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Research Reports for the Ears:
Soundscape Art in Scientific Presentations

by Jim Cummings

As presented at Sound, Environment, and Connective Technologies
University of California Riverside
May 12, 2006

Note: Sound samples will take several minutes to load on a dialup connection; you can track progress on play bar on each player. Remember to stop/pause a sample that is playing before triggering another to start.

The relationship and synergy of art and science has typically been viewed through one of three general frames.  The first, and probably most acceptable or interesting to scientists, is the idea that art has an interpretive function—building on the fact that artists are, at times, more capable of expressing the beauty or the complexity of science’s findings.  There is a sense that the artist can reach the public at large, that imagery or film or sound can be shaped in ways that express the essence of what science is discovering in ways people can better grasp.  The second is found in artists who are simply inspired by science, using it as a jumping off point for artworks that are idiosyncratic or compelling on purely artistic merit, while incorporating elements that involve nature or some sort of scientific imagery, but that are not centrally trying to share any concrete scientific findings or data.  And finally, quite often, exercises in “art and science” engage the relationship on an abstract or philosophical level in which the artistic expression may not even bear any outward indication that science is involved—it’s more of a conceptual foundation or underlying trigger for the artist’s vision.

At the Acoustic Ecology Institute, we are beginning to explore a somewhat different approach to the synergy of art and science.  We are interested in ways that artistic insights can frame questions about what science might look at and listen for.  We are looking for art that both presents empirical scientific data in a way that can engage the public, and frames questions or hypotheses that are worthy of scientific investigation.

This particular angle of exploration is quite natural for us, in that the little community of acoustic ecology folk in northern New Mexico includes two people, both of whom serve on our Board of Directors, who have centered their own artistic lives on this theme.  David Dunn has been an especially curious listener, recordist, and engineer.   His most recent project delves deep into the bioacoustics of a species of bark beetle that is devouring our indigenous piñon pine forests; his recordings clearly suggest a diversity of sounds that are worthy of further research by entomologists.  Steve Feld, by contrast, works in the social sciences.  He’s an award-winning anthropologist and musicologist who has spent a quarter century championing a consideration of an anthropology of sound (not just music), and creating soundscape compositions as a way of sharing his field research findings and queries.  Today’s talk will center on their work, but over the coming year, we fully expect to be able to highlight similar work by other artist/scientists.

Dunn says, in the liner notes to his bark beetle CD, The Sound of Light in Trees, "My foremost interest these days concerns ways that formal concepts and techniques of music and sound art can contribute to scientific research. Not only can sound artists reveal new phenomena within the natural world; their creative strategies for creating a compelling sonic experience out of the sounds of the natural world can have a deeper application within science itself."  Part of his inspiration derives from his long-held conviction that there is a deep and profound intelligence innate to all of life, that, as he says, “what science now reveals to us about the communicative intent of other living things will appear comically shallow to us in a hundred years.”   In this time of mounting ecological crisis, he is turning more and more, in his art and in his own personal inquiry, toward listening to what the life around us is saying.  He spends long hours listening to bats through his unique omnidirctional ultrasonic mic, and to beetles in trees using probe and contact mics.  He notes the addictive quality of having his aural sense expanded through technology: “It is truly amazing to sit for hours in the natural world with your ears technologically sensitized to be more on a par with the other forms of life around you… This means of focusing technology towards a kind of expansion of consciousness gives us access to listening beyond the boundaries of our usual human perception. It applies current technological breakthroughs in music and sound art towards a non-human centered and environmentally relevant art practice.” 

David believes that the art world desperately needs to ground its imagination in a deeper understanding of the natural world, and that science is likewise yearning to reach beyond the limits imposed by science’s inherent need to be deeply rigorous, a rigor which by its very nature necessitates a kind of narrowness that can stifle or distrust our imaginative natures.  As Gregory Bateson said: “Rigor alone is paralytic death, but imagination alone is insanity.”

So, what has David been discovering? And how has he framed this, how is he presenting this work, to the public and to the scientific community?

I am going to play for you a few short segments of David’s source recordings, highlighting particular tree and beetle sounds.  Then we’ll hear a segment of the composition that he crafted from this material.

3 different bark beetle acoustic signals

Bark Beetle Group

Uninfested tree (circulatory system)

Okay, there are some pretty interesting acoustic behaviors there, some of which have never been studied by scientists (virtually all bioacoustics studies on bark beetles have occurred in laboratory settings). In his extensive liner notes to the CD, he puts forth several informed speculations about the ways that the beetles seem to be using sound, and he’s found some things that, just for starters, an entomologist at Columbia has found very exciting. But we have to admit, these sounds in isolation are likely more interesting to entomologists than to the rest of us.

