The Foreign Condition – Conversation with Paulo Dantas on Listening Awareness, Sound Education & Field Recording

In February, Paulo Dantas, a composer, improviser and field recordist, visited Stockholm as a guest composer at Elektronmusik Studion, to master two new music releases (Eva Mitocondrial, by Insignificanto, and Facies, by Bella) and to make some critical listening.

We got the opportunity to meet and he very kindly agreed to share insights on listening, field recording and sound education for this blog. A long conversation has been recorded when we sat for a couple of hours in a Café in the Old Town, sipping on black coffee and ignoring the grey uncomfortable weather just outside the window. Perhaps our common mother language and interest on sound and field recording, brought us together for a long interesting talk after a few months of SoundCloud following, work listening and a few chat conversation here and then.

Paulo comes from Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, and at UNIRIO (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro State) he teaches musical analysis and experimental music. The first work I´ve heard from him is entitled “Cidade Arquipélago“, an album released on Seminal Records, an independent Brazilian label that focus on experimental music, including electroacoustic, noise and electronic. His album was recorded  with binaural technique in Tokyo and Izu, between December 2014 and January 1st of 2015.

We talked Portuguese which is probably logical since it´s our native language, but actually it revealed slightly difficult to me at some points, where I ended up sometimes throwing english terms (two years in Sweden has been making me confused). Now I write with an English translation, and noticed an interesting particularity: we have a word, which, is probably better translated as “awareness” which is “sensibilização“; you probably guess that it comes from sensitive, sensation. In Portuguese, we also use the term “sensation” to describe what most English speaking people would define as “feeling”, as in “I´ve got the feeling that”.  In sum, when we use the word “sensibilização” we mean not only awareness but also being tuned to, as if we also acquire a new mindset or consciousness for something, which will likely never leave us.

And here I translate our talk; I hope you enjoy and join our conversation in the comments section. Paulo Dantas words are written in italic.

When you publish your works on SoundCloud, is there any criteria regarding the length of your sounds or works you want to make available?

    No. I have several uses for SoundCloud. One of them is to open the creation process a bit.  In that case, I usually upload something I am working with at the moment. Raw material or concert / performance recordings. And many times I upload the whole length without a refined sorting or choice process. I upload what I find interesting on some regard and then it can have any length. An example would be ­>opn(mantra), an installation I did with binaural recordings, which is related to some sort of algorithm: I had to record the process of walking down eight floors through the stairs of different buildings, go out at the front door and wait until a vehicle would pass, which would sign the conclusion of the recording. I performed eight or nine of these and uploaded six of them into my SoundCloud profile, as I went through the creation process.

What was the purpose of this project?

   To experience the sound of different buildings (staircases, actually) in different cities of Brazil. This was a period where I travelled a lot and I was able to record five different cities in a month. My idea was that if you follow a series of instructions like a machine and record different versions of this process in different locations, then everything ­ absolutely everything ­ that is on that recording is information, as long as the listener knows the algorithm and listens to the different versions in succession. The reverberation time, the sounds of the clothes I was wearing, how open to the exterior environment the stairs are, how much time it took for me to walk down everything, how much time it took the vehicle to come, with what speed it was traveling, how noisy it was, in what time of the day I did it ­ everything! I found this work and the “algorithm­-for-­the-­recording­process” idea quite interesting.

This related to what I search for since I moved to Stockholm – those elements that reflect the Stockholm way of life: if its people travel a lot because I hear the travelling trolleys so often; how modern the city is because we hear that all building doors are opened mainly by typing a code; how people live their days, how their voice sounds, if they walk faster or slower when they are on the way to work or to meet their friends for a coffee, and how that shows what I consider to be their “spirit of efficiency”. Sound can give us so much information on a location / culture that when I find myself searching for a place to travel just looking at pictures of several places in the world, I started to question myself why am I not also searching for sounds!; and why is sound not considered important information, not even a half of what is a picture. Do you think there is a reason for the sound not to be important in this way? Is it a cultural matter?

    Perhaps visual stimulation on someone might make one think they have a certain control of a situation. Like they can have options; I don’t think it’s the same with listening.

