gleamingsilverribbon

Words, sounds and pictures by Kate Carr

Category: Essays

Soundscapes of Sydney

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Fluid Radio published this piece I wrote about the sounds of Sydney, and what I will miss about it when I leave.
Here is the first bit of it. But check it all out at the link below.

Soundscapes of Sydney
Published by: Fluid Radio 10/11/2013

Lately I’ve been waking to a new noise. It’s spring and instead of slowing emerging from sleep to the sounds of squawking rainbow lorikeets or the bin truck arriving as usually happens, I’ve been jolted awake earlier than usual by a much louder noise. I’ve been speculating that it could be channel bill cuckoos or koels who have arrived from Indonesia to breed in the spring, but the truth is I don’t really know. I’m no expert on birds.

This new noise has started me thinking about the soundtracks of Sydney, and my home in Surry Hills and how much they change with the seasons. I’m leaving this biggest and brashest of Australian cities for a little while soon, and perhaps I’ve become more than little nostalgic for it because of that. But for me part of the beauty of this city is its array of sounds made by the cacophony of determined animals who have invaded it simply to survive.

I live in more of an alley way than a street. It is about half commercial buildings and half houses and there is a lot of concrete, and a lot of storeys, which makes it quite dark and cold. The hard surfaces mean noises bounce around like ping pong balls and it is almost impossible to tell where exactly they originate from.

But despite these challenges I’ve developed something of a sonic map of my suburb. There are the roads of course, which carry the soft white noise of cars, and there is central station which I can hear if I’m up very late at night when the trains start up again and it is quiet enough for their rattles to carry all the way to my house. There are the revellers who stagger down my street from Oxford St and beyond. There are the stadium rock concerts, and fireworks which, it being Australia with our apparent love of pyrotechnics, are unleashed with astonishing regularity. But amid these are the subtler sounds of animals, mainly birds and bats. Apart from the lorikeets and currawongs, there are seagulls which head in this way from time to time, and can be heard squawking and scrabbling with one another. There are the flying foxes, which stream between centennial park and destinations best known to themselves, at times stopping off to snatch something from an avocado tree near me. I find their rejected fruits in the gutter. There are, of course, plenty of cat fights, and once as I walked home after seeing David Attenborough give a talk I’m sure I even heard an owl.

http://www.fluid-radio.co.uk/2013/11/soundscapes-of-sydney/

Computer fatigue and the rise of the human – post for Tokafi

In a world of endless digital possibilities, more and more artists are opting for real, physical experiences.

Computers have never been more powerful, cheaper or indeed smaller but just as musicians and sound artists could have it all in terms of power and accessibility; it seems many have become bored with the digital altogether. Perhaps most surprising about this phenomenon is the extent to which electronic musicians have spurned the digital realm. The rise and rise of tape, vinyl, vintage pedals and real instruments ranging from the banjos to acoustic guitars and ukuleles has been gathering pace within electronic music over the last few years. But what does this spell for the computer? Are we over it? Or is it just a phase?

This is the intro to an article I recently wrote for Tokafi. Read it all here: http://www.tokafi.com/news/computer-fatigue-and-rise-human/

And if you are interested in this topic, Nathan Thomas recently published a response at Fluid Radio which you can find here: http://www.fluid-radio.co.uk/2013/11/nature/

Guest Post: Sounds for the Birds, by Kate Carr

I re-blogged this a while ago but for some reason the link changed. Anyway here is my piece for Earthlines Review on birds and music.

Guest Post: Sounds for the Birds, by Kate Carr.

Embracing decay, the resurrection of tape

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Embracing decay, the resurrection of tape
By kate carr June 25, 2013
Published at Cyclic Defrost Magazine
http://www.cyclicdefrost.com/blog/2013/06/embracing-decay-the-resurrection-of-tape/

Two thousand and thirteen marks exactly fifty years since Philips launched the compact audio cassette at the Berlin Radio Show, and more than 20 years since the format was widely considered to be in its death throes at the hands of the mighty CD. But a funny thing has happened lately. The cassette, so long derided for its sound quality and dismissed as outdated, is making a resurgence. From cassette shaped iPhone covers, to tattoos and even the rediscovery of the Walkman, tapes are turning up everywhere, and not just as fashion accessories. In the ambient scene in particular, cassettes and the broader tape format have been enthusiastically embraced both as a tool for creating particular aural outcomes, and as format for releasing music.

