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16 April 2018

Field Report: Sonic Mmabolela


Vicki Hallett Image: Vicki Hallett  
© Mike Vernusky
Vicki Hallett writes about her participation in the Sonic Mmabolela residency in late 2017. A new work Earthscape by Vicki Hallett, Ros Bandt and Jem Savage will premiere in Geelong on 4 May .

Sonic Mmabolela 2017, conceived and directed by Francisco Lopez, was a workshop/residency for 11 international sound artists and composers from seven different countries. The residency involved field work (diurnal and nocturnal), concerts, studio work, presentations as well as discussions about creativity and the role of listening. Participants used any aspect of their stay to create and present compositions.

Mmabolela is a private nature reserve located in the Limpopo Valley Bushveld, in the northern Limpopo province, South Africa. Right on the border of Botswana, it takes around 7-8 hours to drive from Johannesburg. A natural heritage site covering 6500 ha, the area is abundant with wildlife such as plains game, hippo, crocodile, baboons, birdlife and insects. There are a variety of permanent dams, and the pristine Limpopo River reveals a biodiverse ecosystem.

The weather during our stay in November was characteristic for the start of the rainy season: we experienced both the hot and dry ecosystem as well as the wet environment with average day temperatures around 30 degrees. Daylight hours were around 5:30am - 7:30pm.

I had seen the callout for Sonic Mmabolela back in early 2017, and I knew I had to apply. For many years I have used the sounds of the African forest elephant from Cornell University's The Elephant Listening Project as the basis of my compositions and performances. Now was the moment to finally get to the same continent and do some field recording. Francisco informed me, from the outset, that no elephants were at Mmabolela - nor are there lions - which is the reason participants are able to record in relative safety albeit there are some other dangers to consider, e.g Nile crocodiles.

With such locations as the Mabolel Rock and Hippo Pool, the opportunity to work with Francisco and other renowned sound artists and composers and a chance to develop my field craft further, my decision was made.

Throughout the residency there were extensive opportunities for all modes of recording. These ranged from shorter snapshots of moments to long-duration overnight recordings. Generally we set up our recording equipment of choice in a selected area for around 2 hours. We then left the area and explored at a different location. This was a tactic developed to prevent humans intruding on the recordings and to not impose on the wildlife and its sounds.

Recording on the bridge to Botswana (Limpopo River).
© Vicki Hallett

Our day often started at 3:30am to set up before the start of the dawn chorus. Time during the day was spent around the 'Weederdooper' homestead, recording in the vicinity, at studio work, or preparing for the next field trip. We headed out in the afternoon to record at another site and attend a concert (recording and listening to the dusk chorus). Overnight recording opportunities were organised around these activities also. Having a couple of recording rigs was most advantageous.

As I prefer a portable set-up, my choice of recording equipment is a Zoom H6 and Zoom H2n. I used 4 hydrophones (Aquarian H2a-XLR and Jez Riley French D-series) enabling me to place two in the ground and two in the water. Microphone choices were the Zoom XY, Zoom 4-channel surround, Rode NTG 2 or a pair of Clippy EM172s. I also had a pair of contact mics (Jez Riley French C-series) which I attached to trees, for example, to complete my sonic spectrum.

My aim was to record as much sound as possible. On return to my studio in Australia, I planned to explore further the sonic possibilities of the recordings. I felt that I would need time to process both the residency experience as well as the sound files.

Setting up overnight recording at an abandoned elephant site, Limpopo River.
© Barbara Ellison

Although I did not see an elephant, elephants did cross the border and went through the Mmabolela region 3-4 months before the residency. All that remained for me, though, was the spoor. However, I took the opportunity to record at these locations with hydrophones in the ground in the hope of obtaining some sounds, even long-range infrasound.

My experience was completed with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform a concert for the Sonic Mmabolela participants and guides at Mabolel Rock, the site of the famous Mabalel legend. Although I heard differing versions, generally the story goes like this: the Chieftain's daughter and child went down to the Rock to wash clothes. The crocodile jumped up and ate the Mother. The child went searching and searching, calling the words 'Ma' (Mother) - 'Bolela' (Speak to me).

On arrival at Mabolel Rock for my performance and dusk chorus concert, we were greeted with the sight of a family of hippos. How lucky was I to be given the opportunity to play on the Rock overlooking Botswana with hippopotamus? I sat calmly and quietly by the edge of the Limpopo River, seeking permission to approach and play. Once I settled into position out on the Rock, I again sat peacefully and sought permission to be in the space. By taking my time and letting the ecosystem accustom itself to my presence, I now felt a part of it and quite at ease.

Playing at Mabolel Rock
© Barbara Ellison

I played a call based on my transcriptions of hippo sounds and guide calls, recorded earlier in the residency. As I started playing, one particular hippo moved in closer; to within 20-30 metres of my rock. As I played spacious 'calls,' he (or she?) interacted with me snorting the 'responses'. When I turned my back, responding to some birds, and played more rhapsodically, he snorted insistently to recapture my attention. The intensity of the moment was felt by the audience on the bank, whose reactions I heard as well. We were all a part of this special moment. The hippo and I resumed our connection for a few more moments, I then thanked him melodically for allowing me to visit. We maintained an intense visual connection before he disengaged and rejoined the family group. I felt no fear, just a sense of calm and being at one with the immediate environment. What a spine-tingling duet!

I was also privileged to be asked by fellow participant, Mike Vernusky, to record his S.o.u.t.h.A.f.r.i.c.a. composition within the Mmabolel environment. These two performances became final outcome presentations. There will be a video release of the Hippo duet coming in the near future so be sure to visit my website (www.vickihallett.com) and hear the action for yourself.

Sonic Mmabolela 2017 was an incredible opportunity to record and work with a diverse group of international sound artists and composers. Extensive field-recording opportunities in a ecosystem brimming with activity; the perfect time to develop my craft in the field as well as perform live in memorable locations. My concert at Mabolel Rock performing with a hippopotamus, however, will always be the once-in-a-lifetime highlight.

Vicki Hallett's participation in Sonic Mmabolela was supported by the City of Greater Geelong.

Further links

Vicki Hallett - AMC profile

Vicki Hallett - homepage (www.vickihallett.com)

Vicki Hallett - videos (Vimeo)

Vicki Hallett: 'Live at Mabolel Rock' - digital track (Bandcamp)



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