Steven Feld’s “Voices of the Rainforest” provides viewers extraordinary access to the complex human and non-human soundscape of Papua New Guinea’s Bosavi rainforest.
Curious about how the film was constructed, I “sat down” with Steve in our respective locations of Boston and Santa Fe and, over email, discussed the making of the film. In speaking with Steve, the depth of his research – spanning more than 40 years – and the iterative production process underlying the media works was clear. What also came to the fore was the collaborative nature of both. I’m excited to share a few highlights of this discussion below; you can also read the full transcript of the interview (PDF).
The project started when Steve created a 12-minute recording following his dissertation research in 1976-7. As Steve describes it, he recorded the sounds of ”men, women, and children cutting trees overlapping with their whooping, whistling, talking, laughing, and singing song fragments, set in the ambient surround sounds of the birds and insects.” A couple of iterations later, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart heard the recording. HIs “instant response,” according to Steve, was “This is great, it sounds just like a Grateful Dead jam! Why is it a secret?” Hart began playing the audio track during concert intermissions. When concert-goers began to request copies of the audio, Steve realized there was a larger audience for the work. At Mickey Hart’s invitation, and with access to more sophisticated recording and mixing equipment, Steve produced the 1991 CD version of VOICES.
Once Mickey started producing his CD series “The World” on Rykodisc, he called and said “I want to do a day in the rainforest with equipment on steroids; Dolby and Lucas are in; are you ready?” So I recorded for ten weeks in Bosavi in 1990, spent five months editing in Mickey’s studio, and we released Voices on Earth Day 1991 at George Lucas’s Skywalker Sound.
Steve explained the challenge of recording in the rainforest, and how he went about recording the individual sounds and the interaction between human voice and those of the natural world in a way that could then be mixed together to convey the complex interrelationships.
A good stereo image of a singer singing a song in the rainforest is not difficult. What is difficult is to get a correct mix of the singer and what s/he is hearing in the surrounding environment. The only spatial solution, at least with the equipment I had, a stereo Nagra, was to make and mix multiple recordings. Take the scene in the film and on the CD where Ulahi is singing at a creek, sitting on a rock three feet from the bank. I waded into the water and made a stereo recording of her voice. Then I made stereo recordings of the water in front, to each side, and behind her. Then I recorded the ambience behind her at different heights. Then I made a wider ear-level recording from the bank.
Microphone choice was essential. The use of two cardioid microphones rather than omnidirectional microphones allowed him to create a stereo recording that maintains the distinct locations of different sounds. And a technique he picked up at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology enabled him to entice birds to come closer resulting in clearer recordings of bird calls which could be laid back onto the ambient track. Steve described this complex layering of sound as follows.
What all of this adds up to is that there is always a mix of real time/space, expanded time/space, and compressed time/space in the soundtrack.
This older audio track served as a starting point for the current film work. For the film, Steve used the original audio recordings supplemented with new materials and was able to further refine the soundscape into a surround sound experience.
When, twenty-five years later, I digitized the original analog tapes and recomposed Voices at Skywalker with Dennis Leonard in 7.1 cinema surround, we had considerably more control of all of these dimensions of height and depth, space and time, because we could calibrate the different ambient bed tracks, performance tracks, and sample tracks and place them in a fully mapped 360- degree sound field.
Visually, the film draws on photographs by Steve and fellow anthropological researchers during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, as well as video footage recorded specifically for the film. At DER’s screening in Cambridge last year, I was struck by the contrast between the hustle-bustle of daily life and the film’s pacing. The film opens with a deliberately slowly paced sequence of images designed to envelop audiences in a slow awakening to the rainforest. Describing the introductory sequence, Feld explained:
The idea was to slowly evoke multiple time/space depths while allowing people to encounter the density of the surround soundtrack. We experimented with different kinds of temporalities, dissolves, fades, and multiple image overlays in the first sequence, waking up with the forest. I wanted to provoke an experience like the one I had so often, of opening my eyes to the dawn light, only to find that it forced me to “see” even more with my ears.
This novel arrival sequence is followed by a variety of visual strategies to highlight varying relationships between past and present, the larger social context, different aspects of social life, and of people’s relationship to the environment.
We also talked about the Bosavi Digital Archive through which Steve and others are ensuring the community’s ongoing access to the products of research and the centrality of collaboration underlying Steve research and artistic production from working with individual “performers” to forest guides. Steve explained that screening the finished film in Bosavi was in part a ritual showing respect for the community, and it evoked a variety of responses, from the delight of a “home movie,” to sadness at seeing the images of individuals who had passed, to “pride and amazement” that something so mundane in their lives would be of interest to a global community.
Much has changed for the Bosavi in the forty plus years since Steve began his work there. Young people are interested in more productive engagement in the wider world, while also concerned for the environmental sustainability of the rainforest. Voices of the Rainforest ends with a speech by Monica Degelo, a young Bosavi woman, who expresses some of these concerns, and lays the groundwork for a new film that highlights the concerns of the younger generation. Steve summarizes Monica’s speech:
“Just wait, we have more to tell you.”