(Aspects of a talk given at University of Bristol’s English Literature Department conference Animal Utterances, summer 2017.)
As a sound artist, my work is mostly research-based performances, radio broadcasts or installations. For the main, this talk focuses on one research and recording project, working with wildlife in the Kalba mountains, in Sharjah. The rocky mountains rise out of the desert facing the sea, and hold either craters of sandy expanses, or wadis (water lagoons among rocks) in their heights also.
What about the desert makes intense listening part of the experience of being there. You may not realise you are doing it until sound and it’s vehicle, the air, begins to play tricks on you. Perhaps it’s the lack of apparent detail, the stretching, immobile horizon that provokes an almost psychedelic supplement from the imagination, the shifting sand, so perfect at absorbing sound that any commotion immediately falls away as you begin to distance yourself. The rippling heat waves of the mirage, one of the desert most renowned features, is also a question of distance and proximity. To make anything out of the mostly monochrome ground covering, or audibly amongst the areas of flat expanse, one most move towards it, until you are almost on top of it. Distance and separation in the desert will be the subject of my discussion, illustrated by the example of works and ideas generated during a summer period spent recording the wild animals of the Arabian peninsula.
In the desert silence is a constant feature, a condition from which to hear all other sounds, and then no time is as silent as the dead of night, broken only by either the long low whine of planes, the occasional nocturnal hunt or ritual, or the dawn azaan. A prelude to the amplified dawn prayer an hour before sunrise, announcing the day, calling off the night, binding the voice to the air it is a circadian ritual whose impact on the soundscape we discovered quite by chance. More on that anon.
From this silence of the desert, the sounds that grew out of it were manifold. First a bit of context:
Chris Weaver preparing to climb to the top and record wild Hyrax.
The United Arab Emirates is a country with a surprisingly varied landscape. Along the south of the Persian Gulf to the Hajr mountain range, stretching West to Oman, what can seem apparently empty terrain is in fact teeming with life.
From sea cows to wild hares, the fauna of the Arabian wilderness are protected by law, while falcons and thoroughbred horses make for cultural heritage and a national sport today. An Instagram-fuelled trend has arisen for ‘exotic pets’ at home, often rescued and taken to wildlife centres, of declawed lions, or even more astoundingly unusual animals drugged and smuggled in suitcases out of East Asia.
The Arabian peninsula has been at different ancient periods fertile plains and an ocean bed, and is where the oldest known human tool outside of Africa was found, challenging the usually accepted Out of Africa theory that our ancestral humans travelled north out of Africa, with evidence that they travelled instead North West, to what are now deserts but then were large plains, bursting with wildlife, connected to Africa by shallow sea channels peppered with islands, perfect for human rafts to cross with.
What remains of that wildlife, in the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, the ancestors is divided between the sea and rocky mountainous regions.
Flamingos at the Endangered Arabian Wildlife Centre.
Several artworks of mine have been based on the desert in the UAE, and the commission that is the focus of today was unusual in that the outcome was six permanent, public sound installations. Sound artist Christopher Weaver and I were commissioned with these for the new ‘Al Heffayeh Wildlife Centre’, to be populated by Arabian animals from the existing breeding centre, both of which are now open and located at the base of the Hajar Mountains in Kalba, Sharjah. Sharjah is one of the seven emirates in the UAE. Chris and I spent two months getting to know and recording a plethora of creatures, insects, mammals and birds in and around the breeding centre for endangered Arabian wildlife, to compose for the six installations for the soon to be opened wildlife centre some miles away.
The Hyrax Looks like a Beaver And Sounds Like a Huge Rodent, but is Actually Most Closely Related to the Elephant
One of the above photos is taken from the mountaintop where we had gone to record the semi-wild hyrax. As a sound artist with a research based practice, I have a particular interest in how we run the increasingly propriety world we live in, a research that often gives rise to the question: where is the space for wildlife? Like the case of art, economically driven societies have a hard time quantifying the importance of un-commodifiable things such as peripheral wildlife that might keep to their own, and yet generate no income for man.
celebrate the rich biodiversity of the region’s mountain habitats, and a handful of artists of different disciplines were engaged to interpret certain aspects of the new inhabitants’ characteristics. From wild water lagoons, (locally called wadis), we found we needed to record a range of animals with different equipment, and some if it would be hand made.
