Tuesday, July 06, 2010

soundwave: green sound: change of plan

i apologize to those who had planned to come see me perform live at the "soundwave green sound" festival in san francisco this coming weekend. in the interest of environmental conservation, i have prepared this virtual dispatch instead:

Many months ago when Alan So and the Soundwave committee decided that the summer 2010 festival would be based on “Green Sound”, they made an uncannily appropriate choice.

For some time, many have sensed that the excessive and wasteful ways of Western Civilization have been rapidly catching up with us - every single artist in this festival is deeply touched by these issues. When I received the application for the 2010 Soundwave season, I couldn’t imagine not being a part of Green Sound. To me, “Green Sound” conjures up theories in quantum physics that suggest that, at the most basic level, everything in nature may be composed of little more than vibration. We – along with everything else in the universe – are a cosmic symphony, a sonic fabric. If we all really understood this – if we were aware that we could hear it, direct it, and improvise with it - how might this change our reality?

This is precisely what my work has long been about. 23 years ago as a musician and an undergraduate marine biology major, I worked on a research project which involved recording the sounds of dolphins using underwater microphones. Part of my job was to feed sonic data into an ocilloscope, then examine a visual printout of each individual dolphin echolocation “click”. Though the clicks were only a second or two long, the visual graph allowed for the detection of intricacies down to 1/100th of a second. It quickly became clear that dolphins have a listening-sense that is very different from our own. 

During the same era I encountered Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags for the first time. I learned that these colorful strings of cotton squares are imprinted with mantras, or sacred sounds, that are designed to be hung in auspicious outdoor locations where the “good vibes” with which they are imbued can be “activated”, released out into the world on the wind. This reminded me of experiences I’d had as a child aboard my family’s racing sailboat. On small boats, short strands of cassette tape are often used as “tell-tails”, or wind indicators, tied onto the rigging to keep the crew aware of the direction and strength of the wind. Cassette tape is an ideal material for this purpose, since it is light and very sensitive to the wind, it dries quickly, and is very durable. Sometimes while sailing as a kid, in a state of reverie I would stare up at a cassette tape tell-tail fluttering in the breeze and imagine that I could hear Beethoven or the Beatles wafting out into the air. The moment I realized the similarity between the tell-tails and the prayer flags, I decided that someday I would like to weave a fabric containing sounds that, to me, were sacred.

Slowly but steadily, I set about collecting tapes with this idea in mind. I carried a hand-held cassette recorder everywhere I went, and like a scientist, I meticulously collected samples. Crickets, ocean surf, ambient street noise, the jam sessions of musician friends, people talking. I recorded a “Wind Quintet” – the wind blowing in four different directions in four different locations, which I mixed down onto a single track. I thought of myself as an archivist keeping a record of the sounds of life on Earth. In the back of my mind, I was preparing for some future day when these sounds might no longer exist.

Once I had compiled a collection of 100 individual tapes, I started to knit with them, but the resulting fabric was very loose and flimsy. A friend offered to help by weaving the tape on a loom with a cotton warp. The resulting fabric astounded us both - it was as solid as canvas with a mysterious sheen. It could be cut and worked like other fabric, and best of all, when we tried running a tape head over it, it emitted a strange garbled sound. Oddly enough, when a tape head picks up 5 or 6 strands of tape at a time, the resulting sound is eerily underwater-like.

Several years have elapsed since then, and in the interim I have used Sonic Fabric to make sets of sailboat sails, shaman-superhero costumes, and good-vibe imbued/emitting strings of flags and wearable accessories. The tape I am currently using in the weave is overdubbed with a series of sound collages called “Between Stations” made from sounds collected on and under the streets of New York City and Brooklyn over the course of several years after 9/11/2001.

