David Monacchi

There are three principal primary old-growth equatorial rainforests remaining on the planet. They are in the Amazon, the Congo basin in Africa, and southeast Asia mainly in Borneo. These rainforests are home to the oldest and richest ecosystems. I have visited all of the three places.

Fragments of Extinction is a document of their sonic character. It is a vehicle for raising public awareness of the bio-acoustic aspects of our environmental heritage. It points to serious environmental issues, in particular the extinction of species. And at the same time, I also note that in addressing these environmental issues, I am communicating the organic equilibrium and the intrinsic beauty of a primary soundscape in the context of a multi-disciplinary meeting between science and art.

My first trip was to the Amazon basin in Brazil in February 2002. I was in an area around the Gaspar River, a tributary of the Jauperì River which flows into the Rio Negro in the state of Amazonas, just one degree south of the equator. In the Amazon basin, the water level between the dry and rainy seasons can vary by as much as ten meters. When forest areas are flooded, the borders between rivers and land are erased. Water shapes the entire region and, for the people who live in these places, water is the only possible means of movement. My interaction with the element water was a fundamental component of the trip.

From my bio-acoustic point of view, I noted that the three main habitats were substantially different for their sound absorption properties and reverberation due to the presence or absence of water:
 
 
• In the terrestrial forest habitat, sound is strongly reflected by high leafy canopies, diffracted by tree trunks, and largely absorbed by the ground. These characteristics typically create a delicate reverberation, which lends to the soundscape the suggestion of an indoor space where sound can travel only for short distances.


 
The original material for this sound was a 90-minute recording beginning at 5:45am, when the light penetrating the dense terrestrial forest habitat starts to increase, transforming it slowly as day breaks.
 
The original material for this sound was recorded at 4:45pm, when the light entering the forest starts to decrease.
 
 
• In the flooded forest habitat, the sound properties of the water floor create a totally reflective environment. The similarity with an architectonic space, such as a cathedral with ceilings and columns, is immediate, and reverberation gives to the flooded forest the unique sound of an indoor reverberated space.

 
This recording was made at 9pm from the canoe that was slowly and steadily moving into the multi-pattern rhythmic soundscape. It is also a result of the constant change of sound perspective on the surrounding forest.
 
 
• In the riverbank forest habitat, on the other hand, there is no ceiling to reflect sound. Reverberated sound sources come only from the trees which flank the river, sometimes with perceivable echoes. The overall impression is that of being in an open space, but with many sounds coming from the surrounding forest or flooded forest. The sounds in this case can travel for long distances.

 
Macaws leave the acoustic space free for a couple of toucans and their beautiful polyphonic play in the reverberant surroundings.
 
From a visual point of view, the large rivers are the only places that afford the possibility of a relatively long field of vision. The Amazon rainforest is, in the majority of cases, totally impenetrable to sight. The visual perception of spaces is always forbidden, closed. The ear acts as a compass, an organ providing a sense of distance and orientation. Inhabitants of the rainforest are very skillful with the creation of acoustic reference points, which are essential for moving and hunting. They know exactly which sounds are coming from sedentary animals and which ones are coming from species that move over greater spaces and which therefore cannot be used as a reference point.

During the rainy season the forest becomes navigable and opens up visually because of the absence of the lower undergrowth (which is flooded). However, it becomes less reliable as regards recognition of sound directions since the reverberation increases.


 
 
The sounds of a primary rainforest can be understood as the most organized natural soundscapes you can find on Earth. Every single animal sound gesture has been in exactly the same place (in time, in frequency bandwidth, in space) for thousands of years, and you perceive this instantly. Furthermore, being in the equatorial area, sometimes you are in front of impressive time regularities. The arara birds and the parrots came to the forest riverbanks every day at 5.45 pm (if the weather was not rainy), made a racket for 30 minutes, and then left around 6.15 pm, leaving the acoustic space free for the toucans.

I recorded the dynamic equilibrium of this rich tropical biome at the onset of the rainy season throughout the entire circadian cycle for a period of twenty days. I made a selection of the most significant moments among the original large corpus of field recordings and recomposed them as a complex sound portrait of unaltered and unmixed soundscapes.

The three hierarchic levels of reconstruction and representation of the original environment were important to consider both in the field and in the studio analysis-editing process:

• The circadian cycle (24 hours) describes time along the equator where days are equal to nights all year round and where natural rhythms are impressively regular and balanced. The sections of my work were made to be proportionately and chronologically coherent with the original soundscape beginning two hours after sunset.

• The main habitats — terrestrial forest, flooded forest, and riverbank forest — were recorded at different spots in the same habitat.

• The compositional process aims to create an organic sound portrait of the variety found in the entire sonic environment, focusing first on the chronological aspect then on the habitat and finally on the location aspects.

In 2003 these field recordings gave rise to the multimedia concert titled Fragments of a Sonic World in Extinction, presented also as a multi-channel sound installation with real-time spectrogram video projections and relevant fragments from the trip diary. The work has developed through a sequence of sound documentaries and eco-acoustic compositions. It has been widely performed in Europe and North America in theaters and contemporary art and music venues.

It was featured in the first Ear to the Earth festival which took place in New York in October 2006.