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30 January 2014

Insight: Sonic Ecologies - stretching beyond notes on the page

Leah Barclay in the field Image: Leah Barclay in the field  

"The fact that we live in such a visually dominated society means we often neglect our auditory perception, yet it provides us with more information about our surrounding environment than any other sense", writes Leah Barclay. Her long-term interest in the role of sound in generating environmental awareness has taken her and her recording equipment to far-away places and communities, from the Amazon Rainforest to the rivers of South India, and gradually changed her perception of what being a composer means. Barclay's essay about her work continues our series of 'Insight' articles by the AMC's represented artists.

> All stories in the Insight series can be accessed via our Scoop page.

Soaring temperatures across Australia, a polar vortex in North America and record rainfall and flooding in parts of Europe and South-East Asia. These are just some of the dramatic weather events in the initial weeks of 2014 that are adding fuel to the climate change debate. Despite the sceptics, it's become increasingly clear that climate change remains to be one of the most significant issues of contemporary society and these extreme weather events will likely increase with horrific consequences.

While there is little evidence politicians are taking climate change seriously, there has been no shortage of research projects designed to shape and inspire a sustainable future, but many of these are now shifting towards models of adaptations and survival as scientists continue to grapple with the best way to communicate our foreseeable future. Entomologist Mark Moffett, environmentalist Bill McKibben and author Jay Griffiths have all remarked on the value of the arts to convey the messages of climate change to the public. In the last decade, there has been a strong emergence of creative practitioners exploring the role of creativity and technology in environmental awareness and engagement with positive results. From the data sonification projects of Andrea Polli, to the provocative work of Natalie Jeremijenko, there is now an incredible diversity of international artists working in this realm.

Leah Barclay's silouette against the water.
Leah Barclay © Adam West

As a composer, I have always been fascinated by the role of sound in generating environmental awareness and engagement. When I began working with electroacoustic music in late undergraduate studies, I realised there was great potential in composing works that could expose the state of the environment by using field recordings captured at various locations. My attraction to composing with the sounds of the environment was by no means a revolutionary concept, the ideas were explored in Luigi Russolo's manifesto The Art of Noises in 1913 among many other examples in the early 20th century. Today we have international organisations such as Ear to the Earth and the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology actively supporting the wide spectrum of composers working with environmental sound.

The fact that we live in such a visually dominated society means we often neglect our auditory perception, yet it provides us with more information about our surrounding environment than any other sense. As I explored ways to encourage active listening in my early compositions, I was drawn back to Attali's seminal text where he refers to music as not just simply a reflection of culture but a 'harbinger of change'. He stated that, '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' (Attali, 1985).

I was interested in exploring ways to expand my practice as a composer and engage communities in the creative process, essentially designing frameworks that would inspire others to listen to the environment and contribute towards cultural change, albeit on a very micro level. This sparked the beginning of a PhD in composition and evolved into a complex web of projects harnessing sound to raise cultural, social and environmental awareness. The resulting compositions were rewarding outcomes, yet it was the process itself that proved out to be most valuable. The process was not just about composing, but engaging communities in the environmental intentions of the project and inspiring others to participate in practices of listening, field recording, composition and collaborations.

These projects have serendipitously taken me across the world, from the backwaters of South India to the centre of the Amazon Rainforest. While some have been wildly ambitious, and somewhat risky, others have explored methods of simply listening to nature. The strong commonality between each venture has been composing the works in cultural immersion and my approach to collaboration, not just with other musicians, but also with communities and interdisciplinary artists. Experimenting with different methods of dissemination, increasingly distant from the familiar concert hall, also became valuable throughout this process.

This resulted in a distinctive shift in my creative practice, essentially from an internal and often isolated experience of notes on the page to an expanded awareness and social consciousness, where artistic outcomes have become milestones in broader creative visions that have engrained social purpose and intent within a community and environment. This changed my perception of what it means to be a contemporary composer, and inspired collaborations exploring the role of creativity in community empowerment, social activism and cultural change. The majority of projects I have developed over the last five years have been underpinned by the Sonic Ecologies framework, a multi-platform approach to creativity developed through my PhD, where one project will most likely have several outcomes including live performances, installations, sound maps, publications, community engagement and more recently documentaries.

