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Yannick Dauby: Expanded Ears
04/02/2012 · Pali Meursault

Before any kind of technical ability for recording, listening is probably the core of our sonic and musical practices, as well as the one that raises the most questions. The act of listening is altogether a form of knowledge, a psychological, social and cultural issue and a practice of its own, whether it would be mediated by amplifying technologies or not. As much as there are many ways of recording, there are many ways of listening, or maybe a lot more. As a composer, sound recordist and frog enthusiast, Yannick Dauby as experimented with a few of his own. Moving to Taiwan a few years ago, he as also confronted with a completely new soundscape and cultural context, according to which he had to reexamine his habits and his ways as a listener.

— Many sound recordists have a story to tell, an anecdote about a personal moment, an experience of listening that was the trigger for their interest in sounds. Do you recall such a moment for yourself? When did you start recording and why? And, first of all, when did you start listening – consciously?

I don’t really know when it started exactly. However, I’m always aware of the incredible luck I had (like many others): very soon I had access to the records shelves of a very well-stocked public library. For a teenager, being able to listen every week to 6 records of any musical genre was very attractive, and an amazing education in ways of listening. In a way, this habit of browsing around sound archives became a way of browsing into the soundscape.

The purchase of my first recording equipment was a decisive moment. It was a handheld DAT device with a binaural microphone and fine headphones: it represented a few years’ savings, with the objective of going on a sound trip. That was a kind of silly dream, about recording birds in the Keoladeo nature reserve in India, in 1998. In the end, I got very little birds’ song, but I came back with a sequence during which a Sikh guide was pedaling a rickshaw while showing and naming all kind of bird species flying above us. Many things started from there: listening to a landscape, engaging in a relation with the other, using the microphone as an interface, identifying animals and listening to their voices, etc.

— Would you agree to say that, as much as there are different types of microphones, we are listening with different kind of ears?
Are you making a distinction among your ways of listening – whether it would be about identifying a frog, going through an urban or everyday environment, listening to music – are you ‘putting on’ a different pair of ears? Did you came up with various listening ‘techniques’?

This is true that I have this tendency of cataloging my recording projects: this time I want to record an animal species, that time I only want to immerse into the flow of a landscape, to document an event, another time I want to play and experiment with a new tool… All of these situations are anticipated: there is a call, a desire to go for it, to fill my ears, to bring something back. So, in order to achieve these objectives, it is necessary to listen in very specific ways. It is not the object of the recording that is provoking a way of listening. It rather is the listening posture that would lead to a singular recording (would it be a success or a failure). I can record an amphibian choir with my eyes closed, letting myself floating in the listening, or it can be very sharp and analytical, for a close-up recording. It would be the same for something like the harvest of tobacco leaves in Taiwan: at some point, I will try to capture every detail of the situation, following the people really close, and after that I’ll be listening again from the distance, ears floating out of focus.

Most on the time in the field (whether it would be a forest, a village or around the corner), I let go. I’m not controlling anything: an interlocutor or a microphone would surprise me, sometimes nothing goes right. Every form of listening – technical, naturalistic, musical or anything – arrange in layers, in planes parallel to each other and in between which I am oscillating. I can only modulate and define the parameters for this oscillation. Mostly, the listening is immediate: identifying a species takes only a second. And when I’m listening to something unknown to me, the listening is very different, immediately it is tensed, cautious.

— How does your listening and experience in the field influences your compositions and arrangements? Is it about ‘rendering’ a subjective experience, sharing an experience of listening with others? What other aspects, related to studio work, intervene in the process?

This question is revealing my sonic schizophrenia! I would say: facing the speakers, everything sounds new. It is a new situation, and therefore a totally new experience. So, everything is permitted and I’m enjoying myself forgetting about what happened in the field. In reality, most of the work has already been done on location: the posture of listening, the form and the perspective, the way of picking sounds as they go or to let them come to you. The recorded material imposes itself, and most of the time it is more solid than my musical pretensions…

In the studio, it is more about reinforcing certain aspects, or creating listening combinations: that cicada made my head spin, and that oboe I heard during a procession did it in the same way, so I’m playing them together. Or, the delicate but amplified squeaking of an orthopter dialogues with playful energy with that machine I recorded in an industrial environment.

Lastly, there is the narrative dimension, which can be relatively important in some of my projects. It is about creating, using montage and mixing, the elements of a story, the sketch for an imaginary place. Doing so, I’m sometime drifting away from reduced listening and acousmatics.

— What does recording technology ‘do’ to the listening? What does the microphone make possible, what does it prevent?
Is it a magnifying glass, something that makes the reality more accurate? Is it a filter that implies a distortion of the actual phenomenon?

