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Sound Advice to Save the Planet


Sound Advice to Save the Planet: Discussion One was moderated by David Laskin, EAR and included David Dunn, composer-bioacoustician; Bruce Odland, composer; and Helen Thorington, composer and executive producer, New American Radio. It was published in EAR Magazine.

What is the relation of the terms “music” and “environment?” On one hand are the actual sounds of the environment, and on the other are the ways sound functions in the environment without coming up against certain questions: What is “natural?” How does technology mediate nature? What role does listening play in our environmental awareness? Are we turning a deaf ear to the planet? What is the responsibility of the creative artist in taking sounds, manipulating, and recontextualizing them? Here, two groups of composers and sound artists explore the jungle of environmental music—in conversations carried out both in person and over long-distance phone lines—and survive to tell their tales.

EAR: Perhaps each of you could start by describing your most recent activities and how you conceptualize environmental music.

DAVID DUNN: My activities over the years have focused around a generic research project concerning the interaction between language, music, and environment. I part company with what’s generally referred to as environmental music in that I’m more interested in the interdisciplinary nature of the research. It has taken me from doing environmental sound recording of ambience, of wildlife sounds for zoos and aquariums, all the way to designing backpackable computer systems that can do real-time sampling in the environment and do things interactively with wildlife sounds.

In between are the various concerns, not so much about traditional notions of musicality, but rather about what can emerge from these processes of interaction using music as a model for communication with wildlife or other non-human living systems. The intention is to bring light to the possibility of intelligence or communicative capacities within these other living systems.

BRUCE ODLAND: I see the relationship between music and environment as a question of context: which frames which? Both “music” and “environment” are included in sound. The work I’ve been doing has to do with reconciling the traditional European ideas of music we’ve adopted. Basically, we have an eastern hemisphere concept of music that has landed on the western hemisphere acoustical situation, and they are very different resonances, different types of sounds, different acoustic space.

When I graduated college, I was ready to go out and be a composer in Europe in I848. There is quite a distance between that point and where I am now. I listened to natural sounds to see what rhythms were available in this hemisphere. If you magnify white noise and go in and find one ripple, within that ripple there are hundreds of rhythms—how far down inside of natural sound can you go? What rhythms, melodies, harmonies are present on thatlevel and what can you learn from them? I made a series ofinstallations that brought this up to observable levels for people with city-deadened ears to hear live, like acoustic probes in a Japanese garden in Los Angeles for New Music America.

This is a matter of context: technology raises something to an observable level. We’ve lost the ability to observe on our own because we’ve had to stop listening. Our own sound environment has become too noisy for us to perceive the natural soundenvironment that’s usurped. Talking about “music” and “environment” is like peeling an onion: you peel away what youthink is music and you find an environment that produced a sound which produced a music…It’s really a matter of defining a context to view that in.

I’ve been working recently with Sam Auinger, an Austrian collaborator, on a large-scale outdoor sound cosmology. This puts together everything we think we know about all these elements: about music, sound, natural sound, how music is contained in architecture. What happens if you take a sound that was contained in architecture, then play it back outside in a different environment? You’re layering one environment on top of another. We made a six-month-long sound composition, called Garden of Time Dreaming, in the gardens of the Castle of Linz as a way of exploring the same topic. What contains what? Does the environment contain the music? Is the music a result or a distillation of the environment?

The next piece we’re making, City of Dream, is for the city of Salzburg this summer. In this case we’re working with the idea of city as a resonance in time. History has harmonic rhythm: during one century, musicians collect here, in the next century, the poets collect there. There is a rhythm to that history and there is a resonance to a city as a whole space, not as a series of freak industrial sound accidents. We are going to try and activate that resonant space in such a way that everybody can hear it. We’ll be using natural sound sources, musical scores, live performance, sound that is in the river brought out and stretched in time and space, a mile long. Taking one ripple and expanding it to about a mile long. That, to me, is music and sound in environment—trying to deal with all as resonance. It’s a gradual simplification and I, for the life of me, wish I knew if I was going toward the middle of the onion or from the middle toward the outside.

