Two Weeks in Alert Bay: spotlight on a traditional First Nations society in western Canada

Hein Schoer, The Sounding Museum: Two Weeks in Alert Bay, Germany, Gruenrekorder, CD Gruen 082 (2010)

I never know quite what to make of sound recordings like this one as I always feel I’m only getting half of what soundscape musician Hein Schoer experienced: something like this document needs to be visual and to be seen along with the soundtrack. For me, this project would have been much better done as a combined DVD / CD package so that I can actually see the Alert Bay, Vancouver Island, environment where Schoer did his research. Looking at the photographs of the bay, the forests that border it and the Rocky Mountains in the distant background, shrouded in white cloud, I am sure this landscape and the misty weather are as much a part of the culture of the ‘Namgis Nation that inhabits this part of western Canada; one imagines that the weather here is always cool, the air always feeling slightly damp or humid and that when one looks across the bay and sees the silhouettes of dark fir forests and the mountains rising behind them, their edges always look slightly soft and blurred and the overall mood of the area seems meditative and restful.

The tracks on offer here consist of field recordings of the natural sounds and wildlife of the Alert Bay area and of the activities of the ‘Namgis people. There are recordings of people performing traditional rituals and playing music, of children learning their culture’s traditional songs and their native language, and of men making traditional tools and handicrafts while the radio plays in the background. All very well but the listener has to take these recordings at face value and assume they are what Schoer says they are. There’s nothing or no-one on these recordings who gives a commentary on what parts of the soundtrack are about whatever the people are doing.

If only the CD had fallen into my lap and not any other material, and I were to play the CD as is, I’d have no idea from hearing the CD which part of North America and which First Nations group were being featured. There is not even a map of the area of Vancouver Island where Alert Bay is located and no information in the package about the culture of the ‘Namgis people and how it relates to other traditional cultures of western British Columbia. Having some knowledge of traditional culture areas of North America, I realise the ‘Namgis people would have been part of the Northwest Coast cultural complex in which salmon is one of the staple foods, a sedentary life-style is normal with people living in permanent wooden houses and organised in clans, and social hierarchies dominated society with the custom of potlatches to underline social status. In the area where the ‘Namgis people live, whaling would have been part of the culture. Most people outside Canada are not so lucky to know all this and would feel quite distant from the soundtrack here, not having any idea of what it all relates to.

The music is quite powerful and very rhythmic: most of the singing is done by men although there are a few occasions where children sing similar-sounding songs. There is no singing done by women but that may be because Schoer, not familiar with the culture of the ‘Namgis, did not know there might be some aspects of the culture out of bounds to him as a male; nearly every culture has some knowledge and traditions that are particular only to men, and other knowledge and traditions that only women are allowed to know. Certainly there is some solo singing here that imitates the sounds of animals and it could be this is shamanic singing, the singer attempting to contact an animal spirit for help or to gain power over some part of nature. Natural sounds include the sounds of ocean waves, trickling water and a waterfall, and there are also sounds of birds, bears, seals perhaps and howling wolves.

The CD booklet includes photographs of nature, illustrations of everyday life for the ‘Namgis people and a retelling of a creation myth in which a trickster figure called Raven steals the sun. The myth may have some meaning for Schoer who like Raven “steals” a little bit of an unknown culture to illuminate a path for listeners who may be inspired to investigate further the culture of the ‘Namgis and other First Nations people in western Canada.

Contact: Gruenrekorder


  1. Hi there,
    lovely to find that some people take enough time to find the real flaws in this work.
    In fact, there will be a second edition out this summer (I hope), then including a DVD-ROM with all the maps and other info you have rightfully asked for and the quadrophonic original production, along with a whole book covering a wide range of issues such as representation of the Other, museum pedagogy, and acoustic ecology.
    Hope that will fill some of the gaps.

  2. Hello Hein,

    Thanks very much for your message. I’m glad to see you weren’t offended by my review. I know some artists and musicians are very touchy about criticism of their work, even if it’s mild criticism. Chuffed also that you have taken my musings on board for a second edition.


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