The time of bells & Rainforest soundwalks; Dreams of Gaia & Days of sound; Forests; Before the war; & D Quin; & Grooved whale
by Ian Simmons
[ cdreviews ]
Steven Feld is a noted soundscape recordist who has spent many years in distant locations such as Papua New Guinea, whence his Rainforest Soundwalk originates, but more recently he has returned to Europe and turned his attention to sounds closer to home. One of the key sonic signatures of the European landscape is the bell, be it cattle bells, church bells or carillons, each marking a passage of time or a particular meaning in its environment. On Time of Bells, Feld has been listening in detail to the bell's place in the landscape and lives of various parts of Europe, and here he compiles some of the key soundscapes from his explorations, bringing together sounds from Italy, Greece, Finland and France. Bells are nothing if not atmospheric and the sounds here are timeless and evocative, from the cheery clatter of Italian sheep bells to the sombre tolling of Finnish church bells calling the congregation (my two-year-old daughter insisted vehemently that I should turn this off as it was "too sad") as well as a whole suite of bells sounding the Angelus in different environments across France. Probably the most extraordinary item, though, is sounds recorded at the babouyera festival in the Greek mountain village of Kali Vrissi, which involves men and boys parading through the village dressed in bells and accompanied by bagpipes and frame drums, an authentically wild and strange sound.
When I requested this for review, Steven Feld was kind enough to arrange for me to receive a selection of other CDs from Earth Ear, for whom he recorded his Papua New Guinea Soundwalks. This is a vivid and fascinating documentation and evocation of the New Guinea forestscape, with clear and in-depth sound, alert to every nuance of the place and is easily as fascinating and satisfying as Time of Bells. The rest of the CDs, though, are more of a curate's egg. The Dreams of Gaia compiles the best of soundscape recording from across the world, including work by the marvellous Chris Watson, as well as Bernie Krause, Francisco Lopez and others. These recordings are consistently interesting, even if they do highlight the fact that recordings of running water are in danger of becoming a soundscape cliché. Day of Sound is also most interesting, tracing the path of a day from midnight through to midnight again through recordings made by various recordists round the world on 17 February 1996, and incorporating frogs, tunnel singers and the San Francisco Exploratorium's wave organ. The rest of the selection, though, I found rather disappointing. All attempt to combine environmental sound with music, but the tinges of new age Gaia worship that colour some of the other discs, but are successfully kept at bay there, gain the upper hand here. Lisa Walker's Grooved Whale has an interesting premise (playing music inspired by whale song back through underwater speakers in concert with the actual whale sounds), but doesn't live up to the idea, producing lightweight new age-ish ambient of no particular merit. The same applies to the two discs featuring Douglas Quin. While claiming to be inspired by and responding to an environment, the results are simply coffee-lounge jazz lite which, quite honestly, could have come from anywhere. There is no sense of the integration and response that you get, say, in Will Menter's work when he produces music which relates to his environment, and consequently the results lack his vividness and individuality. While not succumbing to the cavity-seeking sweetness of the worst of new-age ambient, the music here is too comfortable with itself and complacent about its listener to truly get under the skin of the sounds it is supposed to be inspired by, hoping that the claim of inspiration will be enough to convince listeners. This is a pity, as if the music/environment interactions were half as good as the labels soundscape releases, we would be hearing something of considerable interest.