A Crushing Embrace With The Earth: Ecological Sound In 2015

Against the backdrop of climate and ecological crisis, argues Rory Gibb in our latest Wreath Lecture, much of this year's best music has deeply considered our complex relationships with our world and each other

The COP21 climate conference in Paris is just warming up as I sit down to write this, and it has never been more urgent for the international community to agree on legally binding targets for drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The Met Office recently announced that 2015 is set to be the warmest year on record by a significant margin, driven by the combined effects of human-induced climate change and the current huge El Niño event in the Pacific. Mere days later, in the UK the Conservative government made ever-clearer its contempt for planetary health by cancelling £1bn of ringfenced investment in carbon capture and storage technologies and slashing home energy-efficiency funding. Coming after its year of repeatedly hacking away at funding for renewable energy, it all makes rather a mockery of David Cameron’s blustery tough-talk ("What we are looking at is not difficult, it is doable, and therefore we should do it") during COP21’s opening speeches.

Looking at the relationships both among humans and between humans and the rest of nature, this year it’s been hard to escape from what often feels like a pretty bleak picture. With the planet already in the midst of a human-caused crisis of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, the headlines in 2015 have often felt like bitter icing on the cake. They’ve been dominated by events that render obselete any distinctions between so-called natural and societal phenomena. The devastating forest fires burning out of control in Indonesia and the Amazon, razing ecosystems and damaging human health. A fascinating debate over the involvement of climate change in present-day and likely future human migration, including a much-discussed research paper claiming climate as a contributing factor in Syria’s civil war. The combination of rising sea levels, pollution and other environmental impacts affecting the day-to-day lives of coastal and island communities. Defra’s gagging of its own expert advisors and subsequent suspension of the UK ban on neonicotinoid pesticide use, which growing evidence has shown to cause severe population declines of pollinators like bees and butterflies.

All of which goes some way towards explaining the growing popularity of the concept of the Anthropocene. Adopted widely across both academic and popular discourse but yet to be formalised, the term specifically emphasises that we are inside a geological epoch in which human activities are the primary driver of earth system function. Currently used as generalised shorthand for a variety of human impacts on the biosphere and climate, it’s also frequently wielded to evoke rather more apocalyptic scenes. One of the most entertaining examples this year was Cattle Decapitation’s latest album The Anthropocene Extinction, whose hammy cover art depicts a hysterically grim scene of environmental devastation: power plants, grey smog and toxic gunk, and a human body whose burst ribcage spills out plastic detritus, mirroring those very real images of albatross bodies swollen with ocean-drift waste.

It is, of course, in death metal’s very nature to revel in the gloomier aspects of life, and the record’s presentation is playful enough. But more generally, overwhelmingly nihilistic responses to these meshed societal-environmental crises can all too easily act as red herrings. Fatalistic assumptions about the apparent inevitability of humanity’s impacts on the planet — such as the depressingly common refrain of "well, the planet’s overpopulated anyway" (a sentiment I’m certain I saw advertised on the side of a London bus this year, though I now can’t find photographic evidence) — risk actively working against efforts to reduce the damage, by helping to exonerate the structural forces that remain the major perpetrators. Several commentators have eloquently argued that the notion of one overarching Anthropocene risks establishing the idea that a single unified humanity bears equal responsibility for these crises, and thus ignoring the vast skew of responsibility towards the colonisers over the colonised. Hence the parallel use of terms like Capitalocene: "no doubt about it, an ugly word in an ugly system," as environmental historian Jason W. Moore wrote in this year’s book Capitalism In The Web Of Life. "The Age of Capitalism does not merit an aesthetically pleasing moniker."

While it’s easy to feel bleak and powerless in the face of this ongoing barrage of bad news, such pointed arguments feel galvanising, and are reminders that action still must be taken. The emissions reduction pledges made by governments ahead of Paris, while a start, still fall far short of keeping us within the 2°C so-called ‘safe’ warming limit, and the global reshaping of society and infrastructure required to transition to a sustainable world is a sobering reminder of the sheer size of the tasks that lie ahead. Setting aside for a moment the UK government’s shameful lack of commitment to renewable energy, the increasingly urgent tone of international discourse around climate change – peaking this week with COP21 – does at least feel like some marginal improvement on past heel-dragging and denial, although the jury’s still very much out on the conference’s outcomes.

But this year I’ve also increasingly become aware of the ongoing outward diffusion of ecological thought into wider consciousness, through the voices of artists, musicians, writers and scientists. With the world becoming a smaller place thanks to communications technology and social media, we become more attuned to the interconnectedness of all things; with such rapid global dissemination of news it’s harder to maintain the illusion that events on the other side of the world, such as the Indonesian forest fires or the Tianjin chemical explosions, are taking place somewhere "over there", beyond our concern. That awareness is further emphasised by the truly globally-dispersed effects of climate change, or this year’s news of trace radiation from the Fukushima disaster reaching the Pacific coastline of North America. More than the popular green activism we associate with public figures like Coldplay and Radiohead — whose top-down modality, as with tax-dodger Bono delivering lectures on human rights, can just as easily risk driving increased skepticism — this day-to-day trickle of awareness helps to highlight the myriad close links between human communities and the ecosystems around us.

