I’m in Alaska – rather above its glacial ice fields, jagged peaks, and forested streams. Yep, still in the airplane, but in Alaska’s airspace. Having most recently worked with Homestead National Monument, I know that many of America’s most recent Homesteads were “proved up” here in Alaska. I’ve come here for a workshop led by composer Steven Lias and sound scientist Davyd Betchkal called Composing in the Wilderness, focusing on using the sounds of nature as our timbral inspiration. We only have a few short days to compose works to be performed by performers at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. This sooo integrates with my “landscape shapes culture” perspective.
Arriving a day early will allow me to visit the cultural history museums, experience Golden Days, Fairbanks’ annual festival celebrating its Gold Rush origins and heritage, and to generally soak up some atmosphere. The plane is descending. I’m glued to my window as a multitude of green shades climb up without quite reaching the gray/brown peaks; the higher ones perpetually covered in white.
Do animals have culture? I believe they do. While apes have been studied for years, scientists are beginning to understand meaning in the different sounds and action of birds and other animals. Their lifecycles and patterns are integral to the landscape ecosystem. Studies show that the impact of human noise is altering their call patterns and interfering with their ability to hear sounds necessary for their well being or survival – whether it’s mating calls, hearing potential prey or to prevent becoming prey. While none of us would advocate giving up our modes of transportation entirely, surely there are ways to soften or deflect sound. In 1986 Congress passed the National Parks Overflights Act to work with the FAA in managing the impact of flight noise in the parks.
I was in the South Dakota Badlands recently, and the effect of the sun trying to push through the morning fog on the rocky outcrops was enthralling – until I heard the helicopter tours. ARGH! I understand the accessibility issue of ATVs, but if technology can make my dishwasher nearly silent, isn’t there something that can be done to reduce motor noise?
I’ve written before that we carry the sounds of the place we grew up with us for our entire lives. It’s not just the appearance of the river I love, having grown up near the Mississippi, but the sounds of the water, the birds, and yes, even the boats. A significant portion of our workshop will be spent listening in Denali National Park. Davyd Betchkal will help us understand how to listen. In an article in the New York Times, he states that the quieter it is, the more open our ears are to hear further away. I found this to be absolutely true in the prairies of Nebraska!
Our workshop will be launched with a trip to the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North, and composer John Luther Adam’s The Place Where You Go To Listen – a translation for Naalagiagvik, an Iñupiaq place name on the arctic coast. This fusion of sound, music and geophysics IS Alaska, and a fitting start to our sonic expedition.
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