tapes, his ideological approach to design and sonic architectures, his relationship to the contemporary British-Asian electronic-music scene, the temporal nature of reel-to-reel tapes, and plenty more.

​​(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

How are you? How’s Stockholm?

Paul Purgas: Good! They’ve got an electronic music studio here, so I’m doing some work. The Swedish summer is quite short, so I’m just trying to enjoy it whilst I have it. They do little residencies at this studio, so I’m here for that.

What are you working on?

Paul Purgas: Some sound for a few exhibitions and a solo album, as well as a few other bits and pieces. I’m not quite as structured with my time as I probably should be; there’s not a clear project. I’m getting quite distracted, again, by the summer: it’s that puzzle, where I’m trying to get some work done and still enjoy it.

What art first really connected with you?

Paul Purgas: Music was definitely the first art form for me. I grew up in Bristol, which is quite a well-known city for electronic music, and it’s a real cultural melting pot for different scenes. All sorts of musical histories converge there: punk, post-punk, dub, reggae, drum-and-bass, hardcore. Bristol was my first point of contact with any type of artistic culture. It wasn’t until much later when I went to see art in galleries, so music is where my journey began.

When did you first see art in galleries? How did you find your way into that world?

Paul Purgas: I studied architecture in London. I was aware of design then, but I had no idea about any kind of contemporary art, or visual art, practice. Around that time, I was introduced to objects in galleries, and the idea that spaces can be occupied in that way. It was a fascinating world, but at the same time, I felt like there was something amazing about the integrity of music, and how it’s not so dependent upon that kind of infrastructure: physical spaces, production, that kind of thing. It’s so much more fluid as an art form. So encountering other spatial art forms was intriguing. But, over the years, I’ve become more and more respectful of music and its ability to bypass a lot of the issues of funding, patronage, space, time, support—that kind of thing. Other art forms need that kind of heavy lifting; music doesn’t, necessarily.

Is there a way that spatial design, or design thinking, stretches into your current practice?

Paul Purgas: Yeah, absolutely. I think that my research into the National Institute of Design, in Ahmedabad, is bound into a kind of cultural history and also a kind of design history. It’s about how design was implemented in many different forms within India’s program for independence. Both this project and Emptyset, the electronic-music band I do alongside James Ginzburg, are very much informed by the histories of cross-disciplinary practice and how sound occupies spaces. So it feels like a lot of these ideas, despite having not necessarily been formally practiced in design, are manifesting through projects I’m doing: installations, research, sound, music. That ethos of design, research, and design history is definitely present.

In the past, you’ve mentioned a love for Laurie Spiegel’s The Expanding Universe. Tell me about that: what draws you towards that record, and when did it come to you?

Paul Purgas: I probably discovered it around 2012—there was a vinyl reissue that was produced. I had an interest in certain strands of avant-garde electronic music, or perhaps modernist conceptual music. But there’s something about The Expanding Universe, which captured my senses with a sort of sparse, precise, and minimalist poetry. It had a sense of, let’s say, cosmic and melodic grandeur, which was in a dialogue with emerging digital technologies that were happening around that moment in the 1970s. Analog synthesis was starting to enter conversation with new methods of control. It’s one of those gaps in my knowledge; when I was confronted with it, it felt like a record that just spoke with me. You often don’t understand why certain musical works resonate. That particular record sits within a really important space within media and technological history, but it also manages to be a compositional work that is just incredibly powerful, and I constantly find myself revisiting it.

How did you initially get in touch with the National Institute of Design?

Paul Purgas: This was probably around 2017, when I was looking into the origins of David Tudor’s Moog synthesizer out there. I contacted the NID because I was interested in learning more about that particular moment, and, if possible, I wanted to track down that synthesizer. So I contacted the school, and they were incredibly welcoming. When I arrived there, it became apparent that I’d never be able to access that synthesizer, for various reasons. I ended up taking a more research-based interest in trying to uncover the context behind that synthesizer. Through that work, I found photographs of the Moog installed inside an electronic-music studio. From there, I uncovered the tapes: about 30 hours of recorded music produced between 1969 and 1972. But it all came from that initial step: trying to learn more about this unusual story of David Tudor in India.

Did you discover these tapes, or had they already been found?