Sound and music also have key roles to play in this process, through highlighting the complexity, intimacy and emotional texture of the relations between ourselves and the rest of nature. In her 2015 paper Geopolitics And The Anthropocene: Five Propositions For Sound, political geographer Anja Kanngieser argues that sound makes visceral, even comprehensible, aspects of the world that normally lie beyond our perception. "Sound is not just about hearing and responding, or communicating. It is about becoming aware of registers that are unfamiliar, inaccessible, and maybe even monstrous; registers that are wholly indifferent to the play of human drama," she writes. "Sound is not only of the human, it undermines human exceptionalism; everything vibrates on some frequency and is touched by vibration, regardless of how imperceptible to human sensibility this might be."

One method that Kanngieser directly alludes toward is data sonification – the translation of recorded environmental data into sound, thus bringing processes that unfold gradually over imperceptibly massive temporal and/or spatial scales (e.g. geology, climate system shifts) into the human auditory realm. One of the most striking scientific stories this year, for example, came from a research team that sonified the last ten years’ worth of earthquake data from Oklahoma, in order to demonstrate the recent, astonishingly rapid acceleration in seismic activity following the introduction of fracking in the region. But beyond data, many of the most exciting music and sound artworks I’ve encountered this year are those that feel charged with similar awareness: they suggest processes of unearthing or re-earthing, rethinking how we understand our relations with the world and each other, and highlight the complexity and strangeness of the situation we find ourselves in.

On the subject of earthing, I was recently introduced to the work of Japanese sound recordist Toshiya Tsunoda, and have since become particularly enamoured with his ‘solid vibration’ recordings, such as those gathered on his Extract From Field Recordings Archive series from the late 1990s and early 2000s. They find him wielding contact mics like earth cables in order to tap into the hidden resonances of otherwise familiar or unremarkable places and objects. Field recordings of environmental sounds, and especially of wildlife, often actively seek to erase traces of human sonic interference, in ways that can feel almost disingenuous in our increasingly anthropogenic world. In contrast, most of Tsunoda’s recordings zoom into the inner vibrational landscapes of human-made infrastructure, capturing in microscopic sonic detail their tightly-bound relationships with their surrounding environment — anchors, buoys, piers, road surface asphalt, all in quiet dialogue with the rock, the wind, the waves and deep-water ocean currents. "Place is always moving, like a sleeping cat," as he put it in a 2011 interview with The Wire. His recordings are austerely, enigmatically beautiful, yet surprisingly moving, highlighting the continuity between our bodies and the physical world; played loud on good headphones the sound pressure is enough to shake your braincase and make your vision shudder.

Similarly to sonifications that shrink geological processes down to manageable listening timespans, Tsunoda’s solid vibration recordings make perceptible the presence of what writer and theorist Timothy Morton calls ‘hyperobjects’: entities that are so vastly distributed in time, space and dimensionality that they defy full human comprehension, such as the climate, the biosphere, radioactive waste. Or, as discussed in a series of emails between Morton and Björk published alongside the latter’s Vulnicura album earlier this year, a coral reef, itself made up of untold millions of tiny animals. Drawing on object-oriented philosophy, Morton’s writing on ecology and climate is refreshing for its playfulness and exploratory quality, and especially its sensory modality — the way he’ll savour the texture of an idea like you might slowly roll a gobstopper around in your mouth.

So it felt appropriate that his name cropped up during Elysia Crampton’s extended Q&A with journalist Philip Sherburne at this year’s Unsound Festival, given that her music and practice share many similar characteristics. During her remarkable performance the previous evening – part recital, part academic lecture, part concert – Crampton had asked the audience to pay attention to similar elements in her music, its "clowny" nature and "haptic" qualities. There’s also a kindred breadth and complexity to the themes it explores, its concern with deep-time processes, human/non-human interactions and specific legacies of colonialism as drivers of environmental change. "Brownness as more than culture or Othering, as geology," ran the short essay alongside her American Drift album. "As mud, dirt and mineral, enmeshed in lithic, vast time scales." Despite the density of these accompanying texts, American Drift and its companion 7" Moth/Lake strike an unusual balance of being thoughtful and theoretically-minded without becoming overtly academic in tone. They’re intriguingly mischievous, drawing subtle parallels between our current experiences of digital connectedness and geological and biological interactions in the physical world. Spiky drum shrapnel shatters bucolic woodwind harmonies; Lil Jon’s raucous sampled chants puncture through sacred, cathedral-like resonance; and rhythms bump ’n’ grind across one another like tectonic plates.

