Ecologies of Sound

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The purpose of this new media project is to investigate the possibilities of using field recordings and soundscapes to understand ecology in a more embodied, experiential way. After a semester of reading and discussing ecological concepts that were challenging and stimulating to think about, I had strong inclination to complement this theoretical work by creating something that would help me, and perhaps others, experience these ideas in a more direct, sensory medium. Because I am a long-time musician with a home project studio, hearing was the obvious sense to explore.

A few basic definitions may be in order. A field recording is a location-specific recording in which microphones record the ambient sound for a duration of time. The typical purpose is to record conditions as they are without staging. This differs in important ways from a podcast in which the microphone is designed and positioned to record human voices. It also differs from standard musical recordings, which are done in a studio, where ambient sound is tightly controlled and instruments are typically recorded in isolation from each other. Popular uses of field recordings are nature-based relaxation albums and background tracks for radio news stories. 

A soundscape is a mixed, edited production that includes layered audio tracks from a variety of sources. Common sources include synthesizers, acoustic instruments, field recordings, spoken word, samples, and loops. Soundscapes typically avoid formal structure and melody in favor of an atmospheric, immersive quality. Typical uses of soundscapes are as stand-alone art and as film or television soundtracks.

Ambient music has the formless quality of soundscapes but may be more overtly melodic. Synthesizers and signal processing effects are common features of ambient music, giving it an ethereal or other-worldly aesthetic. Ambient drone music is a subgenre of ambient characterized by uninterrupted tones drawn out over extended periods. Common applications of ambient music include film and television soundtracks, such as Stranger Things or Lost in Translation. Ambient is sometimes used as a catch-all term for any unstructured, atmospheric music, including soundscapes and field recordings.

My project involves the creation and arrangement of field recordings and ambient drone music into a culminating soundscape to illuminate particular concepts in ecology.

Inputs

I approached this creative project with various theoretical threads in mind, but the most relevant were Rickert’s ambience and the various contested dualisms explored by a variety of theorists. In both Rickert’s exploration of the chora and kairos, he attempts to raise the visibility and significance of ambience—the often unnoticed, uncredited backdrop that humans often see as separate and less important than human subjectivity. As a musician and composer of ambient music, I immediately saw parallels between the theory and the audio production. In ambient music, often seen as “background” or “mood music,” there is no lead vocal or instrument, nor is there any predictable or discernible structure, yet it has an immersive, emotional quality that affects a listener. Because of this quality, most people encounter ambient music in the context of film, where it is the tonal context from which the human narrative unfolds. I see a parallel to this immersive, quietly influential music when Rickert explains that the chora as a "generative 'infomaterial' matrix difficult to apprehend but out of which we work for our rhetorical productions and within which they achieve their vibrancy” (43).

Rickert’s place-bound sense of kairos also connects to both ambient music and field recordings. He sees kairos as “fundamentally dispersed and connected to various aspects of the external environment” (77). Ambient music, too, creates a more dispersed, less subjective tonal context, and stereo field recordings are a way of sampling this context. The stereo microphones, mirroring human ears, give a sense of the location of sounds within a range, which also gives field recordings an immersive quality.

Rickert’s work with the chora and kairos can be seen as another attempt to subvert the entrenched dualism between rhetor and context, which aligns well with other attempts in the course readings to complicate dualisms. Other examples include Spinoza’s radical move of placing humans within nature, Jane Bennett’s elevation of the nonhuman components and processes that compose humans, and Weisser’s “extended and inclusive” (88) ecological self. Because of the lack of a lead vocal or instrument and its indistinguishable mesh of tones, ambient music is a de-centered, holistic web that mirrors the theorists’ hierarchical flattening and distributing of agency. Because field recordings capture an environment without the conceptual filtering and prioritizing characteristic of human hearing and thought, they offer an auditory flattening of hierarchy and an objectivity that can defamiliarize the listeners and enable them to experience a place differently. The field recorder equally perceives human, nonhuman, animal, machine, weather, melody, and dissonance. More broadly, ambient music aligns with Bennett's call to "experience the relationship between persons and other materialities more horizontally" (10).  

The other key input was my experience as a composer, producer, and listener of various forms of ambient music. Though I've only begun officially releasing ambient albums in recent years, I began composing and recording ambient music in the early 1990s. Influences on my ambient music include Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, The Orb, Tetsu Inoue, My Bloody Valentine, John Coltrane, and Nikhil Banerjee. In addition to producing home recordings since the early 1990s, I have recorded in numerous professional studios with bands and other projects.

Locations

I chose accessible locations that fell on a continuum from natural to human-made, according to common perception, ranging from a waterway in the National Forest to the interior of a store in the city.

