Steven Feld on Rainforest Soundwalks
Interview by Carlos Palombini [EMAIL]
The title Rainforest
Soundwalks immediately caught my attention when, late in April 2001,
I received from the International Society for the Arts, Sciences
and Technology (ISAST) their monthly list of items for review. Being
about to embark on an urban soundwalk recording project,
the equatorial jungle analogy was arresting. I did not know who
Feld was, nor was I aware of his importance to the field of ethnomusicology.
The carefully prepared release notes offered the possibility of
an interview with the author and, in a couple of days, Feld provided
brief answers to five naïve questions.
CP I was sure, when I requested the CD, that the point of
view would be that of someone who walks through the
forest with a pair of probably binaural microphones and a portable
DAT recorder. That does not seem to be the case. Would soundwalk
here refer to a moving intention of listening (the term
is Schaeffers)? To the fact that you (seem to) offer to the
listening a four-panel retable through the textures of which it
may wander? Or is this reading too ethnic, too etic?
SF As you (and Schaeffer) suggest: The term soundwalk
is not really literal here. The duration of each piece (tracks 2,
3 and 4) is not the duration of a physical walk, or of continuous
movement with a microphone. There is actually very little physical
walking with the microphone. Each of my soundwalks takes
place in a distinct forest locale at a distinct time of day. But
each is really about a way of listening to and at the forest edge.
The soundwalk takes place in the head and body, in the
way of listening, in the attention to the surrounding/motional sound
field. These are composites, not just of the height and depth, space
and time of the forest, but also of a history of listening
my history of listening and being taught to listen, over 25 years.
Thats why I call it an acoustemology, a sonic
way of knowing place, a way of attending to hearing, a way of absorbing.
Even when still, the body is doing the moving. Even when locationally
fixed, the microphones are sensing motion. The soundwalk
is a densely layered audio image of this experience.
CP On first listening, I seemed to discern a logic in Rainforest
Soundwalks: from the figure/background contrast of the first track
to the luscious symphony of the last one, where every singular component
of the rich texture is a soloist in its own right. Is this correct?
And if so, how would you describe the intermediate stages?
SF You are hearing this quite consonantly with the way I
do. There is a Bosavi term, dulugu ganalan that means lift
up over sounding. This is the term for this sound worlds
spatial and temporal interplay. Out of the density of sounds solos
appear only to be registered momentarily and relayered into the
overall density. The sonic poetry of the forest is here, in this
textural density. Each of the audio immersions is meant to indicate
a different way that multiple sound sources interlock, overlap,
and alternate to create this acoustic space that keeps arching up
as it moves forward. This is how the sound tells the listener the
exact hearing position, the time of day, season of year, the orientation
of the forest geography.
CP Could you describe your choice of equipment in less denotative
terms than the CD booklet does?
SF The D7 (now replaced by the D8) is a mini-DAT, a so-called
DAT walkman. It is small and convenient and runs on 4 AA batteries.
The AERCO is a custom preamp made by Jerry Chamkis in Austin Texas.
It accepts XLR cables and provides RCA and mini jack out. It is
superbly quiet and clean, and makes it possible to use high-end
phantom power microphones and by-pass the (less sophisticated) preamp
circuitry of either a DAT or the Nagra. The mics I use are AKGs
because they seem to tolerate the high humidity of the forest pretty
well. And they have the right characteristics for the sounds I record.
They have a rising response and are very consistent and clear in
the mid and upper frequencies. These are field-worthy versions of
AKG microphone circuitry (the 414) that is well known in studios.
I used a stereo Nagra until 1992 because nothing else would hold
up in the environment. I like analog warmth. Tracks 2, 3 and 4 were
recorded using the stereo Nagra with the Bryston frame. I believe
these were the first field recordings made with the Bryston in the
field, meaning he first use of portable Dolby SR in field recording
(1990). This was the gear I used for Voices of the Rainforest, the
CD I did with Mickey Hart in 1991. The SR circuitry made it possible
to record low-volume sounds with very minimal noise. I use X-Y stereo
(the microphones cardiod and slightly crossed) because they produce
the most gentle version of a stereo field. Unlike A-B, ORTF, or
binaural stereo recording configurations, X-Y does not overly spatialize
the left and right. There is so much sonic ambiguity about space
in the forest, and I wanted the stereo image to register that. X-Y
recording techniques do this best for me.
CP How do you fit Rainforest Soundwalks in the context of
the Western art music tradition?
Rainforest Soundwalks is obviously a very musical recording
in the sense that it presents both a new field of sounds and is
structured to provide a way into listening that can either be narrative
or non narrative. It is not a literal kind of program music. But
it is also not entirely abstract. It uses editing and compositional
arrangement techniques that are very influenced by my studies of
electroacoustic music. At the same time, it is also in conversation
with other environmental, natural historical, acoustic ecology,
and soundscape (radio/performance) recordings. I am trying to reach
out, simultaneously, to sound artists, ecologists, anthropologists,
soundscape and radio people, and composers of experimental music.
I listen often and carefully to work by all of these people, and
Rainforest Soundwalks is very much about my conversation with their
work, as well as my distinctive way of listening absorbed through
years of being in the Bosavi forests.
CP What is the Anthropology of Sound?
SF I coined that term many years ago in response to the term
Anthropology of Music. My original concern was that
ethnomusicologists were artificially separating the patterning of
sound called music in the West, from the full human
and environmental world of sound. A good example in my early research
is the relationship of crying to singing to bird calls a
relationship central to the understanding of hearing and knowing
through sound in Bosavi. That was the subject of the Sound and Sentiment
book you heard about. I call my work anthropology of sound because
it attempts to connect sonic/acoustic form to social and historical
meaning. Everything I do is as much concerned with the production
of sound (the sources and agents) as with the reception of sound
who hears, how it is heard.
The best way to get the full sense of this anthropology of
sound idea is to juxtapose Rainforest Soundwalks with the
3-CD anthology and booklet I just released on Smithsonian Folkways
Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea. On those
CDs you hear how the forest sounds not only inspire the poetry and
imagination and acoustic patterns of Bosavi song, crying etc. You
also hear how Bosavi songs and work sounds and ritual and ceremonial
sounds transform these forest sounds and are performed in concert
with them. The music of nature becomes the nature
of music. The juxtaposition of these recordings presents the
larger acoustic ecology of Bosavi that has been my passion
presenting a whole anthropology of/in sound for this community.
Rainforest Soundwalks is the foundational recording because it lets
you hear the basic tracks, the sonic everyday whether high
tone bird solos or more unfolding ambiences that people listen
to throughout their lives. It is through and on the attentive listening
to this world that Bosavi people built their songs and musical lives.
The Big Picture - [GO