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Interview with Audio Producer Wu Judy Chin-tai: The Sound of Nature

Award-winning record producer focused on sounds of nature, instrumental, and ethnic music

Wu Judy Chin-Tai is a Taiwanese record producer whose work primarily focuses on natural sounds, instrumental music, and ethnic music. She is currently the Director of Music Production at Wind Music Co. She majored in tourism in Taiwan before studying recording technology at Brigham Young University in Utah. Judy returned to Taiwan after finishing her studies in the United States and began working as a recording engineer at Wind Music. Ken Yang, the founder of Wind Music, encouraged her to observe and discover sounds in the Taiwanese wilderness, which she did, and she began to preserve the sounds of nature by making audio recordings. Her works about Taiwan’s natural habitats, such as The Forest Show, “My Ocean,” and “The Nearest Heaven,” to name a few, have drawn significant attention to the sounds of nature and raised awareness of the Taiwanese wilderness. Judy won her first Traditional Golden Melody Award for Best Producer in 2001 for her work on “My Ocean.” In 2002, Judy collaborated with ocarina artist You Xue-Zhi. Her subsequent works, including “Colors of Childhood Taiwanese Children Song,” “Formosa Aboriginal Song & Dance Troupe” / “Holding Ina’s Hand,” and “The Mongolian Folk Long-Song,” all won Golden Melody Awards. Her 2009 production “Drum Music Land for Taiwanese” percussion ensemble Ten Drum Art Percussion Group received a Grammy nomination for Best Tradition World Music Album. In her collection of wildlife sounds, she has personal approaches, since she understands the importance of listening and humans’ relationships with nature as part of nature. Judy helped distribute international bestselling albums such as Bleeding Wolves into Taiwan.

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Related articles: Old images of Taiwanese Indigenous Peoples

Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and where did your passion for sounds comes from? Is it something that you developed naturally, or was it something you suddenly decided to embark on? How did you get involved in recording nature’s sounds?

I took piano lessons and self-taught guitar when I was a kid. Then I received classical music training in college, with an emphasis in sound recording technology, in the US. I was like most normal people (with proper eyesight), dominantly perceiving things with my eyes. My ears were sensitive to music only. Until I was assigned to collect sounds in nature did I know how my hearing was long neglected, in terms of perceiving the world with my five senses.

Wu Judy Chin-tai record producer sounds of nature, ethnic music

What about your first projects on sounds of nature, instrumental, and ethnic music? Can you share with us your beginning? What were the main challenges? How long did it take you to develop an understanding of what it was the style of sound you wanted to hear, make and share?

I finished my college education in 1994 in America. Then I came back to Taiwan and got a job at Wind Music. Back in the ’90s, our record company featured traditional Chinese music, Buddhist music, New Age/healing music, and traditional Taiwanese indigenous music. My music background mainly focused on western classical music. When I knew Wind music had collections of Chinese traditional and Taiwanese indigenous music, I was very interested. My first job assignment was to assist an ethnomusicologist, Pro. Wu, Rung-shun, to collect and to record the traditional folk songs of the Tsou tribe in the Ali Mountains. There are 16 indigenous tribes in Taiwan. The Tsou is one of them. A lot of the indigenous tribal villages are scattered in the mountain areas. So my boss said: Since you’ll be going to the mountains, why don’t you try to record some nature sounds on your way?“ “On the way” is a very typical mindset of a Taiwanese boss—give you an assignment and want you to do another 100 side jobs “on the way.” So I did, both. That’s how I started, and am keeping doing now. Anyway, I went with Pro. Wu to record the Tsou tribe at the Ali mountain. Back in the 90s most of the young indigenous students would receive their mid-school or higher education in the cities. And most of them would be in the cities to find jobs in order to support their families back in the tribal villages. So in their home villages, you’d see mostly older people, grandpas and grandmas, and their grandchildren. You wouldn’t see many young men and women.

