Leah Barclay | Sounding the Amazon: Feature Article
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Sounding the Amazon: Feature Article

Sounding the Amazon: Feature Article

This article by Leah Barclay was originally published in Resonate Magazine in January 2012

In October 2011 I was invited to participate in the 6th Annual Mamori Sound Project, a residency for composers and sound artists on Mamori Lake, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. The expedition is designed as an intensive immersion into the sonic environments of the rainforest and involves field work and theoretical workshops with a focus on creative field recording and the exploration of natural sound environments.

The Mamori Sound Project is conceived and directed by Francisco López, internationally recognised as one of the major figures of the sound art and experimental music scene. Unlike similar residencies, Lopez avoids a technical focus and directs the process towards the realisation of a collective project with the interaction of all participating composers. All these activities are organised in a daily schedule according to the changing rhythms and sonic environments of the rainforest.

The Amazon Jungle, commonly referred to as the lungs of the world, is the largest and most bio-diverse rainforest on earth. The ecosystem of Mamori Lake is a lowland tropical rainforest with lush vegetation and abundant wildlife. The rich diversity of insects and birdlife provide a constant soundscape, while the Amazon river dolphins and elusive howler monkeys add rich layers to this captivating sonic environment.

The journey to Mamori Lake was an adventure in itself, multiple boats and buses interspersed with heavy rainstorms and balancing acts with recording equipment. The intensive schedule meant we were often working until 2am and sometimes up at 4am to travel to another location for a dawn recording session. Combine this with intensive heat and malaria pills, and the days quickly began to blur together. Despite this, I can easily say this was one of the most pivotal experiences for me as a composer, not just in the incredible sound material I collected (over fifteen hours), but in my approach to listening and creatively responding to the natural environment.

I was particularly interested in recording the Amazon river dolphin, a creature with sophisticated echolocation that navigates the dark waters of the river with sound. This experience alone would be one of my most memorable recording sessions, sitting in small boats in the middle of the night with hydrophones draped over the edge listening intently to the enthralling soundscape of dolphins deep below. I distinctly remember sliding my headphones off and being just as captivated by the soundscape above the water; sparse silence broken by dolphins breaching and blowing water.

This field recording, and many more from the trip, is a perfectly orchestrated sonic experience, a sophisticated composition from the natural environment.

Field recording is an opportunity to open our ears to the infinite possibilities of sound and develop an acute auditory awareness of our sonic surroundings, which we often ignore in a visually dominant society. Just the simple process of listening to the natural environment can teach us so much about music and how to solve compositional problems. We have much to learn from the rhythms of the natural world and the Amazon is certainly a profound sonic experience like no other.

© Australian Music Centre (2012) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.

Leah Barclay is a composer and sound artist working on interdisciplinary projects at the intersection of art, science, technology and the environment. Her work has been commissioned, performed and exhibited to wide acclaim across Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, Europe, India, China and Korea.