Blogs Field Guide Abigail Anderson

My interests include arts integration, free-choice learning, impractical labor, mindfulness practices, citizen science, and making as discovery. I am also the pioneer practitioner for Open Phenology, an action- and inquiry-based practice centered around witnessing the ecosystem we inhabit and sharing those experiences with others.

Make a Salad, Making a Salad, Made a Salad

“. . . that’s what you’re doing. You’re only making a salad. And these are the best salads.“—Alison Knowles As summer days slip away, perhaps you’re thinking back to your “best salad” of the season. For me, it’s the one documented below, the salad Alison Knowles made for Walker Open Field on July 10. Knowles […]

. . . that’s what you’re doing. You’re only making a salad. And these are the best salads.“—Alison Knowles

As summer days slip away, perhaps you’re thinking back to your “best salad” of the season. For me, it’s the one documented below, the salad Alison Knowles made for Walker Open Field on July 10. Knowles is a founding member of the avant-garde art group Fluxus, and her work is currently on view in the exhibition Art Expanded, 1958–1978. Known for her sound works, installations, performances, and publications, Knowles came to the Walker to present one of her most iconic event scores, Make a Salad. What follows below is a sequence of images and thoughts that long to reinstate the moment itself—the moment when it was happening—when we were only doing what we were doing. Making a salad. The best salad.
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The artist introduces herself and her collaborator, Joshua Selman. A fresh tarp is on the ground. The late afternoon light is soft through overcast skies and it’s pleasant.
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Listen to subtle and sporadic sounds: a recorded voice set in static, silence, the voice again, then the  buzz of an amplified paper shredder. Notice a faint scent as sheets of nori become thin ribbons, slipping into the bowl or drifting to the ground.

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The choppers are ready. The artist signals. The choppers begin.
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Radishes thud as they strike the tarp. Greens, dressed in balsamic vinaigrette, make softer smattering sounds. The artist cuts and reams 3 lemons. She pours the mouth-watering juice over the salad. The citrus scent wafts.
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Helpers toss the salad. The mass of vegetables provides resistance to the rakes. Shovel back and shovel forward.
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Serve a salad. Be served a salad.
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Share a salad. Notice what you’re doing. Remember this for later.

Of course, if I say, “remember a salad,” that’s vastly different from my saying “make a salad.” What remains once the action ends? And how did the artist’s instruction exist before being enacted? These questions point to abstractions: suppositions, ideas, memories, residues. The in-between, while arguably more ephemeral, is less complicated, as Alison Knowles eloquently expresses of her iconic score, Make a Salad:

“. . . that’s what you’re doing. You’re only making a salad. And these are the best salads.”

All photos by Gene Pittman

On Silence, Subjectivity, and Psychoacoustics: A Conversation with Composer and Educator Brian Heller

Now that World Listening Day has come and gone, what are we to do with the remaining 364 days? One suggestion is to take up a listening practice, a routine of setting aside a few minutes each day in which hearing can expand into listening. To enhance my practice, and as an endcap to my […]

Now that World Listening Day has come and gone, what are we to do with the remaining 364 days? One suggestion is to take up a listening practice, a routine of setting aside a few minutes each day in which hearing can expand into listening. To enhance my practice, and as an endcap to my “esteemed listener” interview series, I corresponded with composer and sound arts educator Brian Heller.

In planning the Walker’s recent observance of World Listening Day (WLD), I thought at great length about why listening matters and what we can learn from skilled listeners. From your perspective, what is it about listening—and about our relationship to listening—that merits attention?

More and more, I am of the belief that we need to acknowledge listening as a valid activity unto itself. And then we need to put that into practice. Having a day dedicated to listening encourages us to slow down and take time to experience the process of listening. No matter what you’re listening to (a natural environment, an artificial one, an artistic work, etc.), there is simply no shortcut for taking the time to experience it. WLD is a chance to consider closely our sense of hearing and our perception of sound (two different things). WLD also provides an exchange of ideas that helps us get more out of the listening process.

Speaking of the theoretical side of listening, I’ll mention R. Murray Schafer, a pioneer in the area of sound studies whose birthday is honored on WLD. In Schafer’s endeavor to understand our total sonic environment, he developed “ear cleaning” exercises which train the ears to listen more discriminatingly. Are there acoustic phenomena that for you serve as a baseline to hone your sense of hearing?