As with her previous recordings under the pseudonym E+E, Crampton’s tracks from 2015 are brash and rawly emotional yet elusive, becoming weirder and more unfamiliar the more closely you examine them. As such they stuck out like sore thumbs next to much of this year’s hyped electronic music, which fetishised mega-corporate branding and consumer capitalist aesthetics via slickly-realised work whose vague allusions towards satire were muffled by a weird lack of imagination. What with corporate sponsorship, energy drinks and the rest, it’s becoming harder to escape the growing sense that even emerging brand new electronic and dance musics are internalising, and embracing right from root level, the wider societal forces that themselves drive inequality and environmental degradation. There were, of course, other exceptions that alluded towards contemporary human ecologies in strange or cryptic ways, such as the panoramic digi-vistas of M.E.S.H’s Piteous Gate, whose plastic-explosive thuds and disorienting lurches in spatial perspective evoked a hi-tech military force succumbing en masse to desert mirages and fever-delirium. I’ve been closely following New Zealand artist Fis’ music for a while but seeing him perform live this year, in a pitch-dark room on a suitably weighty rig, was also a minor revelation – somewhere between a tender caress and an intense physical attack. All of his music’s underlying sub-bass movement was brought viscerally to life, with its pulses, thuds and tidal rushes shapeshifting in appearance from an earthquake’s puckish rumble, to the monolithic swirl of an ocean gyre, to the muffled beating of a human heart.

Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton from Common Ground Cinema on Vimeo.

In his short book Beyond The Fell Wall, published this year, musician, writer and artist Richard Skelton considers the living landscape via the mesh of dry-stone walls that criss-cross the Lake District. "The wall is living, and lived in," he writes. "It is as much composed of cavities, tunnels and vents – of breath itself – as it is bodied by stone … As you pass the wall, eyes are upon you, ears are listening, from within." If the walls themselves are the book’s backbone – first assembled by human hands and now evolving imperceptibly slowly through biological and climate processes ("imagine your span of years, in relation to the wall, as like that of a bee to your own") – its protagonists are the multitude of other sentient lifeforms that exist in and around them. Bumblebees, buzzards and songbirds, humans, the ghosts of extinct foxes, pioneer tree species – all reshape, repurpose and appropriate the walls, transforming them into extensions of their own bodies. The work of both Skelton and Autumn Richardson, who together run the Corbel Stone Press publishing house, displays a deep kinship with the notion of ecosystems as interacting assemblies of aware, thinking entities – captured in the title of this year’s book and collection of their music as *AR, Memorious Earth. Their music and art connect the rural hauntological dreamscapes of musicians like Coil or Kemper Norton to a weirder and more feral feeling of being stalked by ecosystemic memory. One recurrent motif is the grey wolf, resummoned after its long extinction in the British isles due to hunting (itself perhaps not too unlikely a possibility, given the growing interest in rewilding), while Beyond The Fell Wall ends with its narrator hallucinating a ‘beautiful and terrifying’ vision of ancestral forests reclaiming the empty hillsides: "they will return, and their roots will tighten around your neck".

But for its occasionally gothic grandeur, there’s little sense of apocalyptic sublime Nature in their work, nor of humans as exempt from – or battling against – the ecological processes that permeate us. Their worldview is slower and more intimate, concerned with decay and transformation. While recording some of his earlier music Skelton described how he would leave his violins out on the moor for several days, half-buried in mud and dead leaves, before recording himself playing them, as a way of trying to incorporate the landscape’s agency within his music without imposing his will on it. Some of the most resonant moments of Beyond The Fell Wall, meanwhile, are those when the narrator becomes sharply conscious of the unfamiliar sentience of other organisms and their equal awareness of him; at one moment a raven flies into view, its gaze fixed on Skelton as it drifts overhead. These encounters recall another of Morton’s concepts, ‘dark ecology’: the understanding that our interactions with the non-human objects that surround us (and make us) are strange, disturbing and unfathomably complex – and how coming to terms with this could perhaps help us reconsider how we interact with our world. As with his notion of the ‘hyperobject’ there’s an almost pop-savviness to Morton’s terminology here that lends it broader appeal; 2015, for example, marked the second year of Dark Ecology, a multi-year project involving artists, musicians and researchers exploring human-environment interactions in Arctic Norway and Russia.

It’s still probably fair to say that little of the music here is likely to permeate the wider public consciousness any time soon. But work like this can still help to draw out and emphasise the shared weird resonances and fears that come from being tangled up in a fast-changing world. This year’s excellent album by Skelton under his his The Inward Circles pseudonym, Belated Movements for an Unsanctioned Exhumation, August 1st 1984, took as its subject the Lindow Man, who spent around two-thousand years preserved in a peat bog before being unearthed, and is now freeze-dried and on display at the British Museum. Its densely layered, shimmering string drones are intended as an ‘auditory petition for reinternment’: to return the murdered man to his former resting place, and allow his body to continue its gradual reassimilation into the ground. "The skeletons of bog bodies dissolve from within, due to the action of acidic peat-water," Skelton explained in an interview. "The weight of soil accumulated above compresses them, their skin colour is darkened. It’s an infinitely slow, crushing embrace with the earth." That final sentence, with all its entangled connotations of intimacy and horror, seems a neat and beautiful summary of our entire predicament.

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