May 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Quiet life

By Nicola Redhouse
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The acoustic ecologists documenting our quieted world

Towards the end of March, as degrees of lockdown set in globally in a bid to contain the spread of ­COVID-19, a call went out to the discussion group for the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, an international association that focuses on the social, aesthetic, cultural and ecological aspects of the sonic environment. Satellite imagery from spaces such as the Great Mosque of Mecca and Tiananmen Square had by then been circulating in the news for weeks, showing formerly teeming spaces emptied; freeways like wide grey rivers, clean of vehicles.

“So friends, have you been able to fold in these extraordinary circumstances into your listening/recording?” The question came from Jim Metzner, executive producer of syndicated US radio program Pulse of the Planet, which has for 31 years explored subjects as eclectic and specific as the Pantanal wetland and giraffe mucus using sound recording.

The responses came in quickly, foremost emphasising an erasure of noise. For Portuguese composer Carlos Alberto Augusto, based in the quiet of the countryside, there was an even more palpable absence: “What is happening now seems much like when there’s a power shortage … no 50-cycle hum, no electrical appliances working.”

From Saint Louis in the United States, electronic musician Thomas Park shared an mp3 file recorded at 8.30pm on a Thursday evening in midtown, “usually a fairly active time, with folks walking about and chatting”, in which only the white-noise whoosh of passing cars could be heard.

David Kamp, a Berlin-based composer, chimed in with: “It feels like the constant curtain of traffic sound … has been pulled away a bit.”

In Melbourne’s north-east, Lawrence Harvey, who directs the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL) sound studios at RMIT, wrote that the “acoustic horizon” has expanded, and sound is reflecting off houses and buildings to a greater degree. “Our dog kept herself amused reacting to another dog’s response the other night. There was no other dog, of course – it was her echo,” he wrote.

From a 240-acre vineyard just to the north-east of Sonoma, California, under a flightpath, American musician and soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause noted: “Very few commercial jets inbound from the north and Europe … Not a single private plane for several days now. None of the usual helicopters flying over our valley.” In their place, “anthropophonic textures rarely heard”.

For John Crockett in rural Vermont, who records natural soundscapes as part of his conservation work, outside it was “still the same air traffic, both private and passenger. We are still in later winter, so bird activity is quiet. The woodcocks are starting to arrive and call and whistle in the dusk.” Inside, though, was noticeably altered, a soundtrack of “streamed videos and Zoom tele-conferences; speaking louder than we probably have to; and keyboard strikes”.

In Brussels, where a lockdown had been underway for close to a week, Randy Ali, a researcher in acoustics and signal processing, recalled a short walk from his central apartment. Usually met with “lively shops and cafes filled with tourists and locals”, he encountered a “deafening silence … It almost felt like … noise-cancelling headphones.”

Ali, like so many others, made special mention of the moments of thanks to healthcare workers, a now global act of sonic unification: “Since Wednesday, at 8:00 pm, everyone also comes out on their balcony or opens their window and gives a huge applause and makes some noise for all of the workers in the health sector who are sacrificing everything for us.” In Vancouver, for sound designer and electronic-music producer Millie Wissar, 7pm has become her favourite hour of the day, as the cheers of neighbours on their balconies give way to “a big cathartic moment when the city comes alive for a few minutes”.

Canadian composer Carol Ann Weaver, in Waterloo, Ontario, was similarly deeply moved by a sonic encounter. “[N]eighbours across the street, quarantined from travels … were out on their front porch, sounding loud ringing objects – bells and such,” she wrote. “I joined them with my Gambian shaker and African agogo, as we lit into a raucous, percussive thank you to the universe for being alive!”

Many in the discussion have launched specific projects to document sound recordings from around the world as the pandemic takes hold. One is Berlin-based Udo Noll, who lives around the corner from a usually bustling market of Turkish, Arab and German traders that has given way to “no market criers, few people … [an] absence of sounds”. Noll is a media artist who founded Radio Aporee, a platform for soundscape research that currently houses an interactive global map called “Soundscapes in the Pandemic”. Some of the most affecting recordings include eruptions of applause, everywhere from Bristol in the United Kingdom to Bratislava in Slovakia. There are also the plaintive voices and sounds of pots and pans being banged together in the JK Building, the tallest building in downtown Belo Horizonte, in protest against Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who has launched an official campaign to keep Brazilians living as normal, dubbed #BrazilCannotStop.

As the days passed and more responses to Jim Metzner’s query came in, the calls for contributions to COVID-19 audio projects also proliferated: the New Zealand–based “Aotearoa Stories in Sound”, which Metzner is part of; real-life streams at the “Locus Sonus” sound map, run by South London–based sound artist and writer Grant Smith; a Google Earth sound map being curated by Scotland-based professor of composition and electroacoustic music Pete Stollery; and UK-based project #StayHomeSounds, part of sound artist and field recordist Stuart Fowkes’ global sound-mapping project “Cities and Memory”. Contributions to the latter from Australia emphasised the predominance of the sounds of industry: the metal whirr of a coal train through Toowoomba, Queensland, and a dawn in the New South Wales town of Leeton, where “[t]he hum of the nearby Rice Cooperative keeps permeating … as well as the rumble of passing trucks as produce travels from the ‘food bowl’ that is our region”.

For a group focused on what can be heard, COVID-19 silences raise an interesting spectre: what is it to memorialise and record erased sound? A number of contributors voiced their discomfort at the curating of an absence that represents so much loss.

Carol Ann Weaver addressed this in a response that acknowledged what we must accept about this moment in time: “I like the idea that silence also includes a vast sense of unknowing. Possibly, when we have nothing to record or listen to, we are hearing our lives most profoundly. Brave living to all of us!”

Nicola Redhouse

Nicola Redhouse is a Melbourne-based writer and the author of Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind.

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