My life and work was becoming more and more about savoring, salvaging, and striving towards some semblance of a sustainable existence. In 2005 I visited the high desert of far west Texas near the Big Bend National Park – and unexpectedly felt right at home. The local light-, land-, and soundscape reminded me strangely of the ocean. I picked up fossilized shells and sea creatures off the floor of an ancient seabed. I felt as if I was walking on the bottom of the ocean, only I could breathe. Ultimately, it was the quality of the sound of this place that drew me to move here from Brooklyn in 2006. As a sound artist, when people ask why I moved to such a remote place, it’s easy to say that I craved the silence, that in my studio right next to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway I couldn’t hear myself think. But the truth of the matter is that there is more to it than that. It’s not the silence, exactly – it’s being able to hear the subtle sounds that things emit. Rocks and trees and mountains are not silent – they are composed of infinitely tiny particles whizzing around even tinier particles – these are sounds that we can hear, maybe not with our ears, but with some other as yet unnamed sensory organ. This is the kind of hearing that I seek to hone.

Now I live several miles up a dirt road in the middle of what is, for most intents and purposes, the middle of nowhere, with my partner, a composer and guitarist. We live in a tiny house with no running water – all of the water we use for drinking, cooking, washing, and gardening is harvested from the rain. We are aware of literally every drop we use and reuse. We grow a good portion of the food we eat, and cook as often as possible (almost every day) in a solar oven. We made a highly efficient refrigerator out of a chest freezer found next to a dumpster – it burns one tenth of the electricity of our small old unit. We are slowly reducing our reliance on power from the grid – our electric bill last month was $14.00. My studio runs entirely off a solar set-up that cost less than $500. If you like, you can find out more about our experiments into homesteadery on our blog, The Obvious Observer.

We never really set out to be environmental or social activists per se. We just wanted to live in a way that we felt was responsible and enabled us to spend more time making our work, and less time doing jobs just to get money. The worse things have gotten in the world, however – the longer the wars continue and the less we see positive change being implemented by national leadership – the more strongly we feel that simply consuming less is a radical act. If the hemorrhage of oil currently gushing out into the Gulf of Mexico has taught us one thing, it is that our government and our entire society is controlled by a substance that it has come to believe it cannot survive without. We can also say with a great degree of certainty that change cannot and will not come from the top down – clearly, those doing the legislating are the very same ones who stand to gain the most by the status quo. We don’t have time to wait for some magic bullet “green” technology, or perfect legislation. When enough of us realize we have nothing to gain by continuing to support a faulty system, and we express our willingness to simply cease to buy into it to the greatest extent possible, then and only then can change occur.

To this end, I have founded a community on Facebook called USE HALF NOW. USE HALF NOW is a grassroots movement/idea-sharing resource for those ready to make necessary shifts towards reducing consumption of non-renewable resources. I have also written several articles published on truthout.org, including “Spacehship Earth: Navigators Wanted” and “Makers: DIY Agents of Social Change”.

As grateful as we were to be accepted, the decision to attend Soundwave was a difficult one to make. We were surprised to learn upon doing some research that driving from west Texas to California would expend fewer resources than flying. Even at that, the drive would require 100 gallons of gasoline – two-thirds of our entire average yearly consumption.

Once the torrent of oil into the Gulf of Mexico began, with each passing minute we found it more difficult to rationalize the journey to San Francisco to perform for an hour or two. I could not envision standing on stage at “Green Sound”, explaining the history of my work and the inherently nature-honoring inspiration behind it while overlooking the resources required to get there. I am extremely grateful to Alan and to everyone at Soundwave who have done everything in their power to make it possible for me to be part of the festival, and who have expressed generosity beyond my wildest expectations by understanding and respecting my strong sense that my work would be most effectively presented virtually instead of physically. YouTube, Skype, Facebook, Twitter – all of these media and others yet to emerge are making it increasingly practical for us to share our work with audiences around the world, while expending only a fraction of the resources. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to come to you this way now, as part of Green Sound.

With Heartfelt Thanks,
Alyce Santoro