Listening to Glaciers Artfully

Jonathan Gilmurray, the author of “Ecological Sound Art,” covers artists who have created works based on the sounds made by melting glaciers. Gilmurray argues that ecological sound art can be effective at motivating people to combat climate change. He also believes that it should be more fully appreciated on its own as a new art form.  

Also known as environmentalist sound art, ecological sound art incorporates naturally-occurring sound, with or without modification, and other elements to depict or evoke the environment. It is a form of artwork that draws on a key principle of environmental ethics, the connectedness between humans and the natural environment. Gilmurray believes ecological sound art can be more effective than other forms of ecological art because of sound’s unique ability to reveal relationships that exists between things in the world. The act of listening implies an attentiveness to the natural world, a greater degree of relatedness than might be found in the works of a visual artist who seeks to capture or depict the natural world as an object.

Gilmurray explains Ecological Sound Art here: 

Ecological sound artists convey ecological messages about the subjects they record by evoking emotions within their listeners through various means. Some, like Chris Watson, use recordings from their fieldwork. His piece Vatnajökull from 2003 is a collage of recordings tracing the journey of 10,000-year-old ice from the Icelandic glacier Vatnajökull. The recordings follow the waters of the glacier as they form from melting ice and flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Listen to a snippet of his work here.

In addition to the sound of ice on the move, people who listen to this piece also hear birds calling each other overhead, the creaking of the ship Watson voyaged on, and waves on the Atlantic Ocean. The UK-based audiovisual organization Touch provides the following description of Watson’s piece: “The most eerie aspect of it is the strange ‘singing’ events which occur throughout, especially by the end of the piece when we’re tossing about on the ocean and an unidentifiable spectral singing hovers over the surface of the sea, causing you to believe in sirens.” 

Field recording session workshop with Jana Winderen and BJ Nilsen (Source: Sonic Acts/Flickr).

Another artist, Jana Winderen, seeks to “reveal the complexity and strangeness of the unseen world beneath.” Some of her art was recorded inside of glacier crevasses in Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. In a statement on her website, she explains, “I like the immateriality of a sound work and the openness it can have for both associative and direct experience and sensory perception.” You can listen to her 2010 piece Energy Field, which incorporates sounds from northern winds, ravens and running dogs.(Evaporation (2009) by Jana Winderen)

Other artists combine their field recordings with digital enhancements for a different effect, which many find to be more musical. Daniel Blinkhorn incorporated crackling sounds from the fjords of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean with electronic static sounds. On his website, he provides samples of the original recording and digitally re-mastered version so that listeners can compare for themselves.

To achieve their desired effects, ecological sound artists employ highly sensitive hydrophones (underwater microphones) and vibration sensors. To some listeners, the end result is so pleasing to the ear that they question why more art shows and galleries do not include an auditory component. Gilmurray is working toward addressing that gap. He hopes that ecological sound art will become as recognized as other forms of environmentalist art.

Over the years, other ecological sound artists have explored a variety of techniques to evoke a human response to climate change. By creating live recordings, Katie Paterson allowed her audience to dial a number which allows them listen to a microphone submerged in a lagoon in Iceland. Paterson’s approach – the audio equivalent of a webcam – lets listeners hear the Vatnajökull glacier melt in real time.

“One of the key aspects of these works is the manner in which sound captures the dynamics of the glacial melting process in a way that images cannot,” Gilmurray points out. “Approached from a purely visual perspective, a glacier appears to be literally ‘frozen,’ in the sense of being still, unmoving and unchanging. Unless one manages to witness a dramatic calving event, its melting is generally too gradual to be perceived.”

Underneath Vatnajökull Glacier in Iceland (Source: David Phan/Flickr).

This is one reason why ecological sound art is so effective. Sound artists have used the medium to engage with ongoing environmental issues – habitat loss, climate change, and overdevelopment – to spur a human reaction. By hearing nature through this hauntingly beautiful art form, we become witnesses to its cry for help. It sends each listener a personal message to take action.

“The sonic dimension of glacial melting allows us to hear glaciers melting as a dynamic, ongoing process,” Gilmurray explains. “It is happening ceaselessly and progressively, second by second. This understanding encourages the sense of urgency with which it is so vital that we learn to regard and respond to climate change.”

In Suspended Sounds, a collective work by ecological sound artists from all over the world, sounds from endangered and threatened species were recorded. Since the exhibition of Suspended Sounds in 2006, some of these species are now extinct, highlighting the consequences of anthropogenically-induced climate change and urging listeners to act. Ecological sound art has stimulated conservation movements in the past. The 1970 recording of humpback whales and the songs they sing helped shift public opinion on the hunting of all whale species.

By persuading listeners to engage with what they are hearing in new and unfamiliar ways, ecological sound art stresses the importance of interconnectedness between humans and the surrounding environment. Artists hope their recordings will spur new appreciation, respect and value for the natural environment and the organisms that call Earth home.

For more information on Jonathan Gilmurray, read his latest academic papers here and listen to his research interests here.