Mexican artists Leena Lee and Vania Fortuna ask questions that place sound at the intersection of other media, sciences, and modes of expression, offering a delicate and intimate examination of ways in which the natural and the culturally conditioned felt and embodied can form a symbiotic system. Through teaching, designing, academic writing, and curatorial work, including the radio programme Surfaceless, The Skin is Not the Limit for Mexican Radio Nopal, Lena Ortega (aka Leena Lee) invites us to a kind of listening as a hybrid communion with the non-human, the symbolic and the allegoric. On equal terms, Vania Fortuna’s research and work with vocal improvisation, composition, sound art and sociology present the possibility of voice as a topology of emotions in the social plane. Both artists focus on asking questions about how we listen within and beyond ourselves in contact with our surroundings, socially, ecologically, and empathetically.
Niebla (the Spanish work for Fog) successfully follows this line of work. This study of the ‘Quetzal’, a sacred bird of the ancient Mayans and Aztecs, takes the listener into a travel through deep time in an effort to experience the many metamorphoses of this emblematic bird, from its mythical to its symbolical and ecological form. Owing its name to the Nahuatl language – a language that was spoken by the majority of the inhabitants of central Mexico – and the word “quetzalli,” that describes the beautiful, long-tailed plumage of the bird, Quetzal is a near threatened species that thrives living in the cloud forest habitat, a type of rainforest that exists in high altitudes with heavy rainfall, humidity and mist. The ‘rainforest’ itself has been the favourite topic of a long lineage of mainly male-dominated, field recording works. In Niebla, Leena Lee and Vania Fortuna use field recordings taken from different mountainous rainforests that are part of UNESCO’S protected Biosphere Reserves (El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in the state of Chiapas; Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve, in Guatemala) as well as recordings from the Library of Bird Sounds of the Alfonso L. Zoology Museum and blend them with their own vocalisations, singing and electronic sounds offering a departure from the traditional ‘rainforest sound work’.
In Niebla, the deep, smooth and resonant call of the Queztal becomes a trope for bringing listeners closer to their own sensory awakening in the mist in proximity to the bird. Intro initiates us to the habitat of the cloud forest. We are engulfed in the sounds of the insects and the birds singing in tune with deep time’s basso continuo. We are now part of a communion as “Gathering” begins with the soft ritual singing of Lee and Fortuna and the arrival of rain. Heavy rainfall gradually recedes and “Calling” invokes the appearance of the Queztal, anticipating a response. We are part of the ecosystem, along with other non-human species, through the repetitive vocalisations of the two artists. We expand towards the trees, seeking to connect with the forest’s canopy until the response is returned in “Appearance.” The call of the Quieztal echoes through the mist as it marks its territory. The singing voices of Lee and Fortuna reappear to support it, harmonising with its song, opening up a space for other bird species to emerge. This type of magical listening is interrupted in “Rapture” as deep time’s basso continuo resurfaces to transfer us to current time where the rhythmic vocalisations of the two artists call for urgency, empathy and reflection while the mist gradually crops up bringing the Queztal calls back to the listener in the closing, title track.
Niebla is a subtle, evoking and enriching listening experience, an album that offers an antidote to cultural preconceptions of the natural and where the listener is an active and responsive part of the work, entangled in a delicately emotional encounter with other species and cultures through sound. (Maria Papadomanolaki)