We are always hearing and listening to the world around us. And because we hear and listen to everything at the same time, to what's ahead of us, to our sides, and behind us, it is sound that gives us immediate information about the space we occupy. It is our analysis of the sounds around us that tells us where to look and whether or not we need to act. It is our analysis of our environment through sound that allows us to define distance, direction, and movement, that allows us to become aware of immediate danger or find our friends and families. It is sound that gives rhythm to our movements, that enables peaceful or restless feelings, that gives emotional meaning to our communications in songs, shouts, speech, and whispers, and that, in general, in many different ways at different levels of awareness, engages us with our environment and affects our actions.
Environmental sound art explores, discovers, enhances, and/or transforms sounds, making the quotidian sounds of the world special, illuminating, and engaging. Steven Feld's recordings of the Bosavi Rainforest, for example, not only make the sounds of the rainforest extraordinary, they connect us to the rainforest, they give us the sense of what it feels like to be there. And once there, we can interpret the sounds in the context of our choosing. Feld's interest was the connection between sound and culture. In The Soundscape Newsletter, June, 1994, he pointed out that one of the "sounds of the Bosavi environment, layered as a ground to the remarkable figures of avian life, is the hiss of water. Runoff from Mt. Bosavi, an extinct volcano, crisscrosses the Bosavi lands, turning into numerous rivers, creeks, falls, and streams ... Water flow also animates much of Kaluli musical imagination, as all waterway terms are also the names for the musical intervals, the segments of song, the patterns of rhythm, and the contours of melody."
There are many examples. In 'Talking Rain', Hildegard Westerkamp transforms a rainfall into a sonic tapestry. In 'Sud', Jean-Claude Risset makes the sea near Marseilles beautiful and alluring. In 'One World 1', which I composed for the Ear to the Earth festival produced by Electronic Music Foundation (EMF) in October 2006, the sounds of traffic and crowds near Lincoln Center in New York, and the sounds of traffic and a public market in New Delhi, transformed to convey more strongly the force and variety of the industrial sounds of an industrial world and the sounds of humans within that industrial world, engage us in a way that transcends crossing the street.
Environmental sound art grew out of the basic concepts of acoustic ecology, an outcome of the World Soundscape Project, founded by R. Murray Shafer at Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s. In 1977, in The Tuning of the World, Schafer wrote: "The soundscape of the world is changing. Modern man is beginning to inhabit a world with an acoustic environment radically different from any he has hitherto known ... " Schafer worked with a small group of pioneers, among them Hildegard Westerkamp and Barry Truax, their initial goal being to document and analyze soundscapes and to promote general awareness of our acoustic environment. It was not long, however, before the focus of acoustic ecology broadened from a specific interest in our acoustic environment to include the creation of soundscape compositions.
It was a musical revolution. Other composers had used found sounds, but, as Truax wrote in 2001, in his book Acoustic Communication, "In the soundscape composition, on the other hand, it is precisely the environmental context that is preserved, enhanced and exploited by the composer. The listener's past experience, associations, and patterns of soundscape perception are called upon by the composer ..." In her article Soundscape Composition: Linking Inner and Outer Worlds, written in 1999 for Soundscape be)for(e 2000, Hildegard Westerkamp carries the idea further: "A soundscape composition is always rooted in themes of the sound environment. It is never abstract. Recorded environmental sounds are its 'instruments', and they may be heard both unprocessed and processed. Some soundscape works are created entirely with unprocessed sounds and their compositional process occurs in the specific ways in which the sounds are selected, edited, mixed and organized. These pieces lean towards what I would call soundscape narrative or document. Other compositions may be created pre-dominantly with processed sounds. But in order for these to be heard as soundscape compositions the abstracted sounds must in some way make audible their relationship to their original source, or to a place, time or situation. Yet other compositions may be created with a combination of unprocessed and processed sounds. But whatever the continuity is or the proportions are between the real (unprocessed) and the abstract (processed) sounds, the essence of soundscape composition lies in the relationship between the two and how this relationship inside the composition informs both composer and listener about place, time and situation. A piece cannot be called a soundscape composition if it uses environmental sound as material for abstract sound explorations only, without any reference to the sonic environment."
In 2005, as it became clear to a wide public that climate change and destruction of habitat were occurring within an emergency timeframe, I proposed a series of environmental sound events to my colleagues at EMF. Assuming what I saw as an activist role, my idea was to use environmental sound, presented as soundscape compositions, as a vehicle to engage people in environmental issues. Many of my colleagues expressed strong opinions that the character of our events should indeed be strongly environmental, with scientists as well as artists participating in panels in addition to musical events. Working with NYSAE (New York Society for Acoustic Ecology), we started to plan a major festival for the fall of 2006 with two introductory events, in December 2005 and in April 2006, that would introduce the idea of environmental sound to New York City audiences.
