Pond Sound Mystery
From The Secret Sounds of Ponds (Roof Books, 2023)
I have always said that my work playing music with nature might increase our sensitivity and joy with nature, that is all. Just a little bit of beauty that we can find right around us. I feel I have such limited abilities, to understand, to reflect, to inspire and relate. I only know how to do a few things well and making this weird music seems to be one of them. So I have to do it. Even if no one is around to listen I still do it. Something about it seems diligent and right.
To achieve anything in science, you really need to spend immense amounts of time focusing on incredibly tiny, very difficult problems. This kind of detail obsession is very difficult to explain to many people outside one’s specialty; each scientist trusts that others in different fields are as singleminded as they are.
At a conference in Missouri once I heard a Russian expert on the sounds of one particular beetle explain, with heightened emotion, how unique the sounds of one particular critter were, in fact, she may have been the only person to ever hear such a sound. I forget the details but she was conveying the deep satisfaction she felt when first hearing this sound. It is unlikely any other human besides her will study this same sound, because there are literally millions of other insect species out there waiting to have their habits discovered.
And most of these you would be able to see when you hear them, unlike the underwater denizens of our ponds. Myself, I am only half-heartedly after the answer of who or what is making each sound.
Before that I just want to convince all of you that these sounds are beautiful, and valuable.
The beat of a sun-drenched pond filling in with lily pads. The crackling and popping follow a beat. That’s strange I think, having been told how rare it is among animals to be able to follow a beat. Entrainment, this ability is called, is supposed to be limited to humans and a few species of large parrot. Monkeys, then, are said not be able to dance. Well, if that is true, how come plants are so good and creating rhythms, just when faced with the beams of the sun?
Clear thumps in the sounds now deep in the pond come from the world of plants, and the mystery growls and squeaks, those are the contributions of the animals.
The pioneer researcher on these astonishing underwater sounds was a Finnish researcher named Antti Jansson. Although his name cropped up often in lists of references to the underwater stridulation of pond critters, it was difficult to learn anything more about him until an online search came up with this obituary in Entomologica Fennica:
Antti Jansson’s research centered on the water boatmen of the family Corixidae. His M. Sc. thesis discussed the adaptations of species living in the highly fragmented environment of small rock pools. Soon he became interested in sound production of these insects, and his first paper on the subject from 1968 discussed the daily rhythm of stridulation of one of the rock pool species. His doctoral dissertation was on stridulation and its function in species of genus Cenocorixa, the main results were published in a series of important papers, which made him a noted specialist on insect bioacoustics. On returning to Finland, he started studies on stridulation of Micronecta species, and even used the recognizable species-specific differences as environmental indicators.
Ah, the recounting of a scientific life! Jansson did his homework, he found his exact topic, and delved deeply into it, deeper than anyone else had previously gone. Why Antti, why? If the sounds could tell us something about the quality of a liquid environment, the research can become that thing ordinary people might understand: useful. The final paragraph of the obituary is the only part that gets personal:
Antti Jansson had a surprisingly complex personality. Outwardly he was sociable and cooperative, as his work with a multitude of colleagues well proved. He performed his various tasks in the university bureaucracy with surprising efficiency. He carried on his research tenaciously in spite of injuries which forced him to resign his office. With his closest friends, a boyish streak became apparent, he was apt to playful jokes, even mild mischief. However, hidden was a surprisingly sensitive personality, who could long brood on his setbacks.
After all those years listening to the patterns of water bugs, he still knew the great conundrum of science: we will never be sure, we will never figure out the exact meaning of what nature is telling us ; in the end, we will not get there, that place of certainty, where the world is precisely known.
What was it that troubled Jansson? What were the struggles that kept him brooding? When I began research on this book, no one knew what had happened to all of Jansson’s recordings, the data that gave the weight to his surprising discoveries. While asking around, with some sleuthing by my acoustic ecology friends in Finland, eventually we were able to find them. Now we must listen.
In 1976 Jansson wrote the first paper that described the details of the rhythmic sounds made by water boatman beetles in North American ponds. He published this in Annales Zoologici Fennici, a Finnish journal. Just think, thousands of miles away from where they sang, these tiny American bugs were getting their music noticed. Why did Jansson have to stray so far from home to find the songs worth studying? Do we choose the subjects of our research, or do they choose us?
It is not hard to find water boatmen rowing in any pond:
This one was in Lost Pond not far from my home. Tiny, but easy! But just a few decades ago, Jansson had nowhere near the level of technology we now possess. Given this limitation it is amazing what he was able to achieve, lugging around large recorders in inclement weather with boxes and boxes of fragile tapes.
I look at the graphics contained in Jansson’s paper and immediately I smile:
I see rhythms, patterns, regularity, music, the code of rhythm, underwater, unheard, unknown by humans, until we delve down under the surface and divide to listen.