I had the pleasure of studying with Schafer for a short time and “ear cleaning” became absolutely essential. In everyday life, I try to be aware of my “noise floor,” to use a technical term from audio engineering, and I prefer it to be quite low. For example, my days of having music on while doing everything stopped some time ago. I gradually became more intentional and purposeful about listening and turned off the running soundtrack. We all know people who have the TV continuously running in the background, and I could never do that. There are many reasons why someone might choose to have the TV on, but I think it’s in part a consequence of the elevated noise-floor we’ve collectively acclimated to in modern life.

Yes, I recently heard someone use the term “hyperdrone” referring to background noise, meaning everything from humming refrigerators to roaring traffic. The value of escaping the hyperdrone and lowering our “noise floor” is beautifully articulated by Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who describes silence as an endangered species.

I definitely try to notice when I’m in a particularly quiet space. It’s not always a place you might expect, so you have to remain open wherever you are. Last winter, my lovely girlfriend and I spent some time in northern California’s Redwood forests. We were hiking amid huge trees and all the other things that live in and around them, appreciating a wonderful variety of noises. But on one particular day, in one particular place, I noticed an amazing silence. I felt like I couldn’t even hear the air! Aside from the few moments I’ve spent in an anechoic chamber, that was easily the deadest silence I’ve experienced. And it was in a place brimming with life.

Do you have a listening regimen that lets you hear with fresh ears?

As an audio engineer, dealing with the problem of a “listening regimen” is tremendous. The collection of habits and practices that address “fresh ears” are among the most important. We know that, for example, when working with recorded music our brains quickly adapt to and accept the sonic qualities of whatever we’re listening to. This means that if we spend about 20 minutes or so really getting into what we’re listening to, we’ll end up thinking it’s the best-sounding thing we’ve ever heard. (I’m talking sonically, not necessarily artistically.) This is just what the brain does. Although there are a few objective measuring tools, it gets very subjective very quickly. One way to stay objective and critical is to employ a set of recordings that are preselected “reality checks” and use these for comparison throughout the process.

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed learning from skilled listeners is how they talk about sound and the vocabulary used to describe sound’s qualities.

The old saying that “talking about music [sound] is like dancing about architecture” seems more and more true to me each day…it’s really tough!

But I’m sure you’ve got a handle on it, as I imagine terminology features prominently in your teaching. One thing I’m curious about: Are there differences between “aural,” “sonic,” and “acoustic”? It seems these words are used interchangeably but I’m sure they denote different things.

You’re correct, although sometimes the context determines meaning. Differentiating the terms (and others that might be used similarly) requires first understanding that there are (at least) 3 different things going on that get us to hear a sound:

  1. The physical fact of the way the air moves in the world (acoustics)

  2. The sensing of that air and its translation to mechanical energy in our ears (aural/sonic)

  3. And then the translation of that motion in our hearing to chemical energy for processing in the brain (psychological or psychoacoustic).

Just like anything else, any time there’s a translation or conversion from one state to another, it gets complicated.

From the standpoint of working with beginning students, I believe they need to re-imagine and then reconnect with sound as its own physical and psychological thing, and not only a carrier for music. This helps build an understanding of the technical vocabulary, which can be quite imposing. Eventually, we can go about connecting that technical language to an aesthetic one. I’ve found a key part of my role in this as a teacher is to show how vocabulary gives us better precision when talking about sound, and how essential that is. From the standpoint of being an audio engineer working with artists, however, subjectivity comes first. Just yesterday I recorded a concert where a very skilled and talented artist was having a problem with her stage monitor and asked for it to sound “more womanly.”  I’ve also been asked, among other things, to make something sound “more chocolate.” It sounds a little strange, but it’s not like there’s an obvious term for what they’re talking about, without having that technical vocabulary. Looking down at the equipment, there’s no “chocolate” knob, so you begin the process of understanding the intention and translating it into something sonic.

The more I continue to learn—especially about psychoacoustics—the more I think humbleness is in order for all of us. If there’s any doubt, question, or opposition, we like to respond definitively with the phrase “I know what I hear.” The truth is that we often don’t. This is innocent enough, because we don’t know that we don’t know. One of the core parts of my job is precisely “to know what I hear.” It’s such a rich area that there are always ways to know *better*, no matter how much you know now.

Language is one tool to describe sound, but there are also notation systems. Have you ever encountered a notation system so unusual or unconventional that it influenced your thoughts about musical performance or composition?