HELEN THORINGTON: My focus for the last three or four years has been on radiophonic space. One of the things that distinguishes the electronic media is the ability to separate sound from its source, to remove environmental sound from its location, vocal sound from a person; to be able to cut, manipulate, and alter it in the creation of another kind of work. I liken this to the science of gene manipulation. We've reduced—or, I as a practicing radio artist, reduce—sound to sound data. I am not concerned that it's music, that it's an environment, that it's voice.

In a recent work of mine, called In the Dark, a small sample of David Moss’s voice serves to create the entire scenic environment, the ambience of this seven-minute work; then, specific sounds operate as individuals or persons within that environment. The overall effect is to create a narrative, not as we have understood what narrative is, but another kind of narrative that touches an emotional level, and which, in this case, creates a sense of loss. My work talks about the loss of the natural environment, something to which I contribute as a maker of artificial worlds. And in the process of doing that, I can use any kind of sound.

I'm beginning; to realize that not only can we re-move sound from its source, but as creators, we are obliged to re-member and replace because we are in radio and working in a space that is totally immaterial, we have to re-place it. That re-placing is not an act of switching from one channel to another, which is what a lot of people do, but of actually establishing relationships to other things in different places within the radiophonic space. In other words, there is a dimensionality to this. Simultaneous events can occur. I have concentrated on distinguishing myself from the world of music for many years now in order to find out who I was and what it was I was doing, so I don’t speak about music.

EAR: Can you on elaborate on what radiophonic space means to you? There are two directions to me: vast radio waves filling the atmosphere and being generated by stars and galaxies; and, at the same time, the intimacy of one person listening to the radio.

THORINGTON: I think it's both. Jacki Apple's Voices in the Dark deals with this vast space where all kinds of radio waves and messages exist. I am more focused inward, my work deals more with mental space, and my interests are in that personal communication. I think of sound as something that enters in. I think of good radio work as being constructed the way our mental space is constructed, where associations are triggered and resonate. Here. remembering is another one of those words which is very meaningful to me in terms of my kind of interior radiophonic space.

EAR: What's the difference between hearing a piece of yours in a concert hall and hearing it at home on the radio?

THORINGTON: There's no question that the work we do can be heard in other places than on the radio. I would always, of course, prefer to turn off the lights and have people sit in darkness. The audience situation is not one I seek out because the personal communication is a one-to-one, and that's what radio is in spite being a mass communication. To me, it's always one-to-one.

EAR: David, Helen described an approach that distinguished itself from music, and you emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of your work. Is there a line for you where something crosses over from music into something else, or crosses over into music? How
do you hold it all together?

DUNN: I think of it in a generic sense of bioacoustics, of the sounds that living systems make, and trying to find those interconnections, between human language and the communications of birds, insects, etc. All of these are part of the evidence of this property of intelligence or mindedness. We make sounds to give evidence of ourselves and to participate in some larger context. One tendency seems to be about where the general thrust of the implication' of our technologies have pone, and radio is an excellent example of that exploration. But there is also a tendency in our culture toward taking sounds and decontextualizing them. One thing Helen is talking about is the role of the artist to take responsibility for what this means. This is also part of what John Cage meant about the emancipation of noise within the musical tradition. Like Helen in a way, I've been interested in moving back toward recontextualing, to try to understand the sounds heard in the environment as evidence of mindedness. Every sound made by bird is not only resource for manipulation, but is also evidence of something alive and attempting to communicate.

I also stopped thinking of myself as a musician, and moved toward what I would call environmental language, the idea that we need some sort of ethical sensitivity. The shift toward environmental concerns and interest in environmental sounds is a recent one only within Western tradition; it's the distinction between outside versus inside sound. Most of the music that's ever been made on the planet Earth has been and continues to be made outdoors. This concern is not really germane to what we mean by music. This is our rediscovery; the rediscovery is just part of our culture.

EAR: How are we redefining what sound in the environment then? You say we are rediscovering, but in rediscovering aren't we making something new in the process?

