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Sounding Out! Podcast #12: 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


Mike Webster
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)

Archive 2:40

Mike Webster
Greg Budney
Bill McQuay

Sound: Ashakur Rahaman and Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus, played back at eight times normal speed, LNS 128263, Paul Thompson)

Acoustics 5:45

Liz Rowland
Bill McQuay, Greg Budney: Africa Sequence (The Bai)
Alexa Hilmer
Ann Warde

Sound: Greg Budney and Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi, LNS 50192, Geoffrey Keller) and Brown-backed Solitaire (Myadestis occidentals, LNS 136544, Michael Andersen)

Field 11:00

Bill McQuay
Greg Budney
Mary Winston
Tim Gallagher
Liz Rowland

Sound: Ann Warde and Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas, LNS 126105, Donald Ljungblad)

Gear 14:30

Ann Warde
Ashakur Rahaman
Greg Budney: Beluga multi-array recording
Liz Rowland

Sound: Katy Payne (Humpback Whale)

Communication 20:05

Greg Budney: Madagascar lemur family group
Bill McQuay
Ann Warde
Laura Strickland
Bill McQuay: Treehopper sequence (NPR Radio Expedition)
Katy Payne
Tim Gallagher

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

Liz Rowland
Laura Strickland
Alexa Hilmer
Ashakur Rahaman
Katy Payne

Sound: Alexa Hilmer and Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae, LNS 110847, Paul Perkins)

Music 36:05

Bill McQuay
Ann Warde
Laura Strickland
Katy Payne
Karl Fitzke
Alexa Hilmer

Sound: Laura Strickland and Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina, LNS 11316, Arthur Allen; LNS 125223, Michael Andersen)

Evolution 40:10

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)

Conservation 47:05

Greg Budney: Attwater’s Prairie Chicken lek
Ashakur Rahaman
Tim Gallagher
Liz Rowland

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.

tape reelREWIND! . . .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

Six Years in Nodar: Sound Art in a Rural Context— Rui Costa

Listening to Disaster: Our Relationship to Sound in Danger

Editor’s Note: Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s World Listening Day Extravaganza!  Enjoy this special bonus “soundtracked” post by multimedia artist (and new Sounding Out! regular)  Maile Colbert –full of field interviews with artists and acoustic ecologists such as Marc Behrens, Andrea Polli, Bernie Krause, and Peter Cusack–as well as a podcast produced by Eric Leonardson, Director of the World Listening Project.  (Click HERE to go to the podcast). For the full introduction to the World Listening Month! series click here.  To peep the previous posts, click here.  And remember, here at Sounding Out! every day is for listening. . .so meet us here for the 364 days between WLDs for more aural treasures and sonic thought.–JSA


Even the surrounding hills were hushed, as if brought low by language. –from Grendel by John Gardner

Under good weather conditions in 2007, six artists, two curators, and two guides set out towards the Brenndalsbreen glacier in Vestlandet, Norway.  An arm of the largest glacier in continental Europe, the Brenndalsbreen  is maintained by high snowfall rates rather than cold temperatures, so the glacier has high melting rates.  Since 2000, Brenndalsbreen has retreated 276 meters (820 feet).  The group was the first to venture there that spring, the winter being too dangerous.  Marc Behrens, one of the artists present, received permission to follow a guide down a crevice in a tongue of the glacier. There, surrounded by walls of ice, he began to record the melting drops that feed the glacial river flowing underneath.  It was in this moment that Marc heard a change in the sound that signaled to him he may be in life-threatening danger, but due to the focus of the equipment he was using, he had no way to perceive how dangerous that threat may be.

Photo of Marc Behrens by Jørgen Larsson.

A question to Marc Behrens:  “Can you describe your process of perception between thought and hearing within your personal story of disaster?”

When the crashing ice announced itself by the little crunch, I assumed it was merely a modulation in the noises the glacier made anyway – I was very calm listening to the beautifully trickling melt water drops – basically a stream of the same minuscule sounds over a long period of time. I appreciated this and it did not occur to me that it could have been the start of a more dramatic and quick development.

