Category: field recordings

At the Holocaust Tower

The jewish museum in Berlin is just a 15 min. march away from where I live. Part of the museum (conceived by Daniel Libeskind) is the holocaust tower, a void of intimidating hight with windowless blank walls, only a small slit just under the ceiling lets some light and sound in. The normality of the outside world can be heard but one is separated from it through the concrete walls. A feeling of isolation is induced on the visitor, the coldness and darkness of the empty space sends some shivers down the spine. 

Some years ago I asked the museum’s staff if I could do a sound recording in the tower and they agreed. This is how it sounded inside at some lush summer evening with not too many visitors entering the building. I left the recording equipment inside the tower and waited outside to capture the “sound of emptiness” without me being present in the recording. Some museum guests enter the room occasionally, most of them didn’t stayed for a long time due to the uneasy atmosphere of the place. Finally you hear the steps of a visitor approaching the recorder who was attracted by the red and yellow LEDs in the dark. He ran into my microphone, put it back in place and left the tower immediately, passing me by with a somehow sorrowful expression on his face. I thought if I would have to desribe the German guilt complex towards the holocaust, it would have looked somehow like that.″

Since my posting of elephants recording I recently did in Kenya I received a knowlegdeable reply from Amy who directed my attention to some websites that helped me understand what I was hearing on encountering the elephants. So here are some links:

First, Katy Payne, who together with Roger Payne, recorded humpback whales in the late 60s and put them on a record that turned out to be one of the most successful field recordings ever, has changed her attention to the vocalization of elephants for the past 30 years or so. On this site, one can hear, next to her old whale recordings, great cuts of mating elephants, found under the link “communication in the wild”. Fantastic sound quality, a lot of detail and depth, highly recommended! In 1984 she and other researchers discovered that elephants make infrasonic calls to one another at distances as high as ten kilometers. She is also the founder of the Elephant Listening Project.

Katy Payne works frequently with Joyce Poole of Elephant Voices, which is another site with plenty of information about elephant sounds. Joyce and Petter of Elephant Voices were also part of discovering elephants ability to imitate sounds. At about the same time Angela Steoger-Horwath of the Vienese Zoo Schönbrunn made recordings of a captive male African elephant who had been raised with Asian females and was making Asian elephant chirping sounds, meaning that this orphaned elephant was capable of learning another dialect. The results of this research were published in Nature and led to many following articles.


This is another scene from Kenyas Masai Mara, indeed a quite ugly one: vultures feeding on a topi or a similar animal. There was some noisy dispute about who had the right to get the best of the meal, as you can hear…″

I just returned from a short trip to Kenya which is, of course, famous for its abundance of wildlive. In the National Park Masai Mara we encountered a herd of elephants that just appeared in a bush and slowly approached our car while they peacefully grazed and ate. There was a very small baby elephant with the herd – according to our guide not more than 2 or 3 days old – and it is known that elephants can react aggressive when they feel disturbed with their offspring. That’s why there lays a certain kind of tension over this recording of the grazing elephants, one of the bulls finally just stood aside of our car only a meter away and even our guide got a bit nervous… Check the baby elephant trying to suck milk from the mother sometime later in the recording. There is also a growl sound which I suppose comes from one of the elephants but it actually sounds like a lion, so I have to check whether this is part of the acoustic repertoire of elephants or not. As you know they do infrasonic noises to communicate but that is something I leave to the bioacousticians to record…″

Whoosh Bottle

The “whoosh bottle” phenomenon is a quite interesting sound effect as well, the sound artist Bastiaan Maris showed it to me and I was able to record several combustion reactions in his workshop that I later used in my last years composition fire pattern. Check another – much nicer – video here and listen to my recording excerpt:″

Mexico Cityscape

Octavio Paz, grown up in an outlying neighborhood of Mexico City, wrote in one of his poems:

Between what I see and what I say 
Between what I say and what I keep silent 
Between what I keep silent and what I dream 
Between what I dream and what I forget: 

One can easily replace poetry with sound or noise thinking of the Mexican habit of making noise in order to attract attention (as all the branches of street vendors have their own acoustic signals) and the composure towards noise that can be interpreted as ignorant or highly tolerant. Paz would have described this love of music, noise and crowds as no more than a compensation for a deeper, unconscious isolation and gloom. In “The Labyrinth of Solitude” Paz observes that solitude is responsible for the Mexican’s perspective on death, ‘fiesta’, and identity. Death is seen as an event that is celebrated but at the same time repelled because of the uncertainty behind it. As for the fiestas, they express a sense of communality, crucially emphasizing the idea of not being alone and in so doing helps to bring out the true Mexican that is usually hidden behind a mask of self-denial.

The following track is a collage of sounds I collected predominantly in Mexico City (some sounds are from Oaxaca) and might provide an aural illustration of the conflict of Mexican identity.″″

From my recent trip to Mexico I brought some sound snippets of twisted european heritage: the Torre Latinoamericana, the landmark tower in the city center Mexico DF, plays a cheap digital version of London’s Big Ben every hour. And notorious in the streets of DF and other Mexican cities are the out-of-tune barrel organs that once crowded London and other European centers. Hearing this distorded example of a barrel organ I captured in Oaxaca, one can understand Charles Dickens complaints about the “most excruciating sounds imaginable” that kept him from writing again and again. Thanks to the city of sound webpage I found this beautiful excerpt taken from Virginia Woolfs “Mrs Dalloway”, another telling example of literatures fascination with city sounds:

“For having lived in Westminster – how many years now? over twenty, – one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, that said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one lives it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”″

I made this recording at Sea of Galilee very close to the spot where Jesus was supposed to walk on water. I guess this must be what he heard at that excursion. By the way: scientific study has suggested that rare atmospheric and water conditions could have caused ice to form on the lake. The research shows a period of cooler weather swept what is now northern Israel from 1,500 to 2,600 years ago. Sub-zero temperatures could have caused the formation of ice thick enough to support the weight of a man.