Special Reports

Last updated: 3 july, 2009 - 14:00 GMT

Q&A with an acoustic ecologist

Questions and answers about Acoustic Ecology with Dr John Levack Drever, Unit for Sound Practice Research, Goldsmiths, University of London

What is acoustic ecology?

The recurring theme that the expansive field of acoustic ecology is grounded is the notion of soundscape. Akin to its sister term landscape, soundscape is concerned with ties to the environment, but extending beyond landscape’s predilection to surfaces it encompasses the dimension of the environment that is sounding and audible. In fact acoustic ecology is used synonymously with soundscape studies.

John Levack Drever

John Levack Drever, Unit for Sound Practice, Goldsmiths, University of London

The potential scope of an acoustic ecology study of a natural locus may encompass the entirety of a prevailing ecological system, similarly in an urban setting a study may be inclusive of all sound emitting and sound receiving entities and their inter-relationship, which are not necessarily human or natural. Acoustic ecology can have as much to do with the ramifications of a sound as it can have with a sound’s initial cause, or the actual acoustic phenomenon itself, and the media that it passes through.

With Marshall McLuhan and Edmund Carpenter as manifest precursors, acoustic ecology was decisively founded and formulated in the late 1960s early 70s by R. Murray Schafer and his research group the World Soundscape Project, based in Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. In the opening to his seminal text, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977), Schafer announces:

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. These new sound, which differ in quality and intensity from those of the past, have alerted many researchers to the dangers of an indiscriminate and imperialistic spread of more and larger sounds into every corner of man’s life.

Critically, rather than getting fixated on the noise abatement agenda, acoustic ecology has shown from the very start a perspicacity for the soundscape, regarding it as a positive resource, something to be interpreted, studied and creatively designed. Something that is both culturally determined and in return helps determine culture. As well as the psychological, physiological, even pathological impact that the soundscape may have on us, of which we are seldom conscious, acoustic ecology cares very much for our everyday practice of the soundscape; the values, associations, memories and projections that we imbue the sounds around us with. It is this cultural and affective piquancy that is the hardest aspect to quantify. Moreover, in a sense the soundscape is a work-in-progress, as the physical environment is always in flux, and our perception of our surroundings is constantly being informed, rendering it ephemeral.

We may habitually act with a passive attitude a propos the soundscape, however Schafer reminds us that as we are all sound makers, and our day-to-day behaviour unavoidably contributes to the prevailing make-up of the soundscape, a soundscape that we share with our fellow inhabitants. We are collectively its composer, performer and audience, ergo Shafer ordains us with mutual responsibility.

When we talk of acoustic ecology as a discrete discipline this is a gross oversimplification, for as you can imagine with potentially such a large ambit, many more established disciplines come in to play: e.g. architecture, sociology, acoustics, anthropology, audiology, education, law, ornithology, ethnography, music, geography, cultural studies, engineering, to name a few. There is still much that these disciplines can bring to this rapidly emerging debate.

(Why) It is it important that we preserve sounds?

Murray Schafer has been passionately calling for the preservation of pristine soundscapes, those natural habitats relatively undisturbed by technological development, since the 70s. In the UK this attitude can be seen as part in parcel of the history of conservationalism and environmentalism, harking back to the likes of Wordsworth, John Muir et al.. And such a preservationist inclination has been and continues to be fundamental to the ideology of National Parks. For more information on the soundscapes of National Parks, in particular Dartmoor, see my paper Sounding Dartmoor: A case study on the soundscapes of rural England at the opening of the 21st Century that you can find click here.

It goes without question that such preservationist aims are both laudable and desirable. Beyond such remote locations, it is worth reflecting on the rapid change in our own prevailing culture and the environments that we inhabit not only in cities, but also dramatically in the countryside. Anecdotally, there is a feeling that the increasing homogenisation of the soundscape (i.e. places all sounding the same) is speeding up, yet no one is systematically keeping tabs on this change. This is not a prompt for some kind of museum-like stance, but it begs the question, shouldn’t we be considering the soundscape as an integral part of our heritage in the same light as we do for historic building facades? Typically, it is not until a specific feature of the soundscape has gone, that we notice its absence, and lament its passing. Max Dixon of the GLA writes:

Many sounds of ordinary, everyday life in a city acquire rich personal and community associations. Often these will not be recognised until a sound has largely disappeared from everyday experience. Then, on a chance hearing of a surviving example or something related, memories may come flooding back with surprising power. Sounds which in their first incarnation may have been of little apparent note, or even regarded negatively, may be recalled with fond memories of a lost past. (Earshot 5, UK and Ireland Soundscape Community, ed. Drever)

A strong auditory memory I carry from my own childhood is, being struck by the intense bang (or was it more of a thud) of Edinburgh Castle’s One O’Clock Gun. The castle towered down on the playground of George Heriot’s School, which I attended for 13 years, and yet the canon shot of the One O’Clock Gun never failed to get the adrenaline going. Returning a couple of months ago to make a sound recording, (almost 2 decades after my leaving) and on a clear day, as my watch passed the hour I was again shocked, but this time by the lack of thud. I began to question my own memory, but from conversations I had with former pupils whose recollections of the school span as far back as the 1940s, they all had similarly redolent thoughts of the One O’Clock Gun.

