Archives for category: Field recordings

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Cévennes
MARC NAMBLARD, OLIVIER NAMBLARD
(Kalerne 2013)

Review by Cheryl Tipp

Where to start? With the premise, the content, the quality, the beauty? Perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning. To the set the scene for the delights that await every listener who purchases this wonderful set.

Walk, wait, wander, return and remember

 ‘Cévennes’ is a stunning collection of field recordings from the Massif Central region of France, an elevated expanse of land that runs from the centre to the south of the country. Informed by familiarity, memory and fondness, these selected sound portraits were drawn from a much larger archive of recordings from respected “audio-naturalists and listening wanderers”, Marc and Olivier Namblard. Add to this the curatorial expertise of Yannick Dauby and you know you’re in for a treat.

The recordings themselves are varied, engaging, perfectly judged and expertly implemented. Spread over two CDs, this fine collection offers over two hours of the most exquisite listening. Birds, mammals, insects, amphibians and  environmental phenomena take their seats in this most fabulous natural orchestra, each track a movement in the overall symphony that celebrates the sounds of this spectacular landscape.

It’s so difficult to highlight particular recordings when all are equally worth of mention. Some are particularly special though. ‘Bouldras’, for example, is an absolute triumph. The wingbeats of Griffon Vultures as they congregate around carrion are reminiscent of heavy sails unfurling in the breeze. You can almost hear each individual feather.

Immerse your ears in a bouquet of heather…

The minuscule delicacies of stridulating grasshoppers and the purring wingbeats of hawk-moths, featured in ‘Adreit’ and ‘Poussiels’, are great ambassadors for the sonic potential that lies within the invertebrate domain.

Even the steady footfall of the humble cow is transformed into a work of art. Conversations within the herd, feeding in the soft grass, are joined by the “fleeting acid verse” of a nearby Corn Bunting and the churring advertisements of a bush-cricket, creating a pastoral scene of the highest order.

The collection closes with the ethereal ‘Bisa’. The gusting adventures of a powerful wind sweeping across the plateau are gradually accompanied by the hypnotic Aeolian drone of vibrating wires and fences.

As I listen to the collection again I realise that words alone cannot do justice to ‘Cévennes’. I could easily sing the praises of each recording but it still wouldn’t be enough. You need to hear these recordings, to sit back and revel in this faultless tribute to a land that holds a special place in the hearts of these two exceptional recordists.

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[Olivier and Marc Namblard]

Olivier Namblard discography
Marc Namblard website
Kalerne website 

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The Hebrides Suite CATHY LANE
(Gruenrekorder 2013)

Review by Cheryl Tipp

 ‘The Hebrides Suite’ is a multi-layered collection of composed works that reflect Cathy Lane’s ongoing fascination with the Outer Hebrides. A mixture of field recordings, audio diaries, conversations, interviews and oral histories drawn from archives across Scotland, these six pieces explore the history, traditions and ways of life of these ancient islands.

How does history – past lives and past events – leave sonic traces and how do we hear them?

Each piece is based around a particular theme pertinent to island life, be that weaving, local transportation, crofting or religion. All are complex patchworks of sound that have the power to take your breath away. Each one a fascinating vignette that encapsulates its subject in an engaging, imaginative and sophisticated manner. The multifaceted nature of these compositions creates an intensity that is almost tangible, demonstrating once again the power of sound to evoke a feeling or induce a reaction.

‘Tweed’ is a captivating interpretation of the weaving industry of the Outer Hebrides. The clatter and hum of machinery is embellished with disembodied voices that develop their own rhythms, akin to the lyrical nature of the looms used to produce this famous cloth.

The only piece not to feature any spoken word is ‘Gaoth (Wind)’. It’s a beautiful homage to the ever present wind and coming in at the middle of the CD, creates an effective natural break between the more intensive arrangements before and after.

‘Watch Over Us All’ is a sombre conclusion to the suite, acknowledging the central role religion still plays in the lives of the island inhabitants. Community is everything here and the church is at the heart of this. As the singing and the sermon gradually fade, the delicate song of a Skylark takes centre stage, pointing towards the rich biodiversity that exists here.

A huge amount of time, thought, emotion and effort has gone into ‘The Hebrides Suite’. Each work is wonderfully intricate, comprising snippets of recordings that must have been painstakingly researched, collected, analysed and brought together. It demands and deserves attention.

