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Acoustic ecology has captured the imagination of musicians for decades, and when the habitats they studied are gone, recordings may be all we can ever experience of them

Drawings of waves and nature are part of the unusual notation that Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer used for Apocalypsis, a musical epic about the end and rebirth of the world. You can listen to a 2015 production it in the audio player at the end of this opinion piece.R. Murray Schafer, Apocalypsis

Caitlin Stall-Paquet is a Montreal-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Walrus, the CBC, Elle Canada, enRoute, Canadian Geographic, Châtelaine and Xtra.

On August 14, R. Murray Schafer, the avant-garde composer who got many to use their ears rather than their eyes, passed away at the age of 88, leaving the world a little more silent. The artist, born in Sarnia, Ont., was a pioneer of acoustic ecology (he coined the term soundscape), practising field recording to capture sounds of all kinds, and often using them in musical compositions.

His interests were as vast as the sonic worlds he committed to tape: He pioneered using graphic notation in his scores, was a visual artist, wrote books and created music theatre such as Apocalypsis, his sprawling 500-person piece from 1980 about the end times, structured in two parts: the world’s destruction followed by its reconstruction. In 2015, it was restaged during the Luminato Festival with a cast of more than 1,000 people, making it the largest musical production in Toronto’s history.

But even more significantly, along with getting Canadian noise laws altered, Mr. Schafer founded the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University, which involved education about the idea of noise pollution and the sounds we’re constantly immersed in, as well as recording and cataloguing them internationally to preserve ones that disappear.

There are many others like Mr. Schafer. The composer influenced curious creatives who hear the wild’s distress cries and fill up hard drives with recordings of ecosystems all over the world. Their aim is to create aural experiences, but also to sound the alarm through actual sounds, or the disappearance thereof. In a 2009 National Film Board short documentary called Listen by David New, Mr. Schafer says: “In a way the world is a huge composition, a huge musical composition that’s going on all the time without a beginning and presumably without an ending. We are the composers of this huge miraculous composition that’s going on around us, and we can improve it or we can destroy it.”

Learn more about R. Murray Schafer in the NFB documentary Listen.

Musician Alexandre Bergeron, a friend of mine, often layers field recordings into his songs. I first listened in closely through his equipment two years ago, as October leaves withered on branches. We walked along the Massawippi River in Lennoxville, Que., until he stopped next to a silent corn field drying out in the cooling air and turned down an empty row. Once we were surrounded by crisp stalks, he took a recorder out of his backpack, put on the headphones for a second, nodded and smiled before handing them to me. Suddenly, silence turned into an overwhelming swell of leaves rustling, coming from every direction – the loudest emptiness I’d ever heard.

I finally understood what Bernie Krause, another pioneer soundscape ecologist, had told me about how spaces open up when you listen through a microphone and recorder.

Though Mr. Krause started recording in the wild for musical purposes rather than preservation, his work has become a massive aural archive filled with many sounds that have otherwise disappeared entirely. He’s captured more than 5,000 hours worth of habitats, and half of those no longer exist as they do in his recordings. That his ambitious work turned into an impressive auditory database, is rather a result of hindsight.

The opposite is true for Italian electro-acoustic researcher David Monacchi. His field-recording trips have been conducted with the express purpose of preservation, in a race against time. In 2017, he put out the award-winning documentary Dusk Chorus, based on his environmental sound art project Fragments of Extinction. This work combines art and data visualization through spectrograms and audio captured during his expeditions to the Amazon, Borneo and Central Africa, in an attempt to preserve the sonic footprint of incredibly biodiverse places often faced with what he calls ecocide.

His work demonstrates how new sounds, or a lack of them, speak volumes about the health of a habitat. In Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, for example, where there is thought to be the greatest biodiversity in the world, Mr. Monacchi captured the effects of drought (caused by climate change) and an oil plant’s operations on the sonic landscape. His recordings revealed a reduction in animal vocalization, and a low swelling whirr emitted by trees in hydric distress that were also affected by xylenes (chemical compounds) from nearby oil refining.

David Monacchi’s documentary Dark Chorus explores what sounds say about the health of an ecosystem.

In yet another approach to soundscape ecology, Mr. Bergeron often uses field recording as a kind of personal meditation, going out into the wilderness to be hyper-immersed in nature, and to experience the often-overwhelming feeling of being enveloped in magnified sound. His many recordings have grown into an archive of specific moments and places that live on as time capsules.

For an online music residency during the pandemic, Mr. Bergeron and three collaborators incorporated field recordings into a joint piece called Chirr, creating a soundscape that was bigger than if they’d worked together in person, combining excerpts from southeastern Quebec, Florida, Colorado and New York.

The resulting piece is layered with deep rumbling synth, saxophone and the sound of rainfall, climbing to menacing crescendos alongside the voices of American robins, song sparrows and cicadas. The northeastern United States saw the insect in hoards in the spring of 2021, as the huge Brood X surfaced after being underground for 17 years.