The first project where I began to see the potential of composing with this framework was Sound Mirrors, an interactive sound installation that responds to specific rivers across the world. During 2009 and 2010 I travelled through Australia, India, Korea, and China, capturing the sound of significant rivers and their surrounding communities. This project grew out of my childhood memories of growing up on rivers across Australia and the idea of rivers as the lifeblood of communities. I was inspired by works such as Ros Bandt's Voicing the Murray (1996), Annea Lockwood's A Sound Map of the Hudson River (1982) and electroacoustic works such as David Monacchi's Stati d'Acqua (States of Water, 2006). As rivers across the world continue to be impacted by human activity, I wanted to build on the existing creative work in this area and reveal the sonic traits of each river in an environment that could bring attention to rivers as entities that deserve respect and conservation.

The process in the field varied from sculpting and layering sounds recorded on location to directly responding to the environment. I spent a significant amount of time field recording and creating musical sketches in each location. I often worked intuitively with these materials and attempted to capture a living aspect of culture through the sound marks of the environment. This project was produced on the road - in makeshift studios on boats, trains, riverbanks, and in hotel rooms - drawing further inspiration from the environment. The process in each location also involved extensive community engagement, a deep study of local music traditions and collaborations with various musicians.

While the voices and stories were captivating, I was interested in a more abstract exploration of the river's voice. In the instance of the Pamba river in South India, I was deeply immersed in Carnatic music, the classical music of South India. While I had studied Carnatic music for a number of years prior to this research, this was an opportunity to understand the theoretical concepts and their relationship to the culture and environment. My initial process involved daily field recording, practical lessons with Guru Subhash Kumar in Kerala and an intensive theoretical study of the rhythmic systems of Carnatic music. I was initially quite overwhelmed by my field-recording trips on the Pamba, as my experience of recording rivers usually involved subtle hydrophone recordings of the rivers' marine life or recordings of the rivers' banks and surrounding wildlife. I was now faced with an apparent chaotic cacophony of constantly changing soundscapes ranging from pilgrims chanting at dawn, to fisherman yelling with rickshaw horns, to thunderous rhythmic trains.

The Pamba river has a rich history, from extraordinary legends of pilgrims to accounts of the contentious issues of pollution and environmental degradation. While the voices and stories were captivating, I was interested in a more abstract exploration of the river's voice. I began capturing moving soundscapes, initially from boats and then on the train tracks that follow the river. Naturally, recording while moving at relatively fast paces opens up issues with microphone distortion, consequently, many of my recordings from boats were not appropriate for the compositions. My recordings from trains, however, were very different and I spent a large amount of time recording from the open doors between two train carriages. I fell in love with the open-air experience of the trains of India, as they tend to move slow enough along the riverbank that you can hear glimpses into the Pamba communities. These field recordings formed the foundation of 'Nakshatra', one of the first Sound Mirrors compositions.

Composing this project in India was intense, rewarding and, a profoundly rich learning experience. I developed a much deeper understanding of Carnatic music and created a series of compositions and collaborations that I believe revealed some elements of the Pamba river. My role as a composer on this project expanded and involved working as a producer, project manager and sound engineer. It was also a challenging place to attempt such an ambitious project, particularly in an environment where, as a left-handed foreign woman working with technology, it often took some time to earn the respect of my male colleagues, particularly in the recording studio. The dynamic of functioning in such a diversity of roles in a foreign location required an intensive level of focus and I have no doubt the compositions would have been completely different had I been at home in my studio.

