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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 Schaeffer’s)? 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. That’s 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 world’s 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.

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