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CD Feature/ Ocean Sounds: "Marine Mammals and Fish of Lofoten and Vesterålen"

img  Tobias

In terms of building suspense, Herman Melville might have been able to learn a thing or two from Heike Vester's blog. Giving up her native Germany and moving to an uncertain future in Norway was the easiest part. Since then, however, marine-biologist Vester founded her own organisation („Ocean Sounds“) dedicated to the the rescue of the earth's marine environement right in the heartland of one of the few countries left to still allow commercial whaling. Fearlessly, she confronts hunters, moving her boat in between harpunes and mink whales to try and prevent unnecessary killings. With a tear in her eye, she notices the absence of Orcas in the Vestfjord only to embark on a new project and head for Chile instead. And when her warnings are ignored and a colony of cormorants is scared away by curious spectators and „uncontrolled tourism“, her writings are filled with sadness and cropped-up anger. You wouldn't think this woman could ever have a boring day in her whole life.

All the more so, since her acoustic explorations are equally intriguing. Because the world of the whales only seldomly reveals itself to us on the surface, its sound characteristics, too, are particularly fascinating and represent a terra incognito awaiting further investigation. Vester has taken on the challenge of diving down and making it heard. Wherever she goes, a digital recorder is close by her side. Wherever she points her gaze, a microphone is following her movements. And when exciting scenes are taking place right in front of her bow, she documents them with the excited curiosity of a child and the unfaltering hand of a scientist: Killer Whales embarking on their „carousel hunts“ to catch Hering or feasting on fish from a broken net, for example. Dolphines challenging the acrobatics of circus artists before calmly floating through the water to rest. A „harbour seal pup calling for its mother“ or Orcas voicing their satisfaction after a long and extensive dinner. There is a liveliness and natural dramaturgy to these moments which requires no Disney-like embelishments to lend them an air of organic suspense.

From a phonographer's perspective, recording marine mammals is both a particularly challenging and especially rewarding job. Their timbres and techniques are unique and recognisable on the one hand and appear to share a lot of common characteristics on the other. „Buzzes, calls and whistles“ are their shared communication tools and only subtle nuances between species reveal their true identity. From the joyous clicks of Pilot Whales swimming in the immediate proximity of Vester's ship to the quiet gurgles of Mackerels feeding on Plankton under the bridge of Henningsvaer, from the microtonal hiss and crackle of a male Sperm Whale using echolocation to the softly creaking gabble of white-striped Dolphins, this cosmos of quiet, crystaline and concentrated sounds is a minimal music lover's heaven. Even the most accomplished and proficient Sound Artists, meanwhile, could benefit from observing the richness and diversity of these seemingly starkly reduced signals and the maximum of expressivity drawn from a tiny set of source materials. It is hard to imagine how Vester has managed to come close enough to these shy animals, but she certainly has and it is this intimacy which lends these up to nine minute long studies their narrative plasticity.

Not all is just harmony here, though. In the hands of the right artists, phonography can be an extremely effective political tool and just like Budhaditya Chattopadhyay's „Landscape in Metamorphoses“, Heike Vester in not content with merely providing some comforting feel-good noises as a spiritual backdrop your next lavalamp session. „Marine Mammals and Fish of Lofoten and Vesterålen“ is not just a document of what is, but also of what should remain. It presents us with a wealth of life, sounds and inspiration to show us what we'd have to do without if it should perish. The album accomplishes this without once striking up a schoolmasterly tone and by instead taking listeners on a trip and allowing them to learn by experience. It may not be the most typical approach in the land of field recordings, which is unfortunately still sometimes haunted by cliched images of flowerpower hippies recording bees in a field of flowers. But it is certainly the logical result of an artist whose life would make perfect food for a movie.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ocean Sounds / Heike Vester
Homepage: Gruenrekorder Records

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