The Sound Mirrors installation has been exhibited a number of times, including the Noosa Regional Gallery in Australia, the Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, India, and at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Eleven of the resulting compositions were released as an album, titled Transient Landscapes, and these works have also been programmed at various conferences and festivals. I also began performing Transient Landscapes as a live work where I create a multi-channel mix of the river soundscapes in real-time in response to the performance location. This project has no doubt brought some attention to the soundscapes of rivers, yet it's unlikely to have made any significant contribution to the conservation of river systems. While it was a positive learning curve, I did see potential for creative projects to have a wider impact when combined with ongoing community engagement, interdisciplinary collaborations and multi-platform outcomes. Sound Mirrors only skimmed the surface of these ideas, but it certainly laid the foundation for most of my work that has followed.

Not long after I began working on the The DAM(N) Project, an interdisciplinary venture that connects Australian and Indian communities around the common concern of global water security. The project is focused on developing multi-platform creative content, to date we have created sound installations, photography exhibitions and Zameen, our first major production in collaboration with Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts in India. Zameen is a Hindi word meaning 'land' and it is a word that has become synonymous with the damming of the Narmada River in North India. To date over 30 million people have been internally displaced, and the resulting Indigenous activist movement - the Narmada Bachao Andolan - has become one of the most successful and sophisticated in contemporary history. Within The DAM(N) Project, Zameen is an immersive performance drawing on environmental field recordings, triptych visuals and contemporary dance that pulls the audience into the heart of a remote Indian community fighting for their way of life. The work premiered at the Encounters India Festival at the Queensland Conservatorium in 2013 and has since toured widely.

The DAM(N) Project began in 2011 when a group of artists from Australia and India journeyed deep into India's Narmada Valley. We met and lived with communities that are gradually being submerged due to large-scale dam development and began a series of creative projects to tell their stories. The project was conceived and developed in collaboration with Jehan Kanga, a Sydney-based producer, and S. Shakthidharan, the director of CuriousWorks, a cultural enterprise that grew out of a desire to give those in marginalised communities an opportunity to tell their stories. In India we were joined by Sylvester Mardi and Meghna Nambiar, two dancers from Attakkalari who travelled with us to create site-specific choreography.

The Narmada River flows 1312 kilometres across three states, making it the fifth-longest river in India. The fertile valley of the Narmada is home to diverse communities with an unbroken stream of human civilisation dating back hundreds of years. As with all rivers throughout India, the Narmada holds a potent cultural and spiritual significance for all those who dwell on its banks. The diverse communities of the Narmada Valley lived sustainably for hundreds of years, but the damming of the river dramatically changed their way of living in all aspects of their existence. On our first day in the valley, we were propelled into the communities of the NBA and serendipitously found ourselves interviewing key activists at the NBA headquarters in Badwani, Madhya Pradesh. We soon discovered there was a satyagraha (non-violent protest) happening in the nearby town of Jobat and immediately made plans to visit the site.

The children of the Narmada Bachao Andolan demonstrating by pumping their fists in the air.
The children of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
© S. Shakthidharan

Field recording was paramount in the creative development of this project, as the entire score is composed from pure and processed field recordings sourced directly from the heart of the Narmada Valley. With the permission of the community, I recorded the local children singing traditional protest songs such as 'Adivasi ekta zindabad, zindabad zindabad', which translates directly to mean 'Victory to tribal unity, victory, victory'. The children didn't seem remotely concerned about the presence of a microphone; many began to shout louder with fiery gestures pumping their fists in the air. The resulting source material is predominately from the regional area of Jobat, where we heard stories and songs from more than 20 displaced groups who had gathered at the satyagraha.

In our initial encounters in Badwani we interviewed Dayal Solanki, a young Adivasi whose story became a thread for our journey. He accompanied us to the extremely remote village of Badal, one of the most agriculturally productive regions in India that is now almost completely submerged. We stayed with Dayal's family in a small wooden shelter on the ridge of a mountain overlooking their flooded land. His family welcomed us and shared their story which was particularly challenging to hear in their barren landscape that was once so abundant. The dancers responded to Badal through site-specific choreography at submerged sites, in this instance I was able to record their feet disrupting and breaking the rough soil where Dayal's family home once stood.

