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Musician and researcher Alice Eldridge speaks to Laura Reid about how ‘ecoacoustics’ can bring together music, sound and biodiversity.
As our public awareness of the climate emergency is rising, artists and scientists are collaborating to make new, incredibly relevant work addressing these issues.
Musician, lecturer and researcher Alice Eldridge is a key figure in this scene. I first met Alice at the NIME conference in Copenhagen in 2017, where I saw her perform with Chris Kiefer on feedback cellos. The music was visceral and exciting, with the crowded basement club packed to get close up to these incredible instruments.
Alice’s work over the last 20 years has criss-crossed music and science – she’s appeared on BBC’s Spring Watch and Costing the Earth as a soundscape ecologist; on BBC Radio 3 Late Junction and Jazz on 3 as a free jazz cellist; on Lauren Laverne’s 6 Music show as a contemporary chamber composer; and on Radio 1’s John Peel show as a pop bassist. In her current role as Music Lecturer at the University of Sussex she curates the festival of Music and Ideas, which in 2020 celebrates Hildegard Westerkamp and other artists who are giving voice to the environment. It is held at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts, near Brighton.
(Main image by Agata Urbaniak)
What does the term eco-acoustics mean to you?
We are all familiar with the fact that many species vocalise to communicate – to find mates, defend territory or raise alarm. If sonic communication is central to survival, then evolutionary theory suggests that soniferous species (noisy critters) that live near each other will tend to have calls that are different from each other – otherwise they won’t be able to hear each other. This is idea is familiar to musicians – part of the craft of arranging instrumental music or mixing electronic music is to give each voice it’s own space. The idea that “good arrangements equals healthy ecosystems” is called the “acoustic niche hypothesis” and not coincidentally, was coined by erstwhile musician, Bernie Krause.
I first read about Krause’s acoustic niche idea whilst I was studying a masters in 2002 and it blew me away: if we think about it in evolutionary terms, we are saying that sound is a resource, and core to survival like food and habitat.
Ecoacoustics is a new branch of ecology that investigates these ideas theoretically – but importantly creates methods to apply these ideas to biodiversity monitoring. If different creatures have different calls, then listening to the density and range of sounds should tell you something about the number and range of things that live in that place. It turns out that this works – you can measure biodiversity – or the “health” of an ecosystem by listening.
For me then, the beauty of ecoacoustics is that it’s profound and poetic and also really practical. Alongside reducing emissions, we need to save species, and traditional approaches are too costly. The technology needed for acoustic monitoring (listening with mini computers) is increasingly affordable, which is a big thing, because it potentially enables conservation management and decision making for small communities all over the world..
Very personally, it means I get to do various things I love which I didn’t imagine could be combined – listening to, thinking about and measuring organised sound, climbing trees, swimming in reefs, and some geeky stuff like machine listening, multivariate statistics and making graphs.
How does the environment and issues around climate change affect your work as a composer and researcher?
What the current “climate crisis” has done for me, is focus my interest in how the soundscape provides a really precious point of contact between species and ways of knowing the world. For example, science is catching up with traditional knowledges and realising that plants are sonically sensile. We are becoming aware that “sound pollution” isn’t just a nuisance for our human neighbours, but critically interrupts communication – and so lives – of living beings across animal as well as plant kingdoms – not only whales but coral polyps and even some species of kelp are affected by shipping noise!
This recognition of the sonic sensibilities of other organisms, I think makes it easier for people to feel connected with wider biological systems, beyond immediate human “friends”. One ray of hope coming from various contemporary cultural commentators is the suggestion that a more positive path could be forged with three things: data (evidence for understanding, policy and decision making), stories (narratives for reframing our ways of being in the world) and interspecies kinships (greater empathy with and care for all the other living critters on our planet). I am coming to think that musical, technical and ecological approaches to soundscape provide a pretty potent, and therefore precious, space in which to generate data, stories and interspecies kinships.
How as musicians and composers can we be more aware of the changing acoustic landscapes around us?
Listen. There are lots of brilliant musicians who’ve developed different methods to support better listening, just with ears and attention as well as various technologies – but as musicians we have liberty to endlessly explore other ways …
Can you tell me a bit more about your unique approach to music making?
You mentioned our feedback cello project, and I guess this is where different strands of my life meet – it’s the place where my intuitive practice and intellectual, technical research get to play together. Feedback cellos are electro-acoustic-digital instruments with pickups under the strings and a speaker chopped into the back – so they self-resonate (they are very much inspired and guided by the work of Halldor Ulfarsson). For me the project started with a sonic urge, but it’s opening up to become a platform for thinking about how we create new musical instruments, how making instruments can help us think about how we engage with each other, and therefore also the role of making musical instruments and music in thinking about contemporary culture.
We created a research ensemble at the Experimental Music Technologies Lab in the Music department at Sussex, The Brain Dead Ensemble, to explore these ideas (and our music just happens to perform a sonic lobotomy which is welcome after teaching sometimes). In the Brain Dead Ensemble we plug audio outputs of one instrument into two or more other feedback instruments – a kind of acoustic networking. In some sense we are one big distributed instrument – made of people & strings & code & speakers. When we’re playing we don’t always know who made any particular sound, you can’t “control” anything in a traditional sense because we’re playing non-linear feedback instruments and are all a part of this pretty complex network – assembled by resonating feedback.
Creating screaming drones with the feedback cello and analysing field recordings of the amazon for conservation may seem worlds apart. But both are about composing and decomposing soundscapes, sonic systems, creating and investigating relationships between species, between each other and between ourselves and our wider environments through sound.
For me, listening, making music in general – and making new instruments to make music in particular – is a really useful space to imagine and explore ways of relating to each other – a kind of embodied philosophy. But I’m not sure that’s unique – some people think that’s exactly what made us human …
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