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Field recorder stand was placed on a rock a few feet from the rushing Black Run, beyond the dead end of Rawley Springs Road (dirt road), just inside the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in Rawley Springs, VA

 

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Field recorder stand was mounted to the door of a parked car approximately 15 feet from Route 33 West in the parking lot of the Unitarian Universalist Church. This location is about 4 miles from Court Square in downtown Harrisonburg and about 7 miles from Rawley Springs

 

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Field recorder was placed on a wall between two pillars (to reduce wind noise) on the south-facing steps of the courthouse building at the center of Court Square in downtown Harrisonburg, VA. This locations is 11.5 miles east of Rawley Springs, VA.

 

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Field recorder was held in my hands as I walked through the Friendly City Food Co-op about three blocks from Court Square in Harrisonburg, VA.

 

Equipment

  • Tascam DR-07 MKII Field Recorder
  • AKG Perception 150 microphone
  • Universal Audio LA-610 tube preamp/compressor
  • Pro Tools 10 recording software
    • M-tron mellotron midi plug-in
    • Xpand synth midi plug-in
    • PanMan plug-in
    • Waves PAZ Psychoacoustic analyzer plug-in
  • Audacity recording software

 

Process

1. I drove to each of the locations, found a location for the field recorder, and recorded the ambient sound for 5-15 minutes. Because of the posable, three-pronged stand, I could position the recorder on any surface or structure without it becoming unstable.

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2. I uploaded the stereo WAV files from the recorder to my iMac and then imported them as tracks in a Pro Tools project file.

3. In order to minimize distortion or unwanted audio artifacts, I applied EQ to the field recordings and added gain (volume) when the signal was significantly quieter than the other tracks.

4. Using the AKG perception mic, I recorded myself doing conscious, mindful breathing, which became a track in the project file. The breathing was recorded to add a human presence to the culminating soundscape. Breathing is thematically significant because it is actually the intra-action, to use Barad's term, between human and non-human (plant). 

5. In listening to the field recordings, I created a short tone progression, using the M-tron samples of Mellotron flutes, in response to the ambient sounds.

6. The flute melody was then exported into Audacity in order to use the Paulstretch time-stretching effect. This plugin elongates a track without changing the pitch, so a one-minute track could be stretched to 10 or 20 minutes, giving it a completely new sound that is difficult to predict, much like ecological consequences.

7. The stretched flute track was then re-imported into the Pro Tools project file to be part of the soundscape.

8. Additional flute tracks at varying speeds and lengths were recorded and edited into the soundscape to create a backdrop that was melodic and evocative without having discernable lead melodies or structure. In ambient drone music, no particular element dominates the mix. Again, this evokes the flattening of hierarchy argued by many of the course theorists including Bennett, Haraway, Plumwood, Cooper, and Dobrin.

9. Once all tracks were imported or recorded, I mixed the soundscape, using EQ, panning, and other basic effects, to blend the sounds. Both EQ and panning are ways to arrange the various sounds spatially within a left/right stereo orientation and a frequency spectrum.

a. By panning the breathing, field recording, and flute tracks differently, I can establish a spatial sense of the sounds, the ability to hear each of the various sounds, and a sense of immersion in the soundscape. By EQing the tracks, I can prevent one track from completely dominating or obscuring others and allow the tracks to be enmeshed, rather than competing for the same frequency ranges. In the screenshot below, you can see the variation in panning of the tracks (notice the knobs and sets of green numbers across the center of the screen). Also significant is the panning of the conscious breathing track. As you can see, the breathing tracks are panned 45% to the left. In a typical music or podcast mix, the human voice would be at 0, directly in the center of the mix. I purposely de-centered the human element in this mix to make a move away from anthropocentrism, a move made by several course theorists, including Haraway, Bennett, and Plumwood.

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b. The technique of EQ “scooping” means that if two tracks are competing for the same frequency range of the spectrum, I can carve out of sonic space in each so that they interlock without canceling each other out. Below, you can see a screenshot of the project’s frequency reading using the WAVES Psychoacoustic Analyzer and a “scoop” applied to a track through a 1-band EQ plugin.

 Psychoacoustic analyzer depicting the sound spectrum of the Ecosophical soundscape.   

Psychoacoustic analyzer depicting the sound spectrum of the Ecosophical soundscape.

 

 On the rushing water track, a narrow frequency range around 250 Hz is reduced to enable the conscious breathing track some of its own space on the frequency spectrum.

On the rushing water track, a narrow frequency range around 250 Hz is reduced to enable the conscious breathing track some of its own space on the frequency spectrum.

Outputs

The creation of field recordings and ambient soundscapes presents a variety of opportunities for scholars and students to gain a sensory understanding of ecology that complements contemporary theory.

One of the productive areas of inquiry for an audio project like this is the process of making the recordings. By using field recordings in ambient music, the composer is engaged in the sympoiesis, as described by Haraway, with both human and non-human collaborators. Although the composer can choose where to place the recorder and whether to use a recording, the audio content captured during the recording is the result of other human and non-human agents not under the composer’s control. Bird calls, wind, water, and machine noise appear as a result of their own intentionality, as Plumwood might characterize it. Acoustically reflective and absorbent surface color the sound regardless of the composer’s intentions, asserting a type of agency or, to use Griess’ term, rhetorical actancy, of their own.

