Rui Chaves will be documenting his creation of Nendu—an archive of Brazilian sound artists—in real time on Sounding Out! throughout 2016-early 2017. A Portuguese version of Chaves’s journals was published in Linda, an online platform created by a composers’ collective called NME. Rui Chaves’s postdoctoral research is funded by FAPESP (São Paulo Research Foundation) Project 2014/15978-9.
Nendu—the title of my archive—envisages the creation of an online platform dedicated to presenting and mapping the work of contemporary Brazilian sound artists. I have based my based upon the following four objectives:
1) Creating a ‘map’ that enables the dissemination and discovery of local praxis;
2) Prompting conversations or different types of documentation that better illustrate individual creative processes (‘journal’);
3) Re-affirming the idea of the ‘archive’ as a research tool;
4) Writing a historical and critical report on Brazilian sound art;
Nendu’s online ‘map’ will enable users to discover different practitioners based on location, but more importantly on what categories the artists themselves have asked to be associated with.
These categories consist of designations of practices that cross the current imaginary of sound art historiography and reflection. A porous and rizomatic territory, to be sure, the categories will echo the obvious specificity of the experience and presentation of sounding artworks — temporally, spatially and formally — without excluding practical, historical and conceptual connections with music, architecture, performance or visual arts.
My selection framework interweaves individual research with contacts with curators, friends, and other researchers. It is important to mention that this process remains open to any individual that wants to be part of the platform until the end of the project in June 2017. This openness facilitates a dialogue between the archivist and interested parties, while at the same time enables reflection regarding the relationship with the idea of “sound art” and the role of sound within different artistic practices.
The second element (called a ‘journal’) consists of field work (to be done until the end of 2016) where I–together with a smaller selections of artists–attempt to present different in-depth reports of “ways of doing” sound art. The journal will consist of interviews, photos, videos, audio recordings and other relevant items. I will publish this material in tandem with the map in the form of a blog and I will share dispatches from the journal with SO!’s readership regularly throughout 2016.
The articulation of the map and journal foregrounds a critical reasoning regarding the idea of the archive as a research tool. My archive will not only be a repository of artists and work done, but also a way of doing an ‘archeology’ of discourses, made objects, and creative processes of sound practitioners. Methodologically, I support my archive via an ethnographic approach, tracing common ideas or patterns between conversations, materials, and/or other artifacts (texts, videos, audio recordings or photographs) gathered during the project. This not only allows an understanding of a possible formal aesthetic discourse (collective or individual), but also offers insights and possible contextualizations of various thematics within a broader cultural arena. Through mapping particular ways of doing, I argue, my archive will allow participants/artists—and also future users—a better comprehension of the prevalent cultural terms.
In the end, this methodology is geared toward the creation of a historical and critical report regarding the current panorama of Brazilian ‘sound art’. Because Nendu is also Tupi for “listening to one-self,” it functions as a metaphor for the creation of an archive that envisages alternative reflections and historiographies from European/American narratives.
For my introductory presentation for Sounding Out!, I want to take the opportunity to present a a ‘journal’ that I made with the artist Tiago Costa in the town of Tiete (state of São Paulo). We perform this activity with “two-voices,” each one of us writing about their experience — starting with me.
My rendez-vous point with Tiago was at the Barra Funda metro station and bus station. Our meeting results from a series of conversations and our eagerness to record the sound of the cicadas in his home town (Tietê). He was also interested in using binaural microphones, which end up being the main recording setup for what we did in the weekend between the 29th to the 31st of January 2016. Over the course of this weekend, I ended up in a series of conversations where I try to explain how these microphones work—in a very imprecise manner.
Our trip begins early in the morning, so I wake up early and still in night time to travel to the metro station, carrying all the recording equipment. When I arrive, there is already a lively buzz in the place. I have breakfast and, still feeling hungry, I have a second. As always, I arrive way too early and I look for the travel information center in order to try to find the right bus ticket sales booth. Fortunately, Tiago also arrives really early and I get an SMS from him telling me that he had already bought the tickets. We meet up and immediately get along. The conversation between us will constantly flow during our time together. He is an artist with a vast experience in audio post-production and he’s also pretty active and interested in São Paulo’s experimental music scene. This type of in-depth knowledge will also be a good source of jokes and gossip regarding particular musicians in the scene.
