On ethics, colonialism, pluralism, and ecological crisis
I was first drawn to Kim V. Goldsmith’s work because of its pluralism. But it is also centered around matters of uttermost importance to me: that the questions needed to find the best solutions for the climate emergency don’t separate us from ‘nature’, and that we acknowledge the colonialism and imperialism present in the environmental scene. And, of course, all of this is paired with wonderful, meticulous soundscapes and composition works.
Kim’s body of work is vast, so I wrote many questions which we at earth.fm are very grateful to have received such considered answers to. We hope that they will help us to think more deeply about how we approach our practice and how to situate ourselves as humans on this planet.
In the context of your projects, how do you integrate field recording into social ecology? For those not familiar with the term, could you briefly explain what social ecology is?
Social ecology is how we interact with our environment, or how communities interact with the landscape they exist within. Field recording is one of the mediums I use to capture that relationship or highlight aspects of it. Since 2019, I’ve been working on a project in the internationally important wetlands, the Macquarie Marshes, in central north-west New South Wales.
As part of my work there, field recording, filming and writing, I’ve collected stories from various people about their personal connections to the wetlands and surrounding floodplain, as well as doing research into the history of First Nations connections to the area, white settlement, and the subsequent development of agriculture in the region over the past 200 years. The research informs how I think about that landscape when I’m in it and recording it. The stories sometimes also provide ideas about what sounds I’m aiming to capture to create a soundtrack that might weave together grabs from the stories with field recorded sounds—both familiar audible sounds and less familiar sub-surface sounds.
“What was unexpected was the lack of sound – other than the constant buzz of flies and brief scolding chatter of the willie wagtails”: do you think that “lack of sound” can trigger worry or anxiety in listeners? Would this be a more effective call to action than presenting a soundscape in its healthy state?
That’s an interesting question and it was certainly what I was thinking at the time. The response from those who have listened to that track since it went public online, and in the six exhibitions we’ve now had in the UK and Australia, has been one of ‘What am I listening to? I can’t hear anything…’ I’ve come to think that because of the disconnect so many have with the natural world and how few rarely experience a ‘lack of sound’ of any sort, the intention wasn’t realized as well as I’d hoped.
I’m completely unnerved by it, but I’m also very privileged to have lived and worked in places where my existence has been completely connected to the health of the environment. Not that I’ve thought about it like that when I’ve been trying to get through a long drought. It’s tricky because we’re often told to seek out the quiet of the natural world, so there’s an expectation by some that it will be silent. I write this as I’m audibly bombarded by frog and bird song outside my studio window—it’s loud and constant.
In a blog post, ‘Silent Symphony’, you mentioned trying different microphone techniques. How do you prepare yourself technically before recording, considering the soundscape you are working with?
Yes, that post was about getting baseline recordings of the Marshes in February 2020, on the back of three years of drought and a fire that had gone through the North Nature Reserve only four months before. It was predicted that the drought would break in 2020 and I knew there was an environmental release of water coming down the Macquarie River that would prime the wetlands for when the rains did finally arrive. I had two days and a night to work in, so my thinking was about how to optimize that time with the equipment I had. I pretty much threw everything I had at it in that timeframe and it was a matter of just seeing what I’d get.
If it’s an environment I know, then it’s easier than if it’s new to me. On that trip, one of the biggest issues during the day was little black flies—a few are fine, a lot are a problem. I was hoping that by working at dusk, through the night and very early morning, I’d reduce the interference of flies in my recordings. I always create a recording log based on an itinerary, including what equipment I’ll use to capture a particular atmos, singular sound or effect, plus time of day, length of recording, and features of the sound/environment that I may want to refer back to. Knowing I have enough battery power for my recording plan is the most important part of my preparation!
Does taking video footage influence how you capture sound? What kind of relationship is established when you work with both of these media?
Very rarely. I always record the sound separately to the vision if I am using video. I tend to hear layers of sound, which doesn’t transfer to how I see things until I get into post-production. Sound is always the hero for me and I’ve been guilty of using video to help ‘carry’ my sound works, to maybe make them more accessible, like I did with Wambuul bila, using a sound wave animation over close-up footage of the churning river.
