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Listening for the Sounds of Life—Experiencing Nature and Culture Via Sound Art

Through continuous exploration and experimentation, Yannick Dauby is uncovering the subtle symphonic movements of life. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Through continuous exploration and experimentation, Yannick Dauby is uncovering the subtle symphonic movements of life. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 

In this world of ours, countless sound waves are moving rapidly and intangibly, endlessly coming, going, and reson­ating. In the air, in the water, in the countryside and cities, in seemingly quiet spaces, life-forms use a variety of vocabularies to continually interact with each other.

Human ears can pick up only a limited range of sounds, but just because we can’t hear something it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Through continuous exploration and experimentation, Frenchman Yannick Dauby, who was nominated for a 2016 Golden Horse Award for Best Sound Effects, is uncovering the subtle symphonic movements of life.

 

Using sounds waves to express life force

Even before it opens its eyes, a newborn baby announces its presence in the world with a sonor­ous cry. That startling and forceful wail announces the beginning of another life’s journey. The same sound of crying can produce different emotions in people, as it can express the joy of life or lament the dead. Sounds can mean different things depending on context. “I’ve always been fascinated by sound.” Yannick Dauby, who has a background in ethnology and the natural sciences, has been absorbed in experi­menting with and exploring aural experiences.

Dauby fell in love with Taiwan’s abundant and diverse natural ecologies after coming here from his native France. Crazy about frogs, Dauby has gone everywhere in Taiwan to record the songs of different frog species on the island, even to the remotest places, no matter what the difficulties.

“Sometimes when I wasn’t paying attention there’d be a vibration in my ears so strong that it was painful.” Dauby shows us his standard gear for field surveys, including specialized earphones that can boost the volume of very soft sounds. “Some frog calls are very weak, and the courtship periods are very brief.” He spent long periods in the field recording the encyclopedic Songs of the Frogs of Taiwan, which was released on CD in June of 2009.
 

The right sounds for a particular work can be produced using a mixer. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

The right sounds for a particular work can be produced using a mixer. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 

Learning through listening

Dauby has also done longitudinal field surveys, collecting data in fixed places over many years to study ecological change. “Where there is sound, there is life.” He made recordings of the coral reef ecology in the shallow seas off the Penghu Archipelago, personally document­ing how the reef has gone from being vibrantly alive to deathly still. “Under normal conditions, it’s really bustling beneath the surface of the ocean.” Dauby plays a video he previously recorded, in which he carefully listens to and explores the wide variety of sounds in the busy marine ecosystem.

Dauby’s wife Tsai Wan-shuen, who was born and raised in Penghu County, took her family back to her old hometown, and Dauby immediately took to the simple island lifestyle. He had the azure sea as a limitless sound laboratory, and the couple developed an interest in ex­plor­ing the architecture and way of life on the islands, launching an experimental video project focused on young children living on Penghu’s smallest islands.

In 2015, Tsai and Dauby’s “Atelier Hui-Kan” embarked on a video arts tour, traveling to primary schools on some of the smaller islands in the Penghu Archipelago and conducting themed interviews with students. “The same questions got different answers from children living in different natural environments.” The project demonstrated the link between students’ level of interest in the environment and their perceptions of it. Through video recordings of interviews and through sharing and exchange, they produced a culturally immersive educational effect.

“The people of Penghu are inseparable from the sea.” Not only do they depend on the sea for their livelihoods, even their dwellings are connected to the ocean. “­Using animals’ bodies to build houses is really something rare and fascinating.” Dauby was amazed by Penghu’s unique traditional coral-stone structures. “At that time our youngest daughter was just two years old, and one day she suddenly said to me that she ‘wanted to wake up in the sea.’” This innocent reflection prompted Tsai Wan-shuen, whose previous creative work had centered on installations, ­images, and video, to make a book out of remarks the girl made, adding ­poetry to give the work an additional cultural vibe. In 2017 she published her daughter’s observa­tions along with Taiwanese-­language poetry in a book entitled Je voudrais me réveiller dans la mer (“I want to wake up in the sea”). It was printed using traditional movable type, in a style full of gentle childish playfulness.
 