Perhaps one of the most well known exponents of tape in its many guises is Portland musician Marcus Fischer, who performs live with giant suspended tape loops and drew heavily on the medium for his album Monocoastal, which was released in 2011 on 12k. Like many of us, Fischer says tape played a huge role in his childhood. “As a child I felt like the stuff we had on tape was my domain. Records for the most part either belonged to my parents or my older sister. For whatever reason, my dad always had a lot of tape recorders stashed away in his closet and a seemingly unending supply of blank tapes so I often helped myself to both,” he said.

But is it just nostalgia which has brought us back to tape? In the recent BBC Radio 6 showcase on the medium, Samantha Urbani from Brooklyn band Friends states that she hates CDs and has managed to find a second hand Walkman to listen to music on. Nicholas Jaar, the pin up boy for hipsters everywhere, is well known for his hatred of CDs, having gone so far as to release music on a shiny silver cube to escape the tyranny of the silver disc. Taking aim at this contemporary embrace of kitsch items, Christy Wampole, in her divisive New York Times opinion piece, ‘How to live without Irony’, which looked at the rise of the hipster, wrote: “Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the moustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone).” It would be easy to add cassette to this list of outmoded mechanisms.

CDs have become deeply unfashionable it seems, but can this along with a widespread embrace of the ‘outmoded’ account for the rise of the tape? Or is there something more to it for ambient musicians in particular? Fischer for one seems a bit bemused by the ascendancy of tape in the ambient scene. “I’m not sure what it is that triggered this renewed interest in tape and why it seems to resonate so much with the ambient music community,” he stated. “I think it really feels like something of a trend at the moment. Maybe it is a reaction to the very cold and processed sounds that seemed so popular in electronic music several years ago … or maybe people are just getting bored with the sound of Max/MSP or Ableton Live. Who knows?”

That hissy hazy sound

One thing most people seem to agree on is that tape has its own unique sonic fingerprint, one which is both instantly recognisable and yet unpredictable.

UK musician David Newlyn released his album Deterioration last year on my own label Flaming Pines, basing it on an exploration of recording techniques ranging from cassettes to dictaphones to camera mics. He says nothing can quite compare to the distinctive sound of tape. “I began multi-tracking my own music using the two cassette recorders. Sounded awful usually, but I always found the hissy, hazy-sounding instruments quite fascinating,” he explained.

This interest in degeneration in some ways echoes the earlier glitch movement, which began with Yasunao Tone’s Solo for Wounded CD in 1985, and revolved around scratched and skipping CDs.

According to Kim Cascone, the glitch which reached its apogee with Oval’s albums full of softly skipping sounds, was characterised by an aesthetic of failure. In his oft quoted article on the genre he wrote back in 2002, “… failure has become a prominent aesthetic in many of the arts in the late 20th century, reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion, and revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and efficient as the humans who build them.” He and other theorists noted glitch’s celebration of error and malfunction. But while tape decay too is about damage it is not so much an anomaly or deliberately introduced error like a scratched CD, but a characteristic of the medium, and an authentic marker of use and age. Like a well-worn book, a loved tape becomes slightly damaged every time we use it. On a tape our favourite songs, like our favourite pages in a book bear the tiny signs and scars of our affection. Newlyn stated: “the most compelling sound of tape to me is the gradual degeneration of the sound when you use a tape to record a tape. The way the original recordings become more muffled and distant and the hiss of the tape on tape becomes more prominent. I love that sound.”