‘In 2006, I sat looking through the misty soft rain towards the ruined chimney and listened to a ship motoring into the sea loch below, almost right up to the whaling station, lifting lobster pots. A little further up the road is the spot where on two separate cycle tours from the south to the north of the Outer Hebrides I was defeated by a mixture of horizontal rain and a ferocious headwind and gratefully turned around and headed back towards Tarbert and the gentler south. On one of those journeys I remember the sound of a weaving loom from inside a shed as we passed it on the road.’
-Cathy Lane

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[Cathy Lane; photo courtesy of CRISAP]

Cathy Lane website
Gruenrekorder website

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Vaccabons et malfactours
FRÉDÉRIC NOGRAY -working with recordings by Cédric Peyronnet-

(Kaon 2013)

Review by David Vélez

I

There is a strong level of intention in the action of recording environmental sounds. This intention is expressed in aspects like the subject of the recording, the kind of microphones used, the place where the microphones are placed in the field, the hour of the day chosen to record, the time of the year where the recordings were made…etc…etc….

But at the same time recording environmental sounds is a very contemplative action; on every environmental recording we are capturing seconds, minutes and hours of incidental randomness.

But, what makes for random and organic textures, patterns and structures to be so potentially appealing? This is a good question that Psychoacoustics have in a way answered, linking for example the songbirds with the origins of human language. I personally think that the lack of communicating purpose and intention that we find in these random forms is actually what makes them appealing and even meaningful. The absence of ideas and words in their forms allows the listener to explore things in a different way, leading him to bear a more universal and yet personal sense of things.

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‘La Rivière CD series…Using the sound bank designed by Cédric Peyronnet, who recorded the nuances of Taurion River and its valley for 3 years, in Limousin, sound artists offer their interpretations through a series of compositions. Artists were asked to work on the composition of a sound piece created using the provided recordings or on the composition of a sound piece inspired by listening to the sound provided and consultation of the accompanying documents.’
-From Kaon’s website

Frédéric Nogray has established today as one of the notable sound composers working with untreated recordings of wild life and other natural areas, but in ‘Vaccabons et malfactours’ (part of ‘La Riviere’ series) Nogray limited to equalize, edit and layer preexistent recordings captured by Peyronnet six years ago.

This is a very nice release that, despite of the potential layering, presents itself in an austere documental manner, sounding very realistic and believable.

The area around the Taurion river is probably very quiet and soothing as most of the recordings suggest but Nogray also included recordings that show a louder and harsher aspect of this location; the noisy captures probably belong to heavy rain or a fast-flowing part of the river and these sounds add a great sense of contrast to the piece. There is always a level of eeriness and darkness to a quiet place that, when taken into account, offers depth and mystery to the listener’s experience.

The quality of the sound here is noteworthy, the fine sounds captured by Peyronnet were greatly worked by Nogray who managed to bring out the textures to a very bright and crisp level that I greatly enjoyed; a great work for those interested on environmental recordings with a little fictional twist.

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[Fréderic Nogray]

Frédéric Nogray website
Kaon website

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Strata. TARAB -Eamon Sprod-
(Unfathomless 2013)

Review by Caity Kerr

‘Strata’ is described as having been created from recordings made in a series of vacant lots and their immediate surrounds in the north-west of Melbourne.

The first thing that strikes the listener is the range of well-chosen sounds, all easy on the ear, nothing too harsh or unpleasant, no frequencies that strip the enamel off your teeth, no subs which threaten the cones on your precious speakers. In contrast with the locations used to gather the sounds, the overall impression is of a very ‘clean’ album, highly polished. The balance of dynamics, attention to pace and flow, all the orthodoxies of good composition, make the album almost classical in a compositional sense. Add to this various crossfading techniques with some well-crafted staggered dropouts and you have an effective tension between what I’d call thoroughly contemporary environmental sound gathering and a measured and conventional approach to putting the sounds together.

The sounds are easy enough to describe to the inner ear: a variety of recognisable or almost recognisable continuous sounds, some with lots of human agency, others resembling trains and the like, and occasionally sudden intrusions in the form of metallic timbres for example – one would imagine that these timbres are derived from objects found on site, activated for their rich sonic properties.

As with many other examples of this kind of work, the soundscape is visually evocative. Such work lends itself very well to the entertainment of audiences who like to relax, listen deeply and let the mind wander to the music. So the real question for me is how else can we hear this kind of music other than on cd? It’s fine to be able to relax in one’s domestic environment and to listen on one’s chosen equipment, but I’ve always thought that the potential strength of this kind of work, apart from pleasing the ears if it’s good work, is to be found in the possibilities for uplifting and even edifying in a social listening context, situations where people can discuss and share impressions after the listening event. Certainly not the concert hall or the grungy club (so I’m already going against the grain by asking for something which isn’t so fashionable but is eminently human and probably timeless), something approaching an appropriate and rewarding listening environment. I think we need to be asking where and under which conditions we should be looking to improve the opportunities for composers of this kind of work, composers who offer well-crafted good new non-instrumental, non-genre or trend-driven music of this era.

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Eamon Sprod website
Unfathomless website

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2013: The year in retrospective. Part I -TESSA ELIEFF-

Text, images and sound by Tessa Elieff

Download ‘Caris Clocks’ by TESSA EILEFF

Download ‘Craster Blowhole’ by TESSA EILEFF

Recording excursion snapshot: Sound gathering on England’s North East coastline.

