‘A balance that you can hear’: deep ecology, ‘serious listening’ and the soundscape recordings of David Dunn by David Ingram

This article explores the human experience, by both celebrating, and questioning our sense of hearing in a way that makes the reader question many other things about life with it through the artistic work of phonographer David Dunn. Ingram opens by explaining the consciousness of environmental, (including all environments, both manmade, and natural) sound that came about in the 1950’s and 60’s, through many, including Rachel Carson, and John Cage’s works. This concept eventually attained the term, “soundscape” to mean any, and all sounds in a certain area, which characterize the exact situation in which they are experienced, be it jungle, city, or concert hall.

Ingram goes on, citing philosopher, John Andrew Fisher’s explanation of the distinguishing factors between soundscapes that are made for commercial enjoyment, or relaxation, and those that are made for artistic purposes, or “serious listening,” which lends itself to the school of thought from which John Cage comes. Much in the way that Cage’s ‘4:33’ forces the listener to hear their surroundings as the music, rather than what is seen as traditional, or western music, David Dunn intends to capture soundscapes as they are, and to encourage a feeling of a deeper connection to the world for the listener. When reading this, one might think of the cliche ‘nature sounds’ recordings, found in the relaxation, or meditation section of book store, that happens to sell CDs. This is not the case, as Dunn intends to record every sound, from that of impending thunder, raucous people, and noisy traffic, to those of babbling water, leaves rustling, and ocean waves caressing a shoreline.

Still comparing Dunn and Cage, Ingram continues, pointing out their inherent differences in depiction of sound. Cage thinks of the sounds in his work as, ‘without meaning, or extraneous purpose, other than being itself’ while Dunn wants the listener to project connotations provided from their own life experiences onto the sounds presented in his recordings. This being said, Dunn wants listeners to think about nature, and our impedance, (or lack thereof) on it, which Ingram states, “serious listening involves a framework of interpretation derived from the holistic systems theory of the British anthropologist Gregory Bateson,” who, after explaining that all living organisms exist in a, ‘system,’ or, ’mind,’ completely capable of it’s own actions and thoughts, he goes on to quote:

“[if] you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral and ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.”

Ingram explains that Dunn processes this into his belief that humans have alienated ourselves from the natural world with the overwhelming dominance of sight as a primary sense, with hopes that ‘serious listening’ will undo some of the damage that has been done.

With this in mind, the author speaks about Dunn’s recording, ‘Besa Village, Zimbabwe: Night Sounds’ on the album Why Do Whales and Children Sing? Which is a recording of just that: night sound in a Zimbabwean village community. When reading the liner notes for this track, the listener sees that Dunn edited out the sound of passing traffic in the distance, and that, “‘The length of this example is just about the average time between passing vehicles.” This is a clear romanticisation of old Zimbabwean life, dissociated from that of western culture and technology, which is pertinent because Dunn has compared the soundscapes similar to this to have a perfect balance of forces, both natural, influenced by humans. Ingram further questions Dunn’s idea of auditory balance, by pointing out that it’s been processed, through the cacophony of recording techniques and nuances which need to be performed for a recording to be properly produced.

On the subject, Ingram determines that, “Dunn’s attitude to modern, industrial technology becomes clear in […] ‘Chimayo, New Mexico: Frogs, Insects, and Traffic’, recorded in Dunn’s own backyard,” describing the track as being comprised entirely of insect noises, occasionally interrupted by the auditory grace that frogs embody, until the very end, where a neighbor presumably starts a car, specifically described in his notes, as, “an ornately painted, ‘lowrider’ car,” dismissing it in his notes as a disruptive force to the calm presented prior. The author continues, exploring Dunn’s possible opinions of various machines, implying that if he finds the noise it makes to be ‘aesthetically displeasing’ it is then, a bad machine, whereas the  example of bicycles is brought up, with Dunn showing a higher appreciation for them, for their “delicate” sonorous qualities.

To contrast his obvious thoughts on modernity, several of the proceeding tracks are recordings of a pier arcade in Santa Monica. The tracks are filled with noises one might expect in an arcade, which differ intensely from those of the previous recordings. Dunn writes:

“In contrast […] this free-for-all of video games, pinball machines, and street commotion sounds as if hardly any component is listening to another. What emerges from this uniquely human aggregate of noise-making, are sonic patterns […] without apparent integration. However, despite the negative sentiments that I’m expressing, I must admit that I made this recording because of the pure exhilaration that these sounds evoke.”

