Hein Schoer: The Sounding Museum: Box of Treasures

Hein Schoer's The Sounding Museum: Box of Treasures expands upon the cultural soundscape producer's 2010 release Two Weeks in Alert Bay in about as dramatic a fashion as could be imagined. In contrast to the single-CD presentation of the earlier release, the new edition features a CD, 2 DVDs, and a 400-page book. As described in the earlier review, Schoer's project presents a captivating sound portrait of the Kwakwaka'wakw, a First Nations community situated at the northern end of Vancouver Island on Canada's West Coast, and its activities, myths, and ritual dances and chants. During his two-week visit to the site, Schoer recorded more than thirty-five hours of soundscape material that he subsequently distilled into the forty-two-minute “One Day in the Life of Raven,” which makes a natural return appearance on the box set.

On the CD, that long-form setting is joined by nine other tracks, all but one of them sequenced to reflect the trip from arrival to departure. The opening piece documents physical movements from Vancouver to Port Hardy, Port McNeill, and eventually Alert Bay. Vera Newman's welcome, an oral presentation of the “How Raven Stole the Sun” story, and the forty-two-minute centerpiece appear in turn, with the earlier review's description of the latter still applicable: “After opening with the croak of the titular bird, ‘One Day in the Life of Raven' assumes the form of a long-form travelogue through the Pacific Northwest Coast. Schoer fashions it as a work in four movements (‘The Natural Soundscape,' ‘The Artificial Soundscape,' ‘The Human Soundscape,' ‘The Cultural Soundscape & Spirit World') that begins with arrival at the site, followed by sound samplings of the natural landscape (rushing waters, wind, woodpeckers, drizzle, fire) and those made by residents of the locale (drum chants, conversations, an elementary class in session) heard against a backdrop of radio music (a Rod Stewart cover of ‘Street Fighting Man') and construction noise (hammering, drilling, fishing). ‘The Spirit World movement,' not surprisingly, turns out to be the most arresting section due to the ritual chants and calls that emerge, but the piece as a whole—especially when it never stays in one place for long—holds one's attention throughout the trip.” After “One Day in the Life of Raven,” male singing forms an ear-catching part of “Lahal” (the term refers to a traditional game that involves teams gambling over sticks), rains fall amidst seagull cries at Woss Lake, and bald eagles circle, after which departure from the bay occurs. (A bonus soundscape, “Schizophonie 8,” surfaces at the CD's close.)

“One Day in the Life of Raven” also appears on the audio DVD followed by two shorter edits: as per the earlier review, “‘Four Worlds (Workshop Edit)' re-assembles the original's elements into a half-sized version that feels comparatively more fragmented and experimental, the focus less on coherent narrative and more on collage-like design. Overlapping conversations emerge amidst car noises, bird caws, radio tunes, fireplace crackle, phone rings, drilling and wood hammering, and chants. Predictably, the six-minute ‘Short Trip (Walk-In Edit)' offers a mere snapshot of the original, though it does convey the character of the original at a micro-level. In essence, the edits are purely supplementary to the full version.” The DVD-ROM, Raven Travelling, is archival content that'll be of interest to those wishing to dig down into the research-related materials (raw field audio, recording logs, photography, etc.) associated with the project.

Its text written by Schoer, the 2010 release's booklet provides detailed background about the project as well as documentation about sound sources used in the recording and the locales visited, among them the U'mista Cultural Centre and T'lisalagi'lakw Native School. But as informative as the booklet is, it's dwarfed by the new edition's Four Worlds book, which presents the theory and practice of the Sounding Museum. The text's scope is wide, including as it does Schoer's experiences at the site as well as thoughtful ruminations on sound art, ethnography, and what constitutes effective soundscape composition. As an indication of its level of detail, the “World Two: Into the Sonic Wild” section dedicates over seventy pages to content associated with “One Day in the Life of Raven.” It's also heartening to see Schoer acknowledging in the book the critical contributions made by R. Murray Schaefer to the soundscape phenomenon and the field of acoustic ecology.

Taken as a whole, Schoer's unique, multi-dimensional project constitutes a remarkable accomplishment. Even if one isn't able to visit the site as Schoer did, one comes away from the work better informed about the people within the community and their culture, values, and way of life. It's also well-titled: it lives up to its billing as a Sounding Museum, and the set as presented is equivalent to a Box of Treasures.

November 2014