My ears will never be the same


An essay I wrote about sound and listening – as reflected in art, and science, and experience for the online journal Field Notes, has just been published. The piece begins and ends with personal reflections much like what is often shared here on BrightBlueBall, with extended sections in the middle on sound art (ala EarthEar) and sound considerations in science and policy, such as I work on with the Acoustic Ecology Institute.

Downloaded the issue by clicking here.

My essay begins on page 25. The other pieces are very good, too!

1. Tom Lawrence: The Waterbeetles of Pollardstown Fen

2. Scott Sherk: Phonography: Art or Documentation?

3. Jim Cummings: My Ears will Never be the Same

4. Marcus Kürten et al.: ‘Something Which Lasts Passes By’ — A Collection of Hearing Memories

5. Hein Schoer: The Sounding Museum — Between Art and Science: Cultural Soundscapes in Museum Pedagogy

6. Budhaditya Chattopadhyay: Soundhunting in a City — Chronicles of an Urban Field Recording Expedition

 Past issues of Field Notes can be downloaded at this link.

Evening again

And so again, here I am.  Gazing across the valley, shades of grey overhead inviting me up into the bulging bottom surfaces of clouds drifting slowly downwind. A steady sequence of thunder-rumbles sound from both a couple miles to the east and from the ever-present slope of the small ridge across the creek: the direct path and the echo just a split second apart as the sound spreads across the land, the rolling, tumbling echo revealing in its extended rhythms the shape of the land it touches along the way.

I am waiting.  Watching.  Listening.  Bearing witness to the Here and to the Now.  And hoping — yes, against my inner Buddhist aspirations — hoping for a downpour, for the relief of rain, for the exuberance of immersion.  For each shock of lightning-flash, every tumbling extended thunder-roll, all that wind-driven water angling from cloud above to earth below. 

Yet, wait I must.  Watch, I do.  Listen: to the eternal story, the original language.  Finches cheep, doves flutter, grosbeaks, jays, titmouse, chickadee all clamor for a snack before the storm.  Winds slip through piñons thirty feet in front of me, and in deeper surges, across the hill a hundred yards to my right.  A plane passes through, and the sky stills as if giving it space.  

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The (really) big picture

Taking Neil’s exhortation to “walk like a giant on the land” to heart, here’s the latest entry in astro-dazzle sweepstakes: the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has turned their early data into a three-dimensional map, and further proceeded to create a video fly-through for our mind-blowing pleasure.  

The SDSS has so far covered just a third of the sky, and this is just the first batch of 3D data to be released from that.  And oh, they’re not looking at stars.  That’s so yesterday.  This here is but a fragment of the physical structure of the universe, as revealed in these clusters and filaments of galaxies upon galaxies upon (repeat ad infinitum…):

The cosmologists and astrophysicists say that this new 3D data about these large-scale structures will help unravel the mysteries of dark matter (which seems to account for about 25% of the universe’s mass) and dark energy (which exerts enough influence on matter that scientists say it accounts for 70% of the universe).  So, yup, all those bright shiny galaxies in the video: less than 5% of the universe.

At the risk of blowing my scientific front here: I can’t help but think that such framing (especially of “dark energy”)  is simply a fancy way of saying “we have no idea” what underlies the structure of the universe and the wonder of creation.  Is it so hard to posit that this mysterious integrative energy – the fundamental driver and shaper of the formation of all galaxies, stars, planets, forests, and diatoms – is something more like “spirit” or “life force” than what we normally think of as “matter” and “energy”?  

Perhaps the equations and theories that are brewing around all this will turn out to be valuable, though if so, I’d bet it’d be in revealing totally unexpected and even more mysterious causal complexities (ala the ways that “sequencing the genetic code” has revealed a dynamic ecosystem of interactions that’s more like a mysterious dance than the workings of a causal machine); or maybe this inquiry is taking place in a deep lost corner of the mechanistic rabbit hole, trying to fit the ineffable into a nice square hole.

I say go for it, academicians, see what sense you can make of this, our biggest picture of life.  But meanwhile, I’ll content myself to marvel at the beauty of it all and rest in the ease of simpler explanations, ones that are content to flow from an omnipresent ground of mystery.

The Horse is loosed upon the land

Crazyhorse with logo

Four guys.  Full on.  With a tale to tell, in a language all their own. Well, I suppose the language isn’t unique – bass, drums, rhythm guitar, lead guitar in 4/4 time – and truth be told, it’s a pretty darn simple set of phonemes.  In the hands of Neil and Crazy Horse, though, the playful, propulsive thrash of garage band chaos opens into a mythic tunnel of glorious noise, a Primal Rock and Roll Orchestra.

