Noise in the Macaulay Library

Noise in the Macaulay Library

I recently visited the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where I had the pleasure of browsing an exhibit on the sounds in the Macaulay Library, “the world’s largest and oldest scientific archive of biodiversity audio and video recording.”

As sounds, many of the clips are mesmerizing. Check out to the jackhammer-like thwacks and eerie gongs of a male walrus, or the eerie trilling of this Carribean bird. Without any visual context, I found myself relying on auditory clues to imagine the animal and its environment. For instance, the wee rapid clicks of a summer katydid brought me low to the earth, magnifying a patch of grass into an expansive sonic landscape, while the deep, echoing groans of a right whale brought me underwater, to a new “atmosphere,” a new medium for sound to explore.

You’ll note the sound of humans talking in that last clip. Although the well-trained literary historian in me wants archives to harbor clean texts – that is, sonic samples devoid of any background noise – some sounds are not so easily extracted from their native context. A particularly compelling example (among many) is the trilling of this beach trig, an insect which nestles down in sea oats along the shore. In this sample, waves crash beneath its high clicking, almost occluding the sounds of the insect. While audio processing could no doubt remove the sound of the waves, how much more “authentic” would the result be? What would it mean to hear the mating calls of an insect outside the sonic environment in which they appear? What insights would we gain – or, more interestingly, lose – by our (my) desire for archival “clarity”? And what would count as clarity in these circumstances?

Though we are not a explicitly oriented toward wildlife field recording, these are some of types of questions that have inspired our project. Through Soundbox’s many iterations, “Team Noise” (that is, Darren, Mary Caton and I) have remained most interested in, well, noise – sound that skirts the margins of sense. One of our earliest “a-ha!” moments as an intellectual collaboration came while listening to a cat bat a microphone in a recording in the Jazz Loft Archive. As we then collectively realized, artifacts of material recording technologies have the power to disturb the neatness of sound as an authentic record, introducing a kind of static into the archive. The Macaulay Library – perhaps free of literary historians and our editorial obsessions – seems to embrace a certain level of static as our best bet for preserving the brilliant sonic landscape of the natural world.

Interestingly, the archive solicits contributions from wildlife enthusiasts both amateur and professional. To listen to more sounds, you can browse their collections online.