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
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 musicin conversations carried out both in person
and over long-distance phone linesand 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 whats generally referred
to as environmental music in that Im 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
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 Ive
been doing has to do with reconciling the traditional European ideas
of music weve 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 rhythmshow 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. Weve lost the ability to observe on our own because weve
had to stop listening. Our own sound environment has become too noisy
for us to perceive the natural soundenvironment thats 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
really a matter of defining a context to view that in.
Ive 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? Youre 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 were making, City of Dream, is for the city
of Salzburg this summer. In this case were 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. Well 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 environmenttrying to deal with all as resonance.
Its 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
reducedor, I as a practicing radio artist, reducesound 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 Mosss 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 dont 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
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 senseperhaps excessive senseof
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,
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
People used to live within an entire sphere of sound that contained
rich informationa 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 were 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, youre
open to your environment. Frankly, I ended up crying. And I was not
aloneother 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 thats 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
instrumentsit'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
Their Kivalike a churchgives 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 rivera 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 youre 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
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 wildlifeI'm
talking mostly about experiments I've done with birdsare responsive
to very noisy, very low-quality audio. It isn't that they're responding
to the fact that it's themselves; theyre 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 youre 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 roadiesI'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 were 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. Im 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 meI 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. Theres
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 mans actions in themthe 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 theres 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
dont 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
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 UFOs 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 hillyou 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 theyve discovered on my property.
And something snapped in me. I thought. Okay, hes 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
mebut 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 environmentin which we can exist as full human
beings? I think we have to mutate into something new. And I dont
know how thats going to work.