Then, as a surprise I heard that loud crash, which, as I had (bad) headphones on and listened to the microphone input which was directional, I could not relate the spatialization in the headphones to the physical surrounding. In the recording it seems smaller than it was – but it seemed as if the whole glacier just came down on me – sonically. I could not localize the sound, so I could not escape in any direction as I did not know where to. So I decided to stay where I was and just raise my hands/arms to protect my head as much as possible. I perceived a rush of adrenalin but remained lucid, especially as there was nothing else to do, and hence no possibility to fail. I mean: I could just wait and hope I would not be injured. And so, I waited for a moment more after the crash, then stopped the recorder and went out from the protruding ice to signal the others that I was okay.

In 2011, the disastrous 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan. Within its horrific footprint, a number of nuclear accidents affected hundreds of thousands of residents with radiation levels up to eight times what are considered normal.  Many other radioactive hot spots were also found outside the evacuated radius, including within Tokyo.  All over social networks, people posted photos, videos, and sound clips of their Geiger counters reading the radioactivity in their homes and neighborhoods. The process a Geiger counter uses is called sonification, a form of auditory display that uses non-speech audio to convey information.  As I played a sound file from a friend of the above-normal readings in his kitchen in Tokyo, I was unnerved by the ominous, staticky click, like the chirping of some robotic insect.

In fact, the entire event was sonically terrifying. Some of the most chilling recordings I heard from the underwater earthquake and the birth of the tsunami were picked up by the hydrophones of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s VENTS Program.  The Tohoku earthquake was the largest sound they had ever picked up.

Using the seismic data from this same quake, audio programmer and artist Micah Frank used his creation Tectonic, a real-time seismic analysis and sound synthesis system, to sonify the sounds of the earth shifting and opening that fateful day.  With Tectonic, sound is created in real-time by seismic activities as they occur across the globe. Using magnitude, elevation, time of day, and geographical coordinates, the data is mapped to synthetic spectrums and processed by granular, aggregate and subtractive synthesis.

Tectonic: Earthquakes Generate Music in Realtime from Micah Frank on Vimeo.

But is this more artistic and emotive approach effective in conveying the disaster, if that is even the point?  Most comments on his Soundcloud track range from “cool sounds” to “I’ll send you the remix when it’s done.” When compared to the hydrophonic recordings from the VENTS program, perhaps the use of data to sonify is too abstracted from the event itself.

Digital media artist Andrea Polli takes a different approach to sonification. During the 2007/2008 season Polli was on site in Antarctica conducting work through the National Science Foundation residency, working with scientists gathering weather and climate data.  Here she created the project 90 Degrees South, which  “aims to communicate both the aesthetic beauty and the scientific importance of Antarctica to global climate.” This project gave birth to the audio album, Sonic Antarctica, which uses field recordings, sonifications, and audifications of the collected data.


To Andrea Polli:  “How can sonification help us understand climate change?”

One thing that comes to mind is that sound and music can provoke an emotional (or at least affective) response that is not always possible through graphs and images.  For example I have used low, almost sub-aural sounds in data sonifications to promote a visceral response in the listener to various atmospheric events. . .

I have worked with weather and air quality data in real time, both using on-site data or remote data.  To become attuned to the remote data takes some time and quiet listening, to me it is like being in two places at once, for example in a gallery or on-line and at a remote site near the North Pole.

Often we associate catastrophes with massive and sudden sounds. We give animalistic descriptions to the sounds made by what we call natural disasters, such as growling tornado, roaring avalanche, shrieking cyclone, groaning earth.  This practice speaks to our complex relationship with nature, connecting us to it and taking us out of it at the same time.  But what of the slow silencing that happens to our soundscapes when certain species die out?  Such quiet disasters affect everything, sadly in ways we don’t (and won’t) notice until too late.

Dr. Bernie Krause in the field

In The Great Animal Orchestra, author, musician, soundscape recordist, bio-acoustician and naturalist Bernie Krause coins the term, biophony, to help ecologists, biologists, acoustic scientists, and others to understand the long-term impact of disasters, particularly silent ones.  Biophony refers to the collective sound vocal non-human animals create in each given environment.  We face many compounding problems with the silencing of certain species and the quieting of a whole biophony, not the least of which is our connection with the world.