In addition, the audio recording and mixing is an inherently synesthetic process that could deepen a scholar or student’s understanding of a subject. Both the editing and mixing windows of Pro Tools depict sound visually, creating something like a visual metaphor for audio phenomena. When mixing, the composer can see virtual locations for sounds while hearing the recording of a physical location. Sound processing plug-ins such as EQ and psychoacoustic analyzers produce a visualization of the range of sounds across the frequency spectrum and their relative volumes. Using this technology could help students understand how important and fundamental metaphors are in our experience and reinforce the spatial dimension of sound.

Beyond process considerations, the combining of two related genres, field recordings and ambient drone, creates productive juxtapositions of sound for the researcher-composer exploring ecology. Both genres are illustrative of ecology, though ambient drone’s connection may be less obvious. In drone music, auditory processing, such as time-stretching and track layering, yields sonic consequences that cannot be foreseen, much like changes to an ecosystem causing unforeseen consequences. An audio example of this unpredictability is time-stretching, in which the composer knows the sound input but must wait while the plugin processed the signal before hearing the result of the stretching process. It is very difficult to imagine what a real-time recording will sound like when stretched 10 or 20 times its starting length. Another example of unpredictability can be found in track layering, in which each new track adds a layer of tones that causes a new set of harmonic juxtapositions with the previously recorded tracks. New overtones and melodic structures are created through an auditory collage. Again, the results are difficult to predict, and the composer is likely to be surprised.

Another parallel to ecology found in this sound project is the non-dual nature of both field recordings and ambient drone music. Field recordings highlight the non-separability of perceived dualities such as  human/nonhuman, rural/urban, and human/nature; each auditory location contains traces of others, an illustration of the intricate web of ecology. For example, the roadside recording features the engine noise of passing cars and trucks, but birds and insects can also be heard. In terms of ambient drone, as previously mentioned, there are no lead instruments, dominant melodies, or obvious structure. It is difficult to separate the parts that compose the drone because they are so enmeshed.

In addition to being an auditory challenge to dualism, the soundscape gives the composer and listener a way to move beyond a human perspective limited by time and space. Although the field recordings and drones were recorded in separate spaces at different times, they are arranged and played simultaneously as one continuous soundscape. The simultaneous occurrence or overlap of these sonic events is more accurate in a way, considering Timothy Morton's concept of "earth magnitude," in which phenomena are viewed from a zoomed-out global perspective. Although un-augmented human senses can only take them in separately, the auditory ecosystems recorded in each of the locations and times are actually ongoing, concurrent, and connected. The soundscape, with various locations and times layered upon each other, offers one way to hear in earth magnitude.

By curating particular sounds in the field recordings, composing drones, and mixing the soundscape, the result, though collaborative and ecological, is also personal. It expresses particular moods and views of ecology. Because Arne Naess defined ecosophy as a particular "philosophy of ecological harmony or equilibrium" (99), I felt this was an apt concept to allude to in the soundscape's title, Ecosophical. The soundscape itself is an expression of an ecological harmony of the various field recordings and performed tracks, as determined by my own values and aesthetic preferences. 

Finally, to return to Rickert’s place-bound sense of kairos, stereo field recordings offer a way to understand place through sound. The left/right orientation, similar to the placement of human ears, allows one to experience depth, direction, and distance without physically being in the recorded location. For these reasons, field recordings have an immersive quality for the listener. This is significant in its connection to ecological theory because this auditory immersion places us within an auditory ecosystem, not outside of it. The listener becomes part of the web of sound.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 801–31. JSTOR, doi:10.1086/345321.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Unknown edition, Duke University Press Books, 2010.

Cooper, Marilyn M. “The Ecology of Writing.” College English, vol. 48, no. 4, 1986, pp. 364–75. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/377264.

Dobrin, Sidney I., and Christian R. Weisser. “Breaking Ground in Ecocomposition: Exploring Relationships between Discourse and Environment.” College English, vol. 64, no. 5, 2002, pp. 566–89. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3250754.

Gries, Laurie. “Agential Matters: Tumbleweed, Women-Pens, Citizens-Hope, and Rhetorical Actancy.” Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media, edited by Sidney I. Dobrin, 2011, pp. 67–91, doi:10.4324/9780203134696-7.

Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. First Edition edition, Duke University Press Books, 2016.

Morton, Timothy. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. Columbia University Press, 2016.

Naess, Arne. “The Shallow and the Deep, Long‐range Ecology Movement. A Summary∗.” Inquiry, vol. 16, no. 1–4, Jan. 1973, pp. 95–100. Crossref, doi:10.1080/00201747308601682.

Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Routledge, 1994.

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. 1 edition, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

Spinoza, Benedict De. The Ethics: Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata. Translated by Rhm Elwes, Ancient Wisdom Publications, 2018.

Weisser, Christian R., and Sidney I. Dobrin. Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. State University of New York Press, 2001. muse.jhu.edu, https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/195527.