Today we bring you the latest post in SO!’s spring series, Live from the SHC, which follows the new research from the 2011-2012 Fellows of Cornell’s Society for the Humanities, who have gathered in the A.D. White House to study “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.” For the full series, click here. Today poet, scholar, and ecocritic Jonathan Skinner brings us all a treat for spring, so throw open your windows and take a deep listen. –Editor in Chief, JSA
This planet is singing 24/7 but are we listening to it? Take out your earbuds, turn down the music and the air conditioning, walk away from the fridge, shut off your engine, open the windows, and tell me what you hear. If you are in the humid parts of the temperate regions, chances are you’ll hear right now, amidst the myriad human sounds, and depending on the time of day, the spring peepers going, the woodcocks peenting and displaying, a grouse drumming, the whistling of cardinals and robins, chickadees countersinging, blackbirds trilling, cawing of crows, blue jays scolding, honking of geese, hooting of an owl or two, woodpeckers drumming, house sparrows chirping (in this case, to a Satie carillon), perhaps some coyotes yapping it up after midnight. Not to speak of wind in branches and leaves, water, thunder and lightning. These are just some of sounds I can pick up, with a bit of careful listening, in and around the relatively urban environment of Ithaca, New York. If you put your ear to the grass, you might hear this astonishing Treehopper communication.
Or maybe you heard these sounds in some music you were listening to, in a movie soundtrack or videogame? Just as we pervade their worlds, animals pervade our environments, and their sounds are used to “render” these environments within the relatively flat dimensions of our media—the way three dimensions of spatial information get “crunched” to the two dimensions of a video game’s display (see 4:00 – 5:20 for a demonstration of Aiden Fry’s “generative birdsong” program below, developed through the analysis and sampling of birdsong as a solution to repetitive sound effects that can diminish the immersive quality of the game). Even the most sophisticated “surround sound” audio must “render” figuratively the environed experience of hearing.
The next time you watch a movie, listen to some “ambient” music or play a videogame that renders an outdoors environment, imagine subtracting the animal sounds (either literal or evoked) from these media scapes and consider how incompletely rendered the experience would be. A reversal of the effect, as in Gus Van Sant’s use of Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Beneath the Forest Floor” soundscape, to track and underscore the anomie of certain characters through Elephant, his thinly veiled recreation of the Columbine High School tragedy, also proves the rule (note especially the soundtrack from 3:10 – 3:40).
Greg Budney and Mike Webster explain their dedication to compiling the world’s largest and best quality archive of animal recordings (now in video as well as audio), the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University, as a responsibility to future acoustic biologists, who may bring tools and concepts to the data we have not remotely conceived. Their mission is first and foremost a scientific one. However, conservation is also high on their list: Budney, an expert recordist, points out how high quality recordings—as of lekking Greater Prairie-Chickens—can be played back into the environment, to promote nesting of endangered populations.
These bioacousticians agree that high quality sound recordings can be a powerful way to interest laypeople in the sounds of the robin in their backyard, and, by extension, in broader issues of conservation. Sounds in the Macaulay Library also are available to the entertainment industry, so that, indeed, myriad animal vocalizations contribute to the renderings of its various media. Licensing fees in turn contribute to the conservation mission of the Library.
Rendering is not so much a matter of reproduction—accurately representing a “real” environment—as of recreating, through a consistency that “completes” the aesthetic experience, the feelings associated with an environment. (Think of the difference in quality between the “finished” HD, surround-sound movie and the behind-the-scenes “special features” on a DVD.) In Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, media theorist Michel Chion identifies an important feature of rendering in “materializing sound indices,” noises that help render, in sound and image, a particular “clump of sensations” (112-116).