After coming from France to Taiwan, Dauby fell in love with Penghu, his wife Tsai Wan-shuen’s home. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

After coming from France to Taiwan, Dauby fell in love with Penghu, his wife Tsai Wan-shuen’s home. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 

Writing stories with sound

Among the five senses, hearing provides an important emotional counterbalance. Through hearing, we can receive the sounds of nature that relieve anxiety, and enjoy the joyous gurgling of a stream. Frequencies and vibrations resound like sonar, stirring the mind and swelling the heart. This is how stories are born of sound.

In 2008 Dauby and Tsai jointly founded Atelier Hui-Kan to conduct experimental research into sound.

In 2010, while recording the CD Listen to the Atayal in Taoshan, they recorded songs of a man named Laysa’ of the Skaru’ tribe of the Atayal indigenous people. The elder passed away three years later, the recordings his swan song. The disappearance of the older generation highlights the fact that the Atayal culture is in danger of dying out.

The documentary Beiguan Music at the House of Jiang, meanwhile, records a story of the Hakka community in Beipu Township, Hsinchu County. Students who had studied Beiguan music in Nankeng Village gathered again after a gap of 40 years at the old house of the Jiang family. From this typical Hakka courtyard compound, which nurtured the first group of Beiguan musicians, the sound of music again resonated through the hills and valleys. The music symbolized how wanderers who have drifted away for so many years have returned to their hometowns to revitalize family businesses. Thanks to the efforts of community residents, memories were re­discov­ered, and old skills blossomed once again at the long-­abandoned house.

In 2016, Dauby and Tsai took part in the 20th Biennale of Sydney in Australia, presenting their documentaries The Body of the Mountain, Beiguan Music at the House of ­Jiang, and Childhood of an Archipelago at the event’s “Embassy of Disappearance” venue. By carefully preserving these sounds, Dauby has ensured that even with time’s passing, the authentic original voices that have disappeared can be heard again and passed down to future generations.

“I think it is much more meaningful to let everyone share in these sounds now rather than to archive them away.” Having experienced nature’s vicissitudes and the sudden changes that can happen in life, Yannick Dauby’s ideal is to make it possible for all to appreciate the beauty of the present moment and to learn how to treasure it.
 

Atelier Hui-Kan has several different mixers that they use to create a multitude of sounds. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Atelier Hui-Kan has several different mixers that they use to create a multitude of sounds. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 

Creating a soundscape without limit

“For different locations, I have to use different tools.” The operational techniques used in the mountains are completely different from those used at sea.

“My favorite place is Mt. Taiping—it’s like a homeland to me.” Dauby can spend three days and nights at middle to high altitudes, engaging in an ongoing dialogue with nature. “Sometimes when recording sounds you can’t stop in the middle.” Often he first records everything, then returns to his studio to edit the material. “It’s like building up a database, so I can use the sounds when I need them.”

“Current tools are much more advanced than in the past.” One small computer can store a huge database.

Although Dauby’s studio is small, it has everything he needs, including hand-made instruments that emit all kinds of strange and unique sounds. One of the mixers, which he made himself, is small and sensitive, and he can use it to produce extreme sci-fi sounds whenever he desires.

Sound effects that are striking to people have always had a significant impact, and designing a soundtrack to accompany a plot has always been a display of artistry. Those who want to create innovative theater, dance, exhibi­tions, or visual arts all seek out soundtracks that fit their needs.

“Sound can make up the core of a work, without need for text or images to interpret it.” It can be like the art of mime, which silently entertains people. “When you hear birdcall, what do you think of?” With sound alone, even without a visual context, people can construct a story in their minds.

Sound is ever-changing and intriguing. Atelier Hui-Kan hopes that, through education and sharing, everyone can come to appreciate the subtlety of sound art. There’s an unbreakable natural link between human beings and the universe. When we use our sense of hearing to engage in a dialogue with the environment, our spirits rediscover the feeling of safety and belonging we associate with “home.” Sounds enter the ear, and from the ear enter the heart and mind, endlessly resonating.