Tag: ecology

Become Listening

singing bird

Image by Caroline Granycome, via Flickr

After discussing in my previous posts the role of the creative act as a revolutionary force and the role of nature as a possible means of recovering our elemental imagination, I’d like to delve deeper into the natural world to consider the soundscape. Coined by composer R. Murray Schafer, the soundscape has become something of a cultural and scientific phenomenon. Composers such as Schafer and writers such as Bernie Krause urge contemporary listeners to take off their headphones and venture into the sonic environment of nature where the natural soundscape is a “tapestry,” an “orchestra”—or, in the words of Schafer, “a huge composition going on all the time.”

Here in North America, our initiation into natural sound often begins with birds. However, while listening to individual sounds in an environment, we cannot take for granted that every sound is present within a larger, holistic entity. This “biophony” is nested within specific environments. It was on walks and hiking trips listening to birds that I first imagined the possibilities of music growing out of the soundscape, of nature as some kind of musical utterance. It was while immersed in natural sound and experience that I came to believe that by engaging with the soundscape we may make an honest contribution to restoring humanity’s relationship with the natural world. It was while listening to birds that I came to believe that the origins and evolution of human music reside within the landscapes and soundscapes of the animate earth.

As composers, our creative existence draws upon elements of our own sonic worlds, metaphors upon metaphors, translating experience upon experience. Our experience in these sonic environments shapes our auditory awareness and guides our creative journey as sound artists. Some composers abstract sounds from their original source, manipulating them into wonderful textures and meanings. Others use sound in a more primal form, performing in the soundscape or using natural sound that has been carefully integrated within human-generated sound.

At this point, the idea of listening to our environment as music can be considered a venerable tradition within our musical culture. From Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète to Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises, John Cage’s radical ventures into the aesthetics of sound to R. Murray Schafer’s egalitarian and ecological philosophies: deeply listening to the world around us has established itself, in the words of Barry Truax, as a “useful, if not absolutely necessary condition for living in a sonically balanced environment.” And in this balance, the voices of women have provided some of the best role models for engaging with nature. Pauline Oliveros points out that “deep listening is a lifetime practice…deep listening involves going below the surface of what is heard and also expanding to the whole field of sound…this is the way to connect with the acoustic environment and all that inhabits it.” Composers such as Hildegard Westerkamp and Emily Doolittle creatively inhabit the natural acoustic worlds of birds, animals, forests, and human communities. All share a sense that the soundscape is a place where the cultural and aesthetic boundaries between music and nature, and nature and humanity, are blurred—where listening can change moral, spiritual, social, and environmental conditions. Like all aspects of the Anthropocene, we have come to sonically dominate our environments, silencing many voices. Rachel Carson articulated this in the sonic metaphor of Silent Spring. More than fifty years later, many bird populations around the United States are again in decline. Olivier Messiaen famously considered birds the greatest musicians. How many of their songs do you know? How many would you miss if they were gone?

As musicians, our ability to spatially discern sound, mimic and create sounds, hear relationships between sounds, and to devise metaphors and meanings in sound are all drawn upon the sonic geography of the earth. Author Steven Mithen hypothesizes the possible evolutionary origins of music by suggesting that language was preceded by something neither wholly linguistic nor musical but represented by an anagram he coined: “Hmmmm”—holistic, multimodal, manipulative, musical, and mimetic. The last two, I believe, have special significance. Many indigenous traditions around the world from Papua New Guinea to the Central African Rainforest to Oregon and Alaska incorporate holistic, multimodal, and mimetic approaches in their musical cultures. Author Ellen Dissanayake argues in her book Homo Aestheticus that art and music are fundamental to human evolution. Neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel writes of the Pirahã, a small tribe in the Brazillian Amazon, explaining, “Members of this culture speak a language without numbers or a concept of counting. Their language has no fixed terms for colors. They have no creation myths, and they do not draw, aside from simple stick figures. Yet they have music in abundance.”

