Composer and bioacoustic researcher David Dunn of Santa Fe, New Mexico, talks about the connections between listening, language, the environment, and art-making. (Go to interview)
Name That Tune
Play the sounds below and, using the pull down menu, identify which item matches the sound source. There are no prizes, other than the realization of how much harder you must listen in the future in order to survive. You can learn more about each below.
Glaciers contain tremendously strong stresses as they form and slide under their own weight of ice. Internally they are not purely solid but are riddled with minute fissures that allow water to drain and surfaces to rub against one another. As they rub they make sounds that are transmitted through the medium of the ice that acts as a resonating block.
Courting male Midshipman fish in the Pacific Northwest hum to attract egg-laying females. By contracting their swim bladder about 100 times per second they produce an audible drone that beats with neighboring fish and is perceived as more or less sexy by the female's brain. The fish also grunt and growl in non-spawning situations. Only certain fish can sing but all have ears that serve to attune them to their acoustic environment.
This was recorded moments after the formation of a crop circle (a non man-made one). The hissing sound heard by the ear has been slowed down slightly to reveal the components of the waveform. Leading researcher Colin Andrews reports several acoustic phenomena surrounding crop circles: subaudio frequencies as well as these hissing/trilling sounds. Andrews notes several accounts of a sound heard by people prior to witnessing crop circles forming. The reports describe a total stillness in the air; the morning song of birds stops, succeeded by a trilling sound and the banging together of wheat heads despite an absence of wind. The crop then lays down in spiral fashion, the whole episode lasting no more than fifteen seconds. NASA's Jet Propulsion Labs analyzed the frequency to around 5.2kHz.
Human-animal mimicry is a two way street: birds may learn to say "Pieces of Eight" while some people learn to make the sounds of two dogs fighting. One such is Australian Janet Shaw. Her sensitivity to canine communication demonstrates not only prodigious technique and adaptability of the human laryrnx but also the origin of language.
Edmund Gerstein has recorded manatee vocalizations and described the plight of these gentle giants of the water. Once mistaken for mermaids, these mammals like to wallow in shallow water. Their backs are vulnerable to boat propellers and Gerstein has proven that boats going slowly to protect them actually cause them the greatest danger: the manatees can't hear slow-moving boat engines sounding so low.
Dr. Meredith West, a comparative psychologist from Bloomington, Indiana, has studied the mimicking abilities of the European Starling. She describes their mimicry as Social Sonar, testing their immediate vicinity acoustically in order to form meaningful relationships. The greater the male's vocabulary, the greater their sex appeal and social success. Whistling Dixie and imitating doorcreaks, phones and Mozart would likely make their human owners pay more attention to them and their needs for food and companionship. The birds act as sound sponges and accumulate a kind of acoustic geography of everywhere they have been (including sounds they learned from other birds).
David Dunn explores hidden worlds of animal sound, revealing social acoustic activity in places that the unaided human ear cannot hear. His recordings of underwater bugs and, in this case, the wood bark beetle that is destroying millions of acres of Piñon forest, serve not only to bring attention to the environment in new ways but also to further the new scientific field of bioacoustics. The sounds made by Ips Confusus may play a part in understanding their success as a species and suggest ways to control their destructive behaviors. In the process we learn more about tree trunks as acoustic media—something any woodpecker already uses to advantage.
Environmental sound artist Philip Blackburn makes musical instruments played by natural forces such as the wind or water. This windharp is constructed of PVC piping and taut fishing line amplified by Dixie cups. The origin of the windharp or Aeolian Harp goes back at least to Ancient Greece where the wind god Aeolus was said to pluck the strings. The phenomenon was revived in the 17th century and the ethereal tones have been the subject of much poetic musing. The physics involve a laminar wind moving over a string at the same rate at its vortex shedding, allowing standing waves to build up along the wire.
Dutch sound artist Paul Panhuysen came across a tray of Mexican Jumping Beans in Mexico City in 1999 and started recruiting their talents as performers. He put them on various surfaces such as glass, metal, wood and plastic, and placed heat lamps above them to increase their activity. The resulting rhythms and densities act as a kind of stochastic acoustic thermometer. The beans contain the larvae of a particular butterfly that crawled into the young nut. When too hot, the larvae wriggle inside the nut in order to move to a shadier spot.