Au­dio­phile Odysseys

By record­ing on tape the sounds oth­ers ig­nore, a small group of artists ex­plores deeper truths about na­ture and cul­ture, past and present, quiet and noise

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Qiu Guangyu

Tie Yang dis­cov­ered her affin­ity for sound dur­ing her first visit to an aquar­ium af­ter she moved to Bei­jing to at­tend col­lege. An al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble whine – a sound of dis­com­fort – told her some­thing was wrong. She traced the plain­tive cry to a cap­tured white whale.

Tie spent the whole af­ter­noon with the un­for­tu­nate crea­ture. The ex­pe­ri­ence showed her that sound has the power to tran­scend species and serve as a medium through which hu­mans and an­i­mals can com­mu­ni­cate on an emo­tional level. Tie, an in­de­pen­dent mu­si­cian, wrote the song “A Caged White Whale” shortly af­ter the ex­pe­ri­ence, which has in­flu­enced her mu­sic.

In July 2016, Tie joined the “Ama­zon Project,” which saw sev­eral mu­si­cians record di­verse nat­u­ral sound­scapes – from the rum­bling of in­sects to the rustling of leaves in the wind, to birds singing cheer­ily in cho­rus to greet the dawn, to creeks gush­ing through an­cient wood­lands.

But the sounds of the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of artists in equal mea­sure. Colin Chin­nery, 47, a Bri­tishChi­nese artist, seeks to pre­serve the his­tory of Bei­jing by record­ing van­ish­ing sounds, from man-made pi­geon whis­tles to the cries of street ven­dors. Chin­nery has built a sound mu­seum in Bei­jing in Shi­jia Hu­tong, where he ex­hibits more than 100 kinds of sounds of the city's past col­lected over the years.

“Sounds have the power to open up con­ver­sa­tions with life, so­ci­ety and his­tory,” Chin­nery said at a July sem­i­nar on the topic, “Cre­ativ­ity, Cul­ture, City, the Qual­ity of Ur­ban Space.” Chin­nery said his in­ter­est lies not nec­es­sar­ily in the sounds them­selves, but in the emo­tions and mem­o­ries they evoke and their con­nec­tion with his­tory.

Sounds of the For­est

Sound per­me­ates ev­ery inch of Li Xingyu's life. Li grad­u­ated from the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Univer­sity of China with a ma­jor in sound en­gi­neer­ing.

As a pro­fes­sional mu­sic pro­ducer and in­de­pen­dent mu­si­cian, Li draws in­spi­ra­tion from the sounds oth­ers ig­nore. In his mu­sic can be heard chirp­ing birds, croak­ing frogs, howl­ing winds, fall­ing rain, trains thun­der­ing down tracks and the scratch­ing of pens on pa­per.

Li be­lieves the role of such sounds has

been long ne­glected in mu­sic writ­ing. “If mu­si­cians fo­cus only on notes, they may not know the enor­mous space that sounds can cre­ate in mu­sic,” Li told Newschina.

The artist fo­cuses on “most au­then­tic nat­u­ral sounds.” In Lhasa, Li recorded the tap­ping of Bud­dhists as they knelt on the ground pray­ing at the Jokhang Tem­ple – the spir­i­tual heart of Ti­bet. In Jakarta, he cap­tured the bustling plat­form of a rail­way sta­tion. In the Sa­hara, en­dur­ing scorch­ing heat, he col­lected the sounds of the desert – the bub­bling of the desert sands rem­i­nis­cent of life deep un­der­wa­ter.

Li has concerns about what he calls the noise pol­lu­tion that per­me­ates ur­ban life caus­ing anx­i­ety. “Square danc­ing, for in­stance, is a vi­o­lent in­tru­sion into peo­ple's lives,” he says. Pop­u­lar among mid­dle-aged and re­tired Chi­nese women, this is an ac­tiv­ity per­formed to loud mu­sic blasted through tinny speak­ers in squares, plazas and parks dur­ing the morn­ing and evening hours. It has con­tin­u­ally at­tracted crit­i­cism for con­tribut­ing to noise pol­lu­tion.

Ea­ger to find a land un­spoiled by noise, Tie and Li, along with two other friends, crowd­funded a trip to the Ama­zon rain­for­est to col­lect the sounds of na­ture. In July 2016, the team spent two weeks in Jaú Na­tional Park, Brazil, col­lect­ing the sounds of creeks, wind, forests and an­i­mals.

They say that an­i­mals can per­ceive even a slight change in the for­est, and vary their sounds ac­cord­ingly. Some frogs are known to croak at cer­tain times, but they fell silent when the team was around.

In or­der to record unique sounds in a pris­tine en­vi­ron­ment, the team mod­i­fied their strat­egy. They left a recorder on the spot for one day and got it back the day af­ter.

It worked. Aside from the frogs and birds, their recorder cap­tured the yawn­ing of a sloth, and even the sound of but­ter­fly lar­vae mak­ing co­coons. They also cap­tured the sound that ants make – a kind of coo­ing noise, not un­like a pi­geon, as well as a “te-te” sound.

