Hear sounds of nature at Hansen House's Tea House structure

Now, we can all get some kind of handle on what makes some fascinating members of the animal kingdom tick, in a beautiful location.

THERE ARE several endangered species of bat in Israel.  (photo credit: Dr. Eran Levin)
THERE ARE several endangered species of bat in Israel.
(photo credit: Dr. Eran Levin)

The juxtaposition of tea and house, at least to my British-born sensibilities, conjures up images of cozy interiors and genteel ambiances with, naturally, a good aromatic brew to hand.

But if you find your way over to the Tea House, a new softly brutalistic structural addition to the grounds of Hansen House, sometime over the next couple of months, you may find yourself considering a very different milieu.

As of last Tuesday, the said structure became the temporary home to its inaugural artistic work, the Umwelt sound installation crafted by internationally acclaimed sound designer and artist Daniel Meir. Until recently, the Tea House, which for close to seven decades stood in an exquisitely assembled backyard designed by Israel Prize laureate landscape architects Lippa Yahalom and Dan Tzur, was just standing around minding its own business in what was left of the garden of the Sherover Villa, just up the hill from Hansen House, across the road from the Jerusalem Theater.

The grounds of the palatial residence built by the late Miles and Gita Sherover in the mid-1950s and, in particular, the area around the more modest home Gita built there following her husband’s death and the sale of the main building, have been decimated in a drastic makeover. That left the Tea House without a safe harbor of its own but, thankfully, that local architectural legacy conundrum has now been solved.

Not just resolved but put to good cultural use, as Meir moved in with his intriguing mix of zoologically-infused sonic creations that feed off the sounds and lives of fauna we don’t encounter in our everyday lives. Actually, as Meir points out, sadly “lives” might be something of a contradiction in terms in the context.

ONE OF THE Tel Aviv University researchers holds an Egyptian fruit bat last year. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)ONE OF THE Tel Aviv University researchers holds an Egyptian fruit bat last year. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

The artistic bedrock for Umwelt comes from a prior work Meir put together for a highly prestigious international arts event. “It all started with the Venice Architecture Biennale [aka Biennale Architettura] for the Israeli pavilion,” he explains. “One of the curators, Dan Hasson – there were five Israeli curators – asked me, as a participating artist, to create some kind of sound for the pavilion.” The display in question examined one of the lesser known fallout elements of the lead up to, and the actual creation of, the State of Israel. “The pavilion looked at how the Jewish settlement here destroyed the habitats of many animals.”

Before any of us get up in arms about the possibility that Meir has misgivings about the way the state came into being, he notes the damage wreaked on the environment is not a specifically regional problem. “That is something that has happened all over the world,” he adds

Still, perhaps it is more palpable over here, given the rapid development of Jewish presence here, the incredible “out-of-nowhere” establishment of a viable national entity in such a short space of time. One of the Zionist slogans of the day – making the desert bloom – may have led to the construction of numerous kibbutzim, moshavim and towns in areas which were previously considered nigh on uninhabitable, but that development drive also impacted on many regional ecosystems. 

While it helped to provide roofs over heads, and relatively safe and secure living conditions for new olim from all over the world, the natural world became subservient to the creature comfort needs of the exponentially growing Israeli population. 

Among the many members of the local animal kingdom who found their living space continually diminished are bats. Yes, we are talking about those rat-like winged creatures who for some, are several notches down from attractive. Meir became interested in the fate of bats and soon discovered it was not a moment too soon.

He went to their natural habitats and caves on the northernmost reaches of the country, close to the Lebanese border, and in the Jordan Valley. The idea was to record the sounds they make. Then to sculpt them into an artistic sonic work which could then be played, as the soundtrack to the architectural exhibit at the Venice Biennale which the exhibitors, in somewhat tongue in cheek fashion, called Land. Milk. Honey with the epexegetically addendum Animal Stories in Imagined Landscapes. Now they form part of Umwelt which will soon be played at the Tea House, daily between 4 p.m.-10 p.m.

Meir says he wanted to make sure he got what he was looking and listening for without encroaching on the already endangered flying mammal population. To that end he hitched up with experts in the relevant field and followed their lead. “There are species of bats which are threatened with extinction. I’d go with zoologists and wait outside the caves until they said it was okay to go in. There are 33 species of bats in Israel.”

Meir enlightens me about the delicate Mother Nature balancing act which we would do well to bear in mind before we plow ahead with our construction and other progress plans. Then again, happily it seems it is not all doom and gloom. “Many of the bats here are insect bats and some were thought to be extinct until, in the past 10 years or so, colonies of those species were discovered in Israel.”

THERE IS more to Meir, and the Hansen House project, than bats. Following his contribution to last year’s biennale he brought out an album called Every Living Creature that Moveth. The archaic-sounding suffix at the end is a nice little nod to the biblical references that naturally go with this part of the world. 

