Duologue: A Conversation with Melissa Pons

photo by David Karcenti

Melissa Pons is a field recordist and sound designer whose main interests revolve around anthropology, forests, culture and social justice. In recent years, she has explored sounds around the world from forests in Brazil and Sweden to Portugal where she is now based. In addition to her audio works, Melissa, maintains a fascinating and well-written blog of her own where she generously shares insights about her creative process as well as offering industry tips and support to fellow artists. In this interview, she talks about her recent albums, field recording in general, and her contribution to last year’s Place Language project. Any readers interested in offering additional support to Melissa and her work can buy her a ‘coffee’ online at Ko-fi.

I am sure you are anxious to talk about the new album. Perhaps you can tell us what Wolf Soundscapes is all about and what drew you to it?

This work is actually inserted in a larger project that is being developed with field recordist and sound designer Nils Mosh. The key idea comes from him and it revolves around the Wolf as a binary figure in the western world: while the presence of this animal has been shown to be fundamental for a healthy habitat, there is a lot of controversy about wolves being close to farmed areas. This is now a very specific and complicated issue in some regions of Germany. Due to all the restrictions with the pandemic, we agreed that I could start my part of the work in Portugal, where I have been living, and so we found out about the Iberian Wolf Rehabilitation Centre where I volunteered for 12 days and recorded extensively. Before I got there I really didn’t know what sort of sounds I would find or what other animals exist there and it turned out to be a powerful and nurturing experience to live in this place.

When we start to dig the subject there are so many historical factors that come into play, from rooted christian beliefs to Anthropocentrism, which we found very interesting (as well as terrible in many cases), and so the thematic scope of it it’s quite broad.

You mentioned in the album notes that you came home with over 100 hours of recordings. How would you describe your process for winnowing and shaping all of that material that into an album

There is a very specific method of organizing my recordings that I follow strictly. That includes listening to everything and cataloguing according to geographic parameters, if it has anthropophony and what content does it have (from animal species to atmospheric conditions), resulting in a very extensive process. If the noise pollution is irremediable, that is marked as unusable. Sometimes it’s very frustrating as the natural content is amazing but there is nothing I can do in such cases.

The way I shape my albums comes from my personal impressions of the place I have been recorded at. In this case, there is actually a narrative, based on a fictional character that lives in the forest where the wolves’ presence is just a myth attached to the idea of this animal as a scary and dangerous entity. This character starts listening to them at distance, during the nights but her and us are never sure if it stems from her dreams or if it’s reality. Slowly she starts to explore the forest in day time until she realizes that the wolves are not only thriving in this territory as they are also extremely intelligent and social animals. This eradicates any constructed fears on her and allows her to move through the forest with a sense of belonging. It’s not meant to be perceived as such a direct concept but it helped to shape it in a non-documental form and I myself had fuzzy surreal dreams when I was there and woke up some nights hearing the the wolves howling across the forest.

photo by David Karcenti

No matter how well you prepare, I am sure there are things that still take you by surprise when you are out in the field. Are they any moments from this trip that stand out to you in that way?

Absolutely. This place was extremely complex by its physical geography but after spending weeks in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest I was naïve enough to think the majority of challenges in general were based on avoiding encounters with potential dangerous animals (of which some species of caterpillars, spiders and mosquitos can be far more dangerous than wild cats or wild boars groups). What happened was that, often due to the combination of wind direction with the complex terrain, I’d get much noise pollution from the surrounding villages and an unbalanced image of incoming sounds from and in different directions.

This was also the first time I was focusing on a single species, the wolf, even though I got to record fantastic calls of owls, red fox, buzzards, Eurasian jays to name the most prevalent. The wolves were grouped in 7 large enclosures and there was nearly no way of predicting which groups and where they would be active. I’ve learned to listen even more attentively beyond the recording subject and tried very small changes in the way I set up my kit to balance these incoming sounds. Because I was also volunteering full-time every day with wolf care and territory management, when recording outside that time I needed to hike up and down the hills alone on pitch black nights, so I had to let go of any remaining fear of the dark and go up regularly between 1 and 4 am, swapping batteries and sometimes location, every single day. This was very taxing in terms of my own energy management, but totally worth it.

