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Leah Barclay: global sono-eco ambassador

Gail Priest


Leah Barclay, Paris Leah Barclay, Paris
image courtesy the artist

When I first arrange to Skype with Australian sound artist Leah Barclay she’s momentarily confused about what city and time zone she will be in the next day. This is hardly surprising—her schedule of activities encompassing acoustic ecology, environmental conservation and community cultural development is extensive, inspiring and exhausting.

She eventually realises she’ll be in New York presenting her work at the Atmospheres symposium at Brown University. This follows her attendance at the Fourth World Congress of Biosphere Reserves in Lima, Peru. Last year saw her trialling her augmented reality sound walk project, Rainforest Listening, in Austin (Texas) with subsequent presentations in New York and Paris.

When she’s not zipping around the world, home for Barclay is Brisbane where she is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Griffith University, the President of the Australian Forum for Acoustic Ecology and a convenor of the upcoming Sonic Environments Conference hosted in collaboration with NIME 2016 (New Interfaces for Musical Expression) and the Australasian Computer Music Association. We finally settle on a mutually acceptable time (though brutally early for New York and a bit sleepily late for Sydney) to talk about her global sonic adventures.

Biosphere Soundscapes

UNESCO has 699 biosphere reserves around the globe—areas designated as learning laboratories for sustainability with the aim of finding new approaches to conservation while maintaining cultural diversity. Barclay says that at the recent UNESCO conference in Lima the mission was summarised as such: “world heritage is about protecting the past…biosphere reserves are about creating the future.” Back in 2012 Barclay approached UNESCO to undertake a number of sound-driven projects in some of these areas and to date has worked in 14 of them.

“The process is basically going into the biosphere reserve, working directly with the community and developing the project in a very responsive way. Initially we run a lab where we teach the local community about sound and in return they teach us about the local biosphere reserve. We often run residencies bring[ing] in artists and scientists and sett[ing] up various partnerships so that communities can continue the projects. And then with all of the field recordings we create artworks that range from immersive performances to augmented reality projects using mobile phones, to large-scale installations that tour conservation congresses to bring awareness of biosphere reserves. Biosphere Soundscapes has, I would like to think, a strong structure, but then it’s very flexible and responsive with how it works with each of the communities onsite.”

I ask Barclay how this process plays out for the communities involved. She cites the most recent project in Mexico’s Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve as a good example. “In Mexico last year we ran a residency and as a result of that all these partnerships [were formed] with local conservation groups, the Ministry for Environment, a conservation conference they’re having there and Fonoteca which is the national film and sound archive. The project became a catalyst for forming a lot of interdisciplinary collaborations for the local community and the biosphere reserve.”

Leah Barclay, Biosphere Soundscapes, Mexico Leah Barclay, Biosphere Soundscapes, Mexico
image courtesy the artist

Rainforest Listening

Under the banner of Biosphere Soundscapes, several ongoing projects have developed—River Listening, Ocean Listening and the most recent project, Rainforest Listening, which Barclay discusses in more depth.

“I was working with an organisation in Austin, Texas called Rainforest Partnership…They work directly with Indigenous communities throughout the Amazon in Peru and Ecuador mainly…finding things that the community is passionate about doing and help[ing] them build up those projects so that the forest becomes more valuable standing than it is cut down.

“We decided to start this project looking at ways that we can use sound to monitor environmental change in the Amazon, but then [also] as an awareness and education tool…So the creative approach was to take a lot of my Amazon field recordings [and] creative responses, then geo-locate these compositions throughout urban environments, and take people on soundwalks. We launched that in New York City, in Times Square, for Climate Week last year.

“The success of that project sparked the idea of expanding this to different places around the world. So we did it for [the United Nations Conference on Climate Change] COP21 in Paris. We developed it further so that we could work on a vertical axis as well. We took the recordings I have from four different layers of the Amazon and planted those on each observatory deck of the Eiffel Tower…The evolution of that project is that we are now installing these live nodes in the Amazon Rainforest so the App will actually connect to live streams. [We are also] building on that idea of being able to [place] the four layers of Amazon onto different iconic structures, hopefully across the world.”




The power of listening

I ask Barclay why she thinks sound is so successful at generating discussions around conservation.

“We put so much more emphasis on our visual perception than our auditory perception. If we have opportunities to listen more or are encouraged to listen more, [we] experience the environment in a different way…I had the opportunity to work in a lot of Indigenous communities throughout my PhD and I was fascinated by this idea that in almost all of the communities I was working in—although they approached this in different ways—the idea of listening to the environment was really at the core of their life and a lot of things they were doing…So coming from a background as a musician with a strong interest in conservation and climate change, it seemed obvious to connect the dots and find ways that sound could bring awareness to these environments and be a tool to really engage people in the richness and diversity of these environments at risk.”

When asked about uncomfortable overtones of exoticism, imperialism and exploitation that potentially accompany a Western field recording practice, Barclay cites the development of the Biosphere Soundscapes model as a direct response.

“Probably eight or nine years ago I shifted away from that idea of going into a community, doing lots of field recordings, leaving, making a bunch of works, touring them around the place. It’s been much more about developing these long-term relationships with communities and having them be an integral part of process… [making sure they] have a voice.”

She also suggests that there is a shift in the conservation community towards understanding sound as a powerful tool. When she recently attended the World Congress of Biosphere Reserves [http://en.unesco.org/events/4th-world-congress-biosphere-reserves], held every six years, she was happy to see that acoustic ecology and sound were now on the United Nations agenda.

“When I’ve presented acoustic ecology and the Biosphere Soundscape project in the past there has been support but, I guess, confusion for a lot of the delegates as to why we would be talking about sound and what on earth acoustic ecology is. This year there was a lot more interest and general understanding of the way that sound can be a tool to understand cultural and biological diversity. There was a lot more interest from other [biosphere reserves] in developing projects and university curriculums and working with communities on the ground. Now it’s just a question of how, really, do I do it all!”

Leah Barclay, Noosa River Leah Barclay, Noosa River
image courtesy the artist


Sonic Environments (ACMC 2016), Queensland Conservatorium, Brisbane, 10-11 July;

Listen to the sounds of Mamori Lake, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon;
Great Sandy Biosphere Reserve, Queensland; other Barclay recordings; and watch a video about Rainforest Listening.

Read more about Biosphere Soundscapes; Rainforest Listening and River Listening and about Leah Barclay.

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016 pg.

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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