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Steve Feld

From Ethnomusicology to Echo-Muse-Ecology

During the 1970's, Steve Feld first began to sense the ways that some ideas from acoustic ecology, as expressed in Murray Schaffer's seminal The Tuning of the World, might inform and enliven his work as an emerging anthropologist of sound. Feld was especially taken with the suggestion that the creative interpretation and presentation of sonic field work is an important avenue of both intellectual exploration and public engagement. Quite in contrast to the distinctly secondary role of recordings in most anthropology (as evidenced in generally low-quality source recordings and a relative lack of academic review and attention to audio "supplements" to written papers), Feld turned his musician's senses toward creating engaging, and eventually (as he prioritized it in his funding outreach) audiophile quality audio documents, beginning with first LP, Music of the Kaluli, in 1982. In 1983, he took Shaffer's suggestion to heart in a half-hour NPR soundscape program “Voices of the Forest,” itself expanded and enhanced by new equipment courtesy of Mickey Hart, who released an hour-long version of similar material as Voices of the Rainforest on his The World series in 1990.

By this time, Feld was committed to his somewhat iconoclastic approach to anthropology publishing. While he has contributed significantly to the academic literature (most predominantly with his award-winning Sound and Sentiment, 1982; second expanded edition 1990), his passion and ongoing contribution to the field is in the form of audio productions in which he crafts elaborate yet naturalistic compositions from hours of high-quality field recordings.

His Papua New Guinea work culminated with a dual release in 2001 of Bosavi, a 3-CD set on Smithsonian Folkways that presents three generations of music in relation to place, along with Rainforest Soundwalks on EarthEar, his only disc to directly and solely address the ways that he learned to listen to the forest within which his field work came to life. In a 2001 interview with Carlos Palombini, he offered a sense of his production approach:

 In the Bosavi language there is a term, dulugu ganalan that means "lift up over sounding." This is the term for this sound world's spatial and temporal interplay. Out of the textural density of sounds certain "solos" appear only to be registered momentarily and then re-layered into the overall density. The sonic poetry of the forest is here, in this textural density of overlapping, interlocking, and alternating sounds. Each of the audio immersions is meant to indicate a different way that multiple sound sources interact to create this acoustic space that keeps arching up as it moves forward. This is how the forest sound tells the listener the exact hearing position, the time of day, season of year, the orientation of the forest geography. And this is the logic of fleeting “solos” and their swirling motion into large gestalts.

         “Lift-up-over sounding” is the aural aesthetic of both the content materials on the CD and my own studio presentation here. I want the recordings to feel as densely layered and interactive and evolving as the way I have come to hear the forest and it inhabitants. I brought this aesthetic to both the recording and editing process of Voices of the Rainforest and Rainforest Soundwalks; it also comes out on a number of the everyday and ritual recordings of CDs 2 and 3 of Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea.  I think that the best thing I can do, either with two channel recordings, or with studio mixing techniques, or a combination of the two, is to transport the listener into what is distinctive about the Bosavi sound world and the way I have learned to listen to it. Inevitably this means that I must heighten or amplify or bring out certain subtleties and nuances of the ways the forest sounds so that they are more present and available to novice listeners. I have to take this auditory slippage and retune the recordings to bring out their “lift-up-over sounding.” But of course there is nothing new about this; artists in cultures everywhere have been practicing such “selective amplification” of everyday life for centuries.

Beginning in late 2000, Feld began to explore a new anthropology of sound: the role of bells in human society. A book/CD, Bright Balkan Morning, and a Smithsonian Folkways CD release in 2002 first made this work availalbe. As he says in the notes to The Time of Bells 1, released in 2004 and the first of a projected 5 bells discs on his VoxLox label:

After twenty-five years of recording rainforest soundscapes in Papua New Guinea, I’ve started to listen to Europe. I’m struck by a sonic resemblance: bells stand to European time as birds do to rainforest time. Daily time, seasonal time, work time, ritual time, social time, collective time, cosmological time — all have their parallels, with rainforest birds sounding as quotidian clocks and spirit voices, and European bells heralding civil and religious time. In these compositions you’ll hear how bells sound the time of day, the time of prayer, the time of festival, the time of transhumance. You’ll hear how their temporality shapes space, changing ambience with the season, making distance and dimension. You’ll hear how they interact with other time and space-makers, from the sea, insects and birds, to cars, televisions, and musical instruments. Most of all you’ll hear how bells simultaneously sound a present and past, as their immediate resonance also rings the longue durée of their technological and social history.

Steve Feld Fones Home

Links to more on Steve Feld's anthroplogy in sound:

Presentation with sound samples, by Jim Cummings [GO THERE]

Interview with Carlos Palombini, expanded from the original in Leonardo, 2001. [GO THERE]

Interview with Gino Robair, from Electronic Musician, 2006 [READ INTERVIEW]

Essay by Feld, "From Ethnomusicology to EchoMuseEcology", from Soundscape Journal [GO THERE]

Music Grooves website, featuring long conversations between Feld and Charles Keil [WEBSITE]

Bright Balkan Morning website (book/CD on Romani musicians) [WEBSITE]

Bosavi People's Fund website [WEBSITE]

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