In early November of 2013 I found myself in the town of Alnwick, north Northumberland, England. After finishing a week intensive with Chris Watson – rather than moving on to the next opportunity – I had decided to stay in the area and give myself more time to understand its community and discover its unique sounds. Time is a luxury – particularly when travelling and it’s only too easy to miss the experience that lies around you in order to jump ahead into the future potential. I didn’t want this to be such an instance and so, at the time where the tourist attractions close down for the year, their subsequent crowds filter out of the townships and the wintering wildlife filters in, I settled in the market town of Alnwick.

Blowhole

Preparation:

Weatherproof clothing was a must. I do in fact own a few beanies and big jackets but nothing that would actually keep you warm – living in Australia – there are very few occasions when you would need it. While it was not quite Winter in England, the morning frost had arrived along with typical coastline weather of wind, rain and hail. Keeping your fingers warm as you monitor a recording device and fitting your headphones over a beanie can be the deciding factors as to weather or not you are able to persevere the elements and collect that one recording….

Clothing for this trip included

1) Thermal tops and bottoms (@ the heaviest weight)

2) Thick socks

3) Water resistant bushwalking boots. These were not waterproof but still did the job and were much needed when clambering over the slippery stones and volcanic rocks to be found on the coastline. Sneakers (no matter how sturdy) would not have sufficed!

4) Fingerless gloves (for warmer days)

5) Whole gloves – touch screen sensitive

6) Beanie: Thick enough to keep you warm and sleek enough to accommodate headphones

7) Pants: Wind/waterproof and lined for the cold. It’s worth mentioning that ‘ladies’ pants are not as practical as the ‘men’s’. Their waistlines are lower (don’t keep you as warm) and the cut more fitted (restricts your movements and pocket potential!)

8) Coat: Down to the knee and up to the chin. Downer lined with weatherproof shell and hood.

Specific townships along the North East coastline where I recorded include Craster, Boulmer and Newton-by-the-Sea.  The nature of these places required equipment such as their tide tables and explorer maps as GPS and phone signal often disappears and their tides remain master of shore access. RE: the maps – I’d recommend a scale of 1:25 000 (4cm to 1km), which typically is used for walking and the level of detail is ideal for exploring the areas by foot and car. The tide tables are essential for ensuring your safety – particularly as the coastline is dotted with volcanic stone formations that appear and disappear along with the changing tides. It’s very easy to lose yourself in recording only to look up half an hour later and find yourself marooned. I also found that knowing when the tides would be shifting helped inform me of the best times to explore specifically, blowholes and rock pools.

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The final recording collection includes sounds of the township and of it’s surrounding natural environment. The most dominant contributor would be the ocean itself. There was not a single day that I visited the shoreline to hear the same sounds – even if the weather was much identical – the ocean’s voice was completely different. It was a pleasure and a torment – so much to capture but never able to capture it all! I was torn between using spaced omni microphones to gather the complete soundscape, or paired cardioid’s to illustrate the beautiful movements between left and right extremities – between a hyper cardioid to focus on a single point species and on contact microphones – to unearth the rumble running through a surface. If I could have recorded each select moment with all of the above I would have undoubtedly done so – but these are the creative decisions we make as a Field Recordist are they not?

Caris Clocks copy

On return to Australia I am haunted by my usual thoughts of sounds I did not think to capture at the time – or could have perhaps – made that extra effort to gather. None-the-less, as I work through what I did collect, I am transported back to Alnwick and enjoy the sounds of such a place, from far-away Australia. Here’s a snippet. Enjoy.

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[Tessa Elieff]

Tessa Elieff website

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Yoi. DAVID VÉLEZ, SIMON WHETHAM
(Unfathomless 2013)

Review by Flavién Gillie

En avril 2011 David Velez invite Simon Whetham à animer un workshop de field recording en Colombie, c’est le début d’un voyage. S’en suit une excursion dans la forêt amazonienne, les deux artistes enregistrent leur égarement, la nuit profonde et ô combien inhospitalière. Ce disque nous rappelle que l’extrême limite, le point de syncope est toujours le plus important. On repense bien sûr à Geir Jenssen escaladant le mont Cho Oyu au Tibet, son manque de souffle enregistré sur minidisc en approchant du sommet. Le parallèle se fait ici, sur un point de presque disparition, l’enregistrement devient un possible témoignage de sa propre perte, prise de conscience de sa fragilité.

Chaque artiste relate ici à sa façon de cet état de perte, David Velez entasse, stratifie, la faune est convoquée, les insectes bourdonnent au plus près des microphones, les éléments s’en mêlent, une pluie torrentielle vient ajouter de la difficulté à s’en sortir.

