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Pearl of Asia

Field. In the jungles of Angkor, among the innumerable temples of the Angkor Wat complex, the pervasive sounds are these: motor bikes, souvenir hawkers, roadside musicians, and — most of all — the eerie, disorienting chorus of whistling cicadas.

I took some liberties in naming this filecast, since the phrase “pearl of asia” usually denotes Phnom Penh, the French-colonial capital of Cambodia. I should state, for the sake of clarity, that none of these sounds come from the streets of that city. Instead, they were collected further north, in the Angkor Wat temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Suffice to say that Angkor is certainly a “pearl of the world”; in other words, it is an essential human artifact.

Also, in calling this a field recording, I have taken a similar liberty. The audio is in fact a mix of field recordings, tho they were all made on the same day (28 October 2008) in the same general location. A strict linear presentation would have been too long, and frankly boring, so I did a little layering. I also cut out the obnoxious sound of something brushing against the microphone at one point. Other than that, the sounds are relatively unmanipulated.

The extended musical section that forms the ample middle of the work was performed by the gentlemen pictured above. They are all victims of land mine explosions, and they play alongside the jungle path to collect alms. Land mines are an endemic problem in Cambodia, and foreigners are repeatedly reminded not to stray off of established paths. You can be sure the locals do not need to be reminded of this. I was told that statistically in Cambodia, one cow explodes each day from grazing too close to a land mine, placed there years earlier. Hearsay, perhaps, but certainly cautionary.

The whistling cicadas were the biggest surprise for me. Omnipresent, at times overbearingly loud, they are like environmental tinnitus. You hear the sound whenever you are surrounded by jungle, a steady pressure on the ear that does not let up. Sometimes, it feels like coming down from altitude when your ears are about to pop. At lower levels, it’s not an unpleasant sound, but it is very strange, coming from all directions, and at such a fixed pitch that you might convince yourself it is artificially produced. Rest assured that the source of this sound is entirely organic.