So, if we are given an image and then we are given the sound… is sound more of a obscure thing or are we so driven by image and used to see that we appropriate it better? Maybe vision is a way of controlling, as you said… Say we have a 10 second video of this café where we sit now; perhaps we can gather a lot more information that is of our interest (or we think it is) rather than the sound recording of this place at this precise moment. Possibly in some way we feel safer with the picture…

The first thing that comes to my mind is the fact that one supposedly controls the focus of what one sees, of that one wants to see. I guess there is this idea in which ‘seeing’ works as some kind of dialogue, as if someone is about to present or offer some image to you, and the choice is yours to take it or leave it, as for listening it might feel somewhat less safer than that: you just can’t turn your head around and not listen. Another idea related to safety: there is a Brazilian artist called Rodolfo Caesar that works a lot with sound and he says, after Niesztche, that hearing is / was developed through fear. I imagine that in the beginning, at night, people should have trusted their listening and not their sight, or they would be frequently in danger. I think this could also mean that we feel safer in the daytime because we are able to see; it’s comforting and likely we have been developing more visually on a cultural level as well, by means of comfort.

This actually reminds me of a situation in which I recorded in a wild life park where I knew there were a few species of deer, wild boars and elks. In all honesty I grew up not having a clue of what how this animals sound like. One day there, I was recording by a very large lake with tall dense trees on the other side, like a bucolic painting. Everything was fine until I heard a terrible moan that petrified me. Having no clue of what it was, I felt only but a cold feeling running up my spine. I used my reasoning to remind myself that I did not know the sounds that those species have. (Later talks to a Swedish hunter and a Swedish nature field recordist pointed out to be a red deer, a very cute and incredible elegant animal). On the other hand I was able to enjoy how it propagated over the big area of trees on the other side of the river, so it was fascinating to be recording in an environment I haven´t been before.

    When I travel I become very attentive to everything: it’s like I am learning and understanding beauty in almost everything. From this wall behind us having written things, local architecture with their reverberation times, what you perceive from listening to someone walking on the street, the configuration of the space around, the light of a given place. And this hyper sensibility is missing when I am in my city. So maybe it happens to a foreigner, if you have this spirit, of coming to this state of sensibility and generosity, that I would like to have at home and I don’t. Like I am under anaesthesias when in Rio. I think this acts of recording, photographing or filming, which I also do when I’m abroad, are connected to this sensibility to differences, to the condition of being a foreigner. Which I think it’s a sort of a pity that this only happens under certain situations. At home, in Rio, I can become very focused on technical aspects only, things need to be well recorded, technically perfect, very different from the relationship I have to recording when I’m not there.

So you feel that back at home when you are focused on having a technically flawless recording, you lose the perception of the special, of the particular or of the interesting; that it is what you have when you visit another city.

    Yes, when I am in another city, like here in Stockholm, the experience is very unrelated to the act of recording. We are recording but experiencing and admiring how something sounds good or interesting. If I am back home I am being careful of having a flawless [technical] recording. Many times I only realise I recorded something very interesting listening back afterwords. Whilst in here, I could almost feel sorry for not having recorded something I encountered. Or on the other hand I am feeling lucky for having recording something truly interesting.

So there is a strong  act of appreciation when we are outside our usual context?

    For me it is, completely, which I feel to be a shame. I would have like to have the same behaviour at home. I have a habit of listening to my recordings before I go to sleep. It feels almost like a way of restoring those recordings; the sensation of being at the place, again a foreigner; often I can actually remember how the temperature was like, the light, the reverberant space.

I find very interesting that you listen to your recordings in that way. I was asked twice what do I do with my field recordings. I had to think for some seconds as I didn´t have a prompt answer. What do you do with your field recordings?

    Many things I record I have a personal use for it. Like listening to older recordings, not the ones I recorded on the same day. This a is a very personal use. In another way it´s like I am going through a photography album. I record very much with binaural technique, so my fantasy placing myself there again. Another use is of publishing, like the Japan recordings, but it has to be interesting in other ways. It needs to be technically good, well resolved, and I want content that potentially would transport people to that place, living an experience as being there, but in that case “that place” would be my memories. My field recordings are, up to now, used in these two ways.

Favourite sound?

    Track 2 from Cidade Arquipélago, corvosHamarikyu, from all of them, that is my favourite. It’s a whole take with no post editing or selecting. I was lucky to be in that right place at the right time, with the announcement that the park was about to shut for the day, being an announcement with music, I thought that sequence was incredible!; it sounds edited and composed, but it’s a take only. It sounds good but it takes on luck. Also the moment I was living then is, for me, well portrayed on that recording. It’s like a good memory. But many people talk to me about this track! I don’t know if I can transmit or transfer a certain state of mind to other people, but this is actually the recording I have more feedback on.

3Curiously, I have a similar situation with a short track I have on my SoundCloud, with which a friend of mine said to have felt a bit moved by listening to the recording. I´m gonna be honest – the title of the recording has her name, and a compliment to her was made when I shared the track, so I don´t know how this influenced her on that end. Anyway, I like that recording very much, and she – someone who claims even not to know a thing about sound (not that I agree) – considered it beautiful and loved the fact that I caught someone laughing. This might have been the best comment I ever heard from my field recordings. So I wonder if it has been that special for us, if it can be so special to others as well.