Meghna Nambiar and Sylvester Mardi, two dancers against the still water of the damn in the Narmada Valley
Meghna Nambiar and Sylvester Mardi, two dancers from Attakkalari
at one the dam sites in the Narmada Valley.
© S. Shakthidharan

My approach to field recording in this location became quite intuitive, I wasn't seeking particular sounds but, rather, exploring what emerged in the valley. The sparse and unsettling soundscapes of the submerged Badal village were juxtaposed with children playing and singing on the cliffs. As with all of my creative explorations of rivers, hydrophone field recordings have become an integral element to my practice. I'm always eager to hear beneath the surface of the river, as the soundscapes reveal so many qualities, including the active marine life. Unfortunately, the hydrophone recordings in the Narmada River featured very little marine interaction, similar to the stagnant and lifeless bodies of water in the villages that were also virtually silent. I was reminded of a quote from Bawabhai, an Adivasi from the village of Jalsindhi in the Narmada Valley. He said the river had been silenced by the dam and lost its cleaning function, which had led to illness in the community. 'Narmada used to be a narrow, melodious river, where we could walk down through the forests to its edge. Earlier the river was melodious - now it has become a silent river' (Routledge, 2003).

While the pure hydrophone recordings provided limited source material, the soundscapes with human interaction recorded from a boat were quite compelling. The sound of people washing dishes and clothes on the riverbank, splashes as people climbed into the boat and the creaking panels of the wooden vessel as we ventured down the river. The unpredictable recordings of the hydrophone abruptly dragging along the riverbed from our moving boat are not the most pleasing auditory experiences, but they captured some of the dystopian energy of this landscape. While this is perceived as a distorted sound, and something I would probably delete in other circumstances, I was compelled to make use of this recording in the final score.

ZAMEEN live performance, Parramasala International Contemporary Arts Festival 2013
Zameen live performance,
Parramasala International Contemporary Arts Festival 2013
© S. Shakthidharan

The resulting work is divided into four different movements, 'Jobat', 'Badal', 'Submergence' and 'Hope', with the addition of Narmada Prelude, a site-specific opening for each performance. Each movement of the work draws from our experiences on site, ranging from abstract explorations of the powerful Narmada River to the heartbreaking songs with children. Unlike similar interdisciplinary projects, where the auditory elements might function in a supporting capacity for the visual material or to heighten the emotional impact of the choreography, the first stage of Zameen was to compose the soundscapes. The sound then provided inspiration for the creation of the visual projections by S. Shakthidharan, followed by the choreography. While we collectively discussed the structure and thematic of the work, I was left with the daunting task of filtering through our source material and conceiving an electroacoustic world that would drive this production, creating a delicate balance between artistic response, sensitive storytelling, and personal encounters.

The realisation of Zameen's sound world is abstract and inherently experimental, making it unpredictable and at times challenging to experience. This is most apparent in the third movement, 'Submergence', where every sound is drawn from the Jobat dam recordings and processed into a dense environment concluding with the distorted hydrophones. The gentle return of the children's determined and passionate voices in the final moments of the score is the only time in the work I used raw field recordings. The abstract and experimental nature of Zameen creates a world that doesn't directly represent the devastation of the damming of the Narmada River; instead, it delves into the heart of a remote Indian community fighting for its way of life. It explicitly leaves elements open for personal interpretation; however, the unprocessed voices in the final moments underscore the reality of this project and the sincere cries of the children who continue to fight with veracity and hope.

During our initial trip to the Narmada Valley we facilitated workshops and encouraged the children to tell stories from their perspectives by collecting images, video and sound. We have plans to return to the communities and develop capacity-building programs that will enhance our creative endeavours and empower these communities to collaborate. While the initial stage is topically based on the relationship between water security in Australia and India, the long-term vision for The DAM(N) Project expands into other communities and cultures worldwide. The DAM(N) Project seeks to connect global communities around the common concern of water security and reveal the ramifications of damming rivers that hold cultural and spiritual significance for the local communities. We will continue producing multi-platform works and have plans for an extended production and feature-length documentary in the future.

