There's been a trend in recent years to sentimentalize nature and smooth out her rough edges to make her into something people can use as a relaxation tool. Walk into even drug stores these days and you're liable to find some sort of CD listening booth advertising titles offering you relief from stress through the soothing sounds of the natural world. You can buy anything from the sounds of a forest coming awake in the morning to the restful sounds of a gentle tide breaking on the beach.
Those relaxation recordings have as little to do with the natural world as a sitcom has to do with the human world. Just like real people don't act anything like what we see on the television, nature isn't the collection of soothing sounds that they make her out to be. We only need to listen to the reality of the element, water, they make the most use of for these CDs to understand how far removed from reality they really are. Thankfully, there now exist people fascinated by the real sounds of nature who are willing to go to great lengths to capture them on tape and create recordings that remind us that this force can create a tsunami as easily as a gentle breeze on a summer's day.
Norwegian sound artist Jana Winderen creates soundscapes from recordings that she has made with specially designed microphones of rivers in China, far beneath the surface of the North Sea, and crevices that run into the hearts of icebergs. Touch Music has now released her first full length solo CD, Heated, a record of a performance she gave in October 2008 in Tokyo. According to the credits on the disc the source material used for this show was gathered with various types of hydrophones and microphones in Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. Believe me when I tell you, listening to this disc is unlike anything you're likely to have experienced ever before.
For those of you expecting to hear something along the lines of the delicate sounds of raindrops plopping onto leafs, you'll be sorely disappointed. This is a world of mysterious groans, squeaks, and loud unearthly growls, as Winderen's microphones pull sounds from depths beneath the ice pack in the frozen north. For twenty-six plus minutes she plays back sounds that are so alien to our ears that they could be from another planet. Of course when you think about it they are, for when was the last time you went for a walk either inside a glacier or in the depths of the North Sea?
After, what is to a non Japanese speaking audience a meaningless introduction by Tetsuro Yasunaga, Winderen's recordings begin and we are immediately plunged into a world populated by noises that few of us could have ever imagined existed. The initial reaction is to try and find your bearings by searching for some sort of identifiable sound that you can hold onto – something we can use to get our bearings with. The trouble is that each time we might think something sounds familiar, the lapping of waves for instance, it changes and we are left floating without any idea of where we are or which way we are pointed.
You really have two options when listening to this type of creation: keep trying to latch onto something that will give you an idea as to what it is you're listening to or surrender to the experience of being immersed in the unfamiliar. While the mind will occasionally, almost involuntarily, offer an image to go with something it hears based on previous knowledge, these pictures are as misleading as they are wrong. There's no way that squeaking noise could be the sound of a creaking floorboard or a door's hinges in desperate need of oiling no matter how hard your brain tries to convince you otherwise.
It's no wonder though that you might think that, for what we are hearing evokes the same sort of reactions as those you would have wandering in any place where you feel in constant danger. I don't think it's because the noises are what you'd call threatening, but it's just a natural reaction to hearing the unfamiliar. It's a lot like being early man seated in front of caves as dark falls listening to the sounds that come alive in the night and not knowing which could spell death or which is harmless. Deprived of our ability to see, and not recognizing anything of what we hear, panic on an instinctual level is understandable.
However, if you can overcome any panic you might experience, and accept that nothing you hear is necessarily what you think it is you can begin to appreciate what you're listening to. First of all you'll notice it's not just a randomly amassed collection of sounds as Winderen seems to have established some sort of arrangement. If I were to guess, and I've nothing to base this assumption on, it feels like we are being taken on a journey from the surface to the depths and back again. When you descend under the sea pressure increases as the density of the water builds and over the course of the performance the density of the sound gradually increases until it reaches a peak followed by a decrease that would indicate a return to shallower waters.
Of course I've no way of knowing if that was her intent, or whether I was just supposing something in an attempt to make the alien recognizable. What I am sure of is that I've never experienced anything like the journey Winderen takes us on in Heated before. While I've always understood on an intellectual level that nature is random and wild, this recording allows you to experience that on an emotional level. Like a wild thunder storm, this is beautiful and frightening at the same time. Not the most pleasant or relaxing of experiences, but a very real one that reminds us how little we still know of the world around us.