post by Sam Street
This page has the Branching Songs soundscapes recorded and composed in the initial stages of our research with the treed sites scheduled to be cleared by the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project. A description of the techniques and composition strategies is included below.
Alders at Stoney Creek
This soundscape documents the trees and water of Stoney Creek, Burnaby, recorded in March 2020, in the quiet liminal days before the disruption of Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMX) work through the site. Ambisonic, geophonic, and hydrophonic recordings provide insight to the interwoven sonic and ecological landscape of the area, while a contact microphone performance with resident Alder trees highlights the individual beings affected by the TMX. Thanks to the 1308 Trees movement (1308trees.ca) for highlighting this issue and the vulnerable spaces put at risk by TMX.
Hummingbird at Lost Creek
Recorded in June 2021, this soundscape documents the wooded area surrounding Lost Creek in Burnaby, the frontline of deforestation for the TMX project. Not named on any map, it is a space of intersecting legal jurisdictions, encroaching industry, and the many wild non-human agencies and ecologies populating its land. The 1308 Trees movement (1308trees.ca) put a halt to clearing through the work of activists who searched for and found Anna's hummingbird nests in the area. Nesting is protected by the Migratory Bird Convention Act, and clearing was at least temporarily halted for several months. This soundscape is a tribute to the hummingbirds and humans who stopped the saws. Using ambisonic, geophonic, hydrophonic, and contact microphone gestures with large trees in the area, aspects of the biophonic and anthrophonic are brought together to portray this interaction.
Douglas Fir at Lighthouse Park
This soundscape represents an encounter with an old-growth tree; a massive, beautiful Douglas Fir living in "Lighthouse Park" on Musqueam nation lands. Alongside immersive ambisonic, geophonic, and electromagnetic recordings of the environment, this composition also features the team's first use of MIDI biodata — performance data created from the tree itself. This involved the use of a MIDI biodata sonification device which measures changes to the tree's internal state via noninvasive electrodes placed on the bark. This data is recorded alongside the soundscape, then processed into the composition via vocoding to create a ghostly sonic afterimage; the tree's performance resonating back into the soundscape.
Cedar at Stoney Creek
This soundscape is composed from recordings at Stoney Creek park around the roots of a mature Cedar tree, scheduled to be cut down by the Trans Mountain pipeline work through the site. Ambisonic recordings documented the sound of the park as well as the encroaching anthropogenic factors which, ever-present, threaten to push further into this territory. Geophonic recordings enhance the above-ground sounds, and give insight to the experience of the maternal Cedar, feeling vibrations from their root-base sensorium. Finally, contact microphone recordings of the bark and branches bring textural representations of the tree directly into the soundscape.
Red Cedar at
Trans Mountain Trail
Recorded at the TMX property line trail in Burnaby, this soundscape positions the listener as a precarious Red Cedar at the frontline of ever-expanding resource extraction. Geophonic recordings from the base of their roots vibrate with the thrum of construction in the TMX facility, as above-ground ambisonic recordings hear casual trail-enjoyers, far-flung industrial noise, and wind stirring branches. A contact microphone performance adds textural embodiment of the tree, as well as picking up the only nonhuman animal calls heard in the area— small songbirds and a raven, moving through the bark.
We use a variety of experimental recording techniques to create the Branching Songs soundscapes. The main one is the use of ambisonic recording. An ambisonic microphone has several microphones wrapped into one and essentially captures a sphere of sound around the virtual listener. With this all the elements of the soundscape are spatialized around the listener as they were around the microphone. The next type of microphone we use is a geophone, which records very low frequency sounds and can be implanted into the ground. We put those at the roots of the trees we record with to get the sounds — the vibrations — that travel to the roots of the trees. This technique captures mainly low frequency sounds which get mixed in “under” the ambisonic recording during the editing stage. Depending on the site, we sometimes use a hydrophone in local water sources. This is a type of microphone that goes in water; you hear the river flow, the water gurgle, and the rocks move. Occasionally we use electromagnetic field recording, which shows the anthropophony (all sounds produced by humans) from a different sonic perspective. It’s a very electronic sound, and alongside skytrains being picked up by the geophone or cars passing in the distance on the ambisonic, the anthropophony that exists in these urban forests becomes clear.
On top of the field recording side of the soundscapes, we have the more performative side, which is the contact microphones recordings. Contact microphones detect and translate vibrations of a surface or a body into sound. For these, we find a particular charismatic tree and we place multiple microphones on varying locations of the tree to get a cohesive sonic image of the tree and its body. Then one or sometimes two members of the Branching Songs team would use touch gestures (stroking, light knocking, moving branches) to create sounds in concert with the tree. These sounds can be heard through the body of the tree itself, and results in a recording of this interaction between these bodies, between a person and a tree — heard through the tree. It captures this interaction that we so often overlook.
In the end, all these various types of recordings are composed into one soundscape. Composing, as well as recording, is an act of listening (in active listening). It’s about finding the narrative within your recording. We don’t do a lot of cutting or editing or moving things around in this stage. The composer listens to hear the events as they occur and fades between the different sonic perspectives in order to create a loose narrative arc that moves the listener through this space. This offers the listener a way to engage with the space differently and maybe opens their ears to other spaces around them.