Vanishing Soundscapes is a stark but beautiful reminder of the fragility of the urban soundscape

The song of the American Bittern was among the recordings incorporated into Vanishing Soundscapes

According to a recent report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the world’s ecosystem are at an “unprecedented” level of decline. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide,” commented Sir Robert Watson, the IPBES Chair.

The report’s findings are alarming: One million animals and plants are threatened with extinction, among them nearly half of all amphibian species, 10% of insects, and 33% of reef-forming corals; pollution of the oceans has caused the formation of 400 “dead zones” totaling over 245,000 square kilometers; raw timber production has increased by 45% since 1970; and numerous other unsettling statistics.

Prominent among those voices suggesting ways to avert this human-caused destruction is George Monbiot, a weekly columnist for The Guardian and author of books including Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. Monbiot is an ardent supporter of rewilding, the process of ecological restoration through reintroducing species to environments which were once their homes as a means of re-cultivating our natural world, the consequences of which include lowering carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. In a 2013 TED Talk, he discusses, as an example, the catalogue of positive changes that arose when wolves were brought back to Yellowstone National Park. The transition may not even be a shock to the existing ecologies, he details, because in many cases, various instances of support for these long-absent megafaunas may already exists. Consider Europe, where hippopotamuses, lions, and rhinoceroses once roamed. “You can still see the shadows of these great beasts in our current ecosystems,” he observes and details flora whose current forms can be traced back to a time of cohabitation with megafauna, such as the still-thriving deciduous tree species that can survive great bark loss because of a possible adaption caused by European elephants. Yet these visible inscriptions of extinction have not motivated enough people to act.

This failure makes the work of Elitza Koeva (DDes ’21) and Spyridon Ampanavos (DDes ’20) that much more valuable, as it creates an iteration of the shadows to which Monbiot refers—not through visual stimuli but through sound. For the three-day ARTS FIRST Festival held earlier this month, Koeva and Ampanavos designed a four-channel audio installation entitled Vanishing Soundscapes that was affixed to a tree in Harvard Yard. Each speaker played birdsong soundscapes taken from collections of recordings at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which Koeva combined, manipulated, and subtly distorted into 154-second compositions. Each of the 48 birds represented, from the Eastern Meadowlark to the Ovenbird, are species local to the area. In addition, Ampanavos designed an app with which visitors to the tree could scan playing cards bearing the images of the birds and generate their respective soundscape compositions in random combinations, and in unison with anyone else’s devices if they were not using headphones. The app creates a personal aspect to the performance, Koeva says, because through your devices “you become these birds—the sounds we are going to lose.”

By using only species that still exist, the work acts as a cautionary, but not pessimistic, injunction to participants about the precariousness of the these soundscapes.

On the birdsong experienced in Vanishing Soundscapes

Sound and the emotional reactions it can generate might wrest people from the stupor created by the bombardment of negative news, and predominantly visual stimuli, regarding the health of the planet. “There is a lot of information about the consequences of global warming and the rate that our habitats are disappearing, but we are not acknowledging it because we’ve become resilient and numb,” Koeva comments. “I want to address this [issue] in a different way so that it’s more surprising and subtle, that you feel it more deeply. Sound is ephemeral. It’s also a sculpture, with time as a medium.”

A major inspiration throughout Koeva’s oeuvre is composer John Cage. In this piece, she drew on his use of chance operations which allowed her to remove herself from the piece to a great extent and gave her an opportunity to speak with anyone engaging with it. “Some people said that while approaching the site, they could hear sounds and knew something was going on but not what exactly. Then when they approached the tree, they felt they needed to close their eyes,” she recounts. “Some came to meditate. Some returned many times. Many children climbed the tree. On the grass, we put several banana-fiber stools, and people just came to sit on them. With those small interventions, the space become activated.” And humans were not the only animals attracted to the work. “Birds were quite interested and coming to the tree, too.”

While each birdsong that played on Harvard Yard comes from species that are still alive, the actual birds’ absence turned the soundtrack into a haunting soundscape, a ghostly series of calls that both entice us towards a variation of a world that exists while also reminding us of that world’s fragility and impermanence. Another of Koeva’s inspirations, the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, speaks to a phenomenon in cinema that also applies to Vanishing Soundscapes: “As soon as the sounds of the visible world are removed from [film], or that world is filled, for the sake of the image, with extraneous sounds that don’t exist literally, or if the real sounds are distorted so that they no longer correspond with the image—then the film acquires a resonance.”

Koeva’s recordings draw on birdsong captured during multiple times of day, in separate seasons, and from different birds of the same species, all joined together by her in a way that collapses time and space. In this way, the performance is not only evocative but utopic in that it creates, by virtue of sound, a kind of three-dimensional no-place in which these birds seem to thrive. In the future, Koeva says that she might experiment with sounds of birds that have become extinct, which would add another layer of impermanence to the piece. But by using only species that still exist, the work acts as a cautionary, but not pessimistic, injunction to participants about the precariousness of the these soundscapes, and it is up to each person to determine which outcome we will hear in our collective future.

Listen to birdsong field recordings used in Vanishing Soundscapes: