Insect Costumes and Stolen Sounds

My plane arrived in San José alongside a thunderstorm. 

It’s rainy season in Costa Rica and the roads are poorly lit. The occasional flash of lightning illuminates the cars in the distance, as if foreshadowing the arrival of a sixty foot lizard over the horizon. "There's a lull in tourism this time of year,” says the driver taking me into the city. He looks at me while he talks, which I try to appreciate while sporadically gesturing at the road ahead. He swerves out of the way of a bunch of teenagers. "I love this season" he says with a smile. "The city is so calm!" We pass about three head-on collisions before arriving at a hostel. We shake hands and depart. He waves back at me as he drives away, with half the car straddling the sidewalk.

I should note that San José, despite being the capital, essentially only receives ephemeral travelers on their way to the more traditionally scenic parts of the country. This, of course, doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. The city has charm, and quite a bit of it. It's surprisingly diverse, constantly surprising, and filled with more cultural resources than you can sacudir un palo at.

Also, it has a lot of art.

A lot of art.


I was soon introduced to Ana María Moreno, the director of the fabulously inventive dance troupe Ex-ANIMA. We met in a loft a few blocks from the Teatro Nacional, amidst a room of complicated costumes, mannequins, and photographs hung from the ceiling. This is the home of LAB Memoria de las Artes Escénicas, a school-slash-collaborative for experiments in theatrical design. The costumes strewn around were, appropriately, for their upcoming piece: a fifty-person dance piece intended to show off as many different pieces of clothing as possible. 

The show would open in a week. It would need about fifteen minutes of music. I smiled and nodded.


Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the costumes is that they lend themselves to dynamism. The costumes move. Suits that resemble flowers have wires that allow them to open, dresses invert to reveal skeletons, and giant metal joints allow spires to flex and bend. They’re clothes that afford sound. 

The verb “to record” translates as “grabar.” I rather like this translation, as it not only alludes to the notion that a recording is something seemingly “plucked” out of the world, but something that feels somewhat invasive. Recordings, of course, are rather invasive.

I spent a good portion of the following week walking through San José with my microphone, grabbing the sounds of birds, insects, streetside barkers, storms, trains, factories, and almost everything in between. These recordings became my sonic palette of San José, snatched, digitized, and seasoned for our convenience. They ended up becoming the backbone of the performance—about 60% of the sounds I ended up composing with came directly from the streets outside the theater.

Here is a modest offering of my efforts:


"El Insecto," for wind chimes, rainstorm, and a selection of insect recordings kindly sent to me by the University of Costa Rica. 


"Donde Fuego Se Hace," based on a nighttime field recording from the park outside of my hostel and a street performer who (also, very graciously) allowed me to record him playing the Tibetan singing bowls. 


"Las Ombras," for marimba and drum kit made of distorted bird sounds. 

"EL LAB Memoria de las Artes Escénicas" was performed as part of El Festival Nacional de Danza at Teatro Melico Salazar on August 10, 2017.