Everyday Sounds Are Music to Prof’s Ears

New DVD features environmental soundscapes

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Prof. James Harley

Prof. James Harley

Prof. James Harley is hoping his new DVD will not only make us stop and listen to the everyday sounds around us, but also inspire us to appreciate and protect them.

The School of Fine Art and Music professor has been working on a compilation of musical pieces that combine environmental sounds such as chirping birds, blowing wind and footsteps with a flute played by former U of G professor Ellen Waterman.

Although this may sound like the calming music you might find on a relaxation CD, it’s far from it. The duo call themselves ~SPIN~, and their music is performed with an improvisational, experimental and technological twist.

“We are not trying to be realistic,” says Harley, who has been creating music for years as a composer. “It’s familiar sounds put in an unusual context. We are targeting people who are interested in innovative music. Our music is like listening to a live experiment, which is pretty special.”

Each piece has been recorded in U of G’s new Advanced Digital Audio Production and Performance Studio (ADAPPS) located in the basement of Alexander Hall. This state-of-the-art digital audio facility gives creative researchers an opportunity to experiment and learn new techniques for this type of “performative” music.

The studio has eight loud speakers strategically placed in a circle with a high-tech computer and control board. With this technology, Harley is able to manipulate the sounds played by Waterman on the flute as she is playing them. Using different techniques, he delays, loops, echoes or changes the pitch or sound quality of the notes she plays. He can also spatialize her sound, moving it around to different speakers while she is playing.

“She is improvising on the flute and I am improvising on the computer,” says Harley. “Nothing is written down, so each musical piece is never the same. We are essentially reacting to one another. If she plays something, it will trigger me to respond and vice versa. It means you have to listen really closely to what the other person is doing.”

Their musical performances are created to be heard through DVD on a surround-sound system or home theatre system, allowing the listener to be fully immersed in a live performance, adds Harley.

He also mixed environmental sounds into their improvised music by recording most of the sounds himself with a surround-sound microphone. Adding these environmental noises helps take the listener to the scene, whether it’s the sounds you hear while sitting in a forest by a stream or walking on the pavement on a windy day.

“When you listen to sounds, it puts you there,” says Harley. “Sound is inherently immersive.”

But more importantly, Harley is hoping that by including these natural sounds he will spur listeners to take notice of the noises around them.

“Ears are amazing instruments,” he says. “We used to use our ears to listen for predators. We would hear something coming up behind us before we would see it. But we have lost a lot of that ability because we have become so used to our eyes being our main sense.”

Not only have we stopped relying on our ears to take in information, but we are also creating our own soundscapes that block out the natural noise around us, he adds.

“People walk around now with earplugs in their ears,” says Harley. “They don’t know what is going on around them. I think we have started to block sounds out because the world is too noisy, but by doing this we are also cutting ourselves off.”

By incorporating sounds from nature, Harley hopes to remind people of the enjoyable sounds that exist in our environment.

“I am trying to build environmental awareness,” he says. “Our environmental soundscapes are disappearing. I think it’s important to draw attention to these soundscapes and help people realize that they are special. Perhaps I can even inspire people to want to protect these soundscapes.”