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Environmental sound matter

by Francisco López
April 1998

From the liner notes of the CD: La Selva. Sound environments from a
Neotropical rain forest (released by V2, The Netherlands). Extracted and
modified version of parts of the in-progress larger essay The dissipation
of music.

Much against a widespread current trend in sound art and the customary
standard in nature recordings, I believe in the possibility of a profound,
pure, "blind" listening of sounds, freed (as much as possible) of
procedural, contextual or intentional levels of reference. What is more
important, I conceive this as an ideal form of transcendental listening
that doesn't denies all what is outside the sounds but explores and affirms
all what is inside them. This purist, absolute conception is an attempt at
fighting against the dissipation of this inner world.

Nature Sound Environments vs. Bioacoustics

At a first level of approach to La Selva I'd like to emphasize its
departure from traditional bioacoustics, which is a common reductive
interpretation of nature recordings. This discipline focuses on capturing
the sounds produced by different animal species, mainly for identification
purposes (see ref. 1 for a short review with examples of the analytical
perspective in bioacoustics). Many animal species appear in the recordings
of La Selva and they have even been identified (part II), but none of them
has been the focus of the processes of recording and editing. It is
precisely the way of proceeding through these processes what makes the
essential difference: traditional bioacoustics -justified by its own
scientific goal- tend to isolate the calls, songs or whatever other sounds
of a certain species from the "background" sound of its environment. Both
the recording and the editing processes are directed towards this isolation
and even further enhancement of the contrast between the foreground species
and its background.

In La Selva there is not such an intentional discrimination; the
sound-producing animal species appear together with other accompanying
biotic and non-biotic components of the sound environment that happened to
be there when the recordings were done. In this sense, there is no
purposeful a priori distinction of foreground / background, but only their
unavoidable arisal due to the location of the microphones, as it happens
with our ears. I'm not claiming objectivism (see below) but rather that the
"focus" of my attention was the sound environment as a whole. This is one
of the reasons for the absence of indexes on the CD, to discourage a focal
listening centered on particular appearances of species or other sonic

In addition -but also in close connection with the foreground / background
issue- I find particularly limiting the habitual focus on animals as the
main elements of the sound environment. Not only non-biotic sound sources
are clearly prominent in many nature environments (rainfall, rivers,
storms, wind...; see ref. 2), but there is also a type of sound-producing
biotic component, present in almost every environment, that is usually
overlooked: plants. They are also living organisms and in most cases
-especially in the case of forests- what we call the sound of rain or wind
we could better call the sound of plant leaves and branches. If our
perspective of nature sounds were more focused on the environment as a
whole, instead of on behavioural manifestations of the organisms we foresee
as most similar to us, we could also deal with plant bioacoustics.
Furthermore, a sound environment is not only the consequence of all its
sound-producing components, but also of all its sound-transmitting and
sound-modifying elements. The birdsong we hear in the forest is as much a
consequence of the bird as of the trees or the forest floor. If we are
really listening, the topography, the degree of humidity of the air or the
type of materials in the topsoil are as essential and definitory as the
sound-producing animals that inhabit a certain space.

The widening of the attention scope from individual species to the whole
environment has recently led B. Krause to the proposal of a "niche
hypothesis" (3,4,5) in which different aural niches are basically defined
in terms of frequency bands of the sound spectrum that are occupied by
different species. To me, the interest of this approach -which was already
implicit in many bioacoustical studies dealing with slight differentiations
of vocalizations by close species- lies upon the explicit intention of
expanding classical bioacoustics from an auto-ecological (single-species)
to a more systemic perspective, considering assemblages of sound-producing
animal species at an ecosystem level. This hypothesis, however, still
pertains in a strong way to the field of bioacoustics, in the sense that it
features a sound analytical approach and also -and more importantly-
because it focuses on the differentiation of the biotic sources of sounds.

My approach to nature sound environments is devoid of such analytical or
explanative goals, trying to forcefully move away from a rationalization
and categorization of these aural entities. The reason why I pursue this
environmental perspective is not because it’s more "complete" or more
"realistic", but rather because it promotes a perceptual shifting from
recognition and differentiation of sound sources to the appreciation of the
resulting sound matter. This is not a scorn of the biotic or non-biotic
elements that are typically considered as components of the environment but
an appraisal of other -sonic- components that are not reducible to the
former. As soon as the call is in the air, it doesn't belong to the frog
that produced it anymore.