THORINGTON: I think a key word is interconnections. In radio even in the artificiality I am engaged in, we are trying to make new interconnections, but to make evident connections that the mind hasn't been focusing on, so that, for instance, we break the linear pattern and begin to understand the dimensional relationships ships in sound.

DUNN: When I say rediscovery, I don't mean that in a simplistic sense. I mean recapitulating a sensitivity that we have as a species. It's not just a matter of saying now we are going to listen to this as opposed to something else. I think the kind of understanding that we're coming back to is a kind of archaic revival very similar to what probably occurred in Florentine Italy during the Renaissance. The embrace of classical models in the Renaissance was based on their own hallucinations and scanty evidence. We're recapitulating to the most archaic states of mind, and we're trying to gather up that totality. I think a lot of what is misrepresented as postmodern esthetics is really about trying to re-embrace this immensity of where we stand, and part of that has been this process of decontextualization which is made possible through the medium of electronics. So, when I say rediscovery, it is also new discovery, like the kinds of technology available for the work I've been doing with these underwater recordings of tiny insects. The amplification of these sounds is so minute that these technologies extend our senses through transducing devices into realms we never before knew about.
tore knew about.

EAR: But did we never really know these realms before? When our senses are so extended through technology, is it empowering or does it take something away from us as human beings or both?

DUNN: There's an old story that the inventor of language went to the Egyptian pharaoh and said, "Look at this great device I have created, this invention called writing." The pharaoh asked "What will this do?" and the inventor responded, "It will help us remember," but the pharaoh immediately recognized that the invention was a way for us to forget.

I think that has always been the case whenever we transform or transcend the current modalities for communication. We certainly gain something, but we also do lose something. When I talk about the nature of these technologies extending our senses perhaps the very thing we're learning to hear through those technologies are the things other cultures have always been able to hear; we might be so desensitized that we depend on technology to bring us back to a point that other people never left.

THORINGTON: There's a book called Disappearing through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the 20th Century, by O.B. Hardison that deals with the way science focuses in on these other worlds. It talks about the loss of middle distance, where, it seems to me, we have maintained our centrality and our sense—perhaps excessive sense—of importance. as you, David focus in on these other worlds of communication and begin to set up networks or interconnections that make it possible for us to have a better sense of totality, you diminish our centrality, our self-importance.

DUNN: I have very mixed feelings about that. A lot of the writings of Galileo were about the implications of this concept of instrumentation. Certainly the telescope provided a tool to resolve distance and be able to see outward into space, but he was also very of, and in many ways more interested in, the psychological implications for humanity.

ODLAND: Our senses are expanded a thousand times by things like the telescope, but there has been no equivalent moral development. In the case of David's work you have a technical development which allows you to perceive something that restores the wholeness of your vision about how things work You're able to see the interconnectedness within tiny ecosystems— they're communicating, and you can communicate with them.

People used to live within an entire sphere of sound that contained rich information—a stereo hologram, uninterrupted by the flanging of jets, motors, and other random noises that accompany our economy. our economy It we're lucky, we can experience something similar to that nowadays for about seven minutes between strategic air command flights. Then we come back into the city, and we’re blow away. It's chaos. We get a lot of information about our city when we're listening with our ears wide open. Its full of messages we generally choose not hear. We think we need to be more specialized, we need to not listen to everything again. We'll get information from somewhere else. Maybe an expert. Maybe somebody who specialized in giving me information. Maybe a musician. But the experts have an agenda.

We're all talking in some ways about breaking that specialization breaking open the frame of where we put music, where we put environment, where we put information, where we put communication. We have some new tools to help us now. such as fractal geometry, which allows mathematicians to express natural processes in a new way.

THORINGTON: I recently went to Alaska, where there is a relative absence of combustion engines. I had such an awareness sensory deprivation. You are not aware of it in the city, the amount of energy you use to cut out your hearing. You spend an awful lot of time here in New York City defending yourself from your environment rather than being open to it. When you have the experience of going to Alaska, you’re open to your environment. Frankly, I ended up crying. And I was not alone—other people were crying too. The sense of loss is incredible. How can we, at this stage of the game, regain that kind of environment in which we can exist as full human beings? I think we have to mutate into something new. And I don't know how that’s going to work.