If the worlds experienced by humans are so diverse, creating such distinct cultures, how much more diverse must be the worlds of other species, of birds and whales and the beings beyond our own sensory perception? Yet, just as we share genetic and elemental origins and characteristics, we too must share cultural characteristics and elements. These are what E.O. Wilson calls biophilia, the connections human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life. It is not a coincidence that our word “culture,” which signifies human spiritual, intellectual, and creative growth, also signifies biologic and organic cultivation. Ecology goes beyond linear causation; it is about complex relationships, infinite connection. Song may not evoke meaning on its own; it, too, is about relationships, contexts, and connections.

According to phenomenologist Merleu-Ponty, our immediate experience in the world is an experience of reciprocal encounter—of tension, communication, and commingling, a process that draws us into relation. Just like any organism, our bodies and our senses have evolved in interaction and reciprocity with our environment and the other-than-human life world, what we call nature. Just as our bodies have co-evolved themselves in union with our surroundings, so too has our consciousness co-evolved out of the sounds of the living world.

It is with these understandings that we depart on our journey of discovery. Our environments resonate deep within us. The rich diversity of music around the world is a result of people living for millennia in harmony with their own physical and cultural geographies. The sounds of the animate earth—the birds, the wind, the animals, the water, the air, and the people—all contribute to the music of place. Even in places where musicians have little or no intimate experience of the natural world, there are still qualities of music unique to specific places, regional musics that speak to cultural environments. But how did the sounds and rhythms of the earth influence the birth and growth of these traditions? How does our experience of particular natural environments influence the music we make? And how might a closer listening and examination of traditions within nature contribute to a renewal of our own culture within the nature world? We are ready to rediscover these questions with renewed perspectives and fresh ears. In a world saturated by sounds, genres, gizmos, machines, and numerous “electronic hallucinations,” our capacity to truly step out of the world we’ve created can be daunting. It takes incredible courage, concentration, and discipline to meditate and deeply listen. John Muir recommended we take long, quiet walks in nature, frequently employing the metaphors of music to describe his sensual experience in the natural world. As composers, if we bring our innate skills into the experience of nature we realize, as Muir said, that going into nature is like going home.

Imagine the cultural transformation that could unfold if all composers made a conscious effort to listen deeply to nature and formulated their own imaginative response. The world of the soundscape is a wellspring of creative knowledge and potential. Perhaps, Pauline Oliveros, leaves us with the most enigmatic, yet inspiring advice, citing the holistic and symbiotic aspects of the “life practice” of deeply listening: “It’s an offering and a possibility…It comes back to listening again. If you’re listening, you’re not wandering; when you’re listening, you listen. You are listening. You become listening.”

Chicago: Hiking the Song Path, hearing music everywhere

These golden weeks of early fall are the perfect time for Chicagoans to get outside and engage our senses. Perhaps, with the help of composer and sound artist Ryan Ingebritsen, we might engage our sense of listening in particular.
When I heard about Ingebritsen’s Song Path project — a venture that began in 2010 as a series of “sonic guided tours” of Minnesota State Parks — I jumped at the chance to speak with him about it. The Song Path idea intrigues multiple layers of my existence as a musician, lover of nature, and meditator. For Ingebritsen, Song Path is a practice that explores guided meditation and hiking as a compositional form.


Ingebritsen recently designed a Song Path hike at the North Park Village Nature Center on the outskirts of Chicago. I caught up with him to chat about what it means for a primarily electronic artist to lead troupes of people through the woods.

Ellen McSweeney: You work a lot with electronic media, from the Millennium Park sound system to electrified sewing machines. But when you described the Chicago Song Path event, you emphasized the lack of microphones and electronic equipment. Is it refreshing for you, to just work with nature and the human ear?

