The project

Last updated: 2021-05-26

The challenge:
La Tierra que Suena

Below is an example of several descriptions (e.g. on the website for hiking on El Hierro of Wikiloc) that I read about a part of El Hierro, the most westerly of the Canary Islands. It tells about an area near the village of San Andrés, called “La Tierra que Suena” (“The land that sounds”) on the plateau called “Meseta de Nisdafe”, where you can hear unusual sounds when you walk there:

“Así han llamado los herreños a esta parte de la meseta de Nisdafe. Este nombre procede de un curioso fenómeno volcánico. En esta parte norte de la Meseta, las erupciones del conjunto volcánico de San Andrés debieron ser muy fluidas y con gases abundantes, por ello dejaron en el subsuelo y a escasa profundidad tubos y cavidades. Atravesando con caballerías este tramo, las pisadas resonaban como si se tocase un tambor, de ahí ese curioso nombre de la tierra que suena. Es un nombre que tiene más de tres siglos, pues ya se recogía en Antigüedades y Ordenanzas de la isla de El Hierro de Bartolomé García del Castillo, y ha pervivido hasta la actualidad dándole un aire mágico a este”.

In English:
“This is how the Herreños have called this part of the Nisdafe plateau. This name comes from a curious volcanic phenomenon. In this northern part of the Plateau, the eruptions of the San Andrés volcanic complex must have been very fluid and with abundant gases, therefore they left tubes and cavities in the subsoil at shallow depths. Crossing this section with cavalry, the footsteps resounded as if a drum were being played, hence that curious name of ‘The land that sounds’. This name is more than three centuries old, since It was already collected in the Antigüedades y Ordenanzas de la isla de El Hierro by Bartolomé García del Castillo, and it has survived to this day, giving it a magical air “.

Bartolomé García del Castillo (1674-1743) was the author of the Antigüedades and the Ordenanzas de la isla de El Hierro. This is a meticulous and exhaustive description of the island in his time. See References.

screenshot_01

Detail of the geological map of the Meseta de Nisdafe (El Hierro) with La Tierra que Suena in the centre. From: Juan Carlos Carracedo.

This made me very curious and so I decided to make a project out of it.

Questions

Challenging questions for me are:

  1. how do these unusual sounds sound?
  2. what is their physical origin?
  3. what is their origin according to local people?
  4. can they be recorded, reproduced and preserved for the future?
  5. how can people be made aware of and enthusiastic about this phenomenon?

Answers

The first three questions are answered by me reading books and going to the place:

  1. listen on the spot while walking.
  2. these sounds come from underground volcanic tubes. When you walk over them, you hear a reverberating deep and hollow sound. They are not very musical.
  3. this is an anthropological issue. The sounds are well known by the “pastores” (herds) who cross the plateau on horseback. But I am curious to know more about how the sounds play a role in their daily life, especially in the past. I read and talk often with local people, but no special stories or myths from the past about the volcanic tubes of La Tierra que Suena are mentioned.
    According to Sixto Sánchez Perera in his book “La Mudada al Valle de El Golfo” (p. 33) in the past similar sounds were heard in El Golfo. There is a volcanic chasm that, according to popular belief, was formed as a consequence of the challenge to the wrath of Santa Ana (grandmother of Christ). The oral tradition still remembers the legend that there she let disappear a whole family with cattle. These very shocking facts mark the conscience of the people for generations. Even on her name day, 26 of July, people did not go bathing in the sea because they believed it was very dangerous. Although this story might be mixed with superstition, we now know that these events happen rather often. Landslides (desprendimientos) happen as consequence of meteorological phenomena (wind, drought, rain) as well as animals on the slopes. Often roads are closed by falling rocks or volcanic debris.

The instrument

To answer both questions 4 and 5, I choose to build a musical instrument that is very easy to play for anyone, needs not much special skills and is very seductive and immersive. It must be able to produce soundscapes (a term marked by Murray Schafer) that compete with the player’s experience of being on El Hierro.
These constraints mean an instrument that is only played by making gestures with your body, or by moving objects*. I want to prove that with an appropriate and easy instrument like this you really can produce new sounds, and manipulate prerecorded sounds that harmonize in a musical way. You can feel “musical” and create musical sounds. And more, it lets you re-shape the acoustic environment of this island, become aware of and explore its typical and valuable properties and so you can keep alive its magic. Therefore of course it needs more sounds, not only of the tubes.

This instrument touches the idea of Merlin Donald about mimesis (imitation): he considers mimesis between people, leading to forms of collaboration in rhythmic patterns, as a fundamental stage in the historical development of culture of mankind.

Further reading

More details information can be found here:

How it works: to read about technical and programming aspects of the instrument.

How I work: to read about my working processes to build and play with the instrument.

Current status of the project

Until now I realized the technical part of this project, that is the software to realize the instrument. Now I continue to work on extending and combining my sound recordings that fulfill my wishes for the instrument, certainly not the easiest phase!
Of course, open aspects of the questions above will keep my attention too. Now and then I will update my blog with new information. If you want to receive notifications by email of new posts, enter your email addres there under FOLLOW MY BLOG VIA EMAIL.


* The idea here is not “new”, many artists have explored ways to use gestures for producing sound. Generally they use very sophisticated sensors and systems, often assisted by technicians. This instrument requires only a recent Apple computer with a webcam.