Krause provides some powerful examples of silenced biophonies in his book, such as the story of the Wy-am tribe in the Northwestern United States, whose history has been intertwined with the Celilo Falls, a waterfall just west of the Columbia River’s midway point, for thousands of years.  Wy-am means “the echo of falling water.”  Krause writes: “so central were the falls to the tribe that the Celilo was considered a sacred voice through which divine messages were conveyed.”  It was also their yearly source for fish. In 1957, when the Dalles Dam gates were ordered shut by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the waterfall and fishing site were completely submerged, sending the Wy-am into a state of mourning that continued to subsequent generations.

Black Bear at the Dalles Dam and Lock, Image by the Army Core of Engineers

Krause cites several similar “silencings” in his book using spectrographs.  Similar to sonification, Krause’s spectrograms give form and shape to “silent” disasters.  A particularly sad example for me, coming as I do from a family from the Hawaiian Islands, is the recorded comparisons of the coral reef in Vanua Levu, Fiji, that has been devastated by warming waters, shifts in pH, and pollution.

courtesy of Bernie Krause from The Great Animal Orchestra (72-73)

Krause also recorded twice at the Lincoln Meadow “forest management area” in the Sierra Nevadas, once before mass logging went into effect, and once after, a year later on the same date, time, and same weather conditions.  While visually it seemed that little had changed, Aurally it was a different story:

courtesy of Bernie Krause from The Great Animal Orchestra (69-71)

To Bernie Krause: “We have a tendency to attribute ‘loud’ to the perspective of a disastrous event. Can you discuss the relationship of silence to disaster?”

In the natural world there are so many events that, to the “rational” human mind, appear to be contradictions. For instance, after the 11 September 01 disaster, which resulted in cancellation of all domestic and private aircraft flights and a reduction of automobile traffic around our house in the far western United States, the natural soundscape (biophony) returned in a way that we had never heard it before…even in September…late summer when almost all of the birds have fledged and gone elsewhere. And then there’s the reference in the book to the return of the biophony around Chernobyl, recorded by Peter Cusack from the UK.  On the other hand, after some types of disasters, the immediate silence appears to happen because all of the vocal creatures have to reassess their acoustic territory, and, depending on the biome, takes anywhere from minutes to years, to recover a stable biophonic expression.

UK artist Peter Cusack’s Sounds from Dangerous Places, sought recordings from disaster sites like the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the Ukraine, the Caspian oil fields in Azerbaijan, the Chernobyl-fallout affected farmlands of Northern Wales, and the rivers of Eastern Turkey with their extensive, local climate altering dams.  What is surprising and moving about these works is the strong human element, especially the lack of human presence and the evolving relationship of humans to these post-disaster soundscapes.

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Panorama by Pedro Moura Pinheiro

Listening to some of Cusack’s recordings from Chernobyl, one might feel surprised to hear that iconic name attached to such rich and pastoral soundscapes.  When we consider the massive industrial accident that killed thousands and created an exclusion zone of 30 kilometers (19 miles), some of us are compelled to imagine a wasteland…not a living creature in sight.  But those like Cusack who have visited the area are met with quite a different experience, one we can share when listening to the recordings. Cusack says Chernobyl held the richest dawn bird choruses he has ever recorded; haunting full choruses of frogs and nightingales sound throughout the night. And again we hear that iconic sound of the Geiger counter increasing its metallic chirp as Cusack walks toward an infamous radioactive hotspot, at one point it makes an eerie duet with a calling cuckoo.

To Peter Cusack:  “How has the sound of dangerous places surprised you?”

Dangerous places can be both sonically and visually compelling, even beautiful and atmospheric. There is, often, an extreme dichotomy between an aesthetic response and knowledge of the ‘danger,’ whether it is pollution, social injustice, military or geopolitical.

In the context of the Sounds from Dangerous Places project ‘dangerous places’ are mostly areas of major environmental damage, but also include nuclear sites or the edges of military zones. The danger is not usually to short-term visitors, but to local people who have no option but to stay or more widely through the location’s role in global power politics.

