I was fortunate to be able to work with Nick Penner (M.Arch – UBC) while he was still an undergrad at UBC Geography. Fidelitas, taken from Nick’s recently defended architectural thesis project, showcases his continued interested in noise, acoustics and urban space. As Nick writes: “As life in the Anthropocenic city challenges us to reimagine our connection to the natural world, this project will amplify noise to demonstrate how aesthetic relationships with environments are revealed through active listening.”
I am part of an interesting collection of arty/anthropology-y takes on sound, politics, and the Anthropocene (in its various incarnations and challenges-to). My contribution listens to ice, bowhead cetology and the impassioned words of Chris Clark, who has spent over 40 years studying bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea region (Alaska) and written extensively about various challenges these animals now face. Check it out below:
I love the AudioMoth technology, and I love the AudioMoth idea. It is promoted as an affordable, DIY inspired piece of audio recording equipment – and it actually is those things! Thus, I find it a bit of a bummer that the folks making the tool have a different approach for AudioMoth casings, which are necessary in recording situations where the plastic bag approach is insufficient. Here’s a very cheap workaround, which you can build from IKEA and hardware store materials (twist-ties, newspaper, a drill). I am sure the official option on offer is wonderful and functional, but if you don’t have the university budget for it, try this instead.
At this point, many more chapters could be added to Jennifer Gabrys’ prescient 2010 book Digital Rubbish. One set of pages might be devoted to the 5.6 Billion $ (USD) “bioacoustics sensing market”, about which I am working on a piece with Karen Bakker. Thousands of new sensing tools – portable recorders, digital hydrophones, automated sensors – are now on the market, and with them, batteries, casings, plastic sheets, and all sorts of of electronic gear. These tools are regularly put out for months in difficult environmental conditions, where they suffer damage, shed parts, or are completely obliterated (as happened to me with a few tools on the Pacific West Coast). The upshot: tiny bits of sound recording rubbish are being added to the welter of electronic stuff that occupies a not-so-small section of our Capitalocene payload…
The ecological residue of contemporary media rarely gets a sonic treatment, which is something I was fortunate to consider when Gunnar Cerwen shared some WAVs from one of the damaged AudioMoths we found at Spillpengen in March 2021. The ripped plastic bag – probably pecked away at by a seagull or an eagle – still held the unit intact (although other units did not do so well). But there was a new audible aspect to what Gay Hawkin’s once called the plastic bags’ “stubborn materiality” and probably a few more stories to tell from the rest of the inventory too…
Gunnar Cerwen (SLU Alnarp) is one of the most talented field recording practitioners I’ve come across in Sweden, and I feel fortunate to be collaborating with him on the Spillpeng project. In 2012, he was asked to develop an audio catalogue of the SLU-Alnarp, a beautiful bucolic agricultural school in Skane that boasts a number of gorgeous listening spots (during off-highway hours). Below is a sample of his “Japandammen” (Japanese Garden) recording, which captures dawn chorus in this unique site in Southern Sweden (aka the province of Skane).
Spillepengen is what geographers Matthew Gandy and Sandra Jasper (2020) would call a “remnant ecology.” As the last remaining slice of a once dominant coastal landscape feature, it evokes the uneven histories shaping the social and ecological development of southern Skane. For thousands of years, beach meadows like these have been crucial landing spots for migratory birds passing through the region. Because these meadows periodically flooded with sea salt water, they were never used for intensive agriculture, and came to function instead as common pasture areas that were relatively undeveloped. With the urbanization of nearby Malmo towards the end of the 19th century, most of the areas adjacent to Spillpengen were converted to light industry. In the 1970s and 1980s, part of Spillepengen was subjected to active landfilling, and the resulting peninsula-like tract now houses a waste facility and shooting range. Since then, the roads bordering to the east have steadily taken on more activity with the suburbanization of regional villages. The unlikely decision to establish a nature reserve here in 1991 – one which includes a secluded animal memorial site where deceased pets can be cremated – has proven to be fortuitous. Over the years, over 250 bird species in total have been seen on the site – making it one of the most dynamic urban birding areas in the country.
Inspired by recent academic efforts to attend to mostly forgotten urban natures – as are captured in Gandy and Jasper’s wonderful The Botanical City (2020) – Gunnar Cerwen (SLU) and I are seeking to understand the acoustic ecological composition of Spillepengen. For most residents, the site remains a largely forgotten one, but we suspect that changes in the acoustical composition of bird activity portends a great deal of rich and insightful ecological activity. Among local ornithologists, for example, the site continues to play host to a number of well-known local birds, including the tofsvipa (lapwing); rödbena (redshank); and skärfläcka (cutting spot), the latter in particular being a beloved species. Meanwhile, a number of species have more or less disappeared during the last 10 years: gulärla, ängspiplärka, sävsparv. Considerable changes in observed greyling geese activity, whose population has surged since the 1980s, are perhaps the best indicator of local ecological change from an avian standpoint. It is suspected that more geese than before are staying around the area as a result of milder winters.
