Listening to Disaster: Our Relationship to Sound in Danger (excerpt)

Even the surrounding hills were hushed, as if brought low by language.–from Grendel by John Gardner

Often we associate catastrophes with massive and sudden sounds. We give animalistic descriptions to the sounds made by what we call natural disasters, such as growling tornado, roaring avalanche, shrieking cyclone, groaning earth. This practice speaks to our complex relationship with nature, connecting us to it and taking us out of it at the same time. But what of the slow silencing that happens to our soundscapes when certain species die out? Such quiet disasters affect everything, sadly in ways we don’t (and won’t) notice until too late.

In The Great Animal Orchestra, author, musician, soundscape recordist, bio-acoustician and naturalist Bernie Krause coins the term, biophony, to help ecologists, biologists, acoustic scientists, and others to understand the long-term impact of disasters, particularly silent ones. Biophony refers to the collective sound vocal non-human animals create in each given environment. We face many compounding problems with the silencing of certain species and the quieting of a whole biophony, not the least of which is our connection with the world.

Krause provides some powerful examples of silenced biophonies in his book, such as the story of the Wy-am tribe in the Northwestern United States, whose history has been intertwined with the Celilo Falls, a waterfall just west of the Columbia River’s midway point, for thousands of years. Wy-am means “the echo of falling water.” Krause writes: “so central were the falls to the tribe that the Celilo was considered a sacred voice through which divine messages were conveyed.” It was also their yearly source for fish. In 1957, when the Dalles Dam gates were ordered shut by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the waterfall and fishing site were completely submerged, sending the Wy-am into a state of mourning that continued to subsequent generations.

Krause cites several similar “silencings” in his book using spectrographs. Similar to sonification, Krause’s spectrograms give form and shape to “silent” disasters. A particularly sad example for me, coming as I do from a family from the Hawaiian Islands, is the recorded comparisons of the coral reef in Vanua Levu, Fiji, that has been devastated by warming waters, shifts in pH, and pollution.

To Bernie Krause: “We have a tendency to attribute ‘loud’ to the perspective of a disastrous event. Can you discuss the relationship of silence to disaster?”

In the natural world there are so many events that, to the “rational” human mind, appear to be contradictions. For instance, after the 11 September 01 disaster, which resulted in cancellation of all domestic and private aircraft flights and a reduction of automobile traffic around our house in the far western United States, the natural soundscape (biophony) returned in a way that we had never heard it before…even in September…late summer when almost all of the birds have fledged and gone elsewhere. And then there’s the reference in the book to the return of the biophony around Chernobyl, recorded by Peter Cusack from the UK. On the other hand, after some types of disasters, the immediate silence appears to happen because all of the vocal creatures have to reassess their acoustic territory, and, depending on the biome, takes anywhere from minutes to years, to recover a stable biophonic expression.

UK artist Peter Cusack’s Sounds from Dangerous Places, sought recordings from disaster sites like the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the Ukraine, the Caspian oil fields in Azerbaijan, the Chernobyl-fallout affected farmlands of Northern Wales, and the rivers of Eastern Turkey with their extensive, local climate altering dams. What is surprising and moving about these works is the strong human element, especially the lack of human presence and the evolving relationship of humans to these post-disaster soundscapes.

Listening to some of Cusack’s recordings from Chernobyl, one might feel surprised to hear that iconic name attached to such rich and pastoral soundscapes. When we consider the massive industrial accident that killed thousands and created an exclusion zone of 30 kilometers (19 miles), some of us are compelled to imagine a wasteland…not a living creature in sight. But those like Cusack who have visited the area are met with quite a different experience, one we can share when listening to the recordings. Cusack says Chernobyl held the richest dawn bird choruses he has ever recorded; haunting full choruses of frogs and nightingales sound throughout the night. And again we hear that iconic sound of the Geiger counter increasing its metallic chirp as Cusack walks toward an infamous radioactive hotspot, at one point it makes an eerie duet with a calling cuckoo.

To Peter Cusack: “How has the sound of dangerous places surprised you?”

Dangerous places can be both sonically and visually compelling, even beautiful and atmospheric. There is, often, an extreme dichotomy between an aesthetic response and knowledge of the ‘danger,’ whether it is pollution, social injustice, military or geopolitical.

In the context of the Sounds from Dangerous Places project ‘dangerous places’ are mostly areas of major environmental damage, but also include nuclear sites or the edges of military zones. The danger is not usually to short-term visitors, but to local people who have no option but to stay or more widely through the location’s role in global power politics.

Many aspects of dangerous places are a surprise, mostly because ones expectations are often wide of the mark, especially in the smaller details. However different places surprise one very differently. For example the name ‘Chernobyl exclusion zone’ implies no one is there. Not so. Thousands still work at the site, some live there and some commute in every day (by rail, so trains are part of the soundscape). That many people also require restaurants, bars, administration and all the infrastructure of a small town. So people and work sounds of all kinds are still to be heard around Chernobyl town and the nuclear sites. Some of the villagers, originally evacuated out, have returned bringing their sounds too – horses, chickens, carts, hand farming, traditional songs, modern day TV. The zone is also now a wildlife haven and the sounds of the dawn and evening chorus of spring are intense. The vibrant recordings of wildlife show that many species, at least, are doing fine in the exclusion zone. . .

Excerpt from article in Sounding Out! journal on sound studies

Author(s)
Year 2012
Type Journal Article without peer review
Publication Sounding Out!, July 18th, 2012
Publisher Sound Out!
Language English