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Rainforest Soundwalks: Ambiences of Bosavi, Papua New Guinea

Reviewed by Carlos Palombini

Steven Feld is Professor of Anthropology in New York University, where he lectures on the Anthropology of Sound. The term "anthropology of sound" was coined many years ago by Feld himself, concerned with the fact "that ethnomusicologists were artificially separating the patterning of sound called 'music' in the West from the full human and environmental world of sound" (Feld). The anthropology of sound attempts to connect sonic/acoustic form to social and historical meaning. His book Sound and Sentiment (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), already a classic, has been particularly influent in recognizing that "natives" have musical ethno-theories, which they express in metaphorical language through comparisons, for instance, with sounds of birds and brooks. On Smithsonian Folkways, he has just released Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea, showing "how the forest sounds not only inspire the poetry and imagination and acoustic patterns of Bosavi song, crying etc.", but also "how Bosavi songs and work sounds and ritual and ceremonial sounds transform these forest sounds and are performed in concert with them" (Feld). With Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, he has produced Voices of the Rainforest (1991), one of the best-selling titles in the history of both environmental sound and traditional world music. "Everything I do is concerned as much with the production of sound (the sources and agents) as with the reception of sound " who hears, how it is heard" (Feld). Dr Feld plays bass trumpet, trombone and euphonium in the "serious-fun" Tom Guralnick Trio.

Rainforest Soundwalks comprises four tracks of slightly over fifteen minutes each: seyak, or butcherbird; keafo, or morning; galo, or afternoon; and nulu, or night. Track one was recorded on a Sony D7 DAT through an Aerco preamp with AKG 460B plus CK1 microphones in an X-Y stereo pair. Tracks two, three and four were recorded on a stereo Nagra IV-S with Bryston Dolby SR also through an Aerco preamp with AKG 451EB plus CK1 microphones in an X-Y stereo pair. Digital editing and mixing was done with Manny Rettinger at Ubik Sound, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The D7 mini-DAT, now replaced by the D8, is small and convenient and runs on four AA batteries, Feld explains. The Aerco, a custom preamp made by Jerry Chamkis, accepts XLR cables and provides RCA and mini-jack out. "It is superbly quiet and clean, and makes it possible to use high end phantom power microphones and by-pass the (less sophisticated) preamp circuitry of either a DAT or the Nagra" (Feld). Feld likes analog warmth. He used a Nagra until 1992 "because nothing else would hold up in the environment" (Feld). The Nagra IV-S is a portable quarter inch analog audio tape recorder for high-quality musical recording and for cinema and television applications. The AKGs have a rising response and are very consistent and clear in the mid and upper frequencies. They tolerate the high humidity of the forest quite well. To obtain the gentlest possible version of the stereo field, Feld used a pair of slightly crossed cardioid microphones in an X-Y stereo pair. Tracks two, three and four were recorded using the stereo Nagra with the Bryston frame. Feld believes that this was the first use of portable Dolby SR in field recording (1990). In this manner, low-volume sounds with minimal noise were obtained.

The title Rainforest Soundwalks may evoke images of a sound explorer equipped with a portable DAT and a pair of OKM II binaural microphones making his way through the equatorial jungle in search of unusual sounds. This is not the case. First, because there is very little physical walking with the microphone: "the duration of each piece (tracks two, three and four) is not the duration of a physical walk, or of continuous movement with a microphone" (Feld). Second, because Feld "walks" not into the jungle but on its edge, at the place where the forest and the village meet. Third, because there is an extraordinary amount of sonic ambiguity about space in the forest and, "unlike A-B, ORTF, or binaural stereo-recording configurations, X-Y does not overly spatialize the left and right" (Feld). Rainforest Soundwalks is the walk of a listening rather than a listener.

Each of my "soundwalks" takes place in a distinct forest locale at a distinct time of day. But each is really about a way of listening to and at the forest edge. The "soundwalk" takes place in the head and body, in the way of listening, in the attention to the surrounding/motional sound field. These are composites, not just of the height and depth, space and time of the forest, but also of a history of listening " my history of listening and being taught to listen, over twenty five years. That"s why I call it an "acoustemology", a sonic way of knowing place, a way of attending to hearing, a way of absorbing. Even when still, the body is doing the moving. Even when locationally fixed, the microphones are sensing motion. The "soundwalk" is a densely layered audio image of this experience. (Feld)
Rainforest Soundwalks presents a four-panel retable through the threads of which a listening may wander, from the extreme figure/background contrast of the first track to the luscious texture of the last one, where every single component is a soloist in its own right.
Out of the density of sounds, "solos" appear only to be registered momentarily and relayered into the overall density. The sonic poetry of the forest is here, in this textural density. Each of the audio immersions is meant to indicate a different way that multiple sound sources interlock, overlap, and alternate to create this acoustic space that keeps arching up as it moves forward. This is how the sound tells the listener the exact hearing position, the time of day, season of year, the orientation of the forest geography. (Feld)
To ears accustomed to hearing sounds as such through the practice of reduced listening, Rainforest Soundwalks offers a unique experience. The manipulations to which Feld subjects his sounds are subtle but unequivocal, as if "reality" were always ready to slip into the hyper-real. Accepting, stressing and punctuating the compositional will of the sounds he uses, Feld keeps us unsure as to whether we are listening to the forest the way it is or the way he listens to it.
Rainforest Soundwalks is obviously a very "musical" recording in the sense that it presents both a new field of sounds and is structured to provide a way into listening that can either be narrative or non-narrative. It is not a literal kind of program music. But it is also not entirely abstract. It uses editing and compositional arrangement techniques that are very influenced by my studies of electroacoustic music. At the same time, it is also in conversation with other environmental, natural historical, acoustic ecology, and soundscape (radio/performance) recordings. I am trying to reach out, simultaneously, to sound artists, ecologists, anthropologists, soundscape and radio people, and composers of experimental music. I listen often and carefully to work by all of these people, and Rainforest Soundwalks is very much about my conversation with their work, as well as my distinctive way of listening absorbed through years of being in the Bosavi forests. (Feld)
To get an insight into the larger acoustic ecology of Bosavi that has been his passion for years, Feld would like the listener to juxtapose Rainforest Soundwalks with Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea, the three CD anthology and booklet that he has just released on Smithsonian Folkways. The ensemble presents a whole anthropology of and in sound for this community. Still, "Rainforest Soundwalks is the foundational recording because it lets you hear the basic tracks, the sonic everyday " whether high tone bird solos or more unfolding ambiences " that people listen to throughout their lives" (Feld).

Rainforest Soundwalks has been produced in partnership is with the Bosavi People"s Fund, which will receive half of all revenues after manufacturing costs are recouped. It is available from Earth Ear, 45 Cougar Canyon, Santa Fe, NM 87505; telephones: 505"466"1879 and 888"356"4918; fax: 505"466"4930; e-mail:; URL:

The reviewer is grateful to Dr Feld for his willingness to answer questions concerning his work in general and Rainforest Soundwalks in particular.

Rainforest Soundwalks: Ambiences of Bosavi, Papua New Guinea by Steven Feld. EarthEar, Santa Fe, NM, 2001. 1 CD, 12-page illus. booklet. US$15.00. ee1062

Reviewed by Carlos Palombini - Visiting Research Fellow Department of Telematics The Open University Milton Keynes, UK

This article first appeared in Leonard digital reviews and is reprinted with permission.

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