For instance, spatial depth, in outdoor scenes, is often rendered through the presence of bird song or dogs barking, etc. Or consider the cooing of pigeons that often accompanies the opening of a garret window in a movie set in Paris. Or that ubiquitous red-tailed hawk’s cry indexing a “wild” landscape. The absence or thinness of these indices can be just as helpful to rendering, as when the landscape includes “ethereal, abstract, and fluid” entities: “out of touch” characters in Jacques Tati films or the drawn characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where hollow, lightweight, plastic sounds help us believe that we are indeed seeing (or, as Chion reminds us, “hear-seeing”) cartoon characters (watch from 1:19 – 1:33 for the famous “clang” the drawn Jessica Rabbit makes as she collides with the live action Eddie Valiant).
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, both the book and the film version, deploy effectively the total absence of animal sounds to convey the uncanny complex of feelings bound up in environmental apocalypse—the “silent spring” invoked by Rachel Carson a half century ago in her indictment of the toxic legacy of the chemical industry.
In his study of environmental aesthetics, Ecology Without Nature, ecocritic Timothy Morton faults rendering for perpetuating an “ecomimetic illusion of immediacy,” an “ambient” art that ultimately comes in between us and the life it is supposed to bring us close to (36). Rendering lures us into the “relaxing ambient sounds of ecomimesis,” precisely when we need to hear “the screeching of the emergency brake” (as Morton puts it: “whistling in the dark, insisting that we’re part of Gaia” 187, 196). However, Chion notes that “the disjunctive and autonomist impulse [à la Godard] that predominates in intellectual discourse on the question (‘wouldn’t it be better if sound and image were independent?’) arises entirely from a unitary illusion” that there is “a true unity existing elsewhere” (Audio-Vision 97-98). Such unity is in fact elusive: for instance, it can be difficult to identify the sources of sounds in “nature” (consider the bewildering variety of blue jay calls), while the notion that a sound can on its own invoke more abstract characteristics of its source, especially when it is produced by a nonhuman species, betrays a kind of magical thinking. (Forms of non-western magical thinking actually acknowledge the disjunctive quality of natural sounds by referring, for instance, to “voices in the forest.”) Also, sound is so context dependent, and our listening is so strongly influenced by the conventions of our media, that “sound in itself”can be a very slippery object. Chion notes that we need something like an “auditory analogy of the visual camera obscura” —i.e. the monitoring and recording of soundscapes—to help us listen to “sounds for themselves and to focus on their acoustical qualities” (108).
In a time of mass extinction, how are we to approach the rendering of animal sounds in our mediated environments? Do these sounds have agency? Does listening to and “capturing” animal sounds bring us closer to them, or only lure us, with an illusion of immersion and unity, away from realizing the dark nature of our ecology, and the urgent reforms needed, if we are actually to help animals (does our rendering and consumption of whale song—pace what Songs of the Humpback Whale has done for whale conservation—end up perpetuating the same extractive process that “renders” whale blubber)?
I would say that, so long as we approach these sounds neither as a substitute for, nor as an experience “less than,” the daily practice of listening to our environments, a resource like the Macaulay Library can add immeasurably to our awareness of the diversity, and the vulnerability, of life on Earth. (Another resource worth exploring is the British Library’s Environment & nature sounds archive, especially the collection of early wildlife recordings.) Careful attention to renderings of animal sounds in our media can make us aware of the extent to which we “render” the landscape around us, through selective habits of listening, and open us to the disjunctive, noisy, reverberant, distorted sounds such renderings obscure. (R. Murray Schafer made this point long ago, in his book The Soundscape urging us to listen to noise if we want to defeat it.) Clips posted here, of media using birdsong to render scenes of human violence, state the complexity of our pastoral aesthetics in an exaggerated way, but every day our listening has access to a range of sonic collisions.
Consider the famous recordings of nightingales in Beatrice Harrison’s backyard, to the accompaniment of her cello, as well as to RAF bombers—on Minnesota Public Radio’s Music & Nature. Part of what we will hear when we listen with open ears is our own domination of the soundscape, one that can have concrete implications for the survival of other species (Chris Clark, head of Bioacoustics Research at Cornell, has imaged the way the noise of shipping lanes impacts the acoustic habitat of endangered Right Whales.) How might the infrasonic or ultrasonic vocal communications—of blue whales, elephants, mice and bats, for instance—that operate beyond the range of the naked human ear (but not of our instruments) impact our media environments? The “materializing sound indices” of recordings can be used to return us to the embodied, imperfect natures of these other beings, whose vulnerability, philosopher Jacques Derrida suggests in The Animal That Therefore I Am, it is our own nature to follow.
The more we listen to the environment acousmatically, the better critics we become of our media environments’ often crassly commercial renderings. Many of these sounds (see also some of the recordings collected on the Earth Ear label’s Dreams of Gaia) are simply beautiful, or astonishing—conveying an aesthetic dimension alluded to in veteran nature recordist Bernie Krause’s new book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. (My concern with a focus on the exotic is that privileging “wild places” might have the effect of devaluing the “not wild,” i.e. where most people live—places nonetheless full of wild creatures—and where we might best develop our listening.) Finally, the more we find ways to render these sounds meaningfully in our own lives, outside patterns of consumption, the better chances are we’ll begin to develop (politically, ethically) meaningful relationships with these other species, species with whom we must collaborate if we want to tend the web of life that so desperately needs our care.
**Featured Image Credit: Digital Collage Bird Art by Flickr User Peregrine Blue
Jonathan Skinner founded and edits the journal ecopoetics, which features creative-critical intersections between writing and ecology. Skinner also writes ecocriticism on contemporary poetry and poetics: he has published essays on the poets Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Ronald Johnson, Bernadette Mayer, Lorine Niedecker, and Charles Olson; on Poetries of the Third Landscape, Documentary Poetics, and Poetry Animals; and an ethnographic study of the Tohono O’odham Mockingbird Speech. Skinner’s poetry collections include Birds of Tifft (BlazeVox, 2011), Warblers (Albion Books, 2010), With Naked Foot (Little Scratch Pad Press, 2009), and Political Cactus Poems (Palm Press, 2005). Skinner’s latest creative project is a book on the urban landscape designs of Frederick Law Olmsted.
“It devolves on us now to invent a subject we might call acoustic design, an interdiscipline in which musicians, acousticians, psychologists, sociologists, and others would study the world soundscape together in order to make intelligent recommendations for its improvement.”
–R. Murray Schafer
With those words, and with that book, Canadian composer, writer, educator, and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer introduced the concept of the soundscape…a sound, or combination of sounds, that forms or arises from an immersive environment. What follows is an exploration of how several key field recordists define and explore the notion of soundscape.
1. What do you do?
I capture moments.
I explore environments & structures using conventional & extended field recording methods. I also use instruments & small objects. Sometimes I perform live intuitive compositions, sometimes I install work & often I compose photographic scores.
For me it is the emotive impulse that most inspires.
2. What can that tell us?
I believe passionately that one of the most important results of an exploration of overlooked detail in daily life (in terms of sound as well as visual elements) is how it can enhance ones life. It can allow us to engage with our surrounding in different ways & appreciate what remains & what has gone before or indeed is in danger of disappearing.
it can tell us that listening is a much, much broader vista than we all understand & one can spend a lifetime exploring.
The study of the soundscape, called Acoustic Ecology, focuses on the relationship between living beings and their environment through sound. It’s a unique field in its interdisciplinary nature and beginnings, an interconnectivity between scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and artists.
1. What do you do?
I am part of the organization Binaural/Nodar, which organizes educational and artistic creation events focused on a rural region in northern Portugal. Our creative focus is on sound and media arts that work with the natural and human environment of the region. As part of our activities, we organized a program of artist residencies dedicated to the river than passes through our region (Paiva river), which culminated in the Paivascapes festival, which took place in March this year. This was a multidisciplinary event that included a series of site-specific sound installations, a retrospective exhibition of sound and audiovisual works at a local museum, conferences on anthropological and environmental issues and nature walks. The festival had an itinerant nature, as it’s program was conceived to happen in several locations from the source to the mouth of the river.
