We can’t experience nature in lockdown – but a new breed of field recorders have captured the sounds of the great outdoors in all their crashing, squawking glory
Last December, Lucrecia Dalt travelled to a rainforest in Colombia that is part of the Chocó, a biodiversity hotspot stretching all the way from Costa Rica to Ecuador. She was seeking that rare thing: time to do nothing but just be. However, the last thing she wanted was peace and quiet.
The organisation Más Arte Más Acción had invited the Colombian-German producer to participate in a residency called Espacio para Pensar (“space to reflect”) and Dalt took US noise musician Aaron Dilloway along. The pair swiftly immersed themselves in the jungle’s rich, complex soundscape, recording parrots, frogs, insects, crashing surf, squelching mud, and even the transition from night to day.
A few months after they left, coronavirus hit – and they decided to release their results on Bandcamp. Field Recordings in the Forest of Colombia came out just as the site waived its fees, directing money to artists financially hit by the pandemic instead. “These recordings,” says Dalt, “have the potential to take you out of confinement, to someplace else – calmer, perhaps. They have allowed me to create my own simulation at home.”
With the world in lockdown, a growing number of artists, researchers and field recordists have released albums capturing the sounds of nature, most of them intended to soothe increasingly isolated, anxious listeners unable to experience the mood-lifting arrival of spring and its jubilant birdsong, among many other things.
In March, Leipzig-based musician Carina Pesch launched a series on her Facebook profile called The Ears May Travel, in which she shares binaural recordings from exotic locales in the Pyrenees, Greece and Indonesia. “Binaural is not stereo,” she explains, “so you don’t only have left and right. You have up and down and front and back. It really takes you into the place.”
For Pesch, The Ears May Travel is more than just a holiday for the senses, though. In a time of geographic and social upheaval, the series is “a very friendly reminder that travelling and freedom of movement are a basic human need and right”.
Field recordings can also be tools of eco-activism. In February, Melissa Pons released Swedish Forest Textures, the soundtrack to a documentary about a Syrian refugee awaiting asylum in a Swedish forest, which was razed a year after her recordings were made. Pons hopes it teaches listeners about European deforestation, which doesn’t get nearly as much attention as what’s happening in the Amazon. “A lot of people told me it’s soothing,” she says, “but there are quite oppressive moments.”
There are physical benefits as well. Studies have found that the sound of gurgling streams and soft breezes can stabilise the blood pressure and heart rate of patients on the operating table, while terminally ill cancer patients have reported feeling less discomfort and anxiety if nature sounds are played at their bedside.
In the late 1980s, when musician-turned-bioacoustician Bernie Krause put out such recordings as Distant Thunder and Dawn at Trout Lake, he found an audience among the unwell. “People who had just gotten out of heart surgery, or undergone kidney replacement, would be in hospital writing to us about how these albums made them feel better.”
This aspect of field recordings is familiar to Emmy-winning acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton. When his wife found herself in hospital a few years ago, she listened to his 2005 albums Ocean Dreams and Songs of Spring. Both were recorded in Washington state’s Olympic National Park, using binaural equipment.
Apparently, she found the recordings more effective than oxycodone. “The sounds conveyed to her a sense of prosperity and security,” says Hempton. “That was enough for her body to fight the pain.” Those albums, among others, are currently available for free, just in time for Earth Day on 22 April.
There are some who believe that field recordings work on an even deeper level. Sound artist Martina Testen suggests that audio from a natural environment appeals to “that unexplainable place from which stems the body’s immune system, as well as all the mystical and archetypal figures and desires”.In a recent experiment, she observed that consumers spent more time shopping if a supermarket played Biodukt, recordings from Slovenian and Italian sub-Alpine forests that she and her partner Simon Šerc released on 20 March, the first day of spring. (The release date was originally meant to be 12 March – St Gregory’s Day, celebrating when birds find their mates – but was delayed due to coronavirus.)
While the exact palliative effects of such recordings may be unclear, few would deny how grounding they can be in an increasingly urbanised world, given their ability to mitigate the effects of manmade noise pollution. Traffic-related noise has been linked to sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease, not to mention constant irritation.
Despite humankind’s best efforts, nature still finds ways to resist. Louisiana’s Robert Rolston, AKA Quintron, recorded green tree frogs who had reclaimed an abandoned Boys Club swimming pool next door to his New Orleans home. “It was beautiful, incredible and deafeningly loud,” he says. “You couldn’t hear that level of frog activity unless you went deep into City Park, or way outside the city.”
Rolston released those recordings in 2003 on The Frog Tape, which he reposted to Bandcamp last month for the benefit of cooped-up listeners who don’t have the pleasure of hosting amphibians in their back yard, or who might not even have a back yard. “We’re bringing the outside indoors,” he says. “That’s what field recordings are for.”