Listening to Nature – Interview with sound artist Yannick Dauby
聆聽自然 – 訪問聲音藝術家澎葉生
Interview 採訪: Kwong Wing-ka/ 鄺永嘉
中譯: Kwong Wing-ka/ 鄺永嘉
Yannick Dauby is a sound artist living in Taiwan. Obsessed by listening to the environment, his works such as “Wā Jiè Méng Xūn” and “tsit lâu tsuí” describe the unique ecological environment of the island－Taiwan－in a sonic way.
Yannick Dauby: http://www.kalerne.net/yannickdauby/
Kwong Wing-ka: You have recorded a series of animal sounds in Taiwan. What challenges did you encounter?
Yannick Dauby: For me it is not a painful task, they are in nature. So, I just have go to the nature and record it with pleasure. I am using field recording as a way to engage a relationship with the environment. It is also about being sensitive, I’m not going to nature for relaxing; I can never relax there. I keep listening, watching, observing different kinds of things. Usually when I go in nature, I am recording just what I am able to find. Sometimes I go with the purpose to record a specific animal ; it happened a few times for the CD “Songs of the Frogs of Taiwan”. I had to travel just for a getting a particular species, but in that case, I knew that I could be disappointed, and probably would be recording things that I don’t want.
Another thing is my way of recording nature. Originally, when I started this activity, I wanted to record some sounds that would be used as material for composing experimental music. I enjoyed observing birds but I didn’t wanted to record bird songs. Sounds of these animals are very difficult to use in music as it they are easy to recognize and often have a strong expressive content. So when I started to do field recording, I focused on sounds of water, sounds of the wind… I also recorded some animal sounds, but more for the pleasure of listening. But as soon as I recorded the sounds of animals, I wanted to know more. The name of the animal, the Latin name, is a key, and can help you learning so many things. You can learn about the place, the season, the environment…it provides you further informations. I started from a musical point of view, then shifted, wanting to know more and more about the ecology. I am a little bit obsessed in recording all the species of amphibians of Taiwan. I haven’t finished but I will continue. It is a bit like the documentation of my own personal relation to this place.
Another example: I recorded a cicada near the highway, and it’s very interesting, because of the very noisy environment. The cicadas communicate for the simple purpose of mating, their collective singing is complex. However, some human beings, so-called intelligent creatures, sitting in their car, make this huge noise, the permanent roaring of the highway. They ignore each other and just drive; they ignore the environment and even ignore their own sounds. At this moment it was important to me to record both the sounds of these animals and the noises of these vehicles. But, most of the time I prefer providing an experience to the listeners related to animals only, trying to make them focus on their sounds, like bird songs for example.
Kwong Wing-ka: You recorded a series of frogs’ sounds. Why did you choose frogs as your object of recording?
Yannick Dauby: I have always been interested in amphibians for sound reason. I come from Southern France, and there is only one species of frog you can hear, a tree frog singing during the Summer time. What I found interesting is, a group of frogs locate in a specific place, every day, every night. You can easily find them, it is the sound of the place. And they sing together, making a complex sound structure. A bit like they are building an architecture of sounds. From the musical point of view it is fascinating.
It also shows some information of the environment, about the water – is it clean or not ? Is their habitat preserved from human activity or not? The frogs of Taiwan made me enter the natural world of the island, learning about different natural environments.
Later, when I shared those sounds to Taiwanese audience, I realized that many young people did not recognize the frogs. When you ask them what the sound of a frog is, they would often say “gua-gua-gua”. There is no frog in Taiwan singing like “gua-gua-gua”. There are some “gua-gua-gua” in cartoons, but not in reality. But when you ask the old people, they would say “ep-ep-ep”, and that is interesting, because the sound is the one of a species which has been abundent in Taiwan in the past, and people even ate them. The older generation said “ep-ep-ep” because in their youth, they often heard this frog. Nowadays, this specie is more rare in Taipei, but they remember the sound. Sound has a cultural meaning and I am also trying to share about that.
Kwong Wing-ka: In the introduction of “Wā Jiè Méng Xūn”, you wrote about the project as “an exploration of the Umwelt of a listener”. Can we say it is a recreation of the biome in a sonic way?
Yannick Dauby: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone could. For example, I helped my friends to publish their nature recording work about a national park in Southern France, a place I really like. My friends did a wonderful work, still I would said there is a reconstruction of a biome. Even when I am doing the works which are connected to this kind of place and only about sounds of nature, I don’t think we are recreating the nature at all, but of course we are creating a medium to invite people to discover something.
I would say on one hand it is a musical work, some sounds can be listened in a truly musical way. For example, the melody of some bird songs, even the complex sounds of the rain. But another layer of listening is happening at the same time. One can hear the natural environement of these animals, the richness of an eco-system.
No soundwork would ever replace the experience of being in nature. But I hope these kinds of works can make people aware of some ecological questisons. Very often, when visiting the hills or mountains of Taiwan with friends, I would ask them to close their eyes and just listen to the sounds. It is an impressive experience going into the forest at night. You will be so aware, just like a simple organism trying to discover more.
Kwong Wing-ka: When you started “Chiayi Sound Project” , what came to your mind first?
Yannick Dauby: It was a commission project, and I was employed for doing this as a field recordist. I wasn’t invited as an artist. The original idea was very strange. The Cultural Affairs Department of the Chiayi County Government wanted us to record almost everything. They wanted us to spend one year for record all the sounds in the region – the nature, music, local stories, traditional regional activities, etc. When I read the content of the project, I thought it was impossible but we could try to do something by taking fragments of different elements, and see would happen with that. Of course I felt very excited. I used to live in Taipei and had some occasions to do some recording in different regions of Taiwan. But recording in only one area, through the many aspects of one region, is an opportunity to get a greater knowledge of the place.