1994-Judy-recording-at-Chashan-elementary-school

The absence of the young and mid-aged generation created a huge gap that made it difficult for their culture, their tradition, even their language to pass down from the older generation. So when I was there to record traditional songs for the Tsou tribe, only the older generation could sing, like people over 60s, 70s, even 90s. I remember recording a hundred-year-old man singing an old tune… He knew that we came a long way to record him singing. He was so excited that he kept singing and singing and wouldn’t stop. His 70+year-old son was a bit worried that his old father couldn’t breathe and kept sending me signals, asking me to stop recording. So I politely told the old grandpa it was enough and asked him to stop. But the old man wouldn’t stop singing. Because for many decades he hadn’t sung this old song. Because no one was ever interested in hearing these songs. People who would sing with him or appreciate these traditional songs all passed away. That was why he wouldn’t stop singing. This event gave me a strong impact. I was still pretty young when I started my first field recording in 1994. I hadn’t seen much of the world, even the land I grew up on. I had this stereotype that singers would all look young, stylish, and good-looking —the stereotype brain-washed by the mass media back then. So with those elderly singers sitting in front of me, I really doubted if they could sing. But when they actually started singing, their facial expressions changed. They look refreshed and alive. It enlightened me and touched me that I started to grow this passion for indigenous traditional songs, even though I couldn’t understand a word when they sang. These traditional tunes passed down from their ancestors are not just songs.

Wu Judy Chin-tai record producer sounds of nature, ethnic music

They are like cultural capsules containing their language, literature, their aesthetics, their histories, traditions, rituals, knowledge, conversation, emotions, and everyday life. These songs are important cultural heritage and they are dying. That was why Pro. Wu felt this urgent need to record these traditional indigenous songs. At that moment, I totally realized why my boss was so enthusiastic about releasing these traditional songs. To be very honest, these CDs didn’t have much commercial value. But he knew that we were racing against time. If we hadn’t had collected those songs, they might have disappeared within one generation. As for the nature sound recording, the first recording clip I did was on that same trip to the Ali mountain. After I finished recording the Tsou elders, I was guided by a local friend, Dr. Pu of the Tsou tribe. He was the co-producer of the Tsou CD. One night, he took me to the mountain valley near his home and recorded my first tree frogs in total darkness. The enclosure mountain valleys gave the frogs sound a natural reverberation and made it sound beautiful. I was excited to record this beautiful sound and I thought it was quite easy to record sounds in nature. After that trip, I tried to do wildlife recording by myself. Then I realize it was far more difficult than I thought. Firstly, Taiwan has a population density of 650 people per sq. kilometer. It is very challenging to avoid man-made noises when recording outside. Secondly, I only had a music background. I didn’t have any biological or zoological background; didn’t know animal habitats and behavior, didn’t know their whereabouts, let alone recording them. Fortunately, I got to know some wildlife experts, and they taught me some very basic knowledge about the wildlife I was looking for to record. So later on I invited them to join with our wildlife recording job. And they helped a lot. A few years later, we were able to collect some sounds, different kinds of birds, frogs, insects, and mammals. But I still didn’t have a clue as to what to do with these sounds. One evening I decided to go to a nearby hot spring site after my heavy loading work to release my stress. The open hot spring was right by a creek. I was sitting on a rock by the creek, soaking my feet in the hot spring. Then my hearing opened up. I heard tree frogs and insects singing, accompanied by a gurgling creek. Then I heard a music interval of minor 3rd hidden in the sound of the tree frogs. And on top of it, another major 3rd interval was created by the cricket sound. I assembled and arranged these intervals and created a melody right there. This melody, Forest Rhapsody, was inspired by frogs and insects. So when I arranged this music piece, I invited more frogs and insects to be my percussionists. After I finished the music master CD, I thought I also needed to properly introduce my wildlife musicians. So I produced another CD, with audio clips, pictures and basic information about these wildlife musicians. This additional CD functioning as a wildlife sound library that goes together with the music CD as a finished pack. Through this combination, music becomes a great platform to circulate basic wildlife knowledge. This 2-CD album “Forest Show” became very popular and successful in Taiwan and China, especially among elementary school teachers; possibly because it combines both entertaining and educational functions. So I invited more wildlife experts to help collect sounds in nature so that our music can carry more wildlife information to the general public. And this has also helped to raise public awareness of environmental conservation for the last 20+ years.

