The jungle exerts a strange pull: something about the density and variety of life in tropical rain forests has captured the human artistic imagination throughout recorded history (and likely before). Arguably, sound is the perfect medium with which to capture these regions: their many birds, frogs, and bugs can blanket the forest in an almost constant cacophony. Even when unseen, the noisy fauna of the jungle express the chaotic abundance of life as it grows and interweaves itself from the forest floor upward.
For her latest release, a conference of critters, the self-described sound artist, curator, and researcher Diane Barbé traveled to one of the world’s many jungle-clad regions: Southern Thailand. Through a series of layered field recordings, Barbé attempts to share her vision of an international, inter-species community taking shape within the jungle, one in which all manner of “critters” are “living together in a collective river, floating through the stream of extended time, connected like the organs of the same body.” As clicks, hums, shrieks and whistles interweave with snatches of song and language, a sonic landscape is built, one which is more than a simple reflection of the jungle’s frenzy.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the album’s second track, “champak flowers for the lumisolar calendar”, a tableau of splashing water, humming insects, and gentle singing which paints an idyllic if somewhat overly earnest picture of women tending a garden together. When paired with the opening track, “what the moon sounds like”, a short and rather unmemorable recording of a nighttime excursion, these two tracks form something of an introduction for the more compelling sounds to come.
On “territory is a verb is an expression”, Barbé finds a more heterogeneous and layered web of sound, one in which the frantic chatter of birds confronts the incessant droning of distant machines. Unplaceable sounds enter in the foreground, only to disappear rapidly as the recording moves through a subtle build and release. “Leeches in the supersonic hills” also juxtaposes human and natural sounds, with a static-filled radio broadcast giving way to the equally grainy noises of insects chirping in the thousands. High pitched drones and pulsing white noise compete for space with the snarling and shrieking of animals in a recording that once again shows off an uncanny instinct for the subtle tension and release of environmental sounds. On the final track, “but would you eat one” the rhythmic phasing of animal calls and their unexpected timbres form yet another variation in this exploration of the jungle’s sonic palette.
As a stand-in for Nature writ large, the jungle has long been the inspiration for observations about the interconnectedness of all things, a tradition in which Barbé clearly participates with an earnestly poetic impulse. Barbé ‘s creations are intimate snippets of the artist’s life, ones which at times manage to transcend the jungle and become compelling groupings of sound in their own right. While relatively brief and somewhat inconsistent, a conference of critters still manages to compellingly frame and compile snapshots of the jungle’s intensity that serve as potent examples of the sonic abundance available to the attentive and intrepid listener. (Peter Tracy)