The first event was Knowing the World Through Sound, an all day symposium and concert presented on December 11, 2005, at the Frederick Loewe Theater in New York in collaboration with the NYU Music Technology program. It began with two morning workshops: first, by Andrea Polli and members of the NYSAE who discussed their New York City Soundmap Project; and second, by Steven Feld, who discussed the techniques he had used for field recording in the Bosavi Rainforest, Africa, Europe, and Japan, and how they related to his compositional strategies. The keynote speaker was E. J. McAdams, at that time Executive Director of New York City Audubon, who discussed the role of the arts in presenting environmental issues to the public. There were panels through the afternoon with Andrea Polli, Steven Feld, Annea Lockwood, Steven M. Miller, David Dunn, David Rothenberg, E. J. McAdams, and myself. An evening concert featured music by Miya Masaoka, David Rothenberg, David Dunn, and Steven Feld.
The second event was Sound and Science, which took place on April 3, 2006, at Hunter College in collaboration with the Department of Film and Media Studies. The event featured a presentation by sound artist David Dunn on his environmental recordings and a panel on art and science with Dunn joined by scientists Jim Tolisano and James Danoff-Burg. By an interesting coincidence, Elizabeth Kolbert, in The Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker, issue of March 20, wrote: "In January, researchers at NASA'S Goddard Institute for Space Studies concluded that 2005 had been the hottest year on record, and, in February, a team of scientists from NASA and the University of Kansas announced that the flow of ice from glaciers in Greenland had more than doubled over the past decade. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that the mountain pine beetle, a pest once kept in check by winter cold, has decimated huge swaths of forest in western Canada. Officials with the Canadian Forest Service say that the beetle has crossed the Rockies and they fear that it will soon start eating its way east." It was a coincidence because David Dunn's primary concern at the time, and his primary subject for the evening was his recordings of the New Mexico species of the pine beetle that, along with its Canadian cousins, was decimating huge swaths of forest in the south.
The third and major event was Ear to the Earth, a week-long festival of environmental sound that took place between October 6 and 14, 2006, at four venues in downtown Manhattan. We had support from the New York State Council on the Arts, the French-American Fund for Contemporary Music, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council with the generous support of The September 11th Fund. The venues were the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center, 3LD Art & Technology Center, Judson Church, and Elevated Acre, all in downtown Manhattan. Composers, sound artists, and scientists came from England, New Zealand, France, Italy, Canada, Austria, Germany, and throughout the United States to participate in concerts, installations, and panels. To borrow from my introduction to the festival: "The recognition that our interaction with our environment, both natural and man-made, is a crucial issue of our time has inspired composers and artists to respond with an enormous and compelling body of works. Our plan for this ongoing festival is to bring a large sampling of those works into galleries, concert halls, and public spaces in New York City, to surround them with discussion, interaction, and knowledge, and to expand their impact through the internet. Our goal is to engage people in environmental issues."
The festival began on Friday evening, October 6, with a talk by Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig, Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Center and leader of the Climate Impacts Group, who set the tone for the week by pointing to the inevitability of climate change and concluding that our goals now have to be mitigation and adjustment.
The first panel took place on October 7, with Philip Dadson, Bernie Krause, Andrea Polli, and Joe Gilmore describing their experiences on Earth's polar regions, how it affected their work, and how their work reflects the realities of those regions. The second panel took place on October 8, with Steven Feld, Annea Lockwood, Bernie Krause, and David Monacchi offering different perspectives on water, and I represented the UNESCO Young Digital Creators program and described how they encourage students around the world to create digital art to explore real-world problems such as water and urbanization. The third and last panel took place on October 14, with Laurie Spiegel, David Dunn, David Monacchi, and Shankar Barua (through a visual document that I presented in his place) discussed sound art, preservation, and environmental issues with scientist Jim Tolisano who differentiated between art as amusement and art as engagement.
There were seven installations: Calls of the Wild, with sounds from Bernie Krause's Wild Sanctuary field recordings archive, turned the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center into a different natural environment every day; Elevated Harmonies, an outdoor installation by Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger, harmonized the sounds from automobile, helicopter, and boat traffic, turning Elevated Acre, a second-story park at 55 Water Street, into a quiet, reflective ambience; A Sound Map of the Danube River, an installation by Annea Lockwood at 3LD Art & Technology Center, was based on sounds of the Danube River and conversation by the people who live alongside it and are affected by it; Ferals, by Laurie Spiegel, was a touching sound-and-image presentation of the plight of New York City's pigeons; Fragments of Extinction, by David Monacchi, was based on recordings from the Jauperi River in the Brazilian Amazon; N., by Andrea Polli and Joe Gilmore, was a quasi-realtime installation that portrayed the wind, the barren landscape, and the melting ice of the North Pole as the ice melted under the camera and the camera slid into the sea; and Suspended Sounds.
