Tag Archive | Bernie Krause

Of Sound Machines and Recording, Sharing that Transcends Time and Space

This is the conclusion to a two-part post by SO! regular writer Maile Colbert.  Read Part One from Monday, January 12th here.

As we are primarily a visual culture, no longer connected to what environments can tell us through sound, we’ve lost aural acuity once central to the dynamic of our lives.

From what we have just begun to see, it appears that ancient human beings had learned well the lessons imparted by natural sounds. Their lives depended as much (if not more) on their ability to hear and understand the audio information imparted by their surroundings as those given by visual cues. –Bernard Krause, Ph.D The Soundscape Newsletter 06, June, 1993

Birth 

All newborns emerge with the same cry, it is near impossible to distinguish one from another, even as a mother. This could be for many reasons and serve many purposes. Should something happen to a birth mother, the indistinguishable cry may help draw attention from another. It could be that, considering niche effect (in which animals adapt their calls to a frequency less populated by other environmental sounds), aside from biological reasons, a newborn’s cry is shaped by the wombscape from whence it came, and I speculate that generally speaking one wombscape is similar to another. Primarily what a fetus is hearing is low frequency. So it would serve that they would have an instinct to initially call out in a high frequency range. The baby then develops its cry according to its surrounding, such as a household in the city versus a country, a household with other children or not, a household with constant media sound.

My daughter has the most incredible earsplitting high frequency bark when she wants attention. If this doesn’t work (such as when “Baby, Mama has to wash the garden manure from her hands before she picks you up”), she’ll roll into a gritty horrific low growl that sounds like she’s being strangled. One of these always works, and I often wonder about these sounds’ relationship to the white noise (her specific mix in a more mid-range involving pink noise and a “rain on roof” recording) that has been a constant since her birth, and is still used for naps, some feedings, and bedtime.

 

Sound Machines and Noise

From my late pregnancy insomnia, to creating a calming environment in the labor room at the hospital, to keeping a consistent calming environment in the recovery room, to using that sound as a signal that it is time to calm, time to sleep…a sound machine has been a constant already in my daughter’s new world. It started with an app in Paris, at a festival during my third trimester, my waddling condition wouldn’t allow me to walk around much nor meet friends for drinks, etc. So I choose to stay in the hotel room and read. The fetal babe wasn’t in the mood to read, kicking and dancing, perhaps excited from the music at the festival. For a little while I played with her, her kicking in response to my pokes and prods. But soon I knew we both needed to both settle down. I was always fascinated by my parents’ sound machine as a child, it seemed something magical. I found and downloaded an app that allowed you to create your own mix, and so it began.

But recent research poses the question of whether a sound machine can actually affect hearing development. Some researchers have questioned if prolonged exposure to consistent sound could affect auditory pathways to the brain. I wonder what then of infants who grow up near, say, the ocean…or like my mother near a stream and small waterfall, a constant sound in her childhood and soundtrack to her memories from then. Or near a busy road or even walkway. Of course I want the babe to grow up to enjoy and focus on a varied soundscape. But at certain points, the noise has been a lifesaver! It’s been especially useful now combatting construction sounds, as babies tend to focus on background sounds, most likely for survival:

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Of course it is very important to be aware of the strength of the sound a baby is exposed to, all too easy for our very visual culture to ignore. Even a sound machine with the volume too high, or the proximity too close, could reach decibels over 80, a threshold that could cause the tiny hair cells in the ear needed for hearing to die. As we lose these, we start to lose our hearing. The amount of energy in a sound doubles with even just a three decibel climb. If any sound makes it difficult to hold a regular conversation, chances are it’s past this threshold and could be doing damage. Our world is in many ways getting increasingly louder. As our cities grow, its sounds grow, and we are exposed to more constant and louder soundscapes. Will an accidental evolution be for us to adapt to losing our hearing? For me of course, this is a very bleak thought.

 

Death

Your words are preserved in the tin foil and will come back upon the application of the instrument years after you are dead in exactly the same tone of voice you spoke in then. . . . This tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, dumb, voiceless matter, nevertheless mimics your tones, speaks with your voice, speaks with your words, and centuries after you have crumbled into dust will repeat again and again, to a generation that could never know you, every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word that you chose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm.

-Edison’s Ars Memoria, concept for the phonograph

Kauai O'O

Kaua’i `O’o, extinct since 1987

A recorded sound transcends time. It allows a listener to share a space and perspective with the recordist. It allows a future people to hear the songs of people passed, and of their shared past. It allows for an extinct bird to call into the future, for a child to hear that bird and wonder, and question, and to have that question affect her future and therefore perhaps the future of others. I often think about what soundscapes or sound I have experienced that my daughter might not have the opportunity to experience when she’s older. Already since my childhood growing up in part in Hawaii, three birds I knew, I had heard, that my mother grew up with, that her father grew up with, that his parents grew up with (and so on)…are no longer calling in the wild. But what the world and I can share with her and her generation, can give her, can leave her, are recordings.