Paul Purgas: They were in a part of the archives at the NID. I found them from an old notebook from the 1960s—this was before they digitized their system. The notebook had a reference to something to the effect of “tapes for David.” That was the point where I was like, “Okay, I’d like to look at those.” They had reference cards in some of them; it seems like some students at the NID might have been listening to them up to the 1980s. But some of them have never been touched, and some were listened to maybe once or twice in that period. They’ve never really been understood or contextualized in terms of their value in their archive actually meant. I sense that it was more of an obscurity within the school, where a student would wander in every now and again, listen to a bit, and then put it back in the box. It was a very unusual thing: sometimes things are hidden in plain sight.

I realize you’ve been exploring these tapes from all sorts of angles for the past six years. What was your initial framework for this project, and how has that changed since 2017?

Paul Purgas: I think that, very early on, I understood that the recordings were interwoven with an alternative design history, one which sat outside of the paradigm of Western modernism. I was thinking about it through a lens of post-colonial modernity within South Asia. There were multiple ways of listening to the tapes, and presenting them within the cultural context and framework which they originated from became quite important to me.

That strand evolved into the exhibition program, We Found Our Own Reality, which is a touring exhibition that contextualizes the tapes within an architectural design ethos, framing it within the pedagogy that was operating in the NID at that moment. That has been presented in the UK, and at CTM Festival in Berlin.

Alongside that, though, there was also the process of making it into an album—The NID Tapes LP. That’s another way of navigating the archives, this time more from a listening perspective. This is more about narrating a way through 30 hours of audio into something that makes sense as a listening experience, where you’d sit down to journey through the archive. That was a subsequent project.

I’m trying to think about other strategies: as I sit with the archive more and more, I’m sure more ways of navigating it, and other types of storytelling, might emerge from it. It’s a fascinatingly broad connection of material. A lot of that critical thinking has emerged into the book, Subcontinental Synthesis, which is coming out in the autumn: bringing other voices and theorists to evaluate their response to the archive; thinking through its cultural resonances; and how that moment can be interpreted from multiple perspectives.

Image via Keith Hunter

Earlier, you mentioned the idea of interpreting this through a pedagogical lens. You framed that specifically in terms of placing this in space, and creating a space in which you experience it, as compared to a record, which is perhaps more transient. How are you thinking about these ideas differently?

Paul Purgas: With an album, you’re doing your best to create an impression of the collective body of the archive while making something that translates into multiple different environments. You’re working with a certain kind of grammar, duration, and method. Certain things, like listening conditions, are out of your control.

With the installation, there was the potential to think about different frequency responses, different ways of spatializing sound; the notions of musicality felt like less of a requirement. We were thus more able to think about it from a more sonic perspective. We could think about, for example, the use of language in the NID tape archives: there’s other additional material, too, like talks and lectures that were recorded at the NID around the same time. The exhibition contains a recording of the Indian spiritual philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. I found a lecture by him on one of the tapes at the NID.

So there was a chance to bring in elements that didn’t necessarily fall within the paradigm of the tapes themselves; they were contextual material that sat around and helped to tell an expanded version of the story. That was accompanied by field recordings that were made on-site at the NID, which helped capture the environment of the space and offer that context.

Are those field recordings circa 2023?

Paul Purgas: These were contemporary recordings, yes. They were made around the time I was producing the BBC radio documentary Electronic India. They seemed to capture the relationship between nature and modernist architecture. The NID encapsulates all of these strains of modernist design.

When you were selecting for the LP, were you selecting for a particular slice of the NID archives, or were you trying to tell a wider story?

Paul Purgas: I’ve tried to cover a broad spectrum of the different practices that would go on there: processing traditional Indian instruments, like the tabla or tanpura; exhibition-based productions, like the piece by Atul Desai for the Osaka expo in 1970; or more phonetic experiments, like the composition by Gita Sarabhai. It was an effort to create a broader perspective on the archive while also using the threads of musicality to help bind that journey together. I’ve listened to a lot of compilations of, say, the GRM or other institutes. Here, I wanted to make something that felt quite inclusive to a broad audience, rather than just people who are well-versed with avant-garde tape archives. I’d rather walk away with something that feels like it could speak to a wide set of audiences, who could hopefully find something that speaks to them.

What is a wide audience in this context?

