How would I begin to describe the qualities of the sound of thousands of worker wood ants moving across a woodland floor?
Interview with Dr. Jonathan Prior, Lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University.
LxD: Thank you for very much for agreeing to take part in this interview. Before we start, could you please introduce yourself briefly to the reader with a short listening focused outline of you and your work.
I am a human geographer based at Cardiff University. In my research I study environmental policy – things like nature conservation and ecological restoration – in a way that tries to disentangle the role that aesthetics plays in policy creation and implementation. Much of the work in this area has tended to focus only on visual aesthetic qualities – things like picturesque or scenic landscapes – which led me to consider multi-sensory qualities during my PhD research a few years back, and sound and listening became a focus of this as I went about undertaking interviews with policy makers. This drew me into the world of field recording as a means of trying to document various sonic landscape interventions made by landscape designers; things like the re-design of river systems so that they sounded more ‘natural’.
At this point, field recording became a hobby of mine, and has since led me to undertake various sound and listening projects with one foot outside of academia, such as creating museum audio tours and leading listening walks (these are group listening exercises undertaken while walking through a given space). With a couple of colleagues – Michael Gallagher at Manchester Metropolitan University and Anja Kanngieser at the University of Wollongong – I’ve become involved in trying to develop audio methods for social science researchers, through workshops, conferences, and various bits of writing. We’re in the early stages of planning a book on this topic, which is very exciting.
Recording the dawn chorus in Northampton, England (photo by Katherine Layton)
LxD: What does listening mean for you?
Michael Gallagher, Anja Kanngieser and myself have been thinking about this for quite a while. In an academic article that we have recently completed we have attempted to expand the notion of listening to mean “the varied ways in which bodies of all kinds – human and more-than-human – respond to sound”. Importantly here is that listening doesn’t just happen through the auditory system, but through the whole body.
Away from this definition, for me listening is a sensitive disposition towards the world; ‘listening’ may bring to mind something that is rather passive – we become silent to be able to listen – but I think listening is very active. As such, we can be variously attuned to listening through different modes of listening (say, more or less focused), and acknowledge that listening can be really hard. For the first 20 minutes or so of a listening walk, I find it challenging to listen with any real focus.
To answer your question a slightly different way, listening also makes the world more meaningful to me, in ways that I find hard to articulate. The joy of field recording for me is not really any resulting recording, but rather the in-the-moment conscious act of listening to the world around me.
LxD: In what way does your work, research or practice involve listening?
In my research I am primarily interested in what other people experience through listening to landscapes, how they make sense of their listening, what it is that they value or disvalue in a given environment, and how they express this – say within policy documents or through making material changes to a landscape – so in a way I am listening to other people’s listening.
More theoretically, with colleagues, I am trying to embed listening within social science scholarship in a way that broadens it out from the dominant focus on human verbal interactions. Of course, an ability to listen to one another sensitively is vitally important, but listening should I think go much further to encompass non-human and non-communicative sounds.
Within my role as a geography lecturer, I am trying to help normalise things like field recording and listening walks as valid methods for data collection and dissemination. I don’t want sound and listening to remain as a fringe interest within cultural geography. I am lucky enough to be able to integrate sound and listening within my own department on a second year research methods course, and have contributed to the curricula at other institutions in collaboration with geographers also interested in the role of the senses, such as Nina Morris at Edinburgh and Bradley Garrett at Southampton. I’ve also run workshops for post-graduates and other academics on the basics of audio recording, which can be far more daunting than, say, picking up a camera to take photographs.
Very recently, I got the opportunity to speak to a group of secondary school geography teachers from across Wales about the importance of sound, and how they could integrate listening within their own teaching, which was a fantastic opportunity. A focus on listening has to be at the basis of teaching. In many respects, sensitive, patient listening is more important than the technology that enables good quality audio recordings.
