Brazilian sound artist Negalê Jones says that there is a triangulation in his sound art work involving nature: the knowledge contained within plants and was passed down from the original peoples, which came to Brazil with the Diaspora, as well as from Europe. “The key is freedom,” says the artist.
Ethnobotanical Amplifier. Photo: Negalê Jones. Courtesy of the artist.
Courtesy of the artist.
It was primarily from the 1970s onwards that the dividing line between experimental music and sound art was drawn. The then still-new form of artistic expression evolved within a field defined somewhere between music and the visual arts, between performance art and art object, proposing taking sound—or silence—from sheet music to electrical circuits, spaces, the human body and even plants. Rio-based sound artist Negalê Jones, who has been building a universe based on sounds he extracts from the botanical world, speaks to C&A América Latina about his career.
Saxophone and percussion
The path that led to my research with sound art and plants began with saxophone lessons and the neighborhood where I grew up: Horto, in Rio de Janeiro, surrounded by the Tijuca rainforest. In 1990, at the age of 18, I was awarded a scholarship to study music in England. Despite having all the documents from the school, I was barred by immigration in London. I had to go back home, but my return flight made a stopover in Canada, and I wound up spending ten days in Toronto. While I was there, I realized that everything they admired so much about Brazilian music was already part of my repertoire of sounds. On my return, with the trauma of not being able to study saxophone, I decided to dedicate myself to percussion. In 1996, I began playing with the group Os Afronautas, which was very successful in mixing electronic music with percussion. That was when I first had the realization that you could explore sounds that shouldn’t be present in certain objects. This is one of the foundations of sound art.
There is an international movement called Circuit Bending, which basically consists of recycling electronic devices, such as battery-powered toys, and transforming them into analog synthesizers, with the aim of creating musical instruments or other sound-generating objects. I got really into that! Since I didn’t have the money to buy synthesizers, I had to learn how to make them. This was in the early 2000s. I spent about ten years studying how to build instruments and I learned a lot. That’s when I started taking TVs apart and connecting synthesizers to televisions to see the visual output of a sound wave.
My skills with electronics were already well-developed, but I lacked a different, more personal side, something with my own stamp. At that time, in 2014, I was working with a dance group. Part of the project was capturing the sound produced by their dance steps and sending it to synthesizers. But the visual component was missing, I wanted to process the image the way I was already processing the sound. I wasn’t happy just buying image samples. I wanted something authorial, that I created. One day, walking in the woods, the shadows of moving plants caught my eye. I thought the effect was beautiful. I started photographing and filming moving plants. And I never stopped. Simultaneously, I thought about filming medicinal herbs moving in the breeze. But I still had no intention of working with the sound of the plants, it was just an interest in the visual element.
Boldo. Photo: Negalê Jones. Courtesy of the artist.
The sound of leaves
Experimental sounds and images came together in 2016, when I participated in a workshop on medicinal plants, led by Mãe Celina de Xangô, in Rio. I went as a scientist and not as a believer. The first bath of sacred herbs she taught me was strength. As I wondered, “where’s the strength?”, I had another thought suggesting that I experiment with objects I had at home: a rug, wires, microprocessor, computer, forest sounds, and herbs. I finished the bath and carried out my idea, step by step, and when I touched the leaves, they sent an electrical signal into the computer and triggered pre-recorded sounds. I couldn’t believe it! Because that was the most unlikely thing to happen, an idea I would never have come up with on my own, and it worked in five minutes. I realized that my relationship with leaves and sound would go far. Wave frequencies that we can’t even hear or see are part of everyday plant life. There’s an incredible phenomenon in the forest: when you look up, you’ll notice that the treetops never touch, even in motion, creating a space between them. It’s one plant sensing the other and leaving some room, like us on a crowded bus.
I started to test small electronics that I knew how to make, linked to plants, and to study the results. By that time, I had already transformed my research into sound art, but I didn’t know it. Since then, I’ve developed about eight ideas based on revealing the electrical impulses happening in nature but that we don’t hear. And Mãe Celina de Xangô’s workshop was something that set everything on track, because there is a triangulation in my work: the knowledge contained within plants, which were already respected by the original peoples; the plants that came with the Diaspora; and plants that arrived from Europe. I have all this information cataloged. African knowledge lays the groundwork, but alongside it, I also work with these other two branches of information.
O que as folhas ouvem (What leaves hear). Photo: Negalê Jones. Courtesy of the artist.
Technology and education
I attended the HTLT Study Group, at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which brought together researchers interested in complementary areas, such as art and technology. We took this experiment into schools, and it always seemed more interesting to me than being locked inside a studio or lab. Since 2015, the same sound experiences I shared with private schools have also been shared in public schools and cultural centers in low-income communities. Sound experiences with visual and tactile feedback go straight to children’s hearts. Like cymatics experiments, when we place a liquid or other matter, such as dust, on top of a speaker, we turn it on, and the sound wave creates designs on the surface.
Sound as material
We aren’t experimenting with music, taking an instrument, and trying to create musicality in a different way. Sound art is a way of using sound as a raw material for creation, of putting ideas out in the world without worrying about fulfilling musical requirements, such as beginning, middle and end, harmonic and melodic coherence. We can use sound with other peculiarities not inherent to it, use it as vaporization, as paint, as material. I work with sound the way someone handles clay. It’s understanding the force of the electromagnetic wave, the mechanical wave. It’s understanding the difference between what we call sound and what we call light, even though both are waves. The key is freedom.
Oscilador Fitológico (Phytological Oscillator). Photo: Negalê Jones. Courtesy of the artist.
Black presence in artificial intelligence
With this movement, I want all people, regardless of who they are, to get closer to nature. I create objects that make this interaction and generate this reflection. And I really want Black people, especially young people, to create a path to strengthen the Black presence in the building of artificial intelligence. There must be Black people learning how to program, to collaborate in the creation of these new universes, the metaverses that are being created daily.
Works by Negalê Jones on display:
SESC Sorocaba Arts Triennial – Frestas
Until January 30, 2022, Sorocaba (São Paulo).
Matrilinear Ceremony – An Homage to the Matriarchs of the First 28 Descending Generations of Mitochondrial Eve.
Kino Beat Festival
November 15 to 30, 2021, Porto Alegre.
In Search of the Non-Communicative Art of Plants.
The Delicate Lyrics of the Lichen.
The Volcanic Poetry of the Rocks.
Museum of Modern Art of do Rio de Janeiro
October 2021 to February 2022, Rio de Janeiro
Collective Compositions for Insurgent Times
The 100 Battles of Saint George.
Tuned in the Garden of Burle Marx – A sound occupation/ritual.
Anna Azevedo is a journalist, filmmaker and visual arts researcher with a focus on image re-employment processes and the decolonization of contemporary art.
Translation: Zoë Perry