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Audiophile Odysseys

By recording on tape the sounds others ignore, a small group of artists explores deeper truths about nature and culture, past and present, quiet and noise

By Qiu Guangyu Updated Oct.2

Tie Yang discovered her affinity for sound during her first visit to an aquarium after she moved to Beijing to attend college. An almost imperceptible whine – a sound of discomfort – told her something was wrong. She traced the plaintive cry to a captured white whale.  

Tie spent the whole afternoon with the unfortunate creature. The experience showed her that sound has the power to transcend species and serve as a medium through which humans and animals can communicate on an emotional level. Tie, an independent musician, wrote the song “A Caged White Whale” shortly after the experience, which has influenced her music.  

In July 2016, Tie joined the “Amazon Project,” which saw several musicians record diverse natural soundscapes – from the rumbling of insects to the rustling of leaves in the wind, to birds singing cheerily in chorus to greet the dawn, to creeks gushing through ancient woodlands.  

But the sounds of the urban environment capture the imagination of artists in equal measure. Colin Chinnery, 47, a British-Chinese artist, seeks to preserve the history of Beijing by recording vanishing sounds, from man-made pigeon whistles to the cries of street vendors. Chinnery has built a sound museum in Beijing in Shijia Hutong, where he exhibits more than 100 kinds of sounds of the city’s past collected over the years.  

“Sounds have the power to open up conversations with life, society and history,” Chinnery said at a July seminar on the topic,“Creativity, Culture, City, the Quality of Urban Space.” Chinnery said his interest lies not necessarily in the sounds themselves, but in the emotions and memories they evoke and their connection with history.  

Sounds of the Forest 
Sound permeates every inch of Li Xingyu’s life. Li graduated from the Communication University of China with a major in sound engineering. As a professional music producer and independent musician, Li draws inspiration from the sounds others ignore. In his music can be heard chirping birds, croaking frogs, howling winds, falling rain, trains thundering down tracks and the scratching of pens on paper.  

Li believes the role of such sounds has been long neglected in music writing. “If musicians focus only on notes, they may not know the enormous space that sounds can create in music,” Li told NewsChina. 

The artist focuses on “most authentic natural sounds.” In Lhasa, Li recorded the tapping of Buddhists as they knelt on the ground praying at the Jokhang Temple – the spiritual heart of Tibet. In Jakarta, he captured the bustling platform of a railway station. In the Sahara, enduring scorching heat, he collected the sounds of the desert – the bubbling of the desert sands reminiscent of life deep underwater.  

Li has concerns about what he calls the noise pollution that permeates urban life causing anxiety. “Square dancing, for instance, is a violent intrusion into people’s lives,” he says. Popular among middle-aged and retired Chinese women, this is an activity performed to loud music blasted through tinny speakers in squares, plazas and parks during the morning and evening hours. It has continually attracted criticism for contributing to noise pollution.  

Eager to find a land unspoiled by noise, Tie and Li, along with two other friends, crowdfunded a trip to the Amazon rainforest to collect the sounds of nature. In July 2016, the team spent two weeks in Jaú National Park, Brazil, collecting the sounds of creeks, wind, forests and animals. 

They say that animals can perceive even a slight change in the forest, and vary their sounds accordingly. Some frogs are known to croak at certain times, but they fell silent when the team was around.   

In order to record unique sounds in a pristine environment, the team modified their strategy. They left a recorder on the spot for one day and got it back the day after.   

It worked. Aside from the frogs and birds, their recorder captured the yawning of a sloth, and even the sound of butterfly larvae making cocoons. They also captured the sound that ants make – a kind of cooing noise, not unlike a pigeon, as well as a “te-te” sound.  

“We found that birds follow a very strict schedule. They wake up at sunrise and rest at sunset. They make the least sound at night, but when the day breaks, one by one, these little creatures awake from sleep and sing their first song,” Li said.   

During the journey, the team debated the ethics of entering the rainforest at all. Some argued their mere presence had disturbed the animals which make it their home, and that any trace of them, such as cigarette butts, plastic bags and food waste, would disturb their environment. Others disagreed and argued that, given the butterfly effect, the decisions people make in Beijing can also affect the Amazon ecosystem.  

After they returned to Beijing, Li produced three semi-documentary albums – Nature Syntax, A Journey and Endless River – under the artist name Whale Circus. They were issued early in 2018.  

A Journey includes the sounds they collected in the forest: footsteps through the woods, birds chirping, insects singing, aircraft roaring above – and also their 38-minute debate about why they entered the rainforest.  

Preserving Old Beijing 
Colin Chinnery takes a different tack. He strives to preserve the distinctive urban sounds of old Beijing.  

The grandson of prominent Chinese modernist writers Ling Shuhua and Chen Xiying, and the son of British Sinologist John Chinnery, he was raised in the UK, but has been back and forth to Beijing since the 1970s. 

Chinnery has a keen interest in Beijing’s hutong culture. These narrow alleys were once rich with the cries of street peddlers, who would shout and sometimes use instruments to drum up business. Different kinds of vendors would use distinct melodies and words as they wandered the cobbled streets.  

