Sound and the Earth
We asked Steven M. Miller, Jim Cummings, and Andrea Polli a Question
September 16, 2005
We asked Steven M. Miller, sound artist, Jim Cummings, founder and director of The Acoustic Ecology Institute, and Andrea Polli, media artist, the following question: How can we use sound to know the world? These are their answers ...
Steven M. Miller
From the mundane to the profound, sound is a carrier of messages concerning our physical surroundings. Though largely on a subconscious level, I think most people in the modern Western world rely more than they know on their sense of hearing to help them navigate their surroundings and make sense of their environments. A friend once told me about a wonderful little game he played, that each time he entered his home's bathroom, he tried to guess, from the sonic signature of the sounds of his own footsteps reflected back to him, how many towels were hung on the towel rack around the corner. On a more profound level, many visually impaired people use sound and sonic reflections to help them navigate complex urban settings in a form of human echolocation. My sense is that we are largely unaware of the extent to which we rely on sound to make decisions in everyday life, and how influenced we are by our sonic environment in how we feel about and experience the wide array of settings in which we find ourselves daily.
Sounds in the natural world can be important indicators of the health and diversity of a natural habitat. Particularly in dense forests, tropical rainforests, and other habitats in which sight-distance is limited, sonic clues to the presence and geographical distribution of various species are the primary clues to ecological health in terms of diversity, and extent and distribution of many species.
In urban settings, noise sources, prevailing sound levels, and responses to them are indicative of political and economic power relationships, cultural attitudes, and notions of progress and technological advancement among the general population. The environmental justice movement, so far primarily concerned with air, ground, and water pollution, would be well counseled to look also at patterns of sound pollution in their research. Industrial, transportation, and recreational noise sources are not evenly distributed and will lend important clues to patterns of exploitation, injustice, and community empowerment. Sound is a powerful transmitter of messages regarding our actions and beliefs concerning our environment and the care and attention we give to our surroundings and fellow inhabitants.
The most fundamental benefit of attention to sound is that it offers a rich, multi-dimensional, and direct palpable connection with the world around us. We can often hear more than we see, and sound is very often experienced physically - as a rumble, or shock, or caress - in a way that sight or even smell is not. Something of the "wholeness" of place, be it a remote forest, a city center, or peopled landscapes in between, can be heard; we get a sense of the community there, its qualities and its distinctness. To consciously pay attention to the sounds we encounter every day, to notice the regular patterns of the diurnal and seasonal cycles, to be surprised by tiny, distant voices, or to enter into the cacophony of any moment until it expands to reveal its rhythms and tonalities, is to become more fully present where we are. This presence is what fuels awareness of environmental pressures, and it is also the starting point for knowing the world. Starting where we are, we begin to understand the ways that humans and the nearby wild are interacting (or, more commonly, the ways that the nearby wild is being changed, often diminished, by a too-often oblivious human presence). Listening, walking, touching, looking, and asking questions where we are, might help us to understand something of the underlying nature of the issues we hear about taking place elsewhere (say, on the African plains, or in the ocean). Attention to sound is but one more window that might help us to become wise enough to face this future that we are making for ourselves, and for our companions here.
Digital technology has radically transformed our world. Today we have access to amounts of information that seem as vast as the universe. In this jungle of data, the question is no longer 'what is happening?' but, 'how can I make sense of what is happening?' In the past 15 years, there has been an explosion of research into using sound to understand this mass of information. Inspired by analog efforts in the 1960's and 70's, scientists and artist have developed various auditory interfaces, coining new terms like earcons and sonification. The availability of mobile devices for recording and transmitting sound has triggered a renewed interest in urban phonography, or field recording, much of the work inspired by the psychogeographic ideas of Guy Debord and the Situationists. We have not only listened to the sounds of our surroundings, but to the sounds of the farthest depths of space (black holes) and time (the big bang). These voices are redefining our perception of ourselves and our environment.