In my more practice-based work, there are plenty of opportunities to speak with people about listening outside of academia, such as when I’ve led public listening walks. I have also been able to experiment with the production of sound when I’ve created audio pieces for galleries and radio. A few years back I created an audio tour for the Slovak National Gallery to interpret the life and work of the painter László Mednyánszky (1852-1919). I got to tell stories about his life based upon his diaries, and to create sonic representations of his work through field recordings, which invited people to listen to the environments of his paintings.
At the moment, I’m working with the academic and poet Samantha Walton on an
ecopoetry/sound project interpreting the Bristol to Bath railway path, which invites a listening to place across disciplinary boundaries.
LxD: Do you listen out for something particular, do you work with a pre-given set of auditory expectations and aims, or do you start defining aims from what you hear?
If I’m taking people on a listening walk, then it’s likely that I will have designed a route, and so will have certain expectations about what will be heard, or how sounds will be experienced – say, in relation to how open or enclosed a particular space is. Of course, what is most interesting are the actual sounds encountered on a route. One of the most powerful components of a listening walk is how it can open you up to sounds you might not have noticed before, even if you habitually walk through that space. In my experience, listening also brings about a change in bodily experience – when people focus on listening while walking, they’ll often remark on how they felt sound across their body, or how it activated another sense in a significant way.
If I’m field recording, it’s a mixture of expectation and serendipity. I’ll often go to a location for a particular reason, but again be open to things I can't pre-determine. An example: I’m currently documenting woodlands in Cardiff through field recording, which may eventually form the basis of a sound map of Cardiff’s green spaces. As part of this, I recently went to Plymouth Great Wood to the west of the city, with all the sonic expectations one might have of a British woodland in Spring. The sound that dominated during an afternoon of walking, listening, and recording was of motorbike scramblers zipping through the woodland. I knew that there was a history of people riding these bikes on public lands in south Wales, after having spoken to policy makers a few years back – they raised this as a problem for the management of lots of old coal tips that are being turned into local parks in the Welsh valleys – but this was the first time I was able to listen to and document this cultural practice!
Plymouth Great Wood, Cardiff, April 2016
LxD: Could you describe the listening methodology, tools, technology, approaches, etc. you employ in your work. How do you listen?
I undertake listening with a naked ear as well as through various forms of technology; different types of microphones that enable me to listen to what cannot be detected by the naked ear (for example through hydrophones and contact microphones), as well as various online audio archives that also enable me to listen to what I couldn’t otherwise hear. I’m starting to think about sound archives – particularly the World Soundscape Project’s archive – for the purposes of investigating what might constitute geographical archival research.
I try to make space for listening – I think that that is really important. Organising moments for listening is really useful to this end; a listening walk, for example, focuses the mind in ways that is hard to achieve if I’m just going for a stroll by myself. The act of field recording also carves out listening space. For me, field recording is an act of in-situ listening. Because of this I don’t hit record and walk away from the recorder, and what I record is of lesser personal interest than what I have experienced in the moment.
LxD: Do you use sound as a qualitative or a quantitative data: i.e do you analyse the auditory material itself, your listening and the heard, or its re-presentation as spectrogram, dB, etc.? And what methods or strategies do you use to analyse the heard or the recorded (the auditory data gained)?
In terms of the creation of data, I use qualitative methods in the form of interviews and field recordings. It depends on what I’m looking to do with the resulting material – be it transcribed interviews or audio files – as to how I analyse it, but generally speaking I use some form of policy or discourse analysis, or use audio files as a mode of representation in much the same way that photographs are used as visual representations, to support an argument. I think it is important to highlight here that such representations are offered not because they ‘objectively’ document an external reality, but because of the failings of language to adequately express sound and listening experiences. Much of our experience of the world is ineffable, so we necessarily resort to cliché. This is especially true when people try to put into words an aesthetic judgment about sound – something I have considered in my research on aesthetic values.
