Ear to the Earth

Ear to the Earth

Leah Barclay


27th May 2013

In John Cage’s pivotal 1937 talk titled The Future of Music: Credo, he said, “I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard” (Cage, 1937).

In 2013 Cage’s visionary genius is clearly evident with a musical world of infinite possibilities aided by technology. The dramatic advancement of technology has truly cultivated a paradigm shift in how artists interact in both physical and virtual worlds. These changes have evolved and expanded our tools of expression but most importantly they have opened the ability to communicate at a higher level in an interdisciplinary context.

In a recent addition of Musicworks, Joel Chadabe stated that the current artistic practices of electroacoustic composers are rooted in the idea that new technologies, unlike traditional musical instruments, can produce sounds used to communicate core messages, including information about the state of our environment. He claims that we are all participating in the emergence of a new type of music accessible to anyone, which can be used to communicate ideas that relate more closely to life than those communicated through traditional musical forms. He believes we need to think of ourselves as “leaders in a magnificent revolution rather than the defenders of an isolate and besieged avant-garde” (Chadabe, 2011).

In a world where the catastrophic effects of climate change are rapidly becoming a bitter reality, there must be a role for sound in generating a shift in consciousness. Bill McKibben recently said; “When art both of great worth, and in great quantities, begins to cluster around an issue, it means that civilization has identified it finally as a threat” (McKibben, 2011). He views artists as the antibodies of the cultural bloodstream and fundamental to social change. As this social movement of creative thinking expands internationally it is worth reflecting on Attali’s seminal 1985 text where he refers to music as not just simply a reflection of culture but a “harbinger of change”. He states, “For twenty-five centuries, western knowledge has tried to look upon the world. It has failed to understand that the world is not for the beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible” (Attali, 1985).

World leaders are now looking towards the validity and possibilities of creative methodologies as tools for change, this presents both a challenge and an unprecedented opportunity for composers to gain a critical understanding of the situation, and take action in devising new processes for a sustainable future. Electroacoustic music, with the use of natural sounds, has a profound ability to ignite an awareness and connection to the environment. But is the role of the artist purely to comment on the crisis? To create awareness? Or can provocation extend beyond expression to create a behavioral shift in deeply engrained unsustainable ways of thinking?

There is undeniably a strong movement associated with environmental sound art emerging internationally. This is evident through the establishment of organisations such as Ear to the Earth, the environmental program of the Electronic Music Foundation. Ear to the Earth is a world-wide network of environmental sound artists. The organisation promotes the work of artists working creatively with environmental soundscapes across the world through www.eartotheearth.org. The core activity of the network is the annual Ear to the Earth Festival that happens every October in New York with satellite events across the world. Ear to the Earth also produces workshops in field recording, encourages and supports research relating to the natural and urban environments and engages in other activities that foster creativity, community, communication, and environmental awareness. Ultimately, Ear to the Earth wants everybody to become a sound artist, to listen, to learn, to become engaged, and to create works that can be included in the Ear to the Earth network online.

Based on a ‘think globally, act locally’ strategy, the Ear to the Earth Network has as its goal to work at a grass roots level to encourage, support, and promote events that bring environmental activists, scientists, musicians, artists, and the public in all communities together in dialogues; to explore creative formats that mix concert, conference, installation, and performance; and to foster engagement with environmental issues. The founder of the organisation, Joel Chadabe, states that; “Environmental sound art gives us a powerful way of connecting with the environment. As we better understand the world, we will better understand the state of the world. And our understanding of the state of the world will affect our personal actions, our political actions, and our communications with others. Once engaged, we can learn.”

Environmental sound art is underpinned by the concepts of acoustic ecology, an outcome of the World Soundscape Project led by R. Murray Shafer at Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s. Schafer’s pivotal book The Tuning of the World, published in 1977, still remains one of the seminal references for scholars today. The current acoustic ecology movement is driven by organisations such as the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE).

Founded in 1993, the WFAE is an international association of affiliated organisations and individuals in Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia that share a common concern with the state of the world’s soundscapes. The members of the organisation represent a multi-disciplinary spectrum of individuals and collectives engaged in the study of the social, cultural and ecological aspects of the sonic environment. The core missions of the WFAE includes education around listening, research on the social, cultural and scientific aspects of the sonic environment and designing and creating healthy and acoustically balanced sonic environments.

In addition to these key organisation, a range of independent artists and collectivities are engaged in similarly important work engaging communities in listening experiences. Sonic Babylon, the creation of New York based artists Nora Farrell and the late Bill Duckworth, is a prime example of innovative community engagement through sound. Riding local Wi-Fi networks, the Sonic Babylon sound gardens grow with music, sounds, and stories accessible on mobile devices in selected spaces within a community. The sound garden is interactive and can be both heard and manipulated by the community. As visitors move through the garden, the Sonic Babylon application tracks their position in the space and the 3D audio engine generates a real-time sound mix relative to the location of the planted sounds (http://www.sonicbabylon.com). Sound gardens have a diversity of positive outcomes for a community including the ability to repurpose existing digital content (such as oral history) and also the ability to observe a system, a virtual ecology, and hear what kind of voices and themes may arise. The key attraction is its accessibility and versatility, and its ability to grow within a community over time.

Now, more than ever before there is a critical need to listen to our environment and generate a paradigm shift that engages our auditory perception. Sound, as a creative medium, is undoubtedly one of the most powerful means to stimulate this shift in consciousness. Environmental sound art, with the use of natural sounds exposing the state of the world could be an unprecedented tool in artists taking action in ecological crisis. It is inspiring to see this movement expanding globally and now is a perfect time to engage and connect with the artists and organisation leading this movement. Fortunately, the accessibility of today’s technology means we can listen to the rainforests of Brazil and the wild storms of central Australia in real-time from the comfort of our lounge room.

[1] John Cage: Silence, (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press 1973).
[2] Joel Chadabe: “A call for avant-garde composers to make their work known to a larger public,” in Musicworks, edited by Micheline Roi (Toronto: Musicworks Society of Ontario Inc. 2011) 111: pp. 6.
[3] Bill Mckibben: “Four years after my pleading essay, climate art is hot,” in art in a changing climate, Grist (online):
http://grist.org/article/2009-08-05-essay-climate-art-update-bill-mckibben (visited 28 May 2011).
[4] Jacques Attali: Noise: the political economy of music, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1985)
[5] Sonic Babylon (online): http://sonicbabylon.com (visited 18 May 2012)

(Photograph: Mamori Sound Project - Amazon Rainforest, 2011. Photograph by Leah Barclay)

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