2. What can that say?
The rural environment where we develop our activities has been inhabited for at least tens of thousands of years and each generation left their mark on the territory. So, we understand it as a infinitely complex, stratified and fragmented reality that most of the times cannot be fully comprehended if the approach is superficial, limited in time, based purely on a ‘naturalistic’ view of it that manifests itself for example on experiencing and recording the bucolic sights and sounds. It requires a more ‘relational’ approach, where what we see and listen to is mapped against other elements, stories, individual and collective memories, place names, old and new usages of the space, etc., which requires time, attention and empathy. We take these concerns on every aspect of our work such as which art projects to select, how and where to publicly present the works, how to mediate the relationship between the artists and the local communities.
-Rui Costa of Binaural/Nodar
Acoustic Ecology has branched out to give birth to a movement in sound art called phonography, a neologism referring to the art of field recording. It’s also shown a spotlight upon our changing sonic environment, and has become an important tool in bioacoustics and biomusicology, which help us to understand what these changes can mean. Birds communicate mainly with sound. When their calls cannot be heard, their reproduction decreases. Scientists are working with acoustic ecologists to record and study environments in which this is happening. Some of these bird calls may someday only survive on these recordings.
1. What do you do:
I am interested in the common, the everyday and the ordinary in my art practice; and in the unnoticed, the trivial and the repetitive that constitutes daily life. The birds I am interested in have ambiguous reputations and are considered pests or nuisances but they are also loved and respected. Seagulls, crows/corvids and pigeons are all very sociable species and are often much more audible than visible and they proliferate in the favorable conditions we have provided in urban centers.
‘birdbrain’ focuses on our relationship with crows (corvids) and seagulls through voice (animal/human) and ideas about language (animal/human), including the spoken and written word. There is little philosophical discussion about animal voice, although the potential for animal language parallels current neurobiological research, which has identified that certain ‘motor and perceptual abilities’ essential for language in humans, also exist in birds.
2.What can that tell us:
The project has a number of components including an artist’s book that is posing as a mock field guide. The field guide comprises written texts of exchanges between a group of Little Ravens that I have transcribed over the course of a year using the phonetic words from conventional field guides.
The audio works consist of field recordings, mimicry and texts spoken by people with different accents. Scientific research tells us that birds also have regional accents and dialects, and that birds change their song according to place. Birds in cities sing more loudly to cope with urban noise and these songs tend to be simplified. Also, birds that have been introduced into different countries sing a song that is a variant from their brethren back in the homeland.
Cymatics is the study of sound waves made visible. Sound frequencies vibrate a surface and create distinct patterns. Sound needs a medium to vibrate, and the characteristics of the medium and sound wave will inform the shape. If you place a metal plate upon a speaker head, place sand upon that plate, and play certain frequencies through the speaker, you will see the sand vibrate into different patterns. If we could see sound around us, we would see expanding spheres with a kaleidoscopic-like pattern on its surface, effecting each other and all molecules in its path.
The interconnectivity of our world is often over looked, often not thought about. It is human nature to categorize, this is part of how we think and communicate. But what is lost when we consider our categories as islands, instead of a part of a whole, a pattern of overlapping systems? There is a saying that the whole of earth and ocean is found within one grain of sand.
