THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

2 posts categorized "Americas"

03 November 2016

Environments: Irv Teibel and the psychoacoustic record

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Earlier in the year the Irv Teibel Archive generously donated a complete set of the hugely influential environments LP series to the British Library. This collection of environmental field recordings, released over a 10 year period from 1969 - 1979, represents the work of Irv Teibel, the ambient and new age music pioneer whose record label Syntonic Research Inc brought the sounds of nature to a public that was becoming increasingly interested in the natural world. In this special post, Creative Director of Syntonic Research and the Irv Teibel Archive, Jonathan Een Newton, writes about the work and legacy of one of the leading figures from the environmental sound movement.

If you’ve ever drowned out your co-workers’ chatter with rainy sounds, or fallen asleep to a loop of the ocean, you owe your peace of mind, in large part, to field recordist Irv Teibel. His environments series, released on eleven albums from 1969 to 1979, helped introduce popular culture to the utility of natural sound.

Gentle Rain in a Pine Forest

Irv was born in 1938 in Buffalo, New York and studied art in New York and California before becoming a public information specialist for the US Army. While stationed in Germany in the early 1960s, he began experimenting with electronic music at a local radio station. After his service, he found his way to New York City where he photographed and designed layouts for magazines Popular Photographer and Car and Driver

His fascination with natural sound was piqued while on a field recording trip for Tony Conrad and Beverly Grant’s film Coming Attractions. Playing back his ocean recordings the next day, Irv became excited by their potential to mask noise and positively affect mood. He soon threw his creative energy into producing a record designed to be "useful.” In late 1969, he released environments 1, which he assembled with his friend Lou Gerstman, a Bell Labs neuropsychologist.

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Cover image of environments 1 (courtesy of the Irv Teibel Archive)

Over the next decade, the series found surprising mainstream success and was even licensed to Atlantic Records for distribution. The thought of a major label releasing a record with just a single 30 minute track per side and without the involvement of a known artist is unimaginable today. Irv eventually released most of the series on cassette and some on CD while he experimented with other projects like video environments, and continued to run a mail order business from his house until his death in 2010.

Environments has often been lumped together with the new age music genre it helped inspire, most likely because of the way it was marketed. But talk to almost any sound artist of a certain age and they’ll tell you that these recordings were hugely influential and helped pave the way for the flood of environmental releases that proliferated in the 1980s and 90s and continues today as Spotify playlists and white noise apps. Like me, many younger listeners have picked up an environments LP in a local record store bin precisely because of the colourful quotes and distinctive Bauhaus-inspired design. But in the end, it is the meticulously constructed soundscapes, which include everything from the classic “Psychologically Ultimate Seashore” to the porto-ambient “Tintinnabulation,” that keep us loyal fans of Irv’s work. 

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In the Syntonic Research office at the top of the Flatiron Building, Manhattan, NY (courtesy of the Irv Teibel Archive)

What continues to surprise me as I've worked on this project over the past two years is environments' diverse admirers. I’ve connected with musicians working in metal (Earth), noise (Prurient), and electronic music (Matmos) who all cite Irv Teibel and the environments series as an influence. Even pop musician Henry Gross told me he used environments to help write his hit single “Shannon.” There are also pages of comments I'm still sorting throughfrom students and teachers to army captains and correctional officers of every age—collected via the feedback cards inserted into each record sleeve.

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Snowman in the field, a self-portrait that Irv often included on stationary and feedback cards (courtesy of the Irv Teibel Archive) 

We’re excited to be working on a number of projects to showcase Irv's work including a recently-launched website featuring his writing, photography, and of course, recordings. We're also in the early stages of creating a mobile app to re-imagine environments for the twenty-first century.

Wind in the Trees

We’re thrilled that the British Library’s exceptional sound archive now has a full set of environments. I hope you’ll take some time to listen to this seminal series of creative field recordings and discover your own favourite (mine is "Dusk in the Okefenokee Swamp"). Thanks for caring and keep in touch.

