“Now I began to hear owls, screech (?) owls, at a distance up-stream; but we hardly got nearer to them, as if they retreated before us. At length, when off Wheeler’s grape and cranberry meadow, we heard one near at hand. The rhythm of it was pe-pe-ou ; this once or twice repeated, but more of a squeal and somewhat human. Or do not all strange sounds thrill us as human, till we have learned to refer them to their proper source? They appeared to answer one another half a mile apart; could be heard from far woods a mile off.

The wind has risen and the echo is poor; it does not reverberate up and down the river. No sound of a bullfrog, but steadily the cricket-like Rana palustris alongshore.

Rowse heard a whip-poor-will at Sleepy Hollow tonight. No scent of muskrats.”

–Henry David Thoreau, Journal entry for September 4th, 1854

Which of these owls do you think Thoreau heard?

Short-eared owl
Northern Saw-whet owl
Eastern Screech-Owl

1 [Changed in pencil, evidently at a later date, to “mole cricket.”]


A World Beneath the Ice

January 31, 2012

Put your ear to the ice and listen to the sounds of the Weddell seals

“In the deep hollow this side of Britton’s Camp, I heard a singular buzzing sound from the ground, exactly like that of a large fly or bee in a spider’s web. I kneeled down, and with pains traced it to a small bare spot as big as my hand, amid the snow, and searched there amid the grass stubble for several minutes, putting the grass aside with my fingers, till, when I got nearest to the spot, not knowing but I might be stung, I used a stick. The sound was incessant, like that of a large fly in agony, but though it made my ears ache, and I had my stick directly on the spot, I could find neither prey nor oppressor. At length I found that I interrupted or changed the tone with my stick, and so traced it to a few spires of dead grass occupying about a quarter of an inch in diameter and standing in the melted snow water. When I bent these one side it produced a duller and baser tone. It was a sound issuing from the earth, and as I stooped over it, the thought came over me that it might be the first puling infantine cry of an earthquake, which would ere long ingulf me. There was no bubble in the water. Perhaps it was air confined under the frozen ground, now expanded by the thaw, and escaping upward through the water by a hollow grass stem. I left it after ten minutes, buzzing as loudly as at first. Could hear it more than a rod.”

–Henry David Thoreau, Journal entry for January 13, 1854 JS

Animals are Deep Listeners

January 31, 2012

“When you enter an environment where there are birds, insects or animals, they are listening to you completely. You are received. Your presence may be the difference between life and death for the creatures of the environment. Listening is survival!” –Pauline Oliveiros (Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice)


January 30, 2012

Two listening experiences over the past three days got me thinking about ambience. First, night before last, the Sigur Rós concert film, Inni (at the Cornell Cinema, Willard Straight Hall). Minor keys, minimalist, cyclical, melancholic, slowed way down but always going somewhere, intensely focused. There is something lush about the Sigur Rós atmospherics that I find addictive. We might call them utterly devoid of content, self-serious to a pompous degree, silly in their absorption and relentless prettiness, yet still acknowledge their exquisite beauty. Colossally kitsch, yet sublime, pursuing that fine line to anthemic heights. The chords build without breaking until they transform into something else and you forget you were in a progression, waiting for resolution. In one of the interviews edited in between songs, one of the musicians claims, only half jokingly, that they are a “heavy metal” band. A “wall of sound” drenches musicians and audience one minute, the next has disappeared like a cloudburst, into simple piano keys. After the film I did a bit of Googling and learned that lead singer Jónsi Birgisson sings in Vonlenska, or Hopelandic: a “non-literal language, without fixed syntax.” Vonlenska “consists of emotive non-lexical vocables and phonemes” and “uses the melodic and rhythmic elements of singing without the conceptual content of language . . . a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music.” I remember noting, during the film, how the music consistently made me think of landscape, horizons, skies filled with light, etc. What appeals to me in ambient music is precisely this freedom from narrative, content, linearity (critics might also dub it a freedom from concept). Without content of its own, ambience can fill, or tinge, any space. It thus takes on the echoes and reverberations, the architecture or geology, of various, particular spaces and times. (In the electroacoustic concert situation, and especially the cinematic experience, this effect is of course simulated.) But the echoes and reverberations do not have to be literal: when you are driving and listening to such music, the ambience binds your mood to the landscape you are passing through. (Nor does the music have to be deliberately ambient: when we listen to vocal music without paying attention to the words, our listening is ambient.) I do not know if this is an ideal form, or a dystopian perversion, of the “songline” — the oral version of a map that guides nomads through their ancestral landscapes. The tendency toward what R. Murray Schafer called “audioanalgesia” troubles me, but I do like the partial nature of ambient music: the extent to which it depends on things outside the music to make its “meanings.” I suspect this incompleteness, rather than aesthetic autonomy of the modernist Western work of art, is the cultural norm, for art-making around the world. In this case, the ethics of the practice are not inherent in the aesthetics, but in how we choose to complete the music, what use we make of it.