Furthermore, unlike glitch which used digital tools to investigate deliberately introduced digital failures, the tape movement represents a shift away from the digital realm altogether. Tape is an unwieldy medium, full of limitations. It is unpredictable and impermanent; it wears out in random and subtle ways that have no digital equivalent. 12k founder Taylor Deupree says he returned to tape when he began taking more interest in mastering, and has grown to appreciate it more and more. “It can be a little unpredictable, which I like,” he stated. “It just sounds really good … different than digital,” he said. According to Deupree, using tape adds ‘non-linearity, warmth, idiosyncratic effects and imperfections’ to a recording. ”Tape distorts certain frequencies easily, so you have to be careful about resonant peaks but it has a very nice rounding of higher frequencies that is so much more effective than a plug in,” he says.

For Fischer, the physical properties of tape provide the means to ‘blur the boundaries between texture and melody’. “One thing that is amazing about our minds is how it can fill in the gaps in the details of what you are hearing, much like how memory is an imperfect thing. Some of my favourite recordings I’ve made play with this quite a bit,” he stated. “In the lower fidelity recordings that I often use you can start building up beds of pretty dense tones that start fuzzing out and changing shape. Once you achieve certain relationships between sounds, you can sometimes think you hear overtones or harmonics that aren’t really there. That is something that I’ve never been able to do digitally.” It seems almost perverse that at a time when faster computers, better sound cards and cheaper mics have opened up vistas of sound quality almost unthinkable in a home studio even five years ago, many musicians have rediscovered the virtues of mediums like tape, but this is what has happened.

Like other musicians here, Seattle’s Seth Chrisman is revelling in tape’s limitations just as much as its strengths. Chrisman, who releases music under his own name and as Widesky, cites the tape’s unwieldy noise floor, limited frequency response, compression, saturation and slight variances in playback speed as just some of the reasons he loves the medium. Tape is not just a tool in Chrisman’s work, but the end product at well. He founded Holyoak! Resounding, a tape-only label last year, which has two releases with runs of just 43 and 50 copies so far. “Obviously a minority of people are listening to music on tape, but I really love the medium and try to release work which specifically caters to it,” he said. And in an era when releasing music can happen as quickly as uploading to Bandcamp, Chrisman’s Holyoak releases take him several months to put together, as he individually dubs each cassette and painstakingly packages it.

I want to get physical

The computer and advances in software gave many people the tools to dabble in sound, who in the past perhaps would not have been able to. At first perhaps a drum machine or stand alone synth was needed as well, but now nothing more is required than a very average laptop to pick and choose from an entire symphony of sounds. Yet just as the laptop stood on the precipice of musical domination, offering near limitless access to different sounds, ambient and experimental musicians, many of whom were the first to embrace the possibilities offered by digital music, have begun to abandon it. Some have fled into the arms of acoustic instruments, others analogue pedals and homemade effects, and still others, as has been explored here, towards tape.

Deupree offers a vivid example of this shift. Starting out making acid techno with Prototype 909 before moving into ambient music, he launched 12k in 1997 and quickly carved a name for both himself and his label 12k on the cutting edge of synthetic minimal music, which was largely produced using computers. Yet now Deupree says the album he would most like is one using just guitar and his voice. Faint released on 12k in late 2012 wasn’t that, but it did chart his continual evolution towards real instruments, and physical as opposed to digital tools. As for its final mix down, he opted to do it to cassette.

Fischer is another musician who was initially seduced by the computer, only to slowly turn his back on it. “I tend to lean toward more physical tools in my music, pedals instead of plugins,” he said. “Tape feels like an extension of that idea. I love being able to manipulate tape with your hands, pushing and pulling the sounds. I feel like I stepped away from tape briefly when I first really got into making music on a laptop but quickly realised that a hybrid approach felt much more true to who I am musically.”

The importance of touch and physicality is something many of the artists interviewed for this article returned. Newlyn for example said he found the point and click required to make music on a computer ‘uninspiring’. In its place he has adopted an elaborate recording process using tape recorders without output jacks, so the sounds have to be re-recorded with mics aimed at the on-board speakers. “I just enjoy the process and it gives me more of a sense of achievement creating my own odd sounds,” he said.

