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In-Situ City: Annabel Schouten

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Polyphonic soundscapes – thoughts about Annabel Schouten’s work

In-Situ/City is an ongoing project that focuses on the city as an ever-changing changing collection of historical, cultural, political and social signifiers. For Gaudeamus 2022, four young makers (groups) were commissioned to create new work that reflects on this theme, with a special focus on the relationship between humans and non-humans. In four articles, music journalist and researcher Joep Christenhusz dives deep into their work and themes.

In the south-east of Utrecht, in the shadow of Galgenwaard Stadium, stands Fort Lunet I. Around 1820 this building was erected as part of the New Dutch Waterline. After a second life as a nuclear bunker during the Cold War, its massive walls are now home to the musical breeding ground named Onderbuik.

One evening in April: first try-out of In Situ/City, a programme created by the Gaudeamus Foundation and European music network Ulysses, in which four young makers investigate the relationship between the human and the non-human. I find myself back in one of the narrow bunker corridors, listening attentively with some other ‘guinea pigs’. The ceiling is hung with ice cubes. Meltwater drips into bowls on the floor. Sound reverberations on concrete and brick amplify the soft plinking into a watery gamelan music – each ‘gong’ in its own tempo.

We walk outside into the spring evening. Footsteps on, successively, cobblestones, gravel and sand mingle to form a rhythmically layered percussion concert. In the trees blackbirds whistle their own polyphonic twilight motet, while a spring breeze rustles back and forth in the leaves. Under a bridge over the Kromme Rijn, musical instruments are being handed out: banjo, violin, lute, a wooden clog with strings. A long thread has been stretched across the railing along the water, like an infinite bow. In no time at all an improvised concert of elongated drone sounds can be heard. A boat that happens to be passing by provides accompaniment with the plopping pulse of oars.

Friendly activism
A Zoom interview, early May. She has had a love of landscapes for as long as she can remember, says composer and self-proclaimed ‘sound finder’ Annabel Schouten (1999). An example of apples not falling far from the tree: “As a family we used to spend a lot of time in nature. Furthermore, my father is a landscape architect, so on holidays we always had to visit a park or garden somewhere.” Laughing: “Some of that has rubbed off on us, I’m afraid. My brother became an earth scientist and my twin sister is now also studying landscape architecture.”

Despite her talent for the violin, Schouten had initially envisaged a future as an environmental scientist: “I was looking for an area of study in which I could relate to themes that are important in the world today. Our relationship to the earth is such a topic, hence my interest in environmental sciences. In the meantime I was also involved in music a lot, but I mostly did it on the side. I wasn’t going to change the world with that, I thought.

The turning point came when someone drew her attention to the Musician 3.0 programme (Utrechts Conservatorium). “This made me begin to realise that I can also relate musically to the world around me. That is still an important motive. Through my music I want to inspire people to think about our relationship with nature. At least, my work is an invitation to do so. I don’t want to be pedantic or tell people what they should think.

Pianist Albert van Veenendaal, Schouten’s study supervisor at Utrechts Conservatorium, put it aptly: “Friendly activism”.

Through my music I want to inspire people to think about our relationship with nature

Interrelation and connection
An interesting question is where exactly this friendly eco-activism (call it engagement) of Schouten’s work comes from. More specifically: what is actually so ecological about wandering through a landscape with your ears pricked up? In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (1996), the American ecologist and philosopher David Abram provides the beginning of an answer. Those who perceive, he writes, enter into a sensory relationship with the world. In fact, people are physically attuned to such relationships. Abram: “The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils—all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness. [my emphasis, JC].” It is precisely in this relationality of perception that a strong ecological sensibility lies. If only because this involvement of self and other embodies in miniature what is studied by ecology at large: interrelation, connection.

Secondly: in line with the above you could argue that hearing is pre-eminently a relational sense. That sounds a bit abstract, so let me give you an example.

Those singing blackbirds described earlier on – what was actually happening there? Sonically speaking, I mean. Let’s start at the beginning. With the muscles and membranes of its syrinx (singing organ) a blackbird causes the air in its windpipe to vibrate with a certain frequency and amplitude (source). Through its open beak, fluctuations in air pressure spread out in rings in the spring twilight, continuing in waves over a sea of mainly nitrogen and oxygen molecules (medium). My auricle catches some of the sound waves. The vibrations clear a path through my ear canal to set in motion a mechanical domino effect about two centimetres into my skull: eardrum, hammer, anvil and stirrup. Finally, the cochlea, where tiny hairs convert the vibrations into an electrical signal that enters my brain. I (the receiver) hear the blackbird.

What this example illustrates is that listening immerses you in a field of relationships. Indeed, the sound listened to is this relationship, in which source, medium and receiver become so intertwined that it is difficult to draw strict boundaries between inner and outer worlds, subject and object, in the acoustic experience. In her book Listening to Noise and Silence (2010), English-Swiss sound artist and theorist Salomé Voegelin therefore describes listening as “an act of engagement with the world”, in which we “share time and space” with the events occurring in that world.