For some reason, I’ve always been attracted to the notational problems of composers. When I was in music school, I spent afternoons in the music library picking out random 20th century music scores that looked like they might be interesting. I wound up getting a great deal out of this, in part because it led me to see that all composers must not only have sounds in mind, but also must solve the grand problem of communicating physical instructions to let those sounds come into existence. When it comes to notation, some rather fearless models are out there which encouraged me to do whatever best gets the message across and to be open to whatever that solution looks like.

I also considered how composers use notation to get across (what I would call) different layers of meanings in their work. For example, I saw that in George Crumb, although sometimes the actual staff notation was not terribly unconventional, his layouts conveyed conceptual and symbolic aspects that might otherwise go unnoticed. I also saw smaller things Crumb did that improve clarity when one reads over a score to find relationships tying together disparate parts. In contrast to Crumb’s detailed work necessitating precise notation and complex techniques, you have Herbert Brun and John Cage using graphic devices that intentionally circumvent the ‘need’ for composer-determined precision. Some of the resulting notation systems look nothing like a conventional musical score, but get at the essence of what a score is: a practical tool to get the intended sound into the air.

World Listening Day 2013 at the Walker Art Center

World Listening Day 2013 at the Walker Art Center

Brian Heller is an artist and technician who approaches composition, recording, and education with a unique blend of skills. Since graduating from The Hartt School, he has been working as a freelance composer, recording engineer, and educator in both the public and private sectors. This has included work for Minnesota Public Radio, Antenna Audio Tours, Innova Records, Line 6, Zeitgeist, and numerous independent composers and performers. He has also published reviews and feature stories for Electronic Musician magazine, and held senior staff engineering positions at The Banff Centre, the Tanglewood Music Center, and the Aspen Music Festival and School. His compositional activities have included grants and commissions from several organizations, and performances and broadcasts across the United States, Canada, and the Czech Republic. He currently directs the Sound Arts program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

Reverberations of World Listening Day

Last Thursday was World Listening Day (WLD), an occasion to slow down and appreciate the complexity of listening. In the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, listeners withstood the heat and basked in refreshing sounds: fountain water, wind gusts, and conversations brimming with ideas being exchanged. Here are four of my take-aways from the Walker’s WLD2013: Tuning an […]

Last Thursday was World Listening Day (WLD), an occasion to slow down and appreciate the complexity of listening. In the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, listeners withstood the heat and basked in refreshing sounds: fountain water, wind gusts, and conversations brimming with ideas being exchanged. Here are four of my take-aways from the Walker’s WLD2013:

Tuning an instrument can be a metaphysical process.

Photo: Gene Pittman

Artist Philip Blackburn explains his Wind Harps to intern Katherine Lee. Photo: Gene Pittman

In beating sun and gusting winds, artist Philip Blackburn installed his Wind Harps. Throughout the evening, these five vertically oriented instruments provided subtle, eery sounds for the patient and attentive listener. In the process of assembling the instruments and tightening their fishing line harp strings, an intern asked exactly how they were tuned. Blackburn’s response was that it is more a metaphysical process than a strictly musical process. It involves adjusting the harps in response to the specific environment and conditions.

Listening is deeply personal.

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The Sculpture Garden on a summer evening, World Listening Day. Photo: Gene Pittman

As the sun neared the horizon and the heat relented, independent acts of listening were amplified by Soniferous Garden, a free leaflet created by artist Viv Corringham. Months earlier in the planning process, when I asked Corringham if she might prepare written instructions for listening, she replied that the instructions are really quite simple: resolve not to speak and open your ears to listening. From Corrinham’s perspective, what’s interesting about listening is not the “how to” but rather the “what then?” Corringhams’ contribution encouraged reflective listening and contemplation of sound’s role in memory, subjectivity, and experience.

Humans are not the only listeners.

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Participants at “The Ear of the Beholder” activity. Photo: Gene Pittman

What if you could try on another animal’s ears and listen to the world from that animal’s aural perspective? At World Listening Day, participants could do just that at “The Ear of the Beholder,” an activity led by biologists Mark Bee and Norman Lee. Using pop songs as a starting point, this activity led me to re-consider our sonic environment. Our soundscape is not inconsequential or purely incidental. Rather, embedded in the noise are abundant signals, many of which are inaudible or unintelligible to human ears. Imagine the diversity of organisms that, like humans, contribute to and depend on the soundscape for survival.

There are no limits to listening.

Participants at the “Mindful Soundwalk” activity. Photo: Gene Pittman

With gently closed eyes or a soft gaze, listeners opened themselves up to the full experience of receiving sonic information. Mark Nunberg, guiding teacher at the Common Ground Meditation Center, led listeners on a mindful soundwalk through the Sculpture Garden. Nunberg commented that there’s really no end to our capacity to explore and be receptive to our sonic environment. A listening practice is something one can return to again and again, at any point in time and in any setting.

Enjoy the listening.

Listening, Online and Off, with Sound Designer Mike Hallenbeck

The sonic power of phone books. The realm of the acousmatic. Binaural bicycle rides. These are a few of the concepts that came up in my correspondence with sound designer Mike Hallenbeck. With the Walker’s public observance of World Listening Day about 1 week away, my investigation into aural attention continues. As I gather insights […]

World Listening Day 2013 at the Walker Art Center

World Listening Day 2013 at the Walker Art Center

The sonic power of phone books. The realm of the acousmatic. Binaural bicycle rides. These are a few of the concepts that came up in my correspondence with sound designer Mike Hallenbeck. With the Walker’s public observance of World Listening Day about 1 week away, my investigation into aural attention continues. As I gather insights on listening from professional listeners in our community, I appreciated the opportunity to bend Hallenbeck’s ears for a few questions.

Mike, your writings and audiocraft emphasize sound’s profound variety, its function as a wordless language, and its influence on the imagination. Reflecting on your experiences, what listening prompts would you propose for World Listening Day to facilitate discovery through listening?

I suppose the thing is simply to ask oneself: “What do I hear?” Learn to break down what you’re hearing. What’s happening in high frequencies, mid-range, and lower frequencies? What’s tonal, what’s rhythmic, what’s harmonic? (Any soundscape, from a symphony to a forest to a racetrack, will usually include these elements.) How dense is it? How sparse? Where are things located in the stereo or surround field? What’s happening that you like, and what do you wish was different? This sort of question—”What does it sound like?”—might sound overly simple, but I find it to be central in sound practice. It helps determine how to appreciate and improve sound/music that you’re creating or evaluating, and helps one to respond to the world at large.

But the obvious rejoinder—and one I agree with—is that this isn’t an approach exclusive to sound, or indeed to any sense. Lately I’m asking myself more about the conversation between sound and vision, and to tell you the truth that’s something I’m still exploring in a very elemental sense. I work more and more with sound that responds to and collaborates with visual and/or narrative elements, so these days I’m far more concerned with the interaction of the senses than with sound on its own. To me the important thing is to cultivate a sense of awareness that involves all the senses, incorporating listening into one’s overall practice of mindfulness.

That makes sense—the integration of sound and sight are key to your work as a Foley artist. Like trompe-l’œil for the ear, Foley artists add sounds to recorded media that seem naturalistic but are in fact an artifice. Can you describe a surprising method or material you’ve encountered in Foley art?

Lately I’ve been pondering the unexpected sonic power of the phone book. When I did one of my first Foley assignments for film, I looked up some how-to videos online to figure out how to fake the sound of a punch. I found a video made by an eleven-year-old where he demonstrated how to replicate a punch sound by closing a phone book really hard. It didn’t work for the entire sound—I wound up mixing in a vocalization to add a little sharpness—but it got me pretty far along.

Recently I attended a panel discussion by some Foley artists where two of them shared techniques on how to simulate bodily impacts on a floor surface (other than throwing yourself on the floor, which I can confirm gets old real quick). Both suggested an article of clothing (one a leather jacket, the other some coveralls), but both recommended filling said clothing with—that’s right—phone books. So the idea’s got legs.

I’m looking forward to furthering my phone book savvy soon. I just hope they don’t stop making them, or else I’ll have to start using Henry James novels.

Speaking of books, your “Audiobook” posts on your Synching Ship blog resonate with me. Would you be able to suggest a reading along those aurally attuned lines for World Listening Day?

Sound is really hard to describe using language, but it can be done. Usually I’ll come across a deft description of sound only here and there in books, and the “audiobook” feature is a way to share it with others and (just as importantly) to remember it myself.

Something that comes to mind is “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier. The descriptions of music performance (the stuff performed by Jack White and company in the movie) are some of the most eloquent I’ve ever encountered. I recall “Company” by Samuel Beckett having some nice descriptions of quiet, subtle sounds, but that’s kind of a vague memory.

In your day-to-day appreciation of all things aural, especially environmental sounds, have you been earwitness to sounds that might be disappearing from our soundscape?

