At dawn the sounds of life alongside this creek are filled with a dynamic range and perspective that is steadily declining elsewhere.
It is no secret that our natural habitats are shrinking at a radically unprecedented rate. Since the 1970s the discipline of acoustic ecology has attempted to document this process. Field recordings have been used in environmental campaigns to compare the ecological diversity between virgin forests and logged forests. Similarly field recordings have demonstrated the difference between the raucous crackles and pops of marine parks and the ghostly quiet of
areas open to fishing. Listening to these recordings we hear the natural environment under stress.
By diminishing our natural systems in favour of monolithic urban and industrial sprawls we silence the sounds that distinguish one place from another. We lose the uniqueness of the local voice and instead hear a compressed wall of motorised sound. Our hi-fi soundscapes are being replaced by generic lo-fi soundscapes. R. Murray Schaffer describes this well:
The hi-fi soundscape is one in which discrete sounds can be heard clearly because of the low ambient noise level … In the hi-fi soundscape, sounds overlap less frequently; there is perspective – foreground and background … In a low-fi soundscape individual acoustic signals are obscured in an overdense population of sounds … Perspective is lost … there is no distance; only presence. There is cross-talk on all the channels, and in order for the most ordinary sounds to be heard they have to be increasingly amplified. (Tuning of the World. p. 43. Destiny Books. 1993)
As the world continues to be overpopulated the dominant soundscape experienced by many is homogenous and oppressively lo-fi:
Aside from the ecological damage associated with lo-fi environments new research highlights the negative affect that such soundscapes have on the human nervous system. In two medical studies examining the health of people living under the flight-path of planes connected to Heathrow airport it was found that airport noise could trigger heart problems through increased stress causing high blood pressure, largely among people exposed to very high levels of noise within a three to four kilometre radius of an airport.
Furthermore those living in the noisiest, 63-decibel-plus areas were 24 per cent more likely than people living in areas with noise levels of 51 decibels or fewer to be hospitalised because of stroke and 14 per cent more likely to be hospitalised because of cardiovascular disease. For more on the reports follow this link.
There might even be a connection between the expansion of the lo-fi soundscape and the way in which music is now being produced and listened to. In music production there is now such a thing termed The Loudness War. Contemporary music is much “louder” than it once was due to the compression of softer and louder sounds within a song. Softer sounds are being increased in volume in order for them to be heard thereby reducing the dynamic range which in turn makes a song seem louder. This artificial production of music resembles the same transformation of our hi-fi environments into lo-fi environments. The Echo Nest blog states that critics of the trend complain that listening to a bunch of super-loud, dynamically compressed music in a row can lead to hearing fatigue, and that compressing the instant-by-instant volume variations of music into such a flat, tight band erodes music’s complexity and subtlety.
In light of these facts I wonder if our listening habits, or preferences, reflect the way in which we are now forced to engage with our modern lo-fi environments. Depressingly this could be more than a trend if we continue to lose touch with our physical and sonic diversity. It makes the act of listening to what is left of our natural environment that much more important.
There is currently a collective protest by Blue Mountains Residents and local Council against the Australian Government’s airport proposal at Badgerys Creek in Western Sydney. This international airport near the foothills of the Blue Mountains, would compromise the area’s World Heritage Area status granted by UNESCO. The proposed airport would potentially degrade flora and fauna, and increase environmental pollution and noise pollution. A place known for its tranquility would soon face flights operating 24 hours. The Heathrow airport study into human health jeopardised by the relentless effect of engine noise is particularly pertinent to this Australian situation.
The UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention website states the area has:
exceptional biodiversity values [that] are complemented by numerous others, including indigenous and post-European-settlement cultural values, geodiversity, water production, wilderness, recreation and natural beauty.
This is something that the draft Environmental Impact Study fails to recognise. Each of these exceptional qualities will no longer exist if the Badgerys Creek Airport is built.
Will this airport be another in a long line of “developments” which favours short term financial gain over long-term environmental and social well-being?
In 1977 soundscape artist R. Murray Schafer foresaw the problems related to an increase in human population and technology, writing:
noise in the sky is distinguished radically from all other forms of noise in that it is not localised or contained … modern technology has given each individual the tools to activate more acoustic space. This development would seem to be running a collision course with the population increase and reduction of available physical space per individual
One morning I walked into a local national park to record the sounds of nature in isolation. I was dismayed by the constant sound of air traffic. What price are we paying for cheap and more frequent flights? The lure of cheap travel is blinding us to its consequences. It is time to acknowledge the fragile ecosystems we have left, to protect them for future generations as our predecessors knew to do for us.