Friday, October 29, 2010

Ear to the Earth: environment and electronic music

Yesterday I visited an ongoing exhibit near New York Chinatown, A Soundmap of the Housatonic River by Annea Lockwood. It was commissioned by the Housatonic River Museum in Massachusetts and included in a water-focused festival jointly produced by Electronic Music Foundation and Ear to the Earth. The festival treats water as a natural resource rather than artistic content. The exhibit especially affected me because of my passion for environmental conservation and background in analysis of proposed utility projects (think high-voltage transmission lines).

While waiting for someone to meet me there, I sat and listened to about 30 mins of the hour-long piece. There were four speakers set at the corners of a square in a tiny white gallery space with three chairs facing the same direction in the middle. A shaded relief map of the river with locations keyed to landmarks, dates, and times was installed on the facing wall. A digital time display served as counter so the observer could track the recording.

All the sound I heard was from field recordings, faded and arranged digitally. For the first 15 mins or so, the sound was all "natural" -- although the river undoubtedly attracted civilization and industry, a random sample, which is all a visitor can be expected to stay for, would most likely be gurgling and birdsong, no human noise.

The portrayal of "nature" as romantic, pure, and pristine troubles me because it alienates people. This image insists we are no part of the environment. I believe we are necessarily part of it, interdependent. Sure, there's charm and mystery in the world around us. But to make real, considered choices, we must emphasize and value our impacts on and interaction with this environment. To portray a river in civilization as gurgling and birdsong would be stifling, boring, ineffective.

So I was delighted suddenly to hear the violent, repeated roar of automobiles over the covered bridge at West Cornwall, then a more gentle motorcycle shifting again and again, replaced quickly by the solitary, irregular drilling of a woodpecker quite like a conventional wood block, all over the nuanced, running water. Yes, Lockwood focused on the non-human sounds along the river, taking samples at remote locations and early hours of the day; but she treated human sounds with care, preparing the ear and then recovering with taste and space for afterthought. Mine was: what a perfect motorcycle crossing, still invasive, alone, like the bird, amoral, inevitable. A moving transition.

My rendezvous never showed, but it was a lovely meditation for me. If you have a chance to stop by 153-1/2 Stanton St in NYC by next Thursday, please take a moment's shelter from the uninterpreted urban environment.

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