As Dunn ends his album with the folk music of another Zimbabwean community, so too does Ingram end his article, exploring the discontinuities of Dunn’s work, by pointing out his description of the music, which clearly romanticizes further the deficit of westernization in the area.

To paraphrase David Ingram, phonographers, like David Dunn, are similar to photographers, in that they both preserve, “what was” or, “has been,” not to provide an accurate experience of the subject, but to bring to the attention of an audience these “sonic marginalities” to be remembered, and appreciated through the lens of modernity to hopefully enrich the human experience.

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“Nature, Music, and Meaning in Debussy’s Writings” by Peter Dayan

In this article, Peter Dayan aims to see what would happen if he tried to read Debussy in the same way he might read Mallarme or Proust, while reflecting on the way that we associate words with music. He begins by discussing Pierre Lalo’s 1905 review of Debussy’s La Mer. Lalo explains that when listening to Debussy’s work, he only heard a representation of the sea, rather than the actual sea. He claims he couldn’t hear the sea, smell the sea, or see the sea. The work merely reminded him of the sea as a reproduction of nature. Debussy replied to his criticism first by saying Lalo’s praise of his earlier works was not founded on correct reasoning and that he didn’t mind Lalo not liking La Mer as much (215).

At first, this response would seem to leave a lot up in the air for Lalo, but he knew exactly what Debussy meant. In earlier correspondences, Lalo had called Debussy’s other works “pittoresque” and believed they gave him “a sense of being before nature” (216). Debussy, on the other hand, takes these words to mean something entirely different. He believed that attaching music to emotion and feelings in this way, implies the music is “lacking in logic” (216). If this is true, he further says that the artist ceases being the artist. Debussy calls Lalo’s notion of feeling before nature “sensibilité,” which is an openness to emotion caused by identifiable external stimuli (216). For Debussy, the logic of art’s connection to nature must remain invisible and mysterious.

Debussy makes a point to say he cannot deny the reality that listeners of his music and many others’ will draw expressive connections between their music and the outside world. However, he believes the music should always stand alone in its appreciation, detached from any associations. According to Debussy, the music should not aim to transmit these feelings. Therefore, one cannot judge music from the standpoint that it makes him/her envision some depiction of nature (216). These points connect to important distinctions made in class separating Wagner from Brahms. Wagner wrote programmatic music and had no problem associating music with stories, imagery, etc. while Brahms held the older opinion that music should stand alone and be appreciated simply. Brahms believed in “absolute music,” which is music independent from words, drama, visual images, and any other kind of representation. Based on Debussy’s writings to Lalo, Debussy would take Brahms side on musical interpretation. This realization is especially intriguing because Debussy writes in the Impressionist style, one more modern and far from early classical music, while Brahms composes music similar to that of Hadyn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Debussy claims that Lalo’s opinion of his work was a differentiation of good representational music to bad representational music. He explains how Beethoven wrote notes alongside his score for the Pastoral Symphony because he thought the natural associations to nature would not be clearly evident to the listener and should be invisible, except to himself (217). Music tells no tale of real life, according to Debussy. He desires for music to make us imagine a dream space, unlike the sea, that cannot exist (218). He even goes as far to say that musicians should be afraid of Berlioz and Lalo. This kind of opinion probably sounds radical to most music listeners today because we are so accustomed to programmatic music that there is not a problem with it.

Dayan goes on to quote other passages from writings of Debussy that he thought musicians should “sing like natural people.” This further expands Debussy’s thoughts regarding performing music as if it is not attached to any natural phenomenon. In the end, Dayan concludes that our duty as listeners is to look past the words Debussy uses to title his music and listen for an ideal unity beyond what the words describe (229). Ultimately, this is important to us as listeners and performers because it determines the way in which we appreciate music and do the composer justice.

Dayan, Peter. “On Nature, Music, and Meaning in Debussy’s Writing.” 19th-Century Music 28,  no. 3 (Spring 2005): 214–29.

David Tudor’s Rainforest: An Evolving Exploration of Resonance John Driscoll and Matt Rogalsky

In the article David Tudor’s Rainforest: An Evolving Exploration of Resonance, John Driscoll and Matt Rogalsky aim to document the successive and evolutionary nature of David Tudor’s piece Rainforest IV, written progressively from 1966 to 1973. Rainforest IV is an interesting piece of music, one that explores the natural way that different objects resonate. Rather than taking place in a concert hall, Rainforest IV is an acoustical environment experience, with the audience wandering throughout the setup (described below) and interacting with the performers, even going so far as to touch the speakers from which the sound resonates or even bite the resonating objects themselves. Driscoll takes the first part of the article, discussing the chronological progression of Tudor’s Rainforest. Driscoll explains that there was never really a separation of Rainforest into four different ideas, rather it changed organically over time as Tudor added new elements to his original project.

