World Arts / Art & Science
Sons en causa

Baños de Unquillo · Salinas Grandes

Llegeix-lo en català

S30.11.711-O065.01.119 · 07.59 · 25.07.2010 · 174 meters above sea level· Microphone facing east

According to the methodological guidelines of Sons en Causa, Gonzalo Biffarella’s plan was to make recordings first in the area around Quilino, which at a little over 4,000 residents is the largest town near Salinas Grandes, and around the new agricultural facilities that even then were encroaching on the farmers who had settled there long before. These small goat farmers were being pushed further and further from their lands, towards Salinas Grandes and Córdoba province’s borders with the provinces of Catamarca, Santiago del Estero and La Rioja, a place where it would have been impossible for them to grow crops or raise livestock.

Because the struggle for the land fell, and still falls, on deaf ears, the farmers had to organise, creating associations in order to resist the attack from an industry that, with the complicity of the all-powerful institutions of a state bureaucracy bent on ignoring the farmers and auctioning off the lands they had named “Campo Comunitario la Libertad”, seeks to drive people from their homes when their only crime has been to consistently choose true freedom.

Salinas  Grandes
A well in Campo Comunitario La Libertad

Salinas Grandes is a salt desert that, along withothers such as Ambargasta, San Bernardo, La Antigua and some that are relatively minor, is part of a vast zone once known as the Desierto de las Salinas, about thirty thousand square kilometres in area. Its origin is associated with the Mar Chiquita, also known as the Mar de Ansenuza and in the past as the Laguna de los Porongos, a huge salt lagoon in the north-east of Córdoba province, where it borders the provinces of Santa Fe and Santiago del Estero. If in Quilino it’s possible to get telephone coverage and Internet access, even for free (albeit somewhat difficult), in Salinas Grandes communications technology is, even to this day, a luxury that only those with satellite access can enjoy.

Salinas Grandes 1
Inside the dune, on the edge of Salinas Grandes

The salt flat looked snowy. It wouldn’t have been surprising, given the cold of winter, but in fact it hardly ever snows there. On the contrary, the temperature can easily exceed 45 degrees Celsius. In summer, it is not advisable to enter without sun protection and plenty of water. There are many stories of smugglers and drug traffickers who, upon landing clandestinely and being caught, were forced to enter the burning plain, where they met certain death. In July 2010, the struggle for the land did not seem to have been lost. Planted in the layer of hard, salty ice that protects the moist earth in the early morning, we saw dense vegetation made up of various kinds of bushes, cacti, and a few trees—quebrachos (Schinopsi balansae), they seemed from here—growing on the edge of the plain. I imagine they were home to doves and many of the other living creators of the sounds we were hearing. On the plain, nothing but the white mantle. At least that’s what it seemed. From where we were, the warbling sounded very sparse. Weak, but well-defined and well-distributed, limited to major third intervals. Suddenly, a kind of bellowing noise. But it was not a bull or a cow.  It was a donkey. His braying came and went. Was he protesting or calling for someone? Would there be any nuances in his bellowing? And what could a donkey be doing in that desert area?

The microphone, sun on the white plain

Before coming here, we had stopped at the house of Ramón “El Gordo”, who lived near El Molino with his 94-year-old mother, Alonsa. Still in the dark, as we travelled there in the chata, (an old pick-up that the community had provided us with for travel), Mario told us how cattle ranchers had surrounded his house to cut off his livestock’s access to the surrounding fields. The Movimiento Campesino de Córdoba(Córdoba Peasant Movement) removed the fences, only for people paid and protected by the security forces to then occupy the lands where Ramón’s livestock had always grazed. Theactivists came to his aid again and met with those mercenary occupants, who finally left. It had been two years since this episode had taken place. No one has bothered Ramón since, and he feels greatly indebted to those good people. Mario wanted him to come with us because he had been a salt miner and, very familiar with the salt pan, would guide our movements in that flat, strangely reverberating desert. A man of few words, whom I had met the day before, at the birthday party of Mario’s 17-year-old son Elias. He was an old and sensitive man who, at the party, always surrounded by children, tasked himself with saving bees trapped in puddles of water.