Simon Whetham est plutôt dans une approche de coupes franches, des cris font écho lointain, mais sont vite filtrés, retraités, comme pour mettre un voile devant la crudité de la scène, le lit d’une rivière est exploré avec, on suppose, des micros hydrophones, métaphore moderne du pêcheur à la traine, laissant dériver sa ligne, réécoutant après-coup ce que ses récepteurs auront entendu.

Les deux pièces, assez différentes dans leur traitement quand bien même elles ont un matériau de base recueilli dans une unité de temps et de lieu témoignent ici de la singularité de cette expérience, elles deviennent complémentaires sur l’album, solidaires comme ont certainement dû l’être les deux artistes pour ne pas définitivement s’égarer au coeur de la jungle.

Aujourd’hui il fait tempête, c’est bientôt le jour des morts. C’est une période propice au recueillement, on pense à tous ceux qui sont partis.

Puis il y a ce disque, une trace sonore de ce qui aurait pu être un drame, on l’écoute intensément, on y reviendra souvent.

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[David Vélez left, Simon Whetham right, photo Lina Velandia]

Translation to English -by Sismophone-

April 2011: David Velez invites Simon Whetham to host a field recording workshop in Colombia, the start of a trip. Follows a hike in the amazonian forest, both artists records their wandering, in a deep and how inhospitable night. This disc reminds us that the extreme limit, the point of syncope, is by far the most important. One recalls Geir Jenssen climbing Mount Cho Oyu in Tibet, recording his breathlessness on minidisc while reaching the summit. There is a parallel to make, about a state of near disappearance, the recording becoming a possible witness of it’s own loss, as a crucial consciousness of it’s fragility.

Each artist narrates in it’s own style this state of loss, David Velez piles, stratifies, convening fauna, insects buzzing as inside microphones, the elements playing a part, a cloudburst adding some difficulty to achieve.

Simon Whetham rather lays in a mood of drastic cuts, yells are remote echoes, though quickly filtered, reshaped, as to draw a veil over the crudeness of the scene, a riverbed is explored with, one imagines, hydrophones, modern metaphor of the angler with it’s drifting fishing line, listening again afterwards what his receptor’s ears caught.

The two pieces, quite different in their approach although sharing a common base material gathered in a time and space unit, witness the singularity of this experience, they are complementary on the disc, tightly bound as must have been the two artists to avoid getting totally lost in this deep jungle.

Today, there is a storm, soon comes All Souls ‘Day. This is an appropriate time for reverence, one remembers those gone now. And there is this disc, a sound trace of what could have been a tragedy, one listens intensely to it, often coming back to it.

David Velez website
Simon Whetham website
Unfathomless website 

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Big Wad Excisions. COPPICE
(Quakebasket Records 2013)

Review by Caity Kerr

Here are some lines from the promotional literature:-

…have now blasted open the gates for them to rip through the status quo of musical law, and help redefine the future of music.

Aiming for an ‘impression of transparency’

All throughout Big Wad Excisions, you can hear music coming into being.

I’d give that one out of three only because I’d like to hear more about the impression of transparency’ which could be an interesting musical project. The rest is unfathomable nonsense, at least that’s my opinion for what it’s worth – if you want people to take your music seriously, then write something serious and meaningful about your music. The caveat is that the musicians possibly didn’t write this themselves. Make of that what you will, but statements like these really belong of the back cover of popular novels. On a brighter note, the music compensates for this unfortunate rhetorical display.

Coppice are a duo – their previous album Holes/Tract, music for pumps, bellows, customized boomboxes and electromagnetics, has been described as hard to pigeonhole and contemporary without playing to fashionable idioms. It would be interesting to consider whether Big Wad Excisions sustains the very high musical standards of the earlier album. The strengths, or strength of this duo has been the art of walking a very fine line between making the very best of severely restricted resources, as in the finest of contemporary instrumental free improvisation, and collapsing into monotony. They spend most of their time walking on the right side of this line, throwing in something of added value in their underlying conceptual approach to music.

So moving from an album like Holes/Tract to a new album, if Coppice don’t choose to stick to what they know best, it would seem as if they have two alternative paths. One would be into some of the aimless and timbrally impoverished music that we find in some (only some) free improvisational circles or sects. The other would be into the more ambient fuzzy world of F*****z and the like where the music sounds like the aural equivalent of masturbating in a bath of lubricating jelly. Big Wad Excisions avoids the first pitfall but at the risk of being harsh I sense that one piece seems to tinker with the machinery of the second. If you listen to the music you’ll see what I mean. They stray uncharacteristically into what I’d call the ‘ambient fuzz’ zone, though the earlier album had one piece which came over as less resourceful or successful than the others for more or less the same reason. Fortunately though for the most part we can listen to the same fine mix of austerity, attention to instrumental detail and (apparent) contrast and blending of concrète, instrumental and electronic sound, to name but some of the attributes that made Holes/Tract such an original offering.

Snuck Keel [5:00] is a tight timbral investigation, dominated by a fast iterative sound with some interesting polyrhythmic investigations in the simple layering of sounds. At times it could be a field recording of a generator, though the detail reveals the underlying human agency. With repeated listening this piece rewards and almost mesmerises the listener at times, though the exercise is simple – you enjoy listening out for changes within a seemingly regular periodic pattern.

Impulses for Elaborated Turbulence (Excised) [2:27] is a wonderful piece – interesting in its brief conceptual plan and execution. We hear static, hisses and electronic glitches. With pauses. Then the baton seems (though I might be wrong) to be handed over to the acoustic instrumentalist, the bellows and reed department, for some delightful puffing and springy sounds. A brilliant and original miniature in many ways.

Sop [16:12] is the one risky track in the album, which wanders into dubious territory. The dominance of the tonal material seems to jar with the austerity and tightness of the rest of their work. This kind of music gets dangerously close to the material which gets appropriated by those untouchable insurance corporations for an animated feel-good tv advertisement.

Hoist Spell [7:14]  has elements of the excellence of the duo’s core strengths mixed in with hints of the dubious peregrinations of the previous track, though to be fair the tonal layers are a little more functional and integrated within the overall piece.

Overall I’d recommend Coppice’s work to anyone interested in new and original music. Their work is often very exciting, occasionally unique and original. I’d say that for two people to realise the strengths and weaknesses of their resources and yet to play most often to their strengths is evidence of excellent musicality and listening skills – what more could you ask for?

[Joseph Kramer: left,  Noé Cuéllar: right.
Photograph: Nathan Keay, 2011 from Coppice's website]

Coppice website
Quakebasket website

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Sound Atmospheres of the Colombian Orinoquia
JOSÉ RICARDO DELGADO FRANCO
(Gruenrekorder 2013)

Review by Cheryl Tipp

For somebody like me, who has never ventured outside of Europe before, the opportunity to sit back and listen to the sounds of tropical ecosystems is always something I relish. So when I saw that our friends over at Gruenrekorder were releasing a selection of Colombian soundscapes, I just had to take this one on.

Field recordist and sound artist José Ricardo Delgado Franco is the man responsible for this fine collection. In 2013 he spent two weeks exploring and recording the different ecosystems found within Colombia’s Orinoquia Natural Region – savannah, gallery forests and wetlands. Focusing on the Meta department, Franco recorded the natural sounds of this vast landscape from dawn to dusk and on into the night. The end result is a compilation of seven soundscapes that allow us to get a sense of the habitats visited and species encountered. An additional recording, made in Tuparro National Natural Park two years earlier, complements the set.

So many wonderful sounds are experienced when listening to Franco’s selection. Alien to my ears, these unknown voices fill me with curiosity. What species is making that sound? Is it a bird, or maybe an amphibian? Some species have been identified – the notes tell us that we are hearing the calls of Tufted Capuchins and Red Howler Monkeys for example – and I think this is an important addition. This information reminds us that these are not just “exotic” noises that sound nice but are the voices of living, breathing animals that vocalise for a reason, just like we do, and are essential to the correct functioning of that habitat.

José Ricardo Delgado Franco is a field recordist with obvious talent. ‘Sound Atmospheres of the Colombian Orinoquia’ introduces the listener to the many sounds of this region, giving us a glimpse into Colombia’s rich biodiversity and reminding us of the need to preserve this unspoilt land.

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[José Ricardo Delgado]

José Ricardo Delgado website
Gruenrekorder website

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O Rio / The River Vol 2. LUÍS ANTERO
(Impulsive Habitat 2013)

Review by Cheryl Tipp

Luís Antero returns to the Alvoco Valley with ‘O Rio / The River Vol. 2’, the latest manifestation of his ongoing relationship with this area of rural Portugal. The first volume, released in 2012, focused primarily on the sounds of the river itself. The sonorous twists and turns of this body of water were brought together to form a flowing piece that created a light, listening atmosphere.

‘O Rio / The River Vol. 2’ carries with it a very different emotion. The feeling is heavier, darker. It’s strange because many of the elements featured in volume 2 are also present in volume 1. Flowing water, bells, voices and community gatherings are common to both pieces, yet with volume 2 they come together to create a much more sombre mood. The bell here is solemn; the community gathering appears to be one of austere religious recital rather than joyful festivity.

We discover the reasons why when reading the accompanying liner notes. With this volume, Antero wanted to highlight the “long lost sonic memories and identities” of local people whose livelihoods were once intricately linked with the life of the river. Antero explain that the gradual silencing of the traditional mills that once existed along the shores of the Alvoco has forever changed the soundscape of this place. He writes:

The ‘passing’ of these sounds, once characteristic of the river and the villages growing on its shores, seem to walk hand in hand with the extinction of the professions that once encouraged them; river-keepers and millers from the Alvoco river valley.