This afternoon, I attended a concert by CAGE (Cornell Avant Garde Ensemble), featuring two singers, Peni Candra Rini (from Indonesia) and Jessika Kenney, making their sounds throughout the lower spaces of the museum, in response to the exhibition Lines of Control. The music involved improvised percussion on a great variety of instruments (traditional drum kits but also Indonesian gamelan, wooden blocks, bowed instruments and miked laptop synthesizers). A unifying feature was the slow, cyclical drone of Annie Lewandowski’s accordion. The two singers explored a great range of vocalizations (singing, but also talking, roaring, grunting, crying out) together in exquisite echo or synchrony and sometimes separately. At one point the concert moved downstairs and the singers began to wander around the galleries, to sing and sometimes talk to the art works, while musicians took up stations along the central corridor. The audience followed along, filtering in from various directions. The concert ended in the atrium below the north entrance, with a more traditional gamelan setup (though the music was not compositionally “gamelan”). The most moving part of the concert was when the two singers approached one another slowly from either end of the corridor, singing quietly to one another–Peni Candra Rini in a haunting, traditional Indonesian vocalization–until they met in the middle and then advanced together toward the atrium.

In this second experience the ambience was directed — in a decentralized, improvisatory way — toward exploration of the acoustic properties of the spaces. The audience moved casually amidst and around the musicians, following them when they changed spaces, sometimes looking at the art (the sound of the video installations had been turned down, though not off), and the whole thing had an immersive feel. I was torn between wanting to move around the different spaces of the galleries to see how the sound changed and wanting to stay still to help the sounds concentrate; for it truly felt like a group effort, on the part of the audience as well as the musicians. At one point, I followed one of the singers into an adjoining space and began making a few dispersed popping and clicking noises myself, manifesting my impulse to participate vocally. What struck me in this performance, which certainly had its hauntingly sublime and “exotic” moments, was how ordinary it made the music feel. It felt like this was the sort of thing that should be happening in the museum all of the time, that this was how “concerts” should always be–beyond the structural opposition of stage and seating, the absorptive spectacle, almost beyond a distinction between audience and performers. One had a feeling that here was the nature of sounding, listening, hearing revealing itself in all its mundane locality. That one could fall asleep, wake up, and not “miss” a thing, picking up right where one had left off. (My own experience of the concert, I might add, cannot be separated from the somewhat groggy head of someone who had been dancing the Saturday night away just a few hours before.) In addition to the spatial effects of ambience, then, that I noted with Sigur Rós, there is a temporal “ongoingness” to ambient music. This might seem like an obvious point (it’s well-known that ambient music just “goes on forever,” in a looping drone) but where ambient compositions like those of Brian Eno can foreground a “haunting” sense of the uncanny, here I felt focused on the canny, knowing, plainly familiar nature of sound. This might seem true, perhaps, to the ensemble’s acronymic namesake, John Cage. Yet here the individuality of the musicians was not being systematically erased; rather, released from the need to offer “spectacle,” each musician seemed free to apply the ambient sounds of his or her instrumentation to the “Lines of Control” that are the spatial properties of the Johnson Museum, as well as to the content of its exhibits, and in response to as well as away from the improvisations of his or her fellow musicians. And the audience members presumably experienced a similar, pleasing autonomy.

In short, perhaps ambient music decreases the autonomy of the composition in order to increase the autonomy of its listeners. That we may better “apply” our hearing and listening. And ambient sounds find their completion in another time, outside of the music, as well as in another space, beyond that of the composition itself.


Six Mile Gorge

January 28, 2012

A walk on the loop trail, from the Recreational Way, down to the reservoir and back. Wind blowing in the treetops. Creaking of pines. Snap of branches: tree on tree or deer on tree? Squelch of shoes in mud and wet leaves. Distant barks. Beyond the reservoir, gunshots or hammer blows. The wind builds as I approach the dam, until I realize I’m not hearing wind, but water rushing over the concrete sluice. I turn toward the reservoir: one rock plops into the thinned ice near shore. The other rock lands, with a rattle, on thicker ice at the end of my toss. Back on the Recreational Way, the kind voices of some strangers asking me about the trail. Calmer here. A titmouse, making two notes, tamely, on a branch almost right above my head. Peep calls of other birds softly, invisibly threading the leaves all around. Chickadees or cardinals? De dee dee dee dee, laughing of chickadees. Wind or deer brushes the stubble grass of a clearing beyond the berm. JS

February Thaw

January 28, 2012

A blog for listening notes associated with the seminar, Sounding the Animal, at Cornell Society for Humanities, Winter-Spring 2012.

Friday, 27 January, 2012

With the thaw on, today was a good listening day. Tufted titmouse singing on a wire, soon as I left the house: “tear tear tear.” At Sapsucker Woods: chirpety finches (bursting in a cloud of wings), woodpecker’s cry, kingfisher, ducks’ descending “wanh wanh wanh” in the pond. You’d almost think it were spring, but for the absence of blackbird trills. A kind of drippy lushness to the soundscape.

I looked up this poem by (19th century British poet) John Clare, on the February thaw, and noticed how much attention he gives to sound:

‎”The snow has left the cottage top;
The thatch-moss grows in brighter green;
And eaves in quick succession drop,
Where grinning icicles have been;
Pit-patting with a pleasant noise . . .
. . .
Ploughmen go whistling to their toils,
And yoke again the rested plough;
And, mingling o’er the mellow soils,
Boys shout, and whips are noising now.
. . .
The mavis thrush with wild delight,
Upon the orchard’s dripping tree,
Mutters, to see the day so bright . . .
And oft Dame stops her buzzing wheel
To hear the robin’s note once more,
Who tootles while he pecks his meal
From sweet-briar hips beside the door.
. . .
Thus Nature of the Spring will dream
While south winds thaw; but soon again
Frost breathes upon the stiff’ning stream,
And numbs it into ice: the plain
Soon wears its mourning garb of white;
And icicles, that fret at noon,
Will eke their icy tails at night
Beneath the chilly stars and moon.”

–John Clare, “February” (a few weeks early in 2012)