A Conference of Critters: absorbing biophonic soundscapes weaving their spell around their listeners

Diane Barbé, A Conference of Critters, Germany, Forms of Minutiae, fom05 limited edition cassette (2022)

More than just “a conference of critters”, this album portrays the collective ambient soundscapes created by non-human living beings as they go about their business and communicate with one another, and about other species, in their particular ecosystem. For this album, experimental musician / biophonic researcher / activist Diane Barbé ventured into the Nakhon Chai Si district (in central Thailand) and Khao Sok National Park (Surat Thani Province, in southern Thailand) to collect sounds of human and non-human communications and their interactions with one another over time. The recordings divide into five tracks with titles that look down-to-earth straightforward intially but on closer look turn out to harbour a sly sense of humour in posing challenges to readers.

Opener “what the moon sounds like” traces the night-time background ambience of a forest with all its insect choirs and spooky bird calls, through which a human might wander in the dead of night. “Champak flowers for the lunisolar calendar” continues the night-time forest ambience over which is superimposed a dialogue among some young girls who also laugh, hum and sing songs together later in the track as they trudge through what might be muddy ground made so by heavy rainfalls in the past. While the girls sing, the sounds around them change as the rains become heavier and the raindrops are bigger and splash more often.

The oddly named “territory is a verb is a competition” seems a rather more conventional sound art immersion in its structuring. The track is held together by distant background drone ships and recorded snippets of conversations between voices. Between the heavy rains and the noise of the divers and other particular activities animals often engage in, viewers can expect a steady progress of industrial drone and other forms of music performed with samples collected from city sound materials. You wouldn’t be far wrong if you did expect such progress as this particular track, like the others on the album, maintains a steady pace even as the alien industrial sounds increase and bring uncertain tension with them. Likewise, there is rising tension early on in “leeches in the supersonic hills” as the insect drones increase their activity until about halfway through when what sounds like dogs barking and ducks quacking dispel much of that tension and the track becomes more relaxed with the sounds of farm activity. The album ends on a quieter note with the eerie night sounds of “but would you eat one”, the middle part of which enters a strange parallel alien universe with an odd series of frogs’ calls.

These are very absorbing and immersive soundscapes, all the more so as the interactions between and among the sounds draw you in so you are no longer just a passive listener but an active observer, perhaps even participant yourself with your own sounds of breathing and rustling about on your seat as you take in these sounds.

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