The microphone, the recorder and the headphones are the holy Trinity of my practice. Whether it would be filtering or augmenting my reality, I regard them as extensions of my perception and memory. I have this tendency of listening with my bare ears just as if I had my microphones in my hands. Yet the headphone tires the body out (at least mine does). The boom-pole gives that impression that you should systematically get closer to things. I am hearing differently – almost better – through my equipment, but I am heavier (literally and figuratively…).

Of course, this type of practice has something of playing with the reality: we want to believe that we are working with the reality of an event that we want to transmit, yet what we are doing is also affecting it, giving it a distinctive color. We would feel delighted when we are able to capture an hallucinating sound from a moment or a situation we would have considered trivial. This is a funny thing we’re doing, actually: turning sounds into electricity and back again into sounds, in the end we are mocking reality…

— The microphone is also something obvious. In an urban environment, for example, it’s not easy to be discrete… Are we listening in the same way when we are aware of other people watching us? Do you try, sometimes, to hide your listening? Or is there also a positive aspect in impersonating that sound recordist character?

I hate being noticed recording something. And then again I’m always amused by the encounters that happen because of a microphone. I remember once making a fool of myself pretending to record a water fountain in a village of Auvergne, just get closer to a group of old ladies chatting. Finally I ended interviewing them about the evolution of the rural environment.

My current status of being an obvious foreigner in Taiwan is giving me no choice: I can’t blend in the crowd. If I am recording in a public place, it’s no use pretending I would be invisible and ignoring the people around me. There is always an eye-contact, defiance or connivance. This kind of things are actually easier in Taipei than it is in European cities, where, most of the time, it’s quite hostile.

Therefore, recording in a public situation is also playing a part, which has an influence of some kind on the recordings. This is why I hate to have company when I’m making city recordings… This is the opposite when I’m documenting specific activities or events, though, then I need confidence and an interaction with the participants. It became some kind of a collective work, and most of the time a cheerful sharing.

— Today, with digital recording technologies, it is almost possible to remember everything, one would say memory isn’t worth much anymore! Did that evolution had an effect on your ways of working, recording, listening?
And, also, because our shelves are getting heavy with sound data on hard disks and memory cards, what happens when listening becomes ‘re-listening’, do you hear something different when you listen back?

Let’s be frank: I’m only listening back to a tiny part of my sound archive. Most of my recordings would be heard just once, in the field. On the other hand, some of my recordings are appearing in quite a lot of my works, they become avatars I can call or incarnate whenever I want to.

Some other recordings tend to become part of personal mythologies, one document or recording would represent a cultural activity, a natural environment, and I would play it for people on a regular basis (the sound of the ‘last’ tatami weaving loom in Taipei, the distress call of a green frog allegedly bitten by a snake…). The time when I recorded these things don’t really matter in the end, but the recorded documents are telling about a human or natural environment, and about my encounter with it.

— For a few years, you are living in Taipei, in a country of which you didn’t know the language and had to discover the culture. How did that shift in your life has changed your approach of sound?

I have been interested in ethno-musicology as a student at the university. But it is only in Taiwan that I had the opportunity of actually making collections of oral memory. In retrospect, I think that the only thing in common between the documentation of a local culture and my artistic and musical practice is the habit of listening and recording. I can’t say that I have changed my ways of listening by working with Hakka and Aboriginal communities these last few years, but I’m getting the impression that I have expanded the field of my practice, and therefore of my listening. I had the occasion of being a sound engineer for the production of a traditional music record, so in order to to this conventional thing, I had to come up with techniques that were new to me. Of course, any professional would have felt much more comfortable with it. But examining a Guqin (a silk-stringed zither) with gear that was more suited for recording frogs, trying to sculpt the sound of a voice with the process I would have apply to an electrical drone… It was the occasion of reexamining my ways of working, reconsidering my reflexes, my tools and my habits of recording and composing.

The isolation, on the other hand (I don’t really mingle with expatriates or sound artists from Taipei), sometimes gives me this feeling of stagnating. There isn’t anybody around me to talk about what I’m doing. I’m spending a lot of time doing remote discussions, without any possibility for moments of collective listening (apart from the listening sessions I’m organizing and the classes I’m teaching). This is why my personal practice seems less important, less visible and somehow preserved from social influences. But maybe I’m deluding myself!

The level of noise in the place I’m living is more of a problem. I have lost acuteness and curiosity: I’m not trying to listen all the time, I am not permanently looking for sounds around me anymore. Well… unless I’m in the forest.

About the language, it’s a silly form of happiness not to understand anything. The world seems more complex and inaccessible. Unfortunately I’m beginning to understand, conversations in public space do not feel so special anymore…

[interview and translation: PM]

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Last release by Yannick Dauby: Taî-pak thiaⁿ saⁿ piàn

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