Many aspects of dangerous places are a surprise, mostly because ones expectations are often wide of the mark, especially in the smaller details. However different places surprise one very differently. For example the name ‘Chernobyl exclusion zone’ implies no one is there. Not so. Thousands still work at the site, some live there and some commute in every day (by rail, so trains are part of the soundscape). That many people also require restaurants, bars, administration and all the infrastructure of a small town. So people and work sounds of all kinds are still to be heard around Chernobyl town and the nuclear sites. Some of the villagers, originally evacuated out, have returned bringing their sounds too – horses, chickens, carts, hand farming, traditional songs, modern day TV. The zone is also now a wildlife haven and the sounds of the dawn and evening chorus of spring are intense. The vibrant recordings of wildlife show that many species, at least, are doing fine in the exclusion zone. . .

In other places, though, sounds gives no indication of the danger. In the borough of Uttlesford, also just outside London, one hears church bell, over flying aircraft, cats mewing, cars passing, lawn mowing and common birds singing. It’s exactly as expected for one of the wealthiest areas in South East England. It also produces the greatest amount of domestic greenhouse gas of anywhere in the country.

I want to leave you with the example of the elephant seal, not as a “success story” but as an example of the great responsibility that humans have to know and be aware of our impact on a whole biophony, a whole ecosystem, a whole planet.  When we think to such scales, there can be the tendency to look at the dying out of a single species as not so catastrophic.  But we forget the interconnectivity of things, and how one species affects another, as well as its surroundings and its future. Sound can herald disaster, but it can also signal the potential for renewal, too.

The northern elephant seals once boasted colonies of hundreds of thousands in the Pacific Ocean.  By 1892 only 50 to 100 individual seals were left, until in 1922 the Mexican government gave protective status, pressuring the U.S. government into following suit, and today their numbers are up to approximately 160,000.  Known for their distinct vocalization, especially in the males, the large proboscis of the elephant seal is used to emit a loud roaring sound. From chortles to growls to screams to melodic sighs, their frequency range and detailed expression is amazing to listen to.

Elephant Seals in Año Nuevo, Image by the author

With growing numbers, the seals started populating Año Nuevo in California in 1955, now dominating the biophony against the waves with various sea birds, sea lions from an offshore island, frogs, and the occasional bark towards the evening and night hours from coyotes and foxes.  It is one of the most vibrant and unique soundscapes I have ever experienced, weighted with the thought of how close it came to me never hearing their calls in the wild.

There is a moment upon hiking into the park where you can hear the seals’ voices being carried on the ocean wind, but only sand dunes lay in front of your eyes.  Skin pricks up at such a strange sound; my companion admitted excitement and a little fear upon hearing it.  The look on her child’s face, however, was priceless wonder.  Thousands of tourists come every year to see these magnificent beast, but mostly to listen to these calls, that were, once upon a time not too long ago, almost silenced forever.

This post is dedicated to Dr. Donald Allen Colbert, who sparked wonder in the world beyond what I could see…


Featured Image Credit: Air Raid Siren by Flickr User Wader


Maile Colbert is an intermedia artist with a concentration in sound and video, living and working between New York and Portugal. She is an associated artist at Binaural/Nodar and director of Cross the Pond, an organization based on arts exchange between the U.S. and Portugal.  She holds a BFA in Studio for Integrated Media at Massart, and a MFA in Integrated Media/Film and Video from Calarts. She has had multiple screenings, exhibits, and shows, including The New York Film Festival, Ear to Earth Festival, LACE, MOMA, LACMA, the REDCAT Theater in Los Angeles, The PDX Film Festival, Future Places Festival Oporto, HOERENSEHEN 2.0 Berlin, Störung Festival Barcelona, Teatra Municipal in Guarda, Observitori Festival Valencia, and has performed and screened widely in Japan, Europe, Mexico, and North America, and co-composed for a featured installation at the 2009 UN Climate Conference. She was a visiting lecturer teaching at UCSD and Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema, and guest artist and lecturer at NYU, MassArt, Calarts, SUNY Buffalo, SUNY Binghamton, Muhlenburg College, and Universidade Nova de Lisboa. She is currently in production on an interdisciplinary experimental opera based on Portuguese Maritime history, and will release two albums this year. You can find her at

Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds

Digital Collage Bird Art by Flickr User Peregrine Blue

Today we bring you the latest post in SO!’s spring series, Live from the SHC, which follows the new research from the 2011-2012 Fellows of Cornell’s Society for the Humanities, who have gathered in the A.D. White House to study “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.”  For the full series, click here.  Today poet, scholar, and ecocritic Jonathan Skinner brings us all a treat for spring, so throw open your windows and take a deep listen.  –Editor in Chief, JSA

This planet is singing 24/7 but are we listening to it?  Take out your earbuds, turn down the music and the air conditioning, walk away from the fridge, shut off your engine, open the windows, and tell me what you hear.  If you are in the humid parts of the temperate regions, chances are you’ll hear right now, amidst the myriad human sounds, and depending on the time of day, the spring peepers going, the woodcocks peenting and displaying, a grouse drumming, the whistling of cardinals and robins, chickadees countersinging, blackbirds trilling, cawing of crows, blue jays scolding, honking of geese, hooting of an owl or two, woodpeckers drumming, house sparrows chirping (in this case, to a Satie carillon), perhaps some coyotes yapping it up after midnight.  Not to speak of wind in branches and leaves, water, thunder and lightning.  These are just some of sounds I can pick up, with a bit of careful listening, in and around the relatively urban environment of Ithaca, New York.  If you put your ear to the grass, you might hear this astonishing Treehopper communication.

Or maybe you heard these sounds in some music you were listening to, in a movie soundtrack or videogame?  Just as we pervade their worlds, animals pervade our environments, and their sounds are used to “render” these environments within the relatively flat dimensions of our media—the way three dimensions of spatial information get “crunched” to the two dimensions of a video game’s display (see 4:00 – 5:20 for a demonstration of Aiden Fry’s “generative birdsong” program below, developed through the analysis and sampling of birdsong as a solution to repetitive sound effects that can diminish the immersive quality of the game). Even the most sophisticated “surround sound” audio must “render” figuratively the environed experience of hearing.


The next time you watch a movie, listen to some “ambient” music or play a videogame that renders an outdoors environment, imagine subtracting the animal sounds (either literal or evoked) from these media scapes and consider how incompletely rendered the experience would be. A reversal of the effect, as in Gus Van Sant’s use of Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Beneath the Forest Floor” soundscape, to track and underscore the anomie of certain characters through Elephant, his thinly veiled recreation of the Columbine High School tragedy, also proves the rule (note especially the soundtrack from 3:10 – 3:40).


Greg Budney and Mike Webster explain their dedication to compiling the world’s largest and best quality archive of animal recordings (now in video as well as audio), the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University, as a responsibility to future acoustic biologists, who may bring tools and concepts to the data we have not remotely conceived. Their mission is first and foremost a scientific one. However, conservation is also high on their list: Budney, an expert recordist, points out how high quality recordings—as of lekking Greater Prairie-Chickens—can be played back into the environment, to promote nesting of endangered populations.

Cornell's Bioacousticians Performing FIeld Recording for the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds

These bioacousticians agree that high quality sound recordings can be a powerful way to interest laypeople in the sounds of the robin in their backyard, and, by extension, in broader issues of conservation. Sounds in the Macaulay Library also are available to the entertainment industry, so that, indeed, myriad animal vocalizations contribute to the renderings of its various media. Licensing fees in turn contribute to the conservation mission of the Library.

Rendering is not so much a matter of reproduction—accurately representing a “real” environment—as of recreating, through a consistency that “completes” the aesthetic experience, the feelings associated with an environment. (Think of the difference in quality between the “finished” HD, surround-sound movie and the behind-the-scenes “special features” on a DVD.) In Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, media theorist Michel Chion identifies an important feature of rendering in “materializing sound indices,” noises that help render, in sound and image, a particular “clump of sensations” (112-116).

For instance, spatial depth, in outdoor scenes, is often rendered through the presence of bird song or dogs barking, etc. Or consider the cooing of pigeons that often accompanies the opening of a garret window in a movie set in Paris. Or that ubiquitous red-tailed hawk’s cry indexing a “wild” landscape. The absence or thinness of these indices can be just as helpful to rendering, as when the landscape includes “ethereal, abstract, and fluid” entities: “out of touch” characters in Jacques Tati films or the drawn characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where hollow, lightweight, plastic sounds help us believe that we are indeed seeing (or, as Chion reminds us, “hear-seeing”) cartoon characters (watch from 1:19 – 1:33 for the famous “clang” the drawn Jessica Rabbit makes as she collides with the live action Eddie Valiant).


Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, both the book and the film version, deploy effectively the total absence of animal sounds to convey the uncanny complex of feelings bound up in environmental apocalypse—the “silent spring” invoked by Rachel Carson a half century ago in her indictment of the toxic legacy of the chemical industry.

In his study of environmental aesthetics, Ecology Without Nature, ecocritic Timothy Morton faults rendering for perpetuating an “ecomimetic illusion of immediacy,” an “ambient” art that ultimately comes in between us and the life it is supposed to bring us close to (36).  Rendering lures us into the “relaxing ambient sounds of ecomimesis,” precisely when we need to hear “the screeching of the emergency brake” (as Morton puts it: “whistling in the dark, insisting that we’re part of Gaia” 187, 196).  However, Chion notes that “the disjunctive and autonomist impulse [à la Godard] that predominates in intellectual discourse on the question (‘wouldn’t it be better if sound and image were independent?’) arises entirely from a unitary illusion” that there is “a true unity existing elsewhere” (Audio-Vision 97-98). Such unity is in fact elusive: for instance, it can be difficult to identify the sources of sounds in “nature” (consider the bewildering variety of blue jay calls), while the notion that a sound can on its own invoke more abstract characteristics of its source, especially when it is produced by a nonhuman species, betrays a kind of magical thinking. (Forms of non-western magical thinking actually acknowledge the disjunctive quality of natural sounds by referring, for instance, to “voices in the forest.”) Also, sound is so context dependent, and our listening is so strongly influenced by the conventions of our media, that “sound in itself”can be a very slippery object. Chion notes that we need something like an “auditory analogy of the visual camera obscura” —i.e. the monitoring and recording of soundscapes—to help us listen to “sounds for themselves and to focus on their acoustical qualities” (108).

In a time of mass extinction, how are we to approach the rendering of animal sounds in our mediated environments? Do these sounds have agency? Does listening to and “capturing” animal sounds bring us closer to them, or only lure us, with an illusion of immersion and unity, away from realizing the dark nature of our ecology, and the urgent reforms needed, if we are actually to help animals (does our rendering and consumption of whale song—pace what Songs of the Humpback Whale has done for whale conservation—end up perpetuating the same extractive process that “renders” whale blubber)?

Connecticut Warbler by Carol Hanna, Songs of the Birds

I would say that, so long as we approach these sounds neither as a substitute for, nor as an experience “less than,” the daily practice of listening to our environments, a resource like the Macaulay Library can add immeasurably to our awareness of the diversity, and the vulnerability, of life on Earth. (Another resource worth exploring is the British Library’s Environment & nature sounds archive, especially the collection of early wildlife recordings.) Careful attention to renderings of animal sounds in our media can make us aware of the extent to which we “render” the landscape around us, through selective habits of listening, and open us to the disjunctive, noisy, reverberant, distorted sounds such renderings obscure. (R. Murray Schafer made this point long ago, in his book The Soundscape urging us to listen to noise if we want to defeat it.) Clips posted here, of media using birdsong to render scenes of human violence, state the complexity of our pastoral aesthetics in an exaggerated way, but every day our listening has access to a range of sonic collisions.

Consider the famous recordings of nightingales in Beatrice Harrison’s backyard, to the accompaniment of her cello, as well as to RAF bombers—on Minnesota Public Radio’s Music & Nature. Part of what we will hear when we listen with open ears is our own domination of the soundscape, one that can have concrete implications for the survival of other species (Chris Clark, head of Bioacoustics Research at Cornell, has imaged the way the noise of shipping lanes impacts the acoustic habitat of endangered Right Whales.) How might the infrasonic or ultrasonic vocal communications—of blue whales, elephants, mice and bats, for instance—that operate beyond the range of the naked human ear (but not of our instruments) impact our media environments? The “materializing sound indices” of recordings can be used to return us to the embodied, imperfect natures of these other beings, whose vulnerability, philosopher Jacques Derrida suggests in The Animal That Therefore I Am, it is our own nature to follow.

A Gaggle of Grackles by Flickr User Dan Machold

The more we listen to the environment acousmatically, the better critics we become of our media environments’ often crassly commercial renderings. Many of these sounds (see also some of the recordings collected on the Earth Ear label’s Dreams of Gaia) are simply beautiful, or astonishing—conveying an aesthetic dimension alluded to in veteran nature recordist Bernie Krause’s new book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. (My concern with a focus on the exotic is that privileging “wild places” might have the effect of devaluing the “not wild,” i.e. where most people live—places nonetheless full of wild creatures—and where we might best develop our listening.) Finally, the more we find ways to render these sounds meaningfully in our own lives, outside patterns of consumption, the better chances are we’ll begin to develop (politically, ethically) meaningful relationships with these other species, species with whom we must collaborate if we want to tend the web of life that so desperately needs our care.

**Featured Image Credit: Digital Collage Bird Art by Flickr User Peregrine Blue

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 the poets Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Ronald Johnson, Bernadette Mayer, Lorine Niedecker, and Charles Olson; on Poetries of the Third Landscape, Documentary Poetics, and Poetry Animals; and an ethnographic study of the Tohono O’odham Mockingbird Speech. Skinner’s poetry collections include Birds of Tifft (BlazeVox, 2011), Warblers (Albion Books, 2010), With Naked Foot (Little Scratch Pad Press, 2009), and Political Cactus Poems (Palm Press, 2005). Skinner’s latest creative project is a book on the urban landscape designs of Frederick Law Olmsted. 

Sounding Out! Podcast Episode #4: Within a Grain of Sand

Borrowed from .

Today’s entry in the Sounding Out! podcast series is a collection of interviews with sound artists from around the world. Compiled by Maile Colbert, these interviews show as much as they tell, often featuring the artists speaking in tandem with a recorded soundscape. At other moments, however; the soundscapes take on a life of their own as the artist pauses and the sonic landscape breathes.  Although Maile had discussed some of these artists’ work previously in a blog post for Sounding Out! Within a Grain of Sand, this recording seeks to investigate their work in a unique and true-to-form manner. So, listen and learn – about the practice of creating sound art.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Within a Grain of Sand


Here are some brief biographic notes on the contributing artists:

Jen Boyd

“Under the Golden Gate”
Jen Boyd is a sound artist living in Northern CA. She spends time recording sounds in her environment and then arranges them into layered soundscapes. In these pieces, some sounds unfold naturally while others are processed. Although her work mostly relies on ‘natural’ sounds she uses a wide variety of sound sources to paint sonic pictures for the listener. Jen hopes to spark the interest in people of all ages to listen more closely to the environment they live in everyday. If you listen, you can hear some of her recordings on

Eric Leonardson

“Interview” (feat: recording artists from the World Listening Day)

Eric Leonardson is a Chicago-based composer, radio artist, sound designer, instrument inventor, improvisor, visual artist, and teacher. He has devoted a majority of his professional career to unorthodox approaches to sound and its instrumentation with a broad understanding of texture, atmosphere and microtones. If you are interested in learning more about Eric and his project, the World Listening Project, click this link.

Rui Costa

“Sightseeing for the Blind”

Rui Costa is a sound artist from Lisbon, Portugal. He has been publicly presenting his work since 1998. He is a founding member and artistic director of Binaural. He has performed in many venues and sound art festivals in Portugal, Spain, Italy and the United States.

and the podcast producer, compiler, and contributing artist

Maile Colbert

“Debaixo da Ponte 25 de Abril”

Maile Colbert  is an intermedia artist with a concentration on sound and video, relocated from Los Angeles and living and working between New York and Lisbon, Portugal, and teaching at Faculdade de Belas Artes da Universidade do Porto. She spent the last two years collaborating with the art organization Binaural, and is currently director of Cross the Pond, an organization based on arts and cultural exchange between the U.S. and Portugal. She holds a BFA in The Studio for Interrelated Media from Massachusetts College of Art, and MFA in Integrated Media/Film and Video from the California Institute of the Arts. She is currently in production on an interdisciplinary experimental opera based on Portuguese Maritime history, and will release two albums this year.

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