Kaua’i `O’o: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/6031

Po’ouli: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/5125

Hawaiian Crow: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/13434

The library I am constantly creating, shaped by my choice and perspective…where to hit start, when to stop, where to point the mic, what equipment to use, how to frame this aural moment that captured me and invoked the desire to save and to share.

I think of this very often these days, as a friend and great soundscape ecologist and composer has passed. Steve Miller (www.stevemiller.net ) left a wealth of music, sound, and writing that his daughter and family can share. His daughter will be able to put on headphones and share a space her father formed with his perspective, his choices, his interests. A sharing active with him.

A sharing that transcends time and space.

 

The artist and her daughter in the studio, Image by JS

The artist and her daughter in the studio, Image by JS

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Future Memory, for Odette

Sound has a hold over my daughter in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. It’s almost a punch line that the daughter of two parents that work with and study sound would have such sensitivity. The smallest sounds can pull her from sleep, can pull her from eating. They can be a character for her, making her laugh, cry, yawn, widen her eyes in amazement.

It was only natural my partner and I decided to make an album as a gift to our daughter. We had wanted to do the same marking our history together years back, and had various sound recordings and unfinished ditties in a library marked “Future Memory.”  The idea behind it was an aural coming together of our history and feelings expressed and translated through sound and song. We realized, of course, in many ways this was Odette’s history as well, and she our future.

The album became Future Memory, for Odette, a lullaby album in dedication and celebration to her, and including sounds from her growing in the womb, soundscapes we hope will be a part of her life, and in recording them in some way ensuring that, a score written for her while I was in labor from a friend, songs her father and I began and finished together during the stages of pregnancy, birth, and her first year, and collaborations and contributions in sound and music from family and friends would be her legacy.

This is her first song:

Dedicated to Odette Helen, and to the family, daughter, and memory of Steve Miller

“Future Memory, for Odette” to be released in 2015 through Wild Silence (www.wild-silence.com ). A dedication album to a new born daughter…a mix of her parents’ recorded and shared sounds, memories, hopes, and dreams towards a future with her. Sounds of her womb-scape, birth, and first year…music in collaboration with friends and family across oceans and land…an album of lullabies for Odette.

Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonenfant

This Is Your Body on the Velvet Underground– Jacob Smith

Sound Designing Motherhood: Irene Lusztig & Maile Colbert Open The Motherhood Archives– Maile Colbert

 

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Wayback Sound Machine: Sound Through Time, Space, and Place

World Listening Month3This is the second post in Sounding Out!’s July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2013.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. To read last week’s post by Regina Bradley (and to read more about World Listening Day) click here.

When I travel to somewhere I’m unfamiliar with to create a work, I’ve become in the habit of bringing my VLF receiver, hydrophones, and underwater camera in order to explore. Whether what comes out ultimately becomes part of the work or not, my interest in these particular tools stems from a fascination with obscure events around me, real and happening, that I cannot perceive.  But it also marks my wonder at events and elements in our world that have been, while changing, continuous in a time line extending much further than my own.  Similar to the sense one may get when experiencing a desert, or an ocean, with time and patience, what might at first seem bleak, barren, or monotonous, begins to give hint to a rich world hidden from our day to day.

Photo by the author, Saint Michael’s Mound, Marazion, Cornwall

Photo by the author, Saint Michael’s Mound, Marazion, Cornwall

Two autumns ago, finding myself with a day off from a project I was working on near Penzance in Cornwall, I decided to take the day to hike the lesser known British arm of the Santiago Pilgrim Route: the St. Michael’s Way.  Dating back tens of thousands of years, St. Michael’s Way enabled pilgrims and missionaries traveling from Ireland or Wales to choose to abandon their ships and walk across the peninsula, rather than navigating the treacherous waters around Land’s End.  In the days of such pilgrimmages, the way was fraught with all sorts of dangers, and the path itself splits a few times, veering off towards a church near the harbor where they would get the boat to cross them.  There they would meet a guide who would offer safe passage from the many thieves and pirates along the way.  Still marked with the iconic scallop shell symbol of the pilgrim route, the path was nevertheless neglected, and overrun with all sorts of modern obstacles such as busy roads and farm irrigation systems.

Photo by the author, Gulval, Cornwall

Photo by the author, Gulval, Cornwall

As I got lost time and time again making my way towards Saint Ives, I found myself marveling at all sorts of new and heretofore unknown sensations.  My ears tuned from the project I was there working on, I was especially taken by the sound.  Toward the middle of the path–located at the top of the hills inland of the peninsula –the wind from both sides carried over pieces of the day to day from the villages; a tractor, grazing animals, bits of conversation in Cornish, and church bells wisping by as quickly as they came, like ghosts.  It is fitting that St Michael, after whom the route was named, is the patron saint of high places.

