Erenlai - Revising Reality Through Sound

Revising Reality Through Sound

by on Monday, 01 October 2012 Comments
A Review on Revitalization of Chiayi Sound Project

TheCube Project Space is in the Gongguan area of Taipei, near the Cineplaza theatre, hidden on the second floor of an obscure apartment building. Although National Taiwan University lies just across the street, the atmosphere nearby bears no trace of scholarly temperament. A strange mixture of traditional Taiwanese food stalls such as stinky tofu and Taiwanese fried chicken and a peculiarly large amount of sport equipment shops dominate the whole block. The asphalt is always stained with oily muck and the myriad of bicycles and motorbikes makes it hard for one to maneuver about.

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I was thus amazed when a small flight of stairs revealed an entirely different world: The dusty fragrance of wood and dried hay immediately shot through my olfactory nerves at the slide of the glass doors. A spacious white room was decorated with rectangular wooden boards and people were arranging themselves comfortably upon the beige tatami mats spread across the floor. Intently, they were listening to the booming of tractor engines, the murmur of old farmers in Taiwanese dialect and the crackle of feet stepping on dried hay that were sent across the room through eight devices: two pairs of stereo speakers hanging on both sides of the wall, and four other sound devices that were placed on the tatami or hanging from the ceiling. These devices came in different sizes and shapes. For example, the sound device placed on the ground was an electric megaphone, and the device hanging from the ceiling was an old radio. One speaker was even hidden inside a wooden box, in which the reverberation and vibrations of the box created a peculiar acoustic effect.

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Wooden boards were placed across the room to absorb echoes

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A speaker is placed inside the wooden box, creating a peculiar acoustic effect

The exhibition piece was a montage of sounds recorded from Chiayi, a large agricultural area in southern Taiwan. Sounds were arranged according to different themes, such as aboriginal tribes, religious ambience, agricultural activities or ecological surroundings. They were broadcast in a fashion that recreated our general perception of aural space. For example, the grinding noise of an ancient tatami machine was presented through stereo surrounding speakers, creating a sense of immediate, enveloping presence. The sounds of people speaking, on the other hand, were broadcasted through monophonic sound devices, such as the radio or the electric megaphone, which denoted the sound object’s specific position in space.

While the montage may seem random at first, it doesn't take long to perceive a certain order. For instance, the religious section at first featured the clatter of the divination blocks, signaling God’s will as they fall to the ground, followed by a mother’s clicking high heels and a child’s nagging whines. The soft chanting of Buddhist nuns emerged, shifting towards the grunting of men which in turn acted as a prelude to the festive religious music filled with gongs and suona, the Chinese oboe. Finally, the section was finished off with the loud explosions of Chinese firecrackers, intensively broadcasted through different speakers in an alternating fashion.
 

Aside from the main installation, two smaller pieces were also present in the gallery. One is a sound recording of a tour guide in a sugar factory, the other a thematic presentation of various aspects of Chiayi, such as the lost art of Beiguan music. These were accompanied by slides containing dictations from interviews with the locals.

 

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Album cover of Sounds of the Underground

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Album cover of Taiwan Sound Archive, Religious Music Vol. 1
(tai wan you sheng zi liao ku quan ji bian qian ji si wu dao pian
台灣有聲資料庫全集《變遷祭祀舞蹈篇》), produced by Hsu Tsang-Houei.

 

The “Revitalization of Chiayi Sound Project” is a collaboration between Yannick Dauby, Yen-Ting Hsu (許雁婷) and Wan-Shuen Tsai (蔡宛璇). In 2008, poet Chung Yung-fung (鐘永豐), the then Director-General of the Cultural Affairs Department commissioned Dauby and Hsu to collect sounds from the eighteen townships of Chiayi County, in hopes of building a sound archive that could one day be shared with the citizens of Chiayi. Had it succeeded, one could say that it would be a project of great historical significance, since the only notable works in Taiwan that were close to field recordings were the folksong collection movement carried out by musician Hsu Tsang-Houei (許常惠) and Shi Wei-Liang (史惟亮) and the ethnomusicology studies of Liu Bing-Chuan (呂炳川) in the 60’s and 70’s, followed by the more recent Sounds of the Underground (lai zi tai wan di ceng de sheng yin來自臺灣底層的聲音) compilation by Crystal records during the 90’s, all of which were still situated within the song-based musical realm and not field recording, strictly speaking. Unfortunately, due to bureaucratic reasons, the project came to halt after one year. The artists, however, having already built tight bonds with the locals, continued to collect sounds. Three years later they selected several sounds from their archive and composed the “Revitalization of Chiayi Sound Project.”

“Revitalization of Chiayi Sound Project” is the 6th installment of the Re-envisioning Society series curated by TheCube art gallery. According to their website, the goal of this series was to uncover an authentic relationship between human beings and their surroundings; a relationship which is hidden beneath the layers of artificial constructs that govern modern society. Furthermore, they sought to “construct a new vision for society” by observing the transformation of individual and collective experiences in specific aspects of contemporary life.
 
 

So how can a sound exhibition live up to such a grandiose purpose? We could say that humanity in modern society is dominated by images, or rather, that human civilization has always been preoccupied with sight. The saying “the eyes are the windows to the soul” is self-evident. Sight is the organ that determines boundaries, the boundaries upon which interpretations are made. One can say this is the initial step towards an abstract, conceptual world that is the premise of a society of spectacles. Sound, on the other hand, is more ambivalent. During the exhibition, it is often hard to make out the original sources of the sounds. Bird sounds that come from grainy radio speakers have a metallic quality that resembles a machine, thus the boundaries between organic/inorganic are blurred. Attention is given not only to the sounds presented but also to the media through which that sound is represented, which in this case is the radio speakers that convert melodic bird chirps into abrasive mechanic noises. In other words, sounds retain the noise of the media, the qualities that are generally filtered out/ignored/neglected by sight. Through close listening of sounds, attention is lowered to the materiality of things, and not the abstract concept it represents. From this site it is possible to start something new, to view our surroundings in a new light.

 
 
It is also from this site that a new construction of identity is possible. The clue may lie in the Chinese title of the exhibition: “Sheng Tu Bu Er” (聲土不二). The phrase is a word play on the phrase “Juan Tu Bu Er” (身土不二), which originally was a Buddhist phrase that explains karma, but was appropriated by Japan and Korea for its literal meaning, namely that body (身) and soil (土) cannot be separated (不二), in order to promote local food movements. The exhibition’s substitution of the word “聲” (sound) for“身” (body) can thus be interpreted that sounds cannot be separated from the soil.

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Orientation of Revitalization of Chiayi Sound Project

In the orientation following the exhibition, Chung Yung-fung gave an illuminating example of this concept. He mentioned how he couldn’t recognize the Hakka singer Lai Pie-Hsia’s (賴碧霞) voice in Hsu Tsang-Houei’s recordings, because the sound quality was too clear and lacked the noisy ambience that usually accompanied the singer’s performance. That was when he realized how crucial the recording environment is to preserving aural memory. It is thus reasonable to say that the identity of the sound is inseparable from the environment that produced it, whether in a noisy night market or in a church full of echoes. The awareness of the importance of noise, that which was initially considered as a threat to the recording of “pure” sound, evokes a categorical redistribution of how we perceive the world.

Furthermore, as our perception of the world changes, so our perception of ourselves transforms. During the orientation, Dauby explained how a man from the countryside might move to a big city and attempt to forget his memories of the countryside, perhaps ashamed by the hegemonic developmentalist ideology that defines the countryside as a backwater, inferior place. Chiayi, in many ways, is precisely such a place. However, if these field recordings are presented to him, perhaps he will be able to pick up messages that lie beyond the limits of the developmentalist discourse. He will perceive the different nuances of Chiayi, nuances that were not captured by a developmentalist interpretation of Chiayi, and subsequently discover the different nuances concerning his own identity. From this perspective, it is indeed possible through field recording to discover genuine relationships between men and other men, as well as men and his local environment; to surmount the spectacles of society and to arrive at new conclusions.

Written by Julia Chien with further editing by Daniel Pagan Murphy. Photos by Julia Chien.

Julia Chien (黑玲)

Julia Chien a.k.a 黑玲 is an English/Chinese editor and contributor in eRenlai magazine. She also makes electronic music and DJs under the name of Waywon 味王. 

http://www.mixcloud.com/Blackbells/

https://soundcloud.com/djwaywon

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