Richard Mosse’s photographs turn the natural world alien. Milky white rivers wind through garish rust-red forests, basins leak neon pink into branching waterways, and washes of blueberry purple stain the shores. Scale, too, is upset: Aerial shots of the Amazon rainforest look like single-cell organisms while close-ups of moss and lichen appear as planets and constellations. Mosse created these pictures for his recent video installation, Broken Spectre, using multi-spectral sensors that capture bandwidths of light invisible to the eye. Australian musician and composer Ben Frost has worked with Mosse and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten on projects about war in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and the refugee crisis in North Africa, complementing their visuals with bracing sound design. His audio for Broken Spectre deploys ultrasonic microphones to record bats, birds, and insects outside the range of human hearing. More sci-fi soundtrack than tranquil field recording, the record transforms the natural sounds of the Amazon into a harrowing score to match the film’s disconcerting visuals.
Broken Spectre chronicles the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest that occurred after Jair Bolsonaro came to power in 2019. Under his watch, cattle farms, soybean fields, gold mines, and aluminum refineries burned large swathes of forest and polluted the ever-scarcer water. Mosse, Frost, and Tweeten traveled across this blasted landscape for weeks at a time. “During that period I witnessed fires so vast they blacked out the sun,” writes Frost. “I watched illegal loggers fell 700-year-old trees, and heard the unnerving silence of the forest that followed.” Whereas field recordings of the Amazon like Lawrence English’s A Mirror Holds the Sky or Francisco López’s Wilderness Studio are typically loud and lively, Frost’s recordings portray an eerily desolate ecosystem of drones and hums where wildlife is a distant echo.
Despite its source material, Broken Spectre fits neatly into Frost’s repertoire of brutal, pummeling electronic work. The harsh tones on “The Index” or “Passport to Eternity” obscure their natural origins, sounding more like synths run through blown-out amps than insects or birds. The effect is no less unsettling when the sounds can be identified. On “The Burning World,” buzzing chainsaw pulses alternate with cries from a forlorn animal, as if a single mourning inhabitant were presiding over the leveling of the forest. Then, sharp pops and cracks announce the encroaching fire that will reduce the area to farmland. The most remarkable recording here is “The Intensive Care Unit,” on which an anesthetized jaguar breathes directly into the microphone. It is a chilling, visceral sound made horrific by the knowledge that the animal is being treated for third-degree burns.