Ears Wide Open
By Kim Tingley

A modern building of cedar, stone, steel and glass, set in a wooded sanctuary, houses the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. On a wet morning in August, I visited the office of Mike Webster, the director of the lab’s Macaulay Library, home to one of the most comprehensive collections of natural-sound recordings in the world. Webster is a biologist who studies sexual selection and mating behavior in wild birds, and that includes the question of how their songs evolve. Decoding birdcalls and songs has always been a crucial component of ornithological research, but scientists are also increasingly analyzing the acoustics of many other species as a way to measure their health and that of their habitats. “The Macaulay ‘Library’ is not a real good name,” Webster told me. “A better way of thinking about what we are is as a biological research collection or museum. In most places, you have skins and bones. Specimens capture traits over time. But traits that are not captured are behavior. So we’re like a collection of behavior.”

As Webster searched the Macaulay database for samples to play, it struck me that I had so far considered him and his lab only visually: I’d noticed the striking architecture, all the trees, the slate-colored sky, along with his beard, his plaid shirt and the friendly-seeming crinkles around his eyes. And though the pitter-pat of the rain and the tone of Webster’s voice undoubtedly shaded those impressions, I was not aware of their doing so. Nor, if I had been, would I have had much of a vocabulary to translate those sounds into print. Part of the reason for this is straightforward biology: As primates, we tend to see better than we hear. Culturally, a preponderance of visual communications (street signs, books, body language, Tinder) reinforce this preference for sight. But another, more complicated reason has to do with what sound is and is not.

“I can play a heartbreaking one for you,” I heard Webster say, followed by a click. Consider that “click,” remarkable in its onomatopoetic ordinariness. We know instantly where it came from: Webster’s mouse. Or did it? Depending on your philosophical bent, it could have also come from his finger, or the movement of his finger against the mouse, or a burst of energy traveling outward from the mouse through the air in waves, or from the vibration of the drums in Webster’s and my ears in a manner our brains registered as “click.” It could have originated as all of these; in that case, is it still a finite unit from inception through reception? Defining that “click” — invisible, temporary, a byproduct of an event that ended the moment it began — prompts us to re-examine our concept of reality in a way that looking does not. “This is what sound is,” Michel Chion, a French composer and filmmaker, writes in “Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise,” “this coming and going where something has moved in the meantime, between the coming and the going.” In short, sound is, by its very nature, not an object but a journey through space and time.

Paradoxically, the photographs on the following pages, accompanied by recordings, are fixed. They are defined by the page, whereas sound has no similar boundary. We see them in the present tense, but we listen (always, but doubly so with recordings) to the past. What, then, can a picture tell us about a sound — what can looking teach us about listening — and vice versa? One answer is that the evanescence of sound underscores the inevitability of loss and, in turn, deepens our capacity to appreciate what is beautiful — to be surprised.

Click. Strains of discrete, flutelike notes filled the room. I heard them as playful, cheerful, until Webster explained that they were the voice of a long-dead bird, captured on tape back in 1976. “Kauai Oo,” Webster said between calls, naming the extinct Hawaiian species, whose mating pairs duetted. “This is the last one ever recorded. He’s waiting for someone to respond.”

Humans are a visual species except, crucially, at our beginning and end. “In terms of development, hearing is one of the first things that turns on,” Aaron Rice, a bioacoustics researcher at Cornell, pointed out, referring to our time in the womb, when, at about 15 weeks, we begin to develop the ability to hear the swishing, thumping cacophony of our mother’s body. “They tell emergency medical services to always keep talking to a victim, because hearing is the last thing to turn off.” Our middle ears and those of countless other creatures originated as the gill- and jawbones of fish and help us balance ourselves. Below 20 hertz, we stop hearing a sound and start feeling it as vibration. “Hearing is a way of touching at a distance,” the Canadian composer and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer writes in “The Tuning of the World,” “and the intimacy of the first sense is fused with sociability whenever people gather together to hear something special.” Eons ago, as early mammals grappled with the challenges of finding insects among the foliage of dimly lit forests, they evolved large, front-facing eyes and bigger brains, which eventually led to the dependence on sight for orientation and communication among modern humans and other primates. Storytelling, though, remained an oral tradition in the West until the advent of the printing press in the 15th century. Over the next 400 years or so, the eye gained an advantage as a collector, retainer and disseminator of information. Then the arrival of Thomas Edison’s phonograph offered a widespread way to record and play back sound.