Using AudioMoth recording technologies, we are constructing a series of transects along the waterfront area of the site, which we hope to monitor continuously during the spring returns (e.g., Spring 2021). Our primary aim in this research is to establish bird occupancy data in Spillepengen via acoustical methods, an effort we will (eventually) seek to publicize as the basis of renewed nature education efforts for local Malmo youth. Occupancy modeling is based on repeat observations at sites to estimate detectability and account for imperfect detection when estimating the probability of a species occupying a site or patch. This will allow us to further understand and specify reported changes in regional avian community composition: including the decline in wading birds and the concomitant rise of greyling geese over the last twenty years; the co-incidence of local noise with avian activities; and changing calling patterns in light of other land use changes.
In past projects working with social planners and youth, I have been repeatedly asked about group collaborations and contemporary music-making. They want to explore social values through sound making, but the idea of a convening live band, School of Rock-style, doesn’t always appeal, because kids don’t always want to learn ACDC covers and play drum-kit as much. But much of the music they do want to develop — hip hop, beats, dub techno — gets made via computer systems that hardly promote group activity. Here’s an idea I am dying to try with some people: a bunch of Korg Volca Drums, a mixer, and a speaker plus wires (You could use other drum machines too). The system could support much of the contemporary stuff, while experimentally promoting multiple inputs and skill levels (inc. room for microphone and guitars in the mix too) and a more collaborative ethos.
An industrial city on the outskirts of Stockholm, Sodertalje is a global capital of the Syriac Orthodox Christian diaspora, an ethnic and religious minority group. The Ronna Forest is a broad swathe of densely wooded area surrounding the Ronna housing projects to the north and northwest of the city. For many local youngsters, the local forest is a “green avoidance space” – an unfamiliar zone where wild boars and other disagreeable elements threaten safe passage.
The aim of this VIVA PLAN collaboration with Sodertalje Kommun (2019- _) is to engage a sonically-mediated co-learning experiment with interested Ronna youth, specifically around the nearby Ronna Forest. Our gambit is to engage Ronna Forest as a musical resource and means of asking broader questions about youth identity, community belonging, and nature. Working with producer Nicos Merchatskis (https://soundcloud.com/spiritualimprima) the rotating crew of interested Ronna youth aims to harness field recordings of forest sounds and the community-constitutive powers of music (and specifically: techno) to cultivate ideas about nature. Might attitudes about the local environment change as its constitutive sounds become materials for new forms of collective, creative expression?
We call ourselves “Ung Tra” or “Young tree” (Swedish). All the sounds (minus the techno/house) will be sourced from the forest and its myriad contents. Check out a track!
** Editors Note – Sadly, this project was ruined by coronavirus, which made the subsequent collaboration meetings impossible.
Katharine Ordway, Fall 2018 is a sound work that represents a stationary gesture amid the distanced movements comprising the Listening to the Mississippi project (which itself belongs to the Anthropocene River project). The sounds that make up this 15-minute piece, drawing from a combination of automated and hand-held recorders, describe a single location along the river’s northern section, 22 miles southeast of Minneapolis: the Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area (or Field Station). By attending to this one site through the medium of sound, the aim to convey how ecology, human activity, and the river’s present-day proximities to military goods shipment and Tar Sands oil-by-rail can all be brought to the fore.
Recording once every hour for three months, Ritts produced an archive of 1800 sounds, each no longer than five minutes in duration. From these, he distilled moments that convey ideas about locating within a dramatically disturbed riparian ecology. The resulting aesthetic is textured by the intransigence of the recording technology, the nearby water sources, and the Field Station’s proximity to noisy rail, road, and airplane transit routes. Fuzzy timbres, lo-fi thumps, and scraping engines create aural thickets that register associations between different kinds of circulatory machinery. Allusions to the site’s industrial claustrophobia are broken by calls from migrating ducks and geese, the rush of wind across trees, and other interludes of late fall in Minnesota.
Katharine Ordway, Fall 2018 consists of mostly untreated sounds with some minor filtering and gating. The bulk of the sounds were captured using a Song Meter SM4 acoustic recorder, with supplemental sounds from a Sound Devices 702 recorder (fixed with two Sennheiser MKH-20 Omnidirectional Microphones). Listening with headphones is highly recommended.
Photo by John Kim. The composer extends a special thanks to John Kim, who provided both generosity and consistent logistical support. Mastering by David Carlsson at Gula Studio.