Thomas Tilly

Decentring Listening

In 2019 Thomas Tilly was in residence in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, to make sound recordings and interview two indigenous communities about their relationship with listening. Meet this artist who creates experimental music informed by everything “around”.

Updated on 10/03/2020

5 min

Thomas Tilly
Thomas Tilly
© Caroline Petit, Eistein on the Beach

How would you present your work?

I make a kind of experimental music for which I use recording. The result of my work consists of compositions based on captured sounds, or raw recordings which I consider to be naturally composed by the environment and the placement of the microphones. What interests me is asking questions about how we relate to our environments. I’ve worked in different fields, but I took a big step when I left my job as a photojournalist to focus on sound research work which radically excludes images. I think that today there is a real powerful meaning in working only with sound, offering the public listening situations, whether those be collective or domestic. You listen differently to things you can’t see.


How do you see nature?

One of my starting points right now is the work of Philippe Descola. He tells us that we “the Moderns” invented the concept of nature. We have effectively parted ways with it and look down on other beings. What interests me is suggesting shifts of focus by working with the non-human; trying to question human hegemony in composition, in the notion of music, in art, and to bring in other points of view.

Life is complex and constantly changing, it is an infinite field of study which requires great dedication. That is one of the reasons why I devote my time to this practice of composing with the microphone. These questions can be found in all my projects, addressed from different angles. For example:  Elaeis Guineensis in 2004, Wild Protest in 2016, Codex Amphibia in 2018, and today with this research project in Borneo.


Can you tell us about this latest project?

This project is inspired by How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn, published in 2017. The anthropologist raises the question of interconnections among the living world by pointing out the links between the signs of the forest and the humans who live there. His words very much echo the questions which come to me when I record. I'm constantly thinking about what is "around" in terms of lines, triggers, calls and responses. I often use the term geometry to describe what I perceive in the organization of sounds. I was immediately interested in Eduardo Kohn’s approach.

I then went to Borneo to join two indigenous groups — the Punan and the Dayak — and record the forests in which they live. For the first time in my work, I wanted not only to give voice to the non-human, but also to ask humans about how they listen to their environment. This project could only make sense if I went to work with animist communities, in other words communities which establish an extremely strong relationship with the places in which they live, possibly assigning human characteristics to some non-human beings.

Pour la première fois dans mon travail, je ne voulais pas seulement donner de la voix au non-humain, mais aussi interroger les humains sur l’écoute qu'ils ont de leur environnement.

What was your method?

For this project, it was really about taking on an expedition. I was advised by Edmond Dounias of the Jakarta Research and Development Institute, who has worked extensively with the Tubu River Punan people, in the Northeast of Kalimantan. I didn't know what to expect once I got to the field. I was used to working in a rainforest so I could imagine the setting, but I couldn't know how the forest and its inhabitants would welcome me. So there was a lot of improvisation in the field.


Did you experience any particular challenges during your stay?

I landed in a city where you couldn't see the sky. It took me a while to realise that Palankaria was surrounded by flames. We spent a week in the smoke before escaping by road, as all the airports were closed. My project began in that setting: I was directly confronted with the disappearance of the forest, while only seeing signs of the disaster. We then travelled the 1,000 kilometres that separated us from the territory of the Punan people, passing from this suffering city surrounded by flames to areas deforested by copper mining and logging, and finally to an area which was still preserved...


What are you going to do with the sounds you collected?

My short expeditions are always a first draft. I'll have to go back to Borneo to check some things, re-record certain sounds, record in other seasons. All the villages I was lucky enough to visit are living on borrowed time due to a dam project which will provide electricity to the entire north of Kalimantan. I can see several final forms for the project: an album, public performances and perhaps a sound installation.


How do sound collection and musical composition fit together?

I never work on my recordings right when I get home from the field. I set everything aside and come back some time later. This allows me to approach my experience in a way that is more detached from the context; to hold onto my initial assumptions while making a more aesthetic assessment of the recordings. I would struggle to tell you when this thing happens, but anyway I hear it. I hear that there is cooperation between the sounds; that there is a kind of order and composition in the recording. The sounds tell me why I went there.


Is carrying out a project so rooted in environmental issues an act of activism?

I don't like to portray myself as an activist, but there's something fundamentally political about working on sound in this way. Borneo, like the Amazon, is a land facing many challenges. All of the big environmental issues we're talking about today have been a reality for people in these areas for a very long time, even though we feel, here in the West, that things are happening suddenly and all at once. We rarely hear the voices of indigenous peoples or of non-humans on these issues. It is now very much the time to give the floor to those most affected.

Thomas Tilly
Trois questions à Thomas Tilly (à la librairie Myriagone, Angers)
The Institut français and the project

Winner of the Sur Mesure residency programme, Thomas Tilly stayed in Borneo in 2019. Find out more about the Résidences Sur Mesure programme


L'institut français, LAB