In a world where we trust our eyes more than our ears, visual data has, up until now, often been prioritised over acoustic data. This is a problem that Stuart Fowkes has been addressing through Cities and Memory, an online sound map and audio archive. It holds one of the largest and most varied online collections of sound recordings in the world, alongside others like radio aporee and the London Sound Survey, but offers an alternative angle in that it features ‘remixes’ of the audio by composers and sound artists. While Cities and Memory covers all manners of sound, from church bells to car horns across multiple continents, a large portion of the content is dedicated to natural sounds, as apparent in Fowkes’ latest collaborative sub-project, Polar Sounds. It’s an art-science partnership that makes use of underwater sound recordings from the Arctic and Antarctic seas, collected with hydrophones by the Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity and the Alfred Wegener Institute in North Germany. By commissioning more than 100 composers and sound artists to create their own audio responses, or ‘remixes’, the initiative is raising awareness for environmentally-threatened regions and challenging perspectives about them. At the same time, it’s raising the profile of sound as an under-utilised resource.
Acoustic data can typically be split into three separate categories – geophonic, biophonic or anthrophonic, loosely meaning Earth-made, animal-made or human-made. Within Polar Sounds, examples range from the singing of sea ice as it shifts and the clicks and calls of whales and seals, to the rumbling of a ship’s airgun, used for oil and gas exploration. Scientists are able to obtain essential information from these types of recordings, such as numbers of species and how they interact, migration patterns, breeding patterns, and something that is still little-understood: how man-made sound adversely affects marine life. As Fowkes notes, this is a crucial research method when exploring one of the most remote and extreme parts of the planet, where thick ice and deep waters can obscure vision.
Examples range from the singing of sea ice as it shifts and the clicks and calls of whales and seals, to the rumbling of a ship’s airgun, used for oil and gas exploration
The polar regions are also a conservation priority. As well as directly destructive human activities such as overfishing and undersea drilling, recent studies show that the Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the rest of the world over the past 43 years.Meanwhile, there are underwater sounds from the Arctic and Antarctic seas that still defy classification, as shown by the ‘unidentified’ genre filter on the Polar Sounds webpage. These are, according to Fowkes, sounds which scientists are still trying to figure out, their identification made all the more difficult by the lack of visual clues and remoteness of the regions. Understanding their meaning and origins, however, will help us better understand the ecology of the polar seas, as well as the implications of the climate emergency for these areas. It’s a further testament to the untapped importance of using acoustic data in oceanic research.
While the mainstream scientific community might still be playing catch-up, the practice of recording natural sounds has existed almost since the beginning of sound recording itself. One pioneer was the German-born sound recordist and broadcaster Ludwig Koch, who made the first-known recording of birdsong in 1889 on an Edison phonograph and would go on to pioneer new recording techniques. Yet it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that scientists and researchers began to try and understand the significance of these sounds. North American sound-oriented environmentalists like R. Murray Schafer and Bernie Krause were leaders in this field. Not only did they collect and document sounds, they analysed them in order to theorise how nature communicates. It was by tuning in to the ‘biophony’ of the natural world that Krause began to draw parallels between nature-made sounds and human-made music. In his book The Great Animal Orchestra, Krause describes how killer whales, who live in highly social pods, use different whistles and screams to signal mood, food and relationships with other whales and species. He goes on to reflect on this by wondering whether ‘murmurs from the wild that suggest rhythm, melody, poliphony [sic] and design serve as an organisational basis of musical expression?’ This perception of non-human animals as emotional, music-making creatures links back to the multi-faceted evolutionary theories that understand music as derived from nature and natural sounds.
If we agree with this view, it is no coincidence then that a shakuhachi flute evokes the sound of wind blowing through bamboo leaves, or certain classical pieces imitate the call of a cuckoo in their use of intervals. Yet how has this rich and varied tradition of nature-inspired music-making been taken up in our modern urbanised world? And how are the underwater territories of the Arctic and Antarctic being responded to by artists? We find one example in Amanda Stuart’s piece Oceana – The underwater world of Orca and Ross, a sonic response to the sounds of killer whales hunting Ross seals. In her accompanying description, Stuart explains how she modified the original recording using effects such as reverb and panning, resulting in a sound palette of varying textures and tones which she then used to paint her ‘imaginary seascape’. The result is an immersive yet eerie piece which rushes to a climax towards the end, echoing the orcas’ pursuit of the seals.
Her mention of the imaginary highlights how the prioritisation of aural senses over visual can trigger our imagination in a different way, inspired by our own experiences, cultures, histories, and sense of place. It’s something that researcher and Polar Sounds project co-ordinator Geraint Rhys Whittaker is exploring. His recent conversation with Cairo-based artist Hossam Hilal revealed how Hilal’s piece, Hoot (minke whale), a response to recordings of those same animals, was inspired by Wadi Al-Hitan, an area of West Egypt which contains fossils of some of the earliest known forms of whale. This process of drawing imagined connections between our lost past – through our own personal geographic and cultural experiences – and the endangered environment of today, is one way in which creative engagement with natural sounds can foster a deeper connection with nature, and in this particular case, with the polar seas. Listeners, many of whom will never travel to these regions, also participate in this connecting process, as emphasised by Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds at the British Library, who compares it to a ‘long distance relationship’.
Creative engagement with natural sounds can foster a deeper connection with nature, and in this particular case, with the polar seas
Hilal also based his composition on the perceived sonic similarities between the polar seas and the silent deserts of his own country. This is a perception that, according to Rhys Whittaker, is shared by the wider public. Arctic and Antarctic regions are viewed as vast, alien expanses, devoid of colour and sound. As Tipp explains, this is owed to their lack of representation compared to other soundscapes, which are more accessible to hobbyist field recordists and therefore to the public. Polar Sounds challenges this notion by making these rare recordings easily-available to the public, and inviting them to listen. Within a wider context, sites like Cities and Memory are becoming increasingly important archives for slowly-disappearing, or in some cases, already obsolete natural sounds. Greg Green, a sound recordist and wildlife audio cataloguer, also at the British Library, speculates that due to our 21st century, urbanised ways of life, people are far less likely to be tuned in to natural sounds. By sharing how loud the oceans really are, and juxtaposing the recordings with imagined sonic pieces, projects like Polar Sounds train our ears to listen more closely and analytically to nature and find the music inherent in it. To Stuart Fowkes, our lack of appreciation of natural sounds is a byproduct of our neglect and mistreatment of nature. His explanation of his own journey as a sound recordist is an enticement for the uninitiated amongst us to have a go, which can begin with the devices that most of us carry around in our pockets:
‘Photographers will frequently say that they look at the world differently. If they start taking photos, they start to see frames everywhere and look at light everywhere and just see the world in a different way. It's exactly the same if you start field recording, you start to listen to the world differently, you start to notice sounds that you didn't notice before, and notice changes to sounds over a period of time. Field recording can present the world to you in a different way.’
earth.fm Team., Nature Sounds and Human Well-being, 2022.
2 Mika Rantanen et al., The Arctic has Warmed Nearly Four Times Faster Than the Globe Since 1979, 2022.
Jonathan Bastian on KCRW, Why Music is ‘Our Umbilical Cord to Mother Nature’, 2021.
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