Sonic Landscapes course transforms Rollins Chapel

by Alyssa Mehra | 1/28/16 9:41pm

On Wednesdays, the “Sonic Landscapes” class transforms Rollins Chapel into exotic places through sound — a rainforest, an Antarctic shore, a Siberian tundra. The interdisciplinary course, taught by music professor Theodore Levin and film and media studies professor Carlos Casas, explores the intersection of music and media studies.

The class examines different areas of the world, watching movies and listening to soundtracks from different places each week to expose students to diverse perspectives and cultures.

“It’s about breaking definitions and actually analyzing music and films and just seeing what music is,” Isis Cantu ’19, one of the 25 students in the class, said.

She said the first class was built around everyone’s personal definition of art and music. Cantu’s academic advisor recommended she take the class because of its uniqueness and the professors, she said.

This past week, the class explored the sonic and visual material in Russian republics of Tuva and Sakha. The first American conducting ethnographic field work in Tuva, Levin recorded a soundtrack in 1987 that features xöömei, a type of traditional multitonal throat singing. The Tuvan people he recorded harmonize with the sounds of the river and other animals around, Levin said.

The class focuses on sensory ethnography, expanding writing to film, sound and art, Levin said.

“These are extraordinary opportunities to take a sensory journey to parts of the world that very few people here have seen,” he said. “It is opening a window to a certain kind of reality that we hope will attract people as they go on.”

The course requires students to attend showings of different movies in the Black Family Visual Arts center on Monday evenings and to discuss the films and visual culture during class on Tuesdays.

“I enjoy going to the movie sessions because immediately after it, Professor Casas and Professor Levin are discussing it and asking questions, and it’s really nice to have it immediately after when it’s all still fresh in your mind,” Cantu said.

The students critically analyze the films by studying them in context and from different perspectives, she said.

During the x-hour on Wednesdays, students are asked to attend group listening sessions in Rollins Chapel, which allow students to fully experience the sounds and pick up on nuances they otherwise might not have heard, Cantu said. She said the movie screening and listening sessions are her favorite part of the class.

“In class, we get to discuss it but it doesn’t trump the experience of hearing it, the experience of seeing it,” she said.

Casas said the two additional sessions each week are not mandatory but strongly recommended, and attendance fluctuates depending on students’ schedules. The sessions are open to the public, he added.

Levin and Casas started the class in the winter of 2013 and have been offering it every winter since.

“In a way, we are scanning the planet and looking at particular landscapes and what type of sonic and visual material is gathered through cultures that live in this particular landscape,” Casas said.

Levin said the course aims to approach ethnography from different disciplinary perspectives. In each of these approaches, the class is asking what it means to represent a soundscape or landscape artistically and what makes these forms of representation art, he said.

“We’re trying to look at this nuanced intersection of art in sometimes very radical and unfamiliar forms, which is sometimes very challenging to listeners or to viewers, and how can those different forms of representation synergize and reinforce one another,” Levin said.

For example, the class discussed an exhibit at the University of Alaska Museum of the North created by classical composer John Luther Adams. The installation displays seismological and geophysical data from sensors and geological stations across Alaska that is transformed via various algorithms into both visual and sonic representations, he said.

“Our question that we try to ask with our students is ­— ‘What is this?’” he said. “What makes it extraordinary? Why is it in a museum? And how can a scientist in a sense, also be an artist? And how can an artist be a scientist?”

The listening and visual sessions are meant to foster an artistic impression of diverse places students can share with others by taking them there through sound, Casas said.

“We had to find another way of transporting the students to these places,” he said. “We found these two spaces, a cinema and a chapel, and we want to use them as a way to transport them. They come here, they listen. They come to the screenings and they get immersed in films that they probably would never have the opportunity of watching again.”

Casas said are also exposed to other forms of art outside of the movie screenings and listening sessions. This past week an ensemble of three musicians from Tuva, the area of focus for the week, stopped off their tour to talk to the students and perform for them.

“I think that in certain ways the students are so privileged to be able to have these different ways of getting sensorial information getting it even from a live performance,” he said.

The intent of the session is to create a sense of immersion to understand what it is like to live in these diverse places, Casas said.

“We try to bombard them with the maximum of information we can, whether it’s sonic or visual,” he said. “The students come from different backgrounds and that makes it for a much more enriching experience for them because it is the first time that they are exposed to that type of material.”