1. What do you do?
I am an artist and composer who focuses on listening and the environment in my work. I am often recording my life and my travels, and the recordings or my observances from the recordings end up in my compositions, art installations, and soundwalks. In 2004, I was fortunate enough to find other people interested in sound and the environment and together, we formed The New York Society for Acoustic Ecology (NYSAE), a chapter of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology. Through various organizations like the Whitney Museum, the Electronic Music Foundation, and free103point9, we have held events, panel discussions, and performances relating to sound and urban ecology. I am often asked how I “got into sound” and I usually don’t know how to answer it as it feels like I never got out of an interest in acoustics and space. I think that my interest in sound began when I carried around a tape recorder instead of a doll as a child. Perhaps not much has changed as I feel like my compositions reveal a layer of personal narrative conveyed through field recordings that describe how I relate to my environment. Often, my soundwalks do not include sounds that I have recorded; they are about sharing with others what I discovered about listening to the acoustics of a particular place. Points of interest are carefully arranged in guided tours with conceptual elements that emerge as sub-themes.
2. What can that say?
I am mostly interested in the relationship between people the sounds of the urban environment, particularly on how nature is defined by those who live in urban environments. When we slow down to listen to all that is in-between point A and point B, I think that we can begin to enjoy the fine details, even in a noisy city environment. I’ve worked with both children and adults in educational settings in cities who didn’t realize that they had birds living on their street until they were encouraged to listen. And I’ve discovered things like some people don’t like the sounds of birds at all, and they may prefer listening to the sounds of the subway. Sound can be just as subjective and adaptable of an art material as paint.
A drop of water falls into a puddle and creates a wave. A wave is a disturbance that travels through time and space. It affects everything it touches, it creates other waves, it continues colliding and transferring energy to molecules that do the same in turn to other molecules. It can be water, it can be light, it can be sound. It can be many things that collide into our molecules, and our system translates. The water is cold, the light is bright, the sound is loud. This is passive information. But when we actively feel how cooling the water is on a very hot day, when we actively consider how strong that sun is, and when we actively enjoy how the crash of an ocean wave makes our heart race…our world becomes so much richer.
1. What do you do?
Soundscape compositions, soundwalks, listening workshops, lectures, writing, editing, some mentoring of composition students, organizing as part of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) and so on…
2.What can that say?
Everything I do seems to be focused on understanding the world through the act of listening and on the desire to share this understanding with as many people as possible. I believe that every sense perception gives us valuable and important connectedness to and information about the world in which we live. Our hearing sense has been underutilized (certainly in my lifetime, in our societies, nowadays) and a re-balancing of our senses may mean a re-balancing of how we approach life, environment, culture, politics and ideas. Experience in listening and composing has shown me ever new, changing and deepening approaches to space and time. And I wish this for everyone who learns to connect more consciously and deeply to his or her listening. What can that say: listening means noticing means inspiration means energy to do and act.
World Listening Day is July 18th. You can participate through the World Listening Day organization. Or just take the time, whatever you are doing, to stretch your ears and focus them on the rich acoustic world around you.
1. What do you do?
The World Listening Project maintains a website and online forum about its artistic and educational activities, including public workshops, forums, and lectures, as well as participating in exhibitions, symposiums, and festivals. Phonography and Acoustic Ecology inspired all of this. In the Chicago area, where we began, we formed the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, a regional chapter of the American Society for Acoustic Ecology. We’re busy now inviting people to participate in the 2011 World Listening Day on July 18, the date of R. Murray Schafer’s birthday. If you visit our website you can learn how to celebrate. It’s quite open and last year the response was phenomenal.
2. What can that say?
Hearing tells us where to look. Wherever we are, every place on the planet has its own soundscape. From moment to moment the soundscape is always changing, often unpredictably. Depending on the time scale, dynamics, and frequency range we can choose to focus attention on. The World Listening Project suggests that listening is active, not passive: that listening means paying attention to the world. And when we do that we can begin to change it in a way conscious way. Bernie Krause has been a supporter. He’s making waves in the field of soundscape ecology. This is what Bernie says: “Western society bases most of what it knows on the visual. We actually ‘hear” what we ‘see.’ The World Listening Project aims to transform that perception in our otherwise urban centric and abstracted lives. At a time when we are facing not only a silent spring, but a silent summer, fall and winter, as well, it is clear that where a picture is worth a thousand words, a soundscape may soon be worth a thousand pictures.”