I have a work currently showing in a group exhibition which has a video that was used for this purpose. I’ve been told by the gallery staff that people gravitate to this work in the space because of the video, where they can then put on headphones to listen to it. I struggle with this reliance on video, but I’m also aware that there are people who are D/deaf who can’t access my work, so I’m now working through ideas to create haptic, tactile or programmed visual extensions of my soundscapes and mixes rather than video. Then again, I create videos for a living, so I like to think mine have particularly good soundtracks!
In another blog post, you mentioned that “listening is also noting the omissions”. Given the number of projects that you have been involved in, what do you consider to be omitted the most?
I’m probably most aware of what natural sounds are absent when I’m in cities and towns. One of the first sounds I listen for are birds, and whether they’re introduced or native species. Habitat loss through urban development and agriculture has had a huge impact on biodiversity in Australia. We’re also losing a lot of frogs, which is a huge concern. Forty of our native Australian frog species, of our 240 plus native species, are threatened with extinction.
I have a lot of native birds and frogs where I live, on the outskirts of a major, inland regional city in New South Wales, and I love to record them when I have a spare moment. When I share these, people often comment how they don’t hear or see little birds any more, or how they haven’t seen a green tree frog in their garden for a few years. The one thing I do wish I could omit more of is anthropophonic sound! We are, by far, the noisiest species.
“Humans dominate the narrative at every turn”: in this context, what place does field recording of natural sounds, without anthropogenic noise, have in today’s world?
It’s a sonic sanctuary, but I do wonder is it real. Earlier this year I had an opportunity to briefly visit Bernie Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra installation, [made] with United Visual Artists, at the Sydney Biennale. In that temporary space, in the middle of Sydney, was an opportunity to hear vulnerable soundscapes recorded over decades in Africa, North America, the Pacific Ocean and the Amazonas. As our needs continue to dominate, these places will move from vulnerable to threatened, to extinct. We know that because it’s already happening.
In my part of Australia, I cannot think of one part of this state where I can record without the likelihood of picking up human-made noise. Just when you think you’re in the clear, a plane will go overhead. I live in a heavily timbered peri-urban area and the weekend soundscape here at the moment is birds and frogs mixed with lawnmowers, dirt bikes, chainsaws, loud music and barking dogs. As someone who works from home I get incredibly frustrated by this.
However, I’m also constantly reminding myself that my very presence in the natural world, holding the man-made tools of the field recordist, I am dominating that landscape and I do have an impact on the resulting soundscapes through that process of reciprocal listening.
Has any sound-related project impacted you in a particularly memorable or significant way?
Every project leaves a mark on me in some way. In terms of the power of sound to provoke conversations, Mosses and Marshes has been an incredible project in terms of engaging individuals and communities about the future of the wetlands. The first memories of this project to come to me [are] from that night in February 2020 when I couldn’t hear anything through the night to record, followed three months later by the deafening nocturnal sounds of frogs and reed warblers in the river red gum forest.
How can field recordings of nature help us to reflect on the world we inhabit and bring new perspectives into contemporary mainstream narratives?
I think it’s a matter of taking the time to stop our busyness and just listen. Being still is a lost art, and it’s necessary to be still to really hear and understand. Those of us passionate about field recording nature know how much stillness is required to capture these sounds in the first place. A couple of years ago I was in the Marshes during a community open day. There’s a two kilometer boardwalk through the wetlands on one of the properties that’s open to the public, and it was an opportunity for people to see the Marshes after the water had started to return. It was also one of the few opportunities for people to catch up in the midst of COVID lockdowns.
I’d got there early to set up a recorder on a water channel near the boardwalk in the hope of capturing some new sounds—maybe a returning bird species hidden in the reeds. Of the two and a half hours I recorded there was only 20 minutes where you couldn’t hear human voices—it was during the lunch break. It made me think it didn’t really matter to people where they were that day, they were more interested in talking to each other on their walk around the boardwalk than listening to the sound of water running through the channels after years of drought, and of reed warblers, water hens or ducks. I can’t help but think how much people missed that day.
In the presentation text of your collective project Sonic Territories: Wambuul, you mention the use of “different storytelling languages”. Can you expand on what these different languages are, or what they mean? And how do you incorporate them into sound work?
