It might be the fact that I’m no longer in lockdown or that it’s been a nice summer (so far), but my engagements with various kinds of media just haven’t had the consistent quality of binge of late. To be honest, it’s not just a drop in podcasting or broadcasting – I’m not working my way through Manhattan cocktail recipes or even minor variations on the basic Manhattan theme, either. But I have been thinking that summer does offer us some great opportunities to step sidewise from our usual practice — to explore a new book, grab an interesting new recording, or just try to listen a little more broadly than usual while the sun goes down and dusk arrives. A while back, my pal Darwin Grosse penned an article for the Cycling '74 newsletter on podcast listening that went a long way toward establishing some of my podcast habits. (He’s entirely too humble to make a big deal about it but Darwin’s Art + Music + Technology podcast still remains one of the finest and most consistently interesting podcasts out there in terms of breadth, inclusiveness, surprise, and just plain decent storytelling.) Darwin also namechecked our former colleague Dan Derks’ Sound + Process podcast, which dives into the people, processes and perspectives from the lines community. So if you’re new to the Cycling ’74 community or new to these two podcasts, you might want to take a look at Darwin’s original article. There's (still!) some great stuff there. So I thought I’d follow up on that excellent start and do a couple of articles full of suggestions to transform or otherwise direct your interest for summer listening. This time out, I’m going to be start from a little farther afield, and circle in toward more familiar terrain, to be followed next time out with delights for the ear a good deal “closer to home.” The act of attentive listening is an act of imagination, especially if what you hear is not accompanied by what you can see. While there’s a wealth of podcasting and broadcasting out there from exotic cities or bedsits spread across the known world, what we listen to can also be the stuff of contemplation… the record of somewhere we have not been or somewhere that is no more. Here are some zones of imagination for your summer enjoyment. I’d have to say that some of the most unexpectedly compelling listening I’ve done all year was a chance to hear the sound of wind on the planet Mars, courtesy of the recent Perseverance Rover landing:
Not much of a beat, but this is really outta this world! Actually, the experience of it reminded me of the first time I heard recordings made by a hydrophone and suddenly realized that I was listening to a medium in which sound travelled differently, bringing my aboveground earthling ears to a new world. And, since we’re all Max people here, we know the world is full of ways to take data and transform it to reveal information to our ears – sonification. While we’re on the subject of space, our friends at NASA are regularly in the habit of sending data-gathering probes into space, many of which are capable of capturing radio emissions. I guess I understand why some well-meaning NASA person would present this astounding Soundcloud playlist of sonified data as “spooky sounds for Hallowe’en,” but I hear something quite different in them. Perhaps you will, too.
The next category of possible summer listening involves the chance to listen to a bit of the world which is always in near darkness: live streams from the oceans of the world. The opportunities for this as a listening opportunity tend to be somewhat ephemeral —the technology and the work of the people who bring them to you tend to be tied to scientific funding cycles, and the opportunity to hear live streams comes and goes. In fact, my all-time favorite deep sea live stream went dark shortly before the pandemic hit – a live underwater audio stream from the McMurdo Oceanographic Observatory. Don’t worry – here’s a nice example of what you could have heard online 24/7:
There’s a growing community of scientists interested in using recorded sound to study the ocean floor and its inhabitants, and there are still a few online sources for this, such as the ongoing archives of the deep-sea soundscapes of the Sea of Japan (which includes recordings of those undersea thermal vents in action… my current baseline for the word “turgid” in recordings. I suppose that some of you may be reading this and wondering how on earth I fell in love with listening to the universe without beats, leads, or lyrics. It was a record of songs that someone gave me as a Christmas present about a million years ago — long before I approached anything like this with anything but surprise and delight. We had a recording of Judy Collins singing various folk songs at home, one of which included the sounds of the “songs” of a Humpback Whale as her only backing.
I was completely flattened by the sound of it – that kind of experience of sound that I’ll wager that many of you have had in your lives – that “HOLY CRAP!!! WHAT IS THIS? WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? HOW IS IT DONE???????” That was a prepubescent me.
One of my family’s friends told me that there was a whole record of it out, and I got a copy for Christmas. I’ve destroyed a good half-dozen copies of Songs of the Humpback Whale in the intervening years. Come to think of it, this would be great summer listening:
The interest in recordings as a way to gather data and bear witness to the ecosystems we share with the rest of the world’s creatures (acoustic ecology) isn’t merely a source for sideways summer listening; it is increasingly a way to make sense of our world in new ways. This means hearing natural processes we can understand but not easily imagine:
...and use those recordings as a way to study changes in the natural world.
Of course, you and I find ourselves in a world where human beings do a good deal more than position microphones, operate the gear, and set up streaming. We also make noise. Although he began his life as a founding member of the seminal punk/DIY protoindustrial band Cabaret Voltaire, Chris Watson’s life has taken quite a different course — he has created a life’s work documenting and recording the sounds of the natural world and its human overlays. You can find much of his work on his Bandcamp page, and you can also download a free pair of “soundwalks” recorded in Scotland here. His skill at taking you somewhere you can only imagine is unparalleled, and definitely worth an evening’s libation with the headphones on. The ethers are alight with broadcasts whose purpose and content has nothing to do with easing your path between commercials — stations whose output involves the transmittal of encrypted messages (bursts of data or persons actually reading lists of numbers), radio stations that carry military messages, and diplomatic channels. I realize that not all of you would necessarily find listening to messages whose intentions are secret to be diverting or amusing, but there’s an entire community of enthusiasts out there who not only do, but who’ve banded together to research the stations, provide a comprehensive listing of the stations, their likely sources, their broadcast times, and links to digital streams. The site, priyom.org, is a magnificent audio rabbit hole.
And I think I’ve saved the best for last (although your mileage may vary)…. Long before COVID and lockdowns were anywhere near our event horizon (we’re talking 2013 or so), the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision created Radio Garden, a non-profit website/app that does something stupefyingly simple and utterly amazing. The app shows you the kind of map of the spinning world you know from Google Earth festooned with little dots that correspond to radio stations all over the world. Click on a dot, and you can zoom in and listen to the dot you clicked on, figure out where on earth you are (the map shows you no national borders or labeled cities), and check out stations nearby. I’ve found it utterly and completely addictive, with the caveat that you’re probably going to have trouble figuring what the source of the astounding stuff you’re hearing is (unless your Farsi, Mandarin, Hindi, Kechua, or Estonian is in good working order), since you really are listening to local DJs a world away.
Well, that's it for this installment of possible summer listening futures. You should, I hope, feel emboldened to post pointers to things in the comments beyond your more conventional listening sources for the searching summer ears of our community. Next time out, I'll be looking at more traditional broadcast and podcast options for your smiles of a summer night. See you then!