AQM essay

Quiet in the Forest

Fran Dyson


The sound world is awash with nature recordings. From the dense insect orchestrations of the Amazon, to the crisp, buzzing heat of the desert, to the fragile overtures of species driven to extinction by relentless human pursuit, listeners have access to a multitude of calls, cries, and animal communications, dispersed across spaces and times impossible to traverse in a single lifetime, and representing places and creatures the listener may never engage with – except as images on screens,  broadcasts on radio or files on soundcloud. In an era of dwindling habitats and rising temperatures, it is impossible to hear these sounds without a sense of loss. They are sounds in recession, and their audition carries with it the guilty haunting of audio, always heard as something that has been, a moment lost, a soundscape captured.

Jon McCormack and Gary Warner’s a quivering marginalia (aqm) could easily be heard in these subdued tones. But yet there is little trace of mourning in the primarily vocal excerpts flooding aqm’s immersive sonic environment. Described by the artists as “a generative multi-speaker sound art installation exploring unintentional poetic potentials within spoken word utterances of biological sciences field recordings” the installation, equipped with an array of small digital audio players that play audio fragments  (pre-sorted into recombinative playback clusters that are triggered according to different poetic themes), is housed in a geodesic dome reminiscent of the “hide” structures used by scientists to observe animal behaviour. The aim is to create an environment that encourages reflection: on what we understand by Nature; on the practice of scientific and bioacoustic field recording; and on the “semantic ambiguity” that de-contextualised data, heard through the recorded voice in situ, reveals. In one of the many ironies of the work, these philosophical and techno-cultural dimensions are literally played out through audio fragments that are not meant to be heard: the moments adjacent to the “actual” recording of animal sounds – the date, time, and place, sometimes a short description of the weather, elevation, and vegetation, and possibly quite lengthy and elaborate details of the equipment being used:

“This will be reel number  20….I’m going to put on a calibration tone to begin with here. A 1000 cycle calibration tone… Zero DB on the .775  meter, zero on the other meter, which indicates we have zero DB at .775 volt RMS when we have the BU meter at zero.”

Such details are often included at the very beginning or end of the audio files held in the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology –  the world’s largest repository of animal sound. Usually excised from the broadcast of the recording, they join the ensemble of ‘technical’ sounds that – like the test pattern on early television, or the calibration tone that fronts old analog audio – are intended for the ear of the fellow scientist or broadcaster only. That they form the entirety of aqm’s soundscape may first strike the listener as odd. However, the dominance of what would normally be regarded as technical specifications draws attention to the vocal signature of the recordist, through which the tone of human sentiment (also generally excised form the ‘scientific’ method associated with field recording), can be appreciated.

Analogous perhaps to sound art and glitch music that plays with the sound of the recording apparatus or the digital aberrations of signal noise, the excised portions of the recording stating the date, place, time, and research target, become “marginalia” – a note or text on the margins of a manuscript, associated both with scholarly and poetic writing, and with nonsensical or irrelevant annotations. In the world of audio, such “marginal” details are thought to interfere with the smooth and unencumbered transmission of sound in the wild to the domesticated human ear. This is the sound that the listener is waiting to hear, the sound that is, after all, the rationale for the recording. But in aqm, instead of the magnificent wail of an exotic species, we hear a human voice, a voice that, despite its often scientific inflection, nonetheless leaks emotion, excitement, surprise, loneliness, wonder, fear, and all the emotions associated with this human species, alone in a kingdom to which, momentarily at least, it must surrender. The shift from the scientist as detached observer, standing aside their equipment, microphone in hand, almost part of the recording mechanism in both intent and stature, to the everyday individual, stuck in a thundering forest, and struck by the sheer alien nature of the scene and the sounds that surround them, is registered sonically, by the breathy timbre of hesitation, the jarring rhythm of an uneven flow of words, muted at times as they catch in the throat, struggling to quell the eruption that is also building in the depths of the diaphragm. We hear the speaker’s body contracting and their breath abbreviated – we hear the marginalia of speech, murmuring, like an insect on the forest floor:

“we don’t know for sure”; “ok we have a 57 alpha channel 3”; “for two hours we could not get under the bridge”; “rather quiet in the forest”; “and then, Pauline started to scream some more”; “I’m going to continue with abbreviated announcements because I’m running out of tape”; “waiting for the best recording”; “1904 hours”; “and they went into all sorts of gyrations and swam around the pool rapidly”; “and fear context with human observers…”

