On Ear to the Earth:
The recognition that our interaction with our environment, both natural and man-made, is a crucial issue of our time has inspired composers and artists to respond with an enormous and compelling body of works. Our plan for this ongoing festival is to bring a large sampling of those works into galleries, concert halls, and public spaces in New York City, to surround them with discussion, interaction, and knowledge, and to expand their impact through the internet. Our goal is to engage people in environmental issues.
Our idea is to use sound to know the world. We'll hear the song of the Butcher Bird from the Bosavi rainforest, negotiate sounds and stories from New Delhi, New York, and other places, experience the sounds of life along the Danube, visit the North Pole, listen to the Amazon River, walk through the sounds of narrow streets in Vancouver, focus on the ecosystem of Manhattan ... We'll discuss issues with the creators of the works, take walking sound tours through the streets of New York, and in different ways experience the immense diversity of works that are based on the sounds of our environment.
There is a certain universality in basing music on what we hear in the world around us. As Steven Feld, who studied Kaluli culture in Papua New Guinea, pointed out in The Soundscape Newsletter, June, 1994, one of the "sounds of the Bosavi environment, layered as a ground to the remarkable figures of avian life, is the hiss of water. Runoff from Mt. Bosavi, an extinct volcano, crisscrosses the Bosavi lands, turning into numerous rivers, creeks, falls, and streams ... Water flow also animates much of Kaluli musical imagination, as all waterway terms are also the names for the musical intervals, the segments of song, the patterns of rhythm, and the contours of melody."
But for us today, our environment-based compositions, as much as they may derive from our perceptions of the world around us, have a larger meaning. The compositions less reflect harmony with our environment and more represent an attempt to experience, understand, engage, and interact with a complex world. As David Dunn, environmental sound artist, wrote: "My foremost interest these days concerns ways that formal concepts and techniques of music and sound art can contribute to scientific research. Not only can sound artists reveal new phenomena within the natural world, their creative strategies for creating a compelling sonic experience out of the sounds of the natural world can have a deeper application within science itself."
Our focus on environmental sounds has a history that begins in the early 1970s with the World Soundscape Project, established as an educational and research group by R. Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. It grew out of Schafer's initial attempt to draw attention to the sonic environment through a course in noise pollution. As Schafer wrote in The Tuning of the World: "The soundscape of the world is changing. Modern man is beginning to inhabit a world with an acoustic environment radically different from any he has hitherto known ... " Schafer's idea was that we should understand how we interact, individually and collectively, with the sounds around us, and that our understanding could lead us towards controlling our sonic environment. It was the beginning of a new field called Acoustic Ecology. Among the first musical works to emerge from the World Soundscape Project was The Vancouver Soundscape, in 1973, motivated not as art but as a study of the local sonic environment.
The word 'soundscape' quickly became a musical genre. But unlike other musical genres, soundscapes are never abstract. By definition, a soundscape refers to a specific place. It is rooted in the real world, and brings with it attitudes, feelings, memories, associations, all related to its place. Soundscapes can be composed. They can be edited, specific sounds can be chosen, and the sounds can be processed, but their reference to a specific place must remain clear. Soundscapes, in other words, play the world in sound.
And creating soundscapes is exploring the world. Young Digital Creators (YDC) is a UNESCO web-based project, managed through the UNESCO DigiArts Portal, that supports youth in using digital media to express their thoughts regarding specific problems. The YDC environment-oriented subjects at the moment include water ('The Sounds of Water') and urbanization ('Scenes and Sounds of My City'). (Other subjects are 'Youth Creating and Communicating on HIV/AIDS' and 'Peace in Africa'.) Young students become engaged in subjects through sound.
Can we become engaged in the environment through sound? We have no ear-lids, as Schafer pointed out. We are always hearing. But are we listening?