Mikel R. Nieto: Dark Sound

It's saying something when the book component of Mikel R. Nieto's Dark Sound is even more unusual than the CD material it accompanies. Dark it most definitely is: with its type printed in black ink on dark paper, the 176-page hardback book verges on unreadable; formally described as “partially legible,” the book requires that the reader either hold it a particular angle under lamplight to absorb it or do the same under bright sunlight. The text itself, presented in Huao (the language spoken by the Huaorani people), Basque, Spanish, and English, is cryptic, too, as indicated by the “By buying this book you are contributing to the destruction of the planet” note within and the political dimension signified by its “The price of this book is set by the crude oil Brent price (LCO)” statement. Dark Sound is rather Borges-ian in its content, ranging as it does between texts (on the ethics of deep listening, for example), reports, aphorisms and quotations (Nietzsche, Artaud), diagrams, testimonies, a letter to the Huaorani people, a glossary, and “a possible chronology,” among other things. By now, it should be obvious that the texts collectively accentuate the profound impact the oil industry can have on living creatures, human and otherwise, and their surroundings.

Given the challenges with which the reader must contend, it's the CD component that will likely form the primary site of engagement for many consumers; having becoming suitably oriented to the project via the book, they'll likely shift their attention to the sound collage and perhaps absorb (to the best of their ability) the text while the black polycarbonate CD's content fills the room. Though Nieto, a phonographer, sound artist, and researcher, fashioned the material from thirty-four separate recordings (captured using devices ranging from contact microphones and hydrophones to bat detectors), it's presented as a single-track, sixty-five-minute stream.

A dense vocal tapestry of insects, amphibians, underwater creatures, and birds appears amidst thunder and the industrial noise of machines (including a passenger plane, pump, battery, an electric generator at Tiputini Biodiversity Station, and air conditioner for the Electrical Substation at Yasuni Research Station). Though a simple scan of the thirty-four sources reveals a sound design that moves from an initial emphasis on natural phenomena (in the Ecuadorian jungle) to the industrial sphere, a better appreciation for the CD's material is obtained by reading the detailed notes Nieto wrote for each part. In doing so, the sound material takes on a whole new dimension; it resonates much more powerfully, for instance, when one realizes that a machine's grinding is actually the sound of jungle terrain being flattened and cleared to make way for the construction of an oil settlement.

Of course the display format used makes absorbing such information a challenge, to say the least, and it's easy to imagine a less resolute soul abandoning the reading process midway through. As true to the projects's theme as the black-on-black display is, a subtle modification to it that would have allowed for slightly better readability might have been worth considering, especially when the textual content is so central to an appreciation of the work's themes.

September 2016