As I listen to Chirr, I try to imagine how the soundscapes those cicadas emerged into were different from the previous generation’s, altered by our presence. The musical project isn’t meant to be a peaceful meditation though: “These sounds are inherently overwhelming, that can be kind of an uncomfortable feeling in some challenging music. I would say that piece is kind of challenging and some people don’t want to acknowledge it sometimes. They want to have a pleasant listening experience, but maybe we need to be confronted a little bit with some of that ecological horror,” Mr. Bergeron says.

With small creatures that can be hard to identify visually, one of the best indicators of species strength is the sounds they produce. It’s why each spring I participate in an amphibian-population monitoring program run by Montreal’s Zoo Ecomuseum; it consists of stopping at designated locations along a pathway to listen for croaks and note their intensity. For decades, amphibians have undergone the largest death rates from a single disease in all recorded history because of a human-spread fungus called chytrid. Approximately 40 per cent of insects are also in decline worldwide, and a third are endangered. On Sept. 29, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that another 23 species – including 11 birds – had gone extinct within the United States, taking their unique voices with them.

Along with capturing the sonorous singularity of whole habitats, the work of soundscape ecologists and amateur field recordists alike can be used to establish aural references against which we can measure declines, to track what we are losing.

Little Amal, a 3.5-metre-tall puppet of a Syrian refugee, ‘speaks’ into a megaphone on Glasgow’s Millennium Bridge during the COP26 climate-change conference.Alberto Pezzali/The Associated Press

As world leaders descended recently on Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, I was reminded again about the importance of listening. With the event’s net-zero emissions agreements and voluntary pledges to stop deforestation sounding eerily familiar to the 2016 Paris Agreement, skepticism about its usefulness is justified. But at the very least, COP26 is a moment when the most polluting and wealthy countries are forced to listen to speakers from Tuvalu and Fiji talk about drowning because of the excesses of the Group of 20.

I was more interested in hearing what they and young activists such as Greta Thunberg who protested the event had to say. A sustainable future seems to feel less tenable for each new generation than the last, and these teens and children will hear more human-caused silence than my own, a void then filled with unnatural sounds. Mr. Bergeron thinks about this as well. Over the summer, he worked with the École des Arts Sutton in southeastern Quebec to show a group of kids, aged 7 to 14, the ropes of field recording during something called “Camp de l’ennui” (boredom camp). They were invited to hang out in a natural setting, without a plan or schedule in sight, to do whatever they wanted. Rather than set up a didactic teaching workshop to spark their interest, Mr. Bergeron decided to sit there, surrounded by greenery with his equipment set up and ready to listen.

He let the children who stopped by his station go off and capture whatever sounds they felt like. After, he made a video overlayed with their digital sounds that was projected during a vernissage at the end of the camp’s week. The recordings are filled with giggles and excited screams, which reminded Mr. Bergeron of the play aspect to his practice. It is a feeling often forgotten in the world of conservation and preservation, yet it could be a good balance for painful realizations about the impact of our presence.

A frog sits in a tunnel running under a highway in Orford, Que.Christinne Muschi/ The Globe and Mail

People such as Mr. Krause and Mr. Schafer opened my ears to the spaces around me – but also to my influence on them by the mere fact of being there. Last April, I walked along a forest path as amphibians were waking up after a winter of hibernation. I could hear the croaks of the wood frogs and spring peepers I’ve loved since childhood in the distance. They fell nearly silent when my hiking boots crushed leaves on the unseasonably dry forest floor as I got closer.

As I think of that surprisingly hot spring day, I can’t help but wonder what Mr. Schafer thought in his last months during the hottest summer on record, as historic wildfires burned from British Columbia to Algeria and Siberia, and floods swept through China and Western Europe. I wonder whether it reminded him of the destruction from the first part of Apocalypsis. We’re nowhere close to considering what reconstruction could look like, but there might be some ideas for rebuilding hidden in his legacy, such as the Listening Project, a non-profit that hosts artistic and educational activities to encourage an understanding of the world through listening and field recording (their World Listening Day is held annually on July 18, Mr. Schafer’s birthday), or the people who have yet to discover and be changed by his work.

At the end of Listen, Mr. Schafer asks, “What happens if my voice stops, what do you hear then?” before holding up a sign that simply reads, “Listen.” Except for the recordings that have preserved it, his voice is gone now, but we still have the message on his sign. I wonder whether the knowledge of how much he helped preserve the sounds of what might disappear mitigated his sadness of how much has already been lost. I wonder what the kids Mr. Bergeron taught will hear, or won’t hear, by the time they’re my age. I wonder what the world will sound like to the future cicadas of Brood X that will re-emerge in 17 years. I wonder whether those soundscapes will be eerily close to the cornfield I listened to – empty and loud only with the sound of dried leaves rustling against each other.

R. Murray Schafer, Apocalypsis

Full album available from Analekta

Bonus podcast: COVID-19 and the Great Quieting

When the pandemic sent most of the world into lockdown in 2020, silence fell over cities, roads and factories – and scientists had ideal conditions to study natural sounds. Canadian researchers Nicola Koper, William Minarik and David Barclay spoke with The Decibel about their findings. Subscribe for more episodes.

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