To give a fairly simplified example of this, If I were to describe the sound of a woodland dawn chorus as being beautiful and moving, or the sound of urban gulls as being noisy and unpleasant, this provides some spatial context as to why there might be value or disvalue attributed to the birds (these sounds are experienced in certain places and cultural contexts), but little space for others to critically engage with these judgements. A field recording – however partial and removed from both in-situ place and body – widens that space and context a little, and helps to engage a reader with listening beyond verbal-textual communication.
Much harder to put into words are the more ambiguous sounds that we may encounter, especially sounds that do not easily fit within what is termed the hedonistic theory of value by philosophical aestheticians (that which engenders pleasure or displeasure). How would I begin to describe the qualities of the sound of thousands of worker wood ants moving across a woodland floor (and up my trouser legs)?
LxD: Do you combine the heard, the auditory information gained with other materials, images, numerical data etc. in the process of analyses and evaluation?
Absolutely. As an academic, I rely on the written word for constructing an argument and for the purposes of research dissemination, and for the most part I use any audio information (field recordings, interviews) in conjunction with photographs and textual analyses. I also tend to use images when I present audio in other contexts. Maybe this reflects my difficulty to engage with reduced listening, a form of listening that attempts to free itself from the reference points of a given sound or soundscape, or its “cause and meaning” according to Michel Chion.
LxD: Do you apply listening or the heard directly to solve a problem or answer a question, or what application does the auditory data find in your work?
Without wanting to sound pretentious, I think I would turn that around and say that I use sound and listening to ask or provoke questions, rather than solve problems.
LxD: How do you think sound and listening can contribute to the understanding and responding to current, socio-political, geographical and ecological issues?
That’s a tricky question! I think that sound and listening can very productively contribute to our understanding and response to a variety of issues or events in a myriad of ways – from the very obvious, say marine noise pollution, to the not so obvious, such as how sound is used as an agent for spatial control and governance, including, at the extreme end, instances of sonic warfare, as documented by Steve Goodman. Sound and listening can enrich existing modes of understanding, but equally contribute in unique ways. In my own particular discipline of geography, I think that a focus on sound and listening can unsettle our understanding of a variety of spatial concepts such as ‘sense of place’ and ‘landscape’, and enhance research tools like maps and ethnographic encounters.
There are some areas in which I think that this will be more productive than others in terms of leading to some kind of response. For instance, the sonification of data is interesting from the perspective of presenting already existing data in a novel way, but I’ll stick my neck out and say that the sonification of climate data is probably not going to lead to many climate change sceptics having an epiphany about the urgent need to dramatically reduce anthropogenic carbon emissions.
LxD: have you written/produced or could you refer us to any reference texts, works, or other material that you would like to tell the reader about for our reference section?
With Michael Gallagher, I’ve written an academic article titled “Sonic geographies: Exploring phonographic methods” (http://phg.sagepub.com/content/38/2/267), but this is behind a paywall (contact me if you’d like a copy!). I have a paper that is going to be published very soon titled “Sonic environmental aesthetics and landscape research” for the journal Landscape Research, and another written with Anja Kanngieser and Michael titled “Listening geographies: Landscape, affect and geotechnologies” for the journal Progress in Human Geography. These two will be published with a Creative Commons licence, so will be free to access.
I’ve also got a book chapter written with Michael about the use of listening walks as a research method, which is due for publication later this year in a book called Walking Through Social Research that is being edited by Charlotte Bates and Alex Rhys-Taylor for Routledge.
All of my field recording projects can be accessed on my website: http://12gatestothecity.com/
LxD: Do you have any terms you might want to contribute to our growing glossary on listening terminology?
Phonographic methods – Research methods that use sound recording and related practices of listening, editing, playback, performance, and broadcast.
Sonic environmental aesthetics – A consideration of the aesthetic qualities of, and value judgements about, environmental sound.
Sonic geographies – A term that describes the various spatialised investigations into sound and music.