In this respect, aqm is far from glitch music  – a genre that also references the institution of audio – that would be its natural analogue. Within the rhetorical, institutional, framework of audio, the sounds of the animals are heard as cries, whistles, bare sound that has no equivalent in any notation or script, and are transmitted in pure form, without an intermediary. As long as they are recorded, stored, and broadcast – in other words, as long as they are audio, these sounds are both “true” in themselves and attest to the “truth” of recording as both a technology and a practice. It is this ‘truth’ that glitch music often critiques by sonically exploiting the technology. But this is as far as the analogy extends, because aqm makes this reference only obliquely, offering neither an exposition of the hidden technological apparatus, nor for that matter, a comment on the attempt to literally tune in to nature through the channels of the microphone in situ. The quotidian ambience of aqm provides an opportunity first and foremost to witness and to reflect on the multifarious entanglements between the human and animal world. Far from being technical information, the beginning of the recording becomes the beginning of a story, involving the people who venture into areas considered “uninhabitable” in order to record species considered “mute”; creating a text that refers to a sound yet to come, in tones that are themselves redolent with a quietude and stillness that beckons invisibility.

Listening to the archive, not all voice is language, and not all the sounds are animal. On occasion the recordist attempts to mimic the bird calls or animal communication that he or she is hearing, bursting into onomatopoeic renditions as a kind of supplement to, or replacement for, audio. At such moments the so-called marginalia reveal something of the long forgotten narrative of human/animal separation, a narrative founded upon the attempt to situate humans as being both part of, yet separate from, the animal kingdom. Despite the many anatomical and behavioural similarities between for instance, apes and humans, studiously detailed throughout Darwinian evolutionism, the capacity for speech has operated as the primary criterion for differentiation between human and animal. Distanced from the debate, on the ground, surrounded by birds, insects, thick mists and garrulous animals, the distinction between speech and animal cry – especially when accompanied by obvious communicative intentions – is profoundly ambiguous. Similarly, the distinction between human creativity expressed for instance through music (often seen as direct evidence of the divine working through the soul), and the melodic sequences found in birdsong, is almost impossible to establish. How often does a particular birdcall resemble the motif of a familiar song? How do we differentiate between the thrill of a gathering chorus of birds and the collective enthralment at a musical performance? When the two meet – music and birdsong, animal cry and its human onomatopoeic imitation – what were once inalienable positions, situations, and places in the world become unstable. The ground begins to fall away, the human is left naked, without support, with only the sonic memory of the difference between their speech, their music, their civilisation, and the uncannily “human” sounds they have just heard, emanating from a world that, despite its acoustic density, is nonetheless deemed ‘mute’.

The audio recording of the animal cry heard in nature recordings retains and verifies that memory as a statement of fact, acting as an intermediary between the limits of discourse and the opacity of nature. The audio equipment becomes a physical support, extending a human arm into the wild – like a beacon or torchlight illuminating the ‘there’ of what was once ‘nowhere’ and as such, opening it to appropriation. However, in aqm the arm doesn’t extend, the microphone shuts off as soon as it announces itself, the telos of audio is truncated, leaving the listener waiting. Even the imitation of birdsong is bracketed, beginning with a caveat “its sounds something like this” and ending, rather abruptly, with “and so on…”. As Warner points out, this diminished rendition vocalises “ the loss of sounds through the loss of species” as habitat dwindles to the point of unsustainability.  In withholding the non-vocal, or non-linguistic call of the bird or animal, the sound that would verify the recording as such, as a testament to human presence and technological veracity, aqm cuts off the possibility for comment, dialogue, analysis – the repetition and continuation of human speech that reaffirms the separation of human from nature. But as it leaves the listener in a state of ignorance, aqm also creates an opening to the practice of ‘ignoring’ – the “passing over without notice” – that ‘ignorance’ embodies. In this way, the piece lets animal sound be, leaves it outside of discourse, outside of the anthropocentric machine and its primary vehicle of exploitation – language. Instead of sounds, signs and language, the listener realises a potentiated emptiness: knowing that sound is there, somewhere, but will only be heard vicariously, through a  flutter of voices announcing the date and time, and letting us know that its “rather quiet in the forest.”

Frances Dyson is a Sydney based freelance writer and independent scholar. She is the author of “The Tone of our Times: Sound, Sense, Economy, and Ecology” (MIT Press, 2014) and “Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture” (University of California Press, 2009).

image: a quivering marginalia by Jon McCormack and Gary Warner, installed in the exhibition FIELDWORK: artist encounters, Sydney College of the Arts Galleries 7-30 July 2016  photo: Carl Warner