Musical practice as a means to a greater understanding of the natural world
My recent musical compositions and sound art pieces explore the connection between the human condition and acoustic ecology. In these works I have aimed to address questions that I think are crucial to improving the physical, philosophical and spiritual connections between humans and the natural environment. My intent has been to provoke or inspire my audience’s curiosity about their personal relationship with their sonic environment and their presence in the world as equal cohabitants with the millions of other species that share the biosphere.
In the context of discussing this work I will examine the idea that the listening techniques essential to our early hunting and gathering ancestors, subsequently adapted to the activity of listening to and creating music, can be re-utilized to listen to the natural world with more refined attention. I will explore the relationship between speech and music and how musical practice serves as a proxy for our learned ability to listen to and communicate with the non-human species that co-exist with us.
I will propose that because musical practice fulfills a unique function as a cultural storage cell for latent listening skills that are crucial to a fuller understanding of the natural world, the role of the sound artist and composer as skilled listener and communicator, is pivotal to the future ecological health of the planet.
Recently, my interest has moved away from the beautiful, self-contained, syntactically bound world of the post-tonal musical language and I have gravitated back to the soundscape around me as the source of my creativity. In different ways, the conceptual basis for my recent compositional and artistic work arises from the direct experience of my immediate acoustic surroundings, ideas garnered from scientific insights into phenomenological aspects of the natural world and from the emotional stimuli of visual art. I’ve discovered that the extra-musical sound world provides infinitely rich materials for musical composition and artistic creation.
This untraditional approach to the musical task of composing demands a more intuitive process. To combine such seemingly disparate influences with musical language requires that I abandon notions of right and wrong acquired in the long process of learning the western musical style — and to a certain degree, to dispense with the stylistic and expressive aspects of the music that I have composed up to this point.
In his book Acoustic Communication, Barry Truax states that in the broader, supra-musical, acoustical realm of the soundscape, “meaning depends more and more on the relationship between elements, and between the elements as a whole” (Truax 1984, 45). As I’ve tuned my ears to my immediate surroundings, I’ve become more interested in the causal relationships between sounds in the environment and in ways to build a coherent connection between my musical compositions and sound installations and a mode of music making that does not rely on expressive aspects of music but rather on the meaning of the work in relation to the human condition and the human place in the natural world. As a result, my work as an artist is increasingly concerned with the idea of a piece and creating coherency between the musical and extra-musical components of it.
Music To Speech
I have a hypothesis that the primary mode of human communication — human speech — descends from musical language, and that this musical language was inherited from sounds of the forest through listening and imitation.
Linguist Alison Wray’s theory of holistic language proposes that human language evolved not a word at a time as proposed by Derek Bickerton, but rather as a collection of sounds with meaning inherent in the manner with which they were expressed. This idea is inclusive of the gestural and musically expressive aspects of language shared by all cultures. Rather than beginning with a small vocabulary of words that only lacked syntax and morphology to evolve into its more complex grammatical form as suggested by Bickerton, Wray’s theory proposes that proto language may have been more musical — that prosody played a central role in communication and that only eventually did the phonocoding begin to give way to segmentation, eventually resulting in symbolic language — the segments becoming words. (Mithen, 3–5)
To our hunting and gathering ancestors, listening skills would have had to have been acute enough to accurately distinguish one animal’s signature vocalization from another, in addition to being sufficiently inclusive to hear the totality of the biophony and deduce meaning from it. As hunter-gatherers, we learned to listen carefully to distinguish between the regions of the biome — picking out foreground and background sound, food and threat. To be able to listen to the forest or field and pick out the sound of a potential meal — a deer hoof breaking a twig, or the sound of danger — a bear breathing in as it tests the wind for scent — would have been a crucial and innate skill. Our ancestors dependence on wild game and edible fruits and vegetables from the forests around them placed them in a position of kinship and interdependence with the animal world. Listening skills would have been indispensable to them in acquiring knowledge about the forest creatures’ habits and would not only enable them to distinguish one forest sound from another, but also provide insight (or insound) into the state that the creature was in. Details of pitch, timbre, and intensity would be crucial factors in understanding and eventually imitating animal sounds.
