The Wire


Andrew Pekler soundtracks the lands that time forgot

Online project Phantom Islands creates imaginary soundtracks for mythical sites of maritime history

Sound maps have been a popular format for adventurous sonic projects in recent years, but the latest work from Andrew Pekler puts a radical new spin on the idea. Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas is a new interactive website that enables you to browse fictitious, misidentified and rumoured islands from maritime history, alongside the music which Pekler has imagined for them.

The subjects of the project – far-flung places such as Tuanahe, David Land, Morrell Island, spanning multiple oceans – are “islands that had existed on maps but not, as it turned out, in reality”, the Berlin based musician explains over email. “Though a few of them were invented by unscrupulous captains seeking glory (or just further commissions), most phantom islands were unintentional fictions – the results of the imprecise science of navigation, clouds, fog banks and icebergs being mistaken for land, and wishful thinking.” However, many of these imaginary islands were real enough in the minds of navigators and historians to decisively shape the course of maritime history. "Davis Land [was] an island which was claimed to have been discovered by the pirate Edward Davis in 1687 off the west coast of South America,” continues Pekler. “The Dutch West India Company dispatched three ships to the area in 1721 and though unable to find it, they stumbled upon the previously unknown Easter Island. Their visit results in the death of about a dozen islanders and the wounding of many others.” The website enables users to island hop between the 27 entities included in the project – considerably more phantom islands have cropped up throughout maritime history – and read their tangled stories, with a cruise mode that touches down at random locations automatically.

The music Pekler has made creates another level of fictional intrigue. “What all, or most, of the islands have in common is that they are artefacts of the age of European colonial expansion (the age we are living at the tail end of?),” he notes. “And so the islands and their inhabitants were seen and described mainly from the perspective of their potential use value and strategic importance… the picture that emerges is that these non-real places are nevertheless connected with real human (individual and institutional) avarice, cruelty, fallibility and arrogance.”

So the soundtracks that accompany the journey are further filtered through myth and artifice – waves, exotic birds and other exotic ephemera are paired with (imaginary?) woody instruments and peals of gamelan, the sounds looped and arranged into an endless backdrop in the ballpark of Can's Ethnological Forgery Series. “It was mostly a process of matching fragments and sketches I had recorded over the last couple of years to the various islands according to what information I had about them and their location,” says Pekler. “I was interested in building up a network of related, at times overlapping soundworlds... a parallel sound dimension of connections between the phantom islands that would mirror their own plausible yet impossible existence."

It comes at a rich moment for what might be termed imaginary field recordings – music inspired by fictional worlds which nonetheless flirt with scientific or ethnographic methods, such as Rashad Becker’s Traditional Music Of Notional Species series. “The Phantom Islands project works differently because these (non)places are presented and described within the context of the familiar map of our real world,” argues Pekler. “That means that the listener’s/visitor’s prior familiarity (however vague) with music from various parts of the world comes into play in the imagination process. This quasi-collaboration between sound materials, text and listeners’ knowledge/beliefs is how exotica works.”

However, Pekler also notes the danger in taking fictions as inspiration for a sound map. “I wouldn’t want to do this with real places,” he declares. “As I describe above, what I have tried to do with this project is to methodically exoticise non-existent places in order to make visible the process of exoticisation itself... it lets us hopefully see and hear how all exoticas are fictions.”

You can browse the Phantom Islands project at Pekler's website (which requires a recent browser, mobile devices not currently supported). For more about imaginary ethnography you can check out Fourth Worlds: Imaginary Ethnography In Experimental Music And Sound, the exhibition that Phantom Islands was made for.