On Friday night under a star-spangled sky laced with moon-glowing clouds, a few thousand New Mexicans were lucky enough to be at the unveiling of This Year’s Model—or call it This Decade’s Model, their first time on stage together since 2004.  The show commenced with several minutes of roiling, pounding, searing jam (jump on in, the water’s fine!), then Neil swung to the mic, his voice layered atop the instrumental waves, the story beginning to be told:

Long ago in the book of old
Before the chapter where dreams unfold
A battle raged on the open page
Love was the winner there, overcoming hate
Like a little girl who couldn’t wait
Love and only love will endure….

CrazyHorse 1  320ish pxYowsa! What an opener! And on higher:

Spirit come back to me
Give me strength and set me free
Let me hear the magic in my heart

Love and only love will endure
Hate is everything you think it is
Love and only love will break it down

After settling us down just a mite with his enigmatic Powderfinger, a classic for any of us who’ve ever found ourselves in a bit over our heads (it’s the tale of a younger brother left home while dad and big bro were out and about, whose fate it was to futilely face down some mysterious gunship on the river), Neil then proceeded to toss a slew of brand new songs at us, each one a gem:

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May what I do flow from me

May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.

Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Book of Hours I, 12

Translation: Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy
From A Year With Rilke

Tipping points

It’s late July, and the summer rains remain few and far between.  By now, we’d hope to see a five-day forecast fully populated with Thunderstorms Likely icons, and a few Severe Thunderstorms thrown in for good measure; instead, we’re having to hang our hopes on days when the prognosis tips to Scattered, rather than Isolated, storms.  

Out here in the southwest and Rockies, we count on these summer rains—all of us do: piñon, cougar, deer mouse, side-oats gramma, cooper’s hawk, swift fox, human, bobcat, and bunny. In a good summer, we’d get close to half our annual allotment of eleven or twelve inches of rain between the 4th of July and just after Labor Day.  But those good years are slowly becoming exceptional, no more than one year of five.  Much more common are feeble rainy seasons like this one, two or three of every five years.  In July here in Cañoncito, we had one half-inch storm and a couple of close-to-quarter-inch ones.  There’ve been years when that would have been a typical week!

IMG 9881This is what climate change has been predicted to look like in the southwest.  The future’s here.  (Oh, were that so….we’re just a few steps along that new road, in fact.)

Driving along the Front Range of the Rockies from Denver last weekend, I got a regional look at this summer moisture pattern, a three-hundred mile Big Picture within which my five-mile-wide dark cloud and lightning vigil takes place each day.  It was not a pretty picture.

Actually, it was too pretty a picture: nearly all the mountains along the way stood clear and tall from their jagged peaks down through folded forested ridges to the plains at their feet.  Beautiful!  And just not right for a midsummer late afternoon.  In only two fairly small (ten-mile wide) areas were the mountains socked in, the dark, dark bottoms of towering cloud masses 

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Curiosity about Mars inspires insane engineering!

OK, so you want to land a big new versatile rover on Mars. Too big and heavy to use just a parachute, or even the giant bouncing blow-up pillow thingy from the last round of rovers, which were half the length and one-fifth the weight of the new one, which is dubbed Curiosity, and more formally, the Mars Science Laboratory. How's about we use the good ol' detachable heat shield with directional rockets to steer the thing as it careens into the atmosphere, a crazy-strong-but-light Supersonic Parachute, and a set of powerful retrorockets, then transform the whole unit into a Sky Crane that can gently lower the roving lab down then zip away before it fries its cargo? Oh, yeah! We got it!


Next week, Curiosity arrives at Mars, aiming to land right next to a mountain that rises inside a crater, revealing 3 billion years of Mars' sedimentary history. This NASA video – edited with far more pizzaz than most of theirs, definitely giving the talking head engineers more of a intense hero vibe than the geeky teacher thing I'm more used to from them – tells the tale of the “Seven Minutes of Terror” awaiting young Curiosity after it enters the Martian atmosphere:



And for a bit of added fun, Mars is hanging there in the evening sky for all of us to look up at and imagine Curiosity speeding toward. It'll land (or fry or crash) after Mars sets on August 5, but if all goes well, for the next few weeks, we can look up and see where our newest scientific emissary is doing its job, sending photos and videos offering a close up look at that rocky orange orb in our evening sky.


UPDATE, 8/6/12: Success! AstroBob has ongoing coverage as the images start rolling; one of the orbiting Mars probes was even perfectly situated for a look at the landing!


Mars triangleCROP


When checking out Mars in the evening sky, you'll see three very different celestial denizens, two of them pieces of our extended solar body and one a relatively nearby galactic neighbor of our own star. Mars is, of course, a small rocky planet fairly close to Earth, trailing along behind us in the orbit just beyond ours as we slowly pull farther ahead of it on our “inside track” around the sun (which hides there a ways below the western horizon); Saturn is a ringed gas giant halfway across the solar system way out beyond the asteroids and Jupiter, now about six times farther away than Mars; Spica is a massive binary star on the other side of our galactic spiral arm. But this month, they all shine with just about equal brightness. As Curiosity settles in to its new landscape….


