My family comes from a tiny village called Nodar in northern Portugal, part of the European Union-funded project “Tramontana” which focuses on preserving the immaterial heritage of mountain regions of southern Europe. In Nodar, centuries of isolation and self-sufficiency have created a unique blend of cultural expressions, ways of living, and inhabited landscapes. Like much of the Portuguese countryside, Nodar is undergoing a process of abandonment, which leaves rural communities with a weakened sense of identity. The agrarian paradigm, which has been central to the history and social fabric of rural communities, is arriving to an almost hopeless vanishing point, and the guardians of that memory are also disappearing. With this as formative part of my background, and considering my artistic interest in community-oriented projects, I felt almost a duty to direct much of my work to Nodar, a place that means so much to me and where I thought I could make a difference. In 2004 my brother Luis and I founded Binaural/Nodar, an arts collective based in the village and operating in the surrounding region of the Gralheira mountain range.
Since March 2006, the Nodar Rural Art Lab has invited both local and international artists who work in the areas of sound, video, and intermedia arts to address issues such as collective memory, identity, gender, age, life, death, geography, topography, music, sound heritage, landscape, vegetation, consumption and leisure dynamics, myths, traditions, crafts, agriculture, and shepherding. During their stay, the resident artists give public presentations in the region and are encouraged to establish interactions with the place and its inhabitants, geographic spaces, and social memory. Many of the artworks held in Nodar cross different artistic practices, often blending borders.
The decision to initiate an artist residency center in Nodar was motivated by my desire to deepen the investigation of exploratory artistic practices in close interaction with a specific rural context and its social and cultural possibilities. Throughout the year, the Nodar Rural Art Lab programs various residency modules in order to stimulate a collaborative environment between artists from different artistic fields and geographic origins. During the course of the residencies, several parallel activities are organized, such as conferences, lectures and educational activities, namely youth-oriented. At the end of each residency module, there is a public presentation organized in the village in which the art projects are presented and discussed by the artists and the organization.
The sonic dimension has a critical role in the model we have developed in Nodar, especially because it operates as a powerful metaphor for the intimate and personal discovery of a place. Artists have documented the area’s soundscapes and oral heritage in Nodar since 2006. There are three central lines of artistic interaction that converge here: Sound, Space and People:
SOUND (Interaction with the acoustic environment): Some sound artists, who work with the acoustic dimension in an experimental way, are part of the team that runs the Nodar Rural Art Lab. The Lab has always been active in the international theoretical and artistic domains of the so-called soundscapes, and it has hosted some of the most respected sound artists of today, who–using idiosyncratic techniques for sound capturing, editing and manipulation–have created works based on particular aspects of the local acoustic context.
One of our approaches is what we call “sound interventions,” where we use field recordings and performance in order to “activate the space” and establish a dialogical approach between what is activated and what just “is,” which can incorporate body, gesture, sound, object, space and voice in this process. An example of this approach was the “Revenant : Paiva” project, conceived in 2009 by Patrick McGinley, Marjia-Liisa Plats, Luís Costa and Tiago Carvalho, in which a series of performative actions were staged in a section of the river Paiva that crosses Nodar. Using materials found in-situ as instruments, in addition to the artists’ own voices, to generate sounds that interacted with the acoustic environment itself, all activity was purely acoustic, with no amplification. The resulting work was presented live with the artists and audience spread out across the space with no preferential “point of listening”, which created subtle overlaps between the artists’ work and the space.
SPACE: Interaction with the geographic space. The landscape surrounding Nodar is beautiful and diverse; there are mountains, rivers, caves, slate stone architecture, terraced fields, and so much more. Moreover, we are witnessing an irreversible process of transformation of rural space. These two elements form fertile ground for the creation of works within nature, which either capture the dreamlike and timeless aspects of the landscape or question possible future uses for the same landscape.
Of particular interest to us is the use of geography as a means for projecting sound in which specific variables of the territory, such as topography and meteorology, intersect with instrumental or subjective aspects of artistic creation, namely the position occupied in the space and the choice of sound recording and reproduction tools and techniques. A good example of this approach was Lisa Premke’s project “Aural Lookout,” developed in 2012, in which she built a canvas lookout on the top of a hill that allowed the visitors to be sheltered from the environment while listening to the nature sounds acoustically amplified, as if being inside a large drum.
PEOPLE: Interaction with local inhabitants. Since the beginning of our activities, we have been encouraging artists to interact, question and to some extent “provoke” local populations. As a result of these communication processes, various art projects have been developed reflecting and expressing aspects of the region’s collective memory and new habits and experiences.
Working on the subject of the anthropological voice may involve direct conversation with the local communities based on topics proposed by the artists and related to everyday life and local memory, as well as it may focus on linguistic aspects such as accents, musicality of the voice, etc. Maile Colbert’s “Over the Eyes,” created in 2007, was a very successful example of this sort of “conversational” project, where she organized a knitting circle with the village women, recorded the conversations with them, their songs and stories and incorporated them into the sound design of a multimedia installation, along with field recordings of the area, and text on physiological, biological, and psychological aspects to memory creation and destruction in humans. The projection screen was composed of raw wool and the knitted cloths made during the circle, which created an interesting dialogue with the immaterial nature of the audiovisual element of the piece.
We have always emphasized a type of sound art that enhances the context within which a specific sound work is produced, escaping a purely acoustic, or “sound-in-itself” approach. We believe that this emphasis on subjectivity and context is necessary, because sound–and the practice of field recording in particular—sometimes carries a burden of “objectivity” because it stems from the documentation of reality. The subjectivity inherent to the sound recollection –for instance, the choice of the point of listening and of the technological means of sound capturing–is often not sufficient to alleviate this burden.
When we host sound artists in Nodar, we always try to convey the idea that the region’s landscape is fundamentally an “inhabited landscape.” Trying to avoid the human presence in order to get “wilder and more natural” recordings is purely illusory. The landscape is inhabited in several simultaneous ways: by the marks of historical occupation of the territory, by the existence of vital spaces for each inhabitant–often lying far beyond the boundaries of the villages–by the very presence of the artists and by the audiences of the art works’ final presentations.
In summary, there are several methodological, instrumental and aesthetic approaches that Binaural/Nodar is working to further in the area of sound art. These approaches are anything but sealed; intersections, complementarities, unions and differences exist, which make each work of art unique.
Featured Image: “Oor van Noach” by Flickr user ines saraiva under Creative Commons 2.0 License.
Rui Costa is a sound artist from Lisbon, Portugal. He is a founding member and artistic director of Binaural/Nodar, an arts organization founded in 2004 and dedicated to the promotion of context-specific and participatory art projects in rural communities of the Gralheira mountain range, northern Portugal. Rui has been performing and exhibiting his work since 1998 in festivals, galleries and museums across Portugal, Spain, Italy and the United States and has been collaborating regularly with the Italian vocal performer Manuela Barile and the American intermedia artist Maile Colbert. Rui Costa is also a regular speaker in conferences and gives workshops dedicated to sound art. For more from Binaural/Nodar, please check out the organization’s soundcloud, vimeo, and flickr.
“It devolves on us now to invent a subject we might call acoustic design, an interdiscipline in which musicians, acousticians, psychologists, sociologists, and others would study the world soundscape together in order to make intelligent recommendations for its improvement.”
–R. Murray Schafer
With those words, and with that book, Canadian composer, writer, educator, and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer introduced the concept of the soundscape…a sound, or combination of sounds, that forms or arises from an immersive environment. What follows is an exploration of how several key field recordists define and explore the notion of soundscape.
1. What do you do?
I capture moments.
I explore environments & structures using conventional & extended field recording methods. I also use instruments & small objects. Sometimes I perform live intuitive compositions, sometimes I install work & often I compose photographic scores.
For me it is the emotive impulse that most inspires.
2. What can that tell us?
I believe passionately that one of the most important results of an exploration of overlooked detail in daily life (in terms of sound as well as visual elements) is how it can enhance ones life. It can allow us to engage with our surrounding in different ways & appreciate what remains & what has gone before or indeed is in danger of disappearing.
it can tell us that listening is a much, much broader vista than we all understand & one can spend a lifetime exploring.
The study of the soundscape, called Acoustic Ecology, focuses on the relationship between living beings and their environment through sound. It’s a unique field in its interdisciplinary nature and beginnings, an interconnectivity between scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and artists.
