Tobias Fischer and Lara Cory run the fantastic Fifteen Questions website, which (as the title suggests) compiles 15-question interviews with all manner of sound artists and musicians. The questions are always attentive yet open, catching that balance between a comprehension of the artist’s work and a humble desire to explore the unknowns around artistic influence and creative process.
Their book/CD package Animal Music is their first collaboration outside of Fifteen Questions. Through first-hand interviews and research, the pair dig deep within the practice of recording, researching and contemplating the sounds made by animals: the role these sounds play in everyday life, the implications as to animal sentience, the unearthed assumptions about the dynamic between animals and human beings. I was delighted to find that the fervent curiosity that powers Fifteen Questions also runs deep through Animal Music. Scientific analysis – such as the examination of the meows and purrs of cats – leads into accounts of sound artists making intrepid trips into oceans and jungles. Interviewees are quizzed on both their reasons for pursuing the sounds of animals and the technicalities of their equipment choices.
I put a handful of questions to the writers and artists involved in the creation of Animal Music. The answers were more fascinating than I could have hoped for. Read on to find out how Jana Winderen bonded with a heron in the darkness, how Yannick Dauby’s life was changed during one summer night in Taiwan back in 2004, and how Slavek Kwi suggests that we separate the listening experience from its contextual casing.
Tobias Fischer + Lara Cory
A couple of obvious questions to begin with. Why did you want to do this book?
T: I got the original impetus to do a book about animal sounds and communication when my girlfriend and I offered refuge to two cats from the animal shelter. I was fascinated by the wide range of sounds they were capable of producing and it was clear to me that many of them served as very concrete forms of expression beyond merely asking for food or attention. When I started looking for further information, I was struck by how little was available, and how much of it contradicted my experience. So the idea was to start an investigation into animal music, language and communication and explore how far science had come in providing some hands-on answers.
L: We’d wanted to branch out from the pure interview content on 15 Questions from the outset, so you could say Animal Music our first collaboration outside the site.
How long did it take to put together?
T: We got off to a great start and collected enough material for what would have been a very nice e-book. As we moved forward, however, we found that the question sits right at the cusp of many other, far bigger topics. To get the more scientific, philosophical and historical chapters right required us to go into even more depth and to talk to a lot more experts. Once we’d committed to that, the process took us roughly two years and then another year of revisions and corrections.
L: Yes, I was surprised at the time it all took from start to finish. It was such a part of our writing lives for so long.
T: The topic is so vast – in many respects, it feels as though we’re still not finished!
The tone of the book is great; it’s exploratory and speculative, devoid of too many grand conclusions and declarations. Did you explicitly plan how you wanted the book to convey itself in terms of tone?
T: Thanks, I’m really glad this came across. Absolutely, the plan for Animal Music was always to present an overview of the debate, rather than coming up with a new theory. I do believe there is plenty of substantiated information in the book and the big concluding chapter is an attempt at finding an answer by weighing all of the different perspectives, conflicting opinions and directions against each other. Over the past decades, there have been some astounding discoveries, but ultimately, there’s so much more that we don’t know than what we do know. What you’re getting with Animal Music is a thread through the maze and a set of tools to start exploring yourself.
L: This book is meant as an anthology of information about this topic; a place to start if you’re interested in the sounds that animals make or in field recording. And yes, the book has an exploratory spirit, we never intended to make a definitive, authoritative statement.
There’s a moment in the book where you speculate: “Humans have evolved to exist beyond function alone; is it so foolish to suggest that animals have as well?” Do you think people struggle with the principle that animals may have transcended pure function in their use of sound?
L: Some do. But I think the people who are interested in this book are most likely looking for evidence of this idea because it’s something they already feel to be true.
T: I don’t think most struggle with the notion that animals are capable of expressing feelings or even of communicating to a certain degree. I’m pretty sure you’d get the vast majority of people with pets to agree that their dog or cat ‘talks’ to them. Interestingly enough, however, they tend to find the idea that animal song constitutes “music” a lot more difficult to accept. This probably has to do with the abstraction of music from something that was originally a tool for imitating nature, communicating with it and dispelling fear, towards a mostly self-referential system. Interestingly, from the research Lara and I conducted for Animal Music, the reverse may be true: while there are plenty of arguments supporting the thesis that animal music is a reality, humans remain the only known species to use a grammar-based language. So while your canary may be able to sing to you, it may never be able to engage you in a deeper conversation.
Does the reservation posed in my last question hinder a more widespread appreciation of how animals produce sound and interact with it?
L: Absolutely. It serves our lifestyle to think that animals aren’t as complex as we are and so you’re going to get resistance. There’s so much going on in the sound world of animals and it’s a clue to what’s really going on in their lives and minds.
T: One thing is certain: We apply completely different listening modes for human sounds on the one hand and animal-made sounds on the other. There are reasons for this, but in the end, the way we hear the world influences our perception of it. This is why the activities of the Gruenrekorder label, the world’s greatest record company for field recordings, are so important and why we were so grateful to get them on board for the CD accompanying Animal Music: Because they level the playing field. Once you’ve listened to the album the same way you would listen to, say, the latest Aphex Twin, you’ve gained a totally new and rewarding perspective.
How has writing this book changed your own interaction with, and understanding of, animal sounds (if at all)?
L: I’ve always felt respect and compassion for animals, but researching and writing Animal Music has really opened my eyes to the complexity of their emotional lives. It left me with more questions, and the frustrating realisation that we’ll never really know the answers.
T: I tend to know even better what my cats want from me. Naturally, they’ve already successfully exploited this.
Winderen is the central character in a chapter entitled Hacking Into The Shrimp Network, which explores her research into the sounds of crustaceans. Her academic background has carried her through everything from mathematics, biochemistry, fine arts and design, which no doubt informs her ability to weave her hydrophone recordings into meticulous studio collages.