Jonathan Een Newton

09 June 2016

Recording the past, representing the present: Indians of the Colombian Vaupés

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 In January 2016 The British Library supported anthropologist and documentary filmmaker Brian Moser to take back digital copies of his Tukano recordings - British Library collection C207 Brian Moser & Donald Tayler Colombia collection which were made on an initial recording trip in the 1960's supported by the British Institute of Recorded Sound - to the Tukano peoples in the Pirá-Paraná region of the Amazon. 

Brian was accompanied on the trip by his son, Titus Moser, and  anthropologists Professor Stephen and Dr Christine Hugh-Jones. With both Stephen and Christine being fluent in Tukano and most of the sub-group dialects, the team hoped to observe the impact of returning these recordings. In this guest blog from the team they discuss their findings in the context of wider representation of Amazonian Indian culture and  the indigenous perspective.

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 Indians at Piedra Ñi look at a projection of “War of the Gods” inside the maloca. 2016

2016 is a year to reflect on the culture and history of Northwest Amazonian Indians in the face of so-called "civilization". There are two reasons why we have a unique opportunity to question how we relate to Amazonian Indian culture through our all-pervasive media of photography and sound recording.

The first is the UK release (10th June) of The Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra's Oscar-nominated film about the history of Vaupés Indians. This feature-film, shot by a Colombian director in the Colombian tropical forest, complements several documentaries made by foreigners over the past six decades, the whole providing both a rich compendium of documented, interpreted and imagined historical events and a social history of film-making about Indian subjects. 

The second reason is that indigenous peoples now have access to these media themselves.

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Stephen, Titus and Oliverio pull the boat over the Thunder rapids on the Komenyá River, Pirá-Paraná 2016    

In January this year, with British Library support, Christine and Stephen Hugh-Jones accompanied 81 year-old documentary film-maker Brian Moser and his son Titus on a trip to return Brian's recorded material to the communities living along the Pirá-Paraná river and to make new sound recordings. Over ten days, we visited three different communities and, in each, people gathered in their traditional longhouse to watch Brian’s films starring famous shamans and chanters, no longer alive, and themselves as children. Each community was given a book of photos, a hard drive and an iPad with copies of Brian’s audiovisual records of their culture and, eventually, will have the film Titus made of our trip and their reactions.

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Ignacio, a now retired but still revered shaman and headman, looks at “Piraparaná”. 2016

Besides this, two Pirá-Paraná communities have recently acquired Internet posts. These are intended to facilitate day-to-day-communications about travel, health, education and air freight but, inevitably, this is a journey of no return into our global village with all its powerful, exciting potential and terrifying negative consequences.

Traditionally, the multi-lingual network of Vaupés Indian peoples lived in communal longhouses, cultivated manioc, and had a particularly rich intellectual heritage of extensive mythologies, ritual exchanges and male initiation with sacred flutes. They were already suffering the traumatic onslaughts of rubber gatherers and missionaries when the German explorer Theodore Koch-Grünberg visited them in 1903-5 and made his extraordinary collection of artefacts, early photographs and pioneering wax-cylinder recordings. 

By 1960, when Brian and Donald Tayler first visited, Pirá-Paraná society was a still traditional refuge area compared with the mission-dominated Indian villages beyond. In spite of modern equipment and outboard motors, the expedition ethos had not changed so very much from Koch-Grünberg’s day (see Moser and Tayler's travel book The Cocaine Eaters. London: Longmans 1965). They made a collection of artefacts for the British Museum, photographs, sound recordings (now in the British Library) and a film of Makuna Indian culture.

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Indian dancers perform the maraca dance to celebrate the manioc harvest festival. 1970   

Eight years later, we started anthropological fieldwork in isolated Pirá-Paraná longhouses. The first missionaries had just settled - Colombian Catholic Xaverians in the centre of the main river and various North American couples from Wycliffe Bible Translators on tributaries - all busy employing Indians to clear the short jungle air strips which would accelerate change in unforeseen ways. In 1970, we arranged for Brian to come back to make a film in Granada Television’s groundbreaking Disappearing World Series