Spotify Summer Gems

I’m beginning to wonder how I even managed to delve into new music before Spotify came along.  Oh, sure, the radio can tease you with a song or few from a new album, friends made tapes or shared their latest LPs, yeah, but there’s nothing like cueing up an entire album to really sink into all the fresh goodness within!  Thanks to Spotify, when I read an enticing review or hear something on the radio or NPR that catches my ear, it’s right there ready to hear.  Sure does add a bounce to my step while I do the dishes and sweep the floor!

BowerbirdsA few recent highlights of my 2012 playlist:

Caetano Veloso and David ByrneLive at Carnegie Hall.  Veloso’s gentle Brazilian guitar and vocals make for a classy and warm match for Byrne.  Seven Veloso songs are followed by six of Byrnes, then a few back and forth to complete the show.

Jerry Douglas, Traveler.  The dobro master weaves his typical blend of mostly instrumental tunes leavened with a handful of songs sung by vocal stars, this time including Eric Clapton, Mumford and Sons, Keb’ Mo’, and Marc Cohn. (For some weirder Jerry, check out last year’s re-release of 1995’s Bourbon and Rosewater, a trio date with Edgar Meyer and east Indian slide guitar player VM Bhatt.)

Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball; Ani Difranco, Which Side Are You OnAmy Ray, The Lung of LovePatti Smith, Banga.  I especially appreciate being able to hear the latest from old faves, without having to add to already extensive sections of my CD closet.  I’m really appreciating the “ephemeralization” of my music jones: no longer do I need to buy actual physical “stuff”, not even a few megabytes of hard drive space…I’m starting to get over not holding it in my hands.  Mostly. (I still buy CDs, but mostly things not available in the cloud, so I can see that ending eventually.)  Of this batch, I’ve been especially enjoying Amy Ray’s new one – this and her previous one, MVP Live, have finally lifted her solo work right up there for me beside the Indigos; Amy’s created a body of work over the past thirty years that really does have a place in the modern rock and songwriter pantheon.  I’m also continuing to revel in Patti Smith’s most recent decade; her clear strong heart continues to cut to the bone (if you missed Trampin’ go listen right now!).

This time’s “Perfect for Spotify” selection is Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Friends, a two-disc compilation of their many collaborations with other artists through the years, from Paul Simon to Emmylou Harris, Lou Rawls, Betty Griffin, Andreas Vollenweider (yup!), and many others.  Just the kind of album that’s great to hear once or twice, but may not be a necessary addition to your CD collection.  While leaning toward easy listening African music, there’s a new Angelique Kidjo live album, Spirit Rising, that’s well worth checking out.

A more adventurous world excursion is found in the Trio Chemirani‘s Invite, wherein the Persian percussion masters join forces with a diverse crew of string players, including Ballake Sissoko on kora, Sylvain Luc on guitar, Ross Daly on lyra, and Titi Robin on bouzouki.  Way fun!

And to conclude, in keeping with an overall mellow vibe here, two young songwriting founts worth delving into are Bowerbirds The Clearing, a soulful blend of voice and strings that kind of reminds me of local faves Round Mountain, and Anais Mitchell’s Young Man in America, from a quirky and compellingly ambitious songwriter who I’m just tuning into, a decade into her career.


Have you been enjoying the crescent moon this week?  It’s a bit bigger each night, as it moves away from its monthly passage between earth and the sun.

A week or so ago, early risers were treated to a crescent just about this same size, as the moon approached the sun from the other side – it was to the right of the sun as we see it in the sky here in the northern hemisphere, whereas now it’s to the left of the sun.

I missed the show, but those who woke a couple hours before dawn got to see the moon join a lineup of celestial delights: the Pleiades, Venus, Jupiter, and Betelgeuse (one of Orion’s shoulders).

For those in Europe, though, the morning held a special treat: the moon passed directly in front of Jupiter (an “occulation”).  That peaceful ol’ moon moves fast through the starry sky: just about its own diameter each hour, constantly sliding past stars and planets along its way. Just a few minutes after it zoomed by Jupiter, Christian Fattinnanzi caught an absolutely beautiful dance of five moons, a gas giant, and wispy clouds:

MoonJupiter2012 Fattinnanzi600

Here we see Jupiter and all four Galilean moons (the ones Galileo spotted with his telescope, and visible similarly to his view in any pair of modern binoculars):  Calisto, Ganymede, Io, and Europa.  Lovely!

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