 Conversations with some of these figures are included in the composition and add poignancy to the piece. I only wish I could speak Portuguese so that I could understand what was being said. Oral testimonies are powerful tools that foster a heightened level of emotional engagement, so inclusion of interview excerpts here is very fitting.

Antero’s sensitivity to the shifting spirit of the Alvoco Valley is clearly evident. The time spent in the area, both with nature and the people who still inhabit the region, can only bring him closer to the subject. He seems fiercely determined to preserve the aural identity and cultural legacy of this land so that the old ways are never completely lost. It’s an admirable and important project that once again shows the value of field recordings to the listeners of tomorrow as well as today.

 ‘For sure these villages are not dead, but their lives are not the same as in days gone by. The mills no longer rotate and the river-keeper has long stopped protecting the crystal clear waters of the river. Is there a way for all these life experiences and intricately detailed ways of life to be saved from oblivion? The heritage of these village people must be sought after, their memories and identity, preserved; carefully listen to the whispers of the river. It is from this aural experience that one can perceive, protect and preserve the history of these villages.’
-Luís Antero

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[Luís Antero]

Luis Antero website
Impulsive Habitat website

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Interview with Slavek Kwi

by Tobias Fischer

Complementary disconnections

As he puts it himself, Ireland-based sound artist Slavek Kwi is “obsessed by freedom”: The freedom to accept or refuse traditions, the freedom to use or disregard cultural references, the freedom to establish his own ideologies only to question and discard them again. For his possibly most ambitious project to date, “Boto [Encantado]”, Kwi made full use of this freedom, travelling to the Amazon to record the sounds of the Boto river dolphins. Floating along the river in a canoe, he spent weeks in almost perfect isolation, living with an inside the sonic world of the Boto and the “ever-changing mysterious subaquatic soundscape” surrounding him. The recordings were later condensed into a headphone installation and a radio-play-like, otherworldly LP on the Belgian ini.itu imprint. And yet, the human input is without doubt the least fascinating aspect about these works. With their wide range of timbres, chatter, click noises and rhythms, the vocabulary palette and expressive capacities of the dolphins question our conventional notions of language, turning our perception of music upside down. Aptly for someone as obsessed by freedom as Kwi, the solution to the confusion is simply not to choose a black-and-white interpretation: Perhaps if we can accept the paradox of our experience, the meaning will reveal itself most clearly.

 Q (TF). How did the idea for the project come about and what interested you about the sonic vocabulary of dolphins in particular?

 A (SK). The idea to create a piece based on sounds of the boto came after my first trip to the Amazon: a remote reserve Xixuau Xiparina on Rio Jauaperi off Rio Negro. From my scant research about the location, I knew the dolphins would be there.  Though I was hoping to record them, I was not solely focused on dolphins – I wished to experience the place in all its possibilities, and simply record sounds within the habitat – both underwater and above.

The concept: I was interested about the influences of information on the reception of the sounds, exploring perception from the perspective of both art and science: a combination of sound-art as purely an aesthetic experience together with scientific (in this case pseudo-scientific as I am simply creating a model of thinking-geometry) cognitive information. The audio-material with river dolphins seemed to me especially suitable for this project: the variety of sounds generated by the boto, the acoustic richness of habitat, and the mythical context, all influenced my choice. BOTO is the local name for Amazonian Pink Dolphins (Inia Geoffrensis). It is believed that from time to time boto come out of water as handsome men to seduce women. When a woman has difficulty identifying the father of her child, she blames the boto ….

“BOTO“ listening piece was part of an installation within a collective exhibition “2 Places“ which was showing simultaneously in two locations – Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast, Northern Ireland and University of Limerick, Ireland (2008). The set-up for “Boto“ comprised of 2 pairs of high quality headphones attached to a CD-player (you can access individual fragments of the composition via skip buttons), 2 comfortable chairs, and on the wall a detailed list describing sounds used in the composition; the list starts like this: WARNING: Do not read! The information is influencing the way you are experiencing the sounds. No comprehension whatsoever is required to access this work (a similar list, printed backwards, accompanies the LP – possible to read in the mirror.)

My conclusion, after finalizing “BOTO”, was that the way the mind of an artist and that of a scientist operates is diametrically opposed.  Art and science seem to stand beside each other in a disconnected though complementary way, creating a paradox. It seems to me impossible to combine art and science in a satisfactory way, without accepting this paradox. The question is if we can actually experience the sound-piece as experiential abstraction while absorbing the information; the way in which we take in information seems to reduce the potential for “mystery“.

I am perpetually oscillating between wanting and not wanting to know – I feel like knowledge somehow limits the purity of an aural experience and simultaneously it can complement in a strange contradictory way – “to know” and “not to know” is the paradox.

Q. The album was recorded over the course of various trips into the Amazon. Can you tell me a bit about them, please? What are the Rio Negro and Lago Mamori like, especially in sonic terms?

