FRAYING THE SOUNDSCAPE: BEYOND NOISE AND SILENCE IN THE CHINESE RURAL-URBAN INTERZONE

BY GABRIELE DE SETA.

I’m sitting on the metal bench of the bus stop in front of the Xianqiao Xinxing Grocery Store, waiting for the next ride to Shuxin Town half an hour from now. It wasn’t raining when I left home, and it has stopped raining now, but it poured during my twenty-minute walk on Xianqiao Middle Road. I saw it coming—the curtain of rain moving fast towards me over the road, blurring the horizon and darkening the asphalt. But before seeing it, I could hear it: the sound of large raindrops splashing on the street, ticking on the rooftops of the houses on my right, and finally drumming on the loose canopy of my small umbrella. Then it stopped, and then it came again, in waves—each swell first approaching as an envelope of faded-in volume, washing over me as a layered salvo of drizzling sounds and fading, muffled, on my back, leaving my umbrella and the drainpipes around me dripping. Each time the rain passes, the village’s stillness is even more salient, as if cleansed and polished by the precipitation. It’s one o’clock, and nobody is on the streets nor in the fields on my left, not even in passing cars or on whizzing electric scooters: everybody must be at home resting after lunch and avoiding the capricious storm. There is just one sound that counterpoints the waves of rain from far away in the distance on my back: the sputtering throb of a tractor engine, at first reaching me as a series of high-pitched crackles, then progressively thicker, louder and plosive as the old and rusted vehicle slowly overtakes me, followed by a cloud of thick smog that remains, hovering above the street, trapped by the cloak of humid and saturated atmosphere.

Now that I’m sitting here on the metal bench of the bus stop, right next to the village gate made with thick bamboo poles and decorated by multicoloured LED strips, I regret not bringing my portable recorder. “I’m just going to buy groceries, and anyway it’s going to rain soon,” I had told myself. Recording the fits of rain washing over the main street while holding my umbrella and keeping the condenser microphones dry would have been difficult, but from here, under the curved rooftop of the bus stop, I can’t help noticing how the sounds around me are coming together as a perfect summary of what I have been recording in Xianqiao for the past four weeks. Without my equipment, I can only jot it down in writing: a few cicadas croak on the first tree next to the village gate, a bubble of interlocked rhythms clearly localisable in the aural space. Two electric scooters whizz by from my left, the drivers turning their head slowly to take a good look at me. The dialogue lines of a humorous sketch in the style of Chinese opera reach me from the overdriven smartphone speakers of the owner of the Xianqiao Xinxing Grocery Store, who is sitting on a small wooden chair right outside the dusty glass doors of the shop, on the opposite side of the street, smoking a cigarette. He says something to his wife, sitting behind the counter inside. A large SUV with mirrored windows hums past from my right, driving in the middle of the road, followed by a rattling truck full of coal turning into the village. The cicadas stop. “Oi!”, shouts the store owner, as a battered van pulls over on the other side of the road, next to my bus stop; he silences the video streaming on his smartphone, puts it back into his back pocket, and runs across the street towards the van to get a delivery.

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The urban/rural dichotomy of classical sociology is routinely mapped onto a mirrored pair of sensory opposites: noise and silence. Noise has been identified as an unwelcome feature of city life since the earliest reflections on urbanization, deprecated by Schopenhauer as “a piece of barbarity and iniquity” and “a disruption of thought” in his essay On Noise (2007, p. 76), and successively elevated to a trademark of metropolitan aesthetics by works such as Russolo’s Intonarumori. Attali identifies the seventeenth century as the moment in which the noise of production brings the political economy of the city to encroach upon a traditionally silent countryside (1985, pp. 22–23). On a more rhythm-analytical note, Simmel describes the city as a nexus of multiple tempos, contrasting it with the “smoothly flowing rhythm” of rural life (1971, p. 325). It is following these equivalences of opposites and escalating sonification of the world that R. Murray Schaefer outlines his environmentalist definition of soundscape (1999). The field of acoustic ecology following Schaefer’s footsteps finds in urban environments perfect experimentation grounds for its project of tuning the world: urban soundscapes are “byproducts of a city in action, of its varying processes, infrastructures and practices” (Beer, 2007, p. 847), resulting in “a sometimes overwhelming growth of ambient noise and pollution by car alarms, dogs, noisy neighbors and parties, air traffic, banging doors and so on” (Atkinson, 2007, p. 1909) culpable of drowning out the detail of rural life while overflowing outwards from sprawling metropolises (Cox & Carlyle, 2013).