Can you feel what is happening in this listening analysis? Once again, we are thinking in ecological terms of close interrelation and connection.

Dialogue with the landscape
A similar way of thinking is evident in Schouten’s vocabulary. Take the following musing: “I have difficulty with this often heard opposition between human kind and nature. Aren’t we all part of an intertwining of life forms?” And about her artistic motivations: “I want to make people feel connected to their environment again”.

Given these views it was only to be expected that Schouten would enter the landscape with her work. She took the first step with Landwalks (2020), a project for which she, loosely inspired by the British artist Richard Long, walked circular patterns in a field. Schouten: “Landwalks was actually an investment of time, a way to connect a trace of my time and presence to a landscape.”

Or take Shaping Time, the walking concert with which Schouten graduated in 2021. A trailer on YouTube shows an audience strolling through grass and scrubland, ears pricked up. Sometimes the route leads past a performance on a self-developed installation such as Shadow Play (a marimba whose sound bars Schouten modelled according to the shadow lengths of a sundial). The explanatory notes speak of ‘musical interventions’, intended to open an acoustic dialogue with the rhythms of the surroundings and to sharpen the ears for the sounds of the landscape.

Talk about relationships.

Multiple temporalities
To return briefly to the question of what precisely makes listening in a landscape an ecologically committed act: in my opinion a third answer is possible. An answer that not only touches on a sense of relationality, but also on the relativity of human experience.

Take Schouten’s following observation:

When I listen to my surroundings, I have the feeling that I am part of something that is by definition larger than I can comprehend. Time and again I come to the conclusion that it is impossible to hear everything that is happening simultaneously in a landscape.

Two sentences, big consequences. With her choice of words (“by definition larger than I can comprehend”), Schouten is stepping outside the horizon of her own experience. With this movement a remarkable shift in perspective takes place: the landscape itself, not her perception of it, moves to the centre. Background becomes foreground, scene becomes protagonist. That which in our Western tradition was long considered to be primarily a passive setting for great human achievements, suddenly takes on a life of its own as an active and layered process.

It is striking that, in this active landscape concept, Schouten attributes an important role to time (‘simultaneous’ being the key word here). You could, she admits, call it a form of professional deformation: “After all, sound is a temporal medium. Sounds unfold in time. So mapping out a sound walk and listening to a landscape together – that has irrevocably to do with time.”

It is not without reason that the temporality of things has become something of a meta-theme for Schouten in recent years. In her work, time sounds metaphorical (think of the marimba sounds based on a sundial in Shadow Play) or it passes symbolically (don’t the ice cubes in the opening lines remind us that time is running out on climate change and melting ice caps?)
But above all, in Schouten’s hands time becomes a material. Those who take part in one of her walking concerts not only experience the sounds of a landscape, but also the temporalities (plural) that unfold in that landscape. Referring back to the try-out in April: while we walked, our footsteps became a living metronome, with which the rhythms of the birds, the wind, the traffic and the flowing water formed a temporal counterpoint. Every voice its own time: the sounding landscape as one gigantic prolation canon.

Landscape polyphony
In The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) Chinese-American anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing refers to landscapes as ‘assemblages’. Freely translated: gatherings in which diverse species (including humans) are involved in a collective process that she calls multi-species world-making. By this Tsing means that life forms, large and small, actively shape their living environment in order to increase their chances of survival. Fungi break rock down into soil to obtain minerals. Trees and plants extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (and add oxygen to it). Ants make hills. Beavers build dams. Humans create fields, roads and cities. All in all, it is this continuous transformation process, this interplay of collective survival strategies that we call ‘landscape’.

Tsing’s multi-faceted concept of landscape has, among other things, temporal consequences. Anyone who thinks in terms of multi-species world-making will not get far with the linear, growth- and progress-oriented concept of time that is dominant in the Western world. Tsing’s assemblages call for a more diverse and inclusive time model, in which the accumulated rhythms of geological processes, seasons, growth cycles and reproductive patterns are given room to interact.

Fortunately such a model has long been available, according to Tsing: polyphonic music. She describes her first encounter with a fugue as a revelation: “I was forced to pick out separate, simultaneous melodies and to listen for the moments of harmony and dissonance they created together. This kind of noticing is just what is needed to appreciate the multiple temporal rhythms and trajectories of the assemblage.”

If you ask me, Tsing could also have been writing about Schouten. After all, Schouten’s work explicitly expresses the polyphonic and simultaneous nature of the landscape. I recently experienced this at first hand during a visit to the Floriade. After a boat trip on the Almere Weerwater in early May, I stood in front of Schouten’s Klinkboom, a circular marimba that girds the trunk of an oak tree. A group of children performed an improvisation with wooden sticks. Enthusiastic and bouncy. In the explanation I read about more-than-human rhythms; about the unpredictable play of rain, hail and – in autumn – acorns on the keys. About the decaying of the wood, causing the instrument’s sound to change slowly and imperceptibly. Meanwhile, the wind blew through the bushes, the water babbled, and a lawnmower buzzed in the distance.

If the polyphony of the landscape became audible anywhere, then it was here.

© Joep Christenhusz 2022