TransMongolian. ROLAND ETZIN
(Gruenrekorder 2012)

Review by Cheryl Tipp

Roland Etzin’s ‘TransMongolian’ is a series of acoustic portraits recorded during a three month journey across Russia, China, Mongolia, South Korea and Japan. Given the sheer distance covered by Etzin during the summer-autumn of 2010 and his encounters with such a diverse range of cultures and associated ways of life, I imagine he would have ended his travels with a recorder brimming with field recordings. For ‘TransMongolian’ however, Etzin decided to bring together just six recordings that, to his ear, represented the countries through which he had travelled and, most importantly, listened to.

Each portrait includes some element of movement and travel, and given that much of this journey seems to have been carried out on the famous Trans-Mongolian Railway, mechanical sounds become a regular occurrence. The first portrait, recorded in Russia, is the most mechanical in nature, with the whole track appearing to take place in a station and then onboard the train. Aside from a few footsteps, muffled coughs and distant voices, Portrait 1 dedicates itself to the sounds of the chosen mode of transport which is a great way to start.

As we progress through the remaining portraits, other sound types begin to emerge. Portrait 4, for example, was recorded at Russia’s historical Lake Baikal and is dominated by the sound of water, taken from both above and beneath the surface. Over the course of 10 minutes, this piece moves from a gentle hydrophone recording to a vigorous example of breaking waves on the lake’s shoreline. In contrast Portrait 5, recorded in South Korea, finds its voice in both the natural and the industrial world, with heavy metallic movements sitting comfortably alongside an intense cicada chorus.

The Mongolian portrait (track 4) is perhaps the most striking. From a gentle, rural atmosphere comes the sound of approaching hoofbeats; a reminder to us that traditional methods of transport still exist in some parts of the world. This seemingly idyllic setting is then invaded by what sounds like a plane passing overhead.

Our journey comes to an end in Japan where Etzin throws us into the noisy, in your face world of amusement arcades. This was completely unexpected and in stark contrast to the other portraits. A final train journey is undertaken until all that is left is the sound of solitary footsteps walking on a rough path, returning us to the oldest and most traditional form of transport for our species.

‘TransMongolian’ is a personal snapshot of the sonic experiences of one individual during the course of a journey that took three months to complete and crossed five different countries. Should you or I have completed the same journey, our interpretation of the signature sounds of these places would of course have been quite different. Some sounds are so striking and naturally cause the ears of field recordists to prick up, that I’m sure certain elements of Etzin’s portraits would continue to surface again and again.

[Roland Etzin, photo author Robin Parmar]

Roland Etzin website
Gruenrekorder website

Cheryl Tipp

Wildlife sounds curator at British Library.