A. I am fascinated by rainforests, the biodiversity and density of sound is incredible. I visited the brazilian Amazon several times between 2007 and 2011, twice Rio Negro and multiple times Mamori. I certainly experienced differences between the two locations. I will talk here only about subaquatic recordings though.

Rio Negro has so called “black water”, which is actually a tea-like colour and is acidic. In general there appeared to be less subaquatic insects (though some sounds are astonishing, almost electronic-like) and frogs, different species of soniferous fish – it seemed a little bit quieter than the white water. One interesting fishsong from Xixuau Xiparina sounds like knocking on a wooden board at various speeds – this rather large fish, according to locals, has inside the skull a small cavity with two marble-like bones. The fish knocks together these balls, generating loud clicking sounds which you can hear even above water. Mamori has “white water”, which is a yellowish milky colour and alkaloid, rich in sediments. In general there is an abundance of insects and frogs, various soniferous and electric fish, crustaceans; sonic life seemed very proliferous. Aside from the “boto” there is another amazon dolphin, “tucuxi”. “Tucuxi” is a local name for a smaller estuarine dolphin (Sotalia fluviatilis). Unlike boto, who are purely river dolphins, tucuxi sometimes venture into the open ocean. Mamori is more populated than Xixuau Xiparina; you can often hear small boat-engines. In Xixuau Xiparina it is rare to hear such interference.

To get to Xixuau Xiparina takes about 36 hours on a rather noisy double-decker boat from Manaus, up the stream of Rio Negro.  We slept in suspended hammocks, myself and my wife Helen. During the night there were increasing myriads of flying insects – mainly moths, sometimes very big, and startling colours – attracted by the light. The reserve is in the region of Rio Jauaperi off Rio Negro.  There is a village with a small indigenous population, which is where the  Amazonia Association is run from. The rainforest around is annually flooded – water rises and descents about 11m – however the surrounding forests seem to be still partly underwater all the time. The Amazonia Association organized a guide for us.  The majority of time we travelled in between the trees in a canoe . Flooded rainforest is incredibly beautiful; it has a spacious and resonant quality. Hiking through dense rainforest was rather limited; from those hikes I have long duration sequences when I left a recorder for several hours without my presence.

Concerning river dolphins, our guide was particularly knowledgeable about their habits and whereabouts; unfortunately my basically non-existent portuguese limited our communication.  We were taken to several dolphin frequented places to record. Unless the dolphins emerged from the water to exhale, it was impossible to spot them. On the last night of our trip, I was recording  frogs, insects and bats from the canoe. We could hear a few dolphins emerging with loud snorting sounds around us. I was listening  through headphones; each exhalation sounded almost alike a human’s sigh.  It was for me a particularly emotional experience. A five minute extract from this recording is included on the LP.

Several nights I recorded from a small floating wooden platform attached to the shore.  My hydrophone was about 10-12m deep. I was listening to the active chatter underwater: crackling, clicking, croaking, grunting, snapping and occasionally some more vocal sounds.

It was very strange and alien, like listening to some emissions from deep space or radio interferences – I loved it. I spent many hours in complete awe sitting in the darkness, only sometimes opening my torch and looking around for possible creepy-crawlies. One evening I saw a hairy spider the size of my palm gliding on the surface of the water – probably some specie of tarantula. I didn’t know such a big creature could walk on the water! Another night, when I was in a dreamlike state, almost falling to sleep while listening to subaquatic symphony, I hear a voice saying very loudly in my ears: “Bubak!” and then just a few splashes of water suggesting the culprit swimming away. I was startled. “Bubak” is the equivalent in czech to “bugaboo” – indeed a rather ghostly surprise … I still have no idea what creature it was.  It might have been the boto, regarding his mischievous reputation.

The trip from Manaus to Mamori Lago is about 3-4 hours via a combination of minivan and smaller boats. I travelled together with Francisco Lopez and the groups of participants of the Mamori Sound Project.  Underwater, we recorded in groups, either from 2-3 canoes or anywhere suitable from the shore. Often you could hear active insects in shallows close to the shore; unfortunately there was also a lot of rotting leaves and debris which created unwanted banging sounds. Once I was recording in between the branches of a large fallen tree in the shallows. I was listening to beautiful sharp clicking insects, and suddenly I hear a sort of munching and rasping sound, greatly amplified by the hollow tree. I then noticed a large catfish eating algae and probably the wood itself. The Amazon hosts many species of prehistoric-looking catfish who are able to generate a variety of loud sounds: grunting, croaking, wrrrrrrrrrrrrr-like and sssssssssss-sounds. Sometimes we recorded inside floating grass-carpets, which covered the surface water, called by locals “capi”. One night, under a capi, I heard electronic-like sounds as something swam slowly by, a sort of doppler effect; it sounded exactly like pure sine-wave, sometimes saw or square-wave. It was so strange that first I thought my equipment was malfunctioning, though I could also hear clearly an abundance of insects, air or gas bubbles released by mud, and on top of that, another interweaved layers of electronic-like vibrations, almost like fish playing an organ. After doing some research, I discovered that these mysterious tonal signals seemed to be triggered by an active electroreception field (eod) of Gymnotiform electric fish.