Did music making simply get too easy? Or was it just that the endless choice offered by the net and powerful computers got too hard? For Chrisman, it was the latter. Overwhelmed with options, he said he opted to distance himself from the digital realm in order to make things a bit simpler. And he seems determined to make things simpler still, saying he is now considering going back in time even further than the stereo tape, and exploring mono recordings. “I really like the dense sound that mono recordings can lend, and being held to one channel of audio provides another self-imposed limitation, which I’m always a fan of,” he said.

This desire to slow down, disconnect and take stock also forms part of Chrisman’s rationale for founding Holyoak! Resounding, and how the label has embraced physical formats. “I personally was overwhelmed with the amount of music in my iTunes library, and felt a sort of ‘MP3-fatigue.’ I’ve always been an album person, and have found that listening to music is more meaningful for me when I disconnect from the distractions of my computer or iPod and focus on absorbing a record in its entirety, taking the time to flip sides on the record or cassette,” Chrisman said.

In this age of instant digital access to almost anything, musicians it seems are among the first to start thinking about the importance of having less and taking their time. In an interview with Fluid Radio last year, Deupree cited the psychological weight of his laptop as one motivation for trying to abandon it, particularly for live performances. “The laptop to me is this box that has my emails on it, 12k’s accounting on it and all this stuff. It feels just bloated and heavy and in a way this box represents just so much of my life and it’s perhaps too much of my life,” he stated. “… when I can play with my pedals, my microphones and instruments, it’s very pure: it’s all I’m using to create.”

Like Chrisman laboriously dubbing his tapes, Deupree, Fischer and Newlyn’s approaches offer the ultimate rebuke to the efficiency of the computer, and the ‘new is best’ motto of the digital age more generally. They are taking more time than they really need to, using far older equipment than they have to. These musicians have opted to do less with more, and to do it slowly.

Scarcity, imperfection and time

In the Radio 6 tape documentary, Mike Skinner from The Streets said that while it is wonderful to be able to access any song you want by clicking a button, it has eroded the emotional intensity we used to attach to music we spent a lot of time and energy desperately searching for. “There is no scarcity any more, you can have any music you want all the time … it is what we always wanted was to have any song you want. “But this situation of abundance has come at a cost and according to Skinner and has eroded the value we place on music. “The scarcity of tapes just means that you put more time in and probably have got a better relationship with the songs you did like,” Skinner said. “You don’t get so sort of obsessed with things now because you can get it out of your system too easy.”

By going offline and resorting to older tools like tape, the musicians interviewed here seem to be attempting to find a way to re-value music in the digital era by re-introducing imperfection, physicality and time into their work. The endless re-takes, flawlessly executed melodies and quantised beats of digital music combined with unlimited access to the world’s music catalogue has strangely enough left some us feeling a bit empty and lost. For some, this search to find a place in such a complex and overloaded musical landscape has led to the embrace of tape, a recording medium that by its nature offers slight imperfections and uncertainty. As tape stretches and pulls, catches and flows through old spools and dirty heads, it perhaps offers us a glimpse of some of the virtues of a time now past – where music took a long time and was crafted by bodies and instruments, recorded imperfectly and played back on vinyl or cassette. Fragile mediums, which like us, change, age and have to be handled with care.

Photo courtesy Marcus Fischer.

Music of the plants

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I wrote this piece on the shamanic use of plants and plant music last year for the 15 questions ebook on animal music. The ebook is due out fairly soon, but with permission from its publisher I thought I would put this piece on my blog.

Music of the plants

“If you have dieted with the plant and not learned its icaro then you know nothing,” Shaman Francisco Montes Shuna (from Stephan V Beyer’s book Singing to the Plants).

Sound is power for the shamans of the Amazon basin. The magical melodies, called icaros, taught to these healers by the plants and animals of the jungle bring with them not just the power to heal, but the power to kill, to protect, to find love, get rich and even to uncover the infidelities of a wandering spouse or partner. A visitor to the shamans of the mestizo peoples of the upper Amazon may come seeking to uncover something as prosaic as why his or her business failed, but they are equally likely to be seeking a remedy for a physical illness or an emotional cure for a malaise of the soul.

