Environmental sound matter
by Francisco López
From the liner notes of the CD: La Selva. Sound environments
Neotropical rain forest (released by V2, The Netherlands). Extracted
modified version of parts of the in-progress larger essay The
Much against a widespread current trend in sound art and the customary
standard in nature recordings, I believe in the possibility of
pure, "blind" listening of sounds, freed (as much as
procedural, contextual or intentional levels of reference. What
important, I conceive this as an ideal form of transcendental
that doesn't denies all what is outside the sounds but explores
all what is inside them. This purist, absolute conception is an
fighting against the dissipation of this inner world.
Nature Sound Environments vs. Bioacoustics
At a first level of approach to La Selva I'd like to emphasize
departure from traditional bioacoustics, which is a common reductive
interpretation of nature recordings. This discipline focuses on
the sounds produced by different animal species, mainly for identification
purposes (see ref. 1 for a short review with examples of the analytical
perspective in bioacoustics). Many animal species appear in the
of La Selva and they have even been identified (part II), but
none of them
has been the focus of the processes of recording and editing.
precisely the way of proceeding through these processes what makes
essential difference: traditional bioacoustics -justified by its
scientific goal- tend to isolate the calls, songs or whatever
of a certain species from the "background" sound of
its environment. Both
the recording and the editing processes are directed towards this
and even further enhancement of the contrast between the foreground
and its background.
In La Selva there is not such an intentional discrimination; the
sound-producing animal species appear together with other accompanying
biotic and non-biotic components of the sound environment that
be there when the recordings were done. In this sense, there is
purposeful a priori distinction of foreground / background, but
unavoidable arisal due to the location of the microphones, as
with our ears. I'm not claiming objectivism (see below) but rather
"focus" of my attention was the sound environment as
a whole. This is one
of the reasons for the absence of indexes on the CD, to discourage
listening centered on particular appearances of species or other
In addition -but also in close connection with the foreground
issue- I find particularly limiting the habitual focus on animals
main elements of the sound environment. Not only non-biotic sound
are clearly prominent in many nature environments (rainfall, rivers,
storms, wind...; see ref. 2), but there is also a type of sound-producing
biotic component, present in almost every environment, that is
overlooked: plants. They are also living organisms and in most
-especially in the case of forests- what we call the sound of
rain or wind
we could better call the sound of plant leaves and branches. If
perspective of nature sounds were more focused on the environment
whole, instead of on behavioural manifestations of the organisms
as most similar to us, we could also deal with plant bioacoustics.
Furthermore, a sound environment is not only the consequence of
sound-producing components, but also of all its sound-transmitting
sound-modifying elements. The birdsong we hear in the forest is
as much a
consequence of the bird as of the trees or the forest floor. If
really listening, the topography, the degree of humidity of the
air or the
type of materials in the topsoil are as essential and definitory
sound-producing animals that inhabit a certain space.
The widening of the attention scope from individual species to
environment has recently led B. Krause to the proposal of a "niche
hypothesis" (3,4,5) in which different aural niches are basically
in terms of frequency bands of the sound spectrum that are occupied
different species. To me, the interest of this approach -which
implicit in many bioacoustical studies dealing with slight differentiations
of vocalizations by close species- lies upon the explicit intention
expanding classical bioacoustics from an auto-ecological (single-species)
to a more systemic perspective, considering assemblages of sound-producing
animal species at an ecosystem level. This hypothesis, however,
pertains in a strong way to the field of bioacoustics, in the
sense that it
features a sound analytical approach and also -and more importantly-
because it focuses on the differentiation of the biotic sources
My approach to nature sound environments is devoid of such analytical
explanative goals, trying to forcefully move away from a rationalization
and categorization of these aural entities. The reason why I pursue
environmental perspective is not because its more "complete"
"realistic", but rather because it promotes a perceptual
recognition and differentiation of sound sources to the appreciation
resulting sound matter. This is not a scorn of the biotic or non-biotic
elements that are typically considered as components of the environment
an appraisal of other -sonic- components that are not reducible
former. As soon as the call is in the air, it doesn't belong to
that produced it anymore.
