Hein Schoer - The Sounding Museum: Box of Treasures [Gruenrekorder - 2015]This is the third release from Germany's Gruenrekorder label that I have reviewed this year after Christina Kubisch and Eckehard Guther's Unter Grund and the startling collection of pieces collected under the Landscapes of Fear project. Despite the bar having already be set high this weighty release presenting what is in effect the doctoral project of Hein Schoer easily surpasses those other two releases in complexity, depth and intellectual rigour. The basic question that Hein poses and which provides the orientation and occasion for the recordings, book and multi-media features that are included in the Box of Treasures is stated at the outset of the text: "How do I make a good cultural soundscape composition for museum-didactic purposes". The culture that he chose to document were the Namgis/Kwakwaka'wakw, a North American first people based around Alert Bay British Colombia.
The Box of Treasures is extensive in its material documenting Schoer's work at Alert Bay. It includes audio material in raw and "composed" form spread across a CD, an audio DVD and a DVD-ROM which also includes supporting materials and interactive features. In addition to the audio material the box includes a 400 page book by Schoer presenting the work and building his case for a new kind of sound art that combines traditional field recording techniques with anthropology and what he calls eco-acoustics, all with the museum and didactic function in mind. As he states in his own biography it is the 'soundscape' that is his main object of concern in the technical sense that this term acquires in the work of R. Murray Schafer whose The Soundscape (1977) set the terms for the field. It would take a serious academic review to do justice to all the intentions and findings that Schoer presents. So since this is a music website I will primarily focus on the audio material while referring to the text occasionally.
The most straightforward access point to the work is the regular audio CD which includes the major composition of the audio part of the project, the 42 minute long Two Weeks in Alert Bay - One Day in the Life of Raven. For Schoer this composition presents his own experience of the Kwakwaka'wakw community during those two weeks and does not attempt to take an objective stance that would provide a kind of "true" representation that would be authentic for everyone. As he says it is not the story they would choose to tell, rather it is a personal atmospheric experience. In his own words; "A good cultural soundscape composition is to convey essential information about a (foreign) culture via the utilisation of the emotional/atmospheric quality of sound". The piece itself is multi-facetted and features recordings not only of the Kwakwaka'wakw themselves in various everyday situations but the surrounding environment and animals. Recordings of machines, blend into those of animals, then a close mic recording of a stream before what sounds like a lesson in a local school. There are plenty of recordings of traditional rituals and songs as well as more everyday conversations and light hearted moments. The overall effect is exactly as Schoer seems to have intended in that it gives a summary of his personal experiences with the Kwakwaka'wakw highlighting essential exchanges in their social life, and their environment. There are several shorter edits of the original piece included on the Audio DVD.
The regular CD also includes a wealth of other material recorded around Alert Bay or being inspired by the project. Welcome by Vera Newman is a straight monologue by a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw community initially speaking in their language before switching to English. She talks about the oppression the Kwakwaka'wakw have suffered over the years of European colonialism including the forcible suppression of the potlatch and other such gift-giving economic activity. She talks about the heritage of her people being passed down from her grandmother and how the situation has improved recently with traditional dances and songs now being practiced more frequently. It's a oddly moving recording and does a fine job of giving Schoer's soundscape a direct human context. The following track How Raven Stole the Sun recounts a myth originating in the Northwest Coastal region which provides the narrative basis for the main 42 minute piece. Strangely it's read in animated fashion by Schoen himself which after the sincere heartfelt testimony of Vera Newman I can't help feeling would have been better told by a member of the community rather than Schoen in a studio with his very Northern European sounding accent.
Lahal pts. 1 & 2 are recordings made at Lahal sessions in The BigHouse on Vancouver Island in 2011. Lahal is a kind of gambling game involving bones and sticks and it would seem a lot of singing. The recording is full of drumming, joyful voices and the sense of people having a good time. The track opens amusingly with the players belting out their own version of Bob Dylan's Somebody Touched Me before fading into more traditional songs. Four environmental recordings follow on capturing various aspects of the sounds of the area around Alert Bay. There is Rain at Woss Lake, an interesting recording of birds including some bald eagles fighting over the remains of a Christmas turkey, a very short recording of a bald eagle in flight and some sounds onboard a ferry returning to the mainland.
The final piece on the CD is a mix of multiple recordings not related to the Alert Bay material. It's a more run of the mill collage work of field recordings some of which have been processed. The aim of this piece Schoer writes is to provide an artful answer to questions posed by the fact of dislocating sounds from their original context and the concomitant risks of objectifying those sounds up to point of allowing orientalism and other perspectival prejudices to arise. His solution it seems is to compose the material in such a way as to obliterate any possible standpoint from which to make a judgement on the context of the recordings, effectively creating an artificial world in which all perspectives would be equally valid. This is a very liberal solution but doesn't seem to have much to offer to the ongoing struggles of American first peoples for restitution, political rights and autonomy, where the context and history of their community is vital.
The third disk of the set is the DVD-Rom which contains a huge wealth of material presented through an interactive application. We are able to navigate around a map of the areas where Schoer took his recordings and hear the full raw audio as it was collected. This amounts to hours of unedited recordings many of which are only dipped into for the main pieces on the CD. There are also photographs of daily life and the people who appear in the recordings and Schoer himself reads extracts of his book which is useful for those who are a little reticent about diving into the full text. One especially useful track has him reading a condensed synopsis of the project over the full 42 minute version of Two Weeks in Alert Bay. And if this wasn't enough the interactive map extends into Canada's arctic region where Schoer made recordings for the North American Native Museum (NONAM) which include gems featuring tolling bells, howling dogs and the sound of crunching snow. The quality and shear amount of material on this disk amply justifies the release title of "Box of Treasures".
Summing up, The Sounding Museum is a remarkable piece of work with a depth and scope of presentation exceeding anything that I have encountered in the area of sound art or field recordings more generally. The audio and photographic material presented is enough to occupy someone for weeks and that's before one takes in the accompanying book. As a work of acoustic-anthropology it is a triumph both fascinating to the ear and highly thought-provoking. One might take the view that any project that grounds itself in the notion of a museum will always lead to a degree of "museumification" that will exclude access to the living culture that is studied. Although Schoer is at pains to reflect on these issues and others around orientalism ,the political life and present struggles of North American First peoples don't appear in the work to any significant degree. The focus on mythology and preservation of tradition is at the expense of seeing the communities studies as present, adaptive and continuing to contest their place within Canadian society. These are not minor points however they don't detract from what is still a hugely powerful resource and a pioneering work in this emerging field.Duncan Simpson