Many hutong sounds, a collective memory of long-term Beijingers, have gradually diminished with the rapid urbanization of the Chinese capital. In 2005, Chinnery began a project called “Sound and the City” and invited several British artists to Beijing to explore the city’s unique sonic environment, including ambient music pioneer Brian Eno, musician and audio culture scholar David Toop, and environmental sound artist Peter Cusack.  

Cusack held a radio competition asking Beijingers to list their “favorite Beijing sounds.” The answers ranged from the shouts of knife sharpener to the cooing of pet pigeons and chirping cicadas.  

Cusack’s questions inspired Chinnery to start a new project – to establish a unique Beijing sound museum to preserve some of the capital’s traditions and historic sound assets.  

Chinnery spent nearly 10 years collecting more than 100 endangered sounds and built his Beijing Sound Museum at the Shijia Hutong Museum, a restored courtyard residence once inhabited by Chinnery’s grandparents.  

Using a touchscreen, visitors can hear a raft of hutong sounds across the four seasons – the cries of street sellers, the chimes of rickshaw bells and the rattling of Chinese yo-yos, which consist of an axle and two cups.  

It was not easy to get good quality recordings. The team would often search the entire city for a single sound.  

Beijingers have been raising pigeons since the Northern Song Dynasty more than 1,000 years ago. It was a particular fashion during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Traditional pigeon raisers would tie a bamboo whistle to the bird’s tail. As flocks took to the skies, flapping and whirling, air flow through the whistle would create a distinctive noise.  

It took Chinnery half a year to capture the sound of such a pigeon whistle. With the profession on the brink of extinction, Chinnery and his team went to great pains to find the suitable pigeon-raisers and working craftsmen. And the noises of the city made it harder to weed out distracting sounds.  

With the assistance of an elderly pigeon raiser, Zhang Baotong, Chinnery’s team drove a flock to a prime location and recorded the whistles on a cloudless day.  

Popcorn popping is another sound deeply embedded in the memories of Beijingers. Street vendors once made popcorn using an old-school machine – a tear-shaped sealed container filled with uncooked kernels which are heated them over a charcoal flame. The popping happens when the vendor opens a lever on the side that injects air into the metal cooker. With a huge boom, all the freshly popped popcorn explodes at once. But as Chinnery discovered, such methods have become history. These old popcorn makers are now nowhere to be found.  

In an interview with State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), Chinnery says that urban development inevitably involves the disappearance of many traditions. But in choosing what should stay and what should fade away, sometimes people’s decisions have been made too quickly.  

Chinnery finds Hong Kong a fascinating city because of its well-balanced juxtaposition of urban culture and traditions, especially in Central, the city’s most vibrant financial and business zone.

“[In Central], you may find a myriad of skyscrapers and the world’s biggest bank, but if you go forth into a street, you might come across a traditional food market, where peddlers cry for fresh fish, minced pork, cabbage, nuts and other kinds of things. The mixture of the urbanized landscapes and civil life makes the city rich in humanity,” Chinnery said.  

Quiet, Please Many believe that these sound aficionados must be more sensitive to sound than others. Li disputes this: it is a sensitive mind instead of a pair of sensitive ears that enables people to notice that which is ignored by others, he said.  

“The truth is one’s hearing inevitably dulls with age, but the mind may not. It is possible that one may be a more shrewd thinker and observer the older they get,” Li said.   

Li’s argument is supported by a survey on sound awareness conducted by Li Guoqi, Director of the Institute of Acoustics at the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Beijing University of Technology. Professor Li surveyed Beijing residents to find out what sounds they recall from their daily lives. According to the results, elderly respondents could remember more sounds than those aged 20 to 30.  

Li explains it as a kind of the “cocktail party effect,” where people focus their attention on certain sounds and ignore others. “One result of such a tendency is that people become increasingly numb to the deteriorating sound environment,” Li told Lifeweek Magazine.  

Adel-Jing Wang, a scholar of sound culture and associate professor at the College of Media and International Culture, Zhejiang University, says humans need sound to understand the world and their own existence.“Sound enables us to feel our own intense vitality… These audio artworks can change our way of listening and further change our cognition and concept of nature and ourselves,” Wang said.   

The sound collector that he is, Tie Yang longs to find the sound of silence. She is deeply inspired by the Emmy-winning acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton’s book One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World. Hempton’s book records his noise control project symbolized by a small red stone placed in Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park in the US’s Washington State, in 2005. The stone’s location has been called “the quietest place in the United States.”  

Hempton founded One Square Inch, a not-for-profit organization, to protect and manage the natural soundscape of the national park totally free of human noise. From his point of view, silence is an endangered species. He defines real quiet not as an absence of sound, but an absence of noise.  

“If we all strive to keep the symbolic red stone free of noise, we can harbor hope that true nature still exists out there on Earth,” Tie said.  

Li is more cynical. Even deep in the ancient forests of Brazil, he found it hard to obtain true silence. Li created another piece of music, titled “Lost Civilization,” which has documented the roar of aircraft flying over the rainforest. He measured the noise and found that they were as high as 86 decibels – almost 20 times more than the normal sound of the forest.  

“I’m afraid there’s no so-called ‘true nature’ anymore. As long as human activities exist, true quiet will be nowhere to be found,” Li said.