River listening – there’s more to rivers than meets the eye

“We live in a visual world”. Not the words you’d expect from a musician and music technology lecturer like Dr Toby Gifford. Apt words, however, for how we think about rivers – images of turbulent flood or calm reflective surfaces at sunset. But what of the sounds of rivers? What can sound tell us about rivers, does sound have an intrinsic value, and how can it inspire us?

Listening to our environment is not new. Bioacoustics or the sounds produced by or affecting living organisms, has been around since the second part of the twentieth century*. Some well known examples are the identification of birds by their call and the use of whale song as a tool for their study and to be enjoyed as music. But these are merely the “charismatic megafauna” of acoustic ecology—there’s a lot more to hear in the environment.

Flinders River, Queensland at sunset. We often think of rivers in visual terms. Photo by Jon Marshall, courtesy of TRaCK.

Flinders River, Queensland at sunset. We often think of rivers in visual terms. Photo by Jon Marshall, courtesy of TRaCK.

Soundscapes encompass the entire acoustic perception of an environment, created by all the sounds generated by the elements that compose it.*Aquatic environments provide a rich opportunity for exploring soundscapes as they can reveal the hidden world beneath the water surface.Underwater microphones (hydrophones) pick up the grunts of fish (listen to the fork-taiked catfish in the soundfile below), the clicks of crustaceans, and the roar of boat engine noise.

The fork tailed catfish (Neoarius graeffi) makes an oinking sound. Photo courtesy CSIRO.

The fork tailed catfish (Neoarius graeffi) makes an oinking sound. Photo courtesy CSIRO.

So what sort of people are sticking hydrophones in rivers? Well, scientists for a start. Monitoring rivers usually involves collecting animals which can be difficult and harmful to the creatures involved. If we can identify the unique sound that a species makes, we can identify what’s living in rivers by listening to them. Some research has even suggested that more diverse soundscapes are associated with more diverse habitats.

Artists are also interested in listening to rivers. Dr Leah Barclay , a composer, sound artist and creative producer is partnering with the Australian Rivers Institute (ARI) to explore new methods for acoustically monitoring three Queensland river systems.

Leah, Toby and Dr Simon Linke (a freshwater ecologist from ARI) did a test run of live streaming river soundscapes by listening to the Thames earlier this year.  “We were a bit shocked by how intense the sonic environment is”  commented Toby and Leah,as their hydrophones near London Bridge picked up the roar of boat traffic in the busy city river. But they also heard the sounds of fish and shrimp in amongst the human-generated noise.

Leah Barclay listening to the Thames. Photo by S. Linke.

Leah Barclay listening to the Thames. Photo by S. Linke.

Artists like Leah take a compositional approach to river soundscapes, composing pieces based on environmental sounds. Her work also involves collaborating with communities who live along rivers. One of her projects took her to the Narmada River in India which has been dammed for water and electricity supply. When Leah walked across one of the dam walls with her hydrophone she said “the river was silent, I could hear my footsteps on the wall and that was quite eerie”.

Leah’s view is that creating art from river sounds is both a tool for community empowerment and cultural change. Scientists like Simon recognise perceiving rivers in different ways can help them monitor and understand them. River listening, artists working with scientists – sounds like something we should be doing more of.

Material sourced

* Pavan, B.G. and U. Pavia, (2008) Short field course on bioacoustics. http://atbi.eu/summerschool/files/summerschool/Pavan_Syllabus.pdf

Soundscape Ecology: The Science of Sound in the Landscape. By B.C. Pijanowski, L.J. Villanueva-Rivera, S.L. Dumyahn, A. Farina, B.L. Krause, B.M. Napoletano, S.H. Gage, and N. Pieretti. BioScience 2011, 61(3) 203-216.

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