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Similar dichotomies are invoked to describe the aural ecology of Chinese urban and rural areas. Besides the urban/rural distinction, possibly even more entrenched in the popular imaginary by the dramatic distinctions between city and countryside residents drawn by the hukou household registration system, another common pair of concepts is that of noise and harmony—cacophony (zaoyin) being a synonym for chaos and unrest, and harmony (hexie) being the embodiment of order and peaceful coexistence of a mythic traditional society (Xu, 2011). Despite the rise of soundscape studies adopting a naturalist approach to acoustic ecology in the wake of the local reception of Schafer’s work, these dualist correspondences are recurrently destabilised by ethnographic and historical testimonies from both Chinese urban and rural areas. On the one hand, the supposedly silent and peaceful countryside is found to be animated by the sudden blasts of celebratory firecrackers and the sound barrages of folk rituals blurring the ethnomusicological boundary between music and cacophony. Life in villages includes sensorial experiences like honghuo, a ‘red-hot sociality’ the essence of which approximates “loud, chaotic, and heterogeneous noise” (Chau, 2008, p. 501). On the other hand, the legitimacy of the same authorities that seek to control the political economy of sound in urban areas is undermined by the grounding of Chinese modernity on mass performances: music was a prominent outlet for the creative expression of Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, and amplification equipment itself had a central role in the success of the Communist Party—the loudspeaker appearing as the only “cultural item” available to youths sent to the countryside (Clark, 2012, p. 31).

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I’ve been working for four weeks as a resident artist in Xianqiao Village, a slightly skewed rectangular portion of Shuxin Township, Chongming County. While belonging to the municipality of Shanghai, the whole of Chongming Island, and villages like Xianqiao in particular, look and feel like the countryside of the neighboring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces—flat marshlands, rice paddies, two or three-story rural houses, a regular crisscrossing pattern of streets and canals, and strips of small shops running through each town. The centre of Shanghai’s metropolitan area is only a one-hour drive away, yet Chongming car plates are not allowed to circulate in the city; residents identify both as Shanghainese and Chongmingese, and look at the city with a mixture of suspicion and aspiration. The overlapping of city and countryside in places like Chongming Island typifies the chengxiang jiehebu, literally meaning ‘urban-rural interzone’, a term often used to describe the uneven and dynamic development of Chinese peri-urban areas. Part of my artistic practice here in Xianqiao includes recording sounds for a multimedia installation, reflecting the intricate networks of activity characterising life in Xianqiao village. How to approach the chengxiang jiehebu sonically beyond the stereotypical opposition between noise and silence?