The conversation continues inside the bus, during which I compliment the vehicle’s air conditioning set temperature, quite mild at that time. Everyone that has travelled by bus in Brasil is acquainted with the cold that one has during long distance travels. While we continue to chat and get farther away from the city, we start to gaze a landscape that cuts through our daily experience of living in São Paulo—it is so hard to see the horizon in that city!
We came across and stop briefly in a town with a weird and funny name to me: Boituva!
Boituva is really well known for its paragliding activities. Sometime during our weekend together, I discover that Tiago is afraid of heights and that he is not planning to paraglide any time soon—I agree. It also during this stop over that Tiago describes to me a regional musical traditional called “Cururu”: a form of song-off duel between two “violeiros”; based on that description, I commented to him that it sounded a lot like a rap battle. A smile comes up on Tiago’s face, a smile that grew larger and larger due to my inability to say “Cururu” the right way: Pururu, Cururuca, Pururuca.
We arrive to Tietê early and sleepy. At first sight, the city has a contrasting scale and size in regards to São Paulo. The height of the buildings is relatively small, punctuated by a few condos slightly off the main urbanscape. The bus station has a small boteco, and not much else. Botecos are common in Brazil; to me, they seem like a cross-over between a pub, restaurant and coffeehouse. There are a few clouds in the horizon, but Tiago tells me that the city is much warmer and drier than São Paulo. He also tells me that signs of Italian immigration are quite present in the city, as well as assorted religious events. Not long after, Tiago’s mom arrives and she is extremely kind.
At Tiago’s place I have my third breakfast (called café da manhã here). With some effort and excitement, we go out to check a few places near Tiago’s home for recording and I’m impressed by the relatively diversity of the nearby soundscape. Besides the sounds of birds, insects and some motorbikes—there is a pungent smell of sewer in the air that envelops us.
We also see a series of houses with an architecture that reminds me of other parts of the world. We make the most of this small trip and Tiago records a small route in that area using the binaural microphones.
Tiago Costa field recording // Best heard with headphones
We go back home and Tiago listens to the recording we just made. We have a small talk about this process. We sit at the table to have lunch and I try to explain to Tiago’s mom my research and what the process of binaural recording entails:
The head is a filter that enables to create a 3D image during the recording process.
I think I have a limited understanding of the process.
We end up having a quiet afternoon. I’m still a bit excited, so I decide to go out to run a few tests with the camera I bought to document my research work. Tiago and his mom suggest that I go and visit the river.
I do a small video recording through the city using a gadget that enables me to strap the camera to my head. Following their indications, I find the river Tietê. The color of the water is really brown and there is a smell that I can’t explain. It seems that in bygone times one could have a swim there, and that there was also a swimming club. With time that changed, but there is a small religious celebration where two boats meet in the same place.
I find a small wooden stage near a construction site and inadvertently, I hear a conversation about which national team has the biggest number of fans in the country. I start to get really tired and decide to go back home. I try to transfer the files to watch the videos. The computer has problems playing them, so I give up and fall asleep.
We wake up for dinner and after, we go on a stroll through the city, literally going in circles around the main plaza. The conversation is good and we continue talking over a few beers on the porch of Tiago’s house. I don’t know if it was on that day or the next, but we comment on the lack of representation of certain groups in the São Paulo experimental music scene.
Tiago also describes to me a map of the local labels. We decide that it might be interesting to have a dedicated field recording label, because there are none in Brasil. We laugh at the possibility of the project being profitable or manageable. It would be one of those things that you would do out of passion, as were most things that we talked about during that evening.
We decide to wake up early in order to do our first recording of the day and try to capture the local dawn chorus. It was a really warm night, so I fall asleep to the sound of the ceiling fan refreshing me.
I had an idea for a possible project between us, having sent Tiago a plan beforehand. The project consisted of using the binaural recording process as a metaphor for a collaborative recording process. I soon realize that that could be too complex for the time we had, and that I didn’t want to condition our weekend meeting and recording process. From now on, the focus would be on documenting Tiago’s work.
The alarm rings and I prepare the audio and video recording equipment. We both look tired, but are in good moods. The idea is to document the recording/path that Tiago is going to make—so I strap the camera to my head and Tiago sets up the binaural microphones; for some reason there is a glitch with the audio recorder SD card, but I manage to solve the problem.
Tiago – Field Recording // Better heard with headphones
We go back in order to get bit a more rest; we must, as later on we are going to do a few more recordings. I try, but I end up staying awake. It starts to get hot, so I get out of bed and have have breakfast. Tiago’s mom is already doing some house chores. It is a beautiful day and I am quite excited about what we are going to do in the afternoon. The area surrounding Tietê is quite beautiful with sugar cane plantations all over the place, supposedly for the production of bio-diesel.
