Virtual Kabul

I had the pleasure of meeting Francesca Recchia last week while she was visiting the SF Bay Area. She is the author of several books which have come out this year. One of them is The Little Book of Kabul, which follows the lives of several artists living in Kabul over the course of a year. Francesca has been based in Afghanistan now for a few years, and she shared some great insights on life in a world where daily tension is quite palpable, and walking around a city, as much as we enjoy it here in the States, is greatly limited. 

We got to talking about sound sooner than later, and I found out Francesca has written a score for a construction site where she spent a lot of idle time, just sitting and listening to the sounds around her. She said the idea came to her while she was "bored".  Boredom, I believe, is where many wonderful creations begin.

I have always been interested in the sounds of construction sites, from the pile driving at massive building sites to the little pneumatic nail guns popping and hissing when stick-built houses are being framed up. These sounds reveal a lot about the culture of construction, the available technology and labor practices, and the larger economic changes that can sweep across a neighborhood. There is a lot to hear in the noise of a construction site, especially if you live next to one!

Francesca's site in Kabul, a restaurant under construction, was fascinating in part because her score was rich with sound that I could easily imagine hearing. What was more fascinating even was the spatial detail, the layout of the "orchestra", from left to right, front to back.

Here is an excerpt from the score:
{The wheelbarrow enters from the left, across the unfinished door, stumbling over the pink hose.  It is old and rusty; it squeaks its way across the courtyard}

Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak

{A shovel lifts the dirt and scratches the bottom of the wheelbarrow.  The worker with broken fingers mixes the mud to plaster the wall}

Shhhtickkkk Shhhhhhtickkkk Shhhtickkkkkk Shhhhhhhtickkkk

{At the far end of the courtyard, the plastic hammer hits on wood: the frame of a window is coming into shape}

Thud Thud Thud Thud Thud Thud
Thud Thud Thud

{Bits of wood fall on the mud floor, like flapping wings of a lost butterfly}

An attempt at performing the score was in order. Francesca came into the Soundscrapers studio in Oakland, and we just started dropping construction sounds into the spatial mix.

In the sound studio, I have command of an 8-channel 3d sound array, which gave Francesca no small thrill when I demonstrated the array by sending WWII planes buzzing overhead, or when I filled the room with a large jazz ensemble. With our mix of sounds for this little site in Kabul, I think we knew it wasn't meant to replicate the actual experience, but rather prove a small point that a real place can be re-imagined, and re-made, into any number of scenarios.

The construction site itself is a place in transition, going from an existing space (an empty site or an old building) to some place new.

This piece has been composed for binaural playback, which means it is best heard with headphones. Listen:

I stayed truthful to things like the Kishore Kumar Bollywood song from 1969, emanating from one of the construction workers "shitty" cellphones. Other sounds we quickly downloaded from freesound.org (thanks to freesound users: EelkeGood_vibes420, zinzan_101, and monotraum).

I shared an initial mix with Francesca a few days after she left, and she sent a note in reply:

"I like this almost symphonic dimension that this little piece evokes... it is not realistic, but opens to the possibility of imagining Kabul, of thinking about it beyond the sounds of war. This to me is incredibly powerful and fully embodies the spirit of the book."

I feel very much encouraged by this soundscape work, a kind of construction site in itself in terms of a virtual place born out of the fragments of sound left around on the internet, assembled in my 3d sound array. Not quite going the direction of music (see Schneider TM via @subtopes), but staying somewhere in the imaginative world of field recording.

Please visit Francesca's blog and you can follow her on twitter here.