On the Paradox of Listening to Recorded Nature
By Jim Cummings
From the liner notes to The Dreams of Gaia.
You are about to enter a strange land, a place rich with life, where relationship and wholeness is paramount, yet where your sensory experience will be reduced to nothing more than subtle changes in air pressure against your eardrums. You are entering into the sounding world, separated from its natural context as just one aspect of a planet we usually know through a unified experience of sight, touch, smell, and sound.
Paradoxically, this separation is meant to enliven your sense of integration with the living, breathing community that you walk through day to day. By focusing on the subtle (and startling) expressions of this sounding world, you will likely find your ears enlivened, taking a newly active role in your own experience of your home. This new vividness in your listening may well feed into fresh ways of seeing the leaves, of feeling the wind, of tasting the permeating scent of the forest.
Still, the whole idea of extracting a single aspect of the whole is odd. These recordings don't even duplicate the sonic experience you'd have in any of the places they were made. In this is their strangeness, and their power. The world outside your door is indescribably more vivid than any recording; though there may be fewer, less “dramatic” sounds there, you are immersed in those sounds, they surround you, penetrate your skin, and move invisibly through your heart and spirit, in ways these recordings never will.
Yet these sound recordists are not spending their lives futilely attempting to recreate natural soundscapes. No, they cast their lots to the currents of wonder, and the tiny fragments of endless field and studio work that end up on CDs are their most successful moments of evoking something central to that place. Or a more general and universal respect for relationship. Or the resonance of a dream they had one early morning. Or perhaps a passing sense of delight, or sadness. No matter their intent, for your experience in hearing the work will surely be different than theirs. This is the way of the muse.
As you likely know from your own life, the wonder we can remember, carry with us, speak about, or let creativity play with, is not the same wonder we experience in the living moment. The memory of wonder that we bring back is like a photograph, a sketch, a scribbled note, compared to the moment of connection itself. These works are not attempts to recreate the experience of being present to a chorus of frogs in the night, or the awakening of a woodland dawn, or the standoff between two elk at opposite sides of a meadow. As we listen, can have an experience that has links, both obvious and uncharted, with the moments we have known in the world (and with those we are yet to know). There is a stimulation, and an exchange, with parts of ourselves, and between ourselves and our planetary context. If we choose to, we can be changed by this meeting with pure sound.
The first disc is designed to open your ears. You will find extraordinary expressions of nature’s voices, surprising and familiar. The human sounding world is presented as well, in both its beauty and confusion. You are introduced to the gamut of artistic approaches, from unretouched field recordings to constructed compositions built of highly edited and transformed source recordings. Yet there is a coherence here, as the tracks combine to reflect the passage of our days, riding the earth as it spins in the sun.
Disc 2 slows down, and goes deeper. Here we have one long day cycle, beginning in the predawn buzzing of the Costa Rican rainforest, emerging at daybreak in a prairie marsh, and continuing through the day, to evening with a troop of chimps and the midnight slumber party of a family of elephants. Each track is long enough to begin to cast the spell of its place. We find ourselves softly expressing the ineffable with birds in a midmorning free-form song, thawing with the slow release of glacial meltwater, and expanding into the night along with the insects and bats of a Kenyan riverside.
The hope of these recordists is that by the end, we have a deeper appreciation for the rich variety and abundant unity of the voice of our planet. Perhaps we’ll even find a way to help our voices blend in more graciously, more respectfully, more receptively; from there, we may find our way back to old ways that believe the whole story is about actively nurturing relationships with all of life. And then, we will once again take our place as a movement within the Dreams of Gaia.
The Eternal Story, in its Original Language
by Jim Cummings
from the liner notes to The Dreams of Gaia
We live in a world within a world. With each passing decade, our human lives become more insulated from the uncertain chaos—and the connective context—of the biosphere from which we so recently sprung. We've protected ourselves from the wind and the rain, made our countrysides safe from occasional predation by large carnivores, and created vast webs of human sprawl nearly devoid of plant and animal life, save some hardy insects, urbanized rodents, and less particular birds.
Yet still we remember. . . . Something deep and true within us is awakened by the surf line on an early morning beach, by the deepening night of a woodland lake, by the fearsome, exhilarating heart of a ridgeline thunderstorm. Among us are a lucky few—and within each of us a tenacious core—that never lost touch with the voices of the world around, that somehow escaped the deafening effects of the human world; these ears remain open to the songs of the wind, the tales of the frogs, the sudden visitations of the raven.
One of the greatest tragedies, and greatest follies, of our modern era is the extent to which we’ve forgotten how to hear, and be a part of, the ongoing stories of our home places. Metaphors grope toward a reality that once was concrete beyond needing expression. It’s the Great Conversation, the voicing of the dream of life, the simple audible breathing of the planet. It wasn’t so long ago that we knew all our companions well, that we welcomed each as we now find delight in a phone call from a friend. But lately, we've traded deep knowledge of our Home for a broad but shallow understanding of the planet as a whole.
Offering touchstones on a path of remembering, a new breed of sound artists has emerged in the past twenty years. Their work is inspired from many sources, including early nature sound artists such as Irv Tiebel (Environments), social commentators such as R. Murray Schafer (The Tuning of the World), electronic and minimalist composers, and most of all, by their own varied personal ways of being in, and exploring, the world.
These sound sculptors have spent thousands of hours seeking, responding to, and recording the sounds of our world—from mountains to subways. They then dance with their muses in the studio, weaving sonic essays and aural portraits in a delightful range of styles. These new place-inspired artists deserve a spot alongside the writers, photographers, and filmakers whose works have enriched our sense of the connections—and the rifts—between humanity, nature, and spirit. Through sound (perhaps our most integrative and expansive sense), they are helping us to remember that language is not only a human expression. Birds surely speak, coyotes have much to say, trees find their voice in the wind and in stillness, even the rocks sing when caressed by waves and roar when shaken from below. The voices of the planet offer gifts of joy, wonder, and peace; they also can take us into—and out of—ourselves, to places of reflection, uncertainty, and new awareness. Mostly, the song of each place connects us with a expansiveness and mystery that lies beyond our human world. In this, we may find ourselves once again a part of a greater story, one in which humanity is just one of the players.
Whether you live in a city or at the edge of the wilderness, or, like most of us, in a place where the human world is expanding ever deeper into various local remnants of the primal richness that once filled your region, the work of these sound artists will help you notice the voice of the place you walk in day to day. There is beauty and context to be found in the whispering of pines, and also in the sounds of the street. Only by beginning where we are, might we find our way back to the community of life that speaks to us in the howling teeth of a storm and the dreamsongs of caribou.
And so it is with all of the voices of the Earth: they come before words, they make our human words seem so small, so fragmentary, so. . . human. For in the wild, as in these recordings, are the pieces we’ve been missing, the voices we’ve forgotten to include in our human monologue. To meet them again is to reclaim the chance that we might find a way to live in balance among them. And that, in these latter days of the crazy-making century we live in, is our greatest need.