CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Animal Transcriptions: Listening to the Lab of Ornithology
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This podcast culls material from seven hours of interviews about sound and animal life with scientists, engineers, programmers, archivists and other staff working in the Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) and in the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds (LNS) at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The interviews were conducted as part of a research project situated at the intersection between sound in poetry (prosody) and environmental sound (soundscape), specifically focused on animal vocalizations.
Poetry might help us to use, study, and deploy animal morphologies in ways that hope to better, rather than merely exploit, the human relation with such life forms, if not to improve the welfare of the species themselves. As Katy Payne, Mike Webster and others suggest, when we speak of animal “song,” we bring metaphors from the arts of poetry and music to complement our limited scientific understanding of the intricacies of animal communication.
At the same time, the process of capture, practiced by poets and recordists alike, heightens ethical choice in a time of accelerated species extinction: many of the techniques and resources developed at LNS and BRP are currently used for basic monitoring of conflict between animal life and human industry. This podcast explores both why and how the Macaulay LNS collects animal sounds (which some of the archivists refer to as “specimens”), and how such a collection is conceptualized, deployed and situated within a matrix of concerns (philosophical, aesthetic, ethical, and political) about human relations to other-than-human life forms.
This article continues the work on “rendering” I began here at Sounding Out! last spring. My interest in the Macaulay LNS, directed by Mike Webster and Greg Budney, introduced me to the vital, cutting-edge, and often mind-blowing work being done in BRP, under the leadership of Chris Clark as well as of a pioneer in animal communication and conservation such as Katy Payne, who founded the Elephant Listening Project and has also contributed to the podcast. Although I did not get Chris’s voice on record, his groundbreaking research, activism and leadership on behalf of a “singing planet” nevertheless loom large behind much of the work featured here. I was fortunate to be able to speak with Tim Gallagher, of Ivory-billed Woodpecker fame, in the Lab of Ornithology. The podcast also explores the crucial work of audio engineers Bill McQuay and Karl Fitzke, and of software analysts and research specialists LIz Rowland, Ann Warde, Laura Strickland, and Ashakur Rahaman, amongst others.
The staff at the Lab of Ornithology generously granted me a tour of their archive, showed me their gear, explained their sound visualization software, and sat me down in the surround sound listening room, where I heard some unforgettable recordings, which opened up my investigation to acoustic dimensions I had never before suspected. We sounded these dimensions in wide-ranging conversations about archiving, acoustics, field work, gear, communication, looking at sound, music, evolution, and conservation. This podcast offers, in a condensed form, some of the highlights of those conversations and experiences.
Thanks are due to the staff whose voices the podcast features: Mike Webster, Greg Budney, Bill McQuay, Liz Rowland, Alexa Hilmer, Ann Warde, Mary Winston, Tim Gallagher, Ashakur Rahaman, Katy Payne, Laura Strickland, and Karl Fitzke. Thanks are equally due staff who consented to be interviewed or otherwise helped out but whose voices didn’t make it onto the podcast: Chris Clarke, Christianne McMillan White, George Dillmann, Connie Bruce, Tammy Bishop. Thanks to Aaron Trammell for crucial editorial and technical help. Thanks finally to the Cornell Society for Humanities for the 2011-2012 research fellowship and the scholarly community that made this research possible.
