Hsu Yenting - From Sound Geography to Sound Novel

HUNG, Jui-wei (Interview/Text) - 2016.12.19

Artist Chris Cobilis, who has collaborated with Hsu Yenting, once described her as a “sonic geographer”. Hsu’s career as a sound artist began out of a desire to create sound documentaries for the local communities. Apart from field recording, she has also been engaged in sound design, reporting, planning and production for theater projects. Politically active, Hsu helped send a rock star into Taiwan’s parliament earlier this year. Following fierce political battles, Hsu went back to her creative routine and continues to excavate new possibilities of sound.


                                                                                                                              Hsu Yenting participating in Chiayi Sound Project. 2008. Photo credit: Lee Wei-i.



Fly Global (FG): In the creation of art, field recording has become your primary source material. How did you develop an interest in it?

Hsu Yenting (Hsu): I’ve been very interested in music since I was little. I played percussion instruments in schooldays. Then, under the influence of my colleagues and friends, I was exposed to all kinds of music.

I majored in journalism in college. But because I wanted to join the art circle, I chose art management for my graduate school studies. While studying in graduate school, I had an internship at Trees Music & Art, an independent music label specializing in world music. I learned a lot from the internship, which also paved the way for our future collaboration, Chiayi Sound Project.

In 2008, Trees Music & Art was commissioned by the Bureau of Culture, Chiayi County Government, to establish a local sound archive. I served as the project coordinator and recordist. We worked with sound artist Yannick Dauby, who taught me the basics of field recording and introduced me to a lot of sound pieces and books. And I just took off from there.

I spent more than a year collecting sounds in Chiayi. It was a difficult time of my life during which I encountered many personal issues. Listening to field recordings always helped me calm down. Because of that experience, my interest in field recording grew even stronger.



                  Revitalization of Chiayi Sound Project, 2012.  Yannick Dauby, Hsu Yenting and Tsai Wan-shuen use the sound materials from Chiayi Sound Project
                                                                                                                                         and create a whole new auditory experience. Photo credit: Yannick Dauby.



FG: The field recordings you collected for Chiayi Sound Project were initially for documentation purposes. Why did you turn them into art pieces?

Hsu: At the Migration Music Festival, which was organized by Trees Music & Art, there was a program called “Travelers’ Stories”.  In 2009 I was invited to speak about my experience with Chiayi Sound Project. For that occasion, I edited recordings for the first time in my life and used them to tell my story.

In 2010, self-motivated, I started a research project for which I visited many sound artists and sound art platforms in the UK and France. I made many friends along the way, including Malaysian artist Hoo Fan Chon. When we first met, Hoo was preparing for a joint exhibition and asked me to contribute a piece. That’s when I created Timeless Rain.

That piece was inspired by a poignant experience: During a recording trip in Chiayi, I was stranded in the mountains due to a typhoon. For days, all I could hear was rain. It was like a lifeless world. Later, when the rain subsided, the insects and birds started making noises again. I felt I could finally breathe. It was like me coming to the surface after a long dive. That was a sound I could never forget.


                                                                                                                                              Hsu Yenting at Cheng-Long Wetlands, 2012. Photo credit: Guo Shu-jen.



FG: Residency seems to be a very important prerequisite for your artistic output – You have to spend time in the field taking “nutrients”. Tell us about some of the most memorable residencies you’ve had.

Hsu: In 2012, I had my first residency in the Cheng-Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project. It was held in a small fishing village on the southwest coast of Taiwan. The organizer emphasized community building and the project was about creating intimate links with the environment and people. That got my attention because my art was always “people”.

The theme that year was “What’s for Dinner”. I decided to collect sounds tracking the process of how food was made by the local people. I spent time with the villagers and made a lot of recordings. Using them as my source materials, I created .Sounds Delicious. Since my target audience was the local people, I made sure there were enough narrative qualities in my composition. I tried to make it as listener-friendly as possible and let the audience rediscover the sounds they’d taken for granted.



         Sounds Delicious, Cheng-Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project, 2012. Photo credit: Hsu Yenting.



Besides narrativity, I also pay attention to the texture and composition of sounds. They are like timbre and rhythm in music. What I mean by narrativity is not exactly “story-telling quality”. Narrative can be highly imaginative or purely catalytic. I’ve always wanted to dig out more possibilities like this in the creation of art. In recent years, this tendency has shifted my attention to “sound novels”.

During my 2014 and 2015 residencies in Paris and in Western Australia, respectively, I started to develop sound novels. Compiling a sound novel is like playing solitaire. For example, I play an out-of-context segment to you and ask you what you heard. You may say it helps you visualize a picture, a situation or a story. Then, based on your descriptions, I create a new recording, play it to another person and ask him to do the same. This creative process takes imagination, for both sounds and words.  In the middle of it, I act like a screenwriter or a sound director, editing everything for the final output.

From those residencies, I went on to create other projects. In 2014, I worked on an experiment of videos and sounds with screenwriter and film director Aephie Huimi in Paris. We broke away from the convention of “video first, audio second”. I provided two recordings that I’d collected locally. Without prior discussion, she listened to the recordings and came up with a video. In the end, we had two separate art pieces that could be presented either jointly or individually. We hoped to copy the experiment in other cities as well.

In 2015, I met writer, theater director and manager Sally Richardson in Western Australia. She would later come to Taiwan as a resident artist and work on the Ghost-Jhih project in which she discusses the concept of ghost and how it relates to people’s thoughts. We clicked at our first meeting and had a lot of discussions afterwards. Those talks expanded into a long-term project between Taiwan and Australia. Earlier this year, I went back to Australia with two Taiwanese dancers. For two weeks, we worked intensively with Sally, a group of Australian dancers, songwriters and video designers. We created a lot of materials and hoped to continue this exchange-based residency project.