Photo by the author, Ludgvan, Cornwall

Photo by the author, Ludgvan, Cornwall

I began to wonder what this path may have sounded like back in the time of thieves and pirates, back when the occasion to use it was a shared occasion celebrated with the voices of people, priests, prayers, and the markets and fairs along the way to fuel all this activity.  As I continued walking, I began to wonder how it may have sounded even before then, before the hills were blanketed with crops and cattle, before the many battles that must have been waged, and villages built and grazed. . .were there more birds then? Were there more trees? Were there more boar and foxes? What about even before these hills were hills, could there be a way to sonify these hills forming?  I started to dream of a “wayback machine” for sound.  What if as you walked this path, you could listen to time spinning back, listen to how it might have sounded, listen to its history?  And what could you take from that experience?  Could something be taken from this? In the two years since that happenstance, this idea has since stuck with me.  Beginning tentative research and practice to apply these thoughts, I continue to unearth more questions than answers, so I began to seek others experimenting in a similar vein.  While acoustic ecology is a growing field, I still have not found many researchers working with sound in/as time.

One person who has come close to this idea is acoustic ecologist, musician, and sound recordist Bernie Krause, whom last year I interviewed in an article on the sound of disaster about disappearing sounds as a signal of impending crises.  The prelude of Krause’s book The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, is the beautifully written, “Echoes of the Past,” which takes a meandering listen to how the world might have sounded sixteen thousand years ago.   With that trip in mind, perhaps something could come from working with people in various fields of statistical analysis to see what sounds are projected to go extinct from a soundscape with time, and what this could mean in terms of how the sound line will be extended into the future.  In the section “First Notes,” Krause describes working with a graduate student, Kristin Junette, who reasoned that based on fossil records and the known sounds of insect species today, we might be able to re-create the insect ambience of about sixty-five million years ago.  Then, based on acoustic physiology of the skull of a Hadrosaur, a dinosaur of the time, Krause and Junette were able to re-create a representative vocalization of its call to place in this early soundscape (for the Discovery Channel’s vision of how the hadrosaur might have sounded click here).

Hadrosaur skull, Image by Flickr user e_monk

Hadrosaur skull, Image by Flickr user e_monk

I was also excited to learn of the research of Miriam Kolar, who has been working with various techniques and with people in various disciplines on a team studying and “recreating” the acoustic architecture of the Chavín de Huántar, a 3,000 year old ceremonial center, predating the Inca in the Peruvian Andes.  Chavín de Huántar is a complex underground maze of rooms and twisting corridors connected by air-ducts.  When they were being excavated, archeologists noticed the rooms played strange acoustic tricks on them. “This environment is not only a physical maze, but it’s a sound maze,” says Kolar.  For one example, some rooms have interconnected spaces that multiply echoes and bounce them back to the ear so rapidly that the sounds appear to emanate from all directions at once, while other areas seem designed for absorption.  The team has been using 3-D computer modeling and specialized recording equipment to try and recreate the auditory effect. “If you have archaeology and no acoustics, you’re deaf,” says archaeoacoustician David Lubman. “And if you have acoustics and not the other, you’re blind. You need both” to understand ancient places like Chavín.

fachada3

Chavín De Huántar

Inspired in part by the research of Krause and Kolar, “Passageira em Casa/The Traveller at Home,” one of my projects from the two years since my walk in Cornwall, begins to explore the notion of the wayback machine with sound in geography.  Passageira em Casa is an intermedia and interdisciplinary performance inspired by the journey to define the concept of home. The narrative is a partially fictionalized and personalized account of the Maritime history of Portugal, enacted by a dancer, vocal performer, live video, and live electronic sound composition that creates a geography through the narrative and space of the project.  From a dawn chorus in Lisbon to underwater earthquakes in the Pacific, field recordings along a maritime navigation route flow throughout the performance, giving a soundscape to the narrative’s location.

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The recent Australian version “Passageira australis” begings to explore sound in time.  Recently developed at the iAir residency at RMIT, holds a focus on the debate behind whether the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Australia, based on the 16th century Dieppe maps of Jave la Grande and the myth/history of the Mahogany Ship.  The soundtrack reveals a soundline based on the impact on flora, fauna, and overall soundscape on both countries.

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A two channel composition, different then stereo, one speaker represents Europe, the other Australia.  As the dancer, our sailor, moves from one end of the space to the other, the sound in each channel is changed based on her approximate location to each “country”.  With this experience, my hope is the audience comes away thinking about interconnectivity of the world, and how we impact the places we touch.  Although I will continue to research when I return to Australia, already the project had me working with a map historian at the Victoria State Library, as well as consulting the thesis of geologist Andrew Pickering on using GIS technology to search for the location and story behind the presumed mythological Mahogany Ship.