Ryan Ingebritsen: When I first started working with electronics, it was actually quite a leap for me. Up to that point, I had viewed myself as an acoustic composer who would not get involved in electronics or amplification. In those days there was much more of an aesthetic separation between the two trajectories, at least at music conservatories. But I found that I was always wanting to orchestrate in a way where one sound kind of emerged out of another, and wanted to literally have one sound “become” another and embody something of the other sound. That is when I started working with electronics and amplification more seriously. That led to a career-long obsession with interaction and the interactive process, which in turn led to my obsession with interdependent performance practice between artists of different media or disciplines.

I’d spend hours in the studio with sound, listening to the subtle details that made up those sounds. And in performance, I often play the role of sound environment manipulator, focusing on the specific sound environment in which the performer and audience live. So in a sense, what I do with Song Path is not much different from my live performance practice. I’m just moving an audience through an existing space to create a composition, rather than manipulating a sound environment while they sit in one place.

EM: How did you first come upon the idea of Song Path, and how has the practice evolved for you in recent years?

RI: I first started to consider the idea of Song Path while just hiking through the woods with my wife Shannon on camping trips. I would find myself in a place with interesting sounds, like a swamp with lots of frogs or field of crickets, and would notice how sometimes these sounds seemed to appear almost out of nowhere and at other times increased gradually in a very dramatic way.
I think one such specific hike at Starved Rock State Park really got me interested in the idea of doing it as a musical event. The various cavernous spaces that had been carved by water over millions of years seemed to imply different “rooms” for which short pieces could be composed. An audience could hike from location to location and hear a multi-movement work.

I got my first opportunity to really develop the Song Path in 2010 through the support of a McKnight Foundation Visiting Composer Fellowship to Minnesota. In certain spaces, such as Whitewater and Banning State Parks in Minnesota, I found that placing musicians around the park to make noises in very specific locations allowed various sonic elements to be revealed. But my intention with putting them there was only to instigate something that was already present in the space. For example, some natural reverberations exist in a valley when one yells in a specific acoustic node. Put a drum in that node, and a spectacular sound is revealed.

EM: Are walks like these a way to rebalance and refocus your attention, in a world where 24/7 headphones and sonic overload are everywhere?

RI: I think that it is an opportunity to teach the audience to experience their environment in a different way. The head of interpretive programs at Whitewater State Park once told me that after engaging in a purely sonic meditation with his eyes closed, he felt that all of his senses were heightened. I have noticed this myself. Colors seem a bit more vivid and smells a bit more strong. Maybe there’s even a little bit of euphoria.

I will say that a heightened awareness of one’s environment can also be quite a shock to the system, as evidenced by a quick trip I took to Chicago in the middle of the first set of hikes I did. Just getting out of my car onto Western Avenue nearly knocked me over.

EM: Have you ever charted an urban Song Path? What are some of the sonic spots in Chicago that you might put on such a walk?

RI: I have done this for myself a few times, though never with an official audience. One such hike was in Millennium Park. You start it in Lurie Garden, a place that exists because of a man-made structure atop a parking garage that was dug out of a landfill built over 100 years ago that used to be part of Lake Michigan. Then, a garden was planted that reflects the natural landscape that would have existed at that time where a bustling city now stands. We often talk about the intrusion of mankind on nature. This feels more like the intrusion of nature on a man-made environment. It gives you a very small taste of what the place may have sounded like years in the past. But the garden itself also provides a sonic shield from the surrounding city.

I tend to gravitate towards locations where the natural sound environment and man-made sound environment intersect in some specific way. That’s not hard to get, since a sonic landscape untouched by man-made sound almost does not exist on the planet anymore. My friends Eric Leonardson and Dan Godston, associated with the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, have also done hikes in urban spaces, though perhaps with a slightly different aesthetic focus.

