Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Sound of Rivers

The bush is quivering with Silver Eyes. First you hear them chirping and then detect a flash among the branches. These tiny yellowy-green birds are hard to spot with their camouflaged feathers but I stand quietly and tune into the sound and sight as the small birds herald the day and the hint of rain.

In the background the Circadas sing their rhythmic chikkkssshh-chchikkkersssh. A Magpie sits on the top of one of the taller eucalypt trees and carrolls. The Ravens communicate loudly with others across the riverw with a long-drawn out Waaaaaaagh. While the muffled sound of rowers' voices rise up from the water as the wash from the sculls laps the shore with a sshhsshing reminiscent of the tides.

All rivers have their own distinctive sound.

In Switzerland last year a special art/sound exhibition was mounted to promote the Voice of the River. Organised by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag), the tonal art show highlighted the differing sounds of wild and managed rivers. Its aim, in part, was to alert gallery vistors to what happens to the rivers' voice in their wild state compared with tamed and controlled river spaces.

In specific locations along the river, the sound of the rivers' flow, their textures and rhythms, were recorded and the expansive voice of wild water filled the gallery. From the rushshshing dance of fast flowing streams, to the gurgling of sacred springs, from the thunderous roar of the waterfalls to the peacefulness of quiet pools, the exhibition intended to show, through sound, the ecological significance of wild rivers and the changes in river ecology wrought though human impacts such as channelling, dredging, damming and other management measures.

At the heart of this soundscape display was the sensual and aesthetic value of water. Wild rivers are not only scenically beautiful and ecologically important, they are also sonorifically stunning. And, says the river ecology research centre, Eawag's Aquatic Research division, these liquid acoustics can be used as a drawcard for ecotourism. Sound + Beauty = Pleasure.

Ecologically and scientifically, Eawag is researching the specific tone or 'fingerprint' of rivers and streams in, what they say is an 'innovative holistic assessment of the ecological state of the watercourse'. The study brings together the aesthetic, the affective and the ecological in an evocative ambience designed to bring people's awareness into the waterway, to touch their memories and emotions, and to draw their attention to the relationship between aesthetics and sustainability, and the plight of wild rivers.

Listen to the river. Another sound-art project is the Ear to Earth Project, a repository of nature's wonders through sound. Visit the site and enjoy the manifold expressions of water and other natural places. Called 'sonic shamen', the sound artists follow 'a path of listening—a creative, immersive journey toward deeper connection, reflected back to us in compositions created of natural and human-made soundscapes.'

Hear the river's flow. Feel the echo of the Butcher Birds' piercing call. Catch the rain-tone. Listen to the wind as it sways the branches. Experience the river through the senses. Escape into liquid.