The Illusion Of Realism or The Fallacy Of The "Real"
The recordings of La Selva have not been modified or subjected
process of further mixing or additions. In a traditional context,
therefore be said that this work features "pure" straight
environments, as it is often claimed in many nature recordings
Yet I believe this to be too simplistic and also to obscure a
problems on the sense of reality and its portrayal through sound
A common procedure in some nature recordings that try to convey
sense of naturalness is to mix different animal vocalizations
background matrix of environmental sound (much like some visual
counterparts that feature a fictional landscape filled with many
sharing the same -crowded- space). As in the case of traditional
bioacoustics (by exclusion), this artificial mixing approach (by
inclusion) could be criticized as "unrealistic"; or
"hyper-realistic". Yet we should then consider on which
grounds are we
criticizing this tricky departure from reality.
Now that we have digital recording technology (with all its concomitant
sound quality improvements) we can realize more straightforwardly
microphones are -they always have been- our basic interfaces in
at apprehending the sonic world around us, and also that they
non-neutral interfaces. Different microphones "hear"
so differently that
they can be considered as a first transformational step with more
consequences than, for example, a further re-equalization of the
in the studio. Even although we dont subtract or add anything
avoid having a version of what we consider as reality.
There are indeed attempts to solve this by means of technological
improvements. The ambisonics surround sound system, for example,
foreseen as a means of reproducing soundscapes, conveying a more
sense of envelopment and an illusion of "being there"
(6,7). This illusion
of place seems to be a common goal in nature recordings (4). Although
appreciate very much the multitude of new sound nuances and the
provided by these technological developments, I dont have
interest in pursuing "realism". Moreover, I believe
actually work through hyper-realism, since the carefully recorded,
and edited sound environments that we can comfortably enjoy in
favourite armchair offer an enhanced listening experience (with
some sound qualities and the existence of certain sound events)
could probably never have in the supposedly portrayed "reality".
paradoxically, it is precisely what they have of non-realistic
what I find
most appealing in these sound work efforts. With this I dont
recorded version is better, but rather that there's also the possibility
not conceiving it as a version. No matter how good they can be,
cannot replace the "real" experience. What is more important,
that in my opinion they shouldn't try to do that. As I see it,
this is a
futile attempt to reproduce the world, that tends to become a
commodity directed to sophisticated entertainment or other forms
pragmatism. In its essence, a modern consequence of the same kind
mentality that long ago led to the creation of zoos.
There is another seemingly unavoidable obstacle in this attempt
portraying aural reality: sound editing. Whereas the "microphone
transfigures the spatial and material characteristics of sound,
affects its temporality. This process is already present during
the act of
recording; there is always a start and an end for the recording.
cases, further "time windows" are created when editing
at the studio by
establishing a new start and a new end for the sound fragment.
Additionally, whenever we have several sound fragments, we are
montage. If we are pursuing naturalness in our sound work, what
editing is more "real"? D. Dunn has recently criticized
a common decision
in the work with nature recordings: that of eliminating human-made
He defends the idea that the non-inclusion of sound fragments
sonic intrusions (aircraft, road traffic...) in a natural environment,
way of not recording them or by further editing removal, is a
representation of reality" that "lures people into the
belief that these
places still fulfill their romantic expectations" (8).
While I share Dunns concerns about what he calls "the
environmental movement", I think this interpretation of falsification
through phonography is a simplification of a much more complex
leads to another level in the quest for reality. We are much less
transcription and reproduction than the machines we have supposedly
for these purposes. Compared to a microphone, we can either have
more striking perception of such a human sonic intrusion or not
at all. Both in the present and in the traces a sound environment
our sonic memory. Do we always realize that there's some distant
noise when our perception is focused on an insect call? Do we
occasional voices of some people nearby when we are recalling
that day we
enjoyed the sound of the rain inside the forest? If not, was our
-or is what we still keep of it- false? Even if our level of consciousness
includes both the traffic and the insect, do we have to embrace
them to talk about reality? Because this perceptual / consciousness
is at the basis of our apprehension of "reality", I
dont think that a
recording that has been "cleaned up" of human-made sounds
(even if this
involves more than editing) is more false than another that hasn't.
cases, I would even think of the contrary.
I dont believe in such a thing as an "objective"
apprehension of the sonic
realiy. Moreover, regardless of whether or not we are recording,
think of an ideal conception of sound, but we definitely cannot
sounds to be themselves". Not only do different people listen
but also the very temporality of our presence in a place is a
editing. The spatial, material and temporal transfigurations exist
independently of phonography. Our idea of the sonic reality, even
fantasy about it, is the sonic reality each one of us has.