Cactus on the dune of Baños de Unquillo

The first stop on the way to Salinas Grandes is the Baños de Unquillo building, a sanctuary where, Ramón and Mario told us, people “take the waters” with the intention of curing their ailments. They say that this water, cold in summer and hot in winter, is good for bones and joints. Leaving the chata, I felt the onslaught of the acid-base environment against the few spots of skin I had left uncovered. Cold and salt were all I felt at that hour of the morning. The sanctuary is perched atop a land elevation close to the salt pan, sandy and slightly rugged, which forms dunes with psammophile vegetation such as jume (Salicornia ambigua), some cacti, and shrubs, a few of them green, but most of them isolated and dry. The rest is open white space that one presumes to be enormous not only due to the remoteness and emptiness of the horizon but also because of the amplitude of the mysterious reverberations. In the background, far away, evenly distributed in the few places covered by vegetation, turtle doves were singing. The other birds were flying from side to side, also communicating with each other. Near the water, a black bird seemed unafraid of our presence. All around us we heard the banging of tuco-tucos in their underground dens. Ctenomys conoveri is the scientific name of the genus of these rodents that we never got to see. What we weren’t hearing now was the rondanita, which until now we had thought was the first to sing. It is so named because its song is reminiscent of a rusty pulley (a rondana, in Argentina). Perhaps it was too late at this point.

Baños de Unquillo
Baños de Unquillo

In general, this recording level is low, but the warbling can be heard very clearly. Sometimes it rises and falls, short, almost trilled. In counterpoint, the warbling in ascending glissando, not at all palindromic, is spectacular. But for me, what’s most surprising is the echo it creates. The sounds are being reflected. But where? Is it the salt? Is it the flat, salty ground that stretched out with no end in sight? I have never fully understood why these sounds echo more than others of similar frequency if the space is the same for all of them. I would need to understand the situation better, be there longer. To say that the limits of space absorb some frequencies more than others does not explain much to me. The only visible limits of this space are the ground and the vegetation, which is low and made up of slender trunks and many leaves, green or dry. If the salt and the slight unevenness of the ground are not the only factors determining the echo of the warbling, the perception that it is reverberating more intensely could be related to the fact that it’s the most intense sound in this auditory environment. Furthermore, in the case of warbling, the spectrum is very simple, so that any colouration added later can become very apparent. However, all these reflections do not explain anything.

Cap a la frontera amb Catamarca
Heading for the border with Catamarca

Maybe nothing can explain anything. The sun was coming up and the temperature was rising a little. I could write more comfortably, but the auditory environment wasn’t changing much. Perhaps the only new sounds that came with the light of day were a chirp to the south, followed by a wave of warbling to the south-west. Then the cold came back. It wasn’t time yet; it was only twenty past eight in the morning and the black not-too-large bird was still standing in front of us. He wasn’t too concerned about us, and had no reason to be. There was nothing to fear. Yet.


South: 30° 11′ 42,658 – West: 65° 1′ 7,14″ – 25/07/2010 19:45.

Sons en Causa

Sons en Causa és un projecte de l’Orquestra del Caos basat en el registre del patrimoni sonor propi d’una sèrie de contextos culturals on a l’entorn mediambiental, a causa del creixement econòmic, són previsibles canvis irreversibles a curt i mitjà termini. Les diversitats cultural i biològica, encara enormes, són massa fràgils. Mereixen ser tingudes en compte i la seva gran importància, divulgada. El patrimoni intangible, i amb ell, el sonor, està seriosament amenaçat en molts llocs del món. Un cop produïts els canvis que ara ens semblen inevitables, els sons, i amb ells les seves causes, hauran desaparegut per sempre.

Enregistraments: Carlos Gómez

Josep Manuel Berenguer
Josep Manuel Berenguer és coordinador i professor de Psicoacústica i Música experimental del Màster en Art Sonor de la UB i director l'Orquestra del Caos. President d'Honor de la International Conference of Electroacoustic Music del CIM / UNESCO, President de Quantum Art Lab, membre del Patronat de la Fundació Phonos i del grup MISAME. El seu treball inicialment electroacústic s'ha orientat a la instal·lació, al temps real i a la interactivitat. Les temàtiques desenvolupades inclouen qüestions relacionades amb la filosofia i la història de la ciència, els límits de llenguatge, l'ètica, la vida i la intel·ligència artificial, la robòtica, el metabolisme de la informació, així com els límits mateixos de la comprensió i la percepció humanes del món. Luci, que explora els comportaments complexos emergents de superposicions d'elements simples, va rebre el Premi ARCO-Beep d'Art Electrònic.

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