When discussing the development of the piece Rainforest IV, Driscoll explains that “the existence of Rainforest IV implies that there must be Rainforests I, II, and III” (Driscoll and Rogalsky 25). The main difference is the scale. While on tour with his Rainforest, all of his equipment had to be mobile. Rainforest IV, however, is a large scale event. It differs from its previous editions with these traits: “The creation of a visual and sonic environment with 16–40 suspended sculptural speakers, the size of the sculptural speakers (some as large as 12 12 ft), the duration of the performance (typically 3–6 hours) the projection of a strong acoustical presence in the space by each sculpture, the use of a vibration pickup to amplify the resonant frequencies present in the sculpture through the speakers, creating a reflection of what the audience hears directly in the object but with additional harmonic content, and the collaboration of 4–10 performers in the creation of the sculptural speakers, sound materials and the visual environment” (Driscoll and Rogalsky 28).

The word “sculpture” was used in this article many times, and refers to the objects that were hooked up to speakers and resonated. Such sculptures include slinkies, giant 55 gallon drums, a gourd with fishing poles sticking out of it, steel trays, wooden planks, fiberglass, and so many more objects that would not usually be thought of as musical.

The article is extremely technical, documenting every minute change in the performances of Rainforest. It also discusses the electronic aspect of the piece in great detail. Rainforest’s intriguing and unique sonic experience have kept it relevant and performed for many years after it was conceived.

“Spatiality of sound and stream segregation in twentieth century instrumental music” by Maria Anna Harley

Maria Anna Harley, using examples from the twentieth century and other scholars ideas, attempts to educate readers on the topic of spatialization. In the introduction, Harley discusses the idea of music being played in space. A simple musical idea presented is a four quarter note melody with pitches (B flat A3 C4 B3). These pitches are meant to refer to BACH. Harley continues to introduce the concept of space using “BACH”. Each scenario begs the reader and the listener to consider the affect of elements outside of the music; the composers movements and facial expressions, the location of the musicians, the amount of musicians, the movement of musicians, etc. The multitude of factors that go into the presentation of a piece of simple music create a sense of “spatiality”.
Next, Bregman’s perspective is discussed to understand the significance of spatiality to the listener. In order for cues to come across clearly they must “agree” with one another. When the listener is overwhelmed with sound their ability to absorb the music is decreased. Henry Brant is another scholar mentioned who has relating ideas about spatialization. Harley discusses Brant’s views on spatial music, summarizing them under these 5 concepts:
(1) Spatial separation clarifies the texture; this is particularly important if the music consists of several different layers located in the same pitch register.
(2) Spatial separation is equivalent to the separation of textures in pitch space; one can hear separately layers of music that are located in different registers, and layers that originate from distant points in performance space.
(3) Spatial separation permits a greater complexity in the music; which may, therefore, include more unrelated elements perceived simultaneously.
(4) Spatial separation makes exact rhythmic coordination impossible; distant groups should avoid simultaneous, identical rhythmic patterns.
(5) There are no optimum positions of the listeners or the performers in the hall; each situation is different. (Harley 150)
Under these 5 points, Harley goes on to reflect the affect of space in music, especially performance. For example, a higher pitch may be perceived to be coming from a higher location in a concert hall than a lower pitch.
The use of space is also important in the movement of sound. Harley discusses the concept of spatiality as a continuum of sound. The example used is placing a group of instruments around a room and playing with similar timbres and dynamic elements. Using the setup of the musicians and musical similarities in their music, the musicians actually create a room full of continuous sound. Not only is the music consistent but it is constantly moving, from one instrument to another almost simultaneously. What is so special for listeners is the inability to recognize where exactly the music is coming from in the space it’s being played in. Spatiality is vital to this type of music performance.
Stockhausen’s opinion on the need for spatialization in music is then discussed. Harvey explains that “in order to preserve the neutralization of the parameters and to make music more interesting for the listeners, various long time-phases of homogeneous sound structures may be distributed in space, among different groups of loudspeakers or instruments” (Harley 155). Space in music allows for clarity in the many layers of a piece of music.
Harley explains the significance of using space in a piece of live music. Without pauses in music, there would be no levels or dynamics to a piece. Harley states that “music would consist of just one sequence of repetitive patterns” (Harley 157). On the other hand it is important for a conductor or musician to recognize what an appropriate amount of space is in a piece of music. When space is used correctly it becomes a place for a listener to really understand and become a part of the music.
Spatiality is now discussed from a mathematical perspective. The shape and construct of music is based in time and quality of sound while taking up physical space. This perspective focuses on the importance of certain technicalities in musical performance. The visual cues given by musicians when they intentionally or unintentionally move on a stage help listeners to visualize their audio cues.
Harley’s analysis of Gorecki’s Symphony no. 2, Copernican, looks at the musical structure; chords, keys, and dynamics. The use of space tells the story of the symphony, the Creation story. When discussing the symphony Harley states, “thus, spatial articulation of texture, divisions into distinct successive and simultaneous layers, and timbral differences all disappear in the beauty and harmony of God’s order” (Harley 164). In this case the use of space positively contributes to the story that is told by the symphony’s many musical elements.
The overall importance of Maria Anna Harley’s “Spatiality of sound and stream segregation in twentieth century instrumental music” is the importance of using space in music. That space can be seen or heard in a performance. From a simple four note melody to a full orchestral symphony, spatialization changes the way a piece of music is seen and heard.