    I keep asking myself if when we record, we reveal the beauty of the obvious, of day­-to-­day life. Although some events are more interesting than others… I think recording manages to highlight and acquire the quotidian, which is very curious. In my opinion we cannot transmit a specific content through a recording, but I notice that the recordings I find more interesting are the ones that resonate more in others as well, in ways similar to the ways I feel when I listen to them. So I guess something of the impact I feel is transmitted.

Something emotional or something on a timbre level, surprise or a mix of everything that attracts people?

    On this particular case, the second track of Cidade Arquipélago, maybe the fact that the sounds themselves are beautiful ­ whatever “beauty in itself” means ­, or something symbolic connected to the crows, or the fact that in Brazil there are no crows and they sound like nothing else… Maybe because it’s a binaural recording; the first time someone listens to a binaural recording on headphones is usually a terrific experience. But I had many replies with people saying they went though a certain emotional state… but that you cannot control. Unless, I guess, you appeal to a more physical side maybe, recording a sound with certain physical properties that might have been proved to cause certain emotions but even that… we cannot know. So I don’t know exactly what is transferred.

Do you think that a bigger effort from schools should exist for more education on sound, even for us to grow up with a better perception of the world around us?

    As a teacher, one of the exercises I did with one of my experimental music classes was to work with field recording for a while; my idea was not to turn them into field recordists or merely encourage them on field recording but just to work on their listening awareness; to what you and I do [field recording] listening awareness is essential; but I think it is as much for a musician that her / his perception can go beyond what can be [musically] noted on paper. I think we should go beyond precise notations of sound duration and pitch. I don’t know what place this would have in a more radical place of education, or even in an education for everyone. In Brazil, for example, I also did not a refined education for a more sensible side of vision. Of course, on art education there is a lot more turned to visual art, there is more contemplation for visuals, more than any other sense, and let’s not even mention the sense of tact ­ is almost absent. And, as an educator, this is one of my main concerns. The first class that I lectured with this experimental music students, I mainly lent hand recorders to them, and I was only concerned that they would press the rec button, and all the rest would come along. I was not focusing much on the quality of the recording. Students came back saying that from the moment they pressed rec, the world has opened up for them. Which I find to be very curious, how people are not very attentive otherwise, myself included. So perhaps, recording is a way of achieving some bigger awareness regarding hearing; So maybe there is a role for sound recording in education.

I think there is not an intended negligence but most people had yet not had the pleasure to discover how interesting it can be. On a few experimental films I worked there was time and opportunity to share a pair of headphones with someone else in the crews and no one had a sterile reaction. I clearly remember one man who was working on the electrical department that had a smile from ear to ear and his eyes closed while he was wearing the cans. He later just thank me with a big smile and shiny eyes. So usually people are not aware of this “wow” thing and how interesting the world can be through one or two microphones. Also, I think that we give so much visual reference when we are growing up our kids. Say we are teaching a small child how to cross the road; we always say “look carefully to the left and right and cross if no cars are coming”. Why not also teach them to additionally trust their hearing?

    Almost everything dictates the visual supremacy, since early age, everything is refined for the sight. Many times it´s really the lack of a single opportunity to “notice the other senses”.

4A few studies have shown that a lot of people relate nature sounds as smoothing and relaxing, which also makes them recover from stress faster than in a context of industrial sounds. Yet, the first kind of natural sound that occur to people is bird chirping and singing. There is so much more and yet, we are lead to not go beyond of that so much, at least at a first thought.

    Nature sounds can be extremely oppressive too. Often when in Rio de Janeiro, I visit a neighbor city and I am hosted in a house that is almost surrounded by the sea. For me, to be there is a resistance exercise. The waves break all the time. All the time! It’s a continued exposition. Prolonged, the fifth track of Cidade Arquipélago, which length is 16 minutes, consists of a lot of wind on trees, in an area close to a river; a very constant noisy situation which I find oppressive. We tend to associate natural sounds with soothing and relaxing situations and I also like to deal and explore the opposite idea. Some of my favorite recordings are of sounds related to electricity and I immediately associate them with ‘the city’. This sounds actually calm me down a lot. Curious!

Thanks so much Paulo Dantas for sharing your thoughts!

Check Paulo SoundCloud and Bandcamp pages.