As we’ve moved farther away from this condition of direct dependence on the natural world as the source of our livelihood, our ability to listen to the natural world has also eroded. Field recordist Bernie Kraus’ experience of being immersed in the hunter-gatherer culture of the Jivaro tribe of the Amazon Basin illustrates the alienated state we’ve arrived at. His sensitivity to the musical language of the forest was greatly handicapped in relation to his host’s:
At first all I heard was a din. To the Jivaro, however, the forest habitat seemed exquisitely defined… The Jivaro tribesmen could distinguish the sounds of the rainforest as though they were being transmitted in a kind of creature Morse Code formulated out of the discreet and intelligible patterns of sound and filled with useful information. The acute patterns of the aural environment guided the hunters in the general direction of their prey and eventually pinpointed the game’s precise location. Surrounded by complete darkness, the hunters knew what creatures lurked down the path and whether or not these organisms qualified as prey worthy of the hunt or as threats needing to be avoided… (Kraus, 52)
Based on our knowledge of modern day hunting and gathering societies like the Jivaro, our ancestors would likely have employed imitation to lure animals or aurally camouflage themselves while hunting. The act of imitating birds and animals successfully would require an enormous amount of cognition and physical skill to be successful. It is conceivable that the effort exerted by our species in the acquisition of imitative skills led to ever greater facility at imitating complex sounds, with the side benefit that these extra-species sounds that we were eventually able to produce increased our own sound vocabulary and interpretive skills to the point of being a tool for improving our in-species communication. Thus, there is reason to believe that “singing” of a sort — modeled, as it would have been, after bird song and animal calls — predates human speech in evolutionary terms. Further, it is interesting to consider the possibility that through these essentially musical activities, active listening, interpretation, and imitation, our ancestors evolved human communication out of a skill set that is essentially a musical one.
Though we may be in a state far removed from that of our forest dwelling ancestors, the art of listening and sounding has been preserved not only through the supra-lexis artifacts found in human speech, but also in the art of music-making and music listening. The skills required to listen to a large orchestra are not too far removed from those needed to glean meaning from the sounds of the forest. I believe that in the intervening three or four millennia, between our time as hunter-gatherers and the global market economy of our present world, much of the skill set integral to the “survival listening” of our ancestors has been preserved by the practice of music.
Composer and field recordist David Dunn proposes that music and language probably have a common origin in proto-linguistic and proto-musical expression but that to group them together is naïve. He posits that at some point in the evolution of humankind, musical communication and spoken language diverged, with the result that human speech became a unique species-specific adaptation that distinguishes itself from forms of animal communication. Says Dunn, “Because spoken language is the unique adaptation that humans have as a way to intelligence, humans tend to use it as the arbiter when studying the natural world. We misconstrue the absence of spoken language as an indication of the absence of intelligence and tend to think of human language as a measure for intelligence itself in the biological world.” (1) It is this solipsistic reasoning that interferes with our ability to observe animal communication and our ability to remember that we are intrinsically connected to the natural world. In this sense, human speech itself interferes with our ability to listen to and communicate with the animal world.
Despite this schism between human and animal communication, musical meaning finds its way into spoken language. It is no great secret to any socialized human being that the way in which one communicates is of equal importance to how that communication is expressed. Our ability to interpret emotion and mood implied by the prosody of speech — vocal inflection–slight variations in pitch contour, and dynamic content–inform us about the emotional state of the speaker and determine our manner of responding. Listening musically helps us to coexist with the people in our social environment.
The Urban Environment — Speech as the dominant coping mechanism
Our city dwelling existence has been evolved in a mere speck of evolutionary time. We’ve developed our speech and our listening skills to cope with our urban environments. In order to communicate in our dense urban surroundings, it is common that we fight to overcome street noise by raising our voices to a shout. Apparently we are not the only city dwellers contending with this issue, the phenomenon is identifiable in animal behaviour as well, a process of volume adjustment described by the “acoustic adaptation” hypothesis. In their article Avian Communication and Urban Noise, authors Gail Patricelli and Jessica Blickley cite many research findings by scientists working in diverse areas of biology and animal behaviour. The collected evidence unsurprisingly indicates that avian communities living in urban settings, and many other species from Orcas to Song Sparrows living with anthropogenic noise, have had to adjust their communication strategies to cope with an increasingly loud habitat. In their words, “background noise… plays a significant role in determining which ‘receivers’ can hear a vocalization and the fidelity of a signal received.”
