By Robin Ridington, University of British Columbia
Music, Voice and Sonic Experience have been essential to humans for the life of our species, and perhaps beyond. Throughout those millennia sound has been experienced as an ephemeral perturbation of vibrations within the atmosphere that surrounds us. Until the advent of acoustic recordings, we were only able to recreate sounds, but not to reproduce them. As R. Murray Schafer points out, “the real paradox is that although sounds are pronounced in time, they are also erased by time” (Schafer 1993 176-77). The acoustic environment in which humans evolved was what Schafer calls “hi-fi,” with a “favorable signal-to-noise ratio.” The hi-fi soundscape, he writes, “is one in which discrete sounds can be heard clearly because of the low ambient noise level” (Schafer 1993:52).
All that began to change with the industrial revolution. The twentieth century invention of sound recording technology made it possible for voices, music and sounds from the past to be reproduced and introduced into the ongoing soundscape. Sometimes recorded sounds can be welcome additions to a hi-fi soundscape. Early recordings were sent directly to disk from a single microphone or even acoustically through a sound horn; these disks enable us to listen to great artists like Amelia Gali-Curci, Enrico Caruso and Robert Johnson. Similarly, radio broadcasts were initially listened to as if they were a living presence in the room.
That began to change with the adoption of television into most homes, gradually devolving from a single listened to sound source into sonic wallpaper. Broadcasting and recording technology changed to include the use of cameras, multiple microphones and studio mixing. Perhaps the most dramatic change was Les Paul’s pioneering work of multiple track mixing to tape. The Beatles used the technique masterfully but in the years since, recorded sounds have become dominated by the saturated soundtracks that now pervade virtually all recorded music, replacing the figure-ground experience of earlier single track and single sound source recordings with a saturated spectrum. The result is what Schafer would call a “lo-fi” acoustic environment in which the signal to noise ratio of the human voice or musical instrument has been vastly diminished.
When I began fieldwork with Dane-zaa communities in the 1960s the acoustic environment was largely unsaturated. Nobody in the Doig River community owned a vehicle. Quads and snow machines were unknown. Only the occasional sound of a power saw or battery powered transistor radio tuned to CKNL, the Fort St. John radio station, interrupted the soundscape as it had been experienced for millennia. Since there was no electricity or telephone service at Doig, people listened to “message time” on the radio for information about things like doctors’ appointments in town. They experienced radio as speaking directly and personally to themselves. My presence was an anomaly in that I had a 4WD panel truck and carried a battery powered Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder. Dane-zaa elders took to it immediately and encouraged me to record (and play back) their oratory and songs. After recording a song they would tell me to stop and say, “another man going to sing.” They knew, of course, they were listening to themselves and not to an entirely different person, but they also understood that the recording was a reproduction rather than a recreation of familiar songs.
The most impressive elder in the 1960s was the last Dreamer, Charlie Yahey. He understood that people in future generations would be able to hear his powerful voice through the recordings we made together. In one recording he told the Dane-zaa creation story and added, “the world will listen to my voice.” Many years later, I worked with translator Billy Attachie on a video which presented his voice and a scrolling text of his words as Billy had translated them against a background of video scenes from Dane-zaa territory as I found them in the early 2000s. Beneath his voice I mixed in singing and drumming from the Doig Drummers. At the request of Chief Marvin Yahey of Blueberry, I created another version of the video using the songs of the Dreamer’s grandsons, the Yahey Drummers.
In making this video I was careful to foreground Charlie Yahey’s impressive voice. Even without understanding the Dane-zaa language, the sound of his oratory communicates a sense of authority. As a Dreamer, Charlie “dreamed ahead for all the people,” and brought them songs and messages from relatives who have gone before. In 2016 at the request of the Doig River First Nations, I showed the video outdoors on the evening of their annual Doig Days gathering. Most of the people there had not known Charlie Yahey, although the audio recordings I had made of his voice and music were well known by most people. People listening told me, “Our Dreamer is still speaking to us.” For younger people who were not fluent Beaver language speakers, the subtitled video gave them access to the voice and thoughts of a man the community has revered as a beloved teacher. For the Dane-zaa audience the video foregrounded the Dreamer’s voice and their own singers within an outdoor hi-fi acoustic environment. I have posted the video on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/121211703). The password is dzfn.
Schafer, R. Murray
1993 The Soundscape: Our Environment and the Tuning of the World.
Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books.