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jungle sounds: raw & synthetic

lawrence english: mamori art lab, the amazon


Mamori Art Lab Mamori Art Lab
photo Lawrence English
THROUGHOUT WERNER HERZOG’S FITZCARRALDO AND AGUIRRE WRATH OF GOD, THE JUNGLE PLAYS A CENTRAL ROLE AS A PROTAGONIST OF THE HIGHEST ORDER. SHOT IN THE FURTHEST REACHES OF THE PERUVIAN AMAZON, EACH OF THE FILMS PLACES THE JUNGLE, BOTH ITS PHYSICAL AND SONIC CHARACTER, AS A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH, A POWERFUL AND OFTEN IMPENETRABLE WORLD THAT HIDES MORE THAN IT REVEALS.

As Herzog comments in the documentary Burden Of Dreams, the jungle is an all-encompassing world of the “prehistorical. It’s the only land where creation is unfinished yet…[a place that maintains] a harmony of collective murder. We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication.” While typically Herzogian in its colour, this quotation does point to the drama that the Amazon jungle tends to draw out of people who encounter it.

Travel a good few days down from the headwaters of the Peruvian Amazon and you arrive at Manaus the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonia where the confluence of Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes takes place. It’s here field recordists, composers and sound artists from across the world gather for Mamori Art Lab.

Mamori Art Lab is a residency program overseen by Jordi Ilorella and Asier Gogortza, Spanish photographers whose preoccupations include the ways in which environments influence and ultimately shape art. Each year the pair collaborate with Spanish sound artist Francisco Lopez to produce two 14-day workshops that focus on the practice of field recording, concrete sound and other questions pertaining to the creation and exhibition of contemporary audio arts.

Field recording is a complex area of investigation that positions itself in histories of location recording, documentary filmmaking, bioacoustics and, as David Toop summarised it in Uovo Journal (Issue 14, 2007), “Bird watching and similar ocular pursuits, exotic sonic backgrounds, post Cageian environments.” The variations of the art form have expanded in recent years thanks to portable recording devices, leading to a mounting exploitation of natural sounds in a range of music and art practices. The intensifying mist clouding the art of field recording provokes questions as to why exactly this practice is undertaken—something strongly investigated by Francisco Lopez during the workshop.

The Art Lab’s physical presence is a collection of three small buildings on Mamori Lake, roughly four hours south-west of Manaus. The residency encourages discussion surrounding the creative use of found sound, provides opportunities for field recording excursions and participants are also encouraged to present works composed from recordings collected. It offers a chance for participants to engage deeply in one (albeit diverse) environment and explore a range of technical and theoretical ideas drawn from field recording practice.

For Melbourne based sound artist Camilla Hannan, among the residency group in 2009, “it was fantastic to be focused on the sonic environment for an extended period of time. Even when I wasn’t actually recording I was thinking about the sonic landscape, listening for different sounds, thinking about compositional structure and about how sound resides in space. Mamori offered a unique environment of sounds ranging from the cacophony of a thousand frogs to the delicacy of syncopated insects. At times, the ‘natural’ became truly bizarre.”

If one theme did permeate much of the residency it was the relationship between the natural and the synthetic—framed through Lopez’s insights into absolute concrete sound and the transformation of reality. Nights, dense with the high pitched clicks, whistles and sizzles of insects, bats, mammals and birds sounded like some highly orchestrated electro-acoustic composition. In fact if one aspect of Mamori’s sound world was to leave a lasting impression it was the sheer ‘weight’ of sound present—each square metre of jungle and swamp was loaded with countless sound emitters—making the location of individual elements quite difficult if not impossible.

Departing from the Mamori camp part-way through the residency for a three-day boat trip to the Lago Yuma, all participants were offered a chance to explore a range of new environments, including locations at which hydrophonic (and atmospheric) recordings of the Boto Rosa (the pink Amazonian dolphin mythologised as the shape shifter Encantado) could be made.

It’s difficult to convey the feeling of being in such articulate mammalian company, to hear these creatures communicating underwater and then gasping for breath as they emerge from the depths mere metres away from the small boats housing the participants. The intensity of engagement was unrelenting and brought into sharp focus a range of issues pertaining to the act of field recording and indeed listening. “Every minute (I was) hearing dolphins breathing loudly all around us,” recalls German artist Marc Behrens of the time on Yuma, “the sounds from the jungle further away and muted, the water surface completely still, no wind at all.”

As it came time for the final presentations to be made, each of the works told a story of impressions (and perhaps levels of connection) varying from participant to participant. For example, Behrens explored a concrete compositional approach using transformed sound against a backdrop of untreated field recordings. Cedric Maridet from Hong Kong took a more diarised approach, shifting between environments and illustrating the sheer diversity of sound collected. In contrast, Irish electronic composer Hillary Mullaney’s composition was a high-pitched oppressive drone that seemed to typify the harsher aspects of the environment—a work perhaps fuelled as much by her habitus as the jungle itself.

Leaving Mamori for Manaus at the conclusion of the residency was a surreal experience. Bodies were sore (following a harrowing soccer game with the locals; of course we lost, 10-4) and minds tired yet elated. It’s a difficult emotional jumble to summarise, one that reflected the rare chance for isolation from the modern world, as much as the sense of disconnection from any notion of ‘globalisation’—life had been extremely local and focused in a way that’s increasingly difficult to encounter.

Whether because of exhaustion, malaria medications and extreme environmental conditions, or simply the totality of experience itself, Mamori Art Lab provided a truly distinctive opportunity for collective understanding of explorations into sound art, field recording and the orbiting relationship of art and environment. The further the boat travelled from Mamori and the closer ‘civilisation’ became, the greater the yearning to return to that unique space and also the greater the dream-like quality of the entire residency.


Mamori Art Lab, November-December 2008, www.malab.net

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 40

© Lawrence English; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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