A World of Vibrations: Storytelling Through Composition and Soundscape

Multimedia artist and interdisciplinary scholar Diana Chester takes us through her background working with sonic landscapes around the world, from the forests of Afghanistan to the vibration of global pandemics.

Kabul River between Kabul and Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Photo via Shutterstock, ID: 1475967740.

I grew up in the suburbs of New York City and spent the first 25 years of my life living on the East Coast of the United States. In 2007 I was awarded the William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India, which allowed me to spend a year working with a local NGO on the development and startup of a youth media-making program in 25 government schools in and around Delhi and Bangalore. The fellowship was transformative for me personally but also with regard to my creative and career aspirations. The experience working with students on film, photography, and animation projects they conceived of to explore social issues of relevance in their lives, informed my own sense of how art, technology, and education can speak to one another. It also helped me realize how much I personally enjoyed teaching digital media as a tool that gave students a voice to share stories about their own lives and experiences.

Shortly after returning to the United States, I joined a small team at New York University that was working to develop and build a Liberal Arts College in the United Arab Emirates, NYU Abu Dhabi. I spent six years living in Abu Dhabi and this period of time was when my artistic identity began to amalgamate with my research and scholarship. I was teaching media making and music technology, and much of my research was around oral histories, archives, and creative response within the National Emirati community. I was able to partner with Lest We Forget and their Director Dr. Michele Bambling on an innovative collections and archiving initiative that trained college-aged Emirati students in interview, oral history, sound recording, and film, so that they could collect stories from their parents and grandparents. These stories were used as the basis for an exhibition, the format in which the collection was shared publicly, and helped document the development and change of the Emirates from 1950 to the present. At that time I also began a long-standing research project that sonically explores the Islamic Call to Prayer, this has culminated in a sound map, several exhibitions, and a book that will be available in early 2021.

I was also fortunate during this time, due in large part to the geographic proximity of the UAE to India, to work with a former Indian colleague Dhanaraj Keezhara on the development of a series of community arts projects in Northern Kerala, focused on the Hindu Theyyam Festival. In our collaboration, I spent several years gathering field recordings of the festival, which I then developed into an album of specialised compositions, which were exhibited alongside Dhanaraj’s visual artistic renderings of the festival. As our collaboration evolved over the years, we began developing more physical pop-up spaces in the village. These exhibitions were often held during the week-long festival at Dhanaraj’s mother’s land, which is across from the temple grounds. All villagers were welcome to the exhibitions, which were discussion-forward gatherings intended to highlight complex performative elements of caste marginalisation within the festival.

What Trees Say, is one of my projects with the Sydney Environment Institute that looks at individual trees in Kabul and Aqcha District, Afghanistan. The goal of the project is to use geospatial data of individual trees to provide a broad overview of the environment while focusing in on individual trees as a sort of mannequin, a lens through which we look at not simply the material nature of the tree but the memory and histories it holds. In order to do this, I have partnered with Ann Raj, an environmental scientist who specialises in GIS (geographic information systems), who is based in Kabul working for an NGO. We began the project mapping out wooded areas and parks in Kabul and Aqcha District, and from there hired an Afghan research assistant who could travel to these areas and speak with people about their memories and stories of specific trees that serve as anchors in a place, a type of repository of memory and happenings that weather the passing of time and changes to life in Afghanistan.  We are working at present on organising the collected data, and hope to begin the development of a creative output that utilises the interviews and photographs with trees and people alongside technological mediation as a way of reconstituting these memories as a part of the trees.

“The goal of the project is to use geospatial data of individual trees to provide a broad overview of the environment, while focusing in on individual trees as a sort of mannequin, a lens through which we look at not simply the material nature of the tree but the memory and histories it holds.”

Sound is an often-overlooked creative medium, though now there is more of a niche being carved out for this work. Within a scholarly context, sound studies have been an inherently multidisciplinary field, and sound studies scholars often partner with academics in other disciplines to develop work that explores aspects of the human condition through the lens of sound. As a scholar and artist in these areas, I find sound to be an intuitive medium that allows me to cultivate or sometimes recreate sonic experiences/moments/environments, while it is also a medium that has the capacity to carry the timbre or nuance of human story and experience.  Placing storytelling and oral histories alongside creative sonic composition and soundscape allows for dynamic exploration in connecting how we understand through listening with content that is inherently aural.

Another upcoming work, entitled Pandemic Vibrations and Indigenous Vibrations, aims to explore the soundscapes of the current COVID-19 crisis and consider the impact of sound waves on the human body.  While being in lockdown at home, I noticed a natural progression in my own behaviour from incessantly watching the news online to slowly moving away from the constant din of news anchors, politicians, and medical experts speaking about the virus and its impact in real-time. In its place, I began picking up instruments with a new focus on creating sounds that felt healing. This project will explore these sonic impacts through an animated film and accompanying musical composition, developed by local and Indigenous musicians.

Diana Chester is an interdisciplinary multimedia artist and digital media scholar. Her work draws from sound studies, archival studies, and the ethnographic study of expressive culture in religious festivals and traditions. Her work interacts with the spaces in which they inhabit, which help to inform the physical and theoretical framing of her pieces. Chester is fascinated by patterns in sound and the relationship in the formal qualities of different mediums. This gives organization to her work and informs her compositional approach.