The Illusion Of Realism or The Fallacy Of The "Real"

The recordings of La Selva have not been modified or subjected to any
process of further mixing or additions. In a traditional context, it could
therefore be said that this work features "pure" straight nature sound
environments, as it is often claimed in many nature recordings releases.
Yet I believe this to be too simplistic and also to obscure a series of
problems on the sense of reality and its portrayal through sound

A common procedure in some nature recordings that try to convey an easy
sense of naturalness is to mix different animal vocalizations over a
background matrix of environmental sound (much like some visual
counterparts that feature a fictional landscape filled with many species
sharing the same -crowded- space). As in the case of traditional
bioacoustics (by exclusion), this artificial mixing approach (by massive
inclusion) could be criticized as "unrealistic"; or even as
"hyper-realistic". Yet we should then consider on which grounds are we
criticizing this tricky departure from reality.

Now that we have digital recording technology (with all its concomitant
sound quality improvements) we can realize more straightforwardly that the
microphones are -they always have been- our basic interfaces in our attempt
at apprehending the sonic world around us, and also that they are
non-neutral interfaces. Different microphones "hear" so differently that
they can be considered as a first transformational step with more dramatic
consequences than, for example, a further re-equalization of the recordings
in the studio. Even although we don’t subtract or add anything we cannot
avoid having a version of what we consider as reality.

There are indeed attempts to solve this by means of technological
improvements. The ambisonics surround sound system, for example, is
foreseen as a means of reproducing soundscapes, conveying a more realistic
sense of envelopment and an illusion of "being there" (6,7). This illusion
of place seems to be a common goal in nature recordings (4). Although I
appreciate very much the multitude of new sound nuances and the ‘spaceness"
provided by these technological developments, I don’t have a special
interest in pursuing "realism". Moreover, I believe these techniques
actually work through hyper-realism, since the carefully recorded, selected
and edited sound environments that we can comfortably enjoy in our
favourite armchair offer an enhanced listening experience (with regards to
some sound qualities and the existence of certain sound events) that we
could probably never have in the supposedly portrayed "reality". Somewhat
paradoxically, it is precisely what they have of non-realistic what I find
most appealing in these sound work efforts. With this I don’t mean the
recorded version is better, but rather that there's also the possibility of
not conceiving it as a version. No matter how good they can be, recordings
cannot replace the "real" experience. What is more important, however, is
that in my opinion they shouldn't try to do that. As I see it, this is a
futile attempt to reproduce the world, that tends to become a kind of
commodity directed to sophisticated entertainment or other forms of
pragmatism. In its essence, a modern consequence of the same kind of
mentality that long ago led to the creation of zoos.

There is another seemingly unavoidable obstacle in this attempt at
portraying aural reality: sound editing. Whereas the "microphone interface"
transfigures the spatial and material characteristics of sound, editing
affects its temporality. This process is already present during the act of
recording; there is always a start and an end for the recording. In most
cases, further "time windows" are created when editing at the studio by
establishing a new start and a new end for the sound fragment.
Additionally, whenever we have several sound fragments, we are faced with
montage. If we are pursuing naturalness in our sound work, what kind of
editing is more "real"? D. Dunn has recently criticized a common decision
in the work with nature recordings: that of eliminating human-made sounds.
He defends the idea that the non-inclusion of sound fragments with human
sonic intrusions (aircraft, road traffic...) in a natural environment, by
way of not recording them or by further editing removal, is a "false
representation of reality" that "lures people into the belief that these
places still fulfill their romantic expectations" (8).

While I share Dunn’s concerns about what he calls "the armchair
environmental movement", I think this interpretation of falsification
through phonography is a simplification of a much more complex problem that
leads to another level in the quest for reality. We are much less inert for
transcription and reproduction than the machines we have supposedly invented
for these purposes. Compared to a microphone, we can either have a much
more striking perception of such a human sonic intrusion or not perceive it
at all. Both in the present and in the traces a sound environment left in
our sonic memory. Do we always realize that there's some distant traffic
noise when our perception is focused on an insect call? Do we remember the
occasional voices of some people nearby when we are recalling that day we
enjoyed the sound of the rain inside the forest? If not, was our experience
-or is what we still keep of it- false? Even if our level of consciousness
includes both the traffic and the insect, do we have to embrace both of
them to talk about reality? Because this perceptual / consciousness level
is at the basis of our apprehension of "reality", I don’t think that a
recording that has been "cleaned up" of human-made sounds (even if this
involves more than editing) is more false than another that hasn't. In many
cases, I would even think of the contrary.