“We found that birds fol­low a very strict sched­ule. They wake up at sun­rise and rest at sun­set. They make the least sound at night, but when the day breaks, one by one, these lit­tle crea­tures awake from sleep and sing their first song,” Li told Newschina.

Dur­ing the jour­ney, the team de­bated the ethics of en­ter­ing the rain­for­est at all. Some ar­gued their mere pres­ence had dis­turbed the an­i­mals which make it their home, and that any trace of them, such as cig­a­rette butts, plas­tic bags and food waste, would disturb their en­vi­ron­ment. Oth­ers dis­agreed and ar­gued that, given the but­ter­fly ef­fect, the de­ci­sions peo­ple make in Bei­jing can also af­fect the Ama­zon ecosys­tem.

Af­ter they re­turned to Bei­jing, Li pro­duced three semi-doc­u­men­tary al­bums – Na­ture Syn­tax, A Jour­ney and End­less River – un­der the artist name Whale Cir­cus. They were is­sued early in 2018.

A Jour­ney in­cludes the sounds they col­lected in the for­est: foot­steps through the woods, birds chirp­ing, in­sects singing, air­craft roar­ing above – and also their 38-minute de­bate about why they en­tered the rain­for­est.

Pre­serv­ing Old Bei­jing

Colin Chin­nery takes a dif­fer­ent tack. He strives to pre­serve the dis­tinc­tive ur­ban sounds of old Bei­jing.

The grand­son of prom­i­nent Chi­nese mod­ernist writ­ers Ling Shuhua and Chen Xiy­ing, and the son of Bri­tish Si­nol­o­gist John Chin­nery, he was raised in the UK, but has been back and forth to Bei­jing since the 1970s.

Chin­nery has a keen in­ter­est in Bei­jing's hu­tong cul­ture. These nar­row al­leys were once rich with the cries of street ped­dlers, who would shout and some­times use in­stru­ments to drum up busi­ness. Dif­fer­ent kinds of ven­dors would use dis­tinct melodies and words as they wan­dered the cob­bled streets.

Many hu­tong sounds, a col­lec­tive mem­ory of long-term Bei­jingers, have grad­u­ally di­min­ished with the rapid ur­ban­iza­tion of the Chi­nese cap­i­tal.

In 2005, Chin­nery be­gan a project called “Sound and the City” and in­vited sev­eral Bri­tish artists to Bei­jing to ex­plore the city's unique sonic en­vi­ron­ment, in­clud­ing am­bi­ent mu­sic pioneer Brian Eno, mu­si­cian and au­dio cul­ture scholar David Toop, and en­vi­ron­men­tal sound artist Peter Cu­sack.

Cu­sack held a ra­dio com­pe­ti­tion ask­ing Bei­jingers to list their “fa­vorite Bei­jing sounds.” The an­swers ranged from the shouts of knife sharpener to the coo­ing of pet pi­geons and chirp­ing ci­cadas.

Cu­sack's ques­tions in­spired Chin­nery to start a new project – to es­tab­lish a unique Bei­jing sound mu­seum to pre­serve some of the cap­i­tal's tra­di­tions and his­toric sound as­sets.

Chin­nery spent nearly 10 years col­lect­ing more than 100 en­dan­gered sounds and built his Bei­jing Sound Mu­seum at the Shi­jia Hu­tong Mu­seum, a re­stored court­yard res­i­dence once in­hab­ited by Chin­nery's grand­par­ents.

Us­ing a touch­screen, visi­tors can hear a raft of hu­tong sounds across the four sea­sons – the cries of street sell­ers, the chimes of rick­shaw bells and the rat­tling of Chi­nese yo-yos, which con­sist of an axle and two cups.

It was not easy to get good qual­ity record­ings. The team would of­ten search the en­tire city for a sin­gle sound.

Bei­jingers have been rais­ing pi­geons since the North­ern Song Dy­nasty more than 1,000 years ago. It was a par­tic­u­lar fash­ion dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911). Tra­di­tional pi­geon rais­ers would tie a bam­boo whis­tle to the bird's tail. As flocks took to the skies, flap­ping and whirling, air flow through the whis­tle would cre­ate a dis­tinc­tive noise.

It took Chin­nery half a year to cap­ture the sound of such a pi­geon whis­tle. With the pro­fes­sion on the brink of ex­tinc­tion, Chin­nery and his team went to great pains to find the suit­able pi­geon-rais­ers and work­ing crafts­men. And the noises of the city made it harder to weed out dis­tract­ing sounds.

With the as­sis­tance of an el­derly pi­geon raiser, Zhang Bao­tong, Chin­nery's team drove a flock to a prime lo­ca­tion and recorded the whis­tles on a cloud­less day.

