(Impulsive Habitat 2012)

Review by Cheryl Tipp

We all have our own preconceived notions of what a rainforest should sound like, even if we’ve never actually visited one. Film, television, audio publications and images all contribute to the formation of these sonic identities in our mind. Preconception is at the heart of ‘El Yunque’, a wonderful new release from field recordist David Michael. For over two hours we are treated to an uninterrupted recording of Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest after dark. The content is fairly simple – insects and frogs dominate the soundscape throughout – but this in no way lessens the quality or appeal of the piece. In fact, I think the steady temperament of the recording, together with the subtle variations in sound as we move through the night into daybreak, create a rich and soothing atmosphere that is a real pleasure to experience.

In the accompanying notes to ‘El Yunque’, Michael speaks about his personal preconceptions when approaching this recording project. He also mentions his initial disappointment with the final recording, referring to it as a “total travesty”. The recording he came away with was unexpected because it didn’t represent the sounds of “his” rainforest. As listeners we also draw on other sources and our own formulised ideas of how something should sound. For me, the 2012 Gruenrekorder release ‘Sempervirent’ by Rodolphe Alexis is an example of approaching field recordings with a predetermined idea of what to expect. Having heard other publications that focused on Costa Rican rainforests, I expected to hear the same kind of atmosphere. In fact, I was surprised. ‘Sempervirent’, as with El Yunque’, presented another, perhaps more realistic, take on what a rainforest actually sounds like, thereby encouraging us to re-evaluative the way we, as listeners, approach a supposedly familiar subject.

The length of ‘El Yunque’ is not really conducive to prolonged, concentrated listening, but that is not an issue because the publication works so well as a background piece. There is enough detail to keep your ear interested, but not too much so that you become distracted from whatever you happen to be doing at the time (cataloguing African bird recordings in my case). Michael has mastered this kind of sustained listening experience – as with his beautiful track ‘Midnight with a Visitor and Coyote’ (Frick Pond, Fieldcraft Records 2011), he successfully manages to avoid any monotony through careful yet seemingly minimal editing.

The foreground is the dominant element of ‘El Yunque’ but pay attention to the background and other middle-distance elements that occasionally drift into view. Barking dogs, crowing roosters and forest birds that come and go through the night are accompanied by the distant sounds of passing cars and faint cheering from a nearby boxing match. Even the gentle snores of our field recordist don’t escape the microphone!

‘El Yunque’ is another great success for both David Michael and the brilliant netlabel Impulsive Habitat’, who consistently produce free releases of the very highest calibre. It’s encouraging and inspiring to see some of the finest names in this field dedicate their efforts to producing phonographic works that are freely available to anyone who wants to listen. This latest addition is just another good reason to lose yourself in the Impulsive Habitat catalogue.

[Map of El Yunque]

David Michael website
Impulsive Habitat website

Cheryl Tipp

Wildlife sounds curator at British Library.