Making music from environmental sounds

Ward Pound Ridge Nature Preserve

I normally only post about my mosquito/medical entomology related activities but since World Listening Day 2013 is just around the corner, i thought I’d post about one of my hobbies, sound recording. Over the last 10 years or so I’ve had the opportunity to turn my love of environmental sound recording into a (mostly) self supporting hobby through the release of records under the name Seaworthy.

I wish I had the time to devote to studying the more academic aspects of acoustic ecology. Perhaps in the years to come, when I have more spare time, I’ll be able to delve into this pursuit. I will have more spare time in the future right? For now, I thought I’d write a short piece on the background to a recently released album, “Wood, Winter, Hollow”. Although not a purely an album of field recording, many of the sound sources were recorded in the local environment.

I recently had the good fortune to visit Westchester County, New York. I had the opportunity to stay with a friend and fellow musician (not to mention a wonderful photographer), Taylor Deupree. This was intended as a quick visit while i was on my way to Atlantic City for the American Mosquito Control Association meeting. I’d never had the chance to visit New York City but it was nice to also get out of the city and into a part of the world I’d only ever read about before. It was also the first time I had visited a region of the world with endemic Lyme disease (but I wasn’t there to study ticks this time around).

I visited in February. Winter. The local countryside was a world away from the Australian summer. The woodlands of (mostly) leafless tree were sparse and silent. There was a healthy snow cover and the ponds and lakes dotted throughout the countryside were mostly frozen over. Very few animals to be seen besides a few birds and deer. Despite what may sound a little like desolation, it was really quite beautiful.

Taylor and I took the opportunity to do some recording while I was there. What started out as just being an opportunity for me to record some of the wintery environmental sounds of Westchester County, turned into a couple of days of rapid fire recording.

PoundRidge_WWHFB_June10eMuch of our time was spent in the nearby Ward Pound Ridge Nature Preserve/Reservation. The park covers over 3000 acres and, as well as containing a number of historic buildings, is a biodiversity reserve containing extensive woodland and grassland habitats dissected by creeks and wetlands. I have no doubt that these environments are alive with sound during the summer but during winter there really is an eerie silence.

The relatively silent ambiance can force you into listening to most subtle sounds. Tiny crackles of water flow beneath a frozen stream surface or the faint rustle of those last few leaves clinging to otherwise barren branches. The otherwise incidental sounds like these can take on much more significance during winter where they would otherwise be drowned out during the buzz of insects, birds and frogs during the summer.

In these circumstances, it is often impossible to actually sit and listen to these sounds. You can only really appreciate them when they’re amplified or captured with special microphones. In particular, much of my recording is done using hydrophones. These are underwater microphones most commonly associated with the recording of whale songs. These can also be useful in recording aquatic arthropods too. The real joy for me though is recording the crackle and rattle of small streams where water is rushing through debris and rocks and tiny bubbles fizz creating the most wonderful sound. These types of recordings are even more abstract when made beneath the frozen water surface.

PoundRidge_WWHFB_June10fI usually approach environmental recordings from two perspectives. Firstly, it is impossible to switch off my “science” brain from searching and analysing the recordings to identify the source of the sounds. What animal is making that sound? What species of bird is it? What type of call is it? (One of my first ever research projects required analysis of sound recordings to identify the diversity of frogs across Western Sydney) Even amongst the abstract sounds recorded with the hydrophone, I’m trying to determine what physical processes are underway beneath the water surface to create the changes in water direction or pressure waves.

Secondly, I’m very attracted to the abstract sounds. I rarely set out to record the pure sound of particular species as you may hear in audio field guides (e.g. birds, frogs). I tend to generally record the ambient soundscapes through a filter of recording hardware and the placement of the microphones. I particularly enjoy the sounds that aren’t immediately identifiable. These can often be “happy accidents” where the microphone has picked up my own movements or may be due to some technical short comings on my behalf on operating the equipment! While these sounds may not strictly be “environmental sounds”, there is no doubt that I would be unable to recreate them in the studio. These sounds can sometimes be the most inspiring, or at least can trigger other ideas to investigate at another time.

PoundRidge_WWHFB_June10Unlike many other sound artists who work purely with environmental recordings (some of my favourites are Jana Winderen, Tom Lawrence and Chris Watson), I tend to incorporate my recordings with more traditional instruments. There are many other artists that pursue this methodology, many incorporate electronics or process the original recordings to such an extent that they may no longer become recognisable. A few of my favourite artists that fall into this category are Lawrence English, Marcus Fisher, Simon Scott, Stephen Vitiello and Matt Rosner.

Back in Westchester County, once a collection of environmental recordings were made, it was back to the studio to compose a series of music pieces. These were generally built on top of a bed of sounds and textures recorded from the woodlands and creeks of Ward Pound Ridge. For the most part they were improvisational but certainly many of the seeds of ideas were planted out in the field and in direct response to the recorded sounds. Once various instruments were layered, additional environmental recordings were then interwoven throughout the pieces.

IMG_6973Overall, it was a great experience and this release will forever be a perfect reminder of my time in Westchester County. Working on a project like this is not dissimilar to working on a collaborative research project. The opportunity to work with other people, who each bring a difference perspective and skill set typically results in a better outcome than if working alone. I know that many of my scientific publications would have been much poorer if it hadn’t been for the statisticians or microbiologists that brought their skills, that I lack, to the table.

The release of a CD is a lot like finally getting your research project published too. Perhaps music reviews aren’t quite as critical as the reviews of a newly submitted manuscript but, at least at this stage, a couple of people have enjoyed the music (Folk Radio UK and Fluid Radio). If you’re interested in reading more about this release and listening to some sound samples, please visit the 12k website.

If you’re interested in reading more about acoustic ecology, field recording and soundscapes, there is an excellent series of recent posts by Caleb Kelly up on the Sound Thoughts blog. One of the most cited references on the topic is “The Soundscape: Tuning of the World” by R. Murray Schafer (originally published in 1977). There is also nice article on soundscape ecology here.

You can also visit the Environmental Sounds blog run by Matt Rosner and myself that contains a number of recordings from both the east and west coast of Australia. We’re both trying to dedicate some more time to keep that blog updated!