Frederic Hanusch, Scientist
The pandemic has also opened up a window of opportunity for us to gain a better understanding of how we are connected to the earth, above and beyond what can be directly perceived by our senses. For the pandemic silence makes it possible for us to listen to the planet – and how we are already connected to its soundscape from the earth's interior all the way to the atmosphere.
By Frederic Hanusch
From pandemic silence to planetary soundscape
What does a pandemic sound like? With the pandemic came not only suffering, but also silence. Fewer trams and cars, hardly any building sites still open, but no concerts either, no conversations in parks or bars. The background noise of city life ebbed away.
The Sumerian god Enlil would have been delighted, for manmade noise kept him from sleeping, which angered him so much that he sent a flood to wipe out the human race. Julia Barnett Rice, who founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise in 1906, and Theodor Lessing, who founded the German Anti-Noise Association the very same year, would have appreciated the quiet too. And yet there’s something totalitarian about the present silence: the slightest noise is audible, and anonymity, the distinctive mark of big-city life, is lost as a result. This silence is forced, and seems not so much a welcome gift as an unbearable state. Soundscapes are a cultural resource, but they are also political, especially when they concern our relationship to nature.
If we view the pandemic in terms of the made-to-measure concept of planetary health, i.e. the health of human civilizations and the state of natural systems on which that health depends, the issue here is not only the obvious, namely how human beings treat non-human life, whether in factory farms and feedlots or at wild animal markets. The pandemic has also opened up a window of opportunity for us to gain a better understanding of how we are connected to the earth, above and beyond what can be directly perceived by our senses. For the pandemic silence makes it possible for us to listen to the planet – and how we are already connected to its soundscape from the earth's interior all the way to the atmosphere.
As traffic and industrial facilities ground to a halt, seismic noise, i.e. the sum of vibrations in the earth's crust, also quietened down to a level we usually only experience on holidays. The way things were moving inside the earth changed. Without human influence, geoacoustics enables us to listen to the planet. How do the continental plates creak? Where are old mining tunnels at risk of caving in? What does the Earth have to say about all the dams stopping up its rivers? Without manmade noise, detectors are better able to record planetary noises, such as sea waves spreading in the wake of volcanic eruptions.
Quiet currently reigns not only inside the earth, but also in the sea. The last time it was this quiet off the US coasts – and, as it happens, likewise unintentionally so – was in the wake of 9/11. There is hardly any oil drilling or mooring of offshore wind turbines, less use of sonar and ships’ propellers, which interfere with whales communicating and occasionally silence them. Already in Jacques Cousteau’s day, The Silent World (1956) was no longer an apt description of the ocean depths. Hydroacoustics teaches us how mankind is also connected to the soundscape of oceans through climate change. The oceans dissolve CO2 and acidify as a result, which causes especially low-frequency sound to spread much farther. All in all, underwater sound intensity has doubled every ten years since 1950.
Life came ashore from the sea. On land, bioacoustics can assess the health of ecosystems. If, for instance, a forest ecosystem is intact, many acoustic niches there will be occupied because, in order to be heard, each animal species produces very unique sounds. Algorithmic analyses are increasingly capable of identifying individual species, thereby shedding light on the complex interactions between humans and the surrounding environment in equatorial rain forests as in the big city “jungle”. Needless to say, man has impinged on the terrestrial soundscape as well with all manner of blaring and glaring infrastructure, e.g. artificial light, which makes birds sing earlier in the morning.
And way up top, we hear the atmospheric acoustics. They are traditionally broken down into natural phenomena, such as lightning, meteors, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, violent storms, the polar lights and colliding sea waves, versus manmade phenomena, such as chemical and nuclear explosions, supersonic planes, wind turbines and the re-entry of spacecraft. The more we come to understand mankind as a geological factor that even triggers earthquakes and contributes to extreme weather conditions, the more any clear-cut distinction between human and non-human causality disappears. Man has become part and parcel of the world of atmospheric noise.
Our connection to the planet earth is seldom visible to the naked eye. Our senses require technological enhancements to fully comprehend how our planetary species interacts with the earth as a whole. We still have a long way to go to explore these domains in particular, which are drowned out by artificial noise.
Sophisticated sensor technology will help us develop an understanding thereof, but so will the soundscapes of sound artists like Susan Philipsz and Bernie Krause, which make possible an immersive connection between everyday and deep-time acoustics, e.g. by generating a keen awareness of landscapes that are about active resonance rather than a passive resource. All this takes place without any direct call to action, but in reference to an alternative understanding, a different insight into our existence as a planetary species.
The pandemic silence thus builds momentum for an immersion in planetary soundscapes so as to discover where – mostly unwittingly – we have forged connections to them. These soundscapes furnish indirect information about how habitable and hospitable to life our planet is.
So what does a pandemic sound like? It’s not silent by any means. It renders a polyphonic planetary soundscape audible, which we have influenced and altered, and with which he have forged connections. Have we done so consciously? Probably not. Considering the matter from a political angle – sounds are, after all, political –, what we need is a better understanding of the sonic relationship between ourselves and our planet, and how to negotiate this relationship in such a way as to keep our planet habitable.