As a well-trained musician I soon discovered the orchestra that my ears had been looking for through all my musical training. It was an extremely rare, if non-existant, occurrence in my extremely rarified musical education when the sounds of the world around us were given pride of place, beyond some tokenistic or snooty reference to how this or that composer was influenced by the sounds of birds/the sea/thunder etc. All this exaltation of people had profoundly, and most successfully, phased out the even more profound sense of other presented by the sounds of the world around us, and highlighted brightly its unexplored nature in my musical training.
The sense of personal recovery, and of community and awe from listening, that had found its way into my life through field-recording continues to reveal, in its dichotomously reassuring and terrifying way, the great chasms that exist for us as 21st century humans in our relationship with the natural world. The influence of these chasms stretches far beyond our personal attitudes to climate change, eco-thought and behaviour or approach to conservation; it pierces directly into our hearts. The sense of loss of community we often have with each other is reflected in our relationships with the world around us, and vice-versa. The importance of this point could not be more overstated when it comes to helping our young people understand their place in this world.
The inspiration of that first WSRS meeting, trudging along a wet and windy Snettisham path with a homemade AB stereo mic setup I had built from a plastic bag holder, or getting up early for my first ‘tooled up’ dawn chorus experience, was more meaningful than, at the time, I could have comprehended. And later, listening to the sound magazine in the treasured quiet of an early evening I felt like I had discovered my tribe. A tribe of shared experience, of a universal interest, and a mutual love for those sound things as yet undiscovered or highly cherished.
This feeling of belonging, led me to begin integrating field-recording into my work as a teacher, particularly when working with young people with complex emotional and behavioural concerns. Almost everything about field-recording lends itself to helping these young people. They don’t have to be interested in the gear, the planning, the wildlife, the recording, the cataloguing, the editing or the sharing of sounds. Getting outside somewhere new with a group of peers or friends on a shared adventure is treasure in itself. Mostly, I would suggest, the secret lies in necessarily communal quiet. Or to put it more directly, shutting up because someone else is listening. Over the year and a half we have been running our HomeSounds project one of the primary indicators of its success has been in raising the capacity of our young people to listen in silence for extended periods of time. 1 minute at first, then 2, 5, 10, 15, 30, and eventually 50 minutes of unprompted quiet in a hide on our recent trip to Cley Marshes in Norfolk, UK. The young people want it. They need it. And for some young people they can’t help themselves. They are overwhelmed by what listening inspires in them, and they need help to understand how to do it, but they inherently recognise the benefit it brings. It offers them a chance to experience dadirri - deep active listening that is comfortable with silence - a term and concept popularised by Nauiyu Elder Mirian-Rose Ungunmerr to draw attention to the different ways aboriginal people listen. Being comfortable with their silence is very often not something young people with complex emotional or behavioural needs are good at. Their silence can be terrifying, sad, angry, empty, confused, disjointed and deafening. Somewhere along the line the opportunities to experience dadirri have not been there.
In addition to the gigawatts of positive potential field-recording offers for young people, particularly those with complex emotional and behavioural needs (however you define that), it also touches on a deeper truth, a greater question, and the reaction of our young people to the work we’ve done so far reverberates this far and wide. Why have they been denied these experiences? This question is closely followed by who, or what, is doing the denying? There are inside this work profound questions of children’s rights. Should our young people have a right to a relationship with the natural world that is not mediated by adults, or shaped by noise generated primarily by adults? Focus on vulnerable or traumatised young people for only a moment and then consider the myriad of ways in which they have been let down by the sometimes not insignificant number of adults supposed to care for them. Are these same adults to be trusted to foster a young person’s vitally important relationship with the natural world? It seems to me that at some level all our HomeSounds project is doing is providing something that should’ve been there in the first place. It is not education, it is healing of an almost exclusively man-made illness. In this context a Schoeps Double MS array is merely one of those very expensive and exclusive medical instruments, you know, the ones that go ‘ping!’...
Field recording, and the WSRS as a leader in that field, has provided for me the first of the missing links of this article’s subtitle. That connection with the natural world that made most sense to me. I’m no ecologist, botanist, birder or geologist but I am a teacher who loves to listen. The second of these is the one revealed to me through field-recording as an educative practice and pastime; The absolutely vital importance for some young people of their sonic relationship with the world. Not only within the ever-shifting sands of educational practice and ideology, but as a part of the physical fibres of their being and the make-up of their hearts. For some young people listening is the key to finding their sense of belonging, their home beyond their people. There must be a space for the natural world to be the family, friends and community human beings cannot always be.