DUNN: In many ways we have already mutated. About a year ago I was doing wildlife field recordings at a very large game park in Africa on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. I had been looking forward to this experience, being in this pristine environment, the whole wild safari fantasy. I set up my microphones over a watering hole and I could hear a little motor running over the headphones. It turns out that every watering hole in that game park, which is the second largest park in Africa, has a kerosene-driven motor that pumps the water up from the ground. This has been going on in most African game parks since the I940s. In the name of wilderness, we've set aside these game parks, when in reality we've reduced the wilderness to some sort of global theme park. If we hadn't used technology to pump water up to the surface, it's estimated that 80 percent of wildlife in Africa would die within about a year. Humanity has altered and limited the migration pathways and we're left with this responsibility to use our technologies to keep wildlife alive. I'm not sure what we mean by wilderness any more.

ODLAND: Something that crossed my mind was the difference between music needed from a point of view of an outdoor culture, and music that comes from an indoor culture. I've done a lot of work with pre-Columbian instruments—it's one of the things that broke my mindset of European instruments. Everybody likes their particular violin, etc., but now samplers have made instruments interchangeable. If my S900 is down, I'll borrow Bill's, I'll just bring my diskettes.

With the pre-Columbian instruments, it's an entirely different story. There's a little wind instrument, for instance, that looks like a person with a hole in the top of the head, two holes in the front of the chest, and two holes in the back. All the notes seem the same at first, but then you begin to hear microtonal differences. When you play with the front holes open you get beats between the notes going out away from your chest; when the back holes are open the same two microtonal intervals are playing toward your chest. This little instrument has the ability to establish a relationship with inner and outer.

Another example would be the acoustics of the Anasazi Indians in the Southwest, which are radically different than the acoustic we're used to. We're used to not only indoor cultures, but everything we do is in rectangles. Everything the Anasazi did was contained in parabolas. The sound that happens inside parabolas has ,I completely different shape and gives you all kinds of possibilities. It concentrates on wind forms.

Their Kiva—like a church—gives an experience of a radically different use of architecture than we would think of in our rectangular space. We would build a rectangle. If we want sound we'll put a speaker in the ceiling. Then we can put whatever sounds we want in there. They are all interchangeable; we'll buy them That's one approach. Here's another. You climb up a series of ladders from a stream bed I50 feet below. Once you get to the top of the ladders, there's a giant parabola built out of cave in a rock around the bend in a river—a sandstone parabola 800 feet in diameter with a round Kiva, a round room in the ground. The door is way up on the ceiling, and you climb down a ladder into the room. And if you’re sitting in the Kiva, what you notice is that this giant 800-foot parabola clearly focuses on one particularly melodic ripple from the stream below, and bounces it down through the hole in the ceiling until it arrives in the center of the room. You're able to sit in one place and hear this one particularly resonant interval that sounds like it's above you, though it's really I50 feet below you. That's a very different social, cultural, architectural use of sound in space.

EAR: David, in transferring natural sounds through the computer, what process do you go through?

DUNN: Rather than trying to impose concepts of musicality on the environment, I was interested in using the sounds of the environment itself, through a process of reflecting back. Technology carries with it a whole set of cultural assumptions— that the user is not intending to stick digital processors in a backpack and go running around the woods. And most of the software that's available is totally incompatible with the kinds of interests I have. Oddly enough the best results I've had were with fairly primitive digital technology, little eight-byte signal processors that were very low resolution And the wildlife—I'm talking mostly about experiments I've done with birds—are responsive to very noisy, very low-quality audio. It isn't that they're responding to the fact that it's themselves; they’re responding to something that is reminiscent and yet far enough away that it has a quality of otherness. The most interesting thing for me are their responses toward this property of otherness, and not just the sameness.

In terms of how technology is used, I think the music world is in real trouble. lf you pick up a copy of Keyboard Magazine, or some generic rag for MIDI technology, there's an incredible sameness to it and to the music being produced. There's a democratic value being asserted: many people can now afford home studios and can do all this great stuff. But mostly what's being imposed, what design engineers want to see, is what they're second-guessing the consumer wants. It's really stopped being about musical values.

EAR: Musical instruments are often designed to emulate some aspect of their environment. What's the difference, for example, between an ocarina and a digital sample of the bird the ocarina might have been designed a thousand years ago to imitate?

ODLAND: The most elegant instrument I've ever seen is a Mayan water bottle, made of two chambers put together. There's a bird on top of the second chamber, and when the water pressure changes between one chamber and the other, which happens in normal usage, it chirps. The air pressure catches inside it. So you hang this on your belt. You have a cooling drink. You have something you can play as a bird call. When you walk, you make the sound of a stream and a bird, which makes you invisible when you’re walking along. So the difference between carrying this and a six-pack is pretty great.

That's one view of it. The other view is if you were trying to accomplish the same thing with a sampler, you'd need a generator to run it on. By now we need roadies—I'd say its a semi by now. Or at least two roadies and a generator, or enough batteries to last. And by the time we get there we forget where we’re going.

EAR: But we'll figure all that out eventually, in our lifetimes I'm sure. We'll have a little solar-powered microchip that will access hundreds of sounds. We can walk through the wilderness all over the world and just tell the little thing where we are and it will produce the right sound. As a technological problem. I’m sure we can get results. But what about the underlying issues?

DUNN: It is with tremendous trepidation that I see us getting this kind of technology. The danger of being able to carry that around, which is an issue I've faced, is just what is the responsibility? What ethical sensitivity has to be brought to bear in this relationship? Sound is an integrator. Communication goes on between all living systems as part of a community of intelligence, which is a magnitude we have to really understand The only language for that is referred to as some sort of complex homeostatic system of sell-regulation or whatever. The apes in Africa may call it mother. Here is this max complexity, and we're destroying it very quickly being able to have technologies that allow us to enter into it in a participatory way is very exciting, but, at the same time, that bears with it a need to increase our sense of responsibility. That scares me—I think we're not prepared. I've had second thoughts about my work because, while I can present this as a research about possibilities, about evidence for this kind of intelligence, I'm at the point where the last thing I want is for anybody to emulate what I'm doing.

A lot of the discourse we're participating in here is an assertion of the value of reconnecting to the natural environment, so-called. There’s a great deal of pressure on those systems to which we desire to reconnect. It's probably the fundamental issue in recreation and wilderness management: where do you draw the lines? Yosemite National Park is visited by millions of people every year. They have to limit access. Our desire to go there is one or the ma]or pressures destroying the very things we need to reconnect with. I think these technologies can be used to reconnect us in a way that is not destructive. Perhaps radio, high-definition television or holographic projection systems can function as sort of remote sensors around the planet, instead of allowing human beings into certain locations. We need some sort of real-time experience of these things. And short of using technology in this way, I don't know what we can do. We're overrunning everything; everything is at our mercy. I hope we can begin to turn around some of that through the use of technologies in ways that provide us a sense of access.

EAR: Bruce, I wanted to ask you about Garden of Time Dreaming outdoor installation you did for Ars EIectronica that you described earlier, which involved the cosmology of Kepler. After all your talk about breaking away from the I9th century European notion of making music, why Kepler?

ODLAND: Well, the piece was set where Kepler wrote Harmonia Mundi Kepler lived through a horrible time, during the 30 Years War, and he was able to perceive, through all the chaos, a basic harmony to things. He was able to perceive a harmonic proportion to the nature of the planets and man’s actions in them—the whole thing. He got this in a sort of blinding vision while he was teaching math class. He just stood, stunned at the chalk board, with the whole idea that these proportions were acoustically, visually, mathematically correct.