So, here’s how David is presenting this work, as a whole.  His composition, The Sound of Light in Trees, aims to open our ears to the acoustic world inside piñon pines.  In the interest of time, I’ll just be playing a short segment, but I trust it’ll be enough to give an initial glimpse into the whole.  I think you’ll be able to imagine the altered state of “tree-sound” that would grow as you listened to this for the full hour of the composition…and also perhaps the excitement that this piece might trigger for any curious entomologist…

The Sound of Light in Trees

Production of The Sound of Light in Trees CD was made possible thanks to a grant received by David Dunn and the donation of production assistance by EarthEar, which co-released the CD with AEI and is donating all revenues to the Institute.


Now, I’d like to turn to the work of Steve Feld.  Steve is an anthropologist and musician who spent 25 years visiting the Kaluli people around Mount Bosavi in Papua New Guinea.  He’s written award-winning books and his work on the relationship between sound, music, and the surrounding environment is highly regarded in academic anthropology.  But he’s always been pushing, ever since his first publications, to create a place for soundscape compositions within the academic publishing universe. 

His Papua New Guinea work often centered on something Steve translates as “lift-up-over sounding,” a way that the Kaluli understand both nature and their own relationships.

In the Kaluli world "lift-up-over sounding" sounds are dense and layered, blended, and forever thinning and thickening. One hears no unison, only a constant figure to ground motion of densities, decays and fades, of overlapping, alternating, and interlocking sounds….One sound stands out momentarily, then just as quickly fades into a distance, overlapped or echoed by a new or repeated emergence in the mosaic.

"Lift-up-over sounding" is the most basic Kaluli idea about music but also an important general idea about nature, about talking, about interacting, about what a costume is, about what a dance is.  It is as broad and profound as the idea of "harmony" in the West, and covers alot of the same metaphoric space….

Feld repeatedly returns to a trialectic presented as the relation between sound, environment, and social relations.  He hears sound as a medium that can be approached as a palpable, sensate link between people and place, that the sound of a place is a sort of creative engagement through which people both become aware of their surroundings, and in turn become a part of their place.  He expresses this insight, and puts forward this anthropological argument, through the creation of sound compositions.

From the first track of his first academic CD, which was a 12-minute mix of rainforest sounds and human activity, Feld has pushed this approach. That lead track to his otherwise rather typical academic anthroplogy CD got some radio play, and led to the commissioning of a 25 minute NPR production, which in turn triggered an invitation from Mickey Hart to produce a full CD using state of the art recording gear.   Throughout, Feld has kept to a core theme:

He says: “The idea was the same, to have the sound raise the question about the relation of voice and place, to provoke you to hear sound making as place making. And when you hear the way birds overlap in the forest and you hear the way voices overlap in the forest, all of a sudden you can grasp something at a sensuous level that is considerably more abstract and difficult to convey in a written ethnography.”

Here’s a bit of that work:


Feld’s editing approach is far more involved, and involving, than simply condensing time or featuring especially evocative or illustrative moments.  He stresses that his pieces are structured so as to invite the listener into a kind of memory, a listening experience in which he draws on the “echo” that is inherent in acoustic ecology, the ways that listening—and especially recording--is always about being both in and out of time.  He agrees completely with Murray Shafer that musical composition is the ideal way to present soundscape research. 

“I'm working with a very simple idea, which is that what is important to Kaluli are things like texture, density...What I think is really compelling about trying to penetrate another world in any sensory mode, is to really imagine how they could possibly hear this. This is not a matter of trying to give you one way of hearing it, or enforcing the notion that there is any one best way to hear it, but putting it out there so that somehow you can move a little closer to imagining what kind of person a listening and sensing Kaluli person- is...That’s the best I can do, an anthropology of sound in and through sound, a representation of culture that is both a pleasure and an intellectual provocation, that gets your ears as close to the Bosavi world as I can get them.  ….  The idea is to turn my ear-witnessing into an invitation for your ear-witnessing.

In addition to his ethnographic recordings, which nearly always include reference to the larger soundscape of the forest, Feld has produced one disc that features “just” the rainforest sounds themselves, the acoustic field in which the Kaluli live and work.  These “soundwalks” are not literal movement through the acoustic space of the forest, but, again, are recollections and invitations into a way of listening. They are mixed to accentuate a kind of heightened acoustic vigilence, a patience in listening and in being aurally present with the layers of forest sound.

“What you hear in these soundwalks are composites, not just of the layered height and depth, or space and time of the forest, but also of my history of listening and being taught to listen, over 25 years, in Bosavi. That’s why I call this work an "acoustemology", a sonic way of knowing place, a way of attending to hearing, a way of participating and absorbing.”


