Tarek Atoui and Lina Ghotmeh on Dawn Chorus
We invited sound artist Tarek Atoui to create Dawn Chorus, a soundscape that complements Lina Ghotmeh’s Serpentine Pavilion 2023: À table. Here, Atoui and Ghotmeh explore connections between sound and space, as they discuss the sensory worlds which their commissions draw upon and bring into being.
Tarek Atoui: When I was invited to create a soundscape for the Pavilion, I was excited about the challenge. I don’t usually do applied composition – scoring and music production for collaborations in film, theatre, dance. I’m better at improvising, making installations and working with space. But so many elements and interests in your universe echoed mine.
Before, I didn’t know that you make elaborate watercolours. I was struck by them – especially the monochromatic, abstract sketches which talk about shape and volume. Then I started looking at your references, including materials and organic entities which were already in my own research. I had been listening to wood, to animals, to underwater shrimps, to water in all its states, so I put all of this into a sonic recipe that was calling to go à table.
Lina Ghotmeh: It’s brilliant to hear how you sensed an echo in the world around the Pavilion – I find echoes of its architecture and inspirations in Dawn Chorus, too. For me, the soundscape evokes great distance: the far past is somehow pulled forward into the future. It plunges me into a particular space and mood, one that feels both archaic and futuristic. To be put into a place that strongly solicits memory while also holding a newness is a precious experience, and Dawn Chorus really has that depth.
You can hear stories and craft in the piece. I love craft in architecture as a way of connecting with our environment, and you can feel the power of the hand in the making of Dawn Chorus. For example, sometimes there are ambiguous sounds, as if someone is cooking or frying.
TA: That’s the beauty of sound: the ‘frying’ that you hear in the beginning of Dawn Chorus is actually underwater shrimps hunting, but it sounds like fire, or crackling wood. Elsewhere you hear small pieces of metal, and waves of water. I recorded the inside of a tree with a special microphone, and you hear the wind creaking around it. These are some of my ingredients.
You mentioned a sense of the ancestral. The invitation to create Dawn Chorus came, in fact, at a moment when I was composing Al Qabali, a project on rural Arabic music, including Berber music from the South of Morocco and Algeria. Over there, I collected recordings of women from the Atlas Mountains who sing a song of welcome when they set up a meal for voyagers to arrive and sit down, not at a table but at a majlis (a sitting place within cultures of South-West Asia and North Africa). This form of convening sounds mysterious and magical when encountered through these women’s voices: they allow the gathering to take on a volume.
LG: That’s beautiful. It reminds me of how ancestral chants are always closely linked with landscapes. They are ways of calling one another across a large landscape, and of relating to your location; these chants have strong spatial quality.
The Pavilion itself reflects the form of the majlis in which people sit – both in rural contexts and in contemporary urban societies – to share, to decide on important matters, and to have dialogue. The Pavilion is for the quotidian, but it’s also a place for congregation, for meeting, for whispering…
TA: I was so attentive to the shape of the Pavilion in my process, but I only discovered its furniture when I visited London and saw how the table gives the space a totally different dimension. I really love how it can form one meeting space or allow for many individuals.
When I was asked to make this soundscape, first I wondered if there could be speakers in the Pavilion – but once I thought about it, I understood it was more intimate and magical for each person to access it in their own way, via their phone. Then, as I knew listeners’ situation would be so private, my real concern was trying to keep my piece as clear and limpid as possible. I chose sounds and materials that could bring in space – creating connections. I was always trying to let the piece breathe. I was hoping people would listen with headphones on one ear only, keeping the other ear open to the sounds of the park.
LG: We also cross different dimensions by sharing the soundscape online, or with a QR code in the printed catalogue. We can lunge from a book or a browser into another realm. Even if you’re not in the Pavilion itself, you put your earphones in and suddenly feel some of the polymerisation that the structure allowed.
Dawn Chorus is the perfect launchpad, and you accounted for other sounds to cross it: it’s inclusive. You described recording inside trees, and to me this is almost an invitation for people to listen the Pavilion’s columns and the trunks of trees in the park. The Pavilion has a radiating shape which is both about containing sound and sensing the outside at the distance: we feel the context and texture of the wood around it. So, your piece subtly brings in this context. I remember your project for Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris was also closely linked to space – I wonder, how do you relate to architecture when you’re making these projects?
TA: This project – From Architecture – was directly about listening to architecture. I worked closely with recordists who had amazing techniques for understanding a space and its integrity through sound. We listened to metal and other materials that were core to the ‘identity’ of the Fondation Louis Vuitton building, designed by Frank Gehry. We also listened to empty spaces, recorded the silence of rooms and noticed how air moved within them, bringing us to the idea that there is no real silence.
We tried to approach the building as something organic, going to its underground cellars and water systems. But what was most striking for me was hearing how a building reflects the sound of its environment: Gehry’s building reflects the surrounding Bois de Boulogne, and its metallic fence even reflects birdsong. This experience taught me to think about how other beings might hear a building.
