I’ve not been to any of the places that feature on Roland Etzin’s TransMongolian. Nonetheless, hearing or reading the words “China”, “Russia” or “Japan” instantly conjures a wealth of mental visual, derived largely from photographs and documentaries seen in magazines, on the Internet or on television – all of these amount to what I’d consider to be rather generic (perhaps stereotypical) depictions of these places, momentarily diluting China into swooping, intricate architecture and the tottering stone ribbon of The Great Wall. Yet despite their potent visual provocation, to consider these places in terms of their soundscapes draws a blank – why am I so instinctively aware of what these places look like, yet naïve as to what they may sound like?
What Etzin points out on the inlay of TransMongolian is that these places are as distinctive sonically as they are visually. The album is a collection of what he “found to be representative of or very special about these countries” during a spell of travelling from Russia to Japan (via Lake Baikal, Mongolia, China and South Korea). There’s a wonderful contradiction within this that, arguably, is evoked more prominently through sound than image. Etzin’s quest to capture the “special” or “representative” essence of an entire nation is haunted by skew of subjective experience; while the track titles evade referring to particular experiences in favour of stating their country of apprehension, the pieces themselves place the listener very much within the context of Etzin’s personal perspective. On one hand, the listener is plonked within the context of “Japan” or “China”, with entire countries brought into aural existence in the culmination of sounds captured. On the other, the listener is transported into a past instance of Etzin’s head, assigned to very specific points in time and location rather than facing an immortalised, sweeping depiction of a nation’s landscape.
What TransMongolian captures so beautifully is the sense of interaction Etzin has with his surrounding geography. Where a photograph of a landscape may often feel communicatively dislocated from its subject, existing in ignorance of its photographer, here Etzin finds himself in a very active dialogue with his locations, venturing outward into them just as much as they impose themselves upon him. Old wooden floors rattle and creak beneath him during “China”, while the water of “Lake Baikal” feels as though it’s lapping up gently against his waist; I am Etzin during these moments, crawling up into the same cramped spaces and eavesdropping on the same distant conversations. And then there are the mysterious narratives that tumble out of time’s unfolding, initiated either by the landscapes themselves or seemingly through Etzin’s own physical movements through them. “South Korea” begins with a giddy boat journey into a stiflingly humid rainforest clouded by crickets, before emerging into a factory space of cyclical machinery and an endless downpour of broken glass and clattering objects; meanwhile, “Japan” stumbles exasperated out of a bustling fairground arcade into a small, sweaty train compartment, plagued with the incessant hum of the air con system and occasionally decorated with the distant huff of the train itself. Without any accompanying notes to confirm the sources of these sounds, the listener is left to stagger blindfolded through these experiences and speculate as to the events and objects they encounter – just as I have – and discover these places through sound alone, liberated from the constraints of fixed context while guided gently by any existing preconceptions of these countries we may have.