In traditional "natural-history" documentaries, exotic indigenous customs would be explained by a scantily informed visitor from the western world, with every discordant sign of the White Man carefully edited out. By 1970, the anthropological methods of fieldwork and participant-observation contributed to the climate-change in which filmmakers reflected on cultural imperialism and the nature of documentary film. Brian’s 1970 War of the Gods was a very different beast to his 1960 effort. Close-up photography and subtitled speech in Indian languages drew viewers closer to Indians. Cuts between the Catholic Eucharist, Protestant hymn singing and indigenous ceremonies where hallucinogenic yagé (ayahuasca) transports Indian chanters into the mythical world of ancestors, show the tension between the equivalence of the rituals and the inequality of the brute socio-economic power and "civilizing" ideology of the two Christian missions.


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Cristo, an expert chanter-dancer and Bosco, a renowned shaman, chanting origin journey of their ancestors through the night under the influence of yajé (ayahuasca). 1970

Later, we returned to the Pirá-Paraná to find Indian communities trading traditional coca crops to isolated cocaine labs. The nearest lab had usurped the Catholic mission airstrip! To our amazement, in a basic jungle encampment with ill-assorted vessels, sacks of chemicals and drums of aeroplane fuel, the grown son of a Colombian fortune-seeker we had known from the past was minding the project for his father. The father’s CV included policeman, rubber gatherer and jaguar hunter but now he was a cocaine-producer with an obsession about chemical purity. Brian’s documentary instincts brought him back and, against all the odds, in 1980 he managed to shoot a remarkable and risky film of the backwoods cocaine trade called A Small Family Business.

Now, 35 years on, Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent seeks to turn the tables on box-office hits like Boorman's Emerald Forest, Herzog's Fitzcarraldo or Joffe's The Mission. Instead of indigenous Amazonians appearing through the distorting lens of Western cultural assumptions, the fatal impact of colonial forces is seen through the indigenous eyes of Karamakate, the shaman, played first as a young man by Nilbio Torres, a Cubeo Indian from the Vaupés, and then, as an old man, by Antonio Bolívar from further south. A hotchpotch of loosely historical themes twist through this beautifully shot, black and white film: the sympathetic characters of real-life explorers - Koch-Grünberg and Harvard ethno-botanist Richard Evans Schultes - contrast with the excessive brutality of missionaries and rubber traders and are woven into a story of jungle hardships, tragic cultural loss, and the cultural gap between Indians and White men. Resolution of a sort comes through hallucinogenic experience - the only sequence in colour. Meanwhile, we learn that Karamakate is the last survivor of his people who has forgotten his own culture - he stands for the fate of the indigenous peoples of the Vaupés, what Jordan Hoffman in his 17 Feb. 2016 Guardian review calls the"unstoppable current of history".

But Vaupés history has not turned out like Guerra’s vision. There are some 30,000 Indians living in different states of integration into pan-Colombian culture. In War of the Gods, we see the very same Indian shaman singing hymns in shirt and trousers and then chanting about the ancestral anaconda-canoe, high on yagé in paint and feather ornaments. This shaman stands for a more realistic and nuanced fate than Karamakate’s: one in which people integrate the new in ways we may find difficult to understand. 

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 Young panpipe players making music in the evening on the upper Pirá-Paraná. 1960

In 2010 UNESCO added the Traditional Shamanic Knowledge of the Jaguar Shamans of Yurupari, the cultural heritage of the Bará, Barasana, Tatuyo, Taiwano and Makuna peoples of the Pirá-Paraná river to its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This is a tribute to the intellectual power and persistence of traditional Vaupés culture. One certainty is that today’s Pirá-Paraná Indians are eager and grateful for past recordings of their culture. Having seen this so clearly in January, we shall do what we can to save our own sound recordings for the future by adding them to the British Library collection.

Christine and Stephen Hugh-Jones

The recordings made during the 2016 trip will be added soon to the original collection  -  C207 Brian Moser and Donald Tayler Colombia collection which can be browsed online. 

 

Embrace of the Serpent  opens in cinemas on June 10th 2016

A copy of the Disappearing World film - War of the Gods can be viewed on-site at the British Library 

 

Find out more about the work of the British Libary's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.