The fuzzy black and white sonograms, printed on thermal paper, destined to fade and crumble just a few years after printing. I’m sure none of these original printouts survive today.
The paper is an enumeration, a catalog of all that he found there. He tried to find out when and why the male bugs were calling, evolution has long told us why: attracting a mate and defending one’s space. The function, as with birds, as with whales, does not explain away the music. The music remains in the quality of the sounds themselves.
Jansson was a character, truly obsessive. He set up every single hour to record five more minutes of water bug symphonies, even all through the cold British Columbian winter night. He took his critters into the laboratory and hybridized one beetle with another, just to find out what kind of sound such a Frankenstein insect might make! I hope he is happy that decades later some of us are poring through his tapes and his notebooks, trying to listen to the raw materials of his story in order to hold onto the receding naked songs of Earth….
I want to convey to you what it feels like to know these subaqueous rhythms exist, that they seem musical, these sounds that we rarely get to hear even though we know they are there. Rhythm is repetition, as things repeat a groove is born. This text repeats itself, all my books repeat themselves, saying the same thing all over again, more relaxed and with more conviction over time, by no means necessarily better or more fresh: there is music in nature. You will hear it in the most unexpected places. Each species I approach ends up transforming my own rhythms, those in music, those in words.
The scientific listener wants to figure all this out. The musical listener wants to feel the artistic possibilities in what is found. Here’s a sonogram of a few of these Corixidae species that I heard at Lost Pond in Russell Wright’s estate now preserved as Manitoga. It’s clear over several minutes that a slow, detectable uneven rhythm is actually there:
Lost Pond Mystery
Strangely regular sounds from water bugs, fish, maybe turtles…
Compared to most insect beats, this is reaaaaaaaaallly slow, though nothing like the seventeen years cicadas have to count before coming in. Each rolling beat is forty seconds away from the next! Complex incredibly loud rhythmic pulses inaudible from above the surface, a rhythmic dirge deep down, almost an imperceivably slow march. It reminds me of the superslow beat of fin whales, each of whom makes a low whoomph every two minutes, sped up it becomes a beat we can dance to. In this sonogram we clearly see the rhythmic arranges of these pulse trains, they also sound like the echolocation clicks of foraging dolphins. But bugs do not use echolocation… or do they?
Zoom in on one of these loud knocks and it looks even more mysterious:
The successively slowed down thrum, the bug goes ever largo, starting, stretching, expanding, like a single morphing phrase of a mockingbird, exploring the possible beat he is able to achieve.
All this is under the surface of the silent pond. I’ll say it again, it is amazing what you can hear down there.
I feel the tapping of the live unknown, the mysteries clicking invisible in the green bay. Lost Pond. Found. Sit long enough by this midsummer pond and all kinds of creatures appear. The head of a skink peers up from between rocks. I know these reptiles are common, but I never see them. In the field the sound is rough and hollow, often silent, empty, repetitive mostly over the longform time, this is a thirty minute recording, mostly space between sounds but the pond is alive…. mists rise up inside me, that’s why I add the swirls in the mix, the resounding tones, echo, resonance, you can’t place it because it doesn’t come from an actual object but inside my mind, the pond mind, the mind that wants to find meaning in the aimless, in the patterns of nature that might only be there because we want them to.
This particular recording, quite quiet and spacious in its original form, now I want to fill it in with drip drop drips of the mystery. You look at it, you listen to it, you decide if there is any grand plan there, or just the beat of ambling noise.
Five days ago, last time I got something out of this sound. I keep listening. Everyone is listening down there, from humans to bugs. Hear it in any pond. Hear them before they hear you. Sometimes it’s noisy, sometimes it’s totally silent. Mid-spring’s the thing. Best time for songbirds too.
Now it’s autumn, time to remember, and to write. The woods are silenced except for the warm whooshes of remnants of distant hurricanes. It’s a big season this one, biggest in years. The Gulf keeps getting battered, the dregs wind up far away here, in the Northeast. One storm after another, not enough letters in the alphabet to cover them. It’s only going to get worse, they say. Year after year. Really not much we can do about it except hunker down and prepare. Tell our children to be different. Live different. Not to make these same mistakes. But O they will. They always will.
The crackles in the pond go on, the shake, the separation, the silence. There is a rhythm down there I knows it. I feels it. I want to be in it.
Toss on some effects, add the thrum. An unidentifiable hum, not a useful hum. Don’t ask we what pitch it is, what tone, what rezz. Resonance, the tone. A quick breath, I want to add. Put a clarinet on it. That’s how I usually make it my own.
But now I want to play less. Ever less, fewer notes. Play constantly, over and over myself. Then cut it all out, leave space. Compress. Make the tones even, all the same volume. Make it sound like I Wrote all this down even if I improvise. Simple pentatonic tones. Easy music. No bird would use such simplicity, not even the hermit thrush, though long they thought so.
