Jana Winderen is a sound artist whose primary aesthetic endeavor is to unveil hidden or invisible beauty in the natural world. Her extensive knowledge of the natural sciences combined with her inventive charisma, recording savvy, and music education have made her into an award winning artist whose sound installations and live performances are in high demand internationally.
Her enthusiasm during our interview (transcribed below) was staggering and contagious. The care and attention she reserves for learning about small, seemingly insignificant creatures reveals their otherwise concealed beauty and value. This is accurately evidenced in the following anecdote which she relayed near the end of our conversation. She was describing the underwater insects called ‘Lesser Water boatmen’ which she recorded for her piece "The Listener" . The frequencies these creatures issue are outside the range humans can hear, so she translated the frequencies in her recordings down to a perceivable range and incorporated their never-before-heard chorus into her release.
“…They use stridulation when they make sound, rubbing body parts together like you do with a bow on a string. They bring this air bubble with them from the surface and draw oxygen from it kind of like a mechanical lung. And many think (although they don’t quite yet) that it is this bubble that also amplifies the sound when they do the stridulation underwater. This is extremely rare, and it can help us understand more of the physicality of the sound that we make with instruments. In the same way that frogs bulk up to make their sounds or how fish make sounds using their swimming muscles - these things can combine so easily with how we make sounds with instruments. ”
Among other awards, Winderen is well known for her exhibit called ‘Soundings’ in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, through which she was honored widely in the media. However, her focus during our interview remained on the environmental issues and I felt the preeminence of her concern for the protection of the natural world.
December 6, 2016
Please describe your work briefly.
“The physicality of my work is that I make multi-channel sound installations, spreading my work through radio and through the distribution network label I work with in London called ‘Touch’. I also give talks and create drawings which I show in my exhibitions. I use the act of listening as a tool to notice and pay attention to issues that I am concerned with. My goal is to help inspire people to ask questions and to learn for themselves.”
Can you talk a little about your inspiration for working with sound?
“The issues I am concerned with stem from my youth. I grew up close to a lake that was in decline from algae overgrowth in the seventies. I became a marine biologist, studied Chemistry and biochemistry to see what I could do with this issue. But during my work and studies I enjoyed drawing and working in sculpture on the side. I developed really bad egzema because I was often exposed to poisonous material in my studies. So I decided to study art instead, and now after many years I have come back to working with the same environmental issues I have always been concerned with.
I use sound because it is not a physical medium that takes up space, but it still gives you a very physical impression. And it is very open. My network label distributes widely and I can reach more people with sound than I could working with a traditional installation. I am not concerned with spreading my name. It is the issues I am concerned with.”
What are the main influences for your work? Do you have an overarching goal?
“I probably don’t have a goal because I don’t think that really helps. I just try to do as much as I can in one direction. I recently went to Spitsbergen because I was trying to understand what is happening to the ice in the sea. I saw how dark the sky was where there was no ice and saw that the places with reflecting ice underneath make the sky light up from the horizon. There was such a difference between the places with ice and with no ice, and the energy and heat which will be absorbed or not absorbed. To be able to talk about it to people through first-hand experience makes such a difference. And to hear the sounds… I hope that hearing the sounds from this area moves people more than a simple photograph.”
What does sound communicate that other mediums cannot?
“Through sound and focused listening you start to become more sensitive to the environment around you. It is so direct and physical. It comes very close to you. It is a very immediate response that you have to sound. And you can work with sound so that it is very open to your own associations.”
Do you design your pieces for a particular space?
“Yes but it is quite rare that you have enough time in the space you are going to install in. Preferably you would need to work there for at least a week, but normally you only have half a day or a couple of hours or even 15 minutes for a sound check. I always ask for at least two or three days in the space to work with a new mix. I have to make a new mix every time, even if I think I’ve kind of got it right at home, it doesn’t matter, you have to do it in the space.”
Do you use any equipment to tell you what will sound good in a particular space?
“I only use my ears. They are fantastic instruments. Even just walking in the forest, the sound of the moss can tell me so much about what the ground is like.”
How do you deep listen? Do you have any advice for how others can become better at deep listening?
“In my workshops I teach people to close their eyes and listen to things that are far away, then slowly to things that are closer and closer, and then to let their hearing go in and out of this focus, weaving between far away and close. You start to notice things and you can tell a story about what you are hearing. It is good to do this kind of practicing. In this way you treat all of your senses with respect.”
You have said before that true silence cannot be experienced during life. Do you still think that it is something to be pursued?
“Not necessarily. Sound is life, and if it is really silent in a place then that means there are no animals there. That can be a really scary thing in that sense. I am not against sound, but I think you need to be more in control of your sound environment so that you are not overwhelmed with sound that you can’t control.
For example, If you live in a place where there is a lot of traffic, you might not have a choice to live somewhere else. And it is not just that the traffic is loud, it is a repetitive sound, in a mid-range frequency area that is really annoying. There are frequencies that we are particularly sensitive to. This is an issue of people’s well being and should be part of the city planning. I know it is partly, but not enough.
A good sound environment in a city is great. There is liveliness about it. But it should not necessarily be dominated by cars. And we do need some quiet sound places that we can go to – places we can rest from visual and audio, away from the stressful environments we are put into.”
You create music that is unique. Do you see problems with the way that music is being played, recorded and listened to today?
“Young people are not necessarily learning how to listen. There has also been a gap in sound quality since everything has become digitalized and compressed and it is really tiring to the head. Yong people blast their ears with really bad sound quality. But it is getting better because we are getting faster internet and technology. When you play acoustic instruments you become very aware of the space you are playing in. Hopefully there will be more awareness of the acoustics of spaces.”
Can you explain a little about your production process? What kind of equipment do you use?
“My main microphone for above water is the sound field microphone. Soon I will start to test the sanheizer surround microphone as it just came out. It has 4 capsules and four channels coming out of it that capture four different sounds. It kind of defines the whole scenario, recording up, down, left and right. I use a sodosax for track recording with really quiet preamps to record small insect sounds.
I also like to use an ambisonic setup of speakers to create a spherical sound environment around the listener. It is a way to lift the sound off of the speakers to create the sound experience that I want.
I use a lot of 40-60 DPAs, the tiny ones. These microphones are used during performances when I am on stage. They are used a lot in film production as hidden microphones and can deal with a lot of sweat and makeup etc… so they are really useful for outside in a rough environment.
I use a DPA hydrophone. It works the same as a contact microphone that you would use on a stringed instrument like a violin. It is Piazo technology that uses small crystals that go into motion. It has to be connected to a material. I attach the hydrophone to a cable so that it can go down into really deep water.”
How deep underwater do you record?
“The deepest I have recorded is 90 meters. I have to use a thicker cable so that the cable doesn’t start to oscillate. When the cable is thin it starts to make a low tone from the oscillation. I cannot cut off those low frequencies because there might be other low frequency sounds in the environment that I want to capture in my recording. So that’s why I need to have a thicker more isolated cable. When you go deeper than 90 feet the cables become so big and difficult to handle that you need a crane carried on a ship. Otherwise you can go with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). You place the hydrophone deep and shut down the engine of the ROV and let it record. “