“Linking Soundscape Composition and Acoustic Ecology” by Hildegard Westerkamp

In “Linking Soundscape Composition and Acoustic Ecology”, Hildegard Westerkamp demonstrates the connection between the two mentioned concepts. According to Simon Fraser University, soundscape composition (their creation) is a type of electroacoustic music using environmental sounds and contexts to invoke thoughts and memories related to certain environments. Also, acoustic ecology is a discipline that studies the connection between sound, nature, and society (52).

At the beginning, Westerkamp describes how she was introduced to the term “soundscape composition”. For the longest time, her definition was very vague. She had this ongoing mental conflict of whether she wanted to keep the term open for interpretation or give it some sort of definition. But after a soundscape composition competition and a visit with one of her composer-colleagues, she was able to develop a better understanding of what the term really means (51). She makes the connection by saying that the origin of our awareness came from composers and musicians like her. Musicians have a deep understanding because they listen to their environments with intent (52).

Later, Westerkamp talks about the two vital things that each soundscape composer has: a microphone and their ears. The main idea she attempts to describe is that sounds are greatly altered by a microphone. Information provided by a soundscape can translate differently in our minds when heard through a microphone compared to the pure sound. However, she brings forth a unique perspective. She compares microphones and ears as if they are both “hearing devices.” For example, she says that the ear can focus on certain sounds whereas a microphone cannot select what it can listen to (53). Furthermore, microphones must be adjusted physically and technologically to better gain or drown out certain sounds. She concluded this thought by saying that soundscape composition is as much about the environment itself as the composers’ visions and ideas (53).

Next, Westerkamp states that any soundscape composition has roots in the sound environment it is describing (53). But she takes from an argument that these pieces sometimes fail to integrate all aspects of the environment as well as spur new ideas and works (53). She then acknowledges a statement from another composer colleague who stated that composing soundscapes is about the composer’s intent to make music of certain locations at certain times (53). Westerkamp added to this by saying that “the power of the sound materials themselves” is also very important in the meaning of soundscape composition (53).

Next, she states then when it comes to soundscape composition, she can determine what the general theme of her compositions will be. However, details about the piece itself are revealed only within the recording and the soundscapes themselves (54). In a nutshell, you cannot accurately predetermine what your piece is going to be like because the recordings may provide different information than what was anticipated.

Lastly, Westerkamp evaluates the relationships between the composers and their soundscape pieces. She says that with all the new technology in existence, soundscape composers can express their impressions of a soundscape in nearly any way they want (55). But this does raise a good counterargument: can this potentially take away from a composer’s true knowledge of the soundscape they are trying to replicate? In addition, Westerkamp evaluates the relationship between the listeners and the compositions. She argues that the relationship is never really set in stone. The biggest concern is that the audience may not always be able to relate to or recognize the message that the composer is trying to convey (56).

It is important that we gain deeper understanding of what these compositions really are and what they bring to the musical world. It is intriguing to just sit in silence and listen to the environment around us with intent. Understanding the environments we live in as well as those we are not so familiar with can open our musical minds even further.

“In Search of an Ecology of Music” by John Luther Adams.