It could be argued that speech has become the primary mode of human communication as a result of the complexifying effect of the built environment. The urban environment has become the norm for most people. As a result, it would appear that we have lost and are losing many of the opportunities we once had to interface with the natural world. Nevertheless, we are daily surrounded by opportunities to listen to and communicate with wildlife. In the past few years, I’ve tuned my listening so that I might be able to have a greater connection to the natural world in the midst of the urban environment and so that I might feel a greater sense of kinship with species other than human. This intention has found its way into my work.
As a way of providing an opportunity to increase connections to the natural environment, my recent series of sound art installations have focused less on composed sounds and much more on the act of listening itself. The first of these pieces, Amplified Brook, used the setting of a displaced living room situated at the base of a redwood tree on the bank of Leona Creek — a short stretch of un-landscaped moving water in the middle of Oakland, California. The participant was invited to simply listen to the sounds of the running water with the assistance of a mid-seventies stereo set and a pair of home made hydrophones immersed in the nearby stream. The comfort and familiarity of the living room set — placed as it was in the incongruous setting of this “natural” environment was intended to provide an extra attraction to potential participants. The implicit message in the superimposition of the interior, built environment on the exterior, natural environment is that we are still extremely close to our forest roots — that the extra effort of interfacing with the environment through listening (paying attention) is a matter of remembering our historical place of comfort in the natural world.
The second of these pieces is called Audio Caisson. Audio Caisson is a nine-foot diameter geodesic dome, its walls and ceiling internally fitted with six speakers. A subwoofer and two tactile transducers are mounted in its floor. This domed space serves as a 360-degree, three-dimensional, surround-sound environment. It is fed audio signals from a small geodesic-shaped sculpture imbedded with six tiny electret condenser microphones that is placed at least 100 ft away from the larger dome — ideally in an acoustic space distinct from the one the dome inhabits. Audio signal is transferred from the microphone to the caisson — either by cable or short range FM transmitter.
Audio Caisson is a submersive environment intended to place the participant into an intimate relationship with sounds. Evoking our submersion in the every day soundscape that enfolds us, Audio Caisson attempts to place the participant in a direct relationship with sounds piped into its enclosed environment like air into a caisson.
The experience of interfacing with Audio Caisson challenges our habitual tendency towards sensory and mental removal from our audio environment by our preference for insulated interior spaces or the use of schizophonic (2) sound in the form of iPods or simply over-active thoughts. The Caisson seems to offer an interior space that promises sonic isolation, an illusion that is enhanced by the memorative associations of the participant. By means of electronic chicanery, the Caisson instead provides an extremely active acoustic listening situation that is physically contained and acoustically open. Thus the Audio Caisson surprises the participant and places them in a state of vulnerability that leaves them more open and curious about the soundscape represented inside the piece.
The experience of Audio Caisson can be passive — a place to listen to sounds without interference from visual distraction, or active — with the participation of at least two people; one to perform sounds outside around the small microphonic version of the caisson, the other to listen inside the caisson.
As it happens, the piece is highly interactive. The sounds inside the caisson are created by participants as they make sounds around the microphone that feeds audio to the speakers inside the caisson. Physical gestures made with sound making objects like sea shells, rocks, pine cones and other items placed at the microphone are heard immediately inside the piece. Musical or sonic gestures that encircle the microphone are directly experienced by participants inside the artwork as sounds that encircle them.
Spontaneous musical or theatrical performances are frequent. Commonly participants will first experience the piece from inside the caisson, they then will go looking for the source of the sounds. When they find the microphone component they will — more often than not — join others in creating a new spontaneous sound piece for the people inside the caisson.