La Selva does have some human-made sound intrusions, and it's
intention to conceal the fact that they exist (part II), but I
avoided them during recording (in most cases) or removed them
In the context of the discussion above, I claim for the right
'unrealistic'. In broader terms, I'm not concerned with such considerations
and I let each listener to judge by himself / herself. The people
at La Selva already did, and they found the recordings 'strikingly
This is Not La Selva: Sound Matter vs. Representation
- "This is not a pipe" (Rene Magritte)
What you can listen on this CD is not La Selva; it explicitly
pretend to be so. In other words, La Selva (the music piece) is
representation of La Selva (the reserve in Costa Rica). It certainly
contains elements that can be understood -and even used- as
representational, but the essence of the creation of this sound
I'm calling a piece of music is rooted on a 'sound matter' conception,
opposed to any documentative approach.
The immense majority of works dealing with nature sound environments
reveal some form of documentative understanding of the recordings.
surprisingly, the sound documentation of natural places is one
of the main
aims of the activities of the Nature Sounds Society, which regularly
organizes field recording workshops. This goal has been expressed
so as 'to
provide an aural window into places that many people might never
(9). A similar documentary perspective is distilled in different
most nature sound works, either by giving descriptions of non-sonic
relational elements or by accompanying the sound content with
e.g., refs. 10-17).
In the case of the 'Acoustic Ecology movement', although the scope
activities is larger and there is a greater focus on descriptive
sound itself (see, e.g., ref. 18), its approach essentially relies
representational / relational conception, sometimes also leading
'encourage listeners to visit the place' (19).
What I find remarkably striking is how the comprehension of virtually
approaches to nature sound recording is so rarely referred to
matter they are supposedly dealing with, but rather to whatever
non-sonic elements of the experience of the -thus documented-
place. As I
see it, this is a paradoxical convolution that tends to relegate
recorded sounds to the role of documenting or referring to a certain
This is not only implicit in the most direct 'picturesque' representations,
but also in the transcendental critiques to it, that identify
with this simplistic role (8, 20). Moreover, these latter critiques
partly justified by survival or health arguments (in terms of
relationship with our environment), which I see as a form of pragmatism
that I definitely don't share.
What I'm defending here is the transcendental dimension of the
matter by itself. In my conception, the essence of sound recording
that of documenting or representing a much richer and more significant
world, but a way to focus on and access the inner world of sounds.
representational / relational level is emphasized, sounds acquire
restricted meaning or a goal, and this inner world is dissipated.
straightforwardly attaching to the original 'sound object' concept
Schaeffer and his idea of 'reduced listening' (21). I prefer the
'matter', instead of 'object', because I think it better reflects
continuity of the sonic entities that is at the basis of the
non-representational conception and also of the very nature of
environments. Similarly, I prefer 'profound' to 'reduced', because
The richness of this sound matter in nature is astonishing, but
appreciate it in depth we have to face the challenge of profound
We have to shift the focus of our attention and understanding
representation to being. Or, in other terms, we should be free
to do this.
When listening to this CD, I hope you will desire to be there,
in La Selva,
but I also -and especially- hope you will be amazed to be here,
Environmental Acousmatics: The Hidden Cicada Paradox
Acousmatics, or the rupture of the visual cause-effect connection
the sound sources and the sounds themselves (22), can contribute
significantly to the 'blindness' of profound listening. La Selva,
tropical rain forests, constitutes a strong paradigm of something
call 'environmental acousmatics'.
There are many sounds in the forest but one rarely has the chance
the sources of most of them. Is not only that the multitude of
hidden in the foliage. The foliage also hides itself, keeping
our sight a myriad of plant sound sources, not only caused by
wind or rain,
but also by falling leaves and branches (sometimes of considerable
which is a quite frequent event in this forest.
Many animals in La Selva live in this acousmatic world, in which
is not to see their conspecifics, predators or preys, but just
them. This acousmatic feature is best exemplified by one of the
characteristic and widespread sounds in La Selva: the strikingly
harsh song of the cicadas. During the day, this is probably the
typical sound that naturally stands in the foreground of the sonic
One can perceive it with an astonishing intensity and proximity;
you hear the cicada in front of your face. Yet, like a persistent
you never see it.