I collaborated with Hsu Yen-ting, who had a background in journalism and an interest into sound. She can speak Taiwanese and, of course, I don’t. In Chiayi, you really need to know Taiwanese because some of the residents don’t know or don’t want to speak Mandarin. Actually, you know sometimes in Taiwan, we say Taipei is the “Kingdom of the Dragon in the Sky”, very different the rest of the country. So, being from France or from Taipei, in both case it is being a foreigner for Chiayi. And being a visitor can sometimes make things easier.
So yes, I think it hasn’t be difficult to feel involved in the project. Yen-Ting was doing the interviews which I was recording and I was focusing on the music, the human work and environmental sounds. After one year of just collecting the sounds, we gave the sounds to the local government but actually we didn’t feel they really appreciated the work done. Only the director of the Cultural Affairs Department and a few other people knew the value and importance of such field work. Probably other people working in these offices didn’t care because they thought nothing happened.
I would say this project somehow changes me. People may think I’m a foreigner and white, and I may spend all my life in Taiwan, speaking Mandarin, Taiwanese and Hakka very well.I have always been considered a foreigner for years. But being here with one year of experience in Chiayi, I acquired an experience of the place that Taiwanese people can have.
I would say this project somehow changed me. People may look at me as a white foreigner (which I am) and even if I spend all my life in Taiwan, learn how to speak a perfect Mandarin, Taiwanese and Hakka, I will still be considered as this foreigner. But being here with one year of experience in Chiayi, I acquired an experience of the place which is rare, that allowed me to change my idea about this status : a foreigner isn’t someone who doesn’t understand the place where he lives, but a foreigner is someone who can and should learn more about the local environment and history.
It’s a positive process rather than a negative status.
Kwong Wing-ka: How did you choose the objects of recording when you were working on the project?
Yannick Dauby: The preliminary research was done by Yen-Ting. I couldn’t do it because I can’t read Chinese. But I could ask advices to some friends, like the person who guided us to discover the birds in the mid-altitude mountains of Chiayi. This guy was introduced by my friend, a bird watcher in Taipei. I rely more on oral transmission, asking questions, discussing. Yen-Ting would do a research through articles and of course connect the local people first.
This part is quite important, because you need to know where you want to go. But the reality would never be what you expect. When you start a recording session, never ever think it is predictable; it is always unpredictable. For example, we planned to record a traditional event in Yizhu, groups of villagers releasing the pigeons. Each pigeon has an instrument at their back; it’s a whistle. When they fly into the sky, the whistles will make a flute-like sound. So, we were very excited to go but when we arrived, there was a huge event, they used powerful loudspeaker for playing some recorded music, and people were speaking extremely loudly. Even the children who were invited to attend the event couldn’t hear anything from the pigeons. So, the recording were just like a very noisy environment, such as a night market.
But there we met some old guys nearby. When we said we wanted to record the sound, and one of them invited us to visit his house. We arrived after ten minutes and it was an old traditional house. This guy kept pigeons in one of these houses made of metal, with cages, on the top of the building. We just climbed on the roof. He released the pigeons, using a kind of home-made flag to make them flying into the sky. And after a while the pigeons were flying back to the house. What I recorded was not the original event, but I recorded something even better – that guy was releasing his own pigeons, you could hear something about this relationship with animals and also the environment, very intimate, with the sounds of the birds, the wings, the sounds of the cage, that man calling them and flapping his flag, the road nearby and of course the whistles. When you plan to do field recording you never know until you arrive in the place. Preparation is important, you need to know what you want, you need to know the direction, but when you arrive, you need to forget everything and see what happens, to improvise. This is why I’m so interested in field recording. You are not a musician, you are not the technician, you are just like an animal which needs to adapt to the situation.
Kwong Wing-ka : You mentioned that there are some disappearing sounds such as old machine of tatami. Can you tell us more about the situation?
Yannick Dauby: We went to the village which had the industry of tatami making. I was expecting to listen and recording sounds of this activity, but the village was almost empty.
Because of the climate change, the temperature increased a little bit in Southern Taiwan, and in this region this little difference made the culture of the special grass used in tatami impossible to grow.
In this village, only one man could continue this industry for a while. His father had stored a lot of this dried grass. When his father passed away, the guy we met continued doing tatami a little bit every day, one or two hours. The machine was made in Japan, something like 80 years ago. Most of the tatami machines in the village were broken and only this one is working. He continues making the tatami until he doesn’t have any more grass, so I recorded the last tatami machine in the village, maybe in the region and maybe in Taiwan. I recorded it in a different ways from different perspective. This sounds I impressed by its quality (a bit like a drumming).
Things are evolving. Things are fading away. In this case, the industry stopped is just a sign of the evolution. But this sign is really negative; it is the sign of climate change. Some people told me, “You are doing recording. It is a very good way to keep things. You are preserving the sounds for the future generation.” I think it is total bullshit. If I would say “I want to keep the memory of things that fade away”, it would be simply wrong : I recorded the sound of frogs because I wanted to play them for myself and share them to our actual and living generations (including elders and children), to point out not only the sound but the ecosystem, not only the species but the place. I record things you can hear today, things that still exist. It matters that those things still exist, rather than wait for an ecosystem to disappear and later feel proud of keeping an archive of that. That is a very absurd way of considering field recording. Field recording allows to activate interest for the complexity of our cultural and natural environments.
Discussion recorded by Kwong Wing-ka in a noisy tea restaurant (cantonese: cha chaan teng)in Hong-Kong (15.10.2014), corrected by Yannick in the train between Taipei and Kaohsiung (03.04.2015).
Recording traditional Hakka music
Recording sound of middle altitude on the hill