My own day-to-day is fairly banal, so I wouldn’t say there’s much change there. But the demands of consumer society appear to be destroying habitats of many species at a pretty rapid clip, which will silence a lot of creatures’ calls as they go extinct. Bioacousticians like Bernie Krause have demonstrated how nature’s sonic identity has been altered as human-made sounds intrude on the frequency spectrum.

I’m doing what I can to address the problem by typing a bunch of words on a computer screen.

The impact of human noise on the wild soundscape is a fascinating topic. In the Sculpture Garden, for example, birds might be developing an urban dialect and the chattering red squirrels are absent since their extirpation in 1909. Take a sonic snapshot of your environment right now. What sounds are you perceiving and are there any special meanings you make of them?

Unfortunately right now I’m listening to Pandora; I’ve created a station that will generate music choices extrapolated from the music of The Shadows. So far I’ve gotten The Esquires, Junior Brown, Link Wray, The Blue Stingrays, and Santo & Johnny (it turns out their track “Sleep Walk” is something I’ve wanted to know the name of for years). I imagine that’s not the kind of answer you were looking for though…

You’re right that I was “looking for” environmental sounds, but your answer aptly demonstrates the contemporary listener’s condition. We are constantly toggling back and forth between mediated and unmediated sound worlds, awash in a mix of “original” and “reproduced” sounds. For me, this calls to mind the work of R. Murray Schafer, the sound researcher whose birthday is honored by World Listening Day. Schafer examined how the Industrial and Electric Ages revolutionized our relationship to listening. He coined the term “schizophonia” to describe the split between original sounds and their copies. From your perspective, what is the delineation between original sounds and electroacoustic reproductions? Could there even be sounds that don’t easily fall into one category or the other?

The light rail train offers a nice example of schizophonia—the train emits electronically sampled sounds of the warning bells at a railroad stop, and—if memory serves—the whistle of a steam locomotive. It’s easy to assume these sounds are produced by actual physical processes, but in fact they’re “fake”. All that matters is that we get the message to be careful in the train’s vicinity.

Yes, a sort of sonic pastiche. The signals’ function is to be interpreted without hesitation, but when we pause to listen, there’s a more complex story behind them.

I guess what we’re talking about here is the realm of the “acousmatic”—an experience of sound merely as a reproduction through speakers, especially when it’s something created electronically in the first place (as with synthesizers, sampled drum loops and the like). The auto-tuned voice comes to mind—it’s gotten to the point where it’s not just an effect in pop and R&B anymore, but just, you know, kind of how voices are expected to sound, like it’s something singers learn as part of their vocal training. It makes me wonder how many people have portrayed Alvin and the Chipmunks over the years—since all you have to do is speed up somebody’s voice, it could be anybody.

It’s odd how technologies like that lose their novelty as we assimilate them into our sonic vocabulary. I’m curious if you can you offer some ways that the Internet has changed our relationship to listening? (For one thing, without the Internet, we’d never have your riotously funny (and schizophonic?) Rickroll chronicle.)

The Internet is a huge topic, since it manifests itself in so many ways. The first thing that comes to mind for me is that it’s ratcheted down appreciation of sound quality. Lo-fi is a new standard in video, and there have been studies that show younger people often prefer mp3s encoded at degraded bit rates to high-resolution audio. Ick.

However, the Internet has been huge in terms of transforming sound practice for the better. I’ll focus on the community-building aspect, which is pretty much universal for any group but has dovetailed especially nicely with sound art. Back before I did anything “practical” with sound, I had no idea just how many people out there were also interested in capturing audio signals “in the field” and curating concrete sounds as art. When I became aware of resources like the phonography listserv I discovered all these other folks out there who were into the same kind of stuff, all over the world—a small community, but a vibrant one. This led to the discovery of all this history, methodology, theory, technical advice, opportunity to share work… you name it. The floodgates opened. It was really transformative.

Your blog curates and draws attention to the language of sounds, sometimes foregrounding sounds produced for effect such as the blat, the beep, the artificial water tank, or Google-translated beatboxing. But you also unplug from time to time and listen to the world of “unmediated sounds.” Along those lines, how would you explore the Twin Cities to get a sense of its sonic texture?

I’d recommend a bike ride around Minneapolis in the summer. One of the things I like about biking is that while you’re traveling relatively quickly, which can be exhilarating, you’re not encased in anything and you’re traveling slowly enough to experience sensory intimacy with your surroundings. I like the crunches and crashes of the recycling stations I pass on North Second Street. When I pass the Metrodome there are sometimes kids skateboarding, and I love all the pock-crack impacts skateboards make. And generally speaking, the tactile crunch and grind of the bike tire against the street is pleasing to my ear as well.