As audio recording gradually improved, musicians were among the earliest to appreciate what this new technology could reveal about the natural world. In the 1990s, Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist and former professional musician, put forward the hypothesis, now generally accepted, that each creature in a given soundscape occupies an “acoustic niche,” a finite bandwidth at a certain frequency and time of day or night, ensuring that it can be heard. By comparing spectograms — visualizations of sound — of recordings he made at various sites over years and even decades, he began to show that masking an animal’s bandwidth with human noise could be tantamount to bulldozing its physical habitat. Around the same time, Christopher W. Clark, whose musical background included training as a choirboy, founded a bioacoustics laboratory at Cornell and enlisted colleagues there in linguistics, engineering, anthropology and other disciplines to help him develop a language to describe the ineffable qualities of music and the recordings that biologists were bringing back from the field, some of which were inaudible to the naked ear. “Mayflies stridulating on a weed stem sounds like jug band,” Clark says. “Speed up the blue whale’s song 60 times, and you hear the rhythm.” Perhaps the greatest value of eavesdropping on these previously unheard utterances, Clark and other bioacousticians felt, was the chance it offered people who were neither scientists nor musicians to connect with other beings. “The biology of sound in land, sea and skies, the magnificence of the living symphony — everybody gets it in terms of music,” he says.

Though our ears, unlike our eyes, are open at all times, we often fail to perceive consciously what we hear. In the 1960s, Schafer urged university students in an experimental-music class he was teaching to notice “the sounds of their own environment and the sounds they themselves inject into their environment” — voices, breath, the rustling of fabric, the scratching of a pencil. He gave them “ear cleaning” assignments: Write down everything you hear; try to find silence; tape a conversation, replay it and note sounds you did not intentionally record. “Before we train a surgeon to perform delicate operations, we first ask him to get into the habit of washing his hands,” he pointed out. “Ears also perform delicate operations, and therefore ear cleanliness is an important prerequisite for all music listening and music playing.” Greater acoustic awareness, however, comes at a price. Go to the most peaceful place you can think of, and try Schafer’s exercises; odds are it will never seem quite as peaceful again. And in fact, a collaborative study by the Natural Sounds and Night Skies division of the National Park Service has documented that human-made noise has doubled the background sound-level volume in more than half of its protected areas, disrupting wildlife and detracting from the experience of visitors — who are, of course, making much of that noise themselves.

In humans, prolonged exposure to noise has been linked with cardiovascular problems, heightened stress levels, decreased immune-system function and cognitive impairments, as well as feelings of helplessness that are a risk factor for depression. Researchers have also found that what we hear changes what we see. People who look at photos of national-park vistas while listening to natural sound rate them significantly higher in terms of “scenic beauty,” “freedom,” “tranquillity” and such qualities than they do when the same images are paired with noise from motorcycles, snowmobiles or plane propellers, according to a joint study by Colorado State University, Penn State University and the natural-sounds division. Even so, we continue to elevate landscapes at the expense of soundscapes: To wit, motorcycles, snowmobiles and planes are vehicles that national-park visitors use to sightsee; onboard, those visitors are unable to hear a thing outside their own acoustic bubbles.

Recently, I sought advice from Davyd Betchkal, a soundscape technician and biologist with the natural-sounds division for the Alaska region: What insights could readers could hope to glean from a photography issue devoted to hearing? He directed me to Chion and his fellow filmmaker Walter Murch, specifically to a remark by Murch published in 2005: “You have to invoke the possibility of the sound. You can’t simply be silent and say, ‘This silence is great’; instead, you have to imagine the hundred musicians onstage in order for their silence to mean anything. You have to work with the psychic pressure exerted by the instruments or sounds that are not playing. This is the underpinning of what I try to do with sound, which is to evoke the individual imagination of each member of the audience.”