In the process of working with this we actually did go as far as possible in the other direction, to Chaco Canyon, about the quietest place I know. We made the piece in Europe, but it's not Eurocentric. We included ideas based on Pueblo astronomy. But there’s an inverse analysis to the piece. We went to work in Chaco Canyon to have a very clean view, and we found people living in a harmonical community, the kind of community Kepler only imagined. Everything they did was lined up to the stars. Yet, while living in this way, they were imagining a world that was the opposite of their own. In fact, every time they did a ceremony, they did an opposite ceremony for the opposite world as well. So we found a strange connection with de-Europeaning this installation, balancing it off with a completely other culture. We also asked Katsuva Vokovama, a shakuhachi flute master, to look at this idea of music of the spheres, harmonia mundi, from his point of view. So we started to make a more interesting shape with that European site, stretching it out between another musical tradition and seeing what we can learn while catching all these things in a crossfire.

EAR: How did the audience catch on to all of that?

ODLAND: This is another idea of music in the environment: you don’t buy a ticket and go at a certain time. You walk in the park and there it is. What is it? One way we did that was through the visual look of the speakers, which were strange cement cube objects with chemical symbols scratched on them. It's clear that they're marking something. What are they marking? This is quite different than preparing yourself in jewelry and arriving at a certain time. We were dealing with this other impulse: people in a city, what can discover about themselves and their environment by coming across this place over a period of six months?

EAR: Without being told that it was about Kepler and all the rest, did they get it? How did they respond? What did people get out of it without knowing what it was supposed to be?

ODLAND: We made it in a way that it was not possible to hear everything, and made use of the fact that everybody has their own personal point of view. We weren't going to try to tell them what to think. We published no explanations at all. This wasn't one of those things you go and read three pages to figure out why a speaker's going eek eek.

People would figure things out and come and tell us. Quite amazing things happened. We'd go out there and find a couple from Argentina measuring the speakers and the angles between them, which we in fact had set up in a certain way. One is the earth. Why does it have a question mark on it? Because we don't know what the meaning of it is; it's up to you to decide what the earth means. What does it mean? Ah hah! One morning I went out to the garden and found a woman covering all the speakers with wildflowers because UFO’s told her they were coming there.

When we talk about why music in the environment or why sound in the environment, I think, why this idea of the concert hall? The expectations people bring to something they encounter by accident are totally different than something they arrive at because someone told them they should go. This encourages people to interact, to come up with their own ideas. It's a different learning curve.

I want to tell a true-life story that got me thinking about these topics, about music as a European import that we had to do the same way here in America. I was in Colorado visiting a friend, a senator. He lives on top of a big hill—you can see for miles. And in
the morning he blares Beethoven out of really big speakers. When you look out, you just seeing rolling hills without a tree on them for miles. Down in the corner of this view, I noticed some big activity going on. What's going on out there senator? Well. that's where they're building the railroad to get at the coal they’ve discovered on my property. And something snapped in me. I thought. Okay, he’s listening to Beethoven. It makes him feel cultured. Meanwhile, they're building a railroad across his property to get at the coal. And something snapped in me about how little relationship there is between taking music as an object and putting it in a different environment. Sometimes the sounds in the music have to grow up from that environment in particular.

DUNN: I have a friend, Chris Mann, a poet, who lives on the edge a national forest in Australia where there are a lot of Lyre birds. Lyre birds are probably the best of all the mimicking birds. They're like tape recorders, and they do it incessantly. Chris has a neighbor, an old Polish gentleman, who was just fed up with the birds. He would constantly swear at them, telling them to shut up. And after about two years of this he walked out of his house one day and heard the woods swearing back at him, ten or 20 Lyre birds all swearing at him in Polish.

THORINGTON: Last summer, in search of a non-combustion-engine environment, I settled down near a swamp in Northern New York State. I turned on my wonderful stereo microphone and put on my headphones, and I was absolutely terrified of the uproar! A frog was walking toward me—but it sounded like a monster so huge that I tore off my headphones and leapt out of the way of this creature.



“How can we, at this stage of the game, regain the kind of environment—in which we can exist as full human beings? I think we have to mutate into something new. And I don’t know how that’s going to work.”

—Helen Thorington

“Taking one ripple [from the sound of a river] and stretching it out a mile long—that’s music in the environment."

— Bruce Odland

“Our senses have been expanded a thousand times by things like the telescope. But there has been no equivalent moral development.”

— Bruce Odland