CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Listening to the New England Soundscape Project
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This week’s podcast is a continuation of this Monday’s article “Reflective Sound Gathering via the New England Soundscape Project.” Here Daniel Walzer shows how his work in gathering sounds from different New England areas encouraged him to understand the world less through his eyes and more through his ears. As Walzer travels around from Connecticut to Massachusetts to Rhode Island, he prompts us to consider the impact of everyday sounds on our day-to-day behavior. How does attuning oneself to the sounds in the environment lead to meditative and embodied reflection?
Featured Image: Merrimack River. Used with permission by the author.
An Internal Seed Grant from the University of Massachusetts Lowell supports the New England Soundscape Project.
Daniel A. Walzer is an Assistant Professor of Composition for New Media at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Walzer’s research and reviews appear in theLeonardo Music Journal, the Journal of Music, Technology & Education, the Journal of Radio & Audio Media and forthcoming articles in TOPICS for Music Education Praxis, and the Music Educators Journal. Walzer received his MFA in Music Production and Sound Design for Visual Media from Academy of Art University, his MM in Jazz Studies from the University of Cincinnati and his BM in Jazz Studies from Bowling Green State University. Walzer is currently pursuing doctoral studies in education at the University of the Cumberlands. Read more at http://www.danielwalzer.com
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Reflective Sound Gathering via the New England Soundscape Project–Daniel A. Walzer
SO! Amplifies: #hearmyhome and the Soundscapes of the Everyday–Cassie J. Bownell and Jon M. Wargo
Beyond the confines of recording studios, stages, and music classrooms, a vast and shifting sonic canvas exists for field recorders. This personal essay explores my awakening to a new creative recording process through the New England Soundscape Project , an ongoing sound-gathering mission whereupon I use small digital recorders—paired with various microphones, an iPhone, and a genuine sonic curiosity—to record brief moments throughout New England’s rich coastal, urban, and rural landscapes across six U.S. states. I received a modest seed grant from my University to pursue some creative work in field recording and sound studies. Over the next year, my travels will take me to the National Parks, cities, and historic landmarks in Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
While near limitless possibilities on where and how to produce sonic and electroacoustic musical compositions endure, starting theNew England Soundscape Project challenged me to hone my listening skills while simultaneously dealing with nature’s unpredictability. Moreover, as a budding sound artist, I had to contend with the cognitive and emotional issues affecting a brand-new and unexplored creative practice. I came to believe that a holistic method of field recording offered me certain advantages—enabling an emerging sound artist to detach from rigidly defined agendas and instead focus on reflection, deep breathing, environmental awareness, gratitude, and an observational spirit. The listening exercises I detail in this post made me a newly introspective practitioner—one capable of a heightened sensitivity that improved my production and composition skills across multiple media.
Field Recording: An End Goal in Mind?
Field recording involves a delicate balance of technical skill, careful planning, and patience. Stepping away from a controlled environment, capturing audio on location presents many random and often erratic trials. From wind noise and poor site accessibility to recording malfunctions and user error—a host of issues arise once the recordist enters unfamiliar territory. Here, unfamiliar territory includes both new places and nascent approaches to research-based production and artistic data collection. Where do I situate a project like the New England Soundscape Project among new media production, sound studies, and music composition? Does that issue even matter?
The notion of practice-based work usually implies an end goal in mind. What if there is not an end goal in sight? What happens then? Would the New England Soundscape Project be “enough” of a contribution to creative scholarship when approached as a type of audio ethnography—much like the immersive storytelling recently curated by Leonardo Cardoso? The New England region is lush and robust, with many diverse landscapes. I hoped to document these in some way, but wondered how to continue. Truthfully, I had some hesitation on where to start.
Media artists and music composers learn the mechanics of their craft in colleges, universities, conservatories, at home, and on the job. Some of these techniques include audiovisual production, computer programming, coding, editing, and arranging using digital software. I am both self-taught and a product of an academic and Eurocentric, conservatory training system. This presents some tension, as I discuss below. Although traditional audio engineers and music composers often work towards completing a project without a predefined trajectory, how can budding sound artists develop and hone an inner acuity to find the “right” material during their creative processes?
While the process remains largely subjective, I found it helpful to begin by answering the following questions:
- What kind of project is this?
- How is the sound to be used?
- Where and how will the project be displayed?
- Who is the intended audience?
- What are the sound artist’s intentions?
- What tools are needed?
