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Xabier Erkizia Martikorena
Elhuyar Zientzia eta Teknologia
Xabier Erkizia Martikorena
Researcher into sound

It is incredible just how much sound has been investigated, and how little is listened to

Listening to Xabier Erkizia, it is clear that the classical definition of sound is not sufficient. Mr. Erkizia is a researcher into sound and, at times, he uses the same tools used by scientists. But not to a scientific end. He has other intentions and other concerns: he aims to study the link between sound and the economy, the political and historical aspect of sounds and music, and the perception of sound from the gender point of view, amongst other aspects. Lately, he has focused his attention on listening. He talked to us about all this at one of his workplaces and in his laboratory – Arteleku - using colourful language, but not without moments of silence.

Can a distinction be made between sound, noise and music?

As I understand it, a priori, no, and any distinctions made are totally subjective. The most interesting aspect of this distinction is the attempt or the need in the first place to make differences. For our previous generations, the music we listen to is always noisy, and the music that the next generation will listen to will be noisy. It is an example of the capacity that music has of reinforcing and constructing our personality. In that desire to differentiate there is a reinterpretation of values. When we are young, the music our parents listened to seemed old-fashioned but, with time, we ourselves could be listening to bolero dance music. And with our parents the same thing happens: they listen, understand, learn …

So, listening is learnt?

Of course. It could be one of our contradictions: we think that we can judge music by its aesthetic value, but it is not like that. We do not innately know how to do that; we learn to do it.

We believe it is ourselves that choose the music, for the affinity it may have with our personality and so on but, in reality, it is the music that chooses us, because it means a break with past generations. And when music chooses us, we welcome it, in order to reinforce and perform this rupture.

When defining sound, noise and music, sound is the common denominator, encompassing all kinds of vibrations: those we like and don’t like; vibrations which reinforce our personality and those which do not, and so on. Music is a human expression of sound, a kind of response to everything we listen to; and this means a response within society, within the cultural status, opposing the system, and so on.

And noise might be ... a politicised sound. Politicising in a way: noise always generates rejection. It is negative, and is always alien to us. And, if it is our noise, it is within the context of music, where that rupture obliges us to take a position and say: "I am making noise against this". Noise is always against someone or something – you always have noise with you.

The other person or thing?

Yes, the other is very present in noise. Without others there would no noise; perhaps this might be the key. We use the word “noise” to describe the sound of others, including their music, and we politicise this word significantly. We politicise it in order to establish scales of differentiation, for example social ones in the relationships we have with others. We use abstract and completely subjective concepts, such as noise and silence, to define different levels of society.

Foreigners are always noisy …

Foreigners are always noisy; the neighbours are always noisy; the rich are always quiet; the poor – the poorer they are, the noisier they are. This is also related to music. Let us take a cliché as an example: gypsies are very noisy. Why? Because they are always playing music. And where do they do this? In the street. But, if you perform the same music in the Kursaal, it is no longer noise. This is a reflection of our values, and it is the aspect about which I am most interested in this world of listening.

In fact, our schooling is based on this distinction, given that, in the ikastolas (Basque schools) we are taught what music is and what noise is, but they do not teach us what sound is. Why not? Because the educational system requires these distinctions. A teacher, in order to cope with their pupils, needs this scale of differentiation – their voice is not noise, what others do is. And we accept that authority; but, on the other hand, who has not behaved wildly, although the teacher has made them shut up? In some way, all of us make noise at some moment in time. Perhaps those years of schooling are important for reinforcing those values, but no one has ever provided us with a wide-ranging understanding of this phenomenon; and this is a matter for criticism, but not subject to denunciation; in the final analysis, our society is based on these values.

Besides creating sounds, you also collect them, amongst many other things, and you have a project in the pipeline – the Map of Sounds.

The Map of Sounds was created here - in Arteleku.* To date Arteleku has helped us to host a website, but now we wish to embark on a new path, with a more autonomous approach dedicated to the project. We are convinced that it should be a collective project. The main problem is lack of support. Although the project has many visits, a great number of participants, and has been up and running for eight years now, it's hard to convince the public institutions. We believe that the message is not getting across to them and, in the end, the idea of heritage always prevails.

The concept of heritage is of great interest to us, but creating it is not our main objective. If that were our aim, we would have to undertake thoroughgoing research, with concrete resources, and prioritising sounds on the basis of heritage criteria. Perhaps the most interesting thing for us is to mirror, using these recordings, this change in values between noise and sound about which we spoke earlier, and see how historical changes are reflected in these recordings.

For example, the NODOs*** of the Franco period incorporate a narration and music. If you remove the sound or the image, it suddenly takes on another, completely different meaning. What would happen if we listened to the real sounds of these images? How would our historical accounts change?

This is how we started to post sounds on the Sound Map, in order to open up a wide-ranging debate; we wanted to see what could be learnt from this debate. This is why, over time, it has become a map of what we listen to. Why? We are conscious of the fact that we are very subject to the moment of gathering and choosing sounds.

Moreover, all maps, by definition, are obsolete objects, not only the Map of Sounds. Even more so with sound. Sounds do not exist without movement, they are simple presences. Many times people say to us: "You should go to such and such a place and there you will hear such and such a sound"; but, when we go there, we do not hear it. In fact, what we do does not have much sense. When we post a sound recording on the map, we are posting something that no longer exists. We are posting a sound belonging to a defined time and space, but at a location without time and space. This serves to show up the contradictions we have as listeners, and this is the most interesting thing.

In any case, you have collected many sounds.

We currently have 1,500. Through these sounds, it is possible to carry out research on carnivals, traffic, on underwater sounds, and so on. But we are not biologists, nor anthropologists, nor anything of the kind. For us, what we listen to bears artistic sensitivity.

