Isolation Journal is a series of reflections on solitude and the relation between human and environment, enacted through layers of electronic music and ecological sound art. The soundscape on a mountain above the village of Ngang Nội, Vietnam, was captured together with acoustic recordings of aeolian lute playing. As a response to the lockdown, Stefan Östersjö shared these files with John Oliver, who has drawn track after track out of these source recordings, as journal entries in the time of the pandemic.
Watch the youtube video introduction that we made here: youtu.be/FYrpFTZ_R_U
In September 2013 I visited the village of Ngang Nội in Bắc Ninh, an area north of Hanoi. I came there to work on an ecological sound art project with Matthew Sansom and the Vietnamese dan tranh player Nguyễn Thanh Thủy. The village, characterized by the large ponds next to the rice fields, is surrounded by mountains on all sides. When scouting the area in spring the same year, we found that the mountains were full of pathways. Most of them lead to little burial sites. When we talked to people in the village we learnt that the reason for this is that the area is regularly flooded. The mountains are a safe haven for the ancestors, but also hold the tracks that little children follow on their way to school. I was fascinated by the pathways, and we decided to situate one project on the nearest mountain top. I had brought a đàn đáy, a long-necked Vietnamese lute, and stringed it with extended strings that stretched through the bridge, several meters away around trees further down the slope. This allowed me to play aeolian lute, with harmonics excited by the wind. By alternating the string tension, I can control the pitch of the resulting dense clusters of high harmonics. I returned to the mountain every morning for several days. My recording setup gave me a very detailed representation of the interaction between the wind and my instrument, and of any action I would perform. At the same time my attention was shifting between the background noise of the place and my self-imposed isolation up on the mountain. Certainly, I was isolated but not alone. From all sides, the noise from the surrounding villages was a constant, but distant, presence.
On hearing Stefan's recordings from a mountain above the village of Ngang Nội, I was struck by the voyage of the ear between the sonic immersion in the wind and the đàn đáy, and the distant buzz of community. Stefan's choice of restrained musical material drew my attention to the colours he was getting from the instrument, the strings, the metal bar (slide). Stefan's delicate and intense noises, and few musical intervals, drew my ear back and forth between his playing and the background sounds of car horns, dogs, birds, the rooster. All sounds became music. I was also reminded of a summer in Guatemala in the high mountain village of Huehuetenango, where a similar soundscape occurred daily. Where there are no highways, but only villages connected by small roads, there is a balance between the sounds of nature and the village activity.
Stefan and I decided to create this album to celebrate our exploration that comes from deep listening, thoughtful preparation, and spontaneous creation. Isolated in my basement during the COVID-19 pandemic, I explored Stefan’s recordings, expanding on the echos that already exist between his playing and the nearby village. The source track used in the album was recorded in one take on the third day of Stefan’s visit to the mountain. From it, I extracted four parts that are presented as individual tracks on the album, simply mastered. Stefan’s recording was the raw sonic material I used for the transformations that you hear on the other tracks. Stefan used three microphones to record: an AKG hybrid contact microphone, an AKG instrument microphone – both capturing the instrument at extreme proximity – and, in addition, a stereo recording of the soundscape, captured with a SONY recorder. This allowed for very detailed capture of the aeolian sounds, but also of the particular left and right hand techniques that are central to the articulation and ornamentation characteristic of Vietnamese lute playing, and which Stefan has come to integrate in his style of playing. By various means of signal processing (filtering, granular synthesis and more), I transformed the raw materials, creating new sounds that move in space, appear to vanish and reappear, and create new associations. I hope the listener will experience a kind of magic realism in my transformations of Stefan's recordings, and enjoy a pervasive sense of auditory play and painterly sensibility.