Soundscape Ecology, or: An Archive Fever of the Ear

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Purdue College of Agriculture/Tom Campbell, via ScienceDaily].

Bryan Pijanowski of Purdue University is hoping to start a new research discipline that he calls soundscape ecology; it will “use sound as a way to understand the ecological characteristics of a landscape,” as ScienceDaily reports.

Sound, Pijanowski suggests, is a kind of ecological indicator: an audible symptom of other, sometimes literally invisible changes in a living network or ecosystem. Sound, for instance, can “be used to detect early changes in climate, weather patterns, the presence of pollution or other alterations to a landscape.” As Pijanowski explains one example of this approach, “The dawn and dusk choruses of birds are very characteristic of a location. If the intensity or patterns of these choruses change, there is likely something causing that change. Ecologists have ignored how sound that emanates from an area can help determine what’s happening to the ecosystem.”

So far, unfortunately, it seems that a great flattening of the acoustic field has been the primary discovery: “One of the most significant findings was that as human impact in the landscape increases, the natural rhythms of sound created by the diverse wildlife population are replaced by low and constant human-produced noise.” The great machine-drone of human life fills forests once ringing with birdsong.

Of course, this is at once slightly redundant—there is already acoustic ecology, for instance—and fantastically cool, throwing the door wide-open for future acoustic research (and institutional funding).

[Image: Sound artist Stephen Vitiello makes a field recording; photo by Turbulence].

However, one point of immediate limitation, I’d suggest, comes with Pijanowski’s apparent focus on sounds produced by animals. Indeed, I’m reminded of an old essay by Francisco López, called “Environmental Sound Matter,” from La Selva: Sound Environments From A Neotropical Rain Forest.

There, López seeks to remind listeners that “there is also a type of sound-producing biotic component, present in almost every environment, that is usually overlooked: plants.” He then makes one of my favorite sonic observations of all time, which is that “what we call the sound of rain or wind we could better call the sound of plant leaves and branches.” Quoting at length:

If our perspective of nature sounds were more focused on the environment as a whole, instead of on behavioral manifestations of the organisms we foresee as most similar to us, we could also deal with plant bioacoustics. Furthermore, a sound environment is not only the consequence of all its sound-producing components, but also of all its sound-transmitting and sound-modifying elements. The birdsong we hear in the forest is as much a consequence of the bird as of the trees or the forest floor. If we are really listening, the topography, the degree of humidity of the air or the type of materials in the topsoil are as essential and definitory as the sound-producing animals that inhabit a certain space.

So, add the sounds of plants, molds, and root networks, of soil itself and groundwater, of shifts in air pressure and humidity and even the underlying deep geologic structures that support all that living terrain in the first place, and an intensely interesting sonic portrait of terrestrial ecosystems takes shape, mutating through complex blurs and inflection points over time, its parts weaving in and out symphonically.

Again, this is functionally identical to acoustic ecology—with equal parts acoustic geology thrown in, perhaps—but it will nonetheless be interesting to see if a slight change of name (and some news buzz) results in more opportunities for funding and research.

[Image: Students from Field Studies 2010 (N.b. link auto-plays sound) explore London; photo by Marc Behrens, courtesy of The Wire].

On a slightly unrelated note, meanwhile, Britain’s superlative music and sound art magazine The Wire reported on something called Field Studies 2010 in an issue published last autumn. Field Studies “provide[d] an environment for architects, artists and urbanists to explore the relationship between architecture and sound, and to ‘see’ sound not as a scientific, acoustic event, but as a sometimes inexplicable, poetic and place-specific phenomenon.” In a sense, then, specifically in terms of the discipline described above, Field Studies was a kind of urbanized anti-soundscape-ecology: more emotional and poetic than scientifically diagnostic.

But one of the workshop leaders, Marc Behrens, makes the interesting point that there is “a tech version of Moore’s Law,” quote-unquote. “In other words, as recording devices get smaller, more sophisticated and cheaper, opportunities increase and the art of sonic field studies evolves accordingly.”

This seems to resonate well with Pijanowski’s work, that, as acoustic sensors and deployable sound-capture networks become easier and cheaper both to install and to monitor (which, of course, includes for surveillance purposes), we’ll hear, at the very least, a massive quantitative increase in the amount of archived sonic information available for later study. An archive fever of the ear.

(Just FYI, there is a whole chapter on sound in The BLDGBLOG Book).

4 thoughts on “Soundscape Ecology, or: An Archive Fever of the Ear”

  1. Hi Geoff, thanks for the scoop on Pijanowski's work – it is seems very promising. Soundscape ecology seems like an attempt to 'tighten up' some of the environmental concerns intrinsic to the seminal World Soundscape Project into a hard science. I think using animals as a metric is utterly fascinating and agree there is a world of noise(s) worth examining. The urban realm could of course be quite telling, if satellite photography and remote imaging can help us understand urban development, would it not follow that we can analyze the related soundscape as well?

    A tangential link: My last column for Current Intelligence was on Sound Mapping – it might be of interest to readers of this post.

    Now if you excuse me, I'm going to go wrap my head around the implications of Pijanowski's lexicon – I might need to think about 'geophony' for a while.

  2. In a different vein, but like the work mentioned from THE WIRE, is research by geographers into the cultural making of regions and landscapes through, in part, the regulation of sound and noise according to contested notions of what kinds of behaviors belong in certain places and which do not. David Matless, for example, has an article in BODY & SOCIETY about the "moral" histories and geographies of the Norfolk Broads in England that focuses on sound and sounds deployed as measures of propriety in that region (6:3/4 [2000]: 141-165).

  3. It's not Pijanowski's lexicon, nor concept. It was first described in it's entirety by Bernie Krause and Stuart Gage in "Anatomy of the Soundscape: Evolving Perspectives" (Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, Vol. 56, No. 1/2, 2008, Jan./Feb., author, Bernie Krause.

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