But how best to record these varied and unpredictable beings? Air conditioning inside and the generators outside, water sprinklers, passing planes, the work of ground staff, building maintenance and feeding times – these invade the airspace and make the recording of the animal utterance a compromised exercise. On top of that domesticated animals such as chickens made an unholy racket. We tried many methods, in the wild and in the centre, and were always aware that the animal subjects knew they were being watched, and being listened to. We found that we could draw on our familiarity with the field of acoustic ecology, and wildlife recording, and sometimes it was the handlers themselves who suggested ways of reaching animals, or situating them for recording. We discovered that by listening, and importantly, hearing these animals when they think we are not listening, we can gauge to some extent how it is that nature at this moment, responds to what is left of the silence mankind is quickly doing away with. In visualising that specific kind of sound, I have begun to develop an interest in the possible correlation between what animals hear and the sounds they make. An adjusted mode of listening is required in order to hear animals’ response to silence (or near silence); when there is only noise during the day.
In 1905 Nobel prize winning bacteriologist Robert Koch said “The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.”
This fight is defined in Gordon Hempton’s book on hunting quiet in America called “One Square Inch of Silence”:
“Fighting human noise is not the same as preserving silence . Our typical anti-noise strategies – ear plugs , noise cancellation headphones, even noise abatement laws offer no real solution because they do nothing to help us reconnect and listen to the land. And the land is speaking. We’ve reached a time in human history when our global environmental crisis, requires that we make permanent lifestyle changes . More than ever before we need to fall back in love with the land. And silence is our meeting place.”
So where, today, exists such silence? And what are the dynamic range we were looking at? The sounds of the animals ranged from the unrestrainedly vocal (sand foxes) to the highly cautious, and apparently voiceless, such as the scorpion. We observed each animal at rest, at play, hunting, eating and calling to one another to seek the best sonic portrait of each. The most vocal were undoubtedly the wild wolves, who seem friendly, almost pet-like, and we petted the pups, but even a hand reared one might maul you if you find yourself in the pen with them overnight, we were told by their handlers.
These are the jackals and coyote of the Arabian peninsula, they have been there since before Arabic literary tradition began, which it did, within tribal, nomadic cultures.
In that spirit of nomadic cultures, some lines from Arabian Ode in “L” by Al-Shanfara, a pre-Islamic Arabian poet who passed in 525 AD
O! Sons of my mother, raise up the breasts of your riding camels, for I am more inclined to other tribes than you.
I have in place of you other kin: the wolf, unwearying runner,
the darting sand leopard, the bristle-necked hyena.
These are my clan. They don’t reveal a secret given in trust, and they don’t abandon a man for his crime.
Al-Shanfara, was an archetypal outlaw, an antihero, critiquing the hypocrasies of
his society from his position as an outsider. None of the orientalist western romanticisation of the desert in Al Shanfara’s poetry, he in fact, draws a grim and extremely frank image of traveling solo in the Arabian desert.
And so, on to grimness.
Catching the breeze, rising then falling against the wire, a camel skin, dripping with fresh blood was a flag to action for the wolf pack in the enclosure. We left the this to tease them with scent and taste overnight with tiny microphones attached to the fence. Of course, the skin, along with one of our expensive mics was eaten by morning.
The butcher also brought in this camel’s head, for us to feed to the hyenas. in
Arabian poetry the Hyaena, fox, doves, ravens, eagles and other birds, as well as several plant species are commonly found in the works of Arabian poets, who would often compare the physique and skill of their horses and camels to other animals, for example “slender legs like a gazelles”. To what would the they compare this gruesome sight? And soncially, you have not experienced the feeling of proximity until you have heard the rasping, seeking tongue of a hyena try to dislodge the eye of the camel from its socket.
Not our usual kind of work, the project provided a rich array of material to consider. What came up for me was the trigger for a doleful chorus, we found by chance hidden in a long sound file. By zooming in and adjusting our listening parameters, the ubiquitous mosques of the UAE turned out to be the trigger for a what was comical and other times frightening cacophony. The animals are wailing in rising and falling tones and pitch. In traditional vocal exercises these kinds of sounds are called sirens, it is sirening something one does to warm up the voice, I’ve done it. Interestingly each siren described here is a microcosm of the larger phrasal umbrella shape made by the sounds overall.
Further away from the wolves pen we also captured the event as a more balanced recording of all the morning’s singers with whom the wolves had been calling, we made the same recording overnight from the leopard enclosure. We expanded the sound to discover whether it was the aeroplanes that set off the morning cacophony. It was in fact, the azan, the call to prayer, in the distance, which can be heard faintly at the start and end of this clip recording.