My starting point were ethnographic approaches to sound recording, from Mauss’s intuition of moving past oral narrative and linguistic details towards a broader sonic palette (2007, p. 17) and Clifford’s call for broader sensory scope in anthropological inquiry: “Much has been said, in criticism and praise, of the ethnographic gaze. But what of the ethnographic ear?” (1986, p. 12). Once I started recording around Xianqiao, I immediately realized that the ethnographic ear could not be equated with the naturalist pretense of documenting a representative slice of life; if it’s true that field recording is a broad range of practices “interested in creating and transmitting an impression of audition in time” (English, 2014), an hour-long stretch of the Xianqiao soundscape was even less representative than an hour-long recording of a Shanghai street. The problem wasn’t the lack of sounds and the difficulty of making the silence of the countryside interesting – it was rather understanding that the presence of chirping birds and the absence of the low bass hum of the city was merely a matter of different degrees of human and architectural density. Birds are in the city too – their chirping is just drowned out by omnipresent traffic. Cars are in the countryside too – they are just more scattered, their engines preceded and followed by a long and undisturbed Doppler effect. The same was true for other sounds: electric scooters whizzed by at ease in the empty streets, the spurting engines of old tractors reverberated for hundreds of meters off whitewashed house walls, voices echoed from far away losing their formants, military planes roared across the sky from an airfield kilometers away, and television speakers projected individual zapping choices out of open windows across streets and canals. If my field recordings were to give an “impression of audition in time”, I had to approach the temporality of sounds in the chengxiang jiehebu space differently, doing an ethnography “through sound” rather than “of sound” (Feld & Brenneis, 2004, p. 461), and including the practices of editing, mixing and reproducing recorded audio into the creative process itself.

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It is through these ruminations that I moved from doing long takes and documentary soundwalks to a more pointillist practice, recording short vignettes and directional snippets during my walks around the village, materials that I would later sift through, cut and reorganize inspired by Taussig’s chance approach to recorded fieldnotes (2011, p. 5). How these materials will eventually be exhibited as part of an installation is still unclear, but the process of editing has already resulted in delayed insights into everyday life in Xianqiao. A two-minute recording is filled by the regular scraping sounds of construction tools, hammers hitting bricks, metal ploughs clanking on concrete: it’s from one of the several construction sites in the village, active reminders of empty houses being renovated and converted into tourist rentals. A slightly longer audio file reproduces the voices of a small group of workers heading back home on Xianqiao North Road, their cheerful chatting interrupted by the looping loudspeaker call of an electric cart collecting metal scrap: the circulation of labourers and materials, from construction to recycling. A forty-second snippet contains the formulaic screams of a TV series action scene blaring out of my neighbour’s living room window: personal choices of household amplification and media consumption. The longest recording is a sneak peek into Thursday evening’s guangchangwu (‘square dance’) in front of the Xiangtong Grocery Store, where twenty-something middle-aged and elderly residents have gathered to bust some moves over pop hits played from a USB key plugged into a portable speaker: “Do you dance too?”, asks me the store owner. “I just want to record a little bit,” I reply.

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The last thing I recorded before leaving the village was a suffocating summer storm, its detailed morphology of thunders and grumbles captured in fragments from behind the windows of my air-conditioned room. There might be in Xianqiao a poetic soundscape of pastoral silences or a sonic ecology of urban noises to be unearthed and captured by better-trained listeners. I haven’t found it. What my ethnographic ear heard was not a scape nor an ecology, but rather things and plants and animals and people doing things, their sounding distributed in time by spaces, and in spaces by time. Following this distribution pushed me to move beyond a recording practice subscribing to either the “politics of noise” or the “politics of silence”, identified by Steve Goodman as resulting “on the one hand, in the moralized, reactionary policing of the polluted soundscape or, on the other, its supposed enhancement by all manner of cacophony” (2012, p. xx). Leaving these environmental politics behind was also a chance to move beyond the binomial opposites of city and countryside, cacophony and harmony, complex and simple rhythm, and listen to the urban-rural interzone from the peculiar distribution of frequencies characterising the networks of activities running through it. If there was a chengxiang jiehebu soundscape, it had to be actively frayed, to be undone at the seams through directional recording and pointillist reproducing, to be haphazardly put back together, sound by sound.

Gabriele de Seta’s audio is used as a soundtrack on this video

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Gabriele de Seta is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Academia Sinica Institute of Ethnology in Taipei, Taiwan. Last year, he undertook a short research/residency project in rural China. He writes about digital media in everyday life. 

All images by Gabriele de Seta.

 

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