We were meant to go out early, but we are going to meet a friend’s of Tiago and he suggested that we went after lunch. So we did that, just before leaving an intense rainfall strikes Tietê. We head out anyway, toward a place whose name I forgot. After we arrive, and while we wait for the weather to improve, we decide to recording the momentary ambience.
When the rain stops, we meet up with Marcos—a really gentle and nice person. On our way, I explain my research project to him and lend him my recorder to listen to how binaural recordings sound. He tells me that it feels like the sounds are happening around him. Discreetly, I record their conversation and I am briefly taken away by stories about friends and TV shows that discuss the evolutionary nature of pain.
We arrive at the dirt track where we are going to do a few recordings. We have to jump a fence and my shoes get all dirty with mud. In the end, all of our clothing ends up wet and dirty and Tiago’s mom’s car will suffer the consequence of our little adventure. At the same time, I can’t understand if we are actually allowed to enter this property.
The surrounding landscape is amazing and we walk, hopping a few more fences until we reach the river. We stop there in order to do another recording. The river water has an intense brown color and the sky is still cloudy. We mainly record the sound of the water coursing. After we finish, Marcos goes out to do a recording and disappears for a few minutes.
Marcos André Lorenzetti recording // Best heard with headphones
After a while, we get a bit worried about him, but he soon arrives saying that we have to change to another, more interesting place. We start walking, avoiding our initial choice of a route due to the possibility of existing spiders or snakes, crossing a small ranch where we encounter a family getting ready for a barbecue. Marcos, a former vegetarian who now eats chicken, asks Tiago if he misses eating barbecue. He says he doesn’t.
At another part of the river bed, for some odd reason we decide to go through a complicated route (especially for people carrying equipment!). I worry I’m going to get wet. So it was, but Tiago and his friend helped me with my bag. We arrive to a small island of rocks and we do another recording. The weather is nicer now and it feels really wonderful. Tiago and Marcos go for a swim in the water and I get in a little bit to make a video recording. After a while, I felt obliged to go for a swim too, although I was a bit phobic regarding germs, bacteria or other nasties that could be in that water. I join them and suddenly we spot a sewer drainage pipe. I ask Marcos if the water is clean and he replies that:
Clean, clean, it never is!
Returning to the ‘mainland.’, I accidentally misplaced one of my feet, and slip on my back on one of the rocks. Fortunately, none of the equipment gets wet and I leave with only a few bruise marks.
In mid-November 2015, there was a strong heat wave in the interior of São Paulo. I was in the city of Tietê, my home town, two hours west. I remember being home, the seasonal dry air and the surrounding sounds picked up my attention, in particular the strong sound of the cicadas. I became interested in capturing them, and imagined myself in a recording situation in the middle of the woods, just a few meters from my house. At that time, I had been listening to a few interesting works that utilized binaural microphones and start querying colleagues that used that type of setup in their work. That’s when I contacted Rui.
Rui is developing research about Brazilian sound art, and for that he interviews and documents a series of artists that work with sound. Part of his process consists in spending some time with them, documenting what they usually do and proposing interventions. I explain what I wanted to do; Rui got interested and he invited me to do something in Tietê.
Due to our agendas, our meeting had to be postponed a few months after this conversation, unfortunately when he finally had time, the cicada weren’t ‘sounding’ as as much as before. We decide to maintain our intent to meet, and during the month of January, we left for a weekend to do some field recordings together.
We went to Tietê on the 29th of January and the soundwalk happened briefly after we arrive. With the recorder and binaural microphones in hand, we visit the outskirts of the woods in proximity to a neighborhood called Seis Irmãos (literally translating to “six brothers”).
In the past, that part of town had only a few small farms (called chácaras in Brasil), and although today it has been replaced by urban development, it still maintains a considerable native green area. Well, partially native. as we encountered a mix and pipes that send untreated sewage to a water stream called Ribeirão da Serra.
During that walk, we had a go with binaural recording, and we discussed a possible ‘narrative’ that could be done the next day, This ‘narrative’ would consist of emphasizing the first morning sounds, starting in the middle of the neighborhood houses, until a particular moment when we would enter the woods for a more contemplative appreciation. We also recorded a few ‘urban sounds’ during the walk, inside a car on the way to the next recording spot: a brief rain storm, the car’s mechanical sounds and our casual conversations.
