SONIC ECOLOGIES: Practice-led intersections of sound art, science and technology in global communities

Author: Leah Barclay


The dramatic advancement of technology has truly cultivated a paradigm shift in how artists interact in both physical and virtual worlds. These changes have evolved and expanded our tools of expression but most importantly they have opened the ability to communicate at a higher level in an interdisciplinary context.

In a recent addition of Musicworks, Joel Chadabe stated that the current artistic practices of electroacousitc composers are rooted in the idea that new technologies, unlike traditional musical instruments, can produce sounds used to communicate core messages, including information about the state of our environment. He claims that we are all participating in the emergence of a new type of music accessible to anyone, which can be used to communicate ideas that relate more closely to life than those communicated through traditional musical forms. He believes we need to think of ourselves as “leaders in a magnificent revolution rather than the defenders of an isolate and besieged avant-garde” [1].

In a world where the catastrophic effects of climate change are rapidly becoming a bitter reality, there must be a role for sound in generating a shift in consciousness towards a sustainable future. The author explored this notion through practice-led doctoral research that involved conceiving and delivering seven original electroacoustic projects for dissemination in multi-platform environments. The divergent projects were created in cultural immersion, spanning from ambitious sonic explorations in the center of the Amazon Jungle to sounding the rivers of the world through India, Korea, China, Australia and New Zealand.

Throughout these projects it became evident that the environmental interconnectedness the western world has been seeking is still prevalent in many first nation cultures globally. These ancient knowledge systems argue that the process of simply listening to the environment could answer many of the world’s problems. This shares synergies with Attali’s seminal 1985 text where he refers to music as not just simply a reflection of culture but a “harbinger of change”. He states, “For twenty-five centuries, western knowledge has tried to look upon the world. It has failed to understand that the world is not for the beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible” [2].

World leaders now looking towards the validity and possibilities of creative methodologies as tools for change, this presents both a challenge and an unprecedented opportunity for composers to gain a critical understanding of the situation, and take action in devising new processes for a sustainable future. Electroacoustic music, with the use of natural sounds, has a profound ability to ignite an awareness and connection to the environment. But is the role of the artist purely to comment on the crisis? To create awareness? Or can provocation extend beyond expression to create a behavioral shift in deeply engrained unsustainable ways of thinking?

This paper explores these questions and introduces Sonic Ecologies, a multi-platform methodology that could provide a framework to facilitate cultural change for a sustainable future. The core of this methodology pivots of a site-specific creative project embedded in a multi-layered community cultural engagement process. The research outcomes are introduced through three case studies of projects recently produced by the author in Australia and India and concludes with the conceptual design of Biosphere Soundscapes, a major international project developed with Sonic Ecologies highlighting the future possibilities of this model. These projects are ultimately acting as a catalyst and represent an unparalleled opportunity for artists reconnecting to the environment and taking action as agents of change in environmental emergency.

[1] Chadabe, J. “A call for avant-garde composers to make their work known to a larger public,” Musicworks, 2011. 111: pp. 6.

[2] Attali, J. Noise: the political economy of music. 1985, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.