Listening to Earth

A 12-channel spatial installation exploring inter-tidal zones in New South Whales, Australia | Installed at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney | Presented at Performers(‘) Present Artistic Research Symposium, Singapore

What emerges if we understand sound and the knowledge held within sound to be both a medium of transmission and a vessel for the storage of more-than-human memories? Listening to Earth explores this question as a research collaboration and immersive sensory sound installation led by sound studies scholar Diana Chester and composer Damien Ricketson.

Listening to Earth is focused on listening, connecting, and understanding our environment through the medium of sound. We hope to gain new insights into sound as both a medium of transmission and a vessel of knowledge for the storage of more-than-human memories. The project is framed from the perspective of posthumanism, which no longer assumes an anthropocentric orientation to truth; draws on the practice of ‘Deep Listening’, as espoused by  Pauline Oliveros’s embracing notions of “radical attentiveness” and “listening as activism”, and positions the process as a dialogic language, drawing upon Bilge Merve Aktas and Maarit Mäkelä, in which the earth is recognised as a collaborator. We hypothesize that sound has the capacity to tell us more than we have previously considered possible, that the earth has stored vibrational memory and tells stories, and that through communing with the vibrations and sounds of the earth we can begin to better understand what it has to say.

Our chosen sites of ‘listening to earth’ have been coastal foreshore areas in south-eastern Australia: specifically intertidal zones vulnerable to rising sea levels and where the geophony of land, sea and air meet in dynamic conversation. Our approach to listening to earth has involved an experimental process of deploying instruments – instruments that measure as well as musical instruments that give voice to the earth – as a method of hearing what may sit beyond our usual modes of perception. In addition to microphones, we have made extensive use of hydrophones that listen through the medium of water, as well as geophones that catch the low frequency world of seismic vibrations beneath our feet. We have also built our own instruments in the tradition of aeolian harps – including a string-based design and a speculative pipe-based design that we called a ‘sonovane’ intended to sonify wind direction as well as intensity.

The sound installation recomposes recorded sounds and brings them into a controlled exhibition space to promote multi-sensorial deep and engaged listening. Audiences are immersed in the sounds of the intertidal environment via an enveloping spatial experience in heightened detail. Gently traversing strata of air, water and land, participants are invited to sit or lie on benches through which low frequency seismic vibrations gently pummel the benches to augment the experience and enable listening with the full body.

Different from the human centric approach to storytelling and composing that we are familiar with, we have attempted to blur the boundaries of what is human and more-than-human in favor of new knowledge creation. Listening to the Earth treats the environment itself as a knowledge holder, and the techniques for listening to the earth as collaborators who are engaged in dialogic exchange through methods and processes. Our aim was for this research to contribute to new environmental storytelling. And for the methods, recordings, compositions, and textual outputs to become part of a discourse that is happening right now about how to listen to the environment, and what we can learn from it.

This project has been supported by the Sydney Environment Institute through a Collaborative Research Fellowship in 2023

Installation & Field Images

Listening to Earth Spatial Soundscape

The following are short excerpts from the Listening to Earth spatial soundscape.