What We Learned

Joel Chadabe on Ear to the Earth
December 10, 2006

Ear to the Earth, EMF's week-long festival of environmental sound, took place between October 6 and 14 at various venues in New York City. Composers, sound artists, and scientists came from England, New Zealand, France, Italy, Canada, Austria, Germany, and throughout the United States to participate in concerts, installations, and panels at different venues in downtown Manhattan. The venues were the World Financial Center, 3LD Arts and Technology Center, Judson Church, and Elevated Acre. The aim of the festival was to engage people in environmental issues through sound.

N., an installation by Andrea Polli and Joe Gilmore

There were many stunning moments. Bernie Krause's Calls of the Wild turned the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center into a different natural environment every day. Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger's Elevated Harmonies, presented outdoors at Elevated Acre, harmonized sounds from the passing cars. Steven Feld's recordings conveyed a profound sense of place and culture. Annea Lockwood's Sound Map of the Danube River was simultaneously vast in the scope of its sounds and human in its stories. Laurie Spiegel's Ferals was a beautiful and touching sound-and-image presentation of New York's pigeons. Philip Dadson's Song/Stone Toktok, performed with rocks from the southernmost beaches of New Zealand, defined a new virtuosity. David Monacchi's Stati d'Acqua, with sounds from the Tiber, approached bel canto lyricism. Andrea Polli and Joe Gilmore's N. displayed the rhythm, the wind, and the melting ice of the North Pole as the ice melted under the camera and the camera slid into the sea. Jean-Claude Risset's Sud, based on recordings of the sea near Marseilles, remains among the classics. Cécile Le Prado's Le Triangle d'Incertitude, with sounds from the European Atlantic coast from Holland to Spain, was mysterious and haunting, as if hearing through a soft fog. Hildegard Westerkamp's Talking Rain, recorded in British Columbia, sang as much as it talked. PIerre Marietan's Le Son de Hanoï, Cité Musique was a vivid musical portrayal of the sounds of Hanoi. Robert Rowe's Freesound Mix was a wild trip through the world with sounds defined by the Freesound collection in Barcelona.

Annea Lockwood's A Sound Map of the Danube

Laurie Spiegel discusses her work, Ferals

There were many other compositions and performances, by myself, by the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, by members of the New York Society for Acoustic Ecology, by Maggi Payne, David Dunn, Steven M. Miller, Barry Truax, Thomas Gerwin, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, Luc Ferrari, Ayaka Nishina, Aleksei Stevens, Rama Gottfried, and Anna Clyne.

At the first panel, I represented the UNESCO Young Digital Creators program and described how they encourage students around the world to create digital art to explore real-world problems such as water and urbanization. At the last panel, I represented Shankar Barua in describing The Last Resort, a wildlife sanctuary that he created in rural India. Jim Tolisano, scientist, differentiated between art as amusement and art as engagement.

The festival began with a talk by Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig, Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Center and leader of the Climate Impacts Group, who pointed to the inevitability of climate change and concluded that our goals now have to be mitigation and adjustment.

The festival ended with Suspended Sounds, a 3-dimensional virtual-reality immersive audio environment of sounds from extinct and endangered species, produced by EMF in partnership with Arup Acoustics and New York City Audubon. Alban Bassuet designed the sound space with sounds coming from high and low, distant and near, moving in all directions, and all around us. Based partly on a concept by Charlie Morrow, the sounds were provided by Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and processed for noise reduction by Soundcurrent Mastering. Several composers contributed to the project with ideas, orchestrations, research, organizational skills, and/or audio processing, among them myself, Morton Subotnick, Joan La Barbara, Alvin Curran, David Monacchi, Aleksei Stevens, and Rama Gottfried. Working on Suspended Sounds was emotionally gripping. It was hard to stop listening. Joan La Barbara's words describe what many of us felt: "As I worked with the sounds of these now extinct or endangered animals and birds, the depth of the poignancy of the situation was almost overwhelming. I felt as if I were breathing life into beings that no longer exist ..."

Listening to Suspended Sounds

The combinations of sounds in Suspended Sounds, the duets, the opposing rhythms, the ensembles of different birds, would not have been encountered in real life. Although all of the sounds at any one time came from the same geographic region, the specific combinations were composed as ensembles, which in fact made them more exceptional, more accessible, and more engaging.

I often point out that one can become engaged in the environment through sound at three different levels: You can listen to the sounds around you, most of which convey normal, quotidian information. You can listen to the works of sound artists, which convey exceptional and illuminating information. And you can create sound art yourself, which causes you to focus your attention and discern for yourself what is exceptional and illuminating.

One thing that we learned from Ear to the Earth is that sound artists, by showing us how to listen, have a lot to contribute to our understanding of a dangerously fragile environment. When art becomes a vehicle for exploration and research, listening becomess a powerful act. It becomes all the more powerful when it transforms awareness into consciousness and action.

We also learned the extent to which sound art can engage us in the realities of the world. And we learned how important it is that we become engaged at this time.

© 2007