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Listening to the Arctic: A Composer, Musician and Oceanographer Reflect on ‘Six Seasons’

The composition “Six Seasons” by Lei Liang invites musicians to interact with sounds recorded from the depths of the ocean.

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A composer, a musician and an oceanographer bring different perspectives to the piece “Six Seasons” by Lei Liang. Liang, who is UC San Diego Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor of Music (Department of Music) and Qualcomm Institute Research Artist-in-Residence, chats with Marco Fusi, a renowned string player who has performed “Six Seasons,” and Joshua Jones, a project scientist with the UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography lab that recorded the underwater soundscape in the composition. (The transcript, below. has been edited for clarity and flow.)

Lei Liang: According to Inuit in the Arctic, seasons are not demarcated by a fixed calendar, but by things we can hear in the rhythms of wildlife and environment. Scientists placed hydrophones at a sea-floor recording location north of Alaska to record the sound of ice, ocean and marine mammals throughout the year … [from] one of the most inaccessible places to humans on Earth.

Joshua Jones: What makes the expression of the animals different? And how do we detect the difference? The environment has this kind of steady state, and animals inside of that big, noisy environment [have] expressions [that] are distinct. The sea ice may go, “we-oh, we-oh, we-oh, we-oh, we-oh,” but the beluga is going “dee-da-lee-dee.” That’s actually when we detect the difference, and we identify what’s living. You can hear the individual expressions of the animals within the environment.

Liang: That’s beautiful.

Marco Fusi: The thing about the wind and the connection between [Seasons] three and four is something we were discussing and trying out yesterday. I know it’s not really true, but there is a third entity in the whole process of the seasons. That is humans listening, microphones, somebody who went and sought that out. In this situation, we are excluding that. The thing that I find the more interesting in terms of what we do with the wind is that it has a very strong connection with humans. It’s breathing. The moment when there is no more audio, no more video, and I’m not there anymore (I’m behind), just before changing my instruments, the echo effects, the delay effects go away. What is left is actually breathing, for a short second. That, to me, is why the wind and everything before makes sense. Because you finally get to a point when you realize — it’s almost the naked and dirty secret or a beautiful secret of this place — that there is somebody listening. There is somebody in the corner, in the dark, breathing and checking everything.

Liang: Beautiful. Actually, a lot of those moments when you were sitting are almost like a sculpture. When you sit there, you hold this instrument. What I feel [is] most attractive of that image alone is that you’re the performer, but you’re the listener. And that really brings everyone into focus. What we’re doing is as much about playing as about listening.

Fusi: Of course. Absolutely.

Liang: And you’re actually guiding, curating the listening exercise here throughout the whole thing.

Fusi:  It’s a very dynamic relationship we have, because you are curating my listening.  You’re feeding me sounds; you’re giving me material I can interact with. And I feel somehow I am trying to guide, to point people to listen to something.

Liang: Yes, that’s right.

Fusi: But at some point it becomes overwhelming. Like in season five, there is so much to do. I don’t have enough fingers. I only have one instrument. And so I keep bouncing back and forth and [it] becomes, to me, personally disorienting. If I manage to squeeze into the performance that feeling of being cacophonic, being disoriented, the multiplicity of what happens, then it’s the best thing I can do with only one instrument. If [we had] a string orchestra or a lot of players, we could share and make a different feeling of multiplicity. But that’s because of what you’re doing; you’re slightly overloading me.

Liang: Yes. The invisible hand behind all of this.

Jones: You’re talking about the listener, bringing the person into it. But never in all of my world, in all of the work I do, do I ever feel [more] like I’m personally present in what we call “data,” which is actually the environment, than when we’re listening together. It’s sort of like that [point] I keep coming back to — it’s fine to send a rover or a robot to the moon or to Mars, but it’s something really we need and that’s meaningful when we send a person there, when one person has stood there on the planet. I never think of that except when I’m sitting here and listening to you. I [realize] that’s why it’s so important. It makes it meaningful.

Fusi: Even when we send the rover, even we send a mic somewhere in the deep of the ocean, it’s because you want to listen. It’s because we want to be there.

Liang: You’re sending the ear there. You’re sending an extension of us.

Jones: Our way of observing the ocean is recording sounds. It’s a whole environment of sound, and we just have a single underwater microphone that goes to a single stream of data. We call it “data.” And you take the whole thing and just pack all of the whole environment into this sort of cake of data. But it’s when we — just through this process of listening with you, listening together and hearing you actually hear it, pull individual signals and sounds out and express them — it’s like all of a sudden you put water on that compressed cake of data, and it can come back out and be in the three-dimensional real world again. It just reminds me of the tea leaf unfolding. It starts [as] a little cake, and you just put the water on it and back comes the flower of it with all the fragrance.

The video, “Lei Liang — Six Seasons x Marco Fusi,” is also available on the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute YouTube channel. More information on Liang and his work is available on the Lei Lab website.

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