The Sounding Museum: Box of Treasures is perhaps Gruenrekorder’s most elaborate production to date: a CD, audio DVD, DVD-ROM and softbound 419-page book, all enclosed in a black cardboard sleeve. It takes an entire day to peruse, but one would not be surprised to see it included in a college curriculum.
Box of Treasures is the physical manifestation of The Sounding Museum, an exhibition at the North American Native Museum in Zürich. Aware that many might never be able to travel to the exhibition, Herb Schoer created this comprehensive physical reflection. The exhibition is centered time spent living with and recording the traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia. During these two weeks, Schoer became concerned with a number of issues involving authenticity and exploitation; suffice it to say that the breadth of this multi-media release is evidence of his honesty.
Schoer writes, “At the core (of The Sounding Museum) lies the question, “How do I make a good cultural soundscape composition for museum-didactic purposes?” This is a valid question, especially when it comes to the common consumer: the person who may or may not visit a museum, who may or may not spend time at an exhibition, who may or may not attempt to digest a soundscape. Much of the world is blind to field recordings for the simple reason that the world itself is a giant unrecorded field. In order to draw attention to a particular soundscape, one needs focus, and often sculpture. On “Two Weeks in Alert Bay”, the primary piece around which the rest of the venture unfolds, Shoer demonstrates the importance of choice. 35 hours of field recordings – a longlist – are whittled down to 42 minutes – a shortlist. The piece is layered, structured, shaped: at every juncture, the artist (who must also be called a composer) decides what to include, where to include it, and most importantly, how to keep the attention of the listener. As a public piece, this means that the piece must include numerous sections of “action”; in other words, as lovely as a segment may be (a classroom, a workshop, a tribal drum, a storm), it cannot be allowed to last for long. By tumbling from source to source, Shoer does indeed keep the listener’s attention; the tapestry reveals more as metaphor than as direct aural artifact. Other audio tracks include ferry recordings, recited folklore, gambling humans and squabbling birds, but as a collage, “Two Weeks in Alert Bay” is an altogether immersive experience.
When an earlier version of the disc first appeared in 2010, online journal The Sound Projector commented, “this project would have been much better done as a combined DVD/CD package”. While in one sense this is true – and of course, now we have it – in another, there’s great value in the use of one’s imagination. While listening, one intuits many characteristics of the Kwakwaka’wakw ~ hard working, humorous, playful, diverse. While these assumptions may be inaccurate, we doubt that they are. The addition of photos, video, and other interactive material can only enhance one’s initial impressions. Those who wish to view “the full monty”, as Schoer puts it, are invited to open each file in turn, to experience the sights along with the sounds.
Even more impressive is the scholarly tome, The Sounding Museum: Four Worlds, Cultural Soundscape Composition and Trans-Cultural Communication. Yes, that’s a mouthful, but the internal prose is far more accessible. Beginning with the history of soundscape (church bells, the sound of war), Shoen then progresses to modern discussions, relying on Schafer for many of his observations. But a real connection is made in the book’s center, which revolves around the author’s experiences in Alert Bay. “I cooked for them, they cooked for me. I walked with them, they walked with me.” All scholarly observations aside, this is simple humanity, stripped of pretension. Chapters dedicated to local anthropology, sound selection and (most entertainingly) the author’s workshops follow. The most endearing section contains a chart of students’ “relished and despised sounds”, which range from “rustling of Leaves” (sic) to “when a pig is slaughtered” and “when teacher says ‘test”, the last two lumped at the same level! In the end, one not only enjoys the presentation, one likes the presenter. This is not something Shoen could have planned, but certainly something most teachers hope for.
Much respect to Gruenrekorder for realizing the value of this project and for helping the artist to achieve his dream of an expanded release. This is indeed a box of treasures. (Richard Allen)