Institute of Landscape and Urban Studies ~ Gotthard Transect

Zurich’s Institute of Landscape and Urban Studies last appeared on our pages with Melting Landscapes, and will reappear early in September with Dammed Landscapes.  In the middle arrives the double-cassette Gotthard Transect, a sound study of the tunnel’s acoustic environment, captured at four distinct points around the journey.  Once again, we are a little bit jealous of the students of the Chair of Landscape Architecture of Christophe Girot at ETH Zurich, because everything they do seems like fun.

From mule track to road to railway, the passage has connected crucial landmarks and geographies.  While no one will ever “conquer” the alpine territory, sleek modern travel makes the foreboding seem safe.  The Gotthard Base Tunnel opened six years ago and is the longest of its kind.  After the train passes, the local biophany comes to life: birds, cowbells, flowing water, and yes, melting landscapes.  The hills are alive, as are the rivers and residents.

Modern transport tempts travelers to pass through landscapes without seeing them, or restricts them to an approved portion.  What’s on the other side of that ridge?  I guess we’ll never know.  Even more shrouded are the sounds that emanate from such environments, as travelers are hermetically sealed behind shatter-resistant, soundproofed glass.  In order to capture these field recordings, the students had to experience and interpret their environment, choosing representative sounds ~ for example, the howling winds of the journey’s second leg, which sounds less comfortable than recording the bucolic livestock.  Halfway to Faido, sleet and freezing rain make the sonic field sound as compelling as the shivering students are (for a time) miserable.  But alpine weather can change on a Swiss franc, and turns even quicker here through editing techniques that highlight variety and contrast.

In the final leg of the journey, the water is flowing smoothly, as crisp and energetic as the spring thaw.  The cowbells are back, although strangely, no cows.  People who pull into Bodio will have saved a lot of time, but missed a lot of sound.  Gotthard Transect connects flora and fauna, land and humanity, focusing on the intersection between the sounds humans hear and the sounds humans create.  When the two work in tandem, an aural symbiosis is achieved.  At the end of the recording, it’s a disappointment to hear voices and traffic, and to realize that the enchantment has ended, the spell has been broken, the fairy tale has come to an end.  While most folks are happy to arrive at their destination, in this case the highlight is the glorious in-between.  (Richard Allen)

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