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  • Michael Spencer

Soundings: Orchestrating Nature

An invitation to speak at a TEDxWWF forum in Geneva, the first TED conference to be hosted by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has led to an unusually creative consultancy project. Michael Spencer (MD, Sound Strategies) will be talking about the natural world and its aural environment – and how many sounds are threatened with extinction along with the species and natural habitats that make them.

Life in pre-industrial environments was much more dependent on sound (and smell) for communication…and indeed survival. All the more so before we were able to write or use referential language. By way of contrast, urban cacophony has the effect of reducing the richness of meaning in sounds, as more and more information-poor sounds crowd into our aural space.

With these thoughts in mind, we began compiling an audio library of animal cries and other natural sounds to amplify the point of the talk. The languages of animals (especially birds and sea mammals), taken together, are probably richer by an order of hundreds than all the human spoken languages put together. Qualities unique to each species represent a repertoire of unique sounds unequalled even by all the music in the world. Of course, animals rarely achieve the subtleties of meaning embodied in human speech however their calls are unfailingly precise, direct and impossible to misinterpret by others of the same species.

To give some idea of the huge variety of calls, we created three specific ‘Soundscape Symphonies’, each one evocative of a different habitat region: Polar Regions, Temperate Plains, Woods and Mountains, and Tropical Forests. The three tracks will be interspersed between conference sessions at the TEDxWWF.

The idea was to create a celebratory cocktail of sounds devoted to each habitat which would have an overall evocative or ‘musical’ effect, rather than an environmentally catalogue of specifically contextual sounds. Fantasy landscapes populated by improbable animal companions have been a feature of painting for centuries, but only in recent years has it been technically feasible to do the same with sounds.

So we have a Himalayan marmot duetting with a bald eagle and Ethiopian wolves arguing with a Japanese macaque. In sampling all of these animal cries (thanks of course to numerous scientific and government internet-based resources) we were struck by the similarities of very basic emotions no matter what the species: fear, anger and mating calls all seem to have similar emotional effects on us as humans, even if we don’t know the animal source.

So our soundscape symphonies aim to ‘play’ with not only the beauty of the sounds themselves, but the implied communication behind them. We tried to create (as in a human musical symphony) a discernible emotional journey, underpinned by appropriate background ambiances of forests, mountains or oceans.

And of course an important point is to remind people how important sounds are in relations to natural and species preservation. Many research studies attest to the beneficial effects on our psyche of natural sounds and sights. Even for those whose lives are exclusively lived in an urban environment, the sounds of wild birds and animals which seem to manage to penetrate even the noisiest city never fail to evoke positive emotions. They have an uncanny ability to connect us with the rest of the universe, no matter where or when we hear them.

Andrew Peggie

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