I don’t believe in such a thing as an "objective" apprehension of the sonic
realiy. Moreover, regardless of whether or not we are recording, we could
think of an ideal conception of sound, but we definitely cannot "let the
sounds to be themselves". Not only do different people listen differently,
but also the very temporality of our presence in a place is a form of
editing. The spatial, material and temporal transfigurations exist
independently of phonography. Our idea of the sonic reality, even our
fantasy about it, is the sonic reality each one of us has.

La Selva does have some human-made sound intrusions, and it's not my
intention to conceal the fact that they exist (part II), but I deliberately
avoided them during recording (in most cases) or removed them through

In the context of the discussion above, I claim for the right to be
'unrealistic'. In broader terms, I'm not concerned with such considerations
and I let each listener to judge by himself / herself. The people that live
at La Selva already did, and they found the recordings 'strikingly real'.

This is Not La Selva: Sound Matter vs. Representation

- "This is not a pipe" (Rene Magritte)

What you can listen on this CD is not La Selva; it explicitly doesn't
pretend to be so. In other words, La Selva (the music piece) is not a
representation of La Selva (the reserve in Costa Rica). It certainly
contains elements that can be understood -and even used- as
representational, but the essence of the creation of this sound work that
I'm calling a piece of music is rooted on a 'sound matter' conception, as
opposed to any documentative approach.

The immense majority of works dealing with nature sound environments
reveal some form of documentative understanding of the recordings. Not
surprisingly, the sound documentation of natural places is one of the main
aims of the activities of the Nature Sounds Society, which regularly
organizes field recording workshops. This goal has been expressed so as 'to
provide an aural window into places that many people might never visit'
(9). A similar documentary perspective is distilled in different ways from
most nature sound works, either by giving descriptions of non-sonic
relational elements or by accompanying the sound content with them (see,
e.g., refs. 10-17).

In the case of the 'Acoustic Ecology movement', although the scope of its
activities is larger and there is a greater focus on descriptive aspects of
sound itself (see, e.g., ref. 18), its approach essentially relies upon a
representational / relational conception, sometimes also leading to
'encourage listeners to visit the place' (19).

What I find remarkably striking is how the comprehension of virtually all
approaches to nature sound recording is so rarely referred to the sonic
matter they are supposedly dealing with, but rather to whatever other
non-sonic elements of the experience of the -thus documented- place. As I
see it, this is a paradoxical convolution that tends to relegate the
recorded sounds to the role of documenting or referring to a certain space.
This is not only implicit in the most direct 'picturesque' representations,
but also in the transcendental critiques to it, that identify recording
with this simplistic role (8, 20). Moreover, these latter critiques are
partly justified by survival or health arguments (in terms of the
relationship with our environment), which I see as a form of pragmatism
that I definitely don't share.

What I'm defending here is the transcendental dimension of the sound
matter by itself. In my conception, the essence of sound recording is not
that of documenting or representing a much richer and more significant
world, but a way to focus on and access the inner world of sounds. When the
representational / relational level is emphasized, sounds acquire a
restricted meaning or a goal, and this inner world is dissipated. I'm thus
straightforwardly attaching to the original 'sound object' concept of P.
Schaeffer and his idea of 'reduced listening' (21). I prefer the term
'matter', instead of 'object', because I think it better reflects the
continuity of the sonic entities that is at the basis of the
non-representational conception and also of the very nature of sound
environments. Similarly, I prefer 'profound' to 'reduced', because of the

The richness of this sound matter in nature is astonishing, but to
appreciate it in depth we have to face the challenge of profound listening.
We have to shift the focus of our attention and understanding from
representation to being. Or, in other terms, we should be free to do this.
When listening to this CD, I hope you will desire to be there, in La Selva,
but I also -and especially- hope you will be amazed to be here, in La

Environmental Acousmatics: The Hidden Cicada Paradox

Acousmatics, or the rupture of the visual cause-effect connection between
the sound sources and the sounds themselves (22), can contribute
significantly to the 'blindness' of profound listening. La Selva, as most
tropical rain forests, constitutes a strong paradigm of something we could
call 'environmental acousmatics'.