Shamanism in the Amazon basin is not a long faded ancient practice, but a contemporary reality in indigenous and mestizo communities of the region. Although no doubt a varied and dynamic tradition, shamanism in its many forms presents a vivid example of a way of life structured by a belief in the power of sound and song. It is the magical melodies, the icaros of the plants and animals, which heal the sick, protect the vulnerable, uncover the lost and divulge answers to the many questions brought to the shaman. And it is the shamans job to learn these songs.

For people like me who have no direct contact with the peoples of the Amazon it can be difficult not only to understand but even to gain information about the shamans and their songs. There is only a small amount of written material and much of this is authored by anthropologists rather than by the shamans themselves or members of their communities. Over the past few decades anthropology as a field has been forced to confront the ugly reality that much of it was based on prejudicial assumptions about the superiority of Western societies and a belief that indigenous and other non-western were relatively easy for western academics to understand and explain. Although most of the work consulted for this article showed a sophisticated understanding of the power relations wrapped up in this practice the fact remains that this article, which draws heavily on the work of anthropologists, shares all the limitations of attempting to make sense of a culture to which you do not belong, and in my case have never directly witnessed.

Learning to sing
In his astonishing book Singing to the Plants Stephan V Beyer asserts that the primary task of the shaman is to sing. Beyer’s book presents an overview of the shamanic traditions of the upper Amazon, but it also fascinatingly documents the author’s own attempts to train as a shaman.

According to Beyer, this training involves entering into a complex apprenticeship with both a shaman teacher (referred to as maestro ayahuasquero) but also the plant spirits themselves. Both of these relationships revolve around the ingestion of one plant in particular, the ayahuasca vine.

Meaning ‘vine of the soul’ in Quechua, ayahuasca is a pyschoactive plant which induces visual and auditory hallucinations, and in many cases violent vomiting. Beyer says that by taking the plant into the body, the shaman is able to visit with the spirit of the vine who will teach him or her the plant’s icaro. ‘‘To learn the plants” Beyer writes “means to create a relationship with the plant spirits, by taking them into the body, listening to them speak in the language of plants, and receiving their gifts of power and song.’’

This, however, is no simple process – plants are fickle and do not readily give up their secrets. To convince them to do so the shaman must go to extraordinary lengths to show he or she is worthy of possessing the magic melodies. For a start because plants are seen as extremely jealous, shamans must abstain from sex. The plants also hate strong smells, particularly those associated with sex like semen, but also menstruation.

The shaman must also purify his or her body by following a highly restrictive diet, avoiding any strong tasting foods as well as sugar and salt. Some shaman believe they must avoid sunlight. Others like shaman Pablo Amaringo, who is cited by Beyer, believe that because the spirits generally dislike the smell of humans it is best for shamans to avoid other people and spend as much time as possible in the jungle ahead of an ayahuasqua ceremony.

Swallowing knowledge
Ingestion remains central to shamanic study. After learning the icaro of the ayahuasca vine, shamans ingest other plants in order to study them. This process, Beyer states, is viewed as spending time with the different plants and learning from them. Other substances are also studied in this way. To study steel and learn its icaro the shaman soaks it in water for several days and then drinks the water; gasoline is studied by inhaling it. Cologne is mixed with ahayausca to access its properties and learn love icaros.

During these sessions with the plants, animal spirits may also appear to the shaman to teach their icaros. Anthropologist and ayahuasca researcher Luis Eduardo Luna says one shaman he spoke to, Don Manuel Cordoba Rios, brings animals to his students through imitation, enabling them to ‘become one’ with the animal, and in time use the animals’ icaros to call on the animal spirit for help in healing ceremonies.

