Niche constructions. THOMAS BESLEY
(Impulsive Habitat 2013)

Review by Cheryl Tipp

There’s little wonder why field recordists choose to visit Madagascar. Cloaked in an air of exoticism and full of intriguing species that can be found nowhere else on Earth, Madagascar would be near the top of anybody’s wishlist. Even the very names of the animals that inhabit the island lure you in: Helmet Vanga, Indri, White-throated Oxylabes, Diademed Sifaka, Sakalava Rail and the Nelicourvi Weaver. What are these mysterious creatures, what do they look like and, more importantly, sound like?

Thomas Besley has taken binaural recordings made during a trip to this island country lying in the Indian Ocean and created a beautiful 38 minute composition that is tranquil, engaging and full of surprises. In the accompanying notes, Besley writes that he wanted to give an impression of the different habitats through which he passed. He certainly achieves this and yet the transitions are not overly obvious or distracting.

If I had to choose one word to describe ‘Niche Constructions’, that word would be serene. Though there are occasional pockets of heightened vocal activity, the overall feel is quite gentle. If you had been lulled into a state of relaxation however, the unexpected rampant calls of a group of Red-ruffed lemurs towards the end of the piece will definitely change that!

As with David Michael’s ‘El Yunque’ (Impulsive Habitat) and Rodolphe Alexis’ ‘Sempervirent’ (Gruenrekorder), Besley has not been tempted to create a formulaic “rainforest” atmosphere, if such a thing even exists. What I mean is, there has been no attempt to create a sonically diverse soundscape just because that is how many people assume a rainforest would sound.

Species heard during the course of the composition are listed in the booklet, which also contains a series of photographs that make you just want to pack your bags and head straight there. What strikes the reader on browsing this species inventory is that most of the animals heard are under threat. Two – the Black and White Ruffed Lemur and the Silky Sifaka – are critically endangered. The experience of listening to these voices is thus tinged with poignancy; will these animals and those who are battling to save them from extinction be successful or will we eventually only be able to hear their calls through the medium of recorded sound. Possibly one of the saddest things I’ve read in a long time is Besley’s reference to a recording which didn’t make it onto the release – recordings of the endangered Golden-crowned Sifaka calling out for his lost mate above the sound of artisan miners who uproot trees and clear bushland as they pan for gold. I feel these recordings need to be heard, maybe not on this platform, but somewhere – could there be a more emotive way to highlight the plight of these persecuted species?

‘Niche Constructions’ sits well alongside previous releases from Impulsive Habitat. As always the listener is treated to a well composed piece that can be both enjoyable to listen to and thought provoking at the same time. This is just one of the reasons why Impulsive Habitat is one of the most respected and prolific netlabels out there.


[Thomas Besley; photo courtesy of Radio Academy]

Thomas Besley website
Impulsive Habitat website

Cheryl Tipp

Wildlife sounds curator at British Library.