Based on hearing, listening (from an anthropological point of view) is the very sense of space and of time. . .By her noises, Nature shudders with meaning: at least this is how, according to Hegel, the ancient Greeks listened to her.  The oaks of Dodona, by the murmur of their boughs, uttered prophecies, and in other civilizations as well. . .noises have been the immediate raw materials of a divination, cledonomancy: to listen is, in an institutional manner, to try to find out what is happening. –Roland Bathes, “Listening”

Sound has a special importance to emotion, instinct, and memory, both individual and historical..  Hitting the oldest part of our brain, sound provides immediate information telling us where we are, whether it is safe, and how we should feel about it.  The wayback machine would function as a sonic database that would not only help us to remember and learn about the past, but also to create new experiences within the complexity of changing soundscapes over a period that usually defies our human comprehension.  I see this tool being helpful to researchers in many disciplines as a new kind of living archive, but also having a place in libraries, museums, centers, and perhaps “in the field” along paths such as the Santiago’s Way, where one could download an audio file from the map online, then listen with wonder and unique sensation as they walk back through history.

Photo by the author, Saint Michael’s Mound, Marazion, Cornwall

Photo by the author, Saint Michael’s Mound, Marazion, Cornwall

Featured Image photo credit: Vahid Sadjadi, Joshua Tree State Park, California

Author’s Note: A version of this post was presented at Musique et Écologies du Son/ Music and Ecologies of Sound: Theoretical and Practical Projects for the Listening of the World, Universitê Paris 8, May 2013. I slightly changed the original title of the paper to: “Sound through time, space, AND place.” Frank Vanclay said quite nicely in “Place Matters.” “‘Place” is generally conceived as being ‘space’ imbued with meaning.  Thus, it refers more to the meanings that are invested in a location than to the physicality of the locality.” He goes on to state sometimes it’s the biophysical characteristics that make the foundation for those personal meanings.

Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

tape reel

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

 “Listening to Disaster: Our Relationship to Sound in Danger”–Maile Colbert

Within a Grain of Sand: Our Sonic Environment and Some of Its Shapers” –Maile Colbert

“Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds”--Jonathan Skinner

 

 

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.

Sounding Out! Podcast Episode #7: Celebrate World Listening Day with the World Listening Project

“Press to listen” by SO! Managing Editor Liana Silva

To commemorate this year’s World Listening Day, Sounding Out! is hosting  a forum on different aspects of listening throughout the month of July. (For the full introduction to Sounding Out!‘s Forum on Listening click here.  To read the previous posts in the series, click here.) Our latest podcast introduces readers to an organization that is close to the hearts of the folks at SO!: the World Listening Project, creators of World Listening Day. WLP has chosen July 18th as the day to celebrate listening practices and create awareness of the soundscapes we inhabit because it is also the birthday of composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer. You may be familiar with Schafer for his World Soundscape Project. After you listen to our podcast, you can go to worldlisteningproject.org to find out more about how others are celebrating World Listening Week/Day, sign up to show your support, and discover ways you can celebrate WLD. You can also follow along on Twitter via the hashtag #wld2012, follow the official Twitter account of the World Listening Project @world_listening, or like their Facebook page. Listening will never be the same… –-LMS

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Celebrate World Listening Day with the World Listening Project

SUBSCRIBE TO THE SERIES VIA ITUNES

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Co-Authors of this podcast:

Eric Leonardson is a Chicago-based audio 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. He is President of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and founder of the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, and Executive Director of the World Listening Project. Leonardson is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Sound at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Monica Ryan is an instructor and audio artist from Chicago. Currently
her work explores spatialized sound recording and playback techniques
along with interactive sound environments. She teaches in several
institutions in Chicago, including The School of the Art Institute of
Chicago and Columbia College.

Tom Haigh is a British post production sound mixer, composer, and
phonography enthusiast, now residing in Chicago. As a staff engineer
at ARU Chicago, he works with clients in advertising, media, and
independent film.

List of interviewees, in order of appearance:

Dan Godston http://www.worldlisteningproject.org

Jed Speare http://www.studiosoto.org/

Darren Copeland http://www.naisa.ca/

Glenn Weyant http://www.sonicanta.com/

Pauline Oliveros http://deeplistening.org

Viv Corringham http://www.vivcorringham.org/shadow-walks

Hildegard Westerkamp http://www.sfu.ca/~westerka/index.html

Jay Needham http://www.jayneedham.net/

Bryan Pijanowski http://soundscapenetwork.org/

Bernie Krause http://www.wildsanctuary.com/

Udo Noll http://aporee.org/maps/projects/worldlisteningday2012

Luis Antero http://ocoleccionadordesons.yolasite.com/2012.php

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