Thursday, July 5, 2018

Moving on...

John Cage, Saint of  Sound & Silence, by me.

It's been a while. 
I'm no longer in the remote Blue Mountains of the Caribbean, I have electricity and an internet connection and even running water back here in the US. 
But I don't think I'll be back to this blog much. It's been ten years. I've made a good effort. 

I say that now... but as we know, it is quite possible to change one's mind about things.

Please enjoy my canonization of John Cage, complete with the introduction of a "Lecture on Nothing," there in the left hand corner.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Measuring Biodiversity with the Soundtrack of the Forest

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Justine E. Hausheer)

Nature Conservancy scientists are using bioacoustic analyses to discover how different types of land uses affect biodiversity in the forests of Borneo.

Between 2000 and 2010, Indonesia lost 14.7 million hectares of forest. The four main drivers of deforestation in Indonesia are timber, oil palm, mining, and the pulp paper industry, all of which accounted for 44.7% of forest loss in Indonesia’s five main districts during that ten year period. (The rest was lost due to rubber plantations, small-scale agriculture, and village development)

With many logging areas transitioning to more intensive land uses, conservationists are looking to improve land-use planning to balance biodiversity conservation and resource production.

The Question: Is it better to use one portion of the land intensively and protect the rest (sparing), or is it better to lightly use a vast majority of the land, spreading out the less-intensive resource use (sharing)?

Answering this simple question is not so simple. Land use strategies by indusrty are already in place, and the effect of each strategy could vary depending upon the exact combination of land uses, how they are implemented, and how they are organized spatially across the whole landscape.

And that’s where acoustic data comes in.

The forest is never silent. With hundreds of species vocalizing simultaneously, the noise can be overwhelming to animal inhabitants. So different species evolved to communicate at different frequencies, or acoustic niches, so that individuals of one species can hear each other over the roar of all the other forest sounds.
Mist over East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Nick Hall)
Because each species has its own specific frequency, scientists can use acoustic data to calculate biodiversity — and therefore ecosystem health — by recording the forest soundscape over 24 hours. And those soundscapes are they key to understanding changes caused by development and resource extraction.

As with many ecological studies, complications abound. Measures of soundscape overall saturation, species similarity, species composition, disparate measures in different parts of the forest, and the problem of invasive species all muddy the water, so to speak. Nobody in the scientific community really knows what happens at a large scale, so this is brand new territory. Eventually, the team will conduct an analysis using species-recognition algorithms to compile a list of all audible species at each site, allowing them to cross-check the soundscape measures of diversity.

The bioacoustics research is part of a larger effort — funded by the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP) — to investigate how to best achieve conservation and benefits for people in tropical timber production landscapes.

In essence, the hope is to identify the deforestation "sweet spot." How to extract the maximum amount of resources while incurring the least amount of ecosystem damage.

Because if a tree falls in the forest, you bet it makes a sound.

To learn more about this project:

"We Send Back Music"

If you're gonna be in the Land of Oz any time soon, lucky you! You can catch a special Sydney screening of Landfill Harmonic, a film about “The Recycled Orchestra,” previously mentioned on this blog. 

The Recycled Orchestra began with a group of children from a Paraguayan slum built on a landfill. The group built and played instruments made entirely of the refuse.

If you're not gonna be in Sydney this September 10th, don't despair. You can watch the film on Vimeo:

Monday, August 21, 2017

Worth a listen

If you've noticed the surge in popularity of podcasting lately, then you won't be surprised to hear that I have a recommendation for you.

I've really enjoyed listening to the first season of Cadence, a new podcast that explores how music impacts our lives, and how science can help us understand why. In discussions with neuroscientists, musicians, comedians and students, host Indre Viskontas examines the nature of music and the humans who love it.

Check. It. Out.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Turning Up the Volume

If you've ever found yourself out in the woods, seeking some peace and quiet, you might have found that the outdoors is anything but. If you are lucky enough to escape the anthropogenic sounds of air conditioners and traffic, you will find the forest cacaphonous with birdsong all day and frogs and crickets at night.