“I think that soundscaping is first and foremost acoustic witnessing. The field part of the work is to “be there” in the fullest way. The studio part of the work is to make that original “being there” more repeatable, expandable, sharable, open to new kinds of participation. The idea is to turn my ear-witnessing into an invitation for your ear-witnessing...manipulating parameters and trying to feel which subtleties could be brought out a little more, which presences could be more present for uninitiated ears.”

A good exercise, one I still do regularly, is to select a track and to concentrate on a single sound through a track of the recording, thinking about how many different relations it enters into with other discrete sounds, or sound layers. When I do this I find that I can hear something new virtually every time I listen to these recordings (and I have listened to them a lot!). This idea of sound-“tracking,” a listening exercise to follow sounds as they move through space and time, always helps me visualize and auralize the notion of sonic ecology. It is a way of focusing on all sounds as particles in niches, as members of interacting groups, as actors in a scene, as characters with acoustic biographies.

For the past four years, Steve has been turning his ears to the place of bells in the acoustic ecology of village and urban life, in Europe, Africa, and Japan.  He’s creating a series of CDs, and eventually a DVD, that include the bells of flocks of sheep and goats, creating a sonic map as they move through the countryside, church bells chiming a kind of acoustic authority and daily time-keeping, and festival and costume bells that exemplify disruption and celebratory chaos.  And especially, the relationships between these; once again, his exploration of place, sound, and society, and yet again, the sense of sonic memory held by these bells.


He’s made some interesting discoveries, such as a church in Finland with a large bell that has the same resonant decay time as its ancient organ, and the centuries-old interactions between a flock of birds living in a town square in Norway, and the ringing of the church bells there.  He also gives sonic illustration to the ethnographic research of others: on Crete, shepherds know every animal by the sound of its individual bell, and the bells of each flock are tuned by the bellmakers to provide a harmonious timbre.

He says: “real attention is being paid to these bells playing the roles of different voices for different animals. So all of these questions about how bells are tuned, how bells connect animals and shepherds, sounds and community space and time, all this stuff came over me.  Like, what is this belling of the churches and town halls?  Who owns time anyway? The church or the state? Even without knowing any of the details, it seemed like on the surface  of it, there must be a big bell story about authority and  power, the struggle of the church and state, the struggle between animals and people, the struggle between music and noise.”

Most of the pieces on Steve’s Time of Bells CDs are rather long, in the 8-12 minute range.  He tends to engage in a form of hyperrealism in his editing aesthetics, overlaying a series of sonic vignettes or a long real-time movement through a church or festival bell-scape with echoes and interjections that opens a larger historical or ethnographic window for us to ponder.

Despite the obvious power of this approach to inform ethnographic inquiry, within the ivory tower of anthropology, Feld struggles with a mindset that continues to see audio as a generally unimportant auxiliary to the written word.  He says that it is almost impossible to present his audio work at conferences, due to incredibly poor sound systems, and points out how few books and journals include either CDs or links to web-based samples of the sounds that the written articles are making interpretations about.  Part of this is because the quality of much field recording remains substandard, and part is an editorial attitude that downplays the value of recordings.  He once did a pre-press editorial review of a book/CD combination, and in his comments, wrote as much about the audio as the written part; the editor later admitted he hadn’t listened to the CD, didn’t want to, and was including it only as a courtesy to the author.

Feld says, in a recent interview in American Ethnologist, “It seems to me that there is a serious issue of professionalism here. Publishing amateur or substandard sound, while perhaps grubby enough to strike the listener as really ‘‘authentic,’’ only serves to undermine the seriousness of sound as an anthropological project. ….. Until the sound recorder is presented and taught as a technology of creative and analytic mediation, which requires craft and editing and articulation just like writing, little will happen of an interesting sort in the anthropology of sound. We take writing so deeply seriously—the anthropologist as author. Yet, like film and video, which are still incredibly marginal, I think it is going to take considerable time before a more sophisticated use of these sound technologies takes hold in ethnographic practice. Until then, the anthropology of sound will continue to be mostly about words.”

Well, we’re going to do what we can to increase appreciation for the role of sonic representations of research, in both the social and biological sciences.  If you know people, artists or scientists, or artist/scientists like these two, who are doing work along these lines, we’d love to hear from them.

I’ll close with a piece at a festival parade in Greece, highlighted by these amazing animal dancers wearing 70 pounds of bells each……..just try to tell me how a paper could begin to give us this sort of sense of the place of these bells in the local experience…….


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