This way of learning presents a startling reversal of the western preoccupation with the importance of observation. For the shaman the body is the site where knowledge is produced, and the way it is transmitted is via sound and melody. ‘’In fact it seems that one of the central ideas is that certain qualities or properties of plants, animals, mineral, or metals can be incorporated either by the ingestion of some part of this object, or by other means unknown,’’ Luna writes.

Mastering the icaro of the plant or substance in question is the ultimate aim of this process of ingestion, and Luna writes that for many shaman these songs are seen to contain the very essence of the plant or animal in question, and in the case of medicinal plants can be substituted for the physical plant.

Songs of power
Discussing one of the ayahausca ceremonies held by his teacher don Roberto Acho Jurama, Beyer describes don Roberto beginning the session by singing a simple song used to protect those in attendance. He then sings the icaro de ayahuasca in a whisper over the ayahuasca liquid and distributes it to those attending, before singing again and drinking it himself.

As the room fills with the sounds of retching and vomiting, Beyer says don Roberto calls the plant spirits, again by singing, reciting the icaros of a vast number of spirits to the healing room so they are ready at hand for the ceremonies to come.

Despite having consumed ayahuasca in the past, Beyer writes of his apprehension at swallowing the ‘vile liquid’. “It is one of the worst things I have ever tasted,” Beyer writes, “it coats my teeth and tongue.” Before the ceremony, Beyer says he wonders if the spirits will appear to him tonight. In a book chapter devoted to the icaros of the Peruvian Amazon, Luna details just some of the examples he encountered in the Amazonian provinces of Peru.

Although it is plants which are seen as the original teachers for the shaman, there are icaros of both plants and animals. “A man is like a tree. Under the appropriate conditions he grows branches. These branches are the icaros,” Don Alejandro tells Luna.

An icaro of the sloth, an animal which is seen as clean, strong and very picky about what it eats is used to cure digestive problems in children. The flamboyant toucan, with its sad and beautiful song has an icaro which is used to help win love. Icaros of slippery animals are used to aid in child birth. Other animals like the eagle, the condor, the boa, the eel and the jaguar are all called on by shamans for healing.

As Luna writes “Through the icaros the shaman is able to ‘become one’ with the animal and see the world accordingly.” At times an animal, rather than a plant may even become the primary teacher of the shaman. Luna cites one young shaman who said his teacher was a hawk. Another shaman said during an intense period of ayahuasca ingestion and learning he had felt himself becoming very small, and subsequently a large ant had appeared to him and communicated in a ‘tridimensional language.

One example of an icaro of protection cited by Luna was used by a former shaman Don Pablo Amaringo, which invokes the spirit of the jaguar. Part of the icaro goes: ”Where are you coming from/the offspring of the black jaguar/ You nourish the earth with the milk of your breasts/ In this way come forth. Behind it comes/the otorongo [jaguar] is calling him/ in the midst of the great forest/ it comes screaming”.

But icaros don’t just invoke the characteristics of the animal or plant in question, they also reflect the realities of contemporary life. Luna cites one used to invoke an insect which has eyes similar to the headlights of car. This icaro, Luna says, is used to help the shaman look for a person who has been stolen.

Some icaros are used simply to farewell a good person, or attract a particular fish prized for its taste. According to Luna each shaman has a ‘main icaro’ which represents the essence of his or her power. If a shaman learns the main icaro of a different healer he or she will inherit the knowledge of that healer on his or her death.

Icaros can be whispered, whistled or sung in full voice, some have clearly discernible words, others are in a mix of languages, some are in the languages of the spirits and some are just a melody.

Links to the past
The importance of sound to shamanism may find its roots in the some of the traditional beliefs of indigenous communities in the Amazon.

One striking example is found in the myths of the Wakuénai, described by anthropologist Jonathan D Hill in an article documenting the practices of the indigenous curers of the upper Rio Negro basin of Venezuela. According to Hill, in the mythology and cosmology of the Wakuénai, whose ancestral lands are found around the Isana and Guainir rivers in Venezuela, the world as it we know it was literally sung and hummed into existence.