Suspended Sounds, a 3-dimensional virtual-reality immersive audio environment of sounds from extinct and endangered species, based partly on a concept by Charlie Morrow, was produced by EMF in partnership with Arup Acoustics and New York City Audubon. Alban Bassuet, Senior Acoustics Consultant at Arup Acoustics, designed the sound space with sounds coming from high and low, distant and near, moving in all directions, and all around us. The sounds were provided by Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and processed for noise reduction by Soundcurrent Mastering. Several composers contributed to the project with ideas, orchestrations, research, organizational skills, and/or audio processing, among them myself, Morton Subotnick, Joan La Barbara, Alvin Curran, David Monacchi, Aleksei Stevens, and Rama Gottfried. For those of us who worked intensively on Suspended Sounds, it was emotionally gripping. Joan La Barbara's words, written for the festival website, describe what many of us felt: "As I worked with the sounds of these now extinct or endangered animals and birds, the depth of the poignancy of the situation was almost overwhelming. I felt as if I were breathing life into beings that no longer exist ..." It was also an example of the emotional strength that the arts can contribute to environmental engagement. The combinations of sounds in Suspended Sounds, the duets, the opposing rhythms, the ensembles of different birds, would not have been encountered in real life. Although all of the sounds at any one time came from the same geographic region, the specific combinations were composed as ensembles, which in fact made them more exceptional, more musical, more accessible, and more engaging.
There were seven concerts that, among them, included Steven Feld's commentary and sounds from the Bosavi Rainforest, the Arctic Circle in Norway, Japan, and Ghana; Philip Dadson's performance with rocks from the southernmost beaches of New Zealand; David Monacchi's river sounds that approached bel canto lyricism; Jean-Claude Risset's music based on recordings of the sea near Marseilles; CŽcile Le Prado's portrayal of the European Atlantic coast from Holland to Spain; Hildegard Westerkamp's lyrical imagery of rain in British Columbia; Pierre Marietan's vivid sampling of the sounds of Hanoi; and Robert Rowe's wild trip through the world with sounds defined by the Freesound collection in Barcelona. There were other compositions and performances, by myself, by the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, by members of the New York Society for Acoustic Ecology, by Maggi Payne, David Dunn, Steven M. Miller, Barry Truax, Thomas Gerwin, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, Luc Ferrari, Ayaka Nishina, Aleksei Stevens, Rama Gottfried, and Anna Clyne.
Many of us who participated in the festival, attending the concerts and panels, found it emotionally involving and, by the end of the festival, it had become clear that environmental sound could be an important vehicle for engaging people in environmental issues. Mark Moffet said it well in The Tepui, a brief article for Arts Electric written in December, 2006, when he wrote that "modern ecologists may have reached a limit on how effectively they can convey messages to the public, and they may now need to draw upon the emotional vibrancy offered by the arts." At a certain point during the festival, Steven Feld and I concluded that the concept of Ear to the Earth should be continued and sustained in the form of an ongoing network that inspired, encouraged, and supported environmental sound art, and EMF has followed through and announced the formation of the Ear to the Earth Network. I have often had occasion to say that we can become engaged in the environment through sound at three different levels: We can listen to the sounds of the world around us. We can listen through the ears, sensibilities, and talents of sound artists, which is more compelling and engaging. Or we can create sound art, which leads us to become yet more deeply and thoughtfully engaged.
Yet engagement with the environment is not always a goal of environmental sound art or music, nor is it always an outcome. Olivier Messiaen's Catalog of Birds, for example, contains magnificent piano compositions based on bird calls, but the compositions do not, and were not meant to, sound an alarm for disappearing species. Played in a concert, they are reminders of the beauty of the natural world. Could such artworks be presented in a context that would interpret them as the sounds of extinct or endangered species? In the festival, it was the panels with scientists and ecologists that gave the sound art its bite, and the beauty of the sound made it all the more poignant. Our formula was 'sound art & multimedia compositions' + 'interpretive context defined by panels' = 'engagement in the environment'.
Based on a 'think globally, act locally' strategy, the newly-formed Ear to the Earth Network has as its goal to work at a grass roots level to encourage, support, and promote events that bring environmental activists, scientists, musicians, artists, and the public in all communities together in dialogues; to explore creative formats that mix concert, conference, installation, and performance; and to foster engagement with environmental issues. Once engaged, we can learn. And as we learn, we can help ourselves and others to understand what is happening to the world.
Copyright © 2007 Electronic Music Foundation, Ltd.