Rui Chaves field recording // Better heard with headphones
The second stage happened in a nearby town, Cerquilho. This was a plan parallel to the cicadas that we made at the banks of the Sorocaba River, a place with less human intervention and strong currents, so it demanded the help of someone that knew it well. I invited my friend Marcos to accompany us. He had practiced canoeing and regularly frequents that spot, building a very close relationship with this river. During the trip he told us about an experience he had spending the night close to the river with only a hammock. He described how the sound part of this experience transformed his perception:
One time I went to sleep close to the river [. . .] in the hammock, and during the day the sound of water is harmonic, but during the night it transforms into something really intense. And since it was night time and our perception gets a lot sharper, more alert, because there could be an animal close, so with any noise made we become more alert. There were times where the experience of the water ‘noise’ became so intense that it somehow even changed my consciousness [. . .] it was incredible [. . .] because it is a constant sound, right, [. . .] the current is constant [. . .] and if you don’t feel trapped by it, you set yourself free.
Tiago Costa Field Recording // Usar fone de ouvido
The sound recordings made in that afternoon captured a river with a strong presence in constituting that acoustic space, taking upstage presence in regard to all other sounds. After the recordings, we had a swim and talked until the end of the afternoon.
This multi-vocal diary manifests the methodological frame for the ‘type’ of archive that I am building — a performative endeavor that envisages presenting process and work through a multi-layered weave of text, audio-visual documentation, and online material. Ultimately, its format signals a dialogical movement between archivist and artist, the underlying force in building a critical and historical report on Brazilian sound art. This publication is part of a series of installments that will run until mid-2017. The next post will focus on the work of Lilian Nakao Nakahodo, a composer/performer and researcher that created the Curitiba Sound Map.
Featured Image: In a ranch between Tietê and Cerquilho. 30/01/2016. Picture by Rui Chaves
Rui Chaves is a Portuguese sound artist, performer and researcher. His research and work foregrounds a discussion of presence — both physical and authorial — in the process of making sound art. This endeavor is informed by a contemporary critical inquiry and exploration of the thematics of body, place, text and technology. He has presented his work in several institutions and events throughout the United Kingdom, Brazil, France, Canada, Portugal and Germany. He holds a PhD in music from Queen’s University Belfast and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at NuSom (University of São Paulo).
Written in collaboration with Tiago Costa.
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Six Years in Nodar: Sound Art in a Rural Context–Rui Gomes Costa
Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil–Leonardo Cardoso
Beyond the confines of recording studios, stages, and music classrooms, a vast and shifting sonic canvas exists for field recorders. This personal essay explores my awakening to a new creative recording process through the New England Soundscape Project , an ongoing sound-gathering mission whereupon I use small digital recorders—paired with various microphones, an iPhone, and a genuine sonic curiosity—to record brief moments throughout New England’s rich coastal, urban, and rural landscapes across six U.S. states. I received a modest seed grant from my University to pursue some creative work in field recording and sound studies. Over the next year, my travels will take me to the National Parks, cities, and historic landmarks in Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
While near limitless possibilities on where and how to produce sonic and electroacoustic musical compositions endure, starting theNew England Soundscape Project challenged me to hone my listening skills while simultaneously dealing with nature’s unpredictability. Moreover, as a budding sound artist, I had to contend with the cognitive and emotional issues affecting a brand-new and unexplored creative practice. I came to believe that a holistic method of field recording offered me certain advantages—enabling an emerging sound artist to detach from rigidly defined agendas and instead focus on reflection, deep breathing, environmental awareness, gratitude, and an observational spirit. The listening exercises I detail in this post made me a newly introspective practitioner—one capable of a heightened sensitivity that improved my production and composition skills across multiple media.
Field Recording: An End Goal in Mind?
Field recording involves a delicate balance of technical skill, careful planning, and patience. Stepping away from a controlled environment, capturing audio on location presents many random and often erratic trials. From wind noise and poor site accessibility to recording malfunctions and user error—a host of issues arise once the recordist enters unfamiliar territory. Here, unfamiliar territory includes both new places and nascent approaches to research-based production and artistic data collection. Where do I situate a project like the New England Soundscape Project among new media production, sound studies, and music composition? Does that issue even matter?