There is an uneasy rumble. It isn’t real. Wasn’t ever there. Comes from the processing, the grumbling, the humble. I play back the pieces and extrude what words. What words? I don’t want to tell you what words, I want you to come inside these sounds, join the swirl with me.
You can get a telescoping lens to dip underwater, keeping your camera dry. This device inserts your gaze into the pond. Then you can see that the thicket of grungy leaves and paddling bugs makes absolutely no sense at all. We cannot parse it, we cannot explain.
Wheech! A shriek, a high squawk, silent again above the surface.
No one has any idea at all what it could be….
A sea monster inland, a dreaded pond kobald. Creature from the green lagoon. All part of the tapping, scratching, crawling sound…. Everyone is listening down there.
The ponds are now silenced. It’s later in autumn. The fall field crickets still do sing, make their way into our houses and serenade us by the warm fireside, as thousands of Chinese poems remind us. Keep your cricket in its tiny box. Keep him alive as long as you can, feed him rich and nutritious liquid. His sound brings you solace as the evenings grow dark and cold. No similar bard celebrates the pond kobald. He is a mystery, no one loves him. Hardly anyone knows he exists!
Here he is in Savoy Mountain Pond:
Here he is in a windswept tarn in Newfoundland:
Everywhere he is a shapeshifter, a chimera, someone totally different. Always a momentary gesture, not to be heard again, in between acres of silence. My friend and fellow pond listener Ben Gottesman tried to categorize these mysterious types of single noise in a pond in Costa Rica. These are the categories he came up with:
Cyclops, Highchair, Scraper, Scratcher. Scrunch, Scrunch2, Hockey, Buzzer, Geiger, Geiger Blast, Rain. Rain—at least we know what that one is. The others: tone after tone of mystery.
I put Ben’s sounds into a software drum kit and started playing the hits back and forth in different rhythms, trying to inhabit the power of the noise. What beats did they suggest, how might I rearrange them and dance to them? Then he told me to stop. His advisor controls all those sounds, and doesn’t want them loose. No one should know. We can’t let these unknown scrunchies out there. What would people think? What if someone understands them or knows who is singing? Let the high walls of science keep them in—for now.
It was Ben who rekindled my interest in the shimmering underwater sounds in ponds, after I had learned that science knows hardly anything about them. Seuer had turned me on to his student Camille Desjonqueres, who was on a postdoc studying noisy fish in Wisconsin, and Ben was finishing up his PhD at the Center for Global Soundscapes at Purdue. A call for a museum exhibition called Depth had just been announced, for the new Science Gallery in Detroit. I suggested we all collaborate… on something dark and noisy. Something whose form we could not yet imagine. Something called The Secret Sounds of Ponds.
What is this place called the Science Gallery? Once there was only one, at Trinity College Dublin, created and run by the unique leader Michael John Gorman. Michael John realized a few things about science museums, and art galleries. Why are science museums usually seen as being for kids, while art galleries are for adults? Well, only the latter has really expensive things on display that kids can’t afford, but that can’t be it. At the same time we know science is real serious, and supposed to take years of study to do but it tells us how the real world really works, and art, well, as they say, “even a kid could do that.”
So clearly there is some disconnect here. Adults, like the mature sea squirt, don’t want to learn anything new. Michael John, my good friend and sometime collaborator, realized this as well: the audience least interested in science museums, or art galleries for that matter, are young people age 18-30, the most important generation to inspire to care about such places now emerging. Thus he set out to create a new kind of museum, a “Science Gallery” that would be cool, hip, surprising, challenging unique and of interest to the Bernie Sanders generation.
In 2013 together with the artist Tessa Farmer I created a sculpture with sound for their “Oscillator” exhibition. You see, each exhibit is curated around a basic scientific theme, and I thought that my then obsession with the seventeen year cycle of periodic cicadas would be a pretty long but dependable oscillation to exhibit. Tessa is known for her incredibly detailed installations made out of insect parts, so what could go wrong?
Nothing, actually…. so don’t expect a disaster story here. With seed money from Google and many other sources, the Science Gallery concept has now expanded all over the world. The Detroit version opened a few years ago, and the theme for 2019 was “Depth,” so immediately I thought of an underwater pond project, as long as I could have some help. Ben G was the perfect collaborator for this thing, because he knew from the outset we needed even more collaborators. Jérôme Sueurhad already introduced me to Camille, the one recent Paris PhD graduate who really wanted to listen deep down to ponds.
These two are great examples of the new kind of scientist that the system is starting to produce; creative, curious individuals who are not afraid to extend science into art. Ben wanted to expand his research into art installations, and once Camille heard about the possibility, she was ready to join. Sure, this topic might be specialized. but it’s also so fun. It celebrates the beauty of the unknown. We should never figure everything out before we have the chance to enjoy the mystery.
Our task was to convey what it must be like to be inside a pond, deep in a murky world that contains so much magical sound. We wanted to create a hyperpond, something more lush than life, where you might crawl in and experience cavalcade of lilting unknowns…. Neither known unknowns or unknown knowns, just delightful mysteries, rhythms and squeaks you might rest within. It’s probably not enough just to listen, our ears are not complete enough for that. There should also be something to see….
So our team was now two scientists, one French, one American, and one pond recordist, me. Ben the American also sees the potential for music in his research, you can tell by the way he named his sounds above and how they naturally ally themselves into a pondish sampled drum kit, which I could play for you but I am not allowed to share with you for profit since the lab he worked in insists upon owning all the sounds. Too bad.
Camille dared to ask… how to make sense of all this underwater magic, and tried to categorize it all. I asked for her sounds and she obliged. I asked her to explain what was going on down there and we listened to the sounds together when she had flown in from Wisconsin to New York one afternoon a few years ago, when such travel was still normal, and fragments of her thoughts were written down:
Text for Camille to speak is in red. I asked her for the following: “Speak slowly, and send me a good recording of your voice. For now I’ll use my voice but we really should use YOU!”
When you drop a hydrophone in the water, you step into a whole new world of sound that is completely different. It is hard to visualize all that you are hearing.
This is a water beetle called the lesser water boatman, just rubbing his penis against his body.
The lesser diving beetle contracts his muscles preparing to fly away. Are they warming up for take-off or is it a signal like “This place sucks. I’m outta here.”
Two species of water boatman and a turtle, maybe, but we don’t know. Maybe that’s just a big bubble coming up.
In the background, the pygmy water boatmen rub their striated penises against their bodies to make this astonishing sound.
In the foreground, a turtle bubbles past the hydrophone, and another kind of water boatman rubs his legs over his head…
The underwater calling of the painted frog in a Paris pond in the Jardin des Plantes at night. Most frogs call from above the water, but this one calls while completely submerged.
0939 recorded in the Camargues, another water boatman, but what kind ? No one knows…
recorded during the day, the peak of reproductive season, but quieter, less active.
Why are water bugs more active at night? Maybe there is so much noise from plants during the day that the night is better.
All these rhythms and even the faint squeals are likely to be bubbles in a pond very rich in organic matter, a lot of vegetation. The sediment is very muddy, so we hear photosynthesis, decomposition, and the respiration of the plants themselves, often more rhythmic and musical-sounding than the underwater creatures.
Whenever there is a flow of energy in the plant that is continuous and regular, we hear rhythmic sounds.
I list the scientific information, data from the field, and then her occasional commentary. But in art there is no need to be that exact. The pondsoundworld is a mix of silence and surprise, confusion and illegibility; rhythm, squeak, and noise.
It is the strangest and most alien natural soundscape I have ever tried to make sense of, or interact with.
That is the most remarkable thing about this whole project. It’s right in my backyard and it’s as weird as outer space! Amazing to discover, because in these pandemic times, we are hardly allowed to go anywhere at all. Still, there is musical magic in the natural world.
So, our plan was to make a multi-channel audio work that swirls around your head as you enter the space. Originally we thought we would use these little high-tech speakers that you can only hear when you are very close to them, the kind of thing I’ve seen in rad nature and science museums that built complicated environments that you slink through often in the dark. But that seemed too technically challenging, and besides, those little speakers don’t produce the very deep sounds which do exist down in ponds. What could we do with a simpler setup? Well, four regular speakers would be easy to control from a simple audio interface, and through those four we could run as many uneven loops of sound as we wanted. I settled on the number…. eleven. Honoring Spinal Tap I suppose… this project goes up to eleven.
The idea was to make each of the eleven tracks a loop of uneven length, each a few minutes in length. Each containing a bit of sound, and another bit of silence. They cycle over and over again, as long as the program is running. Because every loop is a different length the artwork will never sound the same way twice. Composing for such indeterminacy requires a certain kind of faith in the listener, and a certain kind of openness in the composer.
Here’s what the installation in Detroit looked like:
Because I was never able to attend my own installation, I asked for a video of what it was like to be inside it:
Here’s a version of what the soundscape sounded like one time, though because it was made of eleven uneven overlapping tracks, it would never sound this way ever again:
I don’t really know. I never even got to see that one, since at the time I was far away, traveling, touring, playing. Such journeys seem utopian from a pandemic perspective. Nostalgia from our former freedom just to move. Wherever, whenever.
Now circumstances have kept me close to home, near to my ponds. Yet now I know how much there is to listen to, always already right here, around me.
If a pond sings in the forest and no one drops a hydrophone down, does it in fact make a sound?