A Non-Bucolic Broad-Band World
Another widespread conception about nature sound environments
as 'quiet places', peaceful islands of quietude in a sea of rushing,
man-driven habitats. This constitutes the main motto of the Nature
Society (23), as made explicit in the title of the CD released
Oakland Museum, 'Quiet Places' (24), and also that of G. Hempton's
releases, 'Quiet Places Collection' (13-16).
While this can be true for certain natural environments and under
conditions, I think this understanding leads to a restricted and
view of nature that I don't share. La Selva, as many other tropical
forests, is also a paradigm of an antithesis to this view. It
quiet a noisy place. The multitude of sounds from water (rain,
courses), together with the incredible sound web created by the
calls of insects or frogs and plant sounds, make up a wonderfully
broad-band sound environment of thrilling complexity. The resulting
textures are extremely rich, with many sound layers that merge
themselves by addition or subtraction, challenging perception
and also the
very concept of individual sounds.
As I see it, this certainly contributes to expand our aural understanding
of nature, not denying quietude, but embracing a more complete
freed of our judgement and of a somewhat simplistic categorization.
certainly on the side of those defending the 'pristine' sound
natural environments, but essentially because I think we should
sound intrusion that leads to sonic homogenization, thus pursuing
conservation of sound diversity in the world.
Within the same spirit, I also defend the preservation and enhancement
the diversity of man-made sound environments and devices. The
assign to sound environments is a complex issue we shouldn't simplify;
under some circumstances, nature can also be considered as an
environments dominated by man-made sounds. In this sense, my approach
futurist as it is environmentalist, or, in broader terms, independent
Is There Music in Nature? Background Music and Profound Listening
I consider La Selva to be a piece of music, in a very strong
sense of the word. After listening to the sound content of the
will probably find this statement strange, adventurous or maybe
In any case, it's obvious I'm not attaching to the classical conception
music. What is more important, though, is that I think it's a
simplification to restrict ourselves to this traditional concept
music in nature. I don't subscribe the coupling of nature to these
by way of -for example- a search for melodic patterns, comparisons
animal sounds and musical instruments, or 'complementing' nature
with 'musical' ones (5, 25, 26). To me, a waterfall is as musical
as a birds
On the contrary, I believe in an expansion and transformation
concept of music through nature (as through 'non-nature' in the
expressed above). This doesn't mean an absolute assignment of
music (either in any restricted traditionally academic sense or
Cagean universal version (27)). Instead, it refers to my belief
is an aesthetic (in its widest sense) perception / understanding
conception of sound. It's our decision -subjective, intentional,
non-universal, not necessarily permanent- what converts nature
music. We don't need to transform or complement the sounds. Nor
we need to
pursue a universal and permanent assignment. It will arise when
listening move away from any pragmatic representational 'use',
and I claim
for the right to do so with freedom (28).
Structurally, La Selva follows a voluntary constraint represented
prototypical day cycle of the rainy season, starting and ending
Some might see this as a 'natural' way of proceeding, but it was
'compositional' decision. La Selva has been conceived and created
musically. My apprehension of sound matter itself, and not any
intention of documenting the place, dictated all editing and montage
decisions. The representational possibilities of the recordings
not denying- are 'side-effects', but not essential content in
To me, attaining this musical state requires a profound listening,
immersion into the inside of the sound matter. I consider despective
foresee nature recordings as 'background music' or as a relaxation
commodity; a trivialization that leads to consume and 'medicinal
some of the worst forms of pragmatism.
There's a fundamental reason for having a single track on the
CD. As I
conceive it, La Selva is not an easy background sound; it's a
tour de force
of transcendental listening that can lead to many places. Decide
yourself. Francisco Lopez is a professor of Ecology and a composer
living in Spain.
Schizophrenia vs. L'objet Sonore - Another essay from this
The Big Picture -
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(3) Krause, B. (1993) The niche hypothesis: a virtual symphony of
sounds, the origins of musical expression and the health of habitats.
Soundscape Newsletter, 6: 4-6.
(4) Girardeau, C. (1994) Nature sounds recording and use. Experimental
Musical Instruments, 10(2): 12-14.
(5) Krause, B. (1997) The niche hypothesis: creature vocalizations
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(21) Schaeffer, P. (1966) Traite des objets musicaux. Editions du
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