The notion of practice-based work usually implies an end goal in mind. What if there is not an end goal in sight? What happens then? Would the New England Soundscape Project be “enough” of a contribution to creative scholarship when approached as a type of audio ethnography—much like the immersive storytelling recently curated by Leonardo Cardoso? The New England region is lush and robust, with many diverse landscapes. I hoped to document these in some way, but wondered how to continue. Truthfully, I had some hesitation on where to start.
Media artists and music composers learn the mechanics of their craft in colleges, universities, conservatories, at home, and on the job. Some of these techniques include audiovisual production, computer programming, coding, editing, and arranging using digital software. I am both self-taught and a product of an academic and Eurocentric, conservatory training system. This presents some tension, as I discuss below. Although traditional audio engineers and music composers often work towards completing a project without a predefined trajectory, how can budding sound artists develop and hone an inner acuity to find the “right” material during their creative processes?
While the process remains largely subjective, I found it helpful to begin by answering the following questions:
- What kind of project is this?
- How is the sound to be used?
- Where and how will the project be displayed?
- Who is the intended audience?
- What are the sound artist’s intentions?
- What tools are needed?
I draw inspiration from the Sound Studies Lab’s position that this type of work is diverse, fluid, and balances technical, artistic, and theoretical aims. The challenge is that the answers to the questions above are not immediately clear and require me to look inward at who I really am.
Following the Sonic Muse
Beyond the obvious technical and aesthetic factors affecting an expansive multisite recording project, we know little about how a nascent sound artist begins. Whom do they emulate? Should they take notes? pictures? What should they pay attention to onsite?
If the project is exploratory, the recordist may experience hesitation—as I did— and frustration that can block their creative process, especially because the pathways toward a finished sound project aren’t as established as those of a sound engineer, for example, or a songwriter. Nevertheless, my experiences have shown me that a nascent sound artist/recordist can also find intrinsic meaning and realize their mission—particularly by establishing a detached yet perceptive listening ethos, as I did to begin my work on the New England Soundscape Project.
For me, framing a detached and perceptive mindset involved:
- Remaining sensitive to my surroundings at each location;
- Focusing on stillness, deep breathing, and a quiet mind while recording;
- Adopting a respectful, unobtrusive manner at each site—taking care not to disrupt or distract others;
- Calmly monitoring my technology and its use;
- Trusting that I am intended to be in that exact moment at that exact time;
- Avoiding being overly concerned with the “end game” of their practice;
- Embracing the role of a sound gatherer and observer;
It is perhaps the final objective—adopting the philosophy of sound gatherer and observer—where truly sensitive listening begins. Here, the recordist aims to remove their personal goals and agenda from the field recording process. Before proceeding, the attentive recordist looks around them, focuses on quiet breathing, and views their microphones as lenses and without fear of what the result should be. To what or whom am I observing?
Here’s the problem. It dawned on me that I know little about who I am as a sound artist, and how my voice positively contributes to the world, if at all. I need to learn to listen—not just to the sounds in nature, but also to the sounds of the voices of the persons with whom I interact. Could solitude and introspective listening lead me to listen through a newly formed self, capable of deeper connections with my peers and environment? I found that my detachment involved investigating, acknowledging, and, whenever possible, setting aside my own biases, fears, and, importantly, my own agendas. By removing my ego and cluttered mind from the process, I could start to be an inclusive practitioner—one whom cultivates positive relationships daily and is capable of crafting a deeper sonic art that embraces rather than one that marginalizes.
The Art of Meditative Listening
Rather than taking on a stringent approach with little flexibility, I practice observational recording by gathering audio as my muse and as environmental conditions dictate. By remaining attentive to my recording levels, I gather source materials up close, from afar, and for any length of time. Meanwhile, as this creative progression unfolds, I stay quiet—bringing almost meditative quality to my practice. Moreover, concentrating on deep breathing and stillness allows me to adopt a grateful mindset—one that is appreciative of my surroundings and for being present at that precise moment. It is then that the environment becomes the focus of sound gathering and not notions of a “final product.”
I found an artistic renewal—even healing—by adopting this meditative practice. As the New England Soundscape Project takes shape over the coming months and years, I hope to document the beauty of the Northeast through music, sound, and images. Yet, it is enough simply to be present in each location while aspiring to produce thoughtful and reflective sound art. Although there is no overarching method that best describes every aspect of a multisite field recording process, the “art” in the sound can truly emerge by striving to banish fear and doubt from the recording process. Addressing the “why” during each moment is just as important as addressing the “how” and the “why” in pre- and post-production. The recordist’s humanity plays a key role in determining how creative decisions are made, and the ability to remove the need for control determines how free—and freeing—the process can be.