Boto and Tucuxi we encountered mainly during the trip on the double-decker boat on the river Yuma. We recorded from canoes day and night. You could hear an abundance of soniferous fish (croaking, grunting, woodpecker-like sounds), high pitched insects and an audible spectrum of dolphin’s echolocation trrrrrrrrrrr-like clicks with occasional loud chuckling songs coming unexpectedly in, chasing schools of little fish jumping out of the water with loud circular splashes … I remember not wanting to press the “stop” button on my recorder and wishing to carry on for ever, to listen without a move, in complete darkness, to this ever-changing mysterious subaquatic soundscape. I was very happy there.

 Q. What kind of specific challenges did the recording pose?

A. It’s not that easy to obtain good underwater-recordings. There is more to it than just throwing in the hydrophone and pressing record.  Apart from the different acoustic properties of the aquatic environment, temperature, salinity etc, there are plenty of additional sound sources to consider, all adding and changing recording conditions; for example: the water and the canoe are constantly moving, various debris are floating around, and in the case of flooded rainforest, there are branches, an uneven land base, and water also transports different sounds from a distance and from the surface etc. It is rather challenging. As the echolocation of dolphins is ultrasonic, you cannot hear most of it – it happened to me that i recorded and didn’t hear anything at all. I assumed there were no dolphins, only to discover later in the computer that I had picked up clicks of sonar.

 Q. Part of the LP contains of what you’ve referred to as ‘vocabulary samples’. After spending a lot of time with the dolphins, what, would you say, is communicated through their sounds?

A. Vocabulary (it can be understood as “index” as well) refers to a series of short vocal sounds, which I assumed to be produced by dolphins, though this might not be completely true. Some fish, especially catfish, may generate similar sounds; the range of vocal sounds of the boto is not really known. Some calls  – a sort of chuckling – sound completely the same from Mamori and from Xixuau Xiparina. The use of sonar – echolocation – is for orientation and to locate prey in murky water. What dolphins communicate to each other – aside from territorial and mating calls – I don’t know. I think it’s impossible to comprehend non-human psychology; all speculation seems to me somehow inappropriate and too anthropomorphic. However, there has been some interesting research concerning “sono-pictorial” communication with sea dolphins.

Q. After you returned home from your excursion, how was the album put together?

A. The work is “about” – though not as a narrative – the presence of the boto from various perspectives within its natural habitat, including elements from the environment and context. As compositional tools I used: transpositions, equalisation – both sometimes extreme – noise reduction and of course editing techniques (cut-up and layering), a few sequences are virtually intact and inserted within composition as it was recorded. Which is what I normally use as a technique anyway.

Q. Field recordings and processed field recordings are habitually published under the recorder’s name. Is this in any way problematic from your perspective? How do you see the question of authorship when it comes to recording animal song?

A. Well, if you put it that way – it seems suddenly unethical not to mention the animals. However, all this is clearly very antropomorphic perspective – even the scientific name is awarded by humans …

Animal calls are part of the acoustic environment – the same as human; in principle how do you see the question of authorship when it comes to recording human activities within the environment – such as distant hum of conversations, sounds of steps, driving cars etc.?

Recording is always subjective: the way it is recorded, the selection of time in and out (press record and stop), technical specifications of the microphones and recorder and, of course, decisions about editing and reproduction – all that is a very personal and creative matter. It feels fine to sign it. Acknowledgement of the recording situation, location etc. seems respectful.

A. The musicality of animal recordings has frequently been questioned. This is something I’ve always been particularly intrigued by. To you, is there something truly musical and individual about the dolphin-songs you’ve recorded?

A. The idea of “music“ is a human concept, therefore the parameters and the aesthetics of “music“ seem to me inevitably changeable – fluid, rather than static – and subject to individual perceptions. In this sense, I am not concerned about the “musicality“ of the sounds. However, I am observing my natural tendencies of my irrational attractions (or repulsion) towards some specific sounds. Likes and dislikes are polarities of the paradox, I am including the whole paradox as part of my perception.

We might consider sounds as “musical” when these sounds make sense to us, when it sounds meaningful to our ears. This depends solely on the development of our perception and cultural conditioning.

 

 [Boto artwork cover]

* [Upper image: Slavek Kwi courtesy of Echomusic]

Tobias Fischer: Guest editor for The Field Reporter. Editor-in-chief of experimental music magazine Tokafi and publisher of the 15 Questions website.**

** The Field Reporter only claims authorship and responsibility for the material written by its editorial team.

Slavek Kwi website
Iniitu website

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