Surround Sound

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I was out on my usual running loop yesterday evening when I heard the alarm blare from our local volunteer fire department. Minutes later, I heard the first siren, then another. Another few minutes passed, and I heard a helicopter approaching. As I ran down the long crest that leads home through recently harvested corn fields, I saw a medical helicopter landing in what looked like the center of our small village, and could hear its blades stop turning once it disappeared behind the tree line at the bottom of the fields.

From this auditory information, I gathered that an accident had occurred, and that at least one person had been seriously injured enough to warrant a helicopter rather than an ambulance. By the time I’d gotten back home, there was a silence of activity, the helicopter hadn’t taken off, no sirens approached or departed. And I knew what that meant.

3D City Soundscapes Source: Sydney Living Museums

3D City Soundscapes
Source: Sydney Living Museums

Our human world is alive with auditory information, yet we only hear the smallest sliver of all the stories being told in any given place because, well, our range of hearing isn’t particularly impressive. And we aren’t very good at listening to anything but ourselves.

I’ve written before about the metaphorical symphony of the natural world, but the subject here is the actual symphony of life, the chorus of everything that we can’t hear, from the purring of the male wolf spider (Gladicosa gulosa) to the low ‘foghorn’ of the Black Jewfish (Protonibea diacanthus), to the kind of sounds we can, like wind blowing through summer oak (and if you listen to the recording here, you’ll hear a chorus of much more) or Arctic wolves howling (Canis lupus arctos) (again, if you listen, you might wonder if they are responding to the calls of a different animal entirely).

It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve been able to hear, really hear, a wealth of sounds that are outside our own limited range. There have been countless conversations taking place just outside our perception, and we have yet to interpret most of them. After all, we’ve been listening to dogs, cats and birds for millennia and we still aren’t very good at figuring out more than the food/pet/love basics without anthropomorphizing.

Sound frequencies rendered tangible as sculptures representing a sample of time. 'Breath' (3D printing) Artist: Andy Huntington

Sound frequencies rendered tangible as sculptures representing a sample of time.
‘Breath’ (3D printing)
Artist: Andy Huntington

I was able to realize the event of an accident without ever hearing the accident itself, and able to interpret the gravity of that accident without necessarily knowing who had gotten hurt or how. As it turned out, I was right about both the accident and the severity: A bicyclist had been hit by a car at the main crossroad of our little village, and it hadn’t gone well for the cyclist.

In a similar way, those who have been recording the sounds of the natural world over the past decades might not be able to say exactly what is being said between individual species, but they can say this with certainty: The world is getting louder with humans and quieter with everything else. Recordings made by soundscape ecologist and musician Bernie Kraus and others demonstrate a reduction in diversity that reflects what we can actually see and count, but goes further.

Seahorse (3D printing) Artist: Andy Huntington

Seahorse (3D printing)
Artist: Andy Huntington

Kraus looks at how geophony, the non-biological sounds that occur, wind in the trees, water in the streams, and biophony, the collective sound that is made by all the species in a given habitat, can get lost amidst our distraction with anthrophony, human generated sound.

The California drought, for example, has resulted in a great silencing of acoustic diversity. For the first time in four decades of listening to spring unfold near his home, Kraus recorded a spring without birdsong or the sound of a nearby stream.

Kraus: ‘How noisy the world is with human endeavour; how important it is to quiet it down and listen to the sounds around us. It’s the sound of life.’ 

We talk about noise pollution, but maybe we can stop listening to the loud sound of our own voices for long enough to slow the growing silence around us, lest we be left the only ones talking.

Soundscape (3D printing of atmospheric sounds) Artist: Sukyoung Lee

Soundscape (3D printing of atmospheric sounds)
Artist: Sukyoung Lee

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