In your interview for Animal Music, you mention that it would be “disrespectful” to the animals to use them as instruments. I was curious as to what you meant by this. Could you elaborate on what is the inherent implication of co-opting the sounds of animals as instruments?
When I am playing back the sounds of creatures to an audience, I am already presenting them in another way, rather than by direct listening, and you could say that I am using them as instruments already. Even if I do not quite like that notion. Through my composition they get sculpted into my story of course, but I try to say something about their environment, what is happening where they are, what is at stake for their habitats. For me to chop up their sounds and pitch them into tones is a violent act. I try to tidy up around the recorded sound from the animals, but not use their sound to play with, in some kind of melody. I try to clarify them, and make them as clearly presented as possible. It is more a gut feeling where the limit of processing of the sounds are, but it is quite clear to me.
I remember once that some drops of water were dripping in a recognisable song / tune kind of way, by accident, and I had to take them out of the mix, since they sounded as though they were created by me, as a song. It took the attention away form the listening experience, in my opinion. Humans will always try to make sense out of what we hear or see, to relate it to something we can understand, through experience or association to something we know. It can be very difficult to free yourself from this, if at all possible. I am hoping that at least in parts the sound work I do is open enough for free associations, and a good listening experience, though also can open up our curiosity for sounds we have not heard before and and encourage the will to find out more.
You talk about venturing out in the middle of the night to capture the sounds of underwater animals, in order to avoid the obstruction of manmade noises. Is there a sense of adventure to this experience?
These experiences are of course quite intense, since it is dark, sometimes cold, and on land very quiet. I will never forget those sessions. To be out, when not many other humans are out and about is exciting, since you also meet other animals on land, that you do not see that often at day time. I will never forget the heron sitting next to me in the darkness, much closer than I think it would have done in the daytime. I felt we were out hunting the same thing. We were both out fishing. I wonder if she could hear the sounds of the fish through the water surface. As I broke the water surface with my hydrophones, a cacophony of fish, crustaceans and sea urchin sounds flooded into my ears through my headphones. The contrast from the silence on land to the rich and full sound environment underwater was mind-blowing.
In the pages of Animal Music, French sound artist Yannick Dauby is referred to as “father frog”. His interview showcases not only the depth of his expertise, but also the passion and adoration that drives his pursuits into the ponds and wetlands of the world.
The book features a section on your experiences of recording frogs. Was there a particular recording/listening experience that initially triggered your deep interest in this?
I grew up in the Mediterranean Alps, and there can be heard the powerful and galvanizing choruses of Mediterranean Treefrogs. It’s always a special feeling when you notice the first one calling in April, announcing the warm days.
I also must say that I always liked listening to recordings. And there are a lot of fantastic nature sound work that have been published. In France, the works of Jean C. Roché, then Fernand Deroussen, have triggered my interest for amphibian sounds.
But it is Taiwan, by a Summer night in 2004 that I realized the richness and diversity of amphibian songs. I just wandered in a preserved area inside the city of Taipei and immediately could hear 4 or 5 species of frogs. From this moment, I wanted not only to collect their sounds for my listening and creating purpose, but also learn a bit about their ecology and behaviour.
You talk about how your recording of the Otus Spilocephalus (a Taiwanese owlet) brings back memories of “the starry and perfumed nights of the Mediterranean Alps”. What is it about this memory that makes you want to return to it?
The song, sparse and repetitive, of the Otus Spilocephalus, has the same quality of the Mediterranean Otus scops, a very familiar night bird in Southern France. Their voices both sounds a bit like a short note played on flute. One can hear it from very far away, it emerges from the whispers of light wind and sounds of insects. This kind foreground/background difference in sound, is very specific to these two owlets.
If I treasure the moments I spend in the nature of Taiwan, there is still something that I can’t do there: when listening to these delicate sounds, to lie on the ground between lavender.
Slavek Kwi (Artificial Memory Trace)
One of my favourite chapters of Animal Music centres on a discussion with Slavek Kwi (aka Artificial Memory Trace), during which a discussion on his recordings of the Boto (an Amazonian river dolphins) flowers into a debate about the musicality of animal sounds and the most suitable approach to listening. Kwi grew up in Czechoslovakia and is now based in Ireland, although he’s also found himself in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium in the years in between.
The book features a very interesting conversation between yourself and Tobias Fischer, in which you describe the push-pull between listening to sound as an abstraction and sound as an attachment to its contextual origin. You mention that to listen to the sound of water as an abstraction is to “truly listen” to it. What do you mean by this? Why do you perceive abstracted listening as truer than listening that acknowledges context?
When I hear the sound of water, I am not hearing the music but the water – in the moment when I hear only the music, then I am truly listening.
The threshold between “knowing” and “not knowing” creates a wider potential for listening.
When I am thinking: ah! I am listening to the water, then I am reducing the potential of the sound to the source of the sound. When the meaning is left open, the potential of the listening experience grows. The sound can be anything, it is not linked to the single idea of “water”. The word ‘truly’ could be replaced by ‘really’ and does not point towards the idea of ‘truth’.
I remember my girlfriend telling me one night that she couldn’t sleep, because the cover image of your Boto [Encantado] album was protruding from my box of vinyl. It’s a great picture. Could you recount the moment you took this photo (if you remember it)? How did you manage to get such a clear and close-up photograph of the Boto?
The photograph was taken on the Rio Negro. There is a particular spot where the river dolphins are fed, so they are relatively used to humans. I leant over the wooden jetty and was lucky to catch one rising.
Animal Music on Gruenrekorder – www.gruenrekorder.de/?page_id=13951