EM: What kinds of folks turn out for the walks, and what sorts of reactions and experiences do you witness while leading the walks?
RI: My first round consisted mainly of people who were camping in the Minnesota parks. I literally went tent to tent and talked to people, as did the park rangers. So I had quite a mix of people: from members of the arts scene in Minneapolis to people who were not aware that classical music was something that people still did. Some people said they could not think of what they were experiencing as “music,” but found it a profound experience. I am interested in what that experience is much more than I am interested in what it is called.

Many of my family hikes were attended by parents who were hunters. They said that what I had been doing in the woods — listening deeply and trying not to disturb the natural surroundings so I could hear everything — was very similar to the practice of hunting, or at least what some of them referred to as “real hunting” where it’s just you and the animals: no traps or other tricks. Animals are so sensitive to what they hear that any small movement or noise you make will disturb them and give them some sense of danger. This kind of hunting is a practice of listening more than anything else, and they spend hour upon hour, day after day doing it each season.

I had a hike where a group of atheist hippies from Minneapolis walked alongside a couple that was taking a road trip across the USA visiting different mega-churches. It is rare that a musical experience can engender such commonality among different groups. Musical communication often relies so much on idiom, which in itself often has social or perhaps even political implication. I’ve seen people almost get into physical fights over musical taste, in arguments far more heated than any political debate I have ever seen. But the experience of the hike seems to help tap into something a bit more universal.
Ryan Ingebritsen is the composer of 3 Singers, an innovative opera/sound installation created in collaboration with director and choreographer Erica Mott. The piece will have its Chicago premiere in January.

Common Ground

Over the past year and a half, I’ve been chairing my institution’s University Senate. In addition to being able to help enact change at a high level there, it also gives me the opportunity to see the entire community from a vantage point that most faculty rarely experience. Recently we’ve been revising our general education curriculum, which has forced all the departments to compare and contrast their own ways of doing business both in their major and non-major courses. The result of this endeavor is that what one might perceive from the outside as a singular bloc of like-minded entities (all encapsulated under the moniker “academia”) is really an extremely rich and diverse confederation of factions, each having as many if not more differences than similarities. The commonalities that bind them—teaching and research are the two big ones—are geared with an inward focus such that it is easy for everyone within their own group to imagine that everyone else sees the world from their perspective, and it is only through exercises that force everyone’s views and procedures out into the open that the vast differences become apparent.

These ideas were echoed with immense resonance earlier this week when I brought the recent essay “Audience Cultivation in American New Music” by Sam Hillmer into my beginning composition course for an in-class discussion. Most of my students had not imagined that there could be interaction or an overlap between Hillmer’s worlds of “concerts” vs. “shows” and “bands” vs. “ensembles” (even though they all had experiences in both of those scenes), and the ensuing discussion explored what those various concepts entailed and what options they presented for themselves as burgeoning creators.

As we talked through the various issues, I began to think about how deeply this “same but different” phenomenon runs throughout the music industry as a whole and the new music community in particular. From a certain distance, an objective observer could see the entire world of those who create music as one interrelated bloc; from the other end of the spectrum, each creator can easily be distinguished from all others by the individuality of their work. It is between these two boundaries that our various and fluid musical factions begin and grow.

One prevalent trope from decades past suggests that musical factions within the new music community were in constant strife, while the current environment suggests a shift towards a more communal, “all styles are welcome” concept. Both of these ideas are, I imagine, a bit too simplistic, as things were not quite so black and white decades ago and the idea of today’s new music scene as being bereft of distinct factions is more than a little optimistic. Hillmer’s DIY genre, for instance, could be seen as a progenitor of the elusive “indie-” or “alt-” labels that get thrown about from time to time to describe a wide array of artists (very few of whom actually agree or appreciate the gesture), but one would have a very difficult time conflating the two completely.
Where the new music community and composers specifically do well these days, from my perspective, is in keeping an open line of communication and a relatively open mind to new ideas. Taste and individual interests will always drive us to those composers and performers that resonate with us, but I think we have found common ground from which to propel our artistic dialogue into the future.