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Hearing is believing

Greg Hooper

Seeing something isn’t the same as listening to it. Seeing is about location—the eyes track the moving object and fix it upon the retina. But hearing is about objects in action. Our ears listen to a world in motion and the resulting sounds tell us about substance: crystalline or liquid, cracked or whole, being one or many. So through listening we hear the physical substance of a dynamic world and learn something that vision does not reveal.

The systematic exploration of the phenomenology of listening became prominent with the work of R Murray Schafer and the beginnings of the Acoustic Ecology movement in the 60s. Schafer challenged the dominance of ‘eye culture.’ He claimed that the acoustic environment has pragmatic and aesthetic value and that there is a moral imperative to improve the quality of life through the preservation and enhancement of our acoustic environs.

By the 90s the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology was formed with members across Asia, Europe and North America. Their latest symposium, including talks, presentations, group chats, soundscapes, soundwalks, an audiotheque, exhibition and a concert was held recently in Melbourne. Topics for discussion included linguistics, field recordings, methodology, performance, composition and noise pollution. At first the varying methods and topics among presenters made for an annoying lack of focus. But by the end I wished I’d been able to get to everything (cursed work hours). Nowadays, inclusion, multi-discipline and cross-practice get the prime logo spot on the academic corporate guernsey but Acoustic Ecology (AE) actually practices the exploration implied in working across boundaries.

Hildegarde Westerkamp, a hero of AE, took us on a soundwalk, or guided listening tour, through a nearby park. The walk had a lovely symmetry, beginning with the crunch of leaves underfoot and ending with the rustle of leaves overhead. In between, the acoustic space took on architectural qualities, indicating varying degrees of enclosure as we moved through open lawns, next to walls, alongside a lake.

The soundscapes concert was held at the new BMW Edge Auditorium in Federation Square: Scandinavian floor timber meets crazy-pave Meccano and glass beehive. Composers worked the mixing desk at the front, while the speakers of the sound diffusion system from RMIT’s Spatial Information Architecture Lab were distributed all around. The resulting acoustics were maybe a bit harsh and reflective in the upper mids.

First up was Doug Quinn’s perfect underwater recording of Weddell Seals. Evidently the furry brutes had been building some sort of cruel and gigantic cheese grater 50 feet below the Antarctic ice cap and a fight had broken out. One for the marine mammal noise cognoscenti. Certainly changed my attitude to the clubbing of baby seals. Gabriele Proy then presented 3 beautifully recorded pieces. Lagom used sounds of children dive-bombing in water, playing tennis and football. Transitions from tram rides to water to ballgames hinted at the easy sociability of games. Natural sounds were treated as both document and material for synthesis in Barry Truax’s Island. The sound of wind across a lake, waves on the beach, frogs croaking, water dripping in a cistern and a final windy shoreline produced an intense mood and drama, volume and space. Next was Angel by Jo Thomas, with program notes about the passage of time, the body and the voice. I didn’t hear that within the piece but the audience liked it.

Lawrence Harvey played his Canopies: chimerical acoustic environments, originally produced for the 200 metre long Soundscape System in central Melbourne. This work showed off the spatialisation capabilities of the diffusion system, particularly the use of the front/back axis, as well as Harvey’s expertise on the mixer. Transformed wood-chimes, shells, beads and small bells made up the sonic material in a piece that moved to a beautifully quiet finish. Westerkamp used ‘rainsounds’ to evoke the west coast of British Columbia. Cars on a wet road. Wet gravel walks. Subtle modulations across short and long time scales and another clear and dripping ending.

Westerkamp (with photographer Florence Debeugny) also had an installation in Hearing Place: Exhibitions and Audiotheque, organised by Ros Bandt and Iain Mott of the Australian Sound Design Project ( At the Edge of the Wilderness explored the ghost towns of British Columbia through recorded soundwalks and photographs. The poetry of the images, the rhythm of their presentation on the wall, the soundwalk as a narration, all evoked the damp decay of abandoned timber towns. I’m familiar with Ros Bandt’s work through CDs, books and her symposium talk. An acute sense of space comes through in her recorded works, and I regret only glimpsing her piece and missing those shown at the Yarra Sculpture Gallery.

I did however get a chance to hear Iain Mott’s piece in the Audiotheque—a binaural recording of Mott having a haircut. In a binaural recording, microphones are placed as though they are in the ears of a real head: this technique achieves a spatial representation of sound that is close to actual listening. The technique is particularly good for headphone use—the speakers-in-the-ear headphones mirroring the stuck-in-the-ears microphones. Mott’s decision to record a haircut binaurally (mics in his ears) is inspired. The proximity and pressure of the headphones replaces the hands and the scissors to give a haircut without the cutting. The haircutting sounds are heard as intrinsic to the haircut experience. Mott’s piece, like the strongest work in the symposium, used sound to recreate the sense of being within an experience while drawing conscious attention to the importance of the acoustic environment for the emotional and informational content of that experience. Which is where Acoustic Ecology began.

International Symposium of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, hosted by The Australian Forum for Acoustic Ecology & The Victorian College of the Arts in co-operation with Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes; various locations in Melbourne, March 19-23

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 30

© Greg Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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