Animal Transcriptions: Listening to the Lab of Ornithology – Contents and Credits
Winter Wren, at normal and at one-half speed (Greg Budney, from The Diversity of Animal Sounds, Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds sampler CD)
Sound: Greg Budney and Musician Wren (Cyphorhinus arada, LNS 8897, Peter Paul Kellogg)
Sound: Ashakur Rahaman and Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus, played back at eight times normal speed, LNS 128263, Paul Thompson)
Bill McQuay, Greg Budney: Africa Sequence (The Bai)
Sound: Greg Budney and Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi, LNS 50192, Geoffrey Keller) and Brown-backed Solitaire (Myadestis occidentals, LNS 136544, Michael Andersen)
Sound: Ann Warde and Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas, LNS 126105, Donald Ljungblad)
Greg Budney: Beluga multi-array recording
Sound: Katy Payne (Humpback Whale)
Greg Budney: Madagascar lemur family group
Bill McQuay: Treehopper sequence (NPR Radio Expedition)
Sound: Mike Webster and Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus, LNS 12830, Ted Parker), Common Potoo (Nyctibius griseus, LNS 59964, Paul Schwartz)
Looking at Sound 27:25
Sound: Alexa Hilmer and Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae, LNS 110847, Paul Perkins)
Sound: Laura Strickland and Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina, LNS 11316, Arthur Allen; LNS 125223, Michael Andersen)
Greg Budney (Spot-breasted Oriole duet, LNS 164045, David Ross)
Mike Webster (Black-throated Blue Warbler, LNS 27208, Randolph Little)
Katy Payne (Humpback whale group singing, LNS 118147, William Steiner)
Sound: Alexa Hilmer, Katy Payne with Common Loon (Gavia mimer, LNS 107964, Steven Pantle)
Greg Budney: Attwater’s Prairie Chicken lek
Sound: Karl Fitzke and European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris, recording by Greg McGrath)
Recordings used with permission of Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Starling recording used with permission of Greg McGrath.
Jonathan Skinner founded and edits the journal ecopoetics, which features creative-critical intersections between writing and ecology. Skinner also writes ecocriticism on contemporary poetry and poetics: he has published essays on Charles Olson, Ronald Johnson, Lorine Niedecker, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Bernadette Mayer, Cecilia Vicuña, translations of French poetry and garden theory, essays on bird song from the perspective of ethnopoetics, and essays on horizontal concepts such as the Third Landscape and on Documentary Poetry. Currently, he is writing a book of investigative poems on the urban landscapes of Frederick Law Olmsted, and a book on Animal Transcriptions in contemporary poetry. He teaches poetry and poetics in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Listening to Disaster: Our Relationship to Sound and Danger– Maile Colbert
Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds– Jonathan Skinner
In September of 2012, the team behind the SoundBox Project hosted an event online called #Tweetasound. Supported by the Sounding Out! blog and with help from many audiophiles on Twitter, the event was staged to encourage people to experiment with making social media more noisy. This podcast reflects on the experience of encountering sound in digital environments while also sampling an array of content produced during the event.
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Recapping SoundBox Project #Tweetasound
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Featuring tweets by:
SoundBox is comprised of three doctoral students at Duke University, where their project is funded by the Franklin Humanities Institute and the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge. Whitney Trettien (English), Mary Caton Lingold (English), and Darren Mueller (Music), are all interested in enhancing the practice of using sound in digital scholarship.
My family comes from a tiny village called Nodar in northern Portugal, part of the European Union-funded project “Tramontana” which focuses on preserving the immaterial heritage of mountain regions of southern Europe. In Nodar, centuries of isolation and self-sufficiency have created a unique blend of cultural expressions, ways of living, and inhabited landscapes. Like much of the Portuguese countryside, Nodar is undergoing a process of abandonment, which leaves rural communities with a weakened sense of identity. The agrarian paradigm, which has been central to the history and social fabric of rural communities, is arriving to an almost hopeless vanishing point, and the guardians of that memory are also disappearing. With this as formative part of my background, and considering my artistic interest in community-oriented projects, I felt almost a duty to direct much of my work to Nodar, a place that means so much to me and where I thought I could make a difference. In 2004 my brother Luis and I founded Binaural/Nodar, an arts collective based in the village and operating in the surrounding region of the Gralheira mountain range.
Since March 2006, the Nodar Rural Art Lab has invited both local and international artists who work in the areas of sound, video, and intermedia arts to address issues such as collective memory, identity, gender, age, life, death, geography, topography, music, sound heritage, landscape, vegetation, consumption and leisure dynamics, myths, traditions, crafts, agriculture, and shepherding. During their stay, the resident artists give public presentations in the region and are encouraged to establish interactions with the place and its inhabitants, geographic spaces, and social memory. Many of the artworks held in Nodar cross different artistic practices, often blending borders.
The decision to initiate an artist residency center in Nodar was motivated by my desire to deepen the investigation of exploratory artistic practices in close interaction with a specific rural context and its social and cultural possibilities. Throughout the year, the Nodar Rural Art Lab programs various residency modules in order to stimulate a collaborative environment between artists from different artistic fields and geographic origins. During the course of the residencies, several parallel activities are organized, such as conferences, lectures and educational activities, namely youth-oriented. At the end of each residency module, there is a public presentation organized in the village in which the art projects are presented and discussed by the artists and the organization.
