World Listening Day is an annual global event held on July 18 with the purpose of celebrating the listening practices of the world and the ecology of its acoustic environments. The event is also intended to raise awareness about the growing number of individuals engaged in acoustic ecology, and design and implement educational initiatives that explore different ways of listening.
World Listening Day is co-organized by the World Listening Project(WLP) and the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology(MSAE). July 18 was chosen because it is the birthday of Canadian writer, educator, philosopher, visual artist, and composer R. Murray Schafer. His effort leading the World Soundscape Project and his seminal book, The Tuning of the World inspired global interest in the field of Acoustic Ecology.
I have often hosted events and sound walks on World Listening Day in Australia, but as we were at the Invisible Places | Sound Cities symposium in Portugal, we decided to host a River Listening hydrophone recording expedition during the symposium in Viseu.
This was a very informal event, but allowed us to take some of the delegates to a nearby river in Viseu and demonstrate the process we had spoken about in our research presentation during the symposium.
In July 2013, we had the opportunity to present a paper on River Listening at the Invisible Places | Sounding Cities conference in Viseu, Portugal. The presentation outlined the intentions of the project and some of the preliminary results from designing the River Listening labs in Australia and London.
The conference had two main goals; a symposium on sound, urbanism and sense of place endorsed by the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and an exhibition of artistic events that aimed to bring art and science to the streets. It was integrated in Jardins Efémeros edition IV, a renowned ephemeral art festival hosted through the city of Viseu. This highly successful event brought together artists and researchers from across the world in an exceptional program of curated presentations and projects. It highlighted the truly interdisciplinary nature of sound and the diversity of critical projects emerging internationally.
Eric Leonardson, The World Forum for Acoustic Ecology President, congratulated the curatorial team on producing such a fantastic event and hopes to support more events like this in the future. The Invisible Places curator, Raquel Castro, was interested in increasing the awareness of the importance of our local and global soundscapes and our role in their experience and design. “As listeners, we are also responsible for the shape and beauty of our own soundscape. Therefore, we must open our ears. Through workshops, performances, concerts, soundwalks and sound installations we intended to transform Viseu into an acoustically conscious city.” She hoped the event would create a “special place of intersection between art, science and life” and this is undeniably what was created.
We had very positive feedback from the River Listening presentation and also some great advice on other locations that would benefit from collaborating on the project in the future.
“Look at the plan of London through the ages. What is it that has remained constant throughout? The river Thames. … yet sadly, the city has until now looked away from its river rather than look at it” (Sinha-Jordan 2005).
As a pilot project for River Listening, the River Listening team was invited to develop an audiovisual installation at the 25th Anniversary of Electronic Visualisation and the Arts(EVA) in London, July 2014. Based on a live hydrophone audio-stream from the Thames, the installation deliberately inhabited a liminal space at the arts-science nexus, seeking to highlight the positive contributions each domain can have on the other, and document an emerging model of aesthetic-scientific exploration.
Listening to the Thames explores real-time hydrophonics as a means to revealing the hidden world beneath the river surface. Drawing on ‘holistic’ bioacoustics approaches to ecosystem health assessment it adopts a creative approach to an informative audio-visual interpretation of the riverine environment.
In our EVA London supporting paper, Toby Gifford wrote “Since the dawn of agriculture, rivers have been central to civilisation, affording river cities such as London as thriving hubs of commerce. The health of a river and the community it supports are intertwined. We see and smell the river, yet what do we really know of its secrets below the surface? An open wound we may see, and a gangrenous decay we may smell, but who will hear if the river weeps?”. The Thames was a fantastic river to experiment with the possibilities of River Listening, as it is such an iconic river system in one of the worlds most renowned cities.
We spent five days monitoring the sounds of the Thames and discovered it was a very tidal river. Fortunately we were able to install the hydrophones on the HMS Belfast, originally a Royal Navy light cruiser, permanently moored on the River Thames. The live stream was hosted on PlaceStories, and supported by Feral Arts. While I have used PlaceStories for previous river projects and regularly used the webcasting interface, this was the first time we streamed hydrophones continuously for five days.
The live stream formed the foundation for our installation at EVA London, where I composed a series of short soundscapes responding to the Thames that were mixed with the live stream. Toby Gifford created a visualisation of the live stream and we experimented with different diffusion methods throughout the conference. I was particularly interested in gaining feedback online and we used the hashtag #RiverListening to encourage people to listen to the live stream and talk about what they could hear.
We found that the sound of the Thames was dramatically different from rivers in Australia. While it’s often quite a surprise to hear exactly what sounds emerge once the hydrophones are in the water, the Thames was incredibly loud, to the point that at times it sounded like a busy highway. Many people in London were surprised by the intensity of the sound, and this provided a great starting point to talk about the value of bioacoustics in understanding river health.