The studies I write just above are mentioned on Trevor Cox´s Sonic Wonderland – a Scientific Odyssey of Sound:

D. Zimmerman, Britain´s Shield: Radar and the Defeat of the Luftwaffe (Stroud, Gloudcestershire: Sutton, 2001), p.22; J. Ferris, ´Fighter Defence before Fighter Command: The Rise of Strategic Air Defence in Great Brittain, 1917-1934`, Journal of Military History 63 (1999):pp.845-84.

´Can Sound Really Travel 200 Miles?` BBC News, 13 December 2005,

6 thoughts on “The Foreign Condition – Conversation with Paulo Dantas on Listening Awareness, Sound Education & Field Recording

  1. That last paragraph is fascinating. It’s something I’ve been trying to come to terms with over the past few months. I’m recording sounds around Hawaii for a project, and one of the questions I’m having to ask is, “Is this soothing?” (This is a requirement of the project, not one imposed by me.)

    The answer so far has been: “It’s complicated.”

    For someone who grew up near the sea, the scene set by Paulo would be calming, but the electrical noises he described may be jarring. Likewise for someone raised in the city, incessant ocean sounds may be jarring, but electrical noises would be soothing.

    This has made the process of recording for the project slower, but it has also made it a great deal more interesting.

    Another point that came up in your conversation is the idea of the familiar versus the novel. This part of the dialogue sums it up:

    “So there is a strong act of appreciation when we are outside our usual context?”
    “For me it is, completely, which I feel to be a shame. I would have like to have the same behaviour at home.”

    Most of my background has been in photography. I’ve only recently dived into field recording. What you were discussing is common with photography as well. It’s very easy to visit a location over and over and over and nit-pick your own work to the point that it is technically excellent, yet devoid of emotional content. Then someone visiting that same spot for the first time may come away with a photograph (or a recording) that may or may not be technically “clean”, but carries with it a wealth of emotion!

    My guess is this is, to some degree, human nature. The grass is always more interesting looking and sounding on the other side of the fence. And yet we find ourselves surrounded by grass.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Tom!

    On the soothing vs. oppressive: I agree – and I think like many things in life – it´s associated with our memories of experiences that have been shaped positive / negative (if we can put it this simply). I don´t know enough about physical components on the sound that can be used to cause irritation, except the more or less common stories about the screeching sounds between 2 and 4 khz – like the chalkboard screech -, some suggest dissonances and the possibility of very low frequency sound content provoking some stress into out bodies. Personally, even though I lived near the sea all my life, the sound of waves breaking near me stresses me very much, dup to a not so good experience in the past. But youtube, for example, is full of “relaxation sounds” that precisely contain endless waves breaking.

    Regarding the second part of your comment – appreciating when we are foreigners – I have been doing this simple exercise where I live which is to make a mental list of everything I am listening and think how it´s propagating in the area. I don´t know if this would work with photography as well. I´ve seen countless pictures of the same area of my hometown. But some really feel special, and it´s mostly related to some emotional content on it, not so much as the technical aspects being met with perfection. Could it be like re-watching a film where we will always find new things?

  3. Several thoughts regarding the use of image for information vs. the use of sound –

    I believe this is related to the time domain and the way that media is disseminated in the world today. Sounds of course require a certain length of time for the brain to process, and of course, the longer the sound, the more information it can convey. But images can be processed in fractions of a second, and I think that a larger or higher resolution image does not necessarily convey more information like it would with sound. Of course this applies only to still images, if we turn to video then the conversation changes.

    Since the image can be processed so quickly, I believe that the television and advertising industries have used that to their advantage in terms of marketing a product. Indeed even in film is it not the norm to start with an image and then craft a soundtrack to support that image, rather than crafting the image to support the sound or taking them both at the same time?

    Sound of course has the power to add reality to an image, which may or may not be favorable to the creator or intended audience.

  4. Hi, David. Thank you for taking the time to read the post and for adding to the conversation.
    I think too image provides a lot of information very quickly and so we see it overpowering sound so often. And nowadays that so much advertisement and other forms need or want to be very fast and efficient, sound is used only to punctuate rather than adding or even exist per se.
    That is one strong reason for me to think of even better education regarding sound. Of course I have a special relationship with sound and am not demanding everyone else to think as I do. I do think that on TV, for example, sound has been having enough of being second all the time. Instead of a collaborative process, sound follows picture and rarely a decision is taken because of sound, but then frequently, sound is able to compromise a whole thing if not properly done or if the physical conditions of the place have not been considered.
    On the other hand, when the sound production is superb, it is noticed -The Revenant, for example, where the sound not only added reality but created almost a whole dimension by itself.

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