Interview with Slavek Kwi

by Tobias Fischer

Complementary disconnections

As he puts it himself, Ireland-based sound artist Slavek Kwi is “obsessed by freedom”: The freedom to accept or refuse traditions, the freedom to use or disregard cultural references, the freedom to establish his own ideologies only to question and discard them again. For his possibly most ambitious project to date, “Boto [Encantado]”, Kwi made full use of this freedom, travelling to the Amazon to record the sounds of the Boto river dolphins. Floating along the river in a canoe, he spent weeks in almost perfect isolation, living with an inside the sonic world of the Boto and the “ever-changing mysterious subaquatic soundscape” surrounding him. The recordings were later condensed into a headphone installation and a radio-play-like, otherworldly LP on the Belgian ini.itu imprint. And yet, the human input is without doubt the least fascinating aspect about these works. With their wide range of timbres, chatter, click noises and rhythms, the vocabulary palette and expressive capacities of the dolphins question our conventional notions of language, turning our perception of music upside down. Aptly for someone as obsessed by freedom as Kwi, the solution to the confusion is simply not to choose a black-and-white interpretation: Perhaps if we can accept the paradox of our experience, the meaning will reveal itself most clearly.

 Q (TF). How did the idea for the project come about and what interested you about the sonic vocabulary of dolphins in particular?

 A (SK). The idea to create a piece based on sounds of the boto came after my first trip to the Amazon: a remote reserve Xixuau Xiparina on Rio Jauaperi off Rio Negro. From my scant research about the location, I knew the dolphins would be there.  Though I was hoping to record them, I was not solely focused on dolphins – I wished to experience the place in all its possibilities, and simply record sounds within the habitat – both underwater and above.

The concept: I was interested about the influences of information on the reception of the sounds, exploring perception from the perspective of both art and science: a combination of sound-art as purely an aesthetic experience together with scientific (in this case pseudo-scientific as I am simply creating a model of thinking-geometry) cognitive information. The audio-material with river dolphins seemed to me especially suitable for this project: the variety of sounds generated by the boto, the acoustic richness of habitat, and the mythical context, all influenced my choice. BOTO is the local name for Amazonian Pink Dolphins (Inia Geoffrensis). It is believed that from time to time boto come out of water as handsome men to seduce women. When a woman has difficulty identifying the father of her child, she blames the boto ….

“BOTO“ listening piece was part of an installation within a collective exhibition “2 Places“ which was showing simultaneously in two locations – Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast, Northern Ireland and University of Limerick, Ireland (2008). The set-up for “Boto“ comprised of 2 pairs of high quality headphones attached to a CD-player (you can access individual fragments of the composition via skip buttons), 2 comfortable chairs, and on the wall a detailed list describing sounds used in the composition; the list starts like this: WARNING: Do not read! The information is influencing the way you are experiencing the sounds. No comprehension whatsoever is required to access this work (a similar list, printed backwards, accompanies the LP – possible to read in the mirror.)

My conclusion, after finalizing “BOTO”, was that the way the mind of an artist and that of a scientist operates is diametrically opposed.  Art and science seem to stand beside each other in a disconnected though complementary way, creating a paradox. It seems to me impossible to combine art and science in a satisfactory way, without accepting this paradox. The question is if we can actually experience the sound-piece as experiential abstraction while absorbing the information; the way in which we take in information seems to reduce the potential for “mystery“.

I am perpetually oscillating between wanting and not wanting to know – I feel like knowledge somehow limits the purity of an aural experience and simultaneously it can complement in a strange contradictory way – “to know” and “not to know” is the paradox.

Q. The album was recorded over the course of various trips into the Amazon. Can you tell me a bit about them, please? What are the Rio Negro and Lago Mamori like, especially in sonic terms?

A. I am fascinated by rainforests, the biodiversity and density of sound is incredible. I visited the brazilian Amazon several times between 2007 and 2011, twice Rio Negro and multiple times Mamori. I certainly experienced differences between the two locations. I will talk here only about subaquatic recordings though.

