Decomposing Landscape begins with unprocessed ambient sounds of birds, insects, and traffic from a distant landscape within the spatial perspective of a wide expanse. This short passage is invaded by the unedited sounds of flying bees in spatial diffusion with intensifying proximity and volume, creating a dramatic auditory setting. Next, the sounds of cattle bells slowly intrude, bringing in subtle musical textures that gradually become incessantly rhythmic and spatially enveloping. Unprocessed sounds of machinery appear from distant corners and take over the environment. The sound of machinery is intercepted by the rhythms of the ritual drums played at this tribal-dominated site. The machinery dissolves into a ritual chant, which gradually morphs into an ‘echoing chamber where all is erased and … left [with] dark brushes of sound enveloping the landscape.’ As time passes, this last part of the composition becomes heavily processed, employing tools such as delay, compression, and time-stretching with multiple audio applications, simulating varied sonic textures using styles from both the most recent digital and earlier analogue eras. The piece continues with increasingly modulated abstract textures and ends with the climactic sound of an actual blast occurring at the centre of the landscape that opens up the earth and destroys the sounds of nature.
As it develops, the thirty-five-minute piece deliberately turns from the recognisable textures and ambient sounds of the first fifteen minutes to become steadily more abstract. Its primary material draws on field recordings collected from a specific environmentally-troubled site in eastern India.
Sound studies scholar Joanna Demers writes of field recordings that are ‘composed’ on site. Phonography-based sound works are developed from documentary field recordings, which are collected from certain sites and landscapes, employing the act of recording as the primary compositional process (Demers 2010). Sound artist Yan Jun addresses this pure approach to field recording in phonography-based sound art, as follows: ‘There is no divide between documenting and creating. The point is that I do not build dreams, neither by field recording nor by playing my electronic instruments or digital audio workstation at the laptop computer. To choose the right equipment, to choose the right recording position and to push the record button are the acts of composing. A recording of tiny meaningless noises can be a beautiful composition’ (Jun, quoted in English 2014). This position contrasts works that use digital mediation as their primary compositional strategy with the use of musical techniques such as signal synthesis and looping. Such works rely heavily on the processing of recognisable environmental sounds recorded from sites, using effects like delay and modulation, a methodology that follows the example of composer Barry Truax (1995).
Analysing my methodology, Decomposing Landscape falls into the latter category of sound artworks. However, in places I chose to reproduce recurring motifs in the form of unprocessed, site-based field recordings. My intent with this deliberate interplay between both recognisable audible site-specific evidence and sound that is made abstract needs to be justified. Ecologically disturbed and polluted sites, as the subject of the work, might call for a more truthful (i.e., less manipulated) documentation of the anthropogenic interference in the landscape, as demanded by the notions of acoustic ecology and soundscape (Novak and Sakakeeny 2015). Earlier scholars writing on sound recording have discussed the process of recording in terms of dislocating sounds from their respective sources and sites of origin. Both Rick Altman (2012) and R. Murray Schafer (1994) have spoken about the ways in which recording displaces sounds in time. Field recording of site-specific ambient sound, therefore, can be considered as a process that develops a repository of sonic events recorded from the site that can be brought into the realm of composition as sound objects (Demers 2010; Metz 1980). Following this, it can be argued that phonography-based composition stems from both site-specific sound recording – ‘field recording’ – and the subsequent studio processing of the gathered artistic material: recorded and disembodied ambient sounds.
The work’s compositional strategy, of presenting the unprocessed ambient sounds in the beginning and then gradually turning them into processed sonic textures of ambient electronic music (Demers 2010), essentially blurs the boundaries between the documentary actualities of the site and the subsequent artistic mediation, turning this process into a musical composition. The strategy of this deliberate but gradual transformation problematises the nature of representation in field-recording-based sound art production, underscoring the work’s precarious relationship to the site. To what degree sound becomes disembodied during the recording process, as well as how much abstraction is further imposed on this sound due to the compositional method applied, remains to be seen. Might the strategy of musical and artistic mediation distort the audible evidence of the field recordings collected from ecologically-disturbed sites?
Many field-recording-based sound artworks such as ‘soundscape compositions’ are, according to sound art historian Alan Licht (2009: 8), ‘a variant of musique concrète in which field recordings were electronically processed to some degree but fundamentally left recognisable’. These works therefore tend not to obscure site-specific information ‘through a superimposition of sound that interpenetrates preexisting spaces, effecting a layering or doubling, which can produce hybrid spaces’ (Gallagher 2015: 574). In such artistic processes, the auditory evidence is kept in an ambivalent state, leaving questions about the degree of abstraction that the production of field-recording-based sound art generates. Considering the chosen compositional methods, Decomposing Landscape exists in a state of tension between the abstract and the evidential, suggesting a manipulation of recorded sonic ‘facts’ within its speculative form of composition. The ways in which this distinction is maintained traces the nebulous line between abstraction and recognition.
The diegetic world within the composition is achieved by representing the sites and their respective actual environments within the sonically augmented environment of the piece. The representation of the site within the composed environments of phonography-based sound artworks are of significance when it comes to convincingly conveying the narratives of the actual sites and the landscapes to the audience: ‘Truax has noted that soundscape composition simulates a journey, or motion, through a landscape’ (Licht 2009: 8). From the production end, if I link my art practice to the reception of the work through speculating on the expectations of the audience or, more precisely, by placing myself as the first audience member of my artwork, I can contend that audience members might involve themselves with the work by recognising a sort of presence of the site within the contested diegetic narrative captured in this constructed world. The audience members may associate with the diegetic world (Percheron 1980; Burch 1982) when a resonance of the sites reverberates.
In Decomposing Landscape I have aimed at amplifying the imaginary outlines of the landscape by shifting attention between the concrete and the abstract. The spatial organisation of field recordings of ambient sounds in the higher-order ambisonics format is intended to create a spatially augmented environment realised through the narrative progression of the composition. The aesthetic experience of perceiving a landscape in this sound work is crafted by recorded materials assembled with a narrative musical structure in mind. The strategic combination of recognisable unedited ambient sounds and processed phonographic materials is designed to suggest the development of a fertile interaction between the relative presence and absence of documentary evidence of this troubled site, which, within this constructed interplay, engages the audience’s interest and attention over time.
Decomposing Landscape has a conceptually informed methodology, in which the environment is explored through a technologically mediated deconstruction. The reassembly and analysis of the work provide a lucid interpretation of the pressing issues of land use in developing economies. Not only does the work give a voice to unheard landscapes where deeply ingrained indigenous tradition and a government-sponsored rapid-growth-driven corporate capitalism coalesce within a mode of intense conflict, through analysis, it also suggests possible methodologies for approaching these sites in auditory as well as audiovisual domains, with a concern for authenticity as well as engagement.