The potential of those musicians — or volcanoes, or bats, or sand dunes — can be conjured with a photograph. But with the development of recording devices capable of operating by themselves in the field for weeks and even months at a stretch, researchers have also begun to capture sounds whose origin is completely unknown, and thus for which not even a mental image exists. At Cornell, Holger Klinck, the director of the ornithology lab’s bioacoustics research program, played me recordings he made in Antarctica. “You’re standing on the ice, a flat sheet of ice, everything is white or blue, there’s nothing going on, maybe a few penguins,” he told me. “Put the hydrophone in the water, and you think you’re in a freaking jungle.” Many of the sounds — the laser-gun-like glissandos of the Weddell seal; the drumroll-to-static collision of two icebergs — have been identified. Others — an elephantine bellow, a guttural moaning, a sustained foghorn — remain a mystery. These sounds in particular, out of context and untethered to images, create a unique version of the “psychic pressure” Murch describes: a visceral sense of the physical power required to bring them about and, in the formlessness of that power, an awareness of the vast scale at which so much else has come and gone, and continues to come and go, without our notice.

Recording offers ecologists and others a chance to preserve pristine acoustic environments for posterity — and make the public case for saving them from extinction. The idea for the Macaulay Library came in the late 1920s, with the emergence of talking films, a medium that invented novel techniques for artificially coupling images and sounds to elicit emotion. Until then, Murch has written, sounds “seemed to be the inevitable and ‘accidental’ (and therefore mostly ignored) accompaniment of the visual — stuck like a shadow to the object that caused them. … Recording magically lifted the shadow away from the object and stood it on its own.”

Early reel-to-reel recorders weighed upward of 15 pounds, and because each reel lasted 30 minutes at most, a biologist had to lug mountains of tape into the field too. Advances in technology have significantly decreased the size of recording equipment while exponentially increasing the amount of data they can store; the challenge for bioacoustics researchers now is analyzing the vast quantities of sound they can capture. They are also seeking ways to use that information in real time. For instance, Cornell has buoys in Massachusetts Bay that record underwater 24/7 and process that data automatically; if they detect the acoustic signature of an endangered right whale, they alert an analyst at the lab who can post a warning for nearby ships, say, to slow down, warding off potentially fatal collisions.

But the magic trick that the Macaulay’s natural-sound recordings perform, of asking us to consider what we hear in our surroundings independently of what we see, has existential implications for us all. Eleanor Ratcliffe, an environmental psychologist at Imperial College London who has shown that people perceive bird song as having restorative effects, told me that her subjects often shared anecdotes of bird song in which the sound seemed to color the passage of time, connecting them to memories of growing up and important life events. Jacob Job, a recordist for the park service’s natural-sounds division, told me that when park visitors see him out with his parabolic-dish microphone, they frequently ask what he’s doing. When he explains that he’s making “an acoustical snapshot” (a mixed metaphor that signals the complex relationship between sight and sound and memory), they almost always respond with descriptions of sounds from their own lives. Sound, he said, “evokes emotion and memory so well.”

Indeed, not long after speaking with him, on a visit to my Florida hometown, a friend and I were reminiscing about a hurricane that hit there in August 2004. The storm knocked the power out for days — even weeks, in some spots: Refrigerators ceased humming; radios, televisions and air-conditioners fell silent. It took a while for people to acquire generators, and for that first night, at least, we were quiet and exposed. The sound of the place we had always lived in permeated our dark homes: a cacophonous chirping and trilling so intense it seemed impossible that we had been oblivious to it before and would become so again as soon as our appliances came back to life. In our memories, the strangeness of that soundscape defines the event — frightening, magnificent — and lends its chaos meaning: We were able, in the absence of our own noise, to hear how mighty and resilient life on our planet is, how vulnerable and temporary we are.

Read More

Read More

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here