Rio Negro has so called “black water”, which is actually a tea-like colour and is acidic. In general there appeared to be less subaquatic insects (though some sounds are astonishing, almost electronic-like) and frogs, different species of soniferous fish – it seemed a little bit quieter than the white water. One interesting fishsong from Xixuau Xiparina sounds like knocking on a wooden board at various speeds – this rather large fish, according to locals, has inside the skull a small cavity with two marble-like bones. The fish knocks together these balls, generating loud clicking sounds which you can hear even above water. Mamori has “white water”, which is a yellowish milky colour and alkaloid, rich in sediments. In general there is an abundance of insects and frogs, various soniferous and electric fish, crustaceans; sonic life seemed very proliferous. Aside from the “boto” there is another amazon dolphin, “tucuxi”. “Tucuxi” is a local name for a smaller estuarine dolphin (Sotalia fluviatilis). Unlike boto, who are purely river dolphins, tucuxi sometimes venture into the open ocean. Mamori is more populated than Xixuau Xiparina; you can often hear small boat-engines. In Xixuau Xiparina it is rare to hear such interference.

To get to Xixuau Xiparina takes about 36 hours on a rather noisy double-decker boat from Manaus, up the stream of Rio Negro.  We slept in suspended hammocks, myself and my wife Helen. During the night there were increasing myriads of flying insects – mainly moths, sometimes very big, and startling colours – attracted by the light. The reserve is in the region of Rio Jauaperi off Rio Negro.  There is a village with a small indigenous population, which is where the  Amazonia Association is run from. The rainforest around is annually flooded – water rises and descents about 11m – however the surrounding forests seem to be still partly underwater all the time. The Amazonia Association organized a guide for us.  The majority of time we travelled in between the trees in a canoe . Flooded rainforest is incredibly beautiful; it has a spacious and resonant quality. Hiking through dense rainforest was rather limited; from those hikes I have long duration sequences when I left a recorder for several hours without my presence.

Concerning river dolphins, our guide was particularly knowledgeable about their habits and whereabouts; unfortunately my basically non-existent portuguese limited our communication.  We were taken to several dolphin frequented places to record. Unless the dolphins emerged from the water to exhale, it was impossible to spot them. On the last night of our trip, I was recording  frogs, insects and bats from the canoe. We could hear a few dolphins emerging with loud snorting sounds around us. I was listening  through headphones; each exhalation sounded almost alike a human’s sigh.  It was for me a particularly emotional experience. A five minute extract from this recording is included on the LP.

Several nights I recorded from a small floating wooden platform attached to the shore.  My hydrophone was about 10-12m deep. I was listening to the active chatter underwater: crackling, clicking, croaking, grunting, snapping and occasionally some more vocal sounds.

It was very strange and alien, like listening to some emissions from deep space or radio interferences – I loved it. I spent many hours in complete awe sitting in the darkness, only sometimes opening my torch and looking around for possible creepy-crawlies. One evening I saw a hairy spider the size of my palm gliding on the surface of the water – probably some specie of tarantula. I didn’t know such a big creature could walk on the water! Another night, when I was in a dreamlike state, almost falling to sleep while listening to subaquatic symphony, I hear a voice saying very loudly in my ears: “Bubak!” and then just a few splashes of water suggesting the culprit swimming away. I was startled. “Bubak” is the equivalent in czech to “bugaboo” – indeed a rather ghostly surprise … I still have no idea what creature it was.  It might have been the boto, regarding his mischievous reputation.

The trip from Manaus to Mamori Lago is about 3-4 hours via a combination of minivan and smaller boats. I travelled together with Francisco Lopez and the groups of participants of the Mamori Sound Project.  Underwater, we recorded in groups, either from 2-3 canoes or anywhere suitable from the shore. Often you could hear active insects in shallows close to the shore; unfortunately there was also a lot of rotting leaves and debris which created unwanted banging sounds. Once I was recording in between the branches of a large fallen tree in the shallows. I was listening to beautiful sharp clicking insects, and suddenly I hear a sort of munching and rasping sound, greatly amplified by the hollow tree. I then noticed a large catfish eating algae and probably the wood itself. The Amazon hosts many species of prehistoric-looking catfish who are able to generate a variety of loud sounds: grunting, croaking, wrrrrrrrrrrrrr-like and sssssssssss-sounds. Sometimes we recorded inside floating grass-carpets, which covered the surface water, called by locals “capi”. One night, under a capi, I heard electronic-like sounds as something swam slowly by, a sort of doppler effect; it sounded exactly like pure sine-wave, sometimes saw or square-wave. It was so strange that first I thought my equipment was malfunctioning, though I could also hear clearly an abundance of insects, air or gas bubbles released by mud, and on top of that, another interweaved layers of electronic-like vibrations, almost like fish playing an organ. After doing some research, I discovered that these mysterious tonal signals seemed to be triggered by an active electroreception field (eod) of Gymnotiform electric fish.

