About Environmental Soundcape Art
Inspirations, Roots, Styles, Reflections on the Field
[This section is drawn from several previously-written overviews of the field, including an online exhibition at GreenMuseum.org, a plenary presentation to the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, an article for Zoogoer, the magazine of the national zoo, and the liner notes to The Dreams of Gaia.]
Click here to explore the global community of sound artists
From the roots of nature sound recording, originally focused on species identification and later popularized with LPs of much-loved natural sounds, the field of environmental sound production is branching wildly. Much as photography emerged as a creative medium a century ago, soundscape art is coming alive, exploring terrain that is at once more subtle, more vivid, and more experimental. Also as in photography, the artistic choices involve picking a perspective from which to record the world, deciding what takes to include in the final “show”, and using an array of studio techniques that create subtle or startling variations in the original material, highlighting different aspects of the subject matter, so that the end result is sometimes concrete and readily recognizable, and sometimes abstract and more suggestive than descriptive.
During the 1990’s, a new generation of soundscape producers emerged that is stretching the bounds of the genre in exciting new ways. Some have built on the foundations of traditional nature sounds pioneers, presenting portraits of specific habitats, while developing highly individual approaches. For example, Lang Elliott is known for stunning close-up recordings of birds, as well as his series of habitat titles that feature similarly amazing close-up recordings of rich sound communities; Jonathon Storm, by contrast, specializes in the subtle variations in water’s voices and the soft natural quiet of forest landscapes.
Meanwhile, other producers have emerged from acoustic ecology circles. Their CDs are more apt to include sonic essays that explicitly raise questions about humanity’s relationship to natural and urban landscapes. Hildegard Westerkamp is perhaps the best-known of these producers, creating works for radio, public performance, and CD that range from sparsely narrated “soundwalks” to multi-layered productions composed purely of field recordings that pull the listener deeper into the world of sound.
And, several producers, such as Germany’s Michael Rüsenberg and America’s Douglas Quin, have built on John Cage’s notion that all sounds can be considered elements for composition. Not surprisingly, the works emerging from this diverse community vary widely, from portraits of specific cities (Lisbon, Rome, Vancouver) to finely-honed compositions that utilize nature’s voices as a central element (such as Quin’s CD-length work Forests: A Book of Hours).
These new place-inspired artists deserve a spot alongside the writers, photographers, and filmmakers whose works have enriched our sense of the connections-and the rifts-between humanity, nature, and spirit. Whether you live in a city or at the edge of the wilderness (or, like most of us, in a place where the human world is expanding ever deeper into various local remnants of the primal richness that once filled your region) the work of these soundscape composers will help you notice the voice of the place you walk in day to day. For all of them, it's about being affected-and changed-by the experience of deep listening.
By their very nature, these audio alchemists aim to go unnoticed, observing, documenting, and then dancing with their muses in the studio. They don't churn out grand tomes, or multimedia extravaganzas, or even easily-glanced-at pictures. They invite us to slow down—at least a little. Years of paying attention to the ways of sound are distilled by these audio alchemists into ten to sixty minute sonic immersions, presented on compact discs or in gallery installations. This is not "pretty" or "peaceful" background listening, though peace and beauty can be players in these aural portraits. Rather, they offer us a conduit within which we can spend an hour sharing in their life quests of listening. And, make no mistake, once you've entered into the work of these sound artists, your ears will be open in new ways, and you'll find the voice of the planet coming alive around you.
We've all had our own experiences of the power of sound. In the multi-layered community of voices around a woodland lake or the exhilarating heart of ridgeline thunderstorm, in the gentle ambience of a neighborhood or the soul-shaking urban cacophony, we find our place in something larger than ourselves. Often, we notice our soundscapes only in passing. At times, we sink in deeply and reap the rewards of connection, feeling a context within which humanity's dance is but a peculiarly inattentive piece of the whole.
Most of the time, it's not all that dramatic. . . . it's simply about letting sound expand our awareness, both in the practical sense of revealing actions and beings that are not visible from where we are, and in the more ineffable way that attention to sound can seem to make us more present in a place. Sound is connective, revealing the living webs of community and relationship that surround us; it is physical, emotional, and direct in ways that sight alone can never quite be. Certainly, paying attention to sound in consort with the visual beauties of the world leads to a deeply enriched experience.
Offering touchstones on a path of remembering, these sound sculptors have spent thousands of hours seeking, responding to, and recording the voices of our world-from mountains to subways. They then dance with their muses in the studio, weaving sonic essays and aural portraits in a delightful range of styles.
Styles of Environmental Sound Composition
Though most of today's environmental sound artists combine elements of various approaches in developing their own styles, they draw from four basic approaches, built upon two common foundations
A key common ground is that all of these producers are engaged in their creative art from the moment they begin recording. From choice of overall locale, to finding the ideal vantage point for recording, field work is creative work. It is an exploration in listening, no less than the later choices made in the studio.
