This is part three of a four-part series about my own odyssey as a sound composer/designer. It is an expanded version of the topics I presented at Invisible Places 2017, held in Ponta Delgada, Azores, in April 2017.
In part two of this series I described how I have used algorithmic techniques to create artificial sound environments for dance, theatre, etc. This post shows how I became aware of documentary soundscape art and acoustic ecology.
The field of acoustic ecology or soundscape studies really began at Simon Fraser University in Canada where, starting in the late 1960s, the composer R. Murray Schafer founded the World Soundscape Project to create an awareness of our sonic environment and to guard against noise pollution and other detriments to meaningful listening. Other students and friends became active in the field, including the now-noted sound artists Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp. This work ultimately led to the founding in 1993 of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, an organization that has sponsored conferences in many cities around the world.
In the early 1990s I attended the first WFAE conference, which happened to be held in Stockholm, Sweden. There I met Murray Schafer, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Barry Truax. I seem to remember another Canadian sound artist, this one from eastern Canada, Claude Shryer, whose work I have admired for years. (It is possible I met Claude at another conference.)
My own presentation in Stockholm pretty much centered on the topics I presented in part two of this series. After my paper, Hildegard Westerkamp came up to me and said something to effect that “besides being a composer, you should also be an acoustic ecologist.”
The field of soundscape art was developing. Artists working in the genre generally went out and recorded sounds in nature and urban environments and produced collages, “soundscape compositions,” from those recordings. This is somewhat similar to musique concrète except the recorded sounds are not modified and the goal is not purely aesthetic but also documentary, preserving the sounds of a specific place.
I had been teaching, at my Dutchess Community College post, a rudimentary form of musique concrète as a tool of sound design for cinema and radio. But Hildegard’s comments made me think about adding a documentary focus in my courses, especially considering the fact that I was living in an area (the Hudson River Valley) known for its scenic beauty. I had never been aware, however, of anyone trying to capture the sonic qualities of the area, though later I did discover the work of Annea Lockwood, who recorded a CD of sounds of the river itself.
The next semester I was teaching both an introductory sound technology course and a course in web design. We had a number of portable recorders with external microphones (in those days DAT recorders), so I asked students in the sound course to figure out where the most interesting sounds were that they knew about and make a list. From that I asked each student to record at least one sound from those chosen. Then I had my web design class create a website for Hudson Valley sounds, describing each location and including a short sound clip. Here are a few samples:
The year we recorded the sound was a busy one for cicadas. These are good to record in stereo as the stereo field sometimes seems to move with the bug sounds.
- Widow Jane Mine
This was a former cement mine that was abandoned about 50 years ago and is now a visitor attraction in Rosendale, New York. Part of the mine is filled with water, but the out-of-water part has an amazing acoustic, as the short clip below shows.
Eagles are very common in the Hudson Valley. In fact, I once saw a gorgeous bald eagle fly by my 5th-floor apartment terrace in Poughkeepsie, New York. These were recorded in an aviary as sounds from eagles in the wild would be hard to capture up close.
- Rhinebeck Aerodrome
The Rhinebeck Aerodrome (in Rhinebeck, New York, just north of Poughkeepsie) has the largest collection in the eastern U.S. of very old airplanes (some as early as 1903) that still fly. Many have been used in movies. This is the sound of one very old plane engine as it taxis.
SOUNDSCAPES AND MUSIC
I will close this blog with a music piece that includes natural sounds from a soundscape as well as music.
In the early 1990s I was invited to be a speaker in the chapel at the Star Island Conference on the Arts, sponsored by the Unitarian church and held on Star Island, New Hampshire, about 8 miles off the coast of Portsmouth. I had been there at the conference the year before teaching collage photography. There is a chapel on the island that has no electricity and is used for evening meetings by candlelight.
I had noticed that there were interesting sounds on the island. There were off-shore foghorns that produced tones to guide ships, as well as a bell on the chapel that happened to be tuned to the same pitch as the horns. There were faint bell buoys as well.
I decided to create a piece that could be performed in the chapel for the evening meeting. It was warm and the windows were open. I timed the piece to the sounds of the foghorn, had someone ready to ring the church bell at intervals, and wrote some simple music for Suzuki hand chimes (which I brought with me) and flute. The musicians started out away from the chapel and walked forward. Once they got inside, the piece added sound from a pump organ.
Later I created a piece based on that which incorporated the sounds from the island – church bell, faint foghorns, fainter bell buoys, and synthesized sounds to replace the actual hand bells and flute. Since it was intended to be a nostalgic piece about leaving the island, I also used the sounds from the boat that takes people back to the mainland and added thunder sounds even though they did not occur on the day the boat left. Finally, as a kind of “memory” I included a distant voice from one of the other speakers, who talked about Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. That play resonates with me because it was inspired by the discovery of Bermuda in 1609 by Admiral Sir George Somers, to whom I am related on my father’s side.
The hybrid piece, containing soundscape fragments and electronic sound, was used in the theatre piece Psalm directed by Ann Wilson and performed at Dutchess Community College of the State University of New York.
“Leaving Star Island”
In the fourth, and final, post of this series I will be discussing some of my current approaches to sound art and soundscapes.