Tuning In and Spacing Out: Notes on the Presentness of Sound

Research —

‘Tuning In and Spacing Out: Notes on the Presentness of Sound’, collaboration with Edward Shanken, Proceedings of the International Symposium of Electronic Arts (ISEA2012), Albuquerque


Abstract: “These are underwater sounds made by humpback whales as they pass near Bermuda in the Spring. They were recorded through a hydrophone, which is a kind of underwater microphone. The water is very deep and the sounds are echoing off the under-surface of waves and from the submarine canyons and ridges on the island slope. If you listened for a long time you would hear that the sounds are organized into definite repeating patterns, so we call them songs, just as we refer to bird-songs or frog-songs. Unlike bird songs, humpback songs are very long, six to thirty minutes, and are strung together without pauses between them. They are probably the longest, loudest and slowest songs in nature” (Payne and McVay, 1970).

The first images of Earth from space and the first publicly released recordings of whale songs were widely disseminated and had a profound effect on popular consciousness on a global scale. The Earth from this perspective seems precious and coherent yet isolated if not vulnerable in space, one of many planetary bodies in the universe. The whale songs revealed these mythic beings as far more intelligent, sociable, and complex, but also far more accessible, far more humanlike, than previously recognized. This tuning in to the sound of whales and spacing out on Earth emerged at a moment of rising environmental concerns and contributed to a growing ecological awareness. Borrowing from cybernetics and systems theory, this awareness recognized the intrinsic interrelatedness of various life forms and the Earth’s seas, terrestrial environments, and atmosphere. It appears that popular concern with environmentalism and ecology is cyclical in nature. And we are currently in the midst of another such cycle of heightened awareness, in which the whale returns again, as a central icon, and in which systems thinking underlies current conceptions of sustainability.
This paper purposely ambiguates the roles of the artist and theorist, flowing between scholarly writing and first-hand accounts of personal experiences. It discusses historic and contemporary research on sound by artists and scientists including La Monte Young, Alvin Lucier, Yolande Harris, David Dunn and James P. Crutchfield, and Michel André. The authors share a fascination with sounds from environments that lie outside direct human experience – under water, in the atmosphere and outer space, and at non-human spatio-temporal scales. These environments often do not lend themselves to visual discernment; rather, sound becomes an invaluable means for understanding these spaces, for experiencing a form of “presentness” in them. By presentness we mean a heightened personal state of being – a psychical form of “tuning in” in which awareness of one’s immediate or extended environment is greatly enhanced, expanding consciousness outward from the self into an infinite metaphorical space. We see this operation as underlying the power of field recordings and other forms of acoustic soundscapes. Tuning in and spacing out to the presentness of sound becomes a method for creating an expanded, systemic awareness that is key to cultivating sustainable attitudes toward the environment and to developing interdisciplinary solutions to global ecological problems.