I have walked away from the camp to try and find a spot for my digital recorder beyond the reach of human noises. It is midday, the humidity surrounds me like a thick rug, slowing the movements, deadening the senses. I am lazy. After two days of stumbling over mud, tripping over tree roots, it’s all I can do to walk fifty meters outside of the camp, put my recorder to the side of the well worn track and say ‘good enough’. I press record and shuffle back to the edge of the camp – a large clearing that serves as a helipad for visiting archaeologists. At the edge of the clearing there is a simple wooden bench partially shaded by an informational display with a map of the ancient ruins that lie in the jungle a short walk to the north of us. I limp towards the bench with the hobbling enthusiasm of someone twice my age. My plan is to lie on the bench for a while. Be patient. Listen to my breath. Wait. Hopefully in my absence the disturbance I made in placing my recording device will be forgotten. The birds will come back, the midday insects will return to sing and any interruption I may have made will be like a line in the sand evaporating in the tide.
I lie down on the bench, sigh, and cover my face with my hands. Immediately, the moment my head hits the bench, with a kind of hacking rheumatoid splutter someone starts a diesel generator on the other side of the clearing. Jesus Christ. The first mechanical sound I’ve struck in two days and it begins the moment I press record. The trees are thin and tall in this part of the jungle. The undergrowth is sparse. The sound of the generator will carry for miles. I savour the absurdity of the situation for a few seconds before I hobble back to my recorder. My intention was to get a snapshot of the audio environment of the jungle at midday. Mostly birds & insects, falling leaves and creaking trees and who knows what else if I get lucky? Instead this is what I’ve got: click of recorder on>shuffling footsteps gradually receding>brief jungle interlude>distant generator motor>soon followed by: hobbling footsteps gradually increasing in volume>record click off. My question is: why is this a problem?
I wanted the sounds of the jungle and got the sounds of people. But these recordings are not for documentary purposes. This is raw material I am gathering for further manipulation later on. Is it that there are particular qualities to the sounds of the jungle free from human influence that are inherently more musical than receding footsteps? If these recordings are to be bent, warped, flattened and combined is it somehow not as feasible to create a musical space from the raw material of footsteps & diesel generators as it is from cicadas and macaws? No, of course not. If a jaguar padded by the recorder I wouldn’t curse its footsteps. If a bumblebee spluttered near the mic I wouldn’t disparage it’s ‘rheumatoid splutter’. “What is this want of the natural in a world where everything is natural?” - that’s R.H. Blyth. I often quote it, but I seldom ask myself the actual question: what is this want of the natural?
The recorder in the jungle fifty meters away is an attempt at looking with the eye of God. Let me see the world without me, let me see without really looking. The microphone is the proxy eye. Let me see what happens when I don’t exist in a space, because my presence somehow makes it less ‘real’. What am I, this black hole that swallows and transforms the external world from real to unreal by my very presence? Is my breath a curse? Do my footsteps scream unbearably?
The camp is a bathysphere. We are in the jungle, but more correctly we are in the bathysphere. Forty paces in any direction away from camp the sounds of human activity fade and direction becomes uncertain. Not more than a week ago an archaeologist strayed from the path to urinate and was lost for 48 hours before he was recovered by a search party from the village. In the bathysphere I feel safe. I place my mic a safe distance from the camp still uncertain in the darkness. I look out into the jungle and see nothing save the reflections of the camp light on the trees. I wonder about the sounds 10 miles from here, in any direction. I wonder about the sounds at the peak of Kailash, the sounds of the Mariana trench, the sounds of the Rub’ al Khali, the sounds in rotten logs and under surf smashed rocks. Sounds hidden, sounds tiny, sounds unheard that no one seeks. Ten miles from here are sounds that my very presence would negate. I stare at the jungle. I am a tick, a sack of blood with the barest of comprehension. The jungle stares back.
On day five we rest on a log for a while while our guide backtracks. The fifth member of our party was supposed to be following close behind on a mule but is now nowhere to be seen. We fear she may be lost. While we wait snacking and talking, howler monkeys start their bellicose vocalese somewhere in the jungle to the west of us, not visible, but sounding closer than they ever have been so far on this trip. They are the world’s angriest vocal orchestra. If war came in flocks it would sound like the howlers. I want to get my recorder out and record them. Listening to them I have a sudden clear vision of how I can stack these howler sounds into a cloud and run a trickle of warm guitar through the center of it. But if I record from the vantage point of the log I will capture us talking, breathing, chewing, the rustle of our clothes. I could walk towards the howlers, but how far from the trail would I have to get to escape human sounds? And would my approach drive the howlers away? I think for a moment of asking my companions to remain silent for a few minutes while I capture the sound. The request strikes me as asking for a fake smile as you take a five minute long photograph. I decide not to record. An idea comes to me: if the compositional idea that I have is based specifically on the sound of the howler monkeys, surely I could use any recording of howler monkeys? Shit, I could just rip howler monkey audio off of YouTube. A little bit more snooping around and I could probably find a lossless version. My mind recoils in disgust. Those aren’t my monkeys! How can I use someone else’s monkeys? (But how could I lay claim to the sound of these monkeys? Did my companions not hear them also? To whom does this sound belong? Me, my partner, the trees, the monkeys themselves?). What I am looking for is an alchemy of experience, the moment of the monkeys as experienced by me transmuted directly. It is not a sound texture that I am looking for, it is the alchemy of experience. I want experience art. My experience, via the shortest possible route so as to transmit the vision with the least possible distortion (cf. Stockhausen). To live this fantasy I ignore the lie that is the microphone, the lie of omission: editing. These monkeys are not my monkeys, there is no way to get this sound to you. I can only present translations, translations of translations. Yet I continue to inhabit, as an artist, the fantastical world of transmutation of direct experience. I grab at the world around me telling myself that all I see and hear can be patched together to form a kind of letter in a bottle. I call it art and I throw it into the void. From time to time bottles float back to me and in all of them are replies written in a language that I will never understand.
Mexico City airport is a series of cavernous concrete boxes with a peculiar kind of slapback echo that frays the edges of sound and turns speech into a babbling river of nothingness. The noise of the crowd becomes a hive-like hum. An undulating wave runs through its center punctuated by echoing metallic klangs from a construction crew building a mezzanine. Music plays from the overhead speakers, reduced by the acoustics of the space to an empty metallic whine resembling a field of misplaced crickets stripped of all urgency and purpose. Weird acoustic phenomena abound. Standing waves hover at the intersection of hallways. The washed out blur of the overhead music is distinguishable from the crowd only by the caterpillar-like contraction and expansion of its rhythms rising from the echoed morass. The sound here is as rich, dense and unpredictable as any jungle or forest soundscape. It is the result of organisms organizing, of lives lived, of patterns created beyond my knowledge or control. Why then the rainforest and not this? Why then does my recorder remain in my bag? What is this spectacle of ‘nature’ and how and why am I separate from it? Let me climb into it. Let me reach forth and pull it into me.
Andrew Scott plays music and when that doesn’t work he draws and when that doesn’t work he writes. Originally from South Auckland, he has spent the last decade in Los Angeles. Musical projects he has been involved in include Metal Rouge, Nest, Missionary Zeal, Only Vernal Pools, Un Ciego, Golden Krone and the label Emerald Cocoon.