There are many sounds in the forest but one rarely has the chance to see
the sources of most of them. Is not only that the multitude of animals are
hidden in the foliage. The foliage also hides itself, keeping away from
our sight a myriad of plant sound sources, not only caused by wind or rain,
but also by falling leaves and branches (sometimes of considerable size),
which is a quite frequent event in this forest.

Many animals in La Selva live in this acousmatic world, in which the rule
is not to see their conspecifics, predators or preys, but just to hear
them. This acousmatic feature is best exemplified by one of the most
characteristic and widespread sounds in La Selva: the strikingly loud and
harsh song of the cicadas. During the day, this is probably the most
typical sound that naturally stands in the foreground of the sonic field.
One can perceive it with an astonishing intensity and proximity; many times
you hear the cicada in front of your face. Yet, like a persistent paradox,
you never see it.

A Non-Bucolic Broad-Band World

Another widespread conception about nature sound environments regards them
as 'quiet places', peaceful islands of quietude in a sea of rushing, noisy
man-driven habitats. This constitutes the main motto of the Nature Sounds
Society (23), as made explicit in the title of the CD released by the
Oakland Museum, 'Quiet Places' (24), and also that of G. Hempton's
releases, 'Quiet Places Collection' (13-16).

While this can be true for certain natural environments and under certain
conditions, I think this understanding leads to a restricted and bucolic
view of nature that I don't share. La Selva, as many other tropical rain
forests, is also a paradigm of an antithesis to this view. It is indeed
quiet a noisy place. The multitude of sounds from water (rain, water
courses), together with the incredible sound web created by the intense
calls of insects or frogs and plant sounds, make up a wonderfully powerful
broad-band sound environment of thrilling complexity. The resulting sound
textures are extremely rich, with many sound layers that merge and reveal
themselves by addition or subtraction, challenging perception and also the
very concept of individual sounds.
As I see it, this certainly contributes to expand our aural understanding
of nature, not denying quietude, but embracing a more complete conception,
freed of our judgement and of a somewhat simplistic categorization. I'm
certainly on the side of those defending the 'pristine' sound quality of
natural environments, but essentially because I think we should avoid the
sound intrusion that leads to sonic homogenization, thus pursuing the
conservation of sound diversity in the world.

Within the same spirit, I also defend the preservation and enhancement of
the diversity of man-made sound environments and devices. The value we
assign to sound environments is a complex issue we shouldn't simplify;
under some circumstances, nature can also be considered as an intrusion in
environments dominated by man-made sounds. In this sense, my approach is as
futurist as it is environmentalist, or, in broader terms, independent of
these categorizations.

Is There Music in Nature? Background Music and Profound Listening

I consider La Selva to be a piece of music, in a very strong and profound
sense of the word. After listening to the sound content of the CD, some
will probably find this statement strange, adventurous or maybe arrogant.
In any case, it's obvious I'm not attaching to the classical conception of
music. What is more important, though, is that I think it's a sad
simplification to restrict ourselves to this traditional concept to 'find'
music in nature. I don't subscribe the coupling of nature to these schemes,
by way of -for example- a search for melodic patterns, comparisons between
animal sounds and musical instruments, or 'complementing' nature sounds
with 'musical' ones (5, 25, 26). To me, a waterfall is as musical as a birds

On the contrary, I believe in an expansion and transformation of our
concept of music through nature (as through 'non-nature' in the sense
expressed above). This doesn't mean an absolute assignment of sounds to
music (either in any restricted traditionally academic sense or in the
Cagean universal version (27)). Instead, it refers to my belief that music
is an aesthetic (in its widest sense) perception / understanding /
conception of sound. It's our decision -subjective, intentional,
non-universal, not necessarily permanent- what converts nature sounds into
music. We don't need to transform or complement the sounds. Nor we need to
pursue a universal and permanent assignment. It will arise when our
listening move away from any pragmatic representational 'use', and I claim
for the right to do so with freedom (28).

Structurally, La Selva follows a voluntary constraint represented by a
prototypical day cycle of the rainy season, starting and ending at night.
Some might see this as a 'natural' way of proceeding, but it was indeed a
'compositional' decision. La Selva has been conceived and created
musically. My apprehension of sound matter itself, and not any possible
intention of documenting the place, dictated all editing and montage
decisions. The representational possibilities of the recordings -which I'm
not denying- are 'side-effects', but not essential content in La Selva.

