Fragments of Extinction

There are three principle primary old-growth equatorial rainforests remaining on the planet. They are in the Amazon, Central African Republic, and Borneo. They are homes to the oldest and richest ecosystems. I have visited all of the three places.

Fragments of Extinction is a document of their sonic environments. It is a vehicle for raising public awareness of the bio-acoustic aspects of our environmental heritage. It points to serious environmental issues, in particular the extinction of species. At the same time, I also note that in addressing these environmental issues, I am communicating the organic equilibrium and the intrinsic beauty of a primary soundscape in the context of a multi-disciplinary meeting between science and art.

This post is a description of my first trip, which was to the Amazon in Brazil in February 2002, and its presentation in the first Ear to the Earth festival in New York in October 2006.

The location of this trip took place in an area around the Gaspar River, a tributary of the Jauperì River which flows into the Rio Negro in the state of Amazonas, just one degree south of the equator. In the Amazon basin the water level between the dry and the rainy seasons can vary by as much as ten meters. Many forest areas are flooded and the borders between rivers and land erased. As a consequence, water shapes the entire region and it is, for the people who live in these places, the only possible means of movement. The interaction with the element water was a fundamental component of the trip from various points of view.

From an acoustic point of view, the three main habitats are substantially different for their sound absorption properties and reverberation due to the presence or absence of water:

• In the terrestrial forest habitat, sound is strongly reflected by high leafy canopies, diffracted by tree trunks, and largely absorbed by the ground. These characteristics create the typical delicate reverberation, which lends to the soundscape the suggestion of an indoor space where sound can only travel for short distances. (Listen also to tracks 3 and 5)

• In the flooded forest habitat, the sound properties of the water floor are introduced, creating a totally reflective environment. The analogy with an architectonic space such as a cathedral with ceilings and columns is immediate. Reverberation acts quite similarly, reaching an RT60 of as much as 1.8 seconds and giving to the flooded forest the unique sound of an indoor reverberated space. (Listen also to track 1)

• In the riverbank forest habitat on the other hand, there is no ceiling to reflect sound. Reverberated sound sources come only from the trees which flank the river, sometimes with perceivable echoes; the overall impression is that of being in an open space, but with many sounds coming from the surrounding forest or flooded forest. The sounds in this case can travel for long distances. (Listen also to track 6)

From a visual point of view, the large rivers are the only places that afford the possibility of a relatively deeper field of vision. The Amazon rainforest is, in the majority of cases, totally impenetrable to sight. The visual perception of spaces is always forbidden, closed. The ear acts as a compass, an organ providing a sense of distance and orientation. Inhabitants of the rainforest are very skillful with the creation of acoustic reference points, which are essential for moving and hunting. They know exactly which sounds are coming from sedentary animals and which ones are coming from species that move over greater spaces and which therefore cannot be used as a reference point.

During the rainy season the forest becomes navigable and opens up visually because of the absence of the lower undergrowth (which is flooded). However, it becomes less reliable as regards recognition of sound directions since the reverberation increases.

Probably the sounds of a primary rainforest are the most organized natural soundscapes you can find on Earth. Every single animal sound gesture has been in exactly the same place (in time, in frequency bandwidth, in space) for thousands of years, and you perceive this instantly. Furthermore, being in the equatorial area, sometimes you are in front of impressive time regularities. The Arara birds and the Parrots came to the forest riverbanks every day at 5.45 pm (if the weather was not rainy), made a racket for 30 minutes, and then left around 6.15 pm, leaving the acoustic space free for the Toucans..

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The dynamic equilibrium of this rich tropical biome was recorded at the onset of the rainy season throughout the entire circadian cycle for a period of twenty days. An accurate selection of the most significant moments among the original large corpus of field recordings has been recomposed in the format of a sound portrait of unaltered and unmixed soundscapes.

Three hierarchic levels of reconstruction and representation of the original environment were considered both in the field and in the studio analysis-editing process:

• The circadian cycle (24 hours) – It is along the equator where days are equal to nights all year round, and where natural rhythms are impressively regular and balanced. The sections of the overall work are proportionately and chronologically coherent with the original sound- scape beginning 2 hours after sunset;

• The main habitats – terrestrial forest, flooded forest, and riverbank forest; Different recording spots in the same habitat.

• The compositional process aims to create an organic sound portrait of the variety found in the entire sonic environment, focusing first on the chronological aspect then on the habitat and finally on the location aspects.

In 2003 these field recordings gave rise to the multimedia concert “Fragments of a Sonic World in Extinction”, presented also as a multi-channel sound installation with real-time spectrogram video projections and relevant fragments from the trip diary. The work has been created through a sequence of sound documentaries and eco-acoustic compositions. It has been widely performed in Europe and North America in theatres and contemporary art and music venues.