Amazonian Traces of Self
Through the use of field recordings, voice improvisation, electronics and text, this performance explores the intimate intersection of environmental listening and the human voice, resonating current environmental and political issues related to anthropogenic processes, the human voice and language.
“For places are as potentially reverberant as they are reflective, and one’s embodied experiences and memories of them may dray significantly on the interplay of that resounding-ness and reflective-ness.”
In his 1996 Waterfalls of Song, ethnomusicologist Steven Feld describes the central role of listening and reverberation in the Kaluli culture of Papua New Guinea’s rainforest. In Amazonian Traces of Self, I recall my immersive rainforest listening experiences, using both high-quality field recordings that were recorded using binaural microphones to capture a 3-dimensional sound image, as well as a unique live set-up of two condenser microphones to create spatial vocal textures and harmonies.
The piece is comprised of two parts: the first part is a non-textual sound work combining field recordings and live voice improvisation; the second part is a text written and read by myself.
The piece was created as a response to my experience in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest as part of the Labverde artist residency in August 2019. Supported by the Art for the Environment (AER) programme.
The piece was premiered as part of the “Other Creatures, Entities and Faint Beings” event at Cafe OTO London, curated David Toop (August 28th, 2019). Also appeared at Levontin 7 (Tel-Aviv, IL), Mazkeka (Jerusalem, IL), IKLECTIK (London, UK, as part of "The Field is Not a Field" curated by Mark Peter Wright).
On my second day in the Brazilian Amazon, a little bit after mid-day at the Adolpho Ducke Forest Reserve, it started to rain. The sky was pouring Amazonian rain for almost an hour, then right after it stopped, I went out for my first walk, alone, to the heart of the jungle.
What do I hear?
Inspired by Pauline Oliveros “Environmental Dialogue” (from her 1974 “Sonic Meditations”) I start by listening to the sound of my own breath. I’m listening to myself breathing the Amazonian air, the air of the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon sink that is so crucial for our planet right now, the air of a forest that is currently being burnt as a result of the massive deforestation actions.
I’m listening to the sound of my breath, developing a sonic perception of my own body in the soundscape. Then gradually, I’m shifting my attention to other sounds, reinforcing it with my own voice by sustaining or strengthening the sounds that I hear: a huge number of different patterns, repeated in an ungraspable shifting tempo, creating rich polyrhythms, a huge diversity of timbres and pitches. Insects, birds, a fruit is falling and hitting the ground, probably caused by a monkey walking on the top of the unseen canopy, drops of water hitting the ground, the cracking of branches. Some of those sounds sound to me like crackling wood in a fire.
Can I smell traces of smoke?
The forest reverberates my voice. The density of the trees and the thick canopy reflects sound waves and creates an echo as if I was singing in a closed space, maybe a chapel. I didn’t expect it. This echo feels like a mirror, it feedbacks my vocal intervention, reflecting traces of my own sound pollution in the Amazon’s dense soundscape.
At nights the howler monkeys are active. They have a whole range of frequencies of their own, lower than most of the insect and birds sounds. Their sound is one of the loudest in the forest, it can reach up to 130 dB, and it is so airy that you might confuse it with the sound of the wind. But there’s almost no wind in the rainforest. Usually, the air stands still, humid, and you barely see anything moving, also during day time. The loudness of the howler monkeys’ sounds makes you think that they’re extremely close to where you are, but you never see them.
I’m listening to the haunting soundscape of the jungle in the middle of the night and gradually I hear a low hum, a drone, a tonality. Then a harmony evolves and small melodies follow. I’m thinking of Milton Nascimento’s 1973 “Milagre dos Peixes”, where several songs on the album were censored by the Military Regime in Brazil, but Nascimento decided to record them without the lyrics. Instead, without being able to use his own words, he decides to use field recordings from the Amazon rainforest, as well as his own vocal imitations of animal sounds.
During sunrise, from the top of the 45-meters high ZF2 tower, I had a chance to listen to the rainforest waking up. We were a group of 20 people on this tower, and once in a while, you could hear the sound of our footsteps hitting the industrial metallic staircase, mixed with a sound of an insect that sounds like a 1970 synthesizer.
Once in a while, you could also hear the Screaming Piha, one of the most famous Amazonian birds. This bird is stimulated by loud sounds, and therefore in the Rio Negro area, it is called “The Thunderbird”, because during thunderstorms you can hear their screams. But they’re also stimulated by other loud noises, and once while walking in the forest I sneezed and immediately received a response from a Screaming Piha that was flying around me.
Then I’m thinking about us, humans, the sounds that stimulate us and the way we use our voice as a response to what we hear. I’m thinking about the origin of the human languages, about onomatopoeias that derive from primal listening experiences to nature sounds, words that includes a vocal imitation of the sound of what it refers to and exists in all languages.
My Amazonian experience made me aware of the materiality of my own voice, the way it reverberates in the soundscape of the world’s most important home for biodiversity, and the traces of my existence in it.