Paul Purgas: By the virtue of it being Indian electronic music, people seem intrigued, you know? There’s very experimental stuff in the archives—like tape reels, which are just raw waveform feedback, and they’re very much in the paradigm of David Tudor-type sound experiments. I enjoy those types of recordings from a music-historical and academic sound-art background, but I don’t necessarily think they create the most broad-reaching material, especially for people who are new to the idea of experimental or improvised electronic music. I wanted people to feel like they could access the material in a way that was an invitation rather than a confrontation.

I suppose that ties into the accompanying texts: “here are some ways into this work.”

Paul Purgas: Yes, absolutely. It’s such a vast body of research, so we approached it from all sorts of angles. Electronic India takes a very personalized perspective, Subcontinental Synthesis is a more academic and discursive set of responses, and the LP offers another type of listening experience. It’s a matter of thinking about how this body of research can be best accessed, and how it can speak to different audiences.

Are there any clear traditions you would tie this work to? I know there’s connections to John Cage, and I know different artists on the compilation have ties to other crafts: Hindi poetry, filmmaking. When I listen to the LP, I hear early industrial music, or musique concrete, or even a kind of minimal techno. Are there any genealogies you’d trace here?

Paul Purgas: This is the intriguing part about this moment in the NID. In terms of detective work, I can look at Gita Sarabhai, who did an album of LPs in the NID library that covers an extensive array of Indian classical and folk music. These are, of course, alongside works by John Cage, Stockhausen, and Terry Riley. So there was a convergence of different cultures happening academically within the NID. But there’s still a sense that these strange different threads which you or I might hear—industrial, proto-techno, what have you—happened within something of a vacuum. People were experimenting for the first time. It feels like a kind of hermetic unity, where people were experimenting; there’s rich traditions of rhythm and instrumentation within India.

But it goes to show that the core of electronic music is, at its core, a very exploratory one, and a very playful one. The composers at the NID arrived at their conclusions through this structure—the moog and the tape machines. I enjoy the slipperiness of the timelines that the tapes suggest about electronic music. They elicit questions about what could have been possible in India if it had more financial support in the 1970s. Where could the musical forms have evolved into? If we listen to the minimal-techno material on here, you think, “this could have been a whole scene.” But there wasn’t the infrastructure or patronage to realize that, so that journey begins and ends here. There’s so many parallel lines and alternative histories that you can imagine from this material.

Is part of the interest in The NID Tapes, then, that they’re kind of a dead end? Is proposing what-ifs an intentional part of the practice?

Paul Purgas: I think it’s an inevitable part, isn’t it? When you’ve got something operating in such a short timeline within such a critical moment—a post-colonial set of conditions—it seems to crystallize something about a certain moment. The tapes themselves become a kind of type of time capsule. It’s sonic, too, which makes it accessible and immersive, which allows us to fall into it in a way that visual art or design objects may not necessarily have. I think there’s something within that: it’s such a rare artifact. I’m incredibly grateful that it’s been found. It helps fill up another gap in the jigsaw of the global expansion of electronic music in a modernist moment.

Talk to me more about placing this within the context of a post-colonial India.

Paul Purgas: In India at that moment, there’s a lot of drive towards thinking about how new technology and new media can be used to shape a kind of speculative new nation. Within that, the National Institute of Design is the central hub—the axis—for training a whole generation of new designers for India to modernize the country. Within that ethos, ceramics, furniture design, experimental film, animation, and textiles are all being explored, alongside broader design methodologies. Within this 360-degree perspective on media and technological percussion, sound is being incorporated within that. It’s a very dreamlike moment for India, where they’re coming out of colonial dominance by the British, and they suddenly have freedom to shape their own identity through art, design, and music.

The 1950s and 1960s really encapsulated that energy, and as 1971 approaches and the India-Pakistan war breaks out, there’s a real shift in that political tide within India. There’s a very introspective moment, with a lot of thought about what the first 20 years of independence brought, and what they haven’t. Within that paradigm, there was a kind of shift towards a more practical sense of design pedagogy, with a more discernible sense of what design could do for India. With that, there was a shift in priorities away from the more experimental, free-spirited, and utopian methods that the NID was exploring. Instead, things became more pragmatic and conservative, both in the worlds of design and politics.

Given the histories and the novelty of the project, do you feel a kind of stewardship to this work?