Students in Estonia thought it would be a good idea to amplify this "peace and quiet" with enormous wooden megaphones. I must say I concur.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Mento: Where it all Began

The granddaddy of many later Jamaican styles, mento music had its beginnings in Jamaica as early as the 19th century. A uniquely Jamaican fusion of African and European musical traditions, the first recordings emerged in the 1920s when Caribbean jazz artists put their songs to wax cylinders. By the the 1950s, mento had reached a golden age and recordings began to appear on records.

These early disks reveal the diverity of sound among mento artists. An assortment of rhythms and styles, the diversity and creativity exhibited in the genre grew with the birth of Jamaica's recording industry. By the late 1950s, mento artists were incorperating pan Caribbean influences, as well as taking inspiration from American jazz.

With all this diversity, what gives mento its uniquely Jamaican sound? The classic mento sound has been described as "acoustic, informal, folksy and rural." Mento is still sometimes referred to as "country music" in Jamaica and many folk songs were recorded in this style. Instruments typical of mento surprise a lot of people. Mento musicians include banjo and acoustic guitar, as well as home-made instruments like the bamboo saxophone and rumba box.

The banjo is used in a variety of ways in mento music. It is strummed to provide rhythm, it is picked with precision (or not) to create solos, and it's even chimed like a steel drum. Its use in mento is quite distinct from the banjo in American musical traditions (as you might gather when you hear it, as it sounds nothing like Bluegrass).Unfortunately the use of the banjo didn't carry over into other, later types of Jamaican musical styles... Real shame.

The bamboo sax is exactly what you think it might be: a saxophone-type instrument made with a large piece of bamboo. It doesn't sound quite like a saxophone, but contributes a very unique, organic sound. You can learn more about bamboo saxophones and listen to a recording here.

The rumba box is also a mainstay of mento music. It is a large thumb piano built from from a wooden box (fancy, I know) A large circular sound hole is cut into the front, over which are secured a number of tuned metal tines. These are plucked to produce wonderful, belly-rumbling bass notes. The rumba box would later find a home is reggae music, too.

As the tourism industry developed in Jamaica, mento groups began to write songs specifically for visitors, like this one, and this little tune, which you may have heard before.

Gotta love grandpa music.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Caribbean Education

So, I live in the Caribbean.
There's a lot of great music here.
Which means there's a lot I need to learn about the great music here.

Specifically, I really need to brush up on my genres. There's a distinct difference between ska, mento, rock steady, reggae, dancehall and the R&B that comes out of these islands, and I'm definitely sensing a learning curve. Not to fear- I have a source.

I work with a 60 year old Rasta man who has an extensive collection of music and an encyclopedic knowledge of artists, albums, and the evolution of Jamaican musical styles. He's not a musician. He's a coffee farmer.

Yesterday, the area farmers had a social gathering. We cooked outside, traded ant-bite stories and played dominoes. All the while, this coffee farmer friend of mine, played DJ. As he lined up the tracks, pulling from his voluminous discography, I was able to begin to identify the differences in tempo, rhythm and general sound of these musical genres. It was neat to finally be able to piece them out, as I heard them side-by-side. That said, I've got a long way to go before I can comfortably say I have an understanding.

What better way to keep my thoughts straight, I thought, than to record by observances? And so, I've resolved to keep a record here- as time and internet connection allows- of my new musical experiences and all the questions that manifest alongside them. Is the categorization of "genre" helpful in this case? Is genre just reflective of musical style development over time? Are these new genres, then, only helpful insofar as placing the music in history? Is it same music played on different instruments? And what about all these covers and mixes?

Then there's the different culture around music in a Caribbean country, and the influence of that culture on the music itself. Does the knowledge that listeners will want to be able to break into song on the public bus influence your creative process? What about the mostly-concrete or outdoor listening acoustics? And perhaps most pertinent: what is the role of all these annoying DJs and their alter egos?

I sense an adventure.

Image: "Dance Hall Hobby" album cover, 2012, by Mr. Williamz