Sure—like a soundwalk but on wheels rather than foot! One of my favorite Synching Ship posts was your binaural bike ride from Easter 2011. It’s delightful and demonstrative of how sounds ground our awareness in time and in space.

Mike Hallenbeck Photo: Amy Myrbo

Mike Hallenbeck is a composer and sound designer active in a variety of media. He adopts sounds both hither and yon, brings them home and helps them decide what to be when they grow up. He blogs at synchingship.blogspot.com and maintains a home page at juniorbirdman.com.

Radio Producer as Earwitness: MPR’s Marc Sanchez on World Listening Day

Hearing is a sense. Listening is a skill. Attention is the catalyst that transforms hearing into listening. Just like any skill, our listening skills can be cultivated to approach excellence, and doing so requires a great deal of attention. In planning the Walker’s observance of World Listening Day on July 18, I turned to esteemed […]

World Listening Day 2013 at the Walker Art Center

World Listening Day 2013 at the Walker Art Center

Hearing is a sense. Listening is a skill. Attention is the catalyst that transforms hearing into listening. Just like any skill, our listening skills can be cultivated to approach excellence, and doing so requires a great deal of attention. In planning the Walker’s observance of World Listening Day on July 18, I turned to esteemed listeners in our community to get their take on aural attention. I corresponded with Marc Sanchez, a radio producer from Minnesota Public Radio, who shares his insights into listening for meaning, listening for a living, and listening for listening’s sake.

Marc, you started Minnesota Sounds, a project on Minnesota Public Radio that captures our state from an audio perspective. What was the most surprising Minnesota sound you’ve experienced?

Probably the most surprising sound came from the Stillwater lift bridge. There’s lots of traffic noise zooming back and forth, and the sound of warning bells clanging is constant as the bridge gets ready to be raised. That’s kind of what I expected to hear. What caught me off guard were the creaking, sticky sounds of the bridge itself. Grease is piled on to the thick girders that act as guides for the bridge to slide up and down. You can hear it at around 1:30 into this recording.

How about the most moving or evocative sound?

I don’t remember how I first heard about the chimes at St. Olaf College in Northfield, but their story is pretty powerful. Suspended in a timber-framed tower built by faculty members, the chimes are prominently featured in the main walkway through campus. The project began after the 2003 school year, when five students in that graduating class died before completing their studies. Each chime represents a student’s life that was lost since that time.

World Listening Day takes place on the birthday of R. Murray Schafer, a composer and sound researcher who coined the term “soundmark.” Derived from the word landmark, “soundmark” refers to a community sound which is unique and held in special regard by the people in that community. If you were to design an aural tour of Minnesota, what soundmarks would you include?

1. For some historical perspective, following the Dakota 38 + 2 memorial ride each December from Lower Brule, South Dakota, to Mankato, Minnesota.

2. Cracking ice is quintessential Minnesota. You can hear it everywhere, and it’s the kind of sound that becomes more distinct as you become more still.

3. Ships in Duluth. I moved here from California, where the ocean was a fixture I took for granted. Listening to the waves of Lake Superior lap against the shore brings that back for me.

4. The Sky Pesher. Walk across the grass from the World Listening Day event in the Sculpture Garden and immerse yourself in this installation. My colleague Rob Byers did a fantastic job of capturing Cantus performing here.

5. The State Fair is an explosion of sounds. My tip: get there as early as possible. That way your ears don’t have too many competing sounds to deal with.

Have you been earwitness to sounds that might be disappearing from our soundscape?

In a way, I suppose. Frogs at Carlos Avery [Wildlife Management Area] haven’t exactly disappeared, but their counts are being closely monitored by the DNR. The steam engines in Rollag will probably always provide a way for people to connect with the past, even if the present and future wants to run on clean energy. The fog horn that you can still hear at the Split Rock Lighthouse is only a pre-recorded replica of the original, which was taken out of commission in the 1960’s.

What about exciting new sonic phenomena on our horizon?

To my ears, there are always new sounds to hear or old sounds to hear in a new way — you just have to stop and listen.

Yes, speaking of stopping and listening, Schafer also talks about exercises to achieve “clear hearing,” or “clairaudience.” Are there acoustic phenomena that for you serve as a kind of “tuning fork” or baseline to hone your sense of hearing?

I have more of a relaxation technique than a tuning fork. It’s OK to close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and try to empty your mind of distractions. You’ll be surprised at how differently you start hearing the world after a minute or two.