Earlier this year you released another album called Swedish Forest Textures. What are some of the similarities and differences between that project and Wolf Soundscapes?

I think the similarities between these two and any other field recording trips I had was to be open to whatever might come. Everything involves being attentive, respecting the place and feeling Nature. In Sweden the hiking was really difficult, as there was a lot of snow and ice. I felt there was a more pronounced sense of danger there – totally wild, no enclosures, no people, and I found out big footprints and an young adult elk skeleton just 5 minutes from the house I was staying at.

Perhaps because the wolves are extremely intelligent and social creatures, I felt very directly that we can (and should) belong in Nature with them. I wasn’t afraid of them, not only because they were in enclosures but they are so smart that they show you their boundaries and how those boundaries can change over time. At some point, I made the terrible mistake of looking into the eyes of a she-wolf (one of the most social there) and I got an immediate growl as a response, followed by a couple of days of a less open attitude, if I can say that. In there, I got the chance to slowly build some trust between me and them. There was also invaluable input from the people who have been working there for years. Concealing my recording equipment as well as myself was crucial all the time: in the first days, they wouldn’t howl if my presence was noticeable but I needed to take this in consideration for the whole time.

The concept in itself was also very distinct: Swedish Forest Textures was about experiencing that forest in a very novel way and I was very attentive – like the title suggests – to any subtle textures carried by the wind through the vegetation, the sound refraction in the iced lakes. I wasn’t looking for any specific animal calls but just happily welcoming whatever came in.

I understand your background is originally in music and sound design. How did you get started with field recording and what would you say has made you come to feel so passionate about it?

When I was studying Music Production and Technology in University there were a couple of seminars about film sound (in which I was extremely interested) and one of the invited professors, Marco Conceição, suggested me to go along with his class to a field recording trip in the Portuguese countryside – which I have never been! Honestly I had no proper idea of what I was doing, particularly for the first days. However, it was there that slowly I began to actually listen. I was lucky to have proper equipment available and so the relationship between me and a good set of microphones and recorder was very different than carrying a simple portable recorder (not that I find the first to be the only true option). I felt a bigger sense of commitment, like a ritual that needed to be done to respectfully record the environment.

I’m truly passionate about field recording and I’d say the biggest reasons are novelty and the opportunity to understand that we belong in Nature. No matter where I go to record, nothing is ever the same, not even in the same location. How magical is that? This is deeply personal: I can only get satisfaction and fulfillment with constant novelty and field recording offers me that effortlessly. The feeling of belonging stemmed from attentive listening, learning about the species that inhabit those places, observing their intelligent communication. I would also like to mention that reading accounts of and talking to tribal and native peoples offered me an immeasurable wider perspective of how we can relate respectfully, and finding new ways of observing nature, with all senses. Field recording has been a personal vehicle I use to teach myself and perhaps convey that to others in whatever form they receive it.

Once you became a field recordist, did you find that it caused you to ‘hear’ differently in everyday life? I would think that perhaps you might start paying attention to sounds around you that ordinary people might never notice.

I think I am still becoming a field recordist, since I feel it is a beautiful evolving journey that never really ends. I have indeed noticed differences at some point, comparing what I hear to other people’s experiences. In 2016 I was working as a production sound mixer for an educational tv show for the Swedish Television and one of the assignments took us to a reserved island called Götska Sandon. In the moments we weren’t working, I was going around, recording and exploring the place. Later in conversation with the producer of that segment I told him I got great tree creaking sounds to which he replies “wow, then this microphone you’re using captures a lot of sounds, right?”, to which I said “but you can hear it right now with your own ears: those trees over there.” It was always there, but in general we have not been educated to pay attention to that input. Something else that happens and is perhaps common amongst us is to hear most things as if they were music, since natural sounds usually are not chaotic but organized and efficient, although complex (unless antropophony is relatively recent). And of course, wind tonalities can be quite distinctive as well.

For readers who may be interested in delving deeper into the world of field recordings, who are some of the practitioners you might recommend listening to in addition to your own work?