1. What do you do?
I am part of the organization Binaural/Nodar, which organizes educational and artistic creation events focused on a rural region in northern Portugal. Our creative focus is on sound and media arts that work with the natural and human environment of the region. As part of our activities, we organized a program of artist residencies dedicated to the river than passes through our region (Paiva river), which culminated in the Paivascapes festival, which took place in March this year. This was a multidisciplinary event that included a series of site-specific sound installations, a retrospective exhibition of sound and audiovisual works at a local museum, conferences on anthropological and environmental issues and nature walks. The festival had an itinerant nature, as it’s program was conceived to happen in several locations from the source to the mouth of the river.
2. What can that say?
The rural environment where we develop our activities has been inhabited for at least tens of thousands of years and each generation left their mark on the territory. So, we understand it as a infinitely complex, stratified and fragmented reality that most of the times cannot be fully comprehended if the approach is superficial, limited in time, based purely on a ‘naturalistic’ view of it that manifests itself for example on experiencing and recording the bucolic sights and sounds. It requires a more ‘relational’ approach, where what we see and listen to is mapped against other elements, stories, individual and collective memories, place names, old and new usages of the space, etc., which requires time, attention and empathy. We take these concerns on every aspect of our work such as which art projects to select, how and where to publicly present the works, how to mediate the relationship between the artists and the local communities.
-Rui Costa of Binaural/Nodar
Acoustic Ecology has branched out to give birth to a movement in sound art called phonography, a neologism referring to the art of field recording. It’s also shown a spotlight upon our changing sonic environment, and has become an important tool in bioacoustics and biomusicology, which help us to understand what these changes can mean. Birds communicate mainly with sound. When their calls cannot be heard, their reproduction decreases. Scientists are working with acoustic ecologists to record and study environments in which this is happening. Some of these bird calls may someday only survive on these recordings.
1. What do you do:
I am interested in the common, the everyday and the ordinary in my art practice; and in the unnoticed, the trivial and the repetitive that constitutes daily life. The birds I am interested in have ambiguous reputations and are considered pests or nuisances but they are also loved and respected. Seagulls, crows/corvids and pigeons are all very sociable species and are often much more audible than visible and they proliferate in the favorable conditions we have provided in urban centers.
‘birdbrain’ focuses on our relationship with crows (corvids) and seagulls through voice (animal/human) and ideas about language (animal/human), including the spoken and written word. There is little philosophical discussion about animal voice, although the potential for animal language parallels current neurobiological research, which has identified that certain ‘motor and perceptual abilities’ essential for language in humans, also exist in birds.
2.What can that tell us:
The project has a number of components including an artist’s book that is posing as a mock field guide. The field guide comprises written texts of exchanges between a group of Little Ravens that I have transcribed over the course of a year using the phonetic words from conventional field guides.
The audio works consist of field recordings, mimicry and texts spoken by people with different accents. Scientific research tells us that birds also have regional accents and dialects, and that birds change their song according to place. Birds in cities sing more loudly to cope with urban noise and these songs tend to be simplified. Also, birds that have been introduced into different countries sing a song that is a variant from their brethren back in the homeland.
Cymatics is the study of sound waves made visible. Sound frequencies vibrate a surface and create distinct patterns. Sound needs a medium to vibrate, and the characteristics of the medium and sound wave will inform the shape. If you place a metal plate upon a speaker head, place sand upon that plate, and play certain frequencies through the speaker, you will see the sand vibrate into different patterns. If we could see sound around us, we would see expanding spheres with a kaleidoscopic-like pattern on its surface, effecting each other and all molecules in its path.
The interconnectivity of our world is often over looked, often not thought about. It is human nature to categorize, this is part of how we think and communicate. But what is lost when we consider our categories as islands, instead of a part of a whole, a pattern of overlapping systems? There is a saying that the whole of earth and ocean is found within one grain of sand.
1. What do you do?
I am an artist and composer who focuses on listening and the environment in my work. I am often recording my life and my travels, and the recordings or my observances from the recordings end up in my compositions, art installations, and soundwalks. In 2004, I was fortunate enough to find other people interested in sound and the environment and together, we formed The New York Society for Acoustic Ecology (NYSAE), a chapter of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology. Through various organizations like the Whitney Museum, the Electronic Music Foundation, and free103point9, we have held events, panel discussions, and performances relating to sound and urban ecology. I am often asked how I “got into sound” and I usually don’t know how to answer it as it feels like I never got out of an interest in acoustics and space. I think that my interest in sound began when I carried around a tape recorder instead of a doll as a child. Perhaps not much has changed as I feel like my compositions reveal a layer of personal narrative conveyed through field recordings that describe how I relate to my environment. Often, my soundwalks do not include sounds that I have recorded; they are about sharing with others what I discovered about listening to the acoustics of a particular place. Points of interest are carefully arranged in guided tours with conceptual elements that emerge as sub-themes.
2. What can that say?
I am mostly interested in the relationship between people the sounds of the urban environment, particularly on how nature is defined by those who live in urban environments. When we slow down to listen to all that is in-between point A and point B, I think that we can begin to enjoy the fine details, even in a noisy city environment. I’ve worked with both children and adults in educational settings in cities who didn’t realize that they had birds living on their street until they were encouraged to listen. And I’ve discovered things like some people don’t like the sounds of birds at all, and they may prefer listening to the sounds of the subway. Sound can be just as subjective and adaptable of an art material as paint.
A drop of water falls into a puddle and creates a wave. A wave is a disturbance that travels through time and space. It affects everything it touches, it creates other waves, it continues colliding and transferring energy to molecules that do the same in turn to other molecules. It can be water, it can be light, it can be sound. It can be many things that collide into our molecules, and our system translates. The water is cold, the light is bright, the sound is loud. This is passive information. But when we actively feel how cooling the water is on a very hot day, when we actively consider how strong that sun is, and when we actively enjoy how the crash of an ocean wave makes our heart race…our world becomes so much richer.
1. What do you do?
Soundscape compositions, soundwalks, listening workshops, lectures, writing, editing, some mentoring of composition students, organizing as part of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) and so on…
2.What can that say?
Everything I do seems to be focused on understanding the world through the act of listening and on the desire to share this understanding with as many people as possible. I believe that every sense perception gives us valuable and important connectedness to and information about the world in which we live. Our hearing sense has been underutilized (certainly in my lifetime, in our societies, nowadays) and a re-balancing of our senses may mean a re-balancing of how we approach life, environment, culture, politics and ideas. Experience in listening and composing has shown me ever new, changing and deepening approaches to space and time. And I wish this for everyone who learns to connect more consciously and deeply to his or her listening. What can that say: listening means noticing means inspiration means energy to do and act.
World Listening Day is July 18th. You can participate through the World Listening Day organization. Or just take the time, whatever you are doing, to stretch your ears and focus them on the rich acoustic world around you.
1. What do you do?
The World Listening Project maintains a website and online forum about its artistic and educational activities, including public workshops, forums, and lectures, as well as participating in exhibitions, symposiums, and festivals. Phonography and Acoustic Ecology inspired all of this. In the Chicago area, where we began, we formed the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, a regional chapter of the American Society for Acoustic Ecology. We’re busy now inviting people to participate in the 2011 World Listening Day on July 18, the date of R. Murray Schafer’s birthday. If you visit our website you can learn how to celebrate. It’s quite open and last year the response was phenomenal.
2. What can that say?
Hearing tells us where to look. Wherever we are, every place on the planet has its own soundscape. From moment to moment the soundscape is always changing, often unpredictably. Depending on the time scale, dynamics, and frequency range we can choose to focus attention on. The World Listening Project suggests that listening is active, not passive: that listening means paying attention to the world. And when we do that we can begin to change it in a way conscious way. Bernie Krause has been a supporter. He’s making waves in the field of soundscape ecology. This is what Bernie says: “Western society bases most of what it knows on the visual. We actually ‘hear” what we ‘see.’ The World Listening Project aims to transform that perception in our otherwise urban centric and abstracted lives. At a time when we are facing not only a silent spring, but a silent summer, fall and winter, as well, it is clear that where a picture is worth a thousand words, a soundscape may soon be worth a thousand pictures.”