The Watson Fellowship is an incredibly unique opportunity in many ways. I’ve described some of the experiences this fellowship has made possible for me over the last few months in other blog posts. Another aspect of the Watson Fellowship that sets it apart from other grants are the expectations for documenting and reporting on our experiences. Simply put, there aren’t many. This allows Watson Fellows to stay focused on our projects. (For a list of the six major expectations of fellows follow this link.) One expectation is that Watson Fellows submit short, quarterly reports. Described by the Watson Foundation as a “long letter home,” these reports are an opportunity to reflect on our experiences and set goals for the future.
The following is a excerpt from my first quarterly report which I submitted at the end of October. I think it’s a great summation of my experiences in Australia, but obviously it doesn’t cover any of my more recent experiences in Indonesia. More on Indonesia coming soon!
I’m writing you this letter from an apartment in Mampang Prapatan, a district of South Jakarta, where I am the guest of a young, Indonesian chemical engineer. […] Unusually for Jakarta, this neighborhood is a haven of relative quiet, sheltered somewhat from the incessant traffic noise. There are narrow roads between painted concrete walls, flowering plants everywhere, and caged birds that sing as you go past. The call to prayer that echoes through the uneven services of this ancient neighborhood is a unique “soundmark” of this place, as are the scruffy roosters that crow just after the first azan, and the street venders that follow later in the morning with their distorted, electronic music boxes. My host, like many Indonesians, is a bit puzzled by my research, but incredibly hospitable and generous with his time. Throughout the last three months, I’ve been amazed by the generosity of local people who have invited me to stay in their homes, taught me about the local culture and environment, waited for me as I recorded an interesting sound, or introduced me to local composers and artists.
After living in Australia for two and a half months, I’m experiencing a bit of acculturation whiplash here! One of my biggest challenges this week has been attempting to extend my visa for a second period of thirty days. Indonesian bureaucracy can be byzantine […] After one failed attempt to secure a visa extension, I went back to the immigration office with an Indonesian friend last week, and my application was accepted, with the immigration office keeping my passport until next Tuesday. This worries me, but apparently it’s standard practice.
I’m making progress learning some Indonesian, and I’ve been lucky so far that most of the musicians I’ve met speak some English. Next week I’m taking the train to Yogyakarta, an ancient center of the arts in Java and a modern center of both the arts and computer technology. A recent collaboration with Australian computer-music composers resulted in Indonesian artists placing flags with digital-audio synthesizers sown into the cloth on the rim of the nearby, active volcano Mt. Merapi! I’m definitely looking forward to hearing more about that.
Let me backtrack a bit now. My Watson Fellowship started with a bang in the first weeks of August with the International Computer Music Conference in Perth. This week of lectures, paper presentations, performances, and workshops was the best possible way to start my fellowship. Because of the conference’s fortuitous location this year, I was introduced to many Australian composers who I was able to meet later throughout Australia. Equally important, ICMC allowed me to experience a huge number of creative works and practices centering on technology and ambient or ecological sound. Before leaving Perth, I also completed a six-day solo hike along part of the Bibbulmun Track, an isolated, 620-mile-long walking trail which begins in the Jarrah forests near the eastern suburb of Kalamunda.
At ICMC I met Leah Barclay, a Ph.D. student at Griffith University, who gave a presentation on her project to connect UNESCO Biosphere Sites culturally, scientifically, and artistically through an open-source platform hosting digital audio contributed by community members. At Leah’s invitation, I next traveled to Brisbane, where I participated in a workshop in the Noosa Biosphere on field recording taught by Francisco López, one of the world’s foremost artists using recorded, ecological sounds. In another memorable experience, I attended a concert of Francisco’s music in which the whole audience was blindfolded and sat on pillows on the floor in an outward-facing ring surrounded by speakers. The composer’s intention was both to focus our sense of hearing and to create a ritualistic, shared experience.
During World War II my grandfather’s battalion, the 99th Field Artillery Battalion, drilled beach landings at Bribie Island (between Brisbane and Noosa) in preparation for participating in the Admiralty Island campaign. My grandparents were hurriedly married during a brief shore leave at a church in Brisbane. While living in Brisbane, I reread my grandfather’s memoirs, and I was very moved to visit these places that have so much family history. What an amazing thing it is that I’m able to return to Australia with microphones and an audio recorder seventy years later! The landscape, so peaceful now, must have reverberated with the sounds of a military camp at the time. The men and woman who were sent here from towns across the United States faced an uncertain future, while I have this wonderful opportunity to return in a time of relative peace.
Among the many local artists I interviewed in Brisbane, Luke Jaaniste stands out. He is an artist working very much outside the traditional, academic paradigm. Some of his drone-based music takes advantage of small imperfections in electronic keyboards that he sets up in industrial or commercial areas. The resonance of the surrounding environment itself further modifies the sound creating a unique sound-space that he leaves for local people to come upon by chance.
Also in Brisbane I met and lived for a week with Janne, a local snake catcher who humanely captures and releases the deadly reptiles when they find their way into places they shouldn’t. On a nocturnal sojourn into “the bush,” Janne taught me how to sight along the beam of a flashlight to spot the eyes of snakes, frogs, wombats, and even spiders in the darkness. Although we never found a snake, Janne led me to places where I could record unusual frogs, some of which sound like barking dogs!
Following Luke to the ElectroFringe festival in Newcastle (just north of Sydney), I caught a ride along the coast with an ultramarathon runner and South African veteran of the Angolan Bush War. At the festival I performed in one of Luke’s concerts, contributing my talents with a metal coffee pot and ball bearing to a multimedia, improvised performance. I also attended a range of lectures concerning collaborations between local artists and scientists. Later, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, I completed the Six-Foot Track—a four-day trek—and made field recordings near the Jenolan cave system.
My final destination in Australia was Melbourne, where I discussed some of my work at the Australian Forum on Acoustic Ecology. There, I was introduced to Laura Brearley who has served as coordinator for the Indigenous Deep Listening Project. She and her Indigenous students have studied the Aboriginal practice of listening—especially “listening to the land”—which is often done as a kind of communion with culture, place, and ancestors.
At Laura’s kind invitation, I joined her on Phillip Island. Phillip Island is known for two things in particular: It’s one of the few places in the world where you can see Little Penguins in the wild, and it is the southern terminus of a fifteen-thousand kilometer yearly migration of short-tailed shearwater birds down from the Aleutian Islands near Alaska. One night, a local park ranger took me out into the penguin nesting grounds, far past where most tourists are allowed. I’ll never forget the experience of field recording on that gusty, rainy night with the unseen birds calling to each other from their nesting mounds just feet from me on every side. Lying in the mud, trying to shield my microphone from the wind, I was very happy that rain pants (of all things) had made the cut onto my very short packing list!
An equally powerful experience was recording the shearwaters leaving the shore at dawn. The birds are cold and stiff from their night roosts, and reluctant to face the ocean wind, they cling to the slightly trenched footpaths, the only shelter for miles along these desolate cliff-tops. As they raced down the paths in the predawn light, their wings came so close as to brush my feet as they passed.
My visit to Indonesia has just begun since I arrived on the 19th of this month, but I have plans to meet electronic music artists from a community arts collective called LifePatch in Yogyakarta next week. Leah Barclay has also offered to put me in touch with local community members who act as wardens of UNESCO Biosphere sites in Java, and I’m hoping to contribute some new recordings of these environments to the upcoming launch of the upgraded Soundscape Biospheres platform.
Although I’m wary of social media, Facebook has in some cases been the only method available to me to contact sound creators working outside the mainstream. This is particularly true in Indonesia, where computer music is (in the words of an Indonesian friend) “still a brand-new concept,” and artists working in this field are mostly of the young generation. The website couchsurfing.org has also been terrifically useful for finding and arranging homestays. I have even discovered local sound artists among this website’s four million contributors, and on many other occasions local people have read about my fellowship project there and have contacted me to offer to host me or to teach me about the local culture and arts. In other cases, I’ve met composers through other contacts I’ve made and through writing or calling directly and asking if I can meet with or interview them about their work.
Some of the most challenging experiences for me so far have been the long, solo treks into the wilderness I’ve made to record and better understand the soundscape of the local ecology. Psychologically, these experiences are completely different from anything I’ve ever undertaken before. Through constantly thinking about and recording ambient sound, I have become far more attentive to the sounds that surround me since I began this fellowship. In the wilderness, far from any other person, the relative quiet can become oppressive, however. For many hours every day, the loudest sound I hear is sometimes only the squeaking of my pack straps. The Canadian sound-ecology pioneer R. Murray Schafer has written that, for inhabitants of industrialized societies, silence or extreme solitude is an unconscious reminder of death. I certainly found it to be an uncomfortable reminder of my physical isolation. On the other hand, in the Australian wilderness, I discovered a huge diversity of complex and beautiful sounds: everything from the sonar-like pings of the constantly moving flocks of White-Throated Treecreepers in the Blue Mountains to the unearthly hum of wind blowing across wire cattle fences. Too often we use sound (radios, television, café noise) to avoid really listening clearly or even thinking; we use it to “vegetate.” By focusing on sound in a mindful way, I’ve been attempting to live more thoughtfully; similarly, by confronting silence, I trust I will discover that the monster under the bed is really just a dust bunny.
If I have one regret about the last three months it is that I was not able to visit Tasmania as I’d originally planned in my Watson Fellowship proposal. As you may remember, I changed the order of my itinerary to be able to attend ICMC. That was an absolutely necessary decision that turned out well for me, but it meant that I visited Australia during early spring in the Southern hemisphere, a bad time to visit Tasmania! However, as several composers have told me, “Experiencing Nature through Computer Music” is a project that will inevitably extend past my Watson year. I will return someday to hike the Tasmanian Overland Track.
Finally, I’d like to conclude by saying thank you for giving me this incredible opportunity to travel and study something I love! It’s been a wonderful journey so far, and I’m looking forward to my next quarter, which will take me to other parts of Indonesia and to Japan!