This Thursday, SO! will feature my podcast on reflective listening with audio examples from the New England Soundscape Project thus far. I look forward to producing future episodes (and essays) on this project in the coming months. I hope you can tune in on Thursday and thank you for listening!
Featured Image: Scarborough State Beach, Newport, Rhode Island, USA. All images by author.
An Internal Seed Grant from the University of Massachusetts Lowell supports the New England Soundscape Project.
Daniel A. Walzer is an Assistant Professor of Composition for New Media at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Walzer’s research and reviews appear in the Leonardo Music Journal, the Journal of Music, Technology & Education, the Journal of Radio & Audio Media and forthcoming articles in TOPICS for Music Education Praxis, and the Music Educators Journal. Walzer received his MFA in Music Production and Sound Design for Visual Media from Academy of Art University, his MM in Jazz Studies from the University of Cincinnati and his BM in Jazz Studies from Bowling Green State University. Walzer is currently pursuing doctoral studies in education at the University of the Cumberlands. Read more at http://www.danielwalzer.com
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To conclude our Hysterical Sound series, we are pleased to present an excerpt from John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis and Danny Thompson’s performance of The Hysterical Alphabet.
Through this series we have explored a history of fetishizing women’s hysterical vocalizations with Gordon Sullivan’s post on Clayton Cubitt’s video work, and my post on Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film Hysteria and it’s relation to the “silence” of hysteria in medical history.
Today, Kapsalis gives us a piece in which “the ABCs are seized in a convulsive fit,” each letter of the alphabet serving to introduce some episode of the history of hysteria. Accompanied by the sound design of Corbett and Thompson’s visual collage, this performance of The Hysterical Alphabet offers a multi-sensory engagement with the past to “disprove the theory that time heals all wombs.”
SO! is grateful to the artists for sharing their work with us.
— Guest Editor Karly-Lynne Scott
Inspired by primary medical writings and actual case histories, “The Hysterical Alphabet” tracks the 4,000 year history of hysteria starting with A in ancient Egypt. First published as a book with text by Terri Kapsalis and drawings by Gina Litherland, it subsequently assumed a different form as a performance featuring video and live soundtrack. Terri Kapsalis (voice), John Corbett (sound), and Danny Thompson (video) performed the feature length piece from 2007-2012 in many different venues, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Emory University, RISD, Bates College, Clark University, and the University of Chicago. The video documentation included here excerpts the letters S, T, U, and V, which focus on the 19th century, moving into the 20th century, and were drawn from the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, S. Weir Mitchell, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Sigmund Freud, among others.
John Corbett (sound) is a writer, sound-artist, and curator. He is the co-director of the art gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey. In 2002, Corbett served as Artistic Director of JazzFest Berlin, and he co-curated the Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz & Improvised Music for nine years. He is the producer of the Unheard Music Series, an archival program dedicated to creative music issues and re- issues, and he is the author of Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein and Microgroove: Forays into Other Music. Corbett can be heard on a number of CDs including I’m Sick About My Hat and has brought his sound skills to two previous Theater Oobleck productions.
Terri Kapsalis’ (text/sound) writings have appeared in such publications as Short Fiction, The Baffler, Denver Quarterly, new formations, Public, and Lusitania. She is the author of Jane Addams’ Travel Medicine Kit, Hysterical Alphabet, and Public Privates: Performing Gynecology from Both Ends of the Speculum. Kapsalis is a founding member of Theater Oobleck, works as a health educator at Chicago Women’s Health Center, and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Danny Thompson (video) is a founding member of Theater Oobleck, for which he has written (and performed in) 20 plays and solo performances, including Necessity, Big Tooth High-Tech Megatron vs. the Sockpuppet of Procrastination, and The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (Partially Burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled “Never to be Performed. Never. Ever. Ever. Or I’ll Sue! I’ll Sue from the Grave!!! The latter was given the “Comedy Excellence Award” at the 2000 New York Fringe Festival, “Top Ten of the Fest” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and extensively toured the U.K. and Ireland.
— Guest Editor Randolph Jordan
In October of 1973, two young sound recordists embarked on an ambitious field trip across Canada, traversing over 7000 kilometers to commit the national soundscape to tape. From St. John’s, Newfoundland to the harbor of Vancouver, British Columbia, Bruce Davis and Peter Huse pointed their microphones at the things they felt best exemplified their vast country.