That was an interesting conversation between us as project artists by the Wambuul/Macquarie River, as we were working out what we’d do for the Sonic Territories: Wambuul project. Each of us has a very different creative, academic and cultural background. There was a mix of creative approaches including field recording and sound mixing, filmmaking, visual art, writing and photography, along with academic frameworks such as systems thinking and science, overlaid with different cultural perspectives including migrant Italian experiences, First Nations, convict and colonial settler histories.
I always take the time to get to know a place and to listen to it before recording. It’s like asking permission to be there.
We tend to think of languages broadly taking a visual form (if you’re sighted), a sonic form (spoken and unspoken) or written form in whatever the ‘system of communication’ is for that country or part of the country—English, Wiradjuri or Italian. But I think the cross-over and spaces between these languages are often more interesting and engaging, more universal and accessible. There are so many questions raised when you do this, which is exciting.
As lead artist, I had already decided to create an unspoken-word narrative of the Wambuul/Macquarie River across the three communities at the heart of this project, using field recordings gathered from the dam wall above Wellington, to a bridge just below Narromine. I deliberately focused on many of the man-made structures on the river at most of the 10 sites I spent time at along 170km of the river—the dam wall and different types of bridges, using these to transmit the river’s voice.
These structures tell us so much about the settler history of this river, but the one thing they don’t do is tell us much about the river’s story pre-colonization. This was at the back of my mind throughout the project planning stages and is still largely unresolved through any unspoken-word language. We decided to each record a personal written response to the river, its history and importance to our communities, overlaying that on the field recorded mix. Pre-colonization history is referenced in these writings and recordings. Community stories in different formats also sit behind the soundtrack, providing additional layers of meaning to the relationship individuals and communities have to the river.
How do you approach making field recordings in colonized lands, and what would be your number-one piece of advice for a field recording artist starting out in this type of location?
I always take the time to get to know a place and to listen to it before recording. It’s like asking permission to be there. Talking with a friend and Wiradjuri Elder about this, she suggested it’s like asking ancestors for permission to be on Country. Even if you don’t believe in these things, it’s common sense to take your time, listen and get the lay of the land before you start.
If you don’t know a place or community well, you can read up on it but you can’t beat local knowledge. Finding who has that knowledge within a community is incredibly important, but it can also be a bit tricky depending on the history of the place. When this happens, you just have to trust your instincts and do your best. No one will judge you if you have tried.
I’ve noticed that you use the terms “human” and “more-than-human life”. Why this choice of words? Where does it come from?
I first came across the term ‘more-than-human’ in my reading for Mosses and Marshes back in early 2020. It was referenced in various sources I was using at the time—including writings by Anna Tsing, Donna Haraway and David George Haskell. My UK collaborator on Mosses and Marshes, Andrew Howe, had also been using the term in his writings about the ‘hidden worlds’ we were seeking to spotlight in our work in the wetlands and I’d been saying I wanted to give a voice to the voiceless in the environment.
I had noticed it was a term used more in academic circles and internationally than here, but it made so much sense. It requires a different way of thinking about non-human species, forms of intelligence, and how entangled we all are, which is really what I was trying to achieve in terms of capturing sounds of water plants photosynthesising, the gurgles inside an ancient eucalypt tree on the floodplain, or the underwater sounds of water boatman in wetland lagoons. These sounds gave me an opportunity to talk publicly about the environments that support the species making these sounds as being the environments that support our life as we know it. In his new book, Ways of Being, James Bridle writes: “The ‘more than human world’ acknowledges that the very real human world — the realm of our senses, breath, voice, condition and culture — is but one facet of something vastly greater… and we cannot live without them.”
Kim V. Goldsmith is an interdisciplinary artist and creative producer based on the Western Plains of New South Wales. Since 2008, her creative practice has encompassed community engagement, sound, video, installation, story-gathering, writing and public programming, that takes a creative, process-driven approach to the challenging environmental issues faced by rural, regional and remote communities. Her work in this area continues to evolve as she explores layers of nuance and complexity within the territories in which she works, seeking the hidden elements that make them vibrate. Through research, observation, field recordings, collaboration, and creativity, she aims to present rural, regional and remote landscapes and communities in ways that make the familiar, unfamiliar. Goldsmith uses verbal and non-verbal storytelling to tease out narratives of connection —sometimes finding common ground. Her individual and collaborative works are presented across Australia and internationally in festivals, exhibitions, public events, and online platforms. She is the founder and lead artist of ecoPULSE.art.