The effect of this type of interaction with the piece is to draw attention to the laws of cause and effect. The smallest of sounds created outside the caisson are experienced in a magnified form inside.
Swarm is the most direct and perhaps least musical of the three pieces. It is an attempt to bring the participant closer to a direct communication — a cause and effect relationship — with a surrogate for the animal world. Swarm attempts to draw attention to the fact that as humans we are nature. In order to subvert the paradigm which suggests that human beings are somehow separate from the world we live in, Swarm figuratively places the participant in the midst of a flock of birds. The work points to this ambivalent relationship by proffering a technological surrogate for the human/animal dynamic. A movement-sensing camera tracks the position of a participant in the piece. As the participant navigates the installation space, audio and visual elements create the illusion that the participant is the lead in a flock of birds. Accompanied by the sound of flying birds, bright spots of light on the floor follow the participant in a pattern that mimics flocking behaviour.
The data processing that generates flocking behaviour used in Swarm is built on an algorithm by Eric Singer and further developed at Simon Fraser University for use in Max. This technology was employed to create the kinetic sound and light elements of Swarm. The piece is only possible in our technologically advanced culture. I would argue that this technology not only has a hand in putting our culture at odds with the environment, but also provides us with greater opportunities for renewing our familiarity with the natural world.
… arguments between the advocates of realist or anti-realist philosophical schools seem facile before the melting of glaciers and the fury of hurricanes. It occurs to me that one of the best uses of my time, as a composer, is to simply listen to some of nature’s changing messages and pass them along to others…
It is truly amazing to sit for hours in the natural world with your ears technological(ly) sensitized to be more on a par with the other forms of life around you. I’ve come to think of this experience as an alliance between technology and contemplative tradition, a lazy man’s form of meditative practice. This means of focusing technology towards a kind of expansion of consciousness also has an additional benefit: it 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. (Dunn, Sound and Science, 2)
My sense of urgency about the state of the planet increases by the day. This simple act of listening, enhanced as such with the use of modern recording gear, is an antidote to the sometimes-overwhelming sense that we are headed towards ecological disaster. Dunn humorously refers to this act of enhanced listening as a “lazy man’s form of meditative practice,” yet I feel that it is a crucial activity–in fact a true form of meditative practice that is radiating outward and resonating with other human beings. An often-repeated lesson heard in Buddhist teachings is “the world is the way it is because people are the way they are,” to advocate for greater attentiveness can only be of benefit to a neglected planet. Dunn, Schafer, Barry Truax, Pauline Oliveros, Hildegard Westerkamp, and many other composers and sound artists and improvisers have been advocates of active listening for years. Their quiet doggedness has had its effect–increasingly, people are listening.
I recall meeting a young Australian composer who told me that he had given up writing music after becoming infatuated with the beauties [sic] of cricket song. But when I asked how, and when the crickets sang, he couldn’t say (…). I told him: a composer owes it to the cricket to know such things. Craftsmanship is knowing all about the material one works with. Here is where the composer becomes biologist, physiologist — himself cricket. (Schafer, Soundscape, 206)
To summarize, our understanding of the natural world is both innate and learned. It is likely that our best chance of broadening our understanding of the natural world is to listen to it with musical ears while employing the benefits of scientific inquiry. If imitative speech and song were an essential component in early humans’ arsenal, it is likely to be indispensable in our attempt to understand the natural world and each other. Imitation now takes the form of field recordings, synthesis, the sonification of statistical data, etc. If these tools bring us closer to a dialogue with the natural world–that brings us in turn to a greater understanding of it, then perhaps artists that employ these techniques to listen to and imitate the complete biophony are uniquely situated to move humankind beyond the crisis that Bill McKibbon calls “The End of Nature” (48–49). Artists and musicians are being offered a unique opportunity to reclaim the art of musical listening as a tool to understand the natural world. The paradox lies in the fact that the technologies inherited from the post-industrial world contribute to the destruction of the natural world while simultaneously offering us ever greater ability to listen to and understand it. A broad intersection between the analytical expertise of science and the more holistic approach that artistic insight offers is unfolding; artists and musicians can, and in my view, should play an active role in enriching our understanding of the natural world.
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