To me, attaining this musical state requires a profound listening, an
immersion into the inside of the sound matter. I consider despective to
foresee nature recordings as 'background music' or as a relaxation
commodity; a trivialization that leads to consume and 'medicinal effects',
some of the worst forms of pragmatism.

There's a fundamental reason for having a single track on the CD. As I
conceive it, La Selva is not an easy background sound; it's a tour de force
of transcendental listening that can lead to many places. Decide by
yourself. Francisco Lopez is a professor of Ecology and a composer living in Spain.

Schizophrenia vs. L'objet Sonore
- Another essay from this author. [WEBPAGE]

The Big Picture - Peruse more writings on soundscapes. [WEBPAGE]

Cited Literature:

(1) van Peer, R. (1995) Nature on record. Part 1. Experimental Musical
Instruments, 10(4): 5-7.
(2) van Peer, R. (1995) Nature on record. Part 2. Experimental Musical
Instruments, 11(1): 20-24.
(3) Krause, B. (1993) The niche hypothesis: a virtual symphony of animal
sounds, the origins of musical expression and the health of habitats. The
Soundscape Newsletter, 6: 4-6.
(4) Girardeau, C. (1994) Nature sounds recording and use. Experimental
Musical Instruments, 10(2): 12-14.
(5) Krause, B. (1997) The niche hypothesis: creature vocalizations and the
relationship between natural sound and music. Nature Sounds, Fall/Winter
1997: 5-10.
(6) Silberman, J. (1995) Ambisonics: the art of "being there". Nature
Sounds, Winter 1994-95: 7-14.
(7) Silberman, J. (1995) Ambisonic sound technology Pt. 2. Nature Sounds,
Spring 1995: 11-13.
(8) Dunn, D. (1997) Nature, sound art, and the sacred. In: Music from
nature. Ed. by D. Rothenberg. Terra Nova, 2(3): 61-71. The MIT Press.
(9) Reinier, J. (1997) Letter from the chair. Nature Sounds, Fall/Winter
1997: 2-4.
(10) Quin, D. (1994) For Paul Panhuysen. On his 60th birthday, August 21,
1994. Experimental Musical Instruments, 10(2): 14-15.
(11) Quin, D. (1997) Sound recording adventures in Antarctica (1): a
morning with the emperors. Nature Sounds, Spring 1997: 11-16.
(12) Quin, D. (1997) Sound recording adventures in Antarctica (2): sounds
of Antarctic glaciers & rock. Nature Sounds, Fall/Winter, 1997: 10-13.
(13) Hempton, G. (1992) Africa. Desert solitude at bushman fountain (CD).
Nature Recordings.
(14) Hempton, G. (1992) Asia. Misty Isle (CD). Nature Recordings.
(15) Hempton, G. (1995) Australia. Dawn across the outback (CD). Nature
(16) Hempton, G. (1992) North America. Winds across a continent (CD).
Nature Recordings.
(17) Watson, C. (1997) Stepping into the dark (CD). Touch.
(18) Winkler, J. (1993) Listening to the desert. The Soundscape Newsletter,
6: 8.
(19) Westerkamp. H. (1992) Beneath the forest floor. The Soundscape
Newsletter, 3: 5.
(20) Schafer, R. M. (1980) The tuning of the world. University of
Pennsylvania Press.
(21) Schaeffer, P. (1966) Traite des objets musicaux. Editions du Seuil.
(22) Chion, M. (1991) L'Art des sons fixes. Editions Metamkine / Nota-Bene
/ Sono-Concept.
(23) Matzner, P. (1994) Letter from Paul. Nature Sounds, Winter 1993-94: 3.
(24) The California Library of Natural Sounds (1992) Quiet Places. A sound
walk across natural California. The Oakland Museum.
(25) McLean, P. & McLean, B. (1997) The McLean mix muses upon the ultimate
instrument. Experimental Musical Instruments, 10(1): 20-23.
(26) Rothenberg, D. (Ed.) (1997) Music from nature (CD). Terra Nova, 2(3).
The MIT Press.
(27) Lopez, F. (ms) Cagean philosophy: a devious version of the classical
procedural paradigm.
(28) Lopez, F. (1997) Schizophonia vs. l"object sonore: soundscapes and
artistic freedom. In: Soundscape design. Klangwelten Herzeichen. Hans U.
Werner und die Insertionisten. Akroama.

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