Boto and Tucuxi we encountered mainly during the trip on the double-decker boat on the river Yuma. We recorded from canoes day and night. You could hear an abundance of soniferous fish (croaking, grunting, woodpecker-like sounds), high pitched insects and an audible spectrum of dolphin’s echolocation trrrrrrrrrrr-like clicks with occasional loud chuckling songs coming unexpectedly in, chasing schools of little fish jumping out of the water with loud circular splashes … I remember not wanting to press the “stop” button on my recorder and wishing to carry on for ever, to listen without a move, in complete darkness, to this ever-changing mysterious subaquatic soundscape. I was very happy there.

 Q. What kind of specific challenges did the recording pose?

A. It’s not that easy to obtain good underwater-recordings. There is more to it than just throwing in the hydrophone and pressing record.  Apart from the different acoustic properties of the aquatic environment, temperature, salinity etc, there are plenty of additional sound sources to consider, all adding and changing recording conditions; for example: the water and the canoe are constantly moving, various debris are floating around, and in the case of flooded rainforest, there are branches, an uneven land base, and water also transports different sounds from a distance and from the surface etc. It is rather challenging. As the echolocation of dolphins is ultrasonic, you cannot hear most of it – it happened to me that i recorded and didn’t hear anything at all. I assumed there were no dolphins, only to discover later in the computer that I had picked up clicks of sonar.

 Q. Part of the LP contains of what you’ve referred to as ‘vocabulary samples’. After spending a lot of time with the dolphins, what, would you say, is communicated through their sounds?

A. Vocabulary (it can be understood as “index” as well) refers to a series of short vocal sounds, which I assumed to be produced by dolphins, though this might not be completely true. Some fish, especially catfish, may generate similar sounds; the range of vocal sounds of the boto is not really known. Some calls  – a sort of chuckling – sound completely the same from Mamori and from Xixuau Xiparina. The use of sonar – echolocation – is for orientation and to locate prey in murky water. What dolphins communicate to each other – aside from territorial and mating calls – I don’t know. I think it’s impossible to comprehend non-human psychology; all speculation seems to me somehow inappropriate and too anthropomorphic. However, there has been some interesting research concerning “sono-pictorial” communication with sea dolphins.

Q. After you returned home from your excursion, how was the album put together?

A. The work is “about” – though not as a narrative – the presence of the boto from various perspectives within its natural habitat, including elements from the environment and context. As compositional tools I used: transpositions, equalisation – both sometimes extreme – noise reduction and of course editing techniques (cut-up and layering), a few sequences are virtually intact and inserted within composition as it was recorded. Which is what I normally use as a technique anyway.

Q. Field recordings and processed field recordings are habitually published under the recorder’s name. Is this in any way problematic from your perspective? How do you see the question of authorship when it comes to recording animal song?

A. Well, if you put it that way – it seems suddenly unethical not to mention the animals. However, all this is clearly very antropomorphic perspective – even the scientific name is awarded by humans …

Animal calls are part of the acoustic environment – the same as human; in principle how do you see the question of authorship when it comes to recording human activities within the environment – such as distant hum of conversations, sounds of steps, driving cars etc.?

Recording is always subjective: the way it is recorded, the selection of time in and out (press record and stop), technical specifications of the microphones and recorder and, of course, decisions about editing and reproduction – all that is a very personal and creative matter. It feels fine to sign it. Acknowledgement of the recording situation, location etc. seems respectful.

A. The musicality of animal recordings has frequently been questioned. This is something I’ve always been particularly intrigued by. To you, is there something truly musical and individual about the dolphin-songs you’ve recorded?

A. The idea of “music“ is a human concept, therefore the parameters and the aesthetics of “music“ seem to me inevitably changeable – fluid, rather than static – and subject to individual perceptions. In this sense, I am not concerned about the “musicality“ of the sounds. However, I am observing my natural tendencies of my irrational attractions (or repulsion) towards some specific sounds. Likes and dislikes are polarities of the paradox, I am including the whole paradox as part of my perception.

We might consider sounds as “musical” when these sounds make sense to us, when it sounds meaningful to our ears. This depends solely on the development of our perception and cultural conditioning.


 [Boto artwork cover]

* [Upper image: Slavek Kwi courtesy of Echomusic]

Tobias Fischer: Guest editor for The Field Reporter. Editor-in-chief of experimental music magazine Tokafi and publisher of the 15 Questions website.**

** The Field Reporter only claims authorship and responsibility for the material written by its editorial team.

Slavek Kwi website
Iniitu website