The first four tracks are called “Swamp 01-04,” each followed by “Slowed Down Nature,” which tells part of the technological exercise tale. The other eight tracks relate to such cuties as the horseshoe bat, long fingered bat, greater mouse tailed bat, lesser mouse tailed bat, Kuhl’s pipistrelle and various other species.

The cuts on the album make for a fascinating audio experience. There are, indeed, passages which sound like some kind of electric pulses making their way across some domain or other. Other times one can imagine the bat sounds traversing a cavernous habitat, presumably as they communicate with each other about some event, or some existential requirement.

The bats came into Meir’s cerebral and artistic hinterland with more than a little help from Hasson. The architect was speaking to the artist in his very own language. “He played sounds of insect-eating bats and, to me, that sounded just like electronic oscillators. I come from a background of electronic music so that really spoke to me.”

Meir also found himself another source of expertise to help his Venice project to evolve in a coherent manner. “I joined forces with an amazing person, Dr. Eran Levin who is a bat expert at the School of Zoology at Tel Aviv University. I started traveling around the country, recording bats.”

That may have been a relatively simple matter but Meir needed some high-tech help to know what he was getting in real time. Much of the bats’ discourse was simply unintelligible to his human ears. “Eran reduced the ultrasound [frequency beyond human hearing] to our dimension, so we could hear it. When you’re there, near the bats, you don’t hear anything,” Meir laughs. “It is amazing.”

That may have made for an exciting audio experience but, for the bats, there is something far more serious going on. “I went to all sorts of interesting sites, on the Golan Heights, near the Lebanese border, and abandoned military bunkers near Jericho. It was an adventure.”

Still, it wasn’t just about having fun eavesdropping on the mammals’ chatter. Meir had to assemble a sound work to accompany the architectural exhibits in Venice, on time. Luckily, the pandemic, and the lockdowns, came to his rescue. “The corona meant the biennale was postponed by a year, which gave me more time to do the rounds of our amazing country, devoid of cars and people, and to record this incredible nature.”

Electronic-sounding pulses, cries and other animal sounds are all well and good, and it is not difficult to see why Meir was enthused by what he heard. The man has a bulging portfolio of electronic musical ventures to his name, both here and abroad. He has also undertaken recordings of a slew of non-humans, including bees.

But, is there anything in the bat dialogue that lends itself to what we humans might categorize and belong to musical realms?

It seems so, but we are not talking about entertainment here. “There is musical expression in what they emit but, for them, it is purely a matter of survival,” Meir explains, adding that we humans also get some benefit out of their sonic wares. “They send out a sonar signal and, when it strikes a mosquito, it bounces back to them very rapidly – it is a rhythmic crescendo – and that’s how the bat gets to the mosquito [and eats it] quickly. In essence that’s the Doppler effect,” he adds, referencing the phenomenon whereby the beholder perceives different sound wave tempos depending on whether the object that is making the sound is moving towards or away from them. “The frequencies are so high you can clearly hear them approaching or moving away, by means of the change in pitch. You can certainly use that to make music.”

That will be evident to visitors to the Tea House through until the end of May. The name of the work relates to the sensorial world,” says Meir.

Work on the aquatic section of the sound installation drew Meir into yet another phantasmagoric realm. “The Goethe Institute had started mapping water sources around the Mediterranean Sea and, in Israel, they asked me how to record water sources. It took place under the auspices of the Israeli Center for Digital Art. I started traveling around Israel on this project too, which was called Water Above Water Below. That involved recording water sources above and below the water.”

An eye-opener was in store for the artist-explorer. “I discovered there is an incredible level of sound pollution. On the other hand, when I started making recordings of swamps, with frogs, toads and that sort of thing, I managed to preserve the quality of the recordings while slowing the sound down, by hundreds of percent.”

That found its way into the album and, now, to the Tea House. “There are beautiful harmonies which I got when I reduced the speed of the recordings.” Hence, the Slowed Down Nature adds on to the titles of the opening tracks. Meir found himself drifting into philosophical climes. “I thought that, if these creatures, the crickets, toads and others, live such short lives and move so quickly, it might be that, by slowing the recordings down, we can grasp their perspective. That’s not based on any scientific evidence but I like to imagine that,” Meir adds with a chuckle.

Now, we can all get some kind of handle on what makes some fascinating members of the animal kingdom tick, in a beautiful location.

Mind you, there is more than a little bitter irony to the Tea House landing on its Hansen House spot, while two enormous structures rise ever higher just the other side of the century-plus perimeter wall. The Sherovers bankrolled the construction of the Jerusalem Theatre in the 1960s, and were keen to ensure the site was not used to put up some high rise and change the local skyline. Sadly, that is exactly what is evolving right on their former doorstep and right across the road from the arts complex.

For now at least, every evening until the end of May we can all float away on a sonic tapestry that feeds off far calmer and more natural sentiments. ❖

For more information, visit: www.hansen.co.il.