There are different schools of thought when it comes to the production of “soundscapes.” There is R. Murray Schafer, who coined the term, and his World Soundscape Project, which approaches the soundscape as “acoustic ecology.” Some have criticized his approach as nostalgic, with romantic notions of pre-industrial life, constructing a division between nature and culture that is untenable and outdated. One might put phonographers such as Chris Watson in this category, though his close miking technique often reveals an attention to sounds that goes beyond mere documentation. Luc Ferrari’s soundscapes predate this approach and offer a compelling counterexample, capturing the sounds of human activity alongside natural occurrences. Ferrari’s classic Presque rien No.1 – le lever du jour au bord de la mer (1967–70), which reduced the real-time sounds of daybreak in a small Dalmatian fishing village to a 20-minute montage, seems to feature very little embellishment. Though all the sounds occupy a similar prominence within the mix, and therefore in our attention, this anecdotal approach – in which the sounds are more or less recognizable and unobscured by processing – presented an important break with the dominant method of electroacoustic composition at the time.
Art is an appropriate domain for exploring the fantastic and the impossible, and each of these approaches embrace fantasy in their own way. These examples are perhaps exaggerated in their minimalism, and far more often than not the imaginary landscapes that come to mind when we think of “soundscapes” are more abstracted and processed, using edits, loops, and additional sounds structured into a narrative. Such works use signal processing and musical elements to narrative, perhaps one might even say “cinematic,” effect. Ferrari’s Place des Abbesses (1977), for instance, was strictly imagined rather than utilizing recordings from the actual site, suggestive more than documentary. The results are psychoacoustic environments that are often impressionistic and might be compared to the soundscape equivalent of “magic realism.” Though more committed to obscuring the source of his sounds, or otherwise downplaying their origin, Francisco Lopez might fall under this heading as well, particularly uncharacteristically-titled works such as La Selva and Buildings, which inherently acknowledge the futility of adhering to a strict separation of concepts such as natural or cultural.
Some field-recordings function best as abstractions of a place, while others are rooted in the specificity of a place or event, in which being there lends the recording some additional power. Some, like Aki Onda, may wait until enough time has passed that the specific memories of a recording have become hazy or lost, while others such as Matteo Uggeri or Kate Carr produce musical compositions which depend upon their personal relation to a space and the memories embedded in a particular recording. Others focus on acoustics, on listening as a response to the unique vibrations of a particular space. Think of Toshiya Tsunoda capturing the sound of cicadas through a cracked window or birds from within an automobile’s muffler.
Enrico Coniglio is a Venetian native whose work has long revolved around documenting the lagoon of Venice. The “Bragos series” is his latest work, one which can’t be divorced from the particularities of the lagoon of Venice it explores. Coniglio’s music often reflects the uncertainty that comes with living in a medieval city that is slowly sinking. But unlike his classical-inspired arrangements and folk-centric compositions as My Home, Sinking, or the more glacial ambient and drone landscape studies of earlier works, the “Bragos Series” seems to be a more pure realization of a soundscape. These two 10” records Astrùra and Solèra, named after Venetian seabeds, consist of recordings made at the mouth of the harbor on a foggy spring day back in 2009, on the northern edge of the lagoon. Even if one has no knowledge of the city, the sounds of lagoon assert themselves very directly. Water sounds may be the most overused field-recording after bird song and church bells, and yet the sounds of water is unavoidable in a place such as Venice, where one is constantly surrounded. Venice by boat completely transforms the experience of the city, and similarly the sound of water in this context takes on new characteristics, not just the sound of water lapping but the way its reverberations tell a story of the surrounding architecture and landscape.
Venice has a very unique relationship with its history. Put aside electricity and modern plumbing and the city hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries. Though one will hear outboard motors more than oars, the absence of cars has a profound effect on the soundscape of the city. Floating through the canals after dark or wandering the labyrinthine alleys one can easily get lost in dark fantasies, and as such time there feels much less linear. It makes little sense to speak of nature, culture, or technology as discrete entities, particularly in a city such as Venice. As the sounds that make up the “Bragos series” move from one to the other they ambiguously intermingle, paralleling their conceptual blurring. The entire lagoon doesn’t exist any longer as a natural entity, but one carefully monitored and managed by administrators for centuries. The mudflats that exist outside the city, with tall grass and little else, provide a view into the past, before the future Venetians drove wooden piles into the mud and built a great city on top of them. The means of administering the lagoon have predictably grown more complex as modern science has evolved, and these techno-mediated cycles become part of the larger ecosystem of the lagoon.
Astrùra’s A-side moves from the distinct rhythmic sound of waves crashing forcefully before moving into more abstract territory, likely a hydrophone capturing underwater noise. Higher frequency tones persist even as we move above the surface again. Just as the city itself survives through its constant management, here sounds are revealed through a process of technological mediation. The B-side is perhaps the strongest of the entire series. Beginning slowly with arrhythmic bumping and banging, filtered through the water, it builds into a piece of more glacial ambient noise. Gently flowing clouds of static drift into a pendulum of cries streaking across the stereo-field, culminating in the unprocessed sounds of waves. There is an occasional feedback spike, or perhaps the horn of a ship, situating the listener again on the imagined lagoon. This return to a more documentary soundscape encourages an endless loop between the two sides.
By contrast Solèra has an almost minimal-industrial style, with a rhythmic panning of mostly static white noise, an undulating rhythm, and other sounds gradually vying for attention as the levels gradually shift. If Astrùra begins with the natural and slowly uncovers its hidden relations, Solèra departs from the technological and excavates the natural forces flowing through it. Electronic beeps and the reverberation of lapping water interact, without ever abandoning the noisiness which permeates the entire track. Recognizing the origins of the sounds here are less important than the narrative gestures. The B-side is defined by the rumbling hum of boat motors and machines, the technological sounds most a part of everyday life for Venetians. Their rumbles come and go as perpetually dripping water serves as a constant reminder of where we are located. Near the halfway point a low melodic tone steadily rises, adding not so much a romantic grandeur to the piece but instead just another oscillating mechanical drone that is part of the soundscape.
Coniglio’s recordings are at times very stark, like the city itself when one looks beyond the throngs of tourists. Recordings of the lagoon can’t escape the sounds water lapping, the sea breeze, boats, engines, motors, electrical hums and buzzes. But the “Bragos Series” is not so much defined by the sum of its parts but the patient way it connects these interconnected movements. The lagoon and the city are intertwined in such a complex way that the people who live there are as inseparable from the city as its lagoons, canals and the ecological systems which flow through it. Coniglio claims to be highlighting an inherent contradiction, and what these records make clear is that this unresolvable contradiction is a productive one, firmly at the center of what Venice means to the people who call it home. (Joseph Sannicandro)
The journey has been split into two separate 10 inch vinyl releases in a limited edition of 25 copies each, through Silentes/13, with photographs by Stefano Gentile, printed on Forex.