Marc Sanchez making a field recording of a tiger

Marc Sanchez making a field recording of a tiger. Photo: Tom Weber

Take a sonic snapshot of your environment right now. What sounds are you perceiving, and are there any special meanings you make of them?

Newsroom chatter of editors and reporters talking through a story… Keyboards clicking… The hum of my hard drives… A squeaky door. For me, these sounds get interesting when I look out the window at the bright sunshine and a summer shower. I’d really rather be listening to the rain splat on the sidewalk.

What sound gave you the most challenging pursuit to record?

Probably the biggest challenge was overcoming my nerves and climbing into a pen that housed a pack of wolves. I’d been hearing their howls and observing them all morning, when Peggy Callahan from the Wildlife Science Center in Columbus, Minnesota, invited me to get up close and personal. There’s nothing like standing in the middle of a wolf pack as they run around, growling at their meal. Luckily, that meal consisted of rabbits being tossed into their pen and not me.

Do you have a listening regimen either in the field or when you edit a radio piece that lets you hear with fresh ears?

I like to hear pieces that I mix in multiple environments whenever possible. So, I might mix something by watching my level meters and listening on headphones, then move to a studio where I can listen through speakers. I also mix a lot of dialogue, so natural rhythms and breathing patterns in speech become important. I like to think of myself as a conductor when I’m mixing a story. My goal is to have everything sound so natural that you forget I was ever involved.

In Minnesota Sounds, you’ve encouraged listeners to submit environmental recordings with stories. What advice would you have for an eager and curious pair of ears, someone new to the all-encompassing aspects of listening?

These days there are so many devices for us to record with, so I would really encourage people to not feel like they have to wait for top notch recording gear. That said, if you’re going to use your smartphone, for example, try and monitor what you’re recording with headphones. And even better, use a pair of headphones that are closed-backed — in other words, not ear buds. Headphones will really allow you to hear what’s going to be on the final product. They’ll also let you hear when there’s a lot of unwanted wind noise, volume clipping (distortion), or handling noise (when your mic picks up unwanted sounds like your hands knocking into it or a table being bumped).

Being part of a community like the folks at World Listening Day or Transom, if you’re into radio, is a great motivator too. However fun your experience might be, going out to a remote area with a pair of headphones and a mic can be an isolating experience. Listening to other people’s sounds and stories helps to remind me I’m not alone out there.

Marc Sanchez is the producer and director for MPR News’ weekday program, The Daily Circuit. He has worked on a number of different American Public Media-distributed programs, like Marketplace Tech Report, Weekend America, American RadioWorks, and On Being with Krista Tippett. His radio career began working for Joe Frank and on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic. He has helped produce and report stories for This American Life, Freakonomics, and Soundprint, among others. In 2010, Sanchez started a project called Minnesota Sounds (now Minnesota Sounds and Voices), which captures Minnesota, from an audio perspective. You can also hear him as a monthly DJ on MPR News’ sister station, The Current, where he helps showcase homegrown talent on the Local Current stream.

A Listening Experiment

What would a scientist who studies hearing have to say on the subject of listening? I took the opportunity to find out as part of my planning for World Listening Day, a public program happening in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden this July. On World Listening Day (WLD), listening for listening’s sake is celebrated across the […]

What would a scientist who studies hearing have to say on the subject of listening? I took the opportunity to find out as part of my planning for World Listening Day, a public program happening in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden this July.

On World Listening Day (WLD), listening for listening’s sake is celebrated across the globe. Here at the Walker, a public observance of WLD will explore the soundscape of the Sculpture Garden. Typically, the Garden’s horticulture, sculptures, wildlife, and of course people-watching are perceived visually. WLD is a chance to attend to a different sensory modality and become immersed in the wonders of aural experience. In planning the Walker’s WLD, I’ve probed listening from a variety of angles—music, science, history, memory, and mindfulness to name just a few. Given WLD’s emphasis on environmental sounds and soundscape ecology, I set out to connect with people who not only thought about sound in a human context, but also considered the sonic lives of other animals. Enter Dr. Mark Bee.