First and foremost, I’d like to recommend to carefully pick artists with high ethical values. Anyone with resources can mount recording equipment and turn knobs, but not everyone has learned to be respectful of their surroundings and the local peoples. Gordon Hempton and Bernie Krause are two incredible artists that are clearly on this line and not only I recommend listening to their work but also reading their interviews and publications. On the subject of reading material, as I mentioned before,I cannot state enough the importance of reading the accounts of indigenous peoples, regardless of their experience of field recording. Finding their relationship to their environment, even mythologies, is crucial to broaden our perspective and find meaning in our work. The same goes for locals, people aware of traditions, technology and environmental changes.

I know that, regretfully, I’m leaving many fantastic artists unlisted here, but I will mention those who have inspired me more directly and for different reasons: Vincent Chanter, Curtis R. Olson, George Vlad, Bethan Kellough (specifically with her album Aven), Colin Hunter, Andrus Kannel, Chris Watson, Felix Blume, and more recently Ivo Vicic.

I was thrilled that you were able to make a contribution last year to the Place Language compilation based on the themes and glossaries of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. You chose to add come up with your own landscape term and set it to music. Can you tell us a little but about how you came up with “Interarboration Xiguiri“?

The theme revolves about the various feelings and sensations I lived through when I spent 3 weeks in a very remote area of the Atlantic Forest in Minas Gerais, Brazil. After all the overwhelming feelings of wonder, child-like enthusiasm and joy had softened up from my first weeks in the country in São Paulo, there were moments when I felt an unique peace and contentment about the way I was living just then. The field recording track I chose was recorded on the day I felt this — a true sense of awe, a bit like a revelation, without risking fantasizing it too much. I started to hike at 3 am: total darkness. With a very poor flashlight inevitably I had to let go of relying so much on my sight: tuning in to the auditory sense, feeling the temperature in the air and the texture of the ground and vegetation was simply crucial to reach our destination without any accidents, at 2-3 hours distance. Later on that day and after recording a lot, on the way back I looked at the view and just felt that everything was in place and that life shouldn’t have to be more complicated than that. I spent almost my entire time outside with my head looking up to the trees, branches entangled, the many cipós – all felt very dream-like, and so Interarboration fit this very well. Xiguiri is not an existent word but part of the concept for this great initiative contemplated that the authors could create their own. For me it sounds like a nice, even sweet word that reminds me of xapiri, which describes the vivacious and sacred entities of spiritual guidance in the Yanomami mythology.

The musical elements of the song formed in layers, very organically, with the recording being a starting point; some of the sonorities are like imitations or simplistic references to some of the bird species of the Atlantic Forest I heard. I used my broken electric guitar back then, my voice and my keyboard to play the sounds from Arturia Lab and Izotope Iris and Ian Hawgood has done a beautiful mastering work on it. In many ways, my biggest music influences have been Björk, Cibelle and Anja Garbarek. I had formal music education for 6 years but I end up not actively using that specific knowledge of composition techniques, and this is why I use the term ‘organic’, hopefully avoiding any new-age cliche pitfalls.

Finally, do you have any new ideas or projects in the works that you want to tell us about?

Oh yes, always floating with ideas and wishes! I have been working for a while on another release with recordings from Brazil that were dormant, so to say. I think it’s becoming one of my favorite projects as it’s simply a selection of the most beautiful and intriguing sounds I gathered there, so it’s very special to me.

During 2021 I’ll be spending some months in Germany doing the Summer, trying to record wolves and their forests in some of the northern areas and also composing music. Back at the first question, this is the project with Nils Mosh that will hopefully be presented in a sound installation as a multi-channel composition of field recordings and music created by us.

Other than that, I’m really longing to go back to Brazil, so depending on the resources available and how the world will be I really wish to go to Pantanal for a considerable period of time. However, after this year, I feel it’s difficult to make plans. If it’s the case, I’m very eager to explore the wildlife here in Portugal towards the north. The Iberian Wolf is flourishing in the border to Spain and some areas are being rewilded, and are full of life.