The National Institute of Design was founded in the Indian city of Ahmedabad in 1961, created during a time in which the Indian government heavily invested in both the arts and technological innovation. Presently, four NID universities across the country specialize in courses ranging from graphic design to filmmaking.
Yet shortly after the Ahmedabad location opened, a New York composer and pianist helped set up a music room for the school with an unusual new gift: a Moog synthesizer. Given it was one of the first of its kind (with the original Moog having come out in 1965), this then-cutting-edge piece of hardware became the source of much scrutiny, as some of the American grant programs that were helping fund the NID viewed it as opulent and even unnecessary. Yet Tudor was more than happy to play around with this groundbreaking piece of sonic wizardry, and soon, other composers followed in his electric footsteps, creating compositions that, over half a century later, still feel boundary-pushing and avant-garde.
The NID Tapes: Electronic Music from India 1969-1972 is a new compilation that rounds up some of the principal records that came out of the NID during this time, some of which were already featured on BBC Radio 3’s 2020 audio documentary Electronic India. A tie-in book is also being released in conjunction with this work, primarily driven by the research of UK musician and scholar Paul Purgas.
There was a music room inside of a design school, so the implications of its use were varied. During the day, it would be demonstrated for potential commercial application, while at night, students, staff, and other characters would swing by and try playing around with the machine to see what they could create. To those who have heard George Harrison‘s 1969 divisive solo record Electronic Sounds, made with a then-new Moog 3-series synthesizer and capable of emitting one specific note at a time but never in parallel, the abstract and sometimes even atonal sounds of The NID Tapes will be immediately familiar.
While David Tudor did some instruction for the NID staff and students, it was SC Sharma who ended up seeing the NID Moog sessions all the way through to its short end in 1972, and, unsurprisingly, it’s Sharma who is responsible for a majority of the compositions found in The NID Tapes. Some of his creations, like “Electronic Sounds Created for Moog”, sound like focused play sessions, wherein the composer tests the full limits of the instrument. Contrast that to IS Mathura’s “Once I Played a Tanpura”, which manages to extract near rock-guitar sonics from the Moog in one of the compilation’s most bracing moments.
Ultimately, The NID Tapes feels more directed as a clinical study and historical document than an enjoyable listening experience. While those immersed in contemporary or retro ambient/experimental music can find great, groundbreaking sounds here, most compositions are minimal, formless, or feeling around for their purpose. Unsurprisingly, Tudor’s sole contribution to the compilation, “Tape Feedback with Moog”, bubbles at a sinister hiss that feels close to cinematic, making for one of the most compelling tracks on display.
Gita Sarabhai, a poet and musician who studied the works of John Cage extensively, has two different compositions under the same title where one feels exploratory to the feel of the Moog while the other leans hard into the whirring drone sounds that the Moog was able to conjure. Contrasted with the Sine and Waveforms that student Jinraj Joshipura plays around with on their own “Space Liner 2001”, and it’s clear that despite the limitations of what the Moog could do at the time, a few composers truly saw its potential, while others, charitably, were along for the ride.
Yet The NID Tapes is culled from sessions not designed for commercial purposes: experimenting and playing was the point. It is argued in previous interviews by Purgas that the controversial keyboard at the center of this compilation started electronic music in India proper. So much of what has come after can find some traces back to the NID in Ahmedabad.
On Atul Desai’s “Recordings for Osaka Expo 70”, some straightforward tabla percussion is integrated in with the hyper-pulsing bloops and blips of the Moog’s low end, the two percussive sounds duetting in a fashion that feels like the perfect amalgam of new sounds meeting the old world, feeling each other out to see what they had in common. It’s one of the most compelling tracks on The NID Tapes, a fascinating document that captures a lesser-known aspect of music history beautifully.