I draw inspiration from the Sound Studies Lab’s position that this type of work is diverse, fluid, and balances technical, artistic, and theoretical aims. The challenge is that the answers to the questions above are not immediately clear and require me to look inward at who I really am.
Following the Sonic Muse
Beyond the obvious technical and aesthetic factors affecting an expansive multisite recording project, we know little about how a nascent sound artist begins. Whom do they emulate? Should they take notes? pictures? What should they pay attention to onsite?
If the project is exploratory, the recordist may experience hesitation—as I did— and frustration that can block their creative process, especially because the pathways toward a finished sound project aren’t as established as those of a sound engineer, for example, or a songwriter. Nevertheless, my experiences have shown me that a nascent sound artist/recordist can also find intrinsic meaning and realize their mission—particularly by establishing a detached yet perceptive listening ethos, as I did to begin my work on the New England Soundscape Project.
For me, framing a detached and perceptive mindset involved:
- Remaining sensitive to my surroundings at each location;
- Focusing on stillness, deep breathing, and a quiet mind while recording;
- Adopting a respectful, unobtrusive manner at each site—taking care not to disrupt or distract others;
- Calmly monitoring my technology and its use;
- Trusting that I am intended to be in that exact moment at that exact time;
- Avoiding being overly concerned with the “end game” of their practice;
- Embracing the role of a sound gatherer and observer;
It is perhaps the final objective—adopting the philosophy of sound gatherer and observer—where truly sensitive listening begins. Here, the recordist aims to remove their personal goals and agenda from the field recording process. Before proceeding, the attentive recordist looks around them, focuses on quiet breathing, and views their microphones as lenses and without fear of what the result should be. To what or whom am I observing?
Here’s the problem. It dawned on me that I know little about who I am as a sound artist, and how my voice positively contributes to the world, if at all. I need to learn to listen—not just to the sounds in nature, but also to the sounds of the voices of the persons with whom I interact. Could solitude and introspective listening lead me to listen through a newly formed self, capable of deeper connections with my peers and environment? I found that my detachment involved investigating, acknowledging, and, whenever possible, setting aside my own biases, fears, and, importantly, my own agendas. By removing my ego and cluttered mind from the process, I could start to be an inclusive practitioner—one whom cultivates positive relationships daily and is capable of crafting a deeper sonic art that embraces rather than one that marginalizes.
The Art of Meditative Listening
Rather than taking on a stringent approach with little flexibility, I practice observational recording by gathering audio as my muse and as environmental conditions dictate. By remaining attentive to my recording levels, I gather source materials up close, from afar, and for any length of time. Meanwhile, as this creative progression unfolds, I stay quiet—bringing almost meditative quality to my practice. Moreover, concentrating on deep breathing and stillness allows me to adopt a grateful mindset—one that is appreciative of my surroundings and for being present at that precise moment. It is then that the environment becomes the focus of sound gathering and not notions of a “final product.”
I found an artistic renewal—even healing—by adopting this meditative practice. As the New England Soundscape Project takes shape over the coming months and years, I hope to document the beauty of the Northeast through music, sound, and images. Yet, it is enough simply to be present in each location while aspiring to produce thoughtful and reflective sound art. Although there is no overarching method that best describes every aspect of a multisite field recording process, the “art” in the sound can truly emerge by striving to banish fear and doubt from the recording process. Addressing the “why” during each moment is just as important as addressing the “how” and the “why” in pre- and post-production. The recordist’s humanity plays a key role in determining how creative decisions are made, and the ability to remove the need for control determines how free—and freeing—the process can be.
This Thursday, SO! will feature my podcast on reflective listening with audio examples from the New England Soundscape Project thus far. I look forward to producing future episodes (and essays) on this project in the coming months. I hope you can tune in on Thursday and thank you for listening!
Featured Image: Scarborough State Beach, Newport, Rhode Island, USA. All images by author.
An Internal Seed Grant from the University of Massachusetts Lowell supports the New England Soundscape Project.
Daniel A. Walzer is an Assistant Professor of Composition for New Media at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Walzer’s research and reviews appear in the Leonardo Music Journal, the Journal of Music, Technology & Education, the Journal of Radio & Audio Media and forthcoming articles in TOPICS for Music Education Praxis, and the Music Educators Journal. Walzer received his MFA in Music Production and Sound Design for Visual Media from Academy of Art University, his MM in Jazz Studies from the University of Cincinnati and his BM in Jazz Studies from Bowling Green State University. Walzer is currently pursuing doctoral studies in education at the University of the Cumberlands. Read more at http://www.danielwalzer.com
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CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Animal Transcriptions: Listening to the Lab of Ornithology
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This podcast culls material from seven hours of interviews about sound and animal life with scientists, engineers, programmers, archivists and other staff working in the Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) and in the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds (LNS) at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The interviews were conducted as part of a research project situated at the intersection between sound in poetry (prosody) and environmental sound (soundscape), specifically focused on animal vocalizations.
