Though they “weren’t really going for animal sounds” while recording their new project, composer Damien Ricketson and sound artist Diana Chester fell in love with the “tiniest sound” of a starfish inching its way across a rock pool.

“The sound it made was really surprising,” Chester tells Limelight. “It almost sounded like a heartbeat – a really rhythmic, consistent, relatively low pitch sound.”

Though intended as a “geophony of sounds”, Listening to Earth uses the starfish as a recurring feature of its musique concréte concoction, which blends the familiar and unfamiliar sounds found at the beach. There are waves crashing, yes, but there’s also the rumble they create deep within the sand. There’s wind, too, but not as you know it.

Diana Chester and Damien Ricketson. Photo © Stefanie Zingsheim/University of Sydney

Installed in the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum from 13–18 February, Listening to Earth is an immersive audiovisual installation work that “brings the beach to the gallery” while exploring the vibrational interplay of sea and land. Using field recordings captured from various coastal areas, the work features “liquid, dynamic” audio reactive visuals created by artist Fausto Brusamolino and 12 channels of spatial audio.

Chester and Ricketson met as a part of the Sydney Environment Institute (SEI), a University of Sydney arm that facilitates interdisciplinary communication and collaboration. Chester is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and an artist whose work maps how sound can be “a medium for exploring the world around us”. Ricketson is an Associate Professor at the Sydney Conservatorium Of Music and a founder (and previous Co-Artistic Director) of Ensemble Offspring whose interest lies in multi-sensory experience and unconventional modes of listening.

Listening to Earth is sitting in a space that’s not unfamiliar,” says Ricketson. “You’ll recognise it as a coastal sound world, but you’ll hear that sound world in a way that’s otherwise completely beyond your perceptual threshold.”

“It’s quite astonishing, how much noise and action is going on in these kinds of contexts, which are usually sitting outside our thresholds of perception.”

The bulk of the sounds for the project were recorded on the South Coast of New South Wales, including a field trip to Cudmirrah Beach, south of Jervis Bay.

“We deliberately chose intertidal zones. They’re very dynamic areas, they’re in a constant state of flux and change,” explains Ricketson. “It’s also an area that’s vulnerable to rising sea levels.”

Material was recorded with a variety of microphones, both general and specialised: hydrophones are specially constructed to record underwater; geophones were used to capture seismic and vibrational material in the earth.

The range of human hearing bottoms out at around 20 Hz. Sounds lower than that are ultimately felt, rather than heard. Listening to Earth draws out the tactile experience of such low frequencies with three benches with bass shakers underneath – speakers that convey the physicality of low-frequency vibrations with weights activated by sound. What is usually imperceptible can be felt.

Both artists have a shared interest in vibration. Ricketson’s interest lies in its physiological effects on the body. He describes his recent major work, Sound Touch, as a “sort of extreme sound healing”.

“[It was] deliberately looking at some of the quasi-science around vibration in the body. You’ve seen that sort of stuff – tuning forks that are supposed to … milk your pituitary glands, or whatever it is. For me, Listening to Earth is a logical continuation, but attuning more to the earth as opposed to a performer.”

Chester finds it a wellspring of information. One of their latest research projects, undertaken in Mongolia, uses vibration to identify and “make sense” of lost rivers. “These are rivers you can’t see on the surface anymore, they’ve gone underground,” Chester explains. “If we put microphones underground, we can begin to listen for certain types of vibration to detect them.”

Though earth and sea noise is captured relatively easily with the right tools, coastal wind is the unrelenting antagonist of many a recordist. A way had to be found to “harness” the sound. The solution was a variation on the ancient Aeolian harp, an instrument built to sound with the wind. Ricketson fashioned one out of pipes; Chester made a 19-string version they originally tried to tune with harp tuning pegs, “which was silly, I think, in retrospect,” Chester smiles. 

“The wind has its own idea. The force of it is so strong on a headland like Nobby Beach near Newcastle, that you just get this sympathetic, droning hum. The more force that goes through it, the more the pitch elevates.” 

Small diaphragm condenser microphones recording the ocean tide at Cudmirrah Beach. Photo supplied

Creative works such as Listening to Earth are also a key to understanding and communicating environmental concerns, adds Ricketson. While sitting adjacent to some of the more direct, solution-oriented climate action, the SEI sees it as a valuable method for communication – one “more emotional and visceral way” than a text-based article and report.

Chester namechecks Pauline Oliveros, who counselled us to ”walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears” in her concept of deep listening. 

“We’re trying to bring that notion back to people,” says Chester. “You want to be engaging in the world in such a way that your body fully becomes a listening device, receptive to the environment around us to create a type of empathy and connection, in lieu of the environment being able to directly speak to us in a language that we can understand.”

“I think there’s a real appetite for people to feel more connected to what’s going on in the face of so much environmental change.”

Listening to Earth is presented at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, Camperdown,  13–18 February. Entry is free and bookable here.

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