Wind Music, founded by Ken Yang, has published numerous collections of documentary recordings in order to preserve and protect cultural heritages facing extinction. Ken as a music-lover realize that he could make the world a much better place by sharing music with people. The belief in the power of music drove him to share music as a core value. Wind Music shows the uniqueness of the East. The philosophy from the East is distinguished for its harmonious wisdom. Thus, Wind Music strives to capture the insights and values of this timeless philosophical wisdom and cultural heritage in order to embody them in music. Wind Music has successfully built a creative and active role in the music industry. Adopting modern and innovative approaches play a part in preserving the history of Chinese music. Wind Music has a strong connection with nature and spirituality, for this reason, it provides special musical elements to nourish the modern human body, mind, and spirit.

 

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Wu Judy Chin-tai record producer sounds of nature, ethnic music

What are some of the significant changes you’ve found in your personal approach to listening, over the years of your career so far? How these changes had influenced and affect your recording process?

With my music background, my ears were trained to analyze textures in music. I can hear chords, intertwined melodies, and counter lines in music pieces. So It was not too hard for me to hear layers of different sounds in nature when I do field recording. (But to identify species is another challenge.) However, removing unwanted sound layers was the hard part, especially man-made noises. Even with wildlife experts, it’s still challenging. Animals are uncontrollable. We can’t send them text messages and make appointments for recording like we usually do with human musicians. Once, I was recording with a bird expert, Mr. Sun Ching-sun. A serpent eagle was flying and singing very close to us, just right on top of the trees we were staying under, so we immediately hit the record button. Ten seconds later, we heard another larger bird flying over its top. It was an airplane. And we couldn’t ask the plane to go away. So the serpent eagle sound was dirtied by the plane engine sound. In the 90s, I’d have to either discard this clip of recording or spend lots of budgets to remove the engine sound of the airplane in a digital mastering studio. Thanks to modern technology, by 2000 we were able to filter out the noise with music soft wares ourselves. Nowadays a lot more tools are available in the market so we can repair sounds recorded in the early days.

Wu Judy Chin-tai record producer sounds of nature, ethnic music

You connect audiences with nature through creativity. What do you love most about your job, what are the greatest rewards? What message do you hope to communicate with your projects?

10+ years ago, I was talking with a 5-year-old girl, a friend’s daughter. She told me how she encountered a white-breasted water hen and a Malayan night-heron on a college campus with her mom. I was totally shocked. How could this little 5-year-old girl know and tell these wildlife names like introducing her next-door neighbors to me, while these names were still strange to most adults? Then she told me: “My kindergarten teacher plays your wildlife CD every afternoon before our siesta hour.” That brought me greater joy than big CD sales. Up till now, the new generation does have more concerns about our environment.

2005-金門翟山浪潮錄音-于蘇英

Nature always places humans in front of the unexpected. Were there any unexpected moments or events that created unexpected opportunities from a creative point of view?

My early stage of field recording was interfered with by various human noises, so I was a bit too obsessed with pursuing pure and clean natural sound, without human disturbance. There was this one occasion when I was recording the ocean sound at the Kenting beach, a super popular site in southern Taiwan. It was at noontime on an over-heated summer day, with only 2-3 tourists on the beach. As I was recording and enjoying the soothing sound of the ocean waves in my earphones, a few seconds later, I heard a group of young people coming out of nowhere, yelling and laughing. I was pretty frustrated and upset–my nature recording is ruined again and just about to hit stop. Weird thing is, as I was listening to the mix of their laughter with the gentle ocean sound, something clicked in my mind—Aren’t we human beings part of nature? The sun rises on the evil and the good, the rains fall on the just and the unjust. The sun, the rain, and nature treat us all equally. Why should I divide humans against nature? All of the sudden, I realized, black and white, poor and rich, this kind of extreme division only exists in the human mindset. So that event totally changed my perspectives of field recording. It shouldn’t be an extreme division between humans and nature, nor should it be just total human domination only, but to learn to respect all livings, to find our role and position in nature, to pursue a better harmony, or balance between nature and humankind. We are still far from that balance. But I’m happy to see that balance has become a clearer goal, even a global goal, for us global citizens.