These recordings would become the backbone for Soundscapes of Canada, a series of ten hour-long radio programs carried across the country by the national broadcaster, the CBC. Conceived and produced by the World Soundscape Project (WSP)—a research group formed at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s and helmed by the composer and sound theorist, R. Murray Schafer—in its entirety Soundscapes of Canada was an impressively sprawling, eclectic document. Comprised of guided listening exercises and avant-garde sound collages, the program’s stated goal was to open the ears of Canadian listeners to the importance of sonic experience, and to alert them to what they warned was the degradation of the soundscape thanks to the mounting din of industrial modernity.
But there was much more happening out of earshot. Created at a time when Canada’s cultural identity was rapidly changing thanks to an unprecedented swell in immigration from non-European countries, the WSP’s portrait of the nation all but ignored its First Nations and its “visible minorities,” as they would come to be known. While the series was an important statement in the WSP’s larger efforts to bring sound to the forefront of cultural conversation, it is arguably more important to listen to Soundscapes of Canada for what it leaves out, for voices silent and silenced.
For Schafer, the industrialized world had grown measurably louder and qualitatively noisier, which troubled him for both environmental and social reasons. In his 1977 book, The Tuning of the World, Schafer would write, “For some time, I have…believed that the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society” (7). Given the worryingly poor state of the soundscape, for Schafer it followed that society was in bad shape. He was wistful for quieter times, for the days of Goethe, when the cry of the half-blind night watchman of Weimer was within earshot of every one of the town’s inhabitants. Unstated, but implied, here, was the notion that as communities expanded beyond every member’s ability to hear a familiar sound, their common identity would necessarily be eroded. And for Schafer, this was precisely what was happening to Canada.
The WSP’s discussion of “soundmarks” in parts three and four of the series was perhaps their most powerful statement about the stakes for preserving and promoting the nation’s sonic heritage. A “soundmark” is, in the WSP’s lexicon of neologisms, roughly analogous to a landmark: it’s a sound that is supposedly instantly recognizable to members of a community, an irreplaceable acoustic feature of a particular place. In the conclusion to program three, “Signals, Soundmarks and Keynotes,” Schafer intoned, “It takes time for a sound to take on rich, symbolic character—a lifetime perhaps, or even centuries. This is why soundmarks should not be tampered with carelessly. Change the soundmarks of a culture and you erase its history and mythology. Myths take many forms. Sounds have a mythology too. Without a mythology, a culture dies.”
So it seems fair to ask: exactly whose mythology stood to be snuffed out? For Schafer, Canadian culture was (or ought to be) synechdochal with the land, with the nation’s vast, largely uninhabited expanses that stretched all the way to the North Pole. Canadians were (or ought to be) a rugged, self-reliant people—stoic pioneers who shunned cosmopolitan (read ethnic) urban centers, opting for a quiet life in harmony with the country’s settler heritage. This was certainly reflected in program four, “Soundmarks of Canada.” Over the course of an hour CBC listeners would have heard an austere montage almost entirely comprised of mechanical alarms (foghorns and air sirens) and church bells. Each sound presented, carefully, discreetly as though displayed in a museum, free from any traffic noise or sidewalk bustle that might distract the listener. Anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian soundscape would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the world’s second largest nation was a bastion of early industrial machinery, a sanctuary for quiet, self-reliant, God-fearing folk.
“Soundmarks of Canada” not only omitted the soundmarks of Canadian cities, it also excluded any sonic trace of the country’s vibrant ethnic and First Nations communities. Produced in the years following the passage of the 1971 Multiculturalism Policy of Canada—which had been adopted in response to a boom of immigration from non-European nations—their portrait of a pastoral, post-colonial British outpost shunted the country’s sizeable non-Christian, ethnic population squarely out of earshot. It should also go without saying that the soundmarks they so prized were deeply entangled with a silencing of Canada’s indigenous population; of a protracted, often violent and brutal, campaign of assimilation that replaced one set of sonic practices with another. For generations of Indigenous Canadians, the sounds of church bells would likely not have connoted community or belonging, but would have rather reverberated with echoes of the “reeducation” in settler religion and language that many were forced to endure in Canada’s residential schools—church-run institutions to which countless children were spirited away against their parents and communities’ wishes.
This is not to say that any of this was intentional, that the WSP deliberately plugged their ears to Canada’s marginal communities, or that they intended to slight these groups in any way. It may be more accurate to ascribe ignorance and omission to the project, structural forms of inequality that dog even the most well meaning white settlers. Regardless of intent, however, the result is the same.
Soundscapes of Canada shows a troubling politics of self-recognition in action that is far too common throughout the nation’s history. By disproportionately representing the voices and sounds of European Canadians the series necessarily supported the idea that they were, if not the only ones, then at least “ordinary” and incumbent. Projects like these promote and condition a sense of unity and similarity that constitute the nation’s imagination of itself. Benedict Anderson famously observed that nations come into being and are maintained through the cultural work that leads its citizens to identify with the state. Institutions and practices from censuses, maps, nationally available print journalism, etc. all allow people in far-off locales to imagine themselves constituting a limited and sovereign community. In his classic book, Imagined Communities, Anderson proposes that nations have also historically been conceived, created, and ratified through sound. Writing specifically of national anthems, Anderson coins the term “unisonance” to describe the power that sound can have to seemingly erode the boundaries between self and other: “How selfless this unisonance feels! If we are aware that others are singing these songs precisely when and as we are, we have no idea who they may be, or even where, out of earshot, they are singing. Nothing connects us all but imagined sound” (149).
It is significant that the WSP chose the radio—the CBC in particular—as the vehicle for their ambitious project. In the mid-1970s, not only did radio offer the widest reach of any sonic medium, but it also had a particular cultural resonance for Canadians. A nation as vast and varied as Canada could have only come about thanks to mediation; its vastness has always required means of traversing or shrinking space to secure its borders, both psychic and geographical. The westward expansion of the post-indigenous nation was accomplished first by canoe, then by rail, and, beginning in the 1920s, by radio. Appropriately, it was the Canadian National Railway (CNR) that produced the first transnational radio broadcast in 1927—the national anthem performed by bells on the carillon of the Peace Tower—broadcasting the event to railway passengers and home listeners alike. Since the middle part of the 20th century, the national broadcaster has been understood as something of a bulwark against encroaching American culture.
The history of the Canadian airwaves is profoundly mired in struggles to promote, produce, and foster content that might keep the national identity from being completely subsumed under the sprawl and heft of the American culture industry. Schafer had mixed feelings about the medium. On the one hand, he was skeptical of his one-time teacher and mentor, Marshall McLuhan’s, analysis that radio, by its very nature, enfolded listeners in a shared acoustic space, effectively “retribalizing” society. Schafer felt that the airwaves had been packed to such a dense and frenetic level that they actually created “sound walls” that effectively isolated listeners in their own solipsistic, acoustic bubbles. But there was hope for the radio in that it could also facilitate a return to a more wholesome and connected state of being and of listening. Schafer noted this duality in his essay “Radical Radio,” writing, “If modern radio overstimulates, natural rhythms could help put mental and physical well-being back in our blood. Radio may, in fact, be the best medium for accomplishing this” (209). Sonic technology was a source of ambivalence for Schafer; he coined the term “schizophonia” to describe the separation of sound from source that recording effected. He believed that it was problematic to populate the world with copies he deemed inherently inferior to the “original” sonic event. Given the opportunity to reach such a wide swath of the Canadian public, Schafer swallowed his distaste for the schizophonic medium and offered a sonic missive on how to compose a healthy and prosperous nation.
Forty years on, Soundscapes of Canada still stands as a unique experiment in imagining how to build and maintain a nation through sound. But in the same regard it also serves as a troubling reminder of how sonic media can work to occlude the voices of marginal citizens, thereby preventing them from fully finding the place in the national soundscape, simply by ignoring their soundmarks and aural practices. If a nation needs a myth, it can do better than telling stories about the necessity of shoring up a colonial legacy whose time has come.
Readers interested in listening to the full series can stream all ten episodes through the website of the Canadian Music Centre.
Mitchell Akiyama is a Toronto-based scholar, composer, and artist. His eclectic body of work includes writings about plants, animals, cities, and sound art; scores for film and dance; and objects and installations that trouble received ideas about perception and sensory experience. Akiyama recently completed his Ph.D. in communications at McGill University. His doctoral work offers a critical history of sound recording in the field and examines an eclectic range of subjects, from ethnographers recording folksongs in southern American penal work camps to biologists trying determine whether or not animals have language to the political valences of sound art practices.
Featured image: “Toronto” by Flickr user Kristel Jax. All other images via the author.
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