For the Wakuénai, Hill writes, the figure of Kuwái, the son of the world’s first man (Iñápirríkuli) and woman (Amáru), produces a ‘powerful sound’ which ‘opens up’ the world, transforming it from its past existence as the miniature world of his parents, into the life-sized world inhabited by the humans, animals and plants of today.

Kuwái is subsequently killed by his father and the world shrinks back into its miniature form, emphasising the integral link between sound and human existence. Again it is through music that the world is reconstituted. From Kuwái’s ashes grow plants which are used to make the sacred flutes and trumpets played in initiation rituals and sacred ceremonies. The instruments are stolen from Iñápirríkuli by Amáru who along with other women play them as they lead Iñápirríkuli on a long chase across the world, reopening it for a second and final time in its current form.

Hill traces the origins of shamanic practice in this region to these beliefs of the Wakuénai, asserting that the most striking feature of the curing rituals in the region is the degree to which the behavior of the ritual specialists centers on musical performance. “The rituals are essentially musical events around which a variety of other less important activities revolve,” he writes.

In reenacting Kuwai’s musical creation of the world, Hill states the chant owners tap into the transcendent power of sound and song.

A power beyond words
Words may be crucial to the recitation of many icaros, but their intelligibility is not, and in many cases meaning is actively obscured.

Beyer cites his teacher don Roberto as saying the more abstract, less conceptual, less overtly intelligible the icaro the more powerful it is. He states that many of the most powerful icaros feature a mix of languages, some unknown, some indigenous, other gleaned from the plant teachers, as well as non-verbal sounds.

When reciting icaros shaman add to the indiscernibility of the songs by dissolving many of the words into whispers, and non verbal sounds. Other icaros have no words at all consisting solely of a melody. Ayahuasca seems to powerfully affect the conception those who ingest have of their ability to understand the meaning of pure sound, or non-verbal sounds. In Singing to the Plants Beyer cites the experience of anthropologist Janet Siskind who stated that after ingesting ayahuasca she believed she was capable of understanding every song she heard.

Doña María Luisa Tuesta Flores, another of Beyer’s teachers, and one of the few women shaman referred to in the articles I have read, said she spoke to the spirits in Quechua, despite not being able to speak the language when not under the influence of ayahausca. And both don Roberto and don Maria said spirits from out-of-space spoke to them in a ‘computer language’ of beeps, while the languages of the plants themselves were described by the pair as consisting of somewhat similar high pitched sounds. According to Beyer, both shamans report no difficulty in understanding what is being communicated to them in these languages. Perhaps surprisingly given the shaman tradition’s emphasis on sound is the power many of these healers’ believe exists in its absence – silence.

Training as a shaman involves lengthy periods of solitude, often in the jungle. Many days are spent listening and watching the plants and the animals. One novice shaman discussed by Luna, talks about spending months consuming ayahuasca and observing the creatures and plants of the jungle. When asked by his teacher which animal had impressed him the most, the young shaman described spending many days with one type of ant, listening to it talk in a ‘transdimensional language’ and learning its habits.
Perhaps it is this meditation on such tiny sounds, which has contributed to the shaman’s belief is the power of quiet.

According to Beyer, for the shaman the most powerful of all sounds are those which hang between song and silence, and the most potent icaros are those refined into breathy whistles and inaudible whispers. In these instances, like the transdimensional language of the jungle ant, sound itself is readily discernible, its power perhaps being bolstered by its faltering existence at the edges of perception. This is perhaps most profoundly summed up in Beyer’s claim that the shamans most powerful sound of all, one which can both kill and cure, is the one which most nears silence – the sound of blowing. He describes is as it as a soft voiceless – ‘pshoo’….

References:
Beyer, Stephan V, 2009 Singing to the Plants – A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon, University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque
Hill, Jonathan D 1992 ‘A musical aesthetic of ritual curing in the northwest Amazon’ in Portals of Power, University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque
Luna, Luis Eduardo 1992 ‘Icaros, magic melodies among the Mestizo Shamans of the Peruvian Amazon’ in Portals of Power, University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque