Tag Archive | Andrea Polli

On the Poetics of Balloon Music: Sounding Air, Body, and Latex (Part One)

I see them in the streets and in the subway, at dollar stores, hospital rooms, and parties. I see them silently dangling from electrical cables and tethered to branches of trees. Balloons are ghost-like entities floating through the cracks of places and memories. They are part of our rituals of loss, celebration and apology. Yet, they are also part of larger systems, weather sciences, warfare and surveillance technologies, colonialist forces and the casual UFO conspiracy theory. For a child, the ephemeral life of the balloon contrasts with the joy of its bright colors and squeaky sounds. Psychologists encourage the use of the balloon as an analogy for death, while astronomers use it as a representation for the cosmological inflation of the universe. In between metaphors of beginning and end, the balloon enables dialogues about air, breath, levity, and vibration.

The philosopher Luce Irigaray argues that Western thought has forgotten air despite being founded on it. “Air does not show itself. As such, it escapes appearing as (a) being. It allows itself to be forgotten,” writes Irigaray. Air is confused with absence because it “never takes place in the mode of an ‘entry into presence.'” Gaston Bachelard, in Air and Dreams, calls for a philosophy of poetic imagination that grows out of air’s movement and fluidity. For Bachelard, an aerial imagination brings forth a sense of the sonorous, of transparency and mobility. In this article, I propose exploring the balloon as a sonic device that turns our attention to the element of air and opens space for musical practices outside classical traditions. Here, the balloon is defined broadly as an envelope for air, breath, and lighter-than-air gases, including toy balloons, weather balloons, hydrogen and hot-air balloons.

PLACE /

Vertical Dimension: Early Experiments in Ballooning, Sounding, and Silence

On September 1939, Jean-Paul Sartre was assigned to serve the French military in a meteorological station in Alsace behind the frontline. His duties consisted of launching weather balloons, monitoring them every two hours and radioing the meteorological observations to another station. Faced with the dread of war and an immediate geography that he compared to a “madmen’s delusion,” Sartre took his gaze upwards to the weather balloon and its surrounding atmosphere to find refuge. In Notebooks from a Phony War, Sartre describes the sky as my vertical dimension, a vertical prolongation of myself, and also abode beyond my reach.” The balloon becomes a vessel for an affective relationship with the atmosphere that is mediated by the sounding of meteorological data. While gazing into the upper air, Sartre experiences a tension between the withdrawn”frozen blackness” of the atmosphere and the pull for feelings of oneness with it.

Falling Stars as Observed From the Balloon, Travels in Air by James Glaisher, 1871

The first balloonists to explore the atmosphere felt similar sensations of belonging by moving along masses of air, and at the same time, experiencing a deep sense of otherworldliness. Despite the dangerous enterprise, early balloon travelers repeatedly recounted expressions of the sublime associated with the acoustic qualities of the upper air. Late 18th and 19th-century balloon literature features countless textual soundscapes of balloon ascents that reveal how the experience of sound and silence helped frame early narratives of “being in air/being one with air.”

Ballooning developed in France and England among the emergent noise of industrialized urban life. The balloon prospect, as the author Jesse Taylor put it, spoke to “the Victorian fantasy of rising above the obscurity of urban experience.”  Floating over the city, the English aeronaut Henry Coxwell describes hearing “the roar of London as one unceasing rich and deep sound.” In the same spirit, the balloonist James Glaisher compares the “deep sound of London” to theroar of the sea,” whose “murmuring noise” is heard at great elevations. Ascending to higher altitudes, Coxwell hears the sounds from the earth become “fainter and fainter, until we were lost in the clouds when a solemn silence reigned.”

L’exploration de l’air, In Histoire des ballons et des aÇronauts cÇläbres, 1887

The balloon not only allowed access to a panoramic and surveilling gaze in the midst of boundless space but also a privileged access to a place of quietude and silence. In the memoir Aeronautica (1838), Thomas Monck Mason speaks to this point when he writes, “no human sound vibrated (…) a universal Silence reigned! An empyrean Calm! Unknown to Mortals upon ‘Earth.” According to Mason, when the balloonist goes “undisturbed by interferences of ordinary impressions,” like the sounds from terrestrial life, “his mind more readily admits the influence of those sublime ideas of extension and space.”

The experience of silence in the upper air brought forward in the Victorian white elite the longing for freedom, individuality, and assertion of social identity. Balloon flights provided a form of escapism from the confines of city walls reverberating with the aural manifestations of the Other. In Victorian Soundscapes, John Picker examines the struggles of London’s upper class of creatives (academics, doctors, artists and clergy) in finding spaces of silence away from the bustling noise of the urban environment. During the mid-19th century, the influx of immigration and the rise of commercial trade and street musicians altered the soundscape of the city. As Picker documents, the English elites rallied against this emergent aurality through racialized listening made evident by the use of sonic descriptors like invasion and containment that underlined anxieties related to the dilution of national identity, culture, class division and territory. For the elite, to physically ascend above the noise of the Other into the silent regions of the atmosphere via balloon, an instrument that dramatizes scientific prowess, validated an auditory construction of whiteness organized around ideals of order, rationality and harmony.

Circular View From the Balloon in Airopaidia by Thomas Baldwin, 1786

The descriptions of balloon ascents featured in James Glaisher’s book Travels in the Air (1871) are a vivid manifestation of these ideals. Experiences of floating at high altitudes were often met with poetic reports on the “sublime harmony of colors, light and silence,” the “perfect stillness,” and the “absolute silence” reigning “supreme in all its sad majesty.” The nineteenth century’s constructs of “harmony” and “quietude,” argues Jennifer Stoever, were markers of whiteness used to segregate and de-humanize those who embodied an alternative way of sounding. The Victorian balloon memoir echoes the construction of this sonic identity rooted in the white privilege of being lighter-than-air and claiming atmospheric silence. The balloonist Camille Flammarion, upon hearing “various noises” from the “dark earthbelow, questions what prompts “the listening ear” to be sensitive to difference. “Is it the universal silence which causes our ears to be more attentive?” asks the aeronaut.

Balloon Prospect, In Airopaidia, Thomas Baldwin, 1786

Balloonist’s encounters with silence in the upper air and the sigh of “boundless planes” andinfinite expanse of sky” were accompanied by feelings of safeness and overwhelming serenity. Elaine Freedgood argues that the balloon with its silk folds and wicker baskets were a perfect container for states of regression and the suspension of the boundaries of the self into an oceanic feeling of at-oneness with the atmosphere. According to the author, the self and sublime become momentarily entangled originating a sense of heroic masculinity, power, and the rehearse of imperial and colonial ventures. This emotional state justified an unprecedented mobility and the sense of losing oneself to the whims of the wind with no preoccupations of where to land. However, in an image that contrasts the privileges of mobility, Frederick Douglass uses the metaphor of the balloon as the terrifying anxiety of uncertain landing – either in freedom or slavery. The novel Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyan, deals with similar issues by fictionalizing the balloon ascent and traveling of a young slave, whose hearing is tuned to the “ghostly sound of human suffering coming from beneath.

By late 1780s, thousands of people witnessed the European wave of balloon flights, but only a small fraction had access to them. Mi Gyung Kim, author of The Imagined Empire, draws attention to the silence imposed on the figure of the “balloon spectator” whose dissident voices were erased by the dominant colonial narrative of aerial empire. Mostly, the balloon spectator is featured in Victorian texts within a soundscape of affects characterized by “vociferations of joy, shrieks of fearandexpressions of applausethat advanced the dominant colonial narrative.

Ascent of a Balloon in the Presence of the Court of Charles IV by Antonio Carnicero, 1783

Although explorations in sound were one of the many goals to legitimize the balloon as an instrument in modern natural philosophy, the scientific utility of the balloon succumbed to spectacle and entertainment. Early aeronauts tried to use their voices and speaking trumpets to sound the atmosphere and experiment with echo as a measurement of distance. Derek McCornack in his book Atmospheric Things, says that these balloonists were most of all “generating a sonorous affective-aesthetic experiencewith the atmosphere. Along with scientific tools, balloonists often ascended with musical instruments and, in other instances, the balloon itself became the stage for operatic performances. More than a century before modern composers had transformative encounters with silence in anechoic chambers, aeronauts had already described its subjective qualities and effects in detail. In 1886, the photographer John Doughty and reluctant balloon traveler, while floating in a silent ocean of air, recalls hearing only two bodily sounds: “the blood is plainly heard as it pulses through the brain; while in moments of extra excitement the beating of the heart sounds so loud as almost to constitute an interruption to our thoughts.”

Travels in the Air, James Glaisher, 1871

PROBE /

I feel like a balloon going up into the atmosphere, looking, gathering information, and relaying it back. Rachel Rosenthal, 1985

The first untethered balloon ascents happened between 1783 and 1784. In current literature, this period is most cited for the patent of the steam engine, the beginning of the carbonification of the atmosphere by the burning of coal, and the start of the Anthropocene. In the industrialized society, the balloon floats through irreversibly modified atmospheres. “We are still rooted in air,” writes Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos. However, this air is partitioned and engineered to facilitate consumerism, war, terror and pollution.

Contemporary art practices using the balloon address some of these concerns. The balloon functions as an atmospheric probe that reveals “invisible topographies” andpolitics of air” such as human interference, air quality, air ownership, borders, surveillance and the privileges of buoyancy. As a playful, non-threatening object, the balloon can elicit practices of inclusivity (e.g. balloon mapping) and affect. The transmission and reception of sound and music through the balloon help manifest air’s qualities and warrants artistic and social encounters with weather systems.

“Travels in the Air” by James Glaisher, 1871

During the 6th Annual Avant-Garde Festival parade going up Central Park West in 1968, the body of the cellist Charlotte Moorman rose a few feet above the floor attached to a bouquet of helium-filled balloons. This led the police to chase her and demand an FCC license for flying, to which Moorman replied: “I’m not flying – I’m floating.” Moorman was performing a piece called Sky Kiss, conceived by the visual artist Jim McWilliams that involved cello playing suspended by balloons.

In an interview for the book Topless Cellist by Joan Rothfuss, McWilliams explains that the original concept of Sky Kiss was to sever the connection between the cello’s endpin and the floor and expand the idea of kiss to an aerial experience. According to Rothfuss, McWilliams intended this piece to be an expression of the ethereal. But Moorman preferred the playfulness and the communal experience of the airspace. Instead of avant-garde music, she played popular tunes like “Up up and away” and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Dressed with a super-heroin satin cape, Moorman infused Sky Kiss with humor and visual spectacle, posing a challenge to the restrictive access to buoyancy.

Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik, Sky Kiss by Jim McWilliams, above the Sydney Opera House Forecourt, 1976, Kaldor Public Art Project 5, Photo by Karry Dundas

Furthermore, Charlotte Moorman collaborated with sky artist Otto Piene to establish the right quantities of lighter-than-air gas to reach higher altitudes. Otto Piene, was a figure of the postwar movement Zero and coined the term Sky Art to describe his flying sculptures, multimedia balloon operas, and kinetic installations. For Piene, a child growing up during World War II, “the blue sky had been a symbol of terror in the aerial war.” The balloon collaboration between Charlotte Moorman and Otto Piene was a form of acknowledging aerial space in a musical and peaceful way. In his manifesto Paths to Paradise (1961), Piene questions: why do we have no exhibitions in the sky?(…) up to now we have left it to war to dream up a naive light ballet for the night skies, we have left it up to war to light up the sky.

Phil Dadson’s work Breath of Wind (2008) lifts an entire brass band of 24 musicians into the sky with 17 hot-air balloons. Brass instruments, usually associated with moments of revelation in religious texts, serve here as a calling for an aesthetic experience of wind and air currents. Since 1970s, Dadson’s environmental activism has brought forward sonic tensions between the human subject and Aeolian forces, as in Hoop flags (1970), Flutter (2003) or Aerial Farm (2004).

Similarly, the artist Luke Jerram displaces the experience of a concert hall to the sky. His project Sky Orchestra comprises of seven hot-air balloons floating across a city with speakers playing a soundscapes design to induce peaceful dreams. The hot-air balloon orchestra ascends at dawn or dusk so the airborne music can reach people’s homes during sleep or while in states of semi-consciousness. The sound-targeting of residential areas during periods of dimmed awareness exposes the entangling capacities of airspace, and the vulnerability of the private space.

Artist and architect Usman Haquem utilizes a cloud of helium balloons as a platform to identify and sonify changes in the electromagnetic spectrum. This project, Sky Ear (2004), reveals our meddling with the urban Hertzian culture via mobile phones and other electronic devices. Andrea Polli’s environmental work features sonifications of data sets captured by weather balloons. These sonifications provide audiences an emotional window to frame complex climate data. In Sound Ship (descender 1) by Joyce Hinterding and David Haines, an Aelion harp is attached to a weather balloon that ascends into the edges of space. The result is a musical trace of the vertical volume of our atmosphere and the sonification of masses of air as the balloon journeys upwards.

Haines and Hinterding, Sound Ship (decender1), 4-min extract, 2016

Yoko Ono and John Lennon created similar exercise in sounding in the film Apotheosis (1970). A boom microphone and camera attached to a hydrogen balloon ascends over a small English town documenting a sonic geography of the upper air. The artists stay in the ground as the balloon rises. In a period of great media spectacle, the couple choses to stay with trouble while balloon records Earth’s utterances slowly fading into atmospheric silence.

It is important to note that these musical and sound based works that expose the physicality of air movements and assemble affective meanings with atmosphere and weather systems are not particular to contemporary practices. The scholar Jane Randerson draws attention to indigenous modes of knowing and sensing air and the weather that incorporate sounding instruments. In Weather as Medium, Randerson writes: “in Indigenous cosmologies, the sense of interconnectedness “discovered” in late modern meteorological science merely described what many cultures already sensed and encoded in social and environmental lore.”

The balloon has a lighter than air object mediates our relationship with the airspace and offers opportunities to expand our aerial imagination. By sensing changes in the atmosphere, the balloon is a platform that generates knowledge and can help us experiment with new forms of being-in-air some inclusive and empowering, others much more invested in exclusivity sounded through the rare air of silence and the silencing power dynamics fostered via the view from above.

I would like to express my immense gratitude to Jennifer Stoever for editing this paper and for sharing her scholarship and input on this article. Thank you to Phil Dadson for sharing his video.

 

Featured Image: Scientific Balloon of James Glaisher, 1862, Georges Naudet Collection, Creative Commons

Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio producer and independent researcher based in New York city. 

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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

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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.

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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…

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Featured Image Credit: Air Raid Siren by Flickr User Wader

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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 www.mailecolbert.com.

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