Listening to the Thames: Day One Field Recording Sample
The Listening to the Thames project gained the attention of the marketing department at Griffith University and we were happy to be joined by Bridget French, Griffith Sciences Development and Alumni Manager to document and promote the event in London. Griffith University also held a VIP event for Listening to the Thames at the Savoy Hotel to officially launch the project with a guest list that included high profile media identities and organisations associated with river preservation, such as the River Thames Society.
Listening to the Thames was a successful pilot for River Listening and certainly highlighted the diversity of global river soundscapes, the emerging interest in acoustic ecology and confirmed that in our current state of environmental crisis, this type of assessment is critical to understanding the rapid ecological changes taking place across the globe. By unveiling the usually hidden sonic aspect of the underwater environment, we hope to increase awareness of the value of aquatic bioacoustics in comparing and gauging the health of rivers.
Listening to the Thames: Installation sample by Leah Barclay
We hope to return to London and extend the project to multiple locations along the Thames in collaboration with local communities over the coming years, based on the results from River Listening in Australia.
Queensland based science communication researcher Ruth O’Connor also joined us in London. She wrote a short article about the project on her Stream Stories website available online here
A hydrophone is a underwater microphone designed to be used to record or listen to aquatic soundscapes. During River Listening we are testing various hydrophones and experimenting with different recording methods. This post introduces the hydrophones we are using during the River Listening Labs and community workshops.
The H2a-XLR Hydrophone is made by Aquarian Audio Products, a company that designs and builds quality hydrophones for eco-tourism, research and recording professionals. These hydrophones have been used in a variety of applications worldwide, including research, industry, medical and military, and they offer an exceptional cost-performance ratio for those involved in auditory applications. Their designs prioritize high sensitivity, low noise, compatibility with standard audio components, and durability. Aquarian hydrophones produce a great sound at a very affordable price and are our preferred hydrophones for the River Listening community workshops.
JrF D-series hydrophones
We love the D-series hydrophones handmade by Jez riley French in the UK. These hydrophones sound great and are very light weight for travelling. JrF also makes basic hydrophones, but the D-series have are low noise with a flexible specially designed cable and weighted to submerge to any depth needed.
More information here
The Aquaear CR-80-40 is an encapsulated active ceramic hydrophone designed mainly for research purposes. High quality ceramic with sound-transparent rubber encapsulant provides excellent sensitivity and wide band (up to 80kHz). This hydrophone is ultra-low noise and is great for recording dolphins and fish.
This hydrophone is made by Burns Electronics in New South Wales, Australia.
Cetacean Research Technology
We also love the hydrophones made by Cetacean Research Technology in Seattle, USA. They specialize in providing hydrophones and underwater acoustic instrumentation tailored for the applications of scientists, engineers and recording artists.
Since 1994, CRT’s owner, Joseph Olson, has worked with other scientists and engineers to create these devices. As a physicist, Olson has worked with technical instrumentation and underwater acoustics for over 25 years. These hydrophones are used by individuals in over 65 countries ranging from Scripps Institution of Oceanography to National Geographic Television.
Community Field Kits
Our stereo community field kit consists of two Aquarian Hydrophones with a ZOOM H4n. The H4n features built-in XLR connectors with phantom voltage source capability and digitally controlled, high-quality preamplifiers.
Quadraphonic Kayak Kit
The River Listening quadraphonic kayak kit consists of four Aquarian Hydrophones connected to a ZOOM H6 recorder which features built-in XLR connectors with phantom power and high-quality preamplifiers.
Advanced Recording Kit
When using the more advanced hydrophones made by Cetacean Research Technology and Burns Electronics we prefer to use
higher quality preamplifiers. The products we find to produce the best sound quality are made by Sound Devices. We particularly like the MixPre-D, which features two studio-grade mic/line inputs with available limiters, high-pass filters and phantom power. The “D” in MixPre-D indicates the infusion of extensive digital technology. In addition to 24-bit AES digital outputs, USB audio streaming is provided for Mac OS, Windows or Linux computers. When the MixPre-D is connected to a computer with a USB cable, the operating system recognizes it as a USB Audio Class compliant device. This means we can connect the MixPre-D to a digital recorder, a laptop, or even an iPad during the River Listening Labs.
We also love the Sound Devices 722, a favourite among many field recordists and sound artists. This is undeniably one of the best products available for field recording. The 722 is a portable, high-resolution audio recorder with internal hard drive and is a very durable device. It has similar high-quality low-noise microphone preamplifiers to the MixPre-D, with the added flexibility to record to its internal hard drive and removable memory cards.
