New course explores environmental sounds

Stacey Fox recording

Stacey Fox recording

Knight Center affiliated faculty member Stacey Fox developed and taught a new online course this summer, “Music of the Earth’s Biomes,” introducing students to skills concerning environmental sounds.
It was the first such class of its kind at MSU.

In her seven-week course, they learned about field recordings – what they are and how to produce them. The students’ audio capture devices depended on what they had with them, ranging from iOS and Android mobile devices to laptops and old-fashioned mic and recorder technologies.
Second, they learned what sound really is, as well as the effects of sound pollution on physical characteristics of animal and plant species and people. In addition, they looked at different effects of positive and negative sound frequencies on water, plants and animal life.
They were then given a field recording sheet to download and fill out each week. For the first five weeks they captured field recordings based on that week’s sound focus (weather, water, animals, humans, trees) and filled out a field recording sheet for each recording. Recordings had to be at least 1 minute or longer. The sheet required students to make visual observations as well because they are just as important when capturing audio recordings in the field.
Students were exposed to professional composers and musicians creating and performing musical scores based on or using environmental sounds such as tree rings and water drums, as well as human throat singing and performing on instruments crafted from natural materials. They then were asked to use the field recordings they’d captured to create their own environmental sound compositions, including singing, chanting and playing found earth instruments.
Found earth instruments are items like dried gourds used for rattles, logs excavated by termites that can be used for drums or didgeridoos, ice sheets that can be played like chimes, bones made into flutes and pockets of water that can be splashed.
They used Garageband and Audacity software to produce their sound compositions.
For the final week, students were given the task of composing a sound score to best represent Earth to a species in the Andromeda Galaxy that had never been to Earth.
The results varied. Some students submitted everyday sounds from around their yards, while others sent in field recordings from China, including Beijing city streets and air pollution from Beijing International Airport. Several experimented with the field recording techniques by varying the audio capture devices they used or by changing the placement distances of microphones.
Fox hopes the recordings submitted by the students, along with their field recording sheet data, will be the beginnings of an online Environmental Sound Archive set up through the Knight Center.  More recordings will be added from future offerings of the course, and a website will be developed for “citizen recordists” around the world to submit environmental field recordings.

Some examples of student sound work

Cicadas, by Sarah Mansareh:

Nature, by Yuzi Guo:

Storm, by Carolyn Poole: