THE CHAO PHRAYA BANGKOK RIVER PROJECT
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“ There it was, spread largely on both banks, the oriental capital which has yet suffered no white conqueror. Here and there in the distance, above the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towards great piles of masonry, king palaces, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost palpable, which seemed to enter one’s breast with the breath of one’s nostrils and soak into one’s ribs through every pore of one’s skin.” (Joseph Conrad – The Shadow Line)
The River Ferries..
When I first visited Bangkok in 2004, on a stopover on my way to Australia, I hated it. I hated the traffic and the pollution most of all – despite having lived 20 years in Rome!! But then, on my way back, I discovered its river and the river ferries. You could get anywhere you really needed to go by first taking a river bus to the nearest point and then walking, plus the river was always cooler and a welcome escape from the heat and noise. They are cheap, frequent and always interesting. The best way to appreciate Bangkok’s post-modern architecture is from a river ferry-bus. The Chao Phraya’s banks are lined with it; as well as temples, rickety falling down wooden houses on stilts, royal palaces and, most importantly for my project, the ferry boat floating station platforms.
The Project-part one…the platforms.
Each station is a floating iron platform, like a small barge, held in place by several iron pilings driven into the riverbed. Because the Chao Phraya river floods and rises dramatically in the wet monsoon season, the platforms have to be able to move up and down the pilings. There are nylon rollers which facilitate this up and down movement. The friction of the rollers against the pilings created sound. It was this sound that captivated me and moved me to spend much of my time in Bangkok, over a period of three years, on the river recording the ‘voices’ of these platforms.
My main concern and interest focused on the unique sound and individual ‘voice’ that each of the platforms seemed to possess, especially when recorded with all the ambient sound around them. The sound of peoples shoes on the metal platforms; the other passing boats and barges; the voices of tourist passengers in many languages; the voices of the locals speaking Thai and Chinese; the sound of music drifting from nearby radios and the sounds of people working either on the bank nearby or on the platform itself.
Audio MP3 – Chao Praya River -PLATFORM SIX.
“Suddenly, Tom heard the strangest noise up the stream; cooing, and grunting, and whining, and squeaking, as if you had put into a bag two stock-doves, nine mice, three guinea-pigs, and a blind puppy, and left them there to settle themselves and make music.”(The Water Babies )
The Project-part two…the soundscapes.
The second part of my project was to record some of the sounds of my daily walks to and from the various platform stops. At most of the station stops I got of and took a short walk around to see why they might be there. Some of them became regular places for me to visit. I found places I liked to stop and eat (a favorite pastime of mine!) shop or visit temples; particularly at the extreme ends of the ferry route away from the main tourist attractions. At some of these stops I recorded local ambient sounds. There was no post production involved and none of the recordings were edited other than in length.
The ‘soundscape’ section starts with what I came to call the ‘City Hum’ – recorded at about 5.30 in the morning from my hotel window as the city comes awake – not that it sleeps much! Chickens crow, birds sing and the traffic starts to heat up as does the day. The hum of the city – its natural vibrating note seems to become apparent. Maybe it is all those monks at morning prayer doing their morning mantra-who knows? A couple of my favorite sections in the piece are one where I passed a school where the pupils were practicing xylophones and gamelan. They were all practicing their individual parts but in their own time. The other is the girl singing karaoke in a virtually empty outdoor riverside restaurant at lunchtime. The restaurant was located right by the side of one of the noisiest of the platforms. As she sings you can hear the platform joining in and a boat arrive and leave. Sheer musical bliss. There is music of some kind or another everywhere , all the time in Bangkok and some of the juxtapositions of music and noise can be truly amazing.
The Chao Phraya River.
The Chao Phraya river runs through Bangkok and is the longest river in Thailand. It starts in Nakhon Sawan, 200 kms north of the capital city and flows through Bangkok to Samut Prakan and in to the Gulf Of Thailand. Chao Phraya is the highest title in ancient Thai nobility. Originally Bangkok was the Venice if South East Asia – a city of rivers and canals where the main mode of transport was water borne. A lot of the original canals have been filled in and made into roads – but the river is still a vital part of Thai and Bangkok life. The Chao Phraya is always teeming with boats and barges large and small.
The original river ferry service was founded 75 years ago by the grandmother of the current Vice President of the Chao Phraya Express Boat Co. Ltd, Supapan Pichaironarongsongkram. She employs around 400 men and women to run over 70 ferries that operate more than 250 trips a day up and down the river.
There are something like 36 stops over the complete length that the ferries run. Some of these are only cross river ferries, while the others go up and down part of its length within the city. The ferry boats themselves are of various types – depending on their job. Those traveling the length are about 16-20 metres long and 4-5 metres wide and very fast. A powerful diesel engine is mounted towards the stern and the driver, sat right up front, is guided into and out of each station by a bosun (usually a young and agile young man) with a whistle. When the ferry arrives at a platform it passes and overshoots slightly. The bosun with his whistle leaps onto the platform on this first pass and secures the vessel with a thick rope. He then guides the driver back with whistle signals. The reversing vessel is secured and everyone alights. He then whistle signals when it is clear to leave and jumps back on board. I never discovered whether each bosun had his own set of whistle signals or if they all used the same ones. Another project perhaps?
Below a short video of one of my favourite sources of sound on the soundscape c.d. – brass bowls in the reclining Buddha’s temple – visitors drop coins into the bowls as they move along the row.
Video – BANGKOK.temple:bowls1-MP4
“Listen Better” is a short video I made using one of the platform sound recordings and images shot on super eight film and later digitally processed with embedded text. The text embedded in ‘Listen Better’ is from Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and from Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks. I simply Googled for ‘water quotes’ and those two names came up. In the sixties I read, like lots of other people at that time, most of Hesse’s work including Siddhartha . I wrote a song called Journey To The East, for my second album Do I Know You in 1969, based on Hesse’s book of the same name. In fact I hadn’t thought much about him since then. The quote below, from Wikepedia, explains how Hesse’s book and Leonardo’s words, written long before, concur.
“The novel (Siddhartha) is unique in that time is not linear, the series of events occur at varying jumps in time; yet the themes throughout the book seem to come back to its origin. This symbolizes the essence of the River, being that the River is its own beginning, middle and end-or the source of life. Siddhartha experiences the emotions of humanity through the River all flowing from and to its source.” (Wikepedia)
“In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes. So with time present. (Leonardo da Vinci, from his notebooks, translated by Edward McCurdy)
Listen Better – – https://vimeo.com/19129593
My sound recordings were made on two mini-disc recorders using the microphone provided – a small Sony tie-clip microphone – with a home-made wind baffle. I simply placed the microphone inside the mini-disc travel bag and hung it from the handle of my day-bag on my shoulder as I walked about, never paying much attention to it other than to switch it on and of.
My video and films were shot on equally lo-fi equipment as was my preference in these things in those days (I have upgraded since then.) I shot Super Eight film and video. My video camera was a small SD card model – made in China and it cost 40 euro!! It is certainly less ‘high tech’ than most peoples mobile phones these days. I liked it because it was as near as I could get to a digital version of Super Eight film. In fact I re-filmed my Super Eight film – projecting it onto a sheet of A4 white paper – with the same video camera, to achieve even more textured downgrading of the image quality for my short ‘Listen Better’ film
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As well as being a two cd audio set and a dvd of “Listen Better” the project is available as a sound/video installation, for further details please contact the artist – firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com