So as you can see the shape of the sound, rising up out of the darkness is much fuller, for the chorus and resembels to my mind the very mosque it is singing
along with or masking. Have the animals become the sketchers of the acoustic footprint of the mosque itself?
The azan is a sound one can hear everywhere even in desert outposts makeshift and resplendent mosques alike pepper the landscape. I was born in Iran and for me the azaan played out 5 times a day for the first formative years of my life it is somehow under our skin. The Azan is made of microtonal notes based on the Arabic maqam, which are their equivalent to Western modes (e.g. Aeolian.).
Islamic theology posits that the adhan is not music. It is recited, not sung.
Likewise, the text of the Qu’ran is considered not poetry.
They are certainly musical and poetic, but are neither music nor poetry.
The praying face East from wherever they are, like the migratory bird who knows direction north-south-east-west, wherever you place them, the one who prays
must orientate themselves. The prayer at the same time each day brings people together it is said ‘to remember their purpose in life’, a reminder of their collective humanity, of their oneness. How do the animals react to this circadian ritual of acousmatic sound?
They join in, and enunciate, in unaccompanied crescendo, needing no
amplification, they do not sing, but they are calling in complete darkness a time when sound carries further and has more agency, they call as one, to whom we do not know, we often discuss the voices of animals but less what they hear, certainly they are hearing, first the azaan, then themselves, then their cacophonous unity, and with that collective sound they supersede the boundaries of their cages, the inhabitants of the wildlife centre making their acoustic footprint larger than the limits of the ones they are able to make in the sand, calling to all free animals, who too join in, sending their sound up like the souls that Persian Sufi poet Jalal aldin Rumi compares often to a bird,
“The soul is like a falcon and the body chains, a slave that’s bound of foot and broken winged.” Mathnawee
Rumi’s spiritual ornithology compares mankind unfavourably to the spirit which is a falcon who would return to the arm of the king, I.e. god, yet humans are only owls. Here in The Capturing of the Falcon Among the Owls in the Wilderness (Mathnawi, book II):
O all you disputatious fowls, be falcons and listen to your royal falcon-drum
From your diversity to unity set out from all directions joyfully!
But most of all it is Rumi’s flute, which resembles the expression of the soul yearning to return to its maker which I hear amongst the animals before dawn, for him it is the throat, the utterance that gives us the link to call to return to the divine, while the voiceless fish (mystics/clergy) who are not able to call out:
Listen to the story told by the reed, of being separated:
“Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source longs to go back.
At any gathering I am there, mingling in the laughing and grieving,
A friend to each, but few will hear the secrets hidden / within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit, spirit up from body: no concealing that mixing. But it’s not given us to see the soul.
The reed flute is fire, not wind. Be that empty.”
Hear the love-fire tangled in the reed notes, as bewilderment melts into wine.
The reed is a friend to all who want the fabric torn and drawn away.
The reed is hurt and salve combining.
Intimacy and longing for intimacy, one song.
A disastrous surrender, and a fine love, together.
The one who secretly hears this is senseless. A tongue has one customer, the ear.
If a sugarcane flute had no effect, it would not have been able to make sugar in the reedbed. Whatever sound it makes is for everyone.
Days full of wanting, let them go bywithout worrying that they do.
Stay where you are, inside such a pure, hollow note.
Every thirst gets satisfied except that of these fish, the mystics, who swim an ocean of grace still somehow longing for it!
No one lives in that without being nourished every day.
But if someone doesn’t want to hear the song of the reed flute, it’s best to cut conversation short, say goodbye, and leave.
To draw from this spiritual take on acoustic ecology, and to conclude our discussion, I quote Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses and ask, if we do not allow natural habitats, and safeguard as much silence as we can, how will our future selves be able to hear these external sounds, linked to them at a fibrous level as we are, let alone our own inner voice (the reed)?
“How empty the world would be without animal sounds. The blackbirds quibbling like druids. Horses galloping on a soft track. The crows, which sound as if they’re choking in the trees. The burbling chickadees hanging upside down from the branches. The elk’s bugling, like the sound of distant war games. The metallic ‘ping’ of nighthawks. The kindergarten band of crickets (from the Old French word criquet ‘to creak’). The electric whine of the hungry female mosquito. The morse code of the red-headed woodpecker.”