Pop­corn pop­ping is an­other sound deeply em­bed­ded in the mem­o­ries of Bei­jingers. Street ven­dors once made pop­corn us­ing an old-school ma­chine – a tear-shaped sealed con­tainer filled with un­cooked ker­nels which are heated them over a char­coal flame. The pop­ping hap­pens when the ven­dor opens a lever on the side that in­jects air into the metal cooker. With a huge boom, all the freshly

popped pop­corn ex­plodes at once. But as Chin­nery dis­cov­ered, such meth­ods have be­come his­tory. These old pop­corn mak­ers are now nowhere to be found.

In an in­ter­view with State broad­caster China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion (CCTV), the na­tional broad­caster, Chin­nery says that ur­ban de­vel­op­ment in­evitably in­volves the dis­ap­pear­ance of many tra­di­tions. But in choos­ing what should stay and what should fade away, some­times peo­ple's de­ci­sions have been made too quickly.

Chin­nery finds Hong Kong a fas­ci­nat­ing city be­cause of its well-bal­anced jux­ta­po­si­tion of ur­ban cul­ture and tra­di­tions, es­pe­cially in Cen­tral, the city's most vi­brant fi­nan­cial and busi­ness zone.

“[In Cen­tral], you may find a myr­iad of sky­scrapers and the world's big­gest bank, but if you go forth into a street, you might come across a tra­di­tional food mar­ket, where ped­dlers cry for fresh fish, minced pork, cab­bage, nuts and other kinds of things. The mix­ture of the ur­ban­ized land­scapes and civil life makes the city rich in hu­man­ity,” Chin­nery said.

Quiet, Please

Many be­lieve that these sound afi­ciona­dos must be more sen­si­tive to sound than oth­ers. Li dis­putes this: it is a sen­si­tive mind in­stead of a pair of sen­si­tive ears that en­ables peo­ple to no­tice that which is ig­nored by oth­ers, he said.

“The truth is one's hear­ing in­evitably dulls with age, but the mind may not. It is pos­si­ble that one may be a more shrewd thinker and ob­server the older they get,” Li told Newschina.

Li's ar­gu­ment is sup­ported by a sur­vey on sound aware­ness con­ducted by Li Guoqi, Director of the In­sti­tute of Acous­tics at the Depart­ment of Ar­chi­tec­ture and Ur­ban Plan­ning, Bei­jing Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy. Pro­fes­sor Li sur­veyed Bei­jing res­i­dents to find out what sounds they re­call from their daily lives. Ac­cord­ing to the re­sults, el­derly re­spon­dents could re­mem­ber more sounds than those aged 20 to 30.

Li ex­plains it as a kind of the “cock­tail party ef­fect,” where peo­ple fo­cus their at­ten­tion on cer­tain sounds and ig­nore oth­ers. “One re­sult of such a ten­dency is that peo­ple be­come in­creas­ingly numb to the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing sound en­vi­ron­ment,” Li told Life­week Mag­a­zine.

Adel-jing Wang, a scholar of sound cul­ture and as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Col­lege of Me­dia and In­ter­na­tional Cul­ture, Zhe­jiang Univer­sity, says hu­mans need sound to un­der­stand the world and their own ex­is­tence. “Sound en­ables us to feel our own in­tense vi­tal­ity… These au­dio art­works can change our way of lis­ten­ing and fur­ther change our cog­ni­tion and con­cept of na­ture and our­selves,” Wang told Newschina.

The sound col­lec­tor that he is, Tie Yang longs to find the sound of si­lence. She is deeply in­spired by the Emmy-win­ning acous­tic ecol­o­gist Gor­don Hemp­ton's book One Square Inch of Si­lence: One Man’s Search for Nat­u­ral Si­lence in a Noisy World. Hemp­ton's book records his noise con­trol project sym­bol­ized by a small red stone placed in Hoh Rain For­est in Olympic Na­tional Park in the US'S Wash­ing­ton State, in 2005. The stone's lo­ca­tion has been called “the qui­etest place in the United States.”

Hemp­ton founded One Square Inch, a not-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, to pro­tect and man­age the nat­u­ral sound­scape of the na­tional park to­tally free of hu­man noise. From his point of view, si­lence is an en­dan­gered species. He de­fines real quiet not as an ab­sence of sound, but an ab­sence of noise.

“If we all strive to keep the sym­bolic red stone free of noise, we can har­bor hope that true na­ture still ex­ists out there on Earth,” Tie said.

Li is more cyn­i­cal. Even deep in the an­cient forests of Brazil, he found it hard to ob­tain true si­lence. Li cre­ated an­other piece of mu­sic, ti­tled “Lost Civ­i­liza­tion,” which has doc­u­mented the roar of air­craft fly­ing over the rain­for­est. He mea­sured the noise and found that they were as high as 86 deci­bels – al­most 20 times more than the nor­mal sound of the for­est.

“I'm afraid there's no so-called ‘true na­ture' any­more. As long as hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties ex­ist, true quiet will be nowhere to be found,” Li said.

Li Xingyu (right) and his team record the sound of ants in the Ama­zon

Tie Yang par­tic­i­pates in a mu­sic fes­ti­val held in Ita­laque, Bo­livia

Colin Chin­nery records the sound of pi­geons coo­ing on a roof

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