Paul Purgas: Yes, absolutely. The project is so close to me, and ideas of responsibility—how to present it, how to bring it into the world, how to think about its afterlife and its impact—definitely stick with me, and they feel important. This applies to the production of The NID Tapes. I got to work with Shreya Aurora, a recent graduate from the NID. We maintained that bond to the institute when we were realizing it as an object, rather than working with a Western graphic designer. That kind of stewardship felt important to me: I wanted to continue to place the work within the frame and continuum that feels right.

At risk of coming off too bluntly: why is this so important to you?

Paul Purgas: I’m someone of the South Asian diaspora who grew up within the various histories of global electronic music. Bar a few Bollywood soundtracks that used electronic synthesizers, or maybe a few disco records, I was never able to find an access point into an avant-garde spirit of music within South Asia. Uncovering these tapes opened the lid on that for me; it made me feel like I was working within a kind of continuum—a very fractured one, but a lineage or timeline nonetheless. The resonance for these tapes became quite personal to me, because it gave me a kind of anchoring; it reminded me that there were other people from my culture who have come before.

Speaking of lineages, one of the first names that comes to mine for me is Daytimers: a crew taking South Asian sounds and fusing them with UKG, drum-and-bass, all that. Do you feel a connection to that, or is it of a different kind of tradition to what you work in?

Paul Purgas: I’m very close to the Daytimers community. I DJ’d a London event that they did, a COVID fundraiser for India. I attend a lot of events that they’ve done, and I’ve performed at a few other events that they’ve done as well. It’s incredibly important that they’re pushing forward and building a community that has a real hybridity to it. When I was a teenager, British-Asian culture didn’t have that sense of openness to genre or form, and it didn’t have a desire to collectively organize in the way that the Daytimers crew have done. I massively respect what they do, and I enjoy the fact that this project has resonated with them as well. In the way that I can speak to the project resonating with me, and making me feel like there’s some kind of context or lineage within South Asia for electronic music, I think it’s also having a similar impact and influence on others.

I know you’ve talked about being averse to cassette tapes prior to working with the NID tapes.

Paul Purgas: I was averse to reel-to-reel, yes.

How has working with these changed that relationship, if at all?

Paul Purgas: I hadn’t handled tape to any extent when I was growing up. So, upon discovering these reels, and especially as I became aware of their fragility and the conservation requirements, I went into a bit of a panic. When I discovered the tapes in 2017, I took a year in London learning about tape conservation and archiving from the British Library sound department. By the time I’d finished that and flown out to India with my own reel-to-reel tape machine and learnt about baking tapes—the process of resetting some of the chemicals by essentially re-cooking the tapes—I was able to feel and appreciate the tactility that comes with working with the analog tape as a medium.

That led to a series of compositional experiments, which I did for a festival called Supersonic, in Birmingham. It also led to a project called Tape Music, which was done for the Southbank Centre in London. After I’d conquered my fear of tape, I started to really embrace it, and I’d perform live with it in the tradition of tape-music composition. I’ve gone full circle, from being terrified of it as a medium to finally embracing it, and now working with it in my own art.

Have you noticed your sound or approach to composition change at all in relation to that?

Paul Purgas: With tape, you embrace the qualities of it as a medium in and of itself. There’s this kind of absurdity in the history of tape recording: towards the end of the ’90s, people were trying to make tape ultra-high resolution. They’d be recording on two-inch 8-track tape cassettes. To me, that’s a kind of madness; digital technology became good enough to step into that space pretty quickly. So now, if you’re working with tape, it’s like you’re working with celluloid; it’s about the materiality. It’s about being able to quantify time through a length of physical material, and it’s about your relationship to that. When a turntable rotates, the rotation speed matters, and there’s an innate temporality to it. When you’re working with tape, you’re embracing the same thing: that relationship between time and material.

I suppose it’s doubled when you’re working with archival materials, too, and there’s the anxieties that come with preservation.

Paul Purgas: Yeah. It was quite liberating for me to start working with tape compositionally, outside of those conditions. I no longer had to worry, “Is this tape shedding? Is the head alignment perfect? Is every part of the signal chain as optimized as possible?” You get to leave those archival conservation conditions by the side, and you get to be a bit more irreverent, and a bit more hands-on; you’re able to manipulate the material in a way that’s a lot less precious.