                              Ghost-Jhih being developed at the residency at Mandurah Performing Arts Center, Western Australia, 2016. Photo credit: Ashley de Prazer.



FG: Besides solo projects, you have worked with many choreographers and done sound design for theater projects. Tell us about those endeavors.

Hsu: In 2011, choreographer Chou Shu-Yi launched the Next Choreography Project and asked me to do brainstorming with him. Since then, my roles in that project have been quite versatile. Besides working as a project planner, I was also invited by choreographer Yeh Ming-Hwa to be her sound designer. Back then, I wasn’t very confident in my works. And we were working on a very tight schedule. So mostly, what I did was to choose the right music. Later that year, when Shu-Yi also asked me to be the sound designer for Reenactment, I finally had the chance to use my own pieces and mixed them with pre-selected music. Now, most of materials I use are self-made. The best thing is that I maintain a close relationship with those choreographers. Most of them would come to me as soon as they have an idea. In that way, I can participate in their project from start to finish and we tend to have a lot of discussions.


FG: You’ve been part of Lacking Sound Fest and On Site ArtFest, which are two of Taiwan’s most important sound performance platforms. What was the experience like?

Hsu: Lacking Sound Fest and On Site ArtFest are Taiwan’s most precious and audacious sound art platforms. When Yao Chung-Han, founder of Lacking Sound Fest, invited me in 2011, I had zero experience in live performance. In fact, my “performance” that year raised some eyebrows. I put a piece of cloth in front of the stage and worked backstage. Throughout the show, the audience listened to sounds and saw only one photo being projected onto the cloth. Some people wondered: Wouldn’t this work better at an exhibition? But actually, I was playing with people’s false imagination. I made the audience believe that there was more to “see”. But in fact, the show required people to focus on listening. Yao was very open-minded about that. He said Lacking Sound Fest was meant to generate different auditory possibilities.


Developed by a group of art students in 2007, Lacking Sound Fest is a small-scale but vibrant art platform. Currently, it is a sound performance platform with the most showings and participating artists in Taiwan. Hsu Yenting is shown here during her 2011 performance Soundscapes/post-performance talk (one of the soundscapes). Photo credit: Lacking Sound Fest.

On Site ArtFest is like an enlarged version of Lacking Sound Fest. There is also a lot to “play with”. During my 2005 residency in Australia, I was inspired by musician Chris Cobilis and had my first impromptu performance with him. Thanks to his endorsement, I returned to West Australia in October the same year for two more gigs. Upon homecoming, I received an invitation from On Site ArtFest. In order to have an impromptu performance, again, I teamed up with musician Yang Jipo, who plays sheng, a Chinese free reed instrument. For one thing, Yang was also interested in field recording. Secondly, sheng has many variants, each with a different timbre and tone quality. With that, we were able to create some interesting results.


Left- On Site ArtFest is a government-organized large-scale art festival. Launched in 2012 as a cross-disciplinary platform, On Site ArtFest includes categories such as visual hybrids, sound hybrids and performance hybrids. In 2015, Hsu Yenting and sheng player Yang Jibo performed Guanyin for the sound hybrids category at Treasure Hill Artist Village. Photo credit: Chou Shu-Yi.  
Right- Performing at Liquid Architecture 2015 Perth, which was organized by Liquid Architecture, Australia’s leading organization for sound artists. Photo credit: Josh Wells.                                                  



FG: Apart from sound art, you have also been engaged in writing, performance planning and political campaigning. You helped send a rock star into Taiwan’s parliament. How did you become a multitasking person? Did those tasks pull you apart or create synergy?

Hsu: My writing and planning skills mostly came from my background as a journalism student. During my collaborations with other artists, I demonstrated some coordination skills and have taken similar tasks since then. But I didn’t expect I would play a role in politics. I’ve worked with CHTHONIC, the heavy metal band, on some projects. Freddy Lim, CHTHONIC’s lead vocalist, later announced his bid for parliament and asked me to join his campaign. I joined him because I wanted to send someone I could trust into the parliament.

Sometimes, these roles do compete against each another since they require different parts of the brain. If you don’t give yourself enough time to shift from one role to another, things can become difficult. But in other cases, those roles complement each another. That helps me look at things from multiple angles. The reason I take on so many roles is perhaps because I still care about the society. I hope I can act like a channel. Through sounds, words or other mediums, I want to bring people something different.


Waterland (solo exhibition), Taipei Artist Village, 2016. Photo credit: Kang Hong-qi.




► About Artist

Hsu Yenting
Web | www.suotsana.net        Soundcloud | soundcloud.com/yenting-hsu

A sound artist who investigates the cultural context of sounds, explores the connection between life, environment and ethnic cultures, and reflects on the relationship between sounds and their surrounding world from an alternative angle. Using field recordings as her primary source material, Hsu creates audio documentaries, soundscapes and sound performances. Her works are characterized by an abundance of narrative qualities. Often forming an intimate relationship with local communities and artistic partners, Hsu likes to explore the interreflection between external cultures, environmental sounds and individual/collective memory and emotion. Over the past two years, Hsu’s sound pieces have increasingly explored the psycho-geographical dimensions, examining the profound connection between external soundscapes and inner reflections. Relying on narrative and imagination, Hsu now puts her focus on “sound novels” and continues to probe the interrelation between sounds, daily items and other mediums. She also works extensively with dance theaters as a sound designer.