In this article, John Luther Adams tries to connect the science of ecology with music and how they are co-related. The overarching goal is to find how humans fit into the constantly expanding world of music. It is his belief that music can help people develop an ecological understanding and hopefully renew how we live our everyday life.

It is critical at first to understand the definition of ecology. In ecology, biologists study how organisms are related to and interact with the environment around them. In a broader sense, it is the science of patters and the larger systems that they are related to. Within ecology are ecosystems which are smaller elements that come together to act as a whole. Adams conceives music the same way. He believes the essence of music is the “totality of the sound, the larger wholeness of the music”. With this in mind, it is important to note that everything in this world can be related to something else. In the eyes of Adams, humans must live in harmony with the larger patterns, or ecosystems, on earth. If this does not happen, extinction is eminent.

A large goal in the music of Adams is to be deeply in tune with the natural world. Out of a number of compositions which include Songbirdsong, Night Peace, and The Light that Fills the World, he tries to evoke the presence of the place that the elemental sounds come from. He is painting landscapes with tones. As he says, he wants to “evoke the imitation of the sublime” that is nature. In his compositions, it is important how he views the difference between tone and noise.

Tone is a pitched sound that is the building block of scales and chords, but noise is unpitched sound that is not easy to control. Even though noise can be thought of as chaos, when listened to carefully we realize that music and noise is all around us. To Adams, it is “the breath of the world”. It is in his mindset that listening closely to noise allows it to become music. With the invention of the microphone and computers, Adams was able work even closer with the noises of nature to include them in his compositions. It is interesting to note that the increase of technology can not only be used for fascinatingly creative outlets, but also for extreme destruction.

When Adams composes, he takes into account the formal structure of music, as well as the sensual side which invites people to come and listen. He wants people who are listening to be fully immersed in the sound that he takes directly from his fascination in nature. Adams finds these concepts important as music that is only worried about self-expression, harbors a sense of separation from the world which leads to all of the world’s problems. Both science and art provide human kind with a profound understanding of reality.

This way of looking at music becomes deeply important when trying to relate it to ecomusicolgy. When we listen deeper to the noises (music) all around us, we begin to understand the roll that we play in not only the music, but the world.

Adams, John Luther. The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009, Chapter 1.

“American Women and Nature of Identity” by Denise Von Glahn

In “American Women and Nature of Identity” by Denise Von Glahn, we explore America, early composers, and the masculinity that they believe America flashes in its everyday life. Throughout this article, Von Glahn speaks of how male composers utilize nature within their music, how they portray their ideas of America as masculine and so on.

In her article, Von Glahn states that “ the idealized American place was most often envisioned as expansive and powerful”.   This could be seen as a direct reference to how men were viewed in society during this time. While women stayed home to take care of the children, do wifely duties, and what was expected of a woman during that time, they were often overlooked. Men were the ones to go out exploring, creating a name for themselves, work towards bettering their career, and discover new territories and uncharted waters. This provides a point that is rather thought provoking due to the fact that nature is often described as feminine, whether that be by phrases such as “Mother Nature” or “Mother Earth” and so on.   This provides further questions regarding feminine American symbols, with the largest on being Lady Liberty. If we are so quick to overlook women, then why do we regard to such important symbols such as the giant statue that welcomes immigrants into the country, as women?

Von Glahn goes on to answer this question by stating that during the nineteenth century women were easily overlooked, mostly because of their position in society and the home. While women were closer and more in tune with nature, they took notes from their immediate day-to-day interactions with it, instead of the large wonders of the world. While many male composers wrote music about natural wonders such as the Niagara Falls, women wrote about things in their own back yard such as butterflies and birds. Von Glahn points out the fact that the female composers felt connected with nature, and not just mere observers. Unfortunately, due to the circumstances of society, many women had their art looked over, unobserved and unappreciated by society. Because these women were immersed within the nature, they were able to create melodies that were almost exactly similar to the melodies that they heard every day. Composer Amy Beach was able to create a melodic line that was able to capture even the finest details of a bird’s song, you can hear this in her piece A Hermit Thrush At Morn.

Von Glahn provided a time for reflection on the importance of women in society, the opportunities that women have been given as society has matured, and the struggles that they have come from. While often times we want to focus on the big events happening around us, we sometimes forget to focus on the everyday happenings around us. I believe that Von Glahn brings this to our attention not only through discussing the topic of male composers opposed to female, but also to the musical ideas in general.