The DAM(N) Project highlights the impact social activism and community engagement has had on my artistic practice and sits within a body of my creative work that shares very similar intentions and approaches to collaboration. I have expanded this aesthetic into larger-scale interdisciplinary projects such as Biosphere Soundscapes, a project grounded on the creative possibilities of soundscape ecology, an evolving field of biology used to record environmental patterns and changes. This project aims to inspire communities across the world to listen to the environment and reimagine the potential of International UNESCO Biosphere Reserves as learning laboratories for a sustainable future. UNESCO Biosphere Reserves are sites managed by passionate communities that are inspired to explore new approaches to the conservation of biological and cultural diversity. They are ideal locations to test and demonstrate innovative approaches to sustainability and represent an ideal model for experiences of cultural immersion. Biosphere Soundscapes is conceived as a network of site-specific electroacoustic music projects embedded in a sound map and delivered by composers who also facilitate field labs and masterclasses for the local community in each location.

Ilka Blue Nelson recording on the rocks by the white water during the Noosa Biosphere Reserve field lab.
Ilka Blue Nelson recording during the Noosa Biosphere Reserve field lab
© Jemma Darlington

Biosphere Soundscapes is the first major international project connecting the soundscapes of global biosphere reserves. The process of working with each biosphere reserve is modified depending on the collaborating artists and the accessibility of the local community, but in any case it is grounded in the Sonic Ecologies framework. In some instances the process involves sound labs, artist residencies, and extensive community engagement, while in other cases the key member of the community concerned with the biosphere reserve can generate content independently and engage via the website. There are currently eight Biosphere Soundscapes field labs in development across five continents along with a range of other creative endeavours, such as networked performances.

While I'm active as a composer in this project, it naturally stretches well beyond my capacity and I've been fortunate to engage a range of other artists in the process. The launch of the project included a field lab in the Noosa Biosphere with Ros Bandt, Daniel Blinkhorn and Gerardo Dirie and, in 2013, master classes were delivered by Francisco Lopez and Andrea Polli. In 2014 I'm pleased to launch a professional development program, with Sophie Jung and Emmanuel Galvan Martinez, two emerging composers joining the project as interns.

Ros Bandt and Daniel Blinkhorn recording in a lush green landscape during the launch of Biosphere Soundscapes in Noosa Biosphere Reserve.
Ros Bandt and Daniel Blinkhorn recording during the launch of
Biosphere Soundscapes in Noosa Biosphere Reserve.
© James Muller

Biosphere Soundscapes, although still in preliminary stages of development, highlights the potential role composers and sound artists could play in raising awareness and calling attention to the environmental crisis. This project combines art, science, technology, and communities to highlight the changing soundscapes of biosphere reserves with the potential to engage a global audience online. The resulting soundscapes are providing valuable scientific information that can be used for biodiversity analysis while at the same time offering infinite possibilities for creative inspiration.

Biosphere Soundscapes is an example of combining passionate community engagement with the infinite possibilities of creative technology to inspire a culture of listening and environmental awareness. In the future it will provide a platform for artists and global communities to create, collaborate, engage and listen, and, in turn, expose, the meaningful possibilities of electroacoustic music composition to a wider audience.


Attali, J. (1985). Noise: The political economy of music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Routledge, P. (2003). Voices of the dammed: discursive resistance amidst erasure in the Narmada Valley, India. Political Geography, 22, 243-270. doi:10.1016/S0962- 6298(02)00095-1

Further links

Leah Barclay - AMC profile
'Sounding the Amazon' - a blog article on Resonate by Leah Barclay (23 February 2012)
Leah Barclay - homepage (www.leahbarclay.com)
Leah Barclay on Twitter (www.twitter.com/leahbarclay)
The DAM(N) Project (www.thedamnproject.com)
Biosphere Soundscapes (www.biospheresoundscapes.org)

Leah Barclay is an composer, sound artist and creative producer working at the intersection of art, science, technology and the environment. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and has directed and curated intercultural projects across the Asia-Pacific.


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Leah's decriptions of her project, her deep concern for community consciousness and partnership and for bridging to ecological awareness is inpiring. I loved the sounds, in all its rawness and evocations. thanks Leah. keep at it.

Andrea Breen