In our current state of environmental crisis, biodiversity assessment is critical to understanding the rapid ecological changes taking place across the globe. In the last ten years, there has been a strong emergence of non-invasive monitoring involving auditory recordings of the environment. This emerging field is commonly referred to as soundscape ecology and shares many parallels with other fields, including bioacoustics. Soundscape ecology has an array of creative possibilities that have been deeply explored by practitioners including Bernie Krause. The literature suggests it will continue expanding within scientific fields, with a particular focus on the importance of soundscape conservation, the impact of noise pollution, and the value of soundscapes to assist with biodiversityanalysis. There are now a growing number of international projects and scientific institutions embracing methods of bioacoustics in biodiversity analysis of aquatic environments.
River Listening is a practice-led interdisciplinary collaboration of freshwater biodiversity, virtual technologies, soundscape ecology and environmental sound art to explore methods of hydrophonic recording, soundscape analysis and virtual dissemination. Despite the rapidly growing interest in emerging auditory fields such as bioacoustics, there is yet to be standardised approaches to field recording and interpreting the data. While scientists have developed advanced software tools for species recognition, there is a growing need to consolidate the available tools and explore the value of listening to the data in new ways. There are also exciting possibilities to make this data available for a wider audience through digital technology and creative collaborations.
The River Listening Synapse residency specifically involves field labs on the identified rivers experimenting with various hydrophonic recording techniques and sound processing. The labs each involve a three-week immersive engagement process, which is based on a methodology developed during my doctoral research. The labs involve three daily recording sessions; sunrise, midday and dusk. Each recording session is approximately two hours, with a custom-made quadrophonic hydrophone rig attached to a moving kayak. These recordings are databased onsite, and made available online for analysis at the Australian Rivers Institute.
In addition to the kayak recordings, other field kits are distributed on location to capture sounds without human intervention. These include a stationary hydrophone that records from the same location during the entire field lab and a series of smaller field kits to capture the soundscapes above the water. The additional field kits are useful to analyse particular sound sources in the hydrophone recordings that might be difficult to identify. The recording sessions are accompanied by community workshops and creative development experiments involving streaming and processing the hydrophone recordings. The team will facilitate a range of community events and will also collaborate with existing programs in each river community.
The field labs are designed in an open format and encourage collaborations with the local community. The future outcomes will be made available through a virtual sound map and public listening sessions in Queensland, Australia. The database of recordings will form the foundation for a series of experiments at the Australian Rivers Institute to explore new methods in understanding and analysing the data from a scientific and creative perspective.
I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with The Australian Rivers Institute (ARI) on River Listening. The Australian Rivers Institute is Australia’s largest university aquatic ecosystem research group with globally recognised expertise in river, catchment and coastal ecosystems. ARI is currently leading a range of innovative projects revolving around catchment and river ecosystem processes, aquatic biodiversity and conservation, and aquatic ecosystem monitoring and assessment.
While I’m working with several researchers at ARI, the scientific grounding of the River Listening collaboration is directed by ARI Senior Research Fellow Dr Simon Linke, one of Australia’s leading freshwater conservation scientists, whose pioneering work in biomonitoring and river conservation planning has been used by agencies and NGOs from South East Queensland to the Congo. Simon has a strong interest in bioacoustics and was introduced to me Dr Toby Gifford, a music technologist from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. Dr Gifford is a world-leader in real-time audio processing, machine listening and automated musical scene description who has worked with the ARI to explore future frameworks for a real-time bioacoustic wildlife population monitoring network for Australian waterways. We hope some of the results from River Listening can be incorporated into the broader aquatic bioacoustics visions of ARI in the future.
As the international interest in the emerging auditory fields of bioacoustics and acoustic ecology continues to expand, there are clear opportunities to harness virtual technologies to develop accessible community engagement around the creative and scientific possibilities of listening to the environment. River Listening provides a model to develop a truly interdisciplinary approach at the critical stage of creative development and it is anticipated the future results will be beneficial to national ecosystem monitoring programs. I also hope that River Listening could become a catalyst for community engagement and interdisciplinary thinking at a time when the conservation and management of aquatic ecosystems is a critical priority. At the conclusion of the River Listening labs in Queensland, the research team hope to expand this project across Australia and beyond.
River Listening is a research collaboration between independent artist Dr. Leah Barclay and the Australian Rivers Institute to explore new methods for acoustically monitoring four Queensland river systems: the Brisbane River, the Mary River, the Noosa River and the Logan River. The project involves the establishment of site-specific listening labs to experiment with hydrophonic recording and sound diffusion to measure aquatic biodiversity including fresh-water fish populations – a key indicator of river health. River Listening fundamentally explores the creative possibilities of aquatic bioacoustics and the potential for new approaches in the management and conservation of global river systems.
In 2014, The Australian Rivers Institute (ARI) and
Dr. Leah Barclay were awarded a prestigious Synapse grant to support the development of River Listening. Synapse is an initiative of the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australia Network for Art and Technology (ANAT) that supports collaborations between artists and scientists in Australia. This project extends Barclay’s long-term engagement in acoustic ecology to explore the creative possibilities of aquatic bioacoustics in collaboration with an interdisciplinary research team.