LG: It’s a dimension of which we’re sometimes we’re not fully aware, but sound plays a crucial role in our cityscape. Essentially, architecture is a container of sound. It’s a reflector – but in a way, it’s also an active ‘sound organism’, making and affecting sounds which contribute so fundamentally to the atmosphere of any place. In my studio, we’re always looking at what kind of atmosphere and soundscape are we creating, in order to foster different types of intimacies and relationships.
LG: For example, my studio just created workshops for Hermes in Normandy. Artisans are constantly manufacturing there with noisy tools, so we integrated sound-absorbency into the space – measuring its size and form against the qualities of materials in order to attenuate sound. By experimenting, we understood what level of sound was disturbing or pleasant. Now, the sound of hammering within the building becomes quite musical.
It’s fantastic how we can play with materials and form to generate sound in space. A collaboration with a practitioner like you would be thrilling, because in architecture we don’t go to the micro-scale of sounds that you use, which would be beautiful to draw on. I’m thinking about the sensitive possibilities of even basic materials like bricks, which a different sound-feelings when tapped…
TA: I love this idea of sound-feelings. Thinking about this, but how sound relates to gathering, brings me to a project of mine titled WITHIN. The project brought together collaborators across the spectrum of hearing, from profoundly deaf people to those with some hearing impairment to professional musicians with acute hearing. I learned to really respect how intimate the listening experience is, and I began to avoid homogenising listening experiences within one space. I stopped trying to create the same feeling from every perspective, which is what concert halls and theatres aim to achieve.
Instead, WITHIN was multifaceted: each person could sculpt their listening experience. You could feel low vibrations and high frequencies in many ways, according to how speakers and instruments were installed. This felt so constructive, and it liberated me from trying to ‘tame’ or control spaces with prescriptive amplification techniques. It changed the way I work with material: when I listen to it, I’m trying to see what sounds it offers and how I can work with the flow of them.
LG: This closeness to the diversity of listening is really fantastic; it’s amazing how you can create this intimacy through sound, which is something that we don’t tackle enough. What types of relationships did deaf participants in WITHIN have to the sound? Can we experience sound through other senses as well?
TA: Yes, definitely. There are some key dimensions which we can always combine in creating listening experiences. One is listening through the body – for example to low vibrations, bass frequencies and so on. This happens with the fingers and the skeleton, so it’s connected to touching material. There is also listening through hand gesture, which can be sign language, but also gesturality and movement more broadly. We can also listen through the eyes, understanding sound from the movement and speed of an object.
When you combine these parameters, listening is about how sound, light and air circulate. It’s a multisensorial experience. For visibility – if you are using sign language or hand gestures – the light conditions are crucial. So, if you want a feeling of communion, all of these have to be considered.
LG: That’s wonderful to reflect upon. When I think about creating a gathering place, it’s crucial that it allows you to listen and to bring conviviality, generosity and comfort. Once you’re in a space of peace and calm, it allows you to open up and listen to the surroundings and to one another.
This is what the Pavilion seeks; it’s not noisy architecture. It listens to the shape of its surroundings, and to what a pavilion can be, and has been through history. The word ‘pavilion’ comes from papillon, ‘butterfly’ in French. Its meaning is rooted in a pleated surface that barely touches the ground with its columns. In a way, my Pavilion could be read as a deep listening experience in itself: a manifestation of form which invites people to enter a communication process.
TA: These notions of deep listening and opening to surroundings really resonate with my thinking for the soundscape. I learned the phrase ‘dawn chorus’ from sound recordist Chris Watson when we were working on the Louis Vuitton project in 2014. It’s the moment which nature awakes, a moment of intense listening. One day, at 4am, Chris took me outside the front of the building. We stayed for two hours, listening to the city waking up, without moving – we couldn’t scare a rabbit or move a branch. It was so intense. That vivid mode of listening is what I imagined for this piece, so I titled it Dawn Chorus. As I was making it, the soundscape felt like an awakening: the beginning of something. Just imagine listening to this piece at dawn, in the park, in your architecture…
Tarek Atoui (b. 1980, Beirut, Lebanon) is an artist and composer working within the realm of sound performance and composition. His work challenges traditional ways of perceiving sound and focuses on the medium’s ability to act as a catalyst for human interaction, while exploring its relation to current social, historical and political realities. Atoui’s work often revolves around large-scale, collaborative performances that stem from extensive research into music history and anthropology. He engineers complex and inventive instruments, arranges and curates concerts, performances, listening rooms and workshops. Atoui is also represented by Chantal Crousal in France and Vitamin Creative Space in China.
Lina Ghotmeh (b.1980, Beirut, Lebanon) leads her practice Lina Ghotmeh — Architecture in Paris, France and carries her works in the world at the crossroad of Art, Architecture & Design. Echoing her lived experience of Beirut – a palimpsest of unrest – her designs are orchestrated as an ‘Archeology of the Future’ where every project emerges in complete symbiosis with nature following a thorough historical and materially sensitive research investigation. She is the architect of Serpentine Pavilion 2023: À table.