Or rather, I entered his office. My hope: to borrow some ideas from his Animal Communications Lab and apply them in the Garden. But how? Over the course of our conversation, it became clear that Dr. Bee and his colleague Dr. Norman Lee would approach this question with playful creativity, a willingness to experiment, and a sense of humor. I hope you’ll join us on Thursday, July 18 to hear the entire story. Dr. Bee and Dr. Lee will be in the Foraging Circle  with a playlist of listening experiments that get us thinking about the ear of the beholder. For a sound clip, click this image to view a short video:salmon listen to Beyonce

World Listening Day features a variety of activities, all designed to motivate discovery through listening. Be an earwitness to music as it’s coaxed from the invisible by musician and composer Philip Blackburn. Contemplate the connections between listening and mindfulness on a Garden soundwalk led by Mark Nunberg, guiding teacher at Common Ground Meditation Center. Or pick up The Soniferous Garden, a pamphlet offering a number of self-paced aural experiences written by artist Viv Corringham.

Phenology Report: The Future Generation of American Toads

Phenology doesn’t take a vacation, but I do. But before this Phenologist-in-Residence migrates north for two weeks of relaxation, I wanted to share this video chronology. I believe these are American Toads and for now they live in the pond near Spoonbridge and Cherry. Will they hop away before my return in July? And what […]

Phenology doesn’t take a vacation, but I do. But before this Phenologist-in-Residence migrates north for two weeks of relaxation, I wanted to share this video chronology. I believe these are American Toads and for now they live in the pond near Spoonbridge and Cherry. Will they hop away before my return in July? And what other day-by-day changes will transform the Sculpture Garden & Open Field?

May 15:

May 21:

May 25:

June 8:

June 12:


In conjunction with Open Field, I’ll be posting a series of reports that examine Open Field and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden through the lens of phenology. The lens of what now? Phenology refers to recurring life cycle stages, such as leafing and flowering, emergence of insects, and migration of birds. As an amateur naturalist and the Open Field Phenologist-in-Residence, it’s my privilege to observe, document, and share the sequence of natural events as it unfolds on the Walker campus. Read the Twitter chronicle so far @OpenPhenology: twitter.com/openphenology.

Phenology Report: Know Your Grackle Vernacular

There’s such a flurry of spring phenomena that it can be tricky picking a focus. But bird behavior is as good a place to start as anywhere. Morning visitors to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden will witness the heavy air traffic of Common Grackles frequenting the muddy low waters near Spoonbridge and Cherry. Watch the video […]

Common Grackles, still from YouTube video by NovaScotiaNature

There’s such a flurry of spring phenomena that it can be tricky picking a focus. But bird behavior is as good a place to start as anywhere. Morning visitors to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden will witness the heavy air traffic of Common Grackles frequenting the muddy low waters near Spoonbridge and Cherry. Watch the video below and tell me that soggy clump of plant matter doesn’t look perfect for building a nest!

The grande allée’s arbor vitae and linden trees are abuzz with grackles calling and strutting. And if you’re lucky, you might witness a pair of Common Grackles performing a courtship dance!


In conjunction with Open Field, I’ll be posting a series of reports that examine Open Field and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden through the lens of phenology. The lens of what now? Phenology refers to recurring life cycle stages, such as leafing and flowering, emergence of insects, and migration of birds. As an amateur naturalist and the Open Field Phenologist-in-Residence, it’s my privilege to observe, document, and share the sequence of natural events as it unfolds on the Walker campus.

If you’re interested in more local phenological phenomena, visit openphenology.blogspot.com. Or to learn more about the science of phenology, check out the National Phenology Network and the Minnesota Phenology Network.

Phenology Report: It’s All about Appearances

Many of us are especially aware of the natural world come spring, when new things show up every day. It’s apt, then, that the word “phenology” comes from the Greek word phaino, meaning to show or appear. Last week, my friend Rachel and I noticed little pink and yellow cones adorning the boughs of the […]

Many of us are especially aware of the natural world come spring, when new things show up every day. It’s apt, then, that the word “phenology” comes from the Greek word phaino, meaning to show or appear. Last week, my friend Rachel and I noticed little pink and yellow cones adorning the boughs of the pine trees. I reached out and was taken by surprise by the appearance of pollen!


In conjunction with Open Field, I’ll be posting a series of reports that examine Open Field and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden through the lens of phenology. The lens of what now? Phenology refers to recurring life cycle stages, such as leafing and flowering, emergence of insects, and migration of birds. As an amateur naturalist and the Open Field Phenologist-in-Residence, it’s my privilege to observe, document, and share the sequence of natural events as it unfolds on the Walker campus.

If you’re interested in more local phenological phenomena, visit openphenology.blogspot.com. Or to learn more about the science of phenology, check out the National Phenology Network and the Minnesota Phenology Network.

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