Also, these producers recognize that no environmental sound recording can possibly recreate the experience-even just the sonic experience-of being in nature. Not only is the emotional, physical presence lost, but there are also technical limitations. Each mic has its specialty, its best use, and most can amplify or highlight specific sound sources, but none can hear as richly as our ears. Once the sound is further channeled to just two speakers or even headphones, it is further transformed. The better producers fully recognize these limitations, and devote their creativity to developing new ways for us to experience these field recordings. They aim to affect, or guide us in specific ways that the more profound experience of "pure" nature may not.
From these commonalties, the styles of each producer is forged from one or more of the following approaches:
> Documentaries This purist approach is essentially "what you hear is what you get," and relies on un-adulterated field recordings, presented either separately or with gradual cross-fades from one location or take to another. These recordings celebrate the intrinsic sounds of earth as they occur, unimproved by human designs. Yet these are not dry or simple "snapshots;" rather, they are among the most vivid of soundscape productions, thanks to careful mic placement and creative sequencing of the recordings. Documentary recordings also serve as source material for other styles (see below), which often include extended unaltered sections. Gordon Hempton, Lang Elliott, and David Lumsdaine are among the recordists who primarily work with such single-takes.
> Reconstructions Here, many source recordings are combined in the creation of a single soundscape experience. It is often difficult to tell which segments are "documentary" and which are overdubbed, as the better producers work from a deep knowledge of the sorts of combinations of voices that occur in nature. The goal here is to present an overall sound journey that is true to the essence of the place-that will sound "real"-even though the events actually may not have occurred as presented. Bernie Krause, Doug Quin, and Ruth Happel often use this approach. A variation on this style is heard in the work of several composers who work in the realms of deep ambient and electroacoustic composition. Their goal is not to be "realistic", but rather to present immersive sound journeys molded from a wide variety of field recordings, often including human sounds (both "natural" ambiences and intentional soundmaking such as scratching surfaces or adding instrumentation). Eric la Casa, Koji Marutani, and Hans Ulrich Werner work in these realms.
> Transformations Some producers use their field recordings as raw material for electronic transformations and manipulations. They may isolate a particular frequency that is, to their ears, a "sweet spot" in the soundscape, then reinsert these samples into the piece. Or, they may slow down or speed up the source recording as an exploration of the nature of that sound. Perhaps they will repeat a given sound, or perform "granular synthesis", which stretches a brief snippet of sound into a prolonged tone. A related approach, often used in consort with transformations, employs sudden crosscuts from one sound to another; this is particularly common in urban soundscape composition. The transformation approach can be heard in the works of Hildegard Westerkamp, Barry Truax, Francisco Lopez, and Doug Quin.
> Musical composition Some composers add human instruments or voices to the mix. This may include woodwinds or percussion, electronic keyboards (perhaps with some field recordings sampled as voices), or even such adventurous things as Claude Schryer's choreographed tugboat horns in a harbor, heard on his Auteur CD. These producers are generally part of the vanguard of modern composition, with the resulting works being, at times, quite challenging to mainstream musical notions. Steve Heitzeg, Barry Truax, John Luther Adams, David Dunn, Paul Winter, Doug Quin, and David Rothenberg are among those pursing this path.
ON SOUNDSCAPES: GLIMPSES OF THE ISSUES AT PLAY>
The paradox of recorded nature
The producers presented here all recognize that no recording can re-create the experience of being immersed in the sounds of a place. The limitations of recording and playback technology, and of course the physical power of direct experience, make this impossible. These recordings do not duplicate even just the sonic experience you'd have in any of the places they were made. In this is their strangeness, and their power. The world outside your door is likely indescribably more vivid than any recording; though there may be fewer, less "dramatic" sounds there, you are immersed in those sounds, they surround you, penetrate your skin, move invisibly through your heart and spirit, in ways these recordings never will.
Yet these sound recordists are not spending their lives in futile attempts to recreate natural soundscapes. No, they cast their lots to the currents of wonder, and the tiny fragments of their field work that end up on CDs are their most successful moments of evoking something central to that place. Or of a more general and universal respect for relationship. Or of a dream they had one early morning. Or perhaps a passing sense of delight, or sadness. No matter their intent, for your experience in hearing the work will be different than theirs, anyway. This is the way of the muse.
As you surely know from your own life, the kind of wonder you can remember, carry with you, speak about, or let your creativity play with, is not the same wonder you experience in the living moment. The memory of wonder that we bring back is like a photograph, a sketch, a scribbled note, compared to the moment of connection itself. As we listen to soundscape art, we are offered opportunities to have an experience that has links, both obvious and uncharted, with the moments we have known in the world (and with those we are yet to know). There is a stimulation of, and an exchange with, parts of ourselves and between ourselves and our planetary context. If we choose, we can be changed by this meeting with pure sound.