The sonic dimension has a critical role in the model we have developed in Nodar, especially because it operates as a powerful metaphor for the intimate and personal discovery of a place. Artists have documented the area’s soundscapes and oral heritage in Nodar since 2006. There are three central lines of artistic interaction that converge here: Sound, Space and People:
SOUND (Interaction with the acoustic environment): Some sound artists, who work with the acoustic dimension in an experimental way, are part of the team that runs the Nodar Rural Art Lab. The Lab has always been active in the international theoretical and artistic domains of the so-called soundscapes, and it has hosted some of the most respected sound artists of today, who–using idiosyncratic techniques for sound capturing, editing and manipulation–have created works based on particular aspects of the local acoustic context.
One of our approaches is what we call “sound interventions,” where we use field recordings and performance in order to “activate the space” and establish a dialogical approach between what is activated and what just “is,” which can incorporate body, gesture, sound, object, space and voice in this process. An example of this approach was the “Revenant : Paiva” project, conceived in 2009 by Patrick McGinley, Marjia-Liisa Plats, Luís Costa and Tiago Carvalho, in which a series of performative actions were staged in a section of the river Paiva that crosses Nodar. Using materials found in-situ as instruments, in addition to the artists’ own voices, to generate sounds that interacted with the acoustic environment itself, all activity was purely acoustic, with no amplification. The resulting work was presented live with the artists and audience spread out across the space with no preferential “point of listening”, which created subtle overlaps between the artists’ work and the space.
SPACE: Interaction with the geographic space. The landscape surrounding Nodar is beautiful and diverse; there are mountains, rivers, caves, slate stone architecture, terraced fields, and so much more. Moreover, we are witnessing an irreversible process of transformation of rural space. These two elements form fertile ground for the creation of works within nature, which either capture the dreamlike and timeless aspects of the landscape or question possible future uses for the same landscape.
Of particular interest to us is the use of geography as a means for projecting sound in which specific variables of the territory, such as topography and meteorology, intersect with instrumental or subjective aspects of artistic creation, namely the position occupied in the space and the choice of sound recording and reproduction tools and techniques. A good example of this approach was Lisa Premke’s project “Aural Lookout,” developed in 2012, in which she built a canvas lookout on the top of a hill that allowed the visitors to be sheltered from the environment while listening to the nature sounds acoustically amplified, as if being inside a large drum.
PEOPLE: Interaction with local inhabitants. Since the beginning of our activities, we have been encouraging artists to interact, question and to some extent “provoke” local populations. As a result of these communication processes, various art projects have been developed reflecting and expressing aspects of the region’s collective memory and new habits and experiences.
Working on the subject of the anthropological voice may involve direct conversation with the local communities based on topics proposed by the artists and related to everyday life and local memory, as well as it may focus on linguistic aspects such as accents, musicality of the voice, etc. Maile Colbert’s “Over the Eyes,” created in 2007, was a very successful example of this sort of “conversational” project, where she organized a knitting circle with the village women, recorded the conversations with them, their songs and stories and incorporated them into the sound design of a multimedia installation, along with field recordings of the area, and text on physiological, biological, and psychological aspects to memory creation and destruction in humans. The projection screen was composed of raw wool and the knitted cloths made during the circle, which created an interesting dialogue with the immaterial nature of the audiovisual element of the piece.
We have always emphasized a type of sound art that enhances the context within which a specific sound work is produced, escaping a purely acoustic, or “sound-in-itself” approach. We believe that this emphasis on subjectivity and context is necessary, because sound–and the practice of field recording in particular—sometimes carries a burden of “objectivity” because it stems from the documentation of reality. The subjectivity inherent to the sound recollection –for instance, the choice of the point of listening and of the technological means of sound capturing–is often not sufficient to alleviate this burden.