Wu Judy Chin-tai record producer sounds of nature, ethnic music

Can you share with us a meaningful story from backstage of one of your projects?

In the second question, I mentioned this 100-year-old grandpa who wouldn’t stop singing. He was singing “Somolo solo.” This is a long passed, super old tune where they would improvise text to sing to the melody as a way of daily conversation among tribal people. (Unfortunately, it was only familiar to the older generation due to the language lost among the younger generation.) In 1994, after we finished producing the CD of the Tsou traditional songs, I thought most of the songs collected in this CD, especially Somolo solo, were doomed to disappear within 20 years. Surprisingly, in 2014, I received an invitation from an elementary school Principal, Ms. Fang. (Later on, I found Ms. Fang was Dr. Pu, the Tsou co-producer’s wife…) She said their school kids had been learning and practicing the Tsou traditional songs from the Tsou CD we recorded/produced 20 years ago. They were ready to give a concert and invited me to watch it. She said it would be a great encouragement for the kids if I could show up since I was the main recordist of that CD. So I went. It was such a touching moment watching the kids embracing their own heritage. I was teary throughout the whole event and decided to tell this unexpected story through my music. So when I was producing my album “Nature’s Whispering” in 2021, I was hoping to combine the historical recording sung by the elders (who all passed away) in 1994 with voices of young kids in the tribe. Sayungu Tiakiana, one of the production assistants from the local Tsou village in 1994, is now the principal of Charshan Primary School. She taught her students “Somolo solo” by playing the album born out of our field research too. Then I went up to the mountain to record them and orchestrated this “somolo solo” into a newer version, using more contemporary music language to reframe the traditional tune. It becomes the first track on my newly released CD. In 1994, I was in the Ali mountain recording elders singing this fading tune. 27 years later, I was there again recording children singing the same old tune and rejuvenating their own heritage. So “Somolo solo” is a story about a collaboration that transcended time and space. It is also a starting point of my creative career in chasing music and sounds.

2021-Judy-Sayungu+kids-DSC01051

Do you have a wish list of places where would you like to go to record the sounds of nature and create new projects?

This is a time of rapid change. So frankly, I don’t do plans, goals, or wishing lists. I only have certain directions in mind and in life. So that I can grab all opportunities handy and be more sensitive to all inspiring sparkles around me.

Do you think that listening to the sounds of nature can provide a more comfortable healthy environment? From your perspective, can people feel happier and more productive? What is your perspective considering this uncertain and stressful period for humans?

Yes, I do believe nature sounds give us a certain level of tranquility. That was one of the reasons I put out 2 other digital releases of nature sound recordings, to help ease down the anxiety we as humans might face in this period of time.

Wu Judy Chin-tai record producer sounds of nature, ethnic music

How do you think the relationship between nature and human beings has changed in the era of social media? Are humans, due to the current world situation, slowly moving away from noise pollution? Or is there still much to do to reconnect with the natural environments?

Just from my personal point of view, social media can effectively connect people together in the virtual world. But on the other hand, it seems to create more distance among people in reality. The pandemic turned down the hustling of humans a little bit. I think after the pandemic the bustling and hustling will resume (too bad). Photos posted on IG and FB, especially with nature backdrop, encourage people either to go near nature or to attract more likes. It is good in a way. But I personally feel that finding inner peace in nature, learning to dialogue with nature, or finding the balance between humankind and nature is the key to reconnecting us with the natural environment.

Photos courtesy of Wu Judy Chin-tai & Wind Music
A Special Thanks to Peiti Huang

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