But there’s a difference in this collection. In earlier reviews, we’ve mentioned the sounds of waking up on various continents: cities and villages, urban and rural, rich or poor. But this set starts with a more sobering piece. Peter Kutin‘s “Uncounted” includes a narrator speaking about her upbringing in Burma ~ poverty, oppression, dictatorship. Provincial song abounds, as do calm sounds, from rain to rail, children to chimes. There’s an odd noise at the start of the ninth minute, like a monkey or a machine. Peace is either fleeting or hard-won. Any morning might be the last morning. In like fashion, David Oppetit contrasts placid and portentous in “Pool Days,” recorded during the “presidential election” of Phnom Penh. The abrupt ending is purposely chilling.
In “Three Moken Vignettes,” Greg Simmons tells the story of sea gypsies driven inland, longing for the sea. Their voices are heard in dialogue and then in song, less an indictment than an elegy. Throughout the album, the tale is told and retold by different narrators, in different ways, but the theme stays the same. Whether due to governments, commerce or simple inattention, the older, simpler ways are coming to an end.
Many tracks are comprised of pure nature sounds, although some of these also hold a stark message, such as the endangered status of the black crested gibbon in Laos (Rodolfe Alexis, “Nomascus Concolor’s Call”). When we humans are not hurting each other, we’re damaging other species. Yet what a soundscape! The piece sounds like aliens landing with laser rays ablaze. Perhaps this reviewer’s association demonstrates how far we’ve fallen, in that we compare nature to entertainment. Even sadder, in the same country Stratis Scandalakis records what may be the final songs of the river dolphin, echoing the famous book Last Chance to See.
Sometimes, the artists just want us to listen, having gone to great lengths to capture their source material. Jérémie Mathes offers the startling sounds of a floating village, a way of life most of us have witnessed only in movies. Corin Smethurst hikes seven treacherous round trip miles to record “The Bats of Elephant Cave,” while Burt Gregory kayaks around sharks and walks “waist deep in muck” to capture the pristine sonoscape of Batanta Island’s “Spirit Jungle.” Robert Schwarz finds deep bass frogs in the Philippines, and constructs electronic “duets” around their calls.
A deeper lesson is that any local soundscape can be magical, from Marcel Gnauk’s pre-dawn excursion around Ubud to the brushing of teeth in Marin and Alex Hehir’s “Morning Rituals” to Zul Malmod’s “Speciality of Mundaneness,” which seems to mix storm and sprinkler. “We should stop for a moment and really appreciate the beauty all around us,” writes Malmod. This is exactly what the PhoNographic Mornings series provides: a sonic window to our wonderful world. (Richard Allen)