World Arts / Art & Science
Sons en causa

Spatial concert in the Santa Rosa National Park

Llegeix-lo en català

N10.50.191-W085.36.960. 17.53. 12/04/2010

You might say the light feels almost Mediterranean. That must be why I feel so at home today. It also seems, to my ears, as if the array of sounds is comparable to other environments, I’m more used to. The sensation of heat is the most familiar one to me. I know these perceptions are too subjective, because nothing here is remotely the same as nine thousand miles to the east.  

In Costa Rica, the nature is lush and fragile. The environment could not be drier, it seems, but it is at its limit. Santa Rosa is one of the few original dry forests left in the country. Off road, the terrain is quite steep, the vegetation considerably dense. It is not particularly suitable for walks; if you were to try to penetrate it, you would shred your clothes and skin on the bushes that protect the lower trunks of the evergreens, whose foliage is perennial. There are the wide trunks of the leguminous guapinols (the courbaril or West Indian locust), the tempisques (Sideroxylon capiri) with their rounded crowns rising high above, and the cinnamon trees, which the locals say can live five hundred years. There are also deciduous species, such as the Panama, which is very tall and provides excellent shade. Impressive, though not as much as the pochote, is Ceiba aesculifolia, a species of Bombacaceae and the sacred tree of the Maya. But these are only a few of the deciduous tree species we might find there; thus, the ground is covered with a dense layer of tinder, which could catch fire at any moment. Temperatures inside the forest easily reach thirty-nine degrees Celsius. Outside, the atmosphere is a bit cooler. Now the thermometer reads thirty-four degrees. The wind whistles through the trees, causing the branches to sway and leaves to rustle, and ushers in moisture from the ocean, which moistens and cools the air. This is the Pacific. Its far-off roar can be heard, but it is not what we seek. This point will be the closest we get to that soundscape today. The crashing waves ends up drowning out the productions of all other sound sources; a collection of waves does not interest us much. We seek unique soundscapes. This already happened to us on the Caribbean side of the country; the crashing waves of the Atlantic were incessant. 

The drought does not appear to affect the density of sounds. The pressure is low, the birds and insects are not close, but the density and remarkable complexity of the soundscape provides me with sufficient arguments to reaffirm the hypothesis that has enveloped me since we started Sons en Causa: the cerebral complexity of animal species correlates with the aperiodicity of their song. 

There is something out there that could not possibly be a bird. The internal periodicity of song phrases is remarkable. However, the temporal separation between these internally periodic events is somewhat chaotic, as is a heartbeat, which, incidentally, is all the more regular the more pronounced the disorder is. A sick heart beats much more mechanically than a healthy heart. I’ve written about it other times: a healthy heartbeat is seemingly regular, but it always carries a certain unpredictability. Among animals, mammal sounds tend to be the most unpredictable; like those of the pair of enormous rodents we came across a while ago, when the clouds were rolