On Earth Day 2017, Vancouver Co-operative Radio turned the airwaves over to the wetland creatures for twenty-four continuous hours. The broadcast consisted of a recording made in real time on Earth Day in the previous year. Artists Brady Marks and Mark Timmings collaborated on this exercise in slow radio art. The Wetland broadcast is a tribute to the World Soundscape Project (WSP) founded by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in the late 1960s.
In his 1975 article “FM Radio as Observational Access to Wilderness Environments,” composer and researcher Bruce Davis proposed “wilderness radio” that would broadcast sounds from a remote natural environment to the city. This project would have impacted our relationship to Nature and our conceptualization of radio. His vision was never realized. Davis was an associate of the World Soundscape Project, a Canadian cultural movement that began fifty years ago at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. With R. Murray Schafer, WSP members Howard Broomfield, Bruce Davis, Peter Huse, Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp pioneered the environmental discipline known as Acoustic Ecology. This field of study, based on the relationship between humans and their sonic environment, is now practiced internationally. In the words of composer, radio artist and sound ecologist Westerkamp, “learning how to listen and what kind of listener we are in the world … is an environmental question.” She asks us, “How deeply are we engaged with the world through our ears?”
In 2013, multidisciplinary artist Mark Timmings began to focus his attention on the wetland beside his home on Saturna Island, British Columbia. He realized that the rich soundscape emanating from this site was nothing more than background to his daily routine. The initial impetus for the Wetland Project was to heighten his awareness of this environment. It occurred to him that the marsh was a metaphor for the primordial soup constituting the origins of life. Timmings made connections between the activities and vocalizations of the creatures and of his own; he became immersed in the soundscape. This immersion is the inspiration for the Wetland broadcast.
The twenty-four-hour broadcast on Earth Day 2017 was the longest continuous radio transmission in Canadian history. The Saturna Island wetland soundscape was amplified beyond the marsh to the local community, across the country and around the globe. Besides being aired on Vancouver Co-operative Radio, it was also streamed on the internet and an abridged version was syndicated to international broadcasters. The webcast continues to be available for listening in sync with the listeners’ local time on the project’s website.
In sharp contrast to the distractive experience of mainstream commercial radio, listeners’ interaction was transformed into one of acute perception. It is, to quote Bruce Davis, “a radio service which ‘listens in’ rather than ‘broadcasts out.’” Since most natural life forms operate on a twenty-four-hour cycle, or circadian rhythm, the real time aspect of slow radio allows the listener to be immersed in the full spectrum of the soundscape as it occurs. As an act of social and environmental awareness and activism, it has the potential to expose interconnections between the creatures in the wetland and people in their homes, apartments and condos as they go about their everyday rituals. Questions arise: When does sound become noise? When does noise become music? How do airplanes and human activities resonate with the natural soundscape? How do I fit into the sonic environment and how does it affect my daily activities? While tuning into the Wetland broadcast, listeners’ daily routines were re-enchanted by the rich, holistic, unpredictable sounds issuing from the radio.
For years man has been pumping his affairs out across the wilderness environment. For once the natural soundscape would be allowed, in its wisdom, to speak back to us.— R. Murray Schafer, from Radical Radio (1987)