The hope of these recordists is that we may discover a deeper appreciation for the rich variety and abundant unity of the voice of our planet. Perhaps these aural portraits and sonic essays can remind us of ways that our voices may blend in more graciously, more respectfully, more receptively; from there, we may find ourselves echoing an old story, one that walks in relationship with all of life. As we grow back into this connectedness, modern humans in consort with our places, we might once again begin to hear - and know ourselves as a part of - the eternal story, told in its original language.
How do you Listen?
There are many ways to listen to the Great Conversation. Relaxed. . . with intent focus. . . analyzing. . . in forgetfulness. Each has its rewards.
Do you tend to find pleasure more easily in natural sounds that are melodic, or musical in a familiar sense? Do repeating drones, subtly shifting ambiences, or scratchy voices seem less interesting to you? If so, you are not alone; many Westerners, especially, have deeply engrained habits of listening, and require some practice to open to other sorts of voicess in our planetary symphony. (Ah, there it is again: the symphony as the ultimate beautiful human music. What earth-based image might we use for the collection of voices that includes the white noise of the wind, the chaos of the swamp, the sharpness of echolocation, or silence broken in random bursts by unknown soundmakers?)
Most, if not all, nature sound recordings foster the illusion of healthy ecosystems; many times, even the location being recorded is severely degraded, and only a combination of boundless patience in the field, careful editing out of human noise, or overdubbing of field recordings can recreate the primal fullness.
Notice how so many of the human sounds are mechanical, the voices not of us, but of our machines. How is it that we have claimed the right to make so much noise, with so little thought?
QUOTES FROM THE FIELD>
> JONATHON STORM
"Sometimes, I get shy, and tell people I'm a "nature sound recordist." But actually, I'm a composer for the instrument-or orchestra of instruments-called "nature." And, I'm composing through the whole process of my work."
> GORDON HEMPTON (Evoking the sounds of the driftwood forest on a cobblestone beach)
". . . So not only are you dealing with this huge bass violin just soothing your soul in great long strokes as if there were some magic moment that you witnessed there on the beach, but also you're being serenaded with all these notes of the pebbles and the sand, the hush, and never is the moment the same, and every log has a different tonal quality. . . What we are connected with as a listener is not some sort of cheap thrill or whatever will sell volume, we have an opportunity to connect the audience further with the beauty they walk through and be better able to enjoy themselves and explore freely and know that these opportunities are still waiting for them."
> DAVID DUNN
"My hope is that artists can function as some sort of systems thinkers, that they can bring not only an awareness that leads to discoveries that we wouldn't ordinarily make, but that we also extend our senses, through the technology, in a way that allows us to appreciate it in a different way and move a little gentler in relationship to it."
> LANG ELLIOT
"What I'm most interested in conveying first and foremost is the extraordinary experience of the sounds that these things make, and how they captivate you, even if you don't know anything (about what they are). . . . So it's not really striving to say "OK, here's the American Prairie, and here's all these birds that migrate across it in the spring, and here's all the ones that breed in the potholes, and here's this and here's that," it's more like "listen to these incredible sounds!" And I'll tell you what's making them, but it's the experience that's the most important thing."
> DAVID DUNN
"I have mixed feelings. . . Part of this is the idea of being able to expand access to the non-human world in a way which is non-destructive; the other side of it is that it ends up just being another level of exploitation and commodotizing the environment in the same way we've commodotized every other aspect of it."
> HILDEGARD WESTERKAMP
"I hear the soundscape as a language with which places and societies express themselves. In the face of rampant noise pollution, I want to be understanding and caring of this "language" and how it is "spoken." I compose with any sound that the environment offers to the microphone, just as a writer works with all the words that a language provides."
> GORDON HEMPTON
"Sound is wonderful, because, different than sight (which is also beautiful, of course), sound connects things, and sound accommodates many voices at one time and they remain intelligible. Whereas with sight, we see one object, and very rarely do we actually have transparencies and reflections. Sound, as a medium, aesthetically allows us to experience environment as connections between living things, and cycles, and rhythms."
> BERNIE KRAUSE
"It took me ten years to learn to record ocean waves."
> HILDEGARD WESTERKAMP
"I transform sound in order to highlight its original contours and meanings, similar to the manner in which a caricaturist sharpens the contours and our perceptions of a persons' face."
> DAVID ROTHENBERG
"If you manage to block out all sound, you will have no trouble looking around at the warp and woof of the world, but you will feel an outsider, detached from the goings on. Sound puts us into the picture, or makes the picture more than an image. As the Inuit asks the visitor coming in out of the cold: speak so that I may see you. Add a voice, even a whisper, so that the other is really there."
> DAVID DUNN
"My take on all this is trying to elevate soundscape recording as an art genre, in the same way that photography did that in the 1920's."