Tag Archive: soundscape

(picture taken by Andrea Gjestvang in Greenland)

This week in Berlins Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the Festival “Über Lebenskunst” takes place with a performance night called “Walden” tomorrow evening, 19th August. I was invited to put a collection of sound art and field recording pieces together for the lounge area of the Festival in the Theater Saal. BJ Nilsen will play a live set, the film “Sound Aspects of Material Elements” by John Grzenich will be shown along with photographic and filmic works by Andrea Gjestvang, Iveta Vaivode and Arne Maavik. Our programme is called “Landscapes and Soundscapes from Gardens of Mindspace” and starts around 21:30 with my piece “Frost Pattern” played in 5.1 surround. From the programme notes:

As if to set against the drop in biodiversity, there is a new tendency of revivalism in contemporary art aiming to maintain and update the variety of traditional genres once flourishing around the academic landscape painting. Whether pastoral or georgic, heroic or picturesque, in the context of the current environmental issues the classical landscape genres are regaining their political notion. Reshaped from purely aesthetic categories into practical tools of social activism and politically motivated contemplation, these genres provide their rich art-historical legacy to remind that landscapes are cultural concepts before they are nature. Contemporary art explores landscape as a construct of imagination projected onto wood, water and rock. It is an introspective sightseeing in the social mindspace, where attention is paid not only to the picturesque, but also to conceptual landslides and ideological floods, since the real world ecological crises are firstly due to destructive habits of thought – they are a by‑product of culture.

“Landscapes and Soundscapes from Gardens of Mindspace” is a programme put together of art-works exploring landscape aesthetics in relevance to wider environmental awareness. Built up as an all night long nature trail through pastoral sceneries and ambient soundscapes, the programme for the lounge area of “Walden Night” festival consists of video‑art screenings and slide-shows, a live performance by sound and recording artist BJ Nilsen, and Andreas Bick’s retrospective overview on sound‑art experiments based on field‑recording materials by artists like Jacob Kirkegaard, Francisco Lopez, Eric La Casa, Yannick Dauby, Chris Watson and others.

Soundscapes go Commercial

How it could look like when field recording goes commercial, this video could be an example…

Noticed the man passing by with the magenta umbrella or the woman in LA with the skirt of the same colour? Some kind of subtle product placement since magenta is the brand colour of the German Telekom, who commisioned the video and the music.

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. 

Environmental sound recording appears to look back on a short history: until the late 1960s is was only practiced by some biologists doing reasearch in acoustic interaction in nature. Understandably enough recording equipment at that time was heavy and prone to technical failure in the field. This changed not only due to developments in sound recording devices but to the release of a comercial record album featuring the „songs“ of humpack whales recorded by researchers Roger and Katy Payne that caught the attention of the wider public. Roger Payne himself wrote the foreword to this introduction into wildlife recording by well known american bioacoustician Bernie Krause who early after Payne’s ground breaking release set the standards in environmental sound recording. Since those days Krause has produced countless high quality albums collecting acoustic environments from around the globe. He claims to have the biggest private library of natural sound recordings counting up to thousands of hours of which the best parts can be purchased through his webpage at Wild Sanctuary.

 Krause found his early inspiration in the writing of the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, who coined the term “soundscape” in the 1960s and explored the impact of changes in the soundscape — like urbanization and industrialization — on our perception of the environment. From the necessity to preserve the acoustic diversity of ecosystems the idea of acoustic ecology derived. The trouble is, says Krause, nature’s symphonies are being drowned out by manmade din. “It used to take me 10 to 15 hours to record one hour of useful material,” he says. “Now it takes me 2,000.” Even in remote regions, it has become nearly impossible to hear nature uninterrupted. “I get all sorts of noise. Chain saws. Snowmobiles. Aircraft.”

