As proof that we go to the ends of the earth to spotlight outstanding radio makers, meet Joaquin Cofreces. Señor Cofreces lives and works in Ushaia, Argentina, the capital of Tierra del Fuego and last stop before Antarctica (average summer high temp. 50.5 degrees). But that's not the remarkable thing about Cofreces. It's what he does in that southernmost city on the planet.
Calling his work Documentary Radio is way wide of the mark. Applying the Sound Art label makes it seem too precious, even lightweight. So trying to pigeonhole Joaquin and his sonic portfolio is as futile as calling da Vinci a portrait artist. In the universe of audio, he navigates the vast area where sound-rich laps up against storytelling — not unlike his homeland, where the Atlantic meets the Pacific.
Of course, your mileage may vary. Listen and decide for yourself.
For now, let's settle for the cop-out generalization that Cofreces is simply in a different dimension. And like a painter filling an enormous canvas with immense detail that overwhelms the viewer — you can't turn away.
Follow our conversation with Joaquin and click on the links to some of his most prominent audio. It may be love at first listen, or an acquired taste. But one thing it won't be is boring. [Note: Joaquin did an admirable job of answering our questions in English, though not his first language, and we present it virtually as he wrote it, with only a bit of tweaking for clarity.]
Your work spans many genres. For example, "Dreamland," a sound exploration of Edgar Allen Poe's mystifyingly abstract poem. Where did the idea come from and how long did it take to produce?
Juan Cofreces: I live in a town on an island at the southern extreme of south America. When I began telling stories with sounds I didn’t know about the existence of sound genres so I mix them with freedom. There was a call for commissioning works of the group radio art from England. The subject was « Dreamland ». I googled that word and took me to Poe’s poem, I read it and many sounds came to my mind. Then the idea began to grow, and the concept became clearer. I sent the proposal and was selected…
Maybe sounds strange but I feel that usually the story finds me. Then the idea follows freely the path of my own limitations, it evolves, and get transformed by the field recordings, reality becomes fiction. The oneiric world had been a big mystery… how it sounds? Images coming through vibrations… It took around 3 months of production. It's made of many recordings I did on my traveling and interpretandohas (interpreting) voices of women from 15 places of the world who participated reading and interpreting Poe´s text and I thank them very much for their collaboration, because I think the diversity of their voices gave a very special atmosphere to the piece!
Talk about your complex piece called Saqueo 01(Sack 101) about the Argentine economic crisis of 2001?
J.C.: When I began producing this piece (The translation of saqueo is: Pillage, plunder, looting) I didn’t know about the existence of the radio genre called feature. I was working as a radio operator, always searching for sounds, music, fragments to add in a program that I had that was live but made with many production, very professional but unpaid… it was for fun!
2001 was a complicated year in Argentina that ended with the president leaving the government house in a helicopter. Also was a complicated year in my life … I felt I had to do something with all those feelings. Create a story from that sensation of emptiness. During that year I worked in an alternative radio in Buenos Aires (FM La Tribu) and had the chance to be at the manifestations, recording some material. Then I began to cut fragments of songs, politic speeches, comedians, etc…I wanted to express how is a society from different aspects, as a point of departure for its own circular destiny… It was conceived as a strange kind of opera, with no narrator, the story was told by different people, in most cases known by the Argentinean society, as if they were characters. Also the production process was a puzzle made by fragments of sounds, organized in a time line of the events that happened in Argentina during 2001.
5 years collecting sounds. 1 year of production…Also I had technical problems, an old computer and many textures of recordings….the result was incredible and the unpredictable! It won different prizes around the world (Bienal de Radio in Mexico, Ake Blomstrom award, Rey de España, etc) and gave me the chance to meet the Nobel prize (winner) Gabriel Garcia Marquez!
With Argentina's current debt problems, will you be producing a similar audio piece?
J.C.: Probably not. It’s a very different moment in my life and at the Argentinean society. I’m exploring other sounds and stories now.
Did you begin your career as an audio artist by working in radio?
J.C.: I began doing radio without even thinking on it before. It just happened, some friends were about to start a radio show and I was there helping and for curiosity… At the moment to begin the first program all of them felt afraid about speaking live, they looked at me and asked : Can you begin the show? I said ok! I sat there, the red light of « on air » turned on and I felt in love with radio, pure adrenaline in present time! Then I began to found that sound was an incredibly deep way for telling stories, not just words and music! So then my collection of sounds began. Sound storytelling includes many things I like to do : deep listening, observation in detail, reading with curiosity, share stories, being anthem for messages, etc.
Do you record all of your own sounds on location, or do some come from sound effects libraries?
J.C.: At the beginning (20 years ago) I had many technical limitations that also were a creative challenge, the most important thing for me was the story, what to tell, how to create a personal narrative style, so I used what I had libraries, bad quality recordings made with a cheap microphone, first in cassette after md (minidisc), fragments of songs in cds, sounds given by colleagues, etc. After I began to record in my traveling with a dr (digital recorder) and mics… I’ve always took a recorder instead a photo camera. The sound bank is the raw material!!
I’m working mostly with recorded sounds on location, it gave my work another dimension. I love field recording, is like meditation, contemplation. I’m a kind of collector of sounds.
What's the recorder you travel with to grab sound wherever you go?
J.C.: Zoom h4n recorder , sometimes with external mics like Rhode nt4 and Senheisser 416
Where and how do you get the many voices in different languages that we hear in your productions?
J.C.: Each case is different: some are from my traveling, other from colleagues or friends from around the world, for example in the piece Dreamland all were sent by e-mail as a collaboration with the project. In the piece Hamoni Lapude Anan the voices are recordings (given by colleagues and phonographic archives) from the last speakers of a language that used to be spoken at Tierra del Fuego where I live. In Maquinas Humanas is made with tts (text to speech) software of different languages… Anyways I like to think that sound is a global way of communication, words are just a part (their intentions are expressed on how they sound!) to tell stories, to express emotions, to share life!
What do you listen to for inspiration?
J.C.: I love to listen to many kinds of music, it's like having variety of emotional details inside. I have an open sound predisposition, for that I need to live in quiet places… During my first years of production I didn’t wanted to listen to other people’s sound work because I needed to create my personal style of telling stories. Now I like to snoop in colleagues work from around the world and speak with them about sound!
Are you able to make a living producing audio or do you do other work to support yourself?
J.C.: Now yes, (it has been hard but it worth it!)
Now around 65% of my income comes from creative production, the rest is also related to sound but in technical aspects and teaching.
What software do you use to produce your work?
J.C.: I began with sound forge and Sony Vegas. Now I’m working with garageband , logic and pro Tools.
How does a producer/sound artist who's won awards at festivals around the world work in one of the most remote places on the globe?
J.C.: Maybe the answer is a big part of the history of my life… but then I asked myself many times, what I am doing here?, and “here” becomes the earth, this life, a body experience, existence… so it becomes a deep question that only has answers in some moments of life, then is acceptance… But the most strange thing that I can’t answer myself is why am I in a country that doesn’t pay for my creative work (just in very rare exceptions), so then the answer becomes practical and challenging: I have to produce for audiences of countries that in some cases I don’t know and language, internet and speaking English had helped me a lot on this!, anyways its lonely from here!
Confreces Soundcloud page: https://soundcloud.com/sonorama-fueguino
His webpage: https://www.joaquincofreces.com/HOME.html