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On the Paradox of Listening to Recorded Nature

By Jim Cummings

From the liner notes to The Dreams of Gaia.

You are about to enter a strange land, a place rich with life, where relationship and wholeness is paramount, yet where your sensory experience will be reduced to nothing more than subtle changes in air pressure against your eardrums. You are entering into the sounding world, separated from its natural context as just one aspect of a planet we usually know through a unified experience of sight, touch, smell, and sound.

Paradoxically, this separation is meant to enliven your sense of integration with the living, breathing community that you walk through day to day. By focusing on the subtle (and startling) expressions of this sounding world, you will likely find your ears enlivened, taking a newly active role in your own experience of your home. This new vividness in your listening may well feed into fresh ways of seeing the leaves, of feeling the wind, of tasting the permeating scent of the forest.

Still, the whole idea of extracting a single aspect of the whole is odd. These recordings don't even duplicate the sonic experience you'd have in any of the places they were made. In this is their strangeness, and their power. The world outside your door is indescribably more vivid than any recording; though there may be fewer, less “dramatic” sounds there, you are immersed in those sounds, they surround you, penetrate your skin, and move invisibly through your heart and spirit, in ways these recordings never will.

Yet these sound recordists are not spending their lives futilely attempting to recreate natural soundscapes. No, they cast their lots to the currents of wonder, and the tiny fragments of endless field and studio work that end up on CDs are their most successful moments of evoking something central to that place. Or a more general and universal respect for relationship. Or the resonance of a dream they had one early morning. Or perhaps a passing sense of delight, or sadness. No matter their intent, for your experience in hearing the work will surely be different than theirs. This is the way of the muse.

As you likely know from your own life, the wonder we can remember, carry with us, speak about, or let creativity play with, is not the same wonder we experience in the living moment. The memory of wonder that we bring back is like a photograph, a sketch, a scribbled note, compared to the moment of connection itself. These works are not attempts to recreate the experience of being present to a chorus of frogs in the night, or the awakening of a woodland dawn, or the standoff between two elk at opposite sides of a meadow. As we listen, can have an experience that has links, both obvious and uncharted, with the moments we have known in the world (and with those we are yet to know). There is a stimulation, and an exchange, with parts of ourselves, and between ourselves and our planetary context. If we choose to, we can be changed by this meeting with pure sound.

The first disc is designed to open your ears. You will find extraordinary expressions of nature’s voices, surprising and familiar. The human sounding world is presented as well, in both its beauty and confusion. You are introduced to the gamut of artistic approaches, from unretouched field recordings to constructed compositions built of highly edited and transformed source recordings. Yet there is a coherence here, as the tracks combine to reflect the passage of our days, riding the earth as it spins in the sun.

Disc 2 slows down, and goes deeper. Here we have one long day cycle, beginning in the predawn buzzing of the Costa Rican rainforest, emerging at daybreak in a prairie marsh, and continuing through the day, to evening with a troop of chimps and the midnight slumber party of a family of elephants. Each track is long enough to begin to cast the spell of its place. We find ourselves softly expressing the ineffable with birds in a midmorning free-form song, thawing with the slow release of glacial meltwater, and expanding into the night along with the insects and bats of a Kenyan riverside.

The hope of these recordists is that by the end, we have a deeper appreciation for the rich variety and abundant unity of the voice of our planet. Perhaps we’ll even find a way to help our voices blend in more graciously, more respectfully, more receptively; from there, we may find our way back to old ways that believe the whole story is about actively nurturing relationships with all of life. And then, we will once again take our place as a movement within the Dreams of Gaia.

About the Author - Jim Cummings is founder of EarthEar, and arranger of the compilation disc The Dreams of Gaia. This essay is drawn from the liner notes to that disc.

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

The Eternal Story, in its Original Language - for more from this author. [WEBPAGE]

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