A reflection on Perspectives on Listening: 2017 Biosphere Soundscapes International Workshop and Symposium. Written by Arts Front Technology project lead Elliott Bledsoe.
This is a draft and feedback is encouraged.
Yesterday and today I have been attending Perspectives on Listening: 2017 Biosphere Soundscapes International Workshop and Symposium, held at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University and presented by Biosphere Soundscapes and the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre.
A quick once around the room meeting people and it was obvious the Symposium had achieved its stated goal of ‘… bringing together an interdisciplinary group of researchers to explore the role of sound in understanding place and environmental changes.’ In attendance were artists, musicians, sound artists, ecologists, biologists, academic researchers and many.
The Symposium was focused on the field of acoustic ecology. According to the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology acoustic ecology is ‘… the study of the social, cultural, and ecological aspects of the sonic environment across the world.’ In the video Leah Barclay, co-convenor of the Symposium, frames the premise of the event and summarises acoustic ecology.
Dr Leah Barclay, co-convenor of Perspectives on Listening, discusses the premise of the Symposium and the field of acoustic ecology.
If you are not familiar with acoustic ecology you might assume this is merely verbatim recording of sounds in urban or natural environments. But it is through the artist’s interpretation, arrangement and presentation of their recordings that their creative practice is revealed.
Of course, I am underselling it. Attendees are much more eloquent when articulating their practice. For them, their practice is about listening, not recording. Composer, media artist and curator Lawrence English, while speaking from the boardwalk in South Bank’s rainforest walk, encapsulated it: ‘I want to share my listening,’ he said, ‘the listening is the point at which [the creative practice] bursts out, and there is this potential for a practice to be born and to be nurtured and turned into something.’
Lawrence English, speaking at Perspectives on Listening, articulates his creative practice as listening. Credit: Mauricio Iregui.
As such, acoustic ecology inhabits a space at the intersection of many things. Like a set of layered Venn diagrams, practitioners in this area are simultaneously artists, historians, archivists, scientists and sociologists, while their practice falls between art, science, technology and communities.
The work of Steven Feld – who delivered an inspiring keynote address on the first day of the Symposium – is a notable example of how this dynamic plays out in practice. I will use just one project from his extensive repertoire to illustrate: Through the 1980s Feld worked with the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea to record their culture and the Bosavi rainforest in which they live.
From early on, Feld’s project was in collaboration with the local community because he knew he needed their expertise. ‘How can I hear through the trees? This requires ears far more expert than mine,’ he said, ‘Ears tuned locally.’ He went on to explain, ‘It only takes a minute, the minute you listen to, for a 12 year old Bosavi kid to identify the 15 species of bird audible on that recording.’
Steven Feld recounts how the Kaluli children helped him identify rainforest birds.
‘Over 25 years with the help of [the Kaluli people] I recorded, transcribed, mapped, walked, swam, climbed, photographed or GPSed the paths of about 1,000 of these local songs.’
In 1991 Feld and Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart produced Voices of the Rainforest, a one-hour CD featuring Feld’s Bosavi recordings, released through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The composition was featured during the Grateful Dead’s 1991 tour. More recently Feld has been working with Skywalker Sound to recreate Voices of the Rainforest in 7.1 cinema surround sound, with plans for acousmatic concerts and museum and gallery installations. And in 2018 Feld will return to Bosavi shoot a 90-minute feature film.
Royalties from Voices of the Rainforest and other recordings by Feld feed into the Bosavi People’s Fund, a managed fund providing grants to the local community.
Another worthwhile example is Leah Barclay’s body of work using electroacoustic music to increase awareness of the dramatic effects of climate change. In particular Biosphere Soundscapes – which is affiliated with the Symposium – uses sound as a mechanism to engage the public in listening to the environment through participatory activities. Like the soundscapes the project seeks to record, the project is in flux – how and what activities occur around featured Biosphere is specific to the participating artists and the local community. As the website states, ‘In some instances the process involves sound labs, artist residencies and extensive community engagement, while in other cases the key community stakeholders of the Biosphere Reserve can generate content independently and engage via the website.’
These are just two examples from the wealth of talent featured in the Symposium’s program. Nigel Helyer’s The Wireless House and other public art commissions, the Listening to Country audio ecology project working with women in prison and Jessie Oliver’s research on engaging citizen scientists with bioacoustic research are few others.
For me the takeaway is that audio ecology projects have an unquestionable artistic merit, with a healthy scientific curiosity and a participatory and community-led ethos that echoes other Community and Cultural Development (CCD) practice. But audio ecology practitioners inherent flexibility by passes the need to strictly define who is and who isn’t an artist in this field – which isn’t necessarily true of other artforms.