When we host sound artists in Nodar, we always try to convey the idea that the region’s landscape is fundamentally an “inhabited landscape.” Trying to avoid the human presence in order to get “wilder and more natural” recordings is purely illusory. The landscape is inhabited in several simultaneous ways: by the marks of historical occupation of the territory, by the existence of vital spaces for each inhabitant–often lying far beyond the boundaries of the villages–by the very presence of the artists and by the audiences of the art works’ final presentations.
In summary, there are several methodological, instrumental and aesthetic approaches that Binaural/Nodar is working to further in the area of sound art. These approaches are anything but sealed; intersections, complementarities, unions and differences exist, which make each work of art unique.
Featured Image: ”Oor van Noach” by Flickr user ines saraiva under Creative Commons 2.0 License.
Rui Costa is a sound artist from Lisbon, Portugal. He is a founding member and artistic director of Binaural/Nodar, an arts organization founded in 2004 and dedicated to the promotion of context-specific and participatory art projects in rural communities of the Gralheira mountain range, northern Portugal. Rui has been performing and exhibiting his work since 1998 in festivals, galleries and museums across Portugal, Spain, Italy and the United States and has been collaborating regularly with the Italian vocal performer Manuela Barile and the American intermedia artist Maile Colbert. Rui Costa is also a regular speaker in conferences and gives workshops dedicated to sound art. For more from Binaural/Nodar, please check out the organization’s soundcloud, vimeo, and flickr.
When I got to São Paulo in January, 2012, I had only a slight idea of how my fieldwork would unfold. Even though I had planned to investigate the relationship between everyday sounds and ways of using public spaces in São Paulo, Brazil, I was certain that that I wanted to observe São Paulo’s Anti-noise Agency (known as PSIU), responsible for supervising noise emission from bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and other commercial establishments. My original idea was to consider noise from an anthropological perspective – as a point of entry to discussions regarding social problems in the city. To meet this end, I began to focus on ‘controversial’ sounds. ’Controversial’ sounds are interesting to study because they make audible the question of spatial rights and the intersections of private, public, and civil spheres in the constant (re)construction of a city.
More than 11 million people live in São Paulo; on average 110,ooo in each of the city’s 96 districts, a population higher than that of 95% of Brazilian cities. São Paulo is known for being Brazil’s economic hub. It boasts the highest rate of migrants from other countries and from other Brazilian cities (including many from the northeast of Brazil, which is a notably impoverished region). There is a striking economic disparity: 1.3 million people live in slums spread throughout the city. While the richest district holds 300 thousand jobs, in the poorest there are only 136. While some can afford to pay R$ 500 (roughly 245 US dollars) just to get into a nightclub, others will spend that amount over the course of a year, going to unlicensed bars in peripheral districts. São Paulo has more helicopters per capita than any other city in the world; and one third of its residents spend more than 1 hour commuting to work, usually in overcrowded busses and trains. There are two very different cities here – one which is impoverished, and the other wealthy.
Within the context of a broader discussion of citizenship, controversial sounds need to be studied across social sectors. These sectors work in tandem to form the democratic society of São Paulo. For this reason, I have focused my research on four interrelated social branches.
As I said, first I went to PSIU, the executive branch of São Paulo. At PSIU I learned how certain sounds are regulated and how those responsible for making loud sounds are punished. I accompanied the agency’s engineer to a routine weekly inspection, and learned that people do not know much about legislation (sound limits allowed, zoning law, etc.), and that they know even less about what they need to do to achieve the sound pressure limits established by law.
I also observed the legislative branch. There, I was happy to discover that the technical standards most related to urban noise and acoustic quality were going through a major revision in 2012. These standards are important because most city ordinances are modeled after their criteria of measuring and evaluating sound.
The third branch is economic. In 2010, a coalition of professionals (mostly from São Paulo) specializing in ‘acoustic quality’ created ProAcustica, a non-profit organization whose mission is “to disseminate the benefits of acoustic solutions in civil construction as a primary factor for comfort and health of users at home, work, or any other urban space, and also as a element for sustainability of enterprise and of the environment.” ProAcustica’s constituents are mainly architects, acousticians, civil constructors, engineers, and building material developers.