It transpires that in 2001 the calibre of the gun was updated from a 25 pounder to a 105mm Light Gun. This change was due to a diminishing store of ammunition for the older model, a change brought on by practical necessity, and yet as far as I can judge (although this is something I need to study further) the gun does not penetrate the south of the city any more. Now for current and future school kids this doesn’t really matter whilst amongst other worries we are facing a prolonged global recession, however I certainly feel an intimate connection, a veritable contiguity with those who share this auditory memory. I am sure we have similar stories.

Which sounds would you describe as being “endangered”?

On a CD I edited for Earshot (the journal of the UK and Ireland Soundscape Community) on the theme of disappearing sounds, the following sound recordings were submitted: typewriter, slam door trains, newsvendors’ cries, routemaster bus (in particular the bell), traditional woodcutting, scrap metal merchant’s trumpet, etc.

An exercise worth trying is to carry out a search on the BBC News website for stories related to noise abatement orders, and you will learn about the fate of cockerels, brass bands, pipe bands and church bells, all of these iconic outdoor sounds of Britain, and all in danger of being silenced by the law that can’t deal with culture beyond a sound pressure level (i.e. how loud it is).

It is interesting to note that some sounds that we thought we had lost have come around, such as the electric milk float accompanied by the euphony of early morning glass bottles.

How did you become an acoustic ecologist?

I have always been fascinated by sound. As a child I was drawn, not only to the One O’Clock Gun, but also to classical music, and in particular experimental music and music of the avant-garde. As a music student in North Wales, Norfolk and Devon I started to record everyday sound for use within electronic music composition, and this has lead to spending more and more time out there listening to and recording the sounds around us. I spent a couple of years (2000-2) coordinating a public art/ soundscape project, Sounding Dartmoor, with the University of Plymouth and Aune Head Arts. This project certainly helped galvanize the thoughts I had as to the value of soundscape studies. Today some of my work is directed towards natural history having done projects with the RSPB and WWF, which as very much an amateur naturalist I love, however most of my soundscape related work is about the residual patina of everyday life.

Is acoustic ecology art or science or both?

Acoustic ecology highlights the qualitative aspects of the soundscape, which are by their very nature subjective, tending on the ineffable. This is the very stuff that arts practice is primed at exploring, exposing, interpreting, discussing and communicating. It is not by accident that many of the central figures in the field have also been composers and sound artists.

Science certainly has its role to play, for in order to take the discipline forward, to actually make an impact on urban policy and design, there is a necessity to have quantifiable and measurable scales. This is beginning to happen, albeit belatedly, check out the click Positive Soundscapes project.

I for one value a sonically and culturally diverse, heterogeneous, vibrant even surprising soundscape, rather than a regimented, predictable one, which I believe ensues regimented public behaviour. Perhaps the best role for acoustic ecology is to propose models of good practice, which are based on localised solutions rather than universally applicable ones. Natural acoustic ecologies (if there are any left) offer us sustainable models of good practice to learn from and emulate. Of course we mustn’t forget that the blind and partially sighted rely on predictable and reliable sound signals. I would certainly be interested to hear opinions on this matter?

Why don’t people take more notice of sound?

I think people care very much for their sounds, and habitually use sound in a highly nuanced and sophisticated manner, however in our busy lives we are selective in what we to listen to. Many of us have given up listening to the physical environment we are in at all, opting for our own choice of soundtrack via noise cancellation headphones. This is not surprising as in a city like London we are overwhelmed by noise, which carries negligible useful information. Where I work in South East London the sirens of the emergency services are continuous and overlap. For a visitor this is distressing, whilst for a resident it is simply part of the backdrop; it is when the sirens stop that we get anxious.

Do you need qualifications to be acoustic ecologist?/Can anyone join in?

At essence acoustic ecology is an attitude to listening that anyone with open ears can partake. For more information on the field, visit click World Forum for Acoustic Ecology.

What’s the favourite sound you’ve recorded?

During the Sounding Dartmoor project a Dartmoor resident nominated a cattle grid to be included in the study. Cattle girds became a bit of a pet project for me, and I ended up spending some time and effort making recordings by the side of many of Dartmoor’s cattle grids. They are enigmatic found musical objects, surfeit with nuance and symbolism. After time my listening shifted from the strumming of the grids by the passing cars with their wide acoustic horizons, to what I could hear between the gaps. I find it a useful device for tuning into the background ambiance. You can hear an excerpt from Cattle Grids of Dartmoor click here.

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