Krause synthesized two words to express his acoustic concept of the „wild natural“ (he doesn’t like the term nature which is to him an overused and abstract word, intertwined with a tradition that has created an „it/us“ dichotomy): While biophony is a type of soundscape confined to the sounds that organisms generate in a particular habitat, geophony is a soundscape of non-living phenomena, for instance, the sound of streams, storms, wind through trees or across sands, eruptions and earthquakes, and a myriad of other natural causes. In this concept every human-induced disturbance is considered as noise or din, that is to be avoided. It is interesting to compare this concept with the thinking of another outstanding environmental sound recordist, the british Chris Watson, who worked a lot with David Attenborough on his BBC nature documentaries and released highly acclaimed CDs with the label Touch. Chris Watson introduces three layers of sound: atmospheres, habitats and species. Atmosphere is the unobtrusive bed of sound – perhaps the gentle noise of distant traffic, the hum of air conditioning, wind in the trees. A habitat could be the general sound of a location, be it the texture of cicadas or the traffic noise and undistinguishable chatter of people in the city. The species therefore is the specific animal (or car, or voice) you want to feature. In Watson’s thinking there is no judgement on the quality of the soundscape (of course we all don’t like the chain saw when we go for a hike in the woods…), he includes man-made sounds in his concept, Krause tries to avoid them. Watsons practical approach is focusing on certain sound sources, making decisions on the perspective, the selectivness of his recordings, while Krause goes for the general atmosphere, the pristine and integral experience of a place. Along with the ideas of Paul Shepard, Krause states that „natural sound patterns are highly musical but require a sensitivity to the aural world on the listener’s part which I believe we no longer possess in Western culture, even though it may have been active at some point in our species development and still remains so in some remote forest-dwelling groups or as a distant hidden mark somewhere in our chromosome material.“ And further more: „I retreated increasingly to places where I could record in the wild natural, locations where serenity and peace existed in an otherwise tumultuous world. Gradually, I ventured further and further away from human noise into habitats completely filled with creature song. Only there did I feel relaxed and more complete. I began to feel a sense of the divine I had never experienced within the walls of a church or synagogue or mosque. It was a place filled with the innocence of exquisite chaos. No definition of sin, guilt, or redemption and yet it was part of the community of life to which I was beginning to feel essentially re-attached, a feeling our pre-historic ancestors must have known long ago. I felt alert and connected to all of the organisms around me even though I didn’t completely understand – then or now – how it all works. The natural world taught me that I didn’t need to understand its permutations to know that it’s the source of my life.“

In Wild Soundscapes Bernie Krause teaches all the fundamentals of listening, acoustics and the technical requirements for sound recording in nature. It is a good guide book to the beginner in this area, even though one might think of if this idea goes mainstream Krause will promote a movement towards the wild that will even cause more intrusion to the places he would like to have protected. In the end when we go to remote places to record some pristine natural sounds, we have already used airplanes and cars and other noise-making vehicles to get there. Apart from a slight romanticism towards the nature the book is – nevertheless – worth reading if one seeks a good introduciton into the basics of field recording. 

When it comes to processed field recordings, this is one of my favourite albums. BJ Nilsen used various location recordings from such places like Iceland, Sweden, England and Italy and mingled them through a set of old worn out tape machines and analogue equipment. Surprisingly the drony sounds unfolding out of nature backgrounds resemble the warmth and lively texture of artists like Fennesz, who utilizes MAX/MSP patches to tweak his guitar playing. Nilsens electronic landscape produces a hypnotic atmosphere that elevates the listener to some outer places. Highly recommended. Out at touch.

Cano Negro Monkeys

One of my best experiences while doing field recording. I catched this take in Costa Rica on a canoe ride down the cano negro, a mangrove swamp with lots of water ways and channels. On this bit a howler monkey started growling on the left hand side of the water, while spider monkeys climbed through the forest canopy on the right. The beautiful call of the montezuma oropendola bird echoes over the water surface, then after some time a caiman jumps into the river. There is no editing here, this is how it sounded on the water.

In may 2007 I travelled to Israel and the West-Bank on a political education programme. During the trip I did a lot of sound recordings in the streets of Jerusalem, Ramalah and Tel Aviv. Here is a collage of some of those sound bits, that I finished very quickly in about three hours, that is like a wink of the eye compared to the time I consume on other sound compositions…