Over the course of my fieldwork, I have attended many ProAcustica meetings and interviewed many of its members. Only in the last few years has there been an articulation of acoustics and economics that demands more effective urban planning and, most importantly, quantitative criteria that can encourage civil constructors to deliver acoustically comfortable dwellings. ProAcustica members want to relate the risks of noise pollution to the greater public in order to expand their market. ProAcustica is particularly interested in traffic noise as a critical aspect of our urban soundscapes. Still, most people seem to consider traffic noise an inevitable consequence of urban life. They either get used to it or move somewhere else. For example, I live with my cousin next to Congonhas Airport. I can see the airstrip from my window. Even though he spent a few thousand dollars installing noise-isolating windows, I still wake up everyday when the first planes landing at 6AM. Thanks to these planes, the sound in my bedroom reaches 90 dB(A) with the windows open. My cousin says that he has gotten used to it. But if we leave the windows opened it is impossible to listen to the TV.
The last social branch that I examined was civil society. What is the practice of making and listening to sounds in São Paulo? Are there localized ‘controversial’ sounds? In 2012 loud music in public spaces has been at the center of debates in the press and community meetings.
The pancadão (‘big punch’ in Portuguese) are parties that happen mostly in the peripheral neighborhoods of São Paulo, where very little leisure space is able to accommodate large numbers of people. For this reason, these parties happen on the streets and plazas, attracting thousands of youngsters that go to flirt, drink, and dance to the sound of Brazilian funk. The music comes from car speakers. Sometimes three or more cars will park a few feet from each other, blasting Brazilian funk throughout the night. Most of the lyrics contain metaphors referring to sex, but recently there has also been a wave of more extreme “ostentatious funk” (funk ostentação) coming from São Paulo. Here are two examples of popular funk ostentação songs that can be heard emanating from the pancadão, the first is MC Guime’s “Tá Patrão,” and the second, MC Rodolfinho’s “Como é Bom Ser Vida Loca.”
There has also been a link between the pancadão and drug traffic. Tellingly, there is branch of ‘forbidden’ funk that exalts drug dealers and robbery while also affronting the police. These parties persevere because everything is mobile: the music, the drinks, the drugs, and even the place for having sex – everything is supplied by the cars and can move around whenever there is a risk of conflict with the police.
Presently, I am conducting research in two peripheral regions. One is the place where most funk MCs originate, and the other is where new strategies of shutting down these parties have been implemented by the police. The Operação Pancadão is an operation that gathers military and civil police, PSIU agents, and other administration officers. This task force measures sound emissions, apprehends and punishes the responsible, then impounds the cars. Once you cut the sound, partygoers disperse – often seeking another pancadão close by. One police chief reports having mapped more than 200 places of pancadão in São Paulo.
Because of this fieldwork, I believe that the field of ‘applied sound studies’ needs to be developed further, both inside and outside of the academy. It is crucial for urban planners to develop qualitative methods to understand how residents evaluate the everyday soundscape. In Europe , for example, there is a group of scholars working on new methods for assessing and improving soundscapes based on how residents perceive the environments in which they live. I also see the potential for scholars interested in sound-related nuisance to work with conflict mediation. During the weekend 60% of all calls received by the police dispatcher (equivalent to 911 in the U.S.) are from people complaining about some nuisance, usually loud sounds. Understanding urban sounds as a phenomenon which impacts several different social sectors can empower interested parties to put forward alternatives. Ideally, these alternatives will allow marginalized youth to enjoy their music without being bullied by drug dealers or assaulted by policemen. At the micro level, conflict mediation scholars could provoke a sense of dialogue between neighbors and help them to find solutions for conflicting sonic behaviors.
Please listen to the accompanying podcast, “Listening to São Paulo, Brazil,” for the opportunity to listen to the soundscape of São Paulo, as I walk you through these spaces of sonic conflict.
Leonardo Cardoso was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where he studied music composition at UFRGS (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul). In 2005 he entered the Ethnomusicology Group at UFRGS as a research assistant. From 2005 to 2008 he participated in projects with indigenous communities in Rio Grande do Sul. In 2008 he started his Master’s in ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin under Prof. Veit Erlmann’s advising. His interest in film music led him to write his thesis on the experimental field of visual music in Los Angeles. He is working in São Paulo, where he is currently conducting fieldwork on urban noise, for his PhD. Leonardo is also a photographer, composer, and sound collector. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org