Poetry might help us to use, study, and deploy animal morphologies in ways that hope to better, rather than merely exploit, the human relation with such life forms, if not to improve the welfare of the species themselves. As Katy Payne, Mike Webster and others suggest, when we speak of animal “song,” we bring metaphors from the arts of poetry and music to complement our limited scientific understanding of the intricacies of animal communication.
At the same time, the process of capture, practiced by poets and recordists alike, heightens ethical choice in a time of accelerated species extinction: many of the techniques and resources developed at LNS and BRP are currently used for basic monitoring of conflict between animal life and human industry. This podcast explores both why and how the Macaulay LNS collects animal sounds (which some of the archivists refer to as “specimens”), and how such a collection is conceptualized, deployed and situated within a matrix of concerns (philosophical, aesthetic, ethical, and political) about human relations to other-than-human life forms.
This article continues the work on “rendering” I began here at Sounding Out! last spring. My interest in the Macaulay LNS, directed by Mike Webster and Greg Budney, introduced me to the vital, cutting-edge, and often mind-blowing work being done in BRP, under the leadership of Chris Clark as well as of a pioneer in animal communication and conservation such as Katy Payne, who founded the Elephant Listening Project and has also contributed to the podcast. Although I did not get Chris’s voice on record, his groundbreaking research, activism and leadership on behalf of a “singing planet” nevertheless loom large behind much of the work featured here. I was fortunate to be able to speak with Tim Gallagher, of Ivory-billed Woodpecker fame, in the Lab of Ornithology. The podcast also explores the crucial work of audio engineers Bill McQuay and Karl Fitzke, and of software analysts and research specialists LIz Rowland, Ann Warde, Laura Strickland, and Ashakur Rahaman, amongst others.
The staff at the Lab of Ornithology generously granted me a tour of their archive, showed me their gear, explained their sound visualization software, and sat me down in the surround sound listening room, where I heard some unforgettable recordings, which opened up my investigation to acoustic dimensions I had never before suspected. We sounded these dimensions in wide-ranging conversations about archiving, acoustics, field work, gear, communication, looking at sound, music, evolution, and conservation. This podcast offers, in a condensed form, some of the highlights of those conversations and experiences.
Thanks are due to the staff whose voices the podcast features: Mike Webster, Greg Budney, Bill McQuay, Liz Rowland, Alexa Hilmer, Ann Warde, Mary Winston, Tim Gallagher, Ashakur Rahaman, Katy Payne, Laura Strickland, and Karl Fitzke. Thanks are equally due staff who consented to be interviewed or otherwise helped out but whose voices didn’t make it onto the podcast: Chris Clarke, Christianne McMillan White, George Dillmann, Connie Bruce, Tammy Bishop. Thanks to Aaron Trammell for crucial editorial and technical help. Thanks finally to the Cornell Society for Humanities for the 2011-2012 research fellowship and the scholarly community that made this research possible.
Animal Transcriptions: Listening to the Lab of Ornithology – Contents and Credits
Winter Wren, at normal and at one-half speed (Greg Budney, from The Diversity of Animal Sounds, Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds sampler CD)
Sound: Greg Budney and Musician Wren (Cyphorhinus arada, LNS 8897, Peter Paul Kellogg)
Sound: Ashakur Rahaman and Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus, played back at eight times normal speed, LNS 128263, Paul Thompson)
Bill McQuay, Greg Budney: Africa Sequence (The Bai)
Sound: Greg Budney and Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi, LNS 50192, Geoffrey Keller) and Brown-backed Solitaire (Myadestis occidentals, LNS 136544, Michael Andersen)
Sound: Ann Warde and Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas, LNS 126105, Donald Ljungblad)
Greg Budney: Beluga multi-array recording
Sound: Katy Payne (Humpback Whale)
Greg Budney: Madagascar lemur family group
Bill McQuay: Treehopper sequence (NPR Radio Expedition)
Sound: Mike Webster and Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus, LNS 12830, Ted Parker), Common Potoo (Nyctibius griseus, LNS 59964, Paul Schwartz)
Looking at Sound 27:25
Sound: Alexa Hilmer and Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae, LNS 110847, Paul Perkins)
Sound: Laura Strickland and Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina, LNS 11316, Arthur Allen; LNS 125223, Michael Andersen)
Greg Budney (Spot-breasted Oriole duet, LNS 164045, David Ross)
Mike Webster (Black-throated Blue Warbler, LNS 27208, Randolph Little)
Katy Payne (Humpback whale group singing, LNS 118147, William Steiner)
Sound: Alexa Hilmer, Katy Payne with Common Loon (Gavia mimer, LNS 107964, Steven Pantle)
Greg Budney: Attwater’s Prairie Chicken lek
Sound: Karl Fitzke and European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris, recording by Greg McGrath)
Recordings used with permission of Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Starling recording used with permission of Greg McGrath.
Jonathan Skinner founded and edits the journal ecopoetics, which features creative-critical intersections between writing and ecology. Skinner also writes ecocriticism on contemporary poetry and poetics: he has published essays on Charles Olson, Ronald Johnson, Lorine Niedecker, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Bernadette Mayer, Cecilia Vicuña, translations of French poetry and garden theory, essays on bird song from the perspective of ethnopoetics, and essays on horizontal concepts such as the Third Landscape and on Documentary Poetry. Currently, he is writing a book of investigative poems on the urban landscapes of Frederick Law Olmsted, and a book on Animal Transcriptions in contemporary poetry. He teaches poetry and poetics in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick.
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Listening to Disaster: Our Relationship to Sound and Danger— Maile Colbert
Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds— Jonathan Skinner
My family comes from a tiny village called Nodar in northern Portugal, part of the European Union-funded project “Tramontana” which focuses on preserving the immaterial heritage of mountain regions of southern Europe. In Nodar, centuries of isolation and self-sufficiency have created a unique blend of cultural expressions, ways of living, and inhabited landscapes. Like much of the Portuguese countryside, Nodar is undergoing a process of abandonment, which leaves rural communities with a weakened sense of identity. The agrarian paradigm, which has been central to the history and social fabric of rural communities, is arriving to an almost hopeless vanishing point, and the guardians of that memory are also disappearing. With this as formative part of my background, and considering my artistic interest in community-oriented projects, I felt almost a duty to direct much of my work to Nodar, a place that means so much to me and where I thought I could make a difference. In 2004 my brother Luis and I founded Binaural/Nodar, an arts collective based in the village and operating in the surrounding region of the Gralheira mountain range.
Since March 2006, the Nodar Rural Art Lab has invited both local and international artists who work in the areas of sound, video, and intermedia arts to address issues such as collective memory, identity, gender, age, life, death, geography, topography, music, sound heritage, landscape, vegetation, consumption and leisure dynamics, myths, traditions, crafts, agriculture, and shepherding. During their stay, the resident artists give public presentations in the region and are encouraged to establish interactions with the place and its inhabitants, geographic spaces, and social memory. Many of the artworks held in Nodar cross different artistic practices, often blending borders.
The decision to initiate an artist residency center in Nodar was motivated by my desire to deepen the investigation of exploratory artistic practices in close interaction with a specific rural context and its social and cultural possibilities. Throughout the year, the Nodar Rural Art Lab programs various residency modules in order to stimulate a collaborative environment between artists from different artistic fields and geographic origins. During the course of the residencies, several parallel activities are organized, such as conferences, lectures and educational activities, namely youth-oriented. At the end of each residency module, there is a public presentation organized in the village in which the art projects are presented and discussed by the artists and the organization.
The sonic dimension has a critical role in the model we have developed in Nodar, especially because it operates as a powerful metaphor for the intimate and personal discovery of a place. Artists have documented the area’s soundscapes and oral heritage in Nodar since 2006. There are three central lines of artistic interaction that converge here: Sound, Space and People:
SOUND (Interaction with the acoustic environment): Some sound artists, who work with the acoustic dimension in an experimental way, are part of the team that runs the Nodar Rural Art Lab. The Lab has always been active in the international theoretical and artistic domains of the so-called soundscapes, and it has hosted some of the most respected sound artists of today, who–using idiosyncratic techniques for sound capturing, editing and manipulation–have created works based on particular aspects of the local acoustic context.
One of our approaches is what we call “sound interventions,” where we use field recordings and performance in order to “activate the space” and establish a dialogical approach between what is activated and what just “is,” which can incorporate body, gesture, sound, object, space and voice in this process. An example of this approach was the “Revenant : Paiva” project, conceived in 2009 by Patrick McGinley, Marjia-Liisa Plats, Luís Costa and Tiago Carvalho, in which a series of performative actions were staged in a section of the river Paiva that crosses Nodar. Using materials found in-situ as instruments, in addition to the artists’ own voices, to generate sounds that interacted with the acoustic environment itself, all activity was purely acoustic, with no amplification. The resulting work was presented live with the artists and audience spread out across the space with no preferential “point of listening”, which created subtle overlaps between the artists’ work and the space.
SPACE: Interaction with the geographic space. The landscape surrounding Nodar is beautiful and diverse; there are mountains, rivers, caves, slate stone architecture, terraced fields, and so much more. Moreover, we are witnessing an irreversible process of transformation of rural space. These two elements form fertile ground for the creation of works within nature, which either capture the dreamlike and timeless aspects of the landscape or question possible future uses for the same landscape.
Of particular interest to us is the use of geography as a means for projecting sound in which specific variables of the territory, such as topography and meteorology, intersect with instrumental or subjective aspects of artistic creation, namely the position occupied in the space and the choice of sound recording and reproduction tools and techniques. A good example of this approach was Lisa Premke’s project “Aural Lookout,” developed in 2012, in which she built a canvas lookout on the top of a hill that allowed the visitors to be sheltered from the environment while listening to the nature sounds acoustically amplified, as if being inside a large drum.
PEOPLE: Interaction with local inhabitants. Since the beginning of our activities, we have been encouraging artists to interact, question and to some extent “provoke” local populations. As a result of these communication processes, various art projects have been developed reflecting and expressing aspects of the region’s collective memory and new habits and experiences.
Working on the subject of the anthropological voice may involve direct conversation with the local communities based on topics proposed by the artists and related to everyday life and local memory, as well as it may focus on linguistic aspects such as accents, musicality of the voice, etc. Maile Colbert’s “Over the Eyes,” created in 2007, was a very successful example of this sort of “conversational” project, where she organized a knitting circle with the village women, recorded the conversations with them, their songs and stories and incorporated them into the sound design of a multimedia installation, along with field recordings of the area, and text on physiological, biological, and psychological aspects to memory creation and destruction in humans. The projection screen was composed of raw wool and the knitted cloths made during the circle, which created an interesting dialogue with the immaterial nature of the audiovisual element of the piece.
We have always emphasized a type of sound art that enhances the context within which a specific sound work is produced, escaping a purely acoustic, or “sound-in-itself” approach. We believe that this emphasis on subjectivity and context is necessary, because sound–and the practice of field recording in particular—sometimes carries a burden of “objectivity” because it stems from the documentation of reality. The subjectivity inherent to the sound recollection –for instance, the choice of the point of listening and of the technological means of sound capturing–is often not sufficient to alleviate this burden.
When we host sound artists in Nodar, we always try to convey the idea that the region’s landscape is fundamentally an “inhabited landscape.” Trying to avoid the human presence in order to get “wilder and more natural” recordings is purely illusory. The landscape is inhabited in several simultaneous ways: by the marks of historical occupation of the territory, by the existence of vital spaces for each inhabitant–often lying far beyond the boundaries of the villages–by the very presence of the artists and by the audiences of the art works’ final presentations.
In summary, there are several methodological, instrumental and aesthetic approaches that Binaural/Nodar is working to further in the area of sound art. These approaches are anything but sealed; intersections, complementarities, unions and differences exist, which make each work of art unique.
Featured Image: “Oor van Noach” by Flickr user ines saraiva under Creative Commons 2.0 License.
Rui Costa is a sound artist from Lisbon, Portugal. He is a founding member and artistic director of Binaural/Nodar, an arts organization founded in 2004 and dedicated to the promotion of context-specific and participatory art projects in rural communities of the Gralheira mountain range, northern Portugal. Rui has been performing and exhibiting his work since 1998 in festivals, galleries and museums across Portugal, Spain, Italy and the United States and has been collaborating regularly with the Italian vocal performer Manuela Barile and the American intermedia artist Maile Colbert. Rui Costa is also a regular speaker in conferences and gives workshops dedicated to sound art. For more from Binaural/Nodar, please check out the organization’s soundcloud, vimeo, and flickr.