Nonetheless, some communications media and some educational centres use the sounds collected by us; we wish there were more. The Map of Sounds is freely accessible. We do not know to what point we can continue but, for the time being, we have created an association known as Audiolab, to manage the map and to promote research. For example, looking at possible lines of research, we have seen that there are many ways of listening. Thus we have two new sections of the map: those written to be heard [chronicles written before sound recorders existed, old bye-laws on noise, and so on] and images with sound [images that represent sound]. Why should sound not be reflected in texts and images? What kinds of symbologies are created in these reflections? What importance do they have? To what extent can we interpret such symbology?

In these cases, we refer to the listener, not to the sound. "It is incredible just how much sound has been investigated, and how little is listened to". In music, in orality, in Bertsolaritza**, only the praxis, the expression, has been studied. But the listener, the subject who confers value on all this, is hidden. Nobody has concerned themselves to listen to them.

Nevertheless, you have undertaken several studies to verify if the influence of music is universal. What is your opinion in this respect?

To be frank with you, this is not of great interest to me. Saying music is universal is like Saying water is universal or words are universal; words and music always go hand in glove – where there are words, there is music. Always. And this is due to two reasons. On the one hand, music is a response to the surroundings; depending on the environment, that will make the music. On the other, almost all music, in its origin, is a tool of work.

The fact that all thinkers throughout history have taken music very much into account is a sign of that functionality of music. Because music acts to liberate us but, above all, it serves to manipulate. If you go to non-industrialised countries, you will quickly realise that music and work go hand in glove: here, for example, the women who used to remove the leaves from corn stalks needed synchronization, they needed rhythm. In the rice fields of Vietnam, the harvesters need to work with the same rhythm, and so on. Singing and music lend themselves to this task and to these chores. And then you have the military marches, acting to synchronise an army on the march. And, once synchronised, what more can we do with them? This is the question. I am not so much interested if music is universal or not; I am interested in knowing for what it is used.

Ethnomusicology has carried out many studies on this topic, but most of this research has been undertaken from the perspective of Western society. This has happened not only with music, of course, but it is quite evident that in music what the listener listens to is heard as a chromatic scale. And, in this process of accommodating ourselves to our laws, an immense e wealth is lost.

You have been in many countries, amongst them East Timor. It is a special place for you, isn’t it?

It is. At first, I went for the languages. We knew that there were many different tongues spoken there, and we went with the intention of recording them. But, we realized something else: there was no register of sound, nor of the languages, nor of anything; not even of the music. What is more, they did not even have instruments of music. But, how was this possible? That country suffered savage genocide and a whole generation was lost. And, with that a large part of the cultural wealth of the country was lost.

When we realised the situation, we decided to do what we could: we got our microphones and started recording. But we were very clear that each time we undertook a recording, we would leave a copy thereof at the local radio station, or at in the archive. We are unaware if they have done anything with this material, but we are very clear about whom it belongs to. It is highly useful as a topic for research for us but I have serious ethical doubts about taking out copyright on this material. A situation like this creates certain contradictions for you. If you want to bring out a CD here, you are obliged to take out a copyright, but then you realise any wealth (money) that might be accrued thereby will never go back there. Another reality and one about which it well behoves us to apply self-criticism.

The only recordings made in East Timor are ours. It is something of great concern to me, because we don’t know what we are losing. Moreover, it is incredible, because you come across things that you would in no way expect. For example, for me it was incredible to meet the Lian Nain. Imagine: me and my stories about listening ... and I meet a person whose function is just that – to listen!

This is the function of the Lian Nain: to listen to everything that happens around him, what the local people say and think, the song of the birds, the sounds of the wind and the river, what the spirits and the gods say. He listens to everything and stores everything in the memory. And, from time to time, when someone has a problem, or a quarrel breaks out between persons, they go to him and he verbalizes all that he has heard and listened to. Then, finally, there is always a verdict, a response. One never knows how long it will take to give the response, it could a few minutes or even hours, but there is always a response to the question. Apart from these episodes, his function is to memorise what has been listened to, as if he were a human recorder.

In a certain way, the function of Bertsolaritza before was similar: it was not so much the function of singing, but that of chronicling events during a time when they were not written down, and in in order to store these in the collective memory. To this end Bertsolaritza is listening, essentially. The troubadours also used to do this, but they disappeared when writing came on the scene. Bertsolaritza artists, however, continue to exist. Why? You can be sure it is because they are not in complete agreement with the written word. To this end, Bertsolaritza might be a new strategy for survival, as is the figure of the Lian Nain a strategy for survival.

Xabier Erkizia Martikorena

Born in Lesaka in 1975. According to himself, he was born in a border town and having listened to stories about smugglers from a tender age, they marked his personality. In fact, many of these tales occurred at night, and sound was highly important to these stories. He also says that being an ex-dancer has left its mark (he claims that musicians are just frustrated dancers). In any case, he became a musician and studied radio and television in Bilbao. He is currently a sound artist, a musician, producer and journalist. He is one of the creators of the ERTZ festival, dedicated to other music, is also Director of the Audiolab laboratory of sound at Arteleku, and has composed music for many films, theatrical productions and dance spectacles. Lately, he has been studying the phenomenology of listening.

Translator’s notes
* The Basque contemporary art centre, located in the city of Donostia-San Sebastian
** the art of singing extemporary composed verse in Basque
*** Propaganda news items for the cinema issued during the Franco regime

Author: Ana Galarraga Aiestaran

Elhuyar Zientzia eta Teknologia magazine nº 306

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