I’m not super familiar with working with tape decks, to be honest. What kind of manipulation are you speaking to?

Paul Purgas: You have tape speed effects. By physically manipulating the tape, you can run it through faster or slower. There’s lots of ways in which you’re physically altering sound through action, which is something you don’t get in the digital realm, and you rarely get it in the analog realm. Vinyl, obviously, has that quality. The project of the cassette tape was a way to remove a lot of those qualities from the tape reel, so it’s nice to have the whole safety net of the cassette removed. You’re as close to touching sound as you possibly can be.

After the release of The NID Tapes, how do you intend to explore further? Is there a point where you say, “I’ve gone as far as I can”?

Paul Purgas: There’s definitely threads of the story that still remain unresolved. The afterlifes of some of the composers and their productions within the world of electronic music are enticing to me; I know that Gita Sarabhai produced some soundtracks, which have been lost, or at least seemingly lost to history. The question is whether these gaps can be found. The tapes have also opened up the idea to me that there might be other archives of experimental sound and music within India—for example, within other radio archives. I feel like I’m likely to take a small pause, but there’s definitely parts of the narrative that are still very enticing, and I’m very likely to continue pulling at these threads.

My understanding is that you found your way into club music largely through Detroit house and industrial material.

Paul Purgas: That’s right.

How do your digging processes relate to each other, with archival material versus newer things? Are these practices separate, or do they speak to each other in some way?

Paul Purgas: I’m currently conducting some research into the history of industrial music in south London. There seems to be a very small concentration of activity happening in the early-to-mid ’80s, in a very small scene in pockets of south London. A lot of that material was captured on websites, which have all gone down; online documentation of these small and localized histories isn’t reliable, stable, or permanent, especially with cultural and social histories that aren’t institutionally protected. They’re seen as underground, or peripheral, or on the margins.

So I don’t see these practices as entirely dissimilar, actually. With all of these approaches, you’re somehow capturing knowledge and preserving it for an unknown listener somewhere in the future. You’re placing yourself in a time-stream, where you’re trying to make sure things are protected and made available for people in the future in a way that can be enriching or give meaning to them; you’re trying to offer research support for people further down the line.

Beyond the work of preservation and scrambling timelines, are there any other ideas that you aspire towards in your work?

Paul Purgas: I’m very interested in how sound and music form such an embedded part of human cultural histories, both historically and in a contemporary sense of shaping our sense of space, personhood, and global identities. Often, I’m as interested in the contents of sound and music as I am in what they structurally embody. Those are two very different ways of engaging with sound. I enjoy that paradigm: sound as a cultural object, but also as an embodied and experimental sonic possibility, too.

Are you able to drop any breadcrumbs about the incoming text?

Paul Purgas: Yeah. The book covers various different aspects of the NID tapes and their history. Shila Das has given a comprehensive history of the NID itself as an institution and a sound studio. Jinraj Joshipura, the last surviving composer from the NID, has written a piece describing his time firsthand from being present at the studio with David Tudor. Geeta Dayal has written a piece that documents the NID in the frame of other experimental-music traditions that were emerging during that moment in the late 1960s and early ’70s in South Asia. There’s also a piece by You Nakai, who wrote the definitive monograph on the history of David Tudor’s work, called Reminded By the Instruments. You has written a piece that responds to the NID Tapes from his background in academic and historical research into the life and practice of David Tudor.

What art do you find particularly inspiring now? What are you looking towards?

Paul Purgas: I’m interested in artistic practices that are quite multidisciplinary in their approach. I have an appreciation, but not necessarily personal passion, for artistic projects that are very medium-specific. There’s something very exciting about how the worlds of visual art, sound performance, music, architecture, and even fashion or the moving image exist as a set of interconnecting and parallel sets of histories. For me, there’s value in exploring how cultures manifest in the world as a unified project.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

Paul Purgas: I’m currently developing a new documentary for the BBC, which I can’t disclose much about. But it’s exploring another strand of the history of, let’s say, recorded sound within South Asia. In that sense, it feels kind of connected, or at least adjacent, to the history of the NID. But this is more focused on the history of field recording and broadcasting. I’m going into production on that next week, and it’s going to be broadcast with the BBC in early December.

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