wilderness for nine loudspeakers / headphones / October 21, 2017

The animal instinct of the world is to destroy others thinking it may build for itself out of the ruins, but the divine instinct knows that the only true structure is in building up together.

Will you be counted among those who seek to destroy, or will you seek to rise to the heights, the dizzy heights where the air is so rarefied that only the strong can stay long enough to be dissolved in an ecstasy of oblivion?” - Mary Crovatt Hambidge, Apprentice of Creation

Today I woke and walked out to my porch to learn that I had been instrumental in the death of a large beetle. Beetle had been attempting to cohabit my cabin at Hambidge for the last few weeks, and I had been careful in routinely transporting him to the outdoors, assuring him we would both be more comfortable with such an arrangement. Last night, he had taken refuge in my curtains around midnight, but given the slow swagger I had observed over the past few weeks, I was comfortable he would stay put through the night. I couldn’t find him during my bedtime sweep, so I assumed he was tucked and comfy. Around 2 AM I was awoken by a large buzz to find him near my head, on the window. At the point, I’m certain Beetle knew this was a violation of our terms and I gently placed him in his cup and returned him to the forest.

But in the cold fog of morning, there he was, paralyzed, upturned, and slightly discolored at the bottom of the cup. A part of my evening phone conversation with Rian last night addressed the topic of insect extinction, which furthered my resolve to coexist with Beetle. And yet my discomfort with a loud buzz seems to have clouded this resolve, and now, Beetle is dead.

His death is timely and heartbreaking, as my time at Hambidge has been dedicated to the pursuit of dissolving my human ego in service of something better, something with which Beetle is likely more acquainted than I. As such, I dedicate the work I’ve done here, an installation with a companion ambisonic experience for headphoneswilderness, to Beetle.

wilderness has lived several lives in the past few months and currently exists in two incarnations: an interactive installation for nine loudspeakers, and a companion work for headphones. The work explores my complicated geographical relationship with the United States. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, you become a person who takes volcanic mega mountains, temperate rainforests, pods of cosmically intelligent swimming superbeings, and massive, tranquil salty bays full of salmon and mussels and elegant kelp for granted. When such a person moves east to join the rat race (which has unfortunately found its way west), the resonance of this landscape is a manic buzz in the heart. A deep, bottomless, spiritual hole grows with each minute one is away from this place, until the eventual homesick Google image search for “pacific northwest” elicits a cascade of loneliness. This was the experience I sought to sonify in wilderness - the experience of moving far, far away from a place where wilderness still dominates humanity, and hearing it sing in the distance while enveloped by the low rumble of the sprawling urbanity of the Eastern US.

While I have an obviously subjective relationship to the distribution of wilderness in the contiguous US as a Washingtonian and Montanan, I believe there exists, on a global scale, a longing for wilderness, a palpable guilt for what we’ve destroyed, and a deep anxiety that every choice we make is destructive. These are the ideas that propelled me to design this work and the ideas that have obsessed me here at Hambidge, where these themes are ever-present in the landscape, the geographical situation, and the spiritual residue of Mary Crovatt Hambidge’s life.

The loudspeaker version of this work is intended for a large room and indeterminate length. Nine loudspeakers are arranged on a theoretical, room-sized map of the United States as follows:

  areas in color represent protected wilderness    image courtesy of the University of Montana

areas in color represent protected wilderness

image courtesy of the University of Montana

Each speaker emits a synthesized sound generated from data sourced from the University of Montana Wilderness Center. As you can guess from the image, the sound each speaker makes is representative of the relative acreage of protected wilderness in the immediate radius of the speaker. Speakers in areas with higher acreage of wilderness emit louder, higher pitched, and more rapidly pulsating sounds. Speakers in areas with low acreage of wilderness emit quieter, lower pitched, and more slowly pulsating sounds. All sounds were calculated meticulously to ensure a spatially accurate, relative experience of how much wilderness we have preserved and destroyed. 

In doing this, my goal was to illuminate how much life exists where human life does not; we often associate sound with humanity, and I wanted to illustrate an experience where human sprawl was as silent as the death it causes. The result was a staggering realization that, while the Eastern US has many alluring qualities, it is utterly drained of wild places. The resulting sound, to me, felt like the sad buzz I felt when leaving my volcanoes and rainforests.

While walking through the installation, listeners are invited to this experience. There are also thrown into a less romantic experience: with each speaker, I place a microphone that picks up the sounds the listeners make as they walk through the work. If you make a sound above a certain threshold it triggers an explosion of speaking voices and loud noises. This is intended to simulate the anxiety we feel that every move we make is, in some way, pollution.

Artistically, it bothers me that one can only experience works for loudspeaker arrays in venues lucky enough to have more than two (decent) loudspeakers. So, in pondering the eternal question of accessibility, I decided to develop of 3D version of this work for headphones that curates a walk through the installation using ambisonic panning and HRTF decoding for headphones. 

Naturally, as this version allows me to take you on my own subjective experience of driving through the contiguous US, the piece is time- AND space-based, which adds another layer of anxiety and direction. As one walks through the West, loud mountain ranges of sound pass on either side; once one has left the West, the sounds become increasingly war-like, human-related and noisy (please see the content warning). These sounds come from news reports about animal culling, recordings from the Elephant Listening Project, and field recordings I sourced from my porch at Hambidge. Throughout the work, a buzz that seems to come from inside the head resonates and later intensifies into a folk-inspired melody setting the above words from Mary Hambidge. After enduring the war, we drift backwards back into the wilderness, into the “ecstasy of oblivion” she theorizes.

I’m currently obsessed with the idea that my generation experiences the world through headphones. How can artists disrupt this experience? How can we create a fantastical, three-dimensional sonic reality that makes us appreciate and long for the reality that has existed before and will exist after the headphones disappear? Given the current fixation on visual virtual reality experiences, what role does sound have in the question of the future?

With all of that said, and with the memory of Beetle in my heart, I would like to invite you in to my new work and also to please consider the question posed by Mary Hambidge above: will you be counted among those who seek to destroy?

As of press time, Beetle seems to have been resurrected.

KLE

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wilderness  for nine loudspeakers will premiere on November 18th at the Chapel Performance Space with new concert series Kin of the Moon

wilderness for headphones is available below. Please use …. headphones! Preferably high quality headphones. The 3D sound elements, essential to the work, will not read through external speakers.

CONTENT WARNING - gunshot sounds

This work contains sounds that may cause physical and/or emotional discomfort to those who are survivors of war and/or gun violence, or are sensitive to sounds related to violence. These sounds begin at around 4:25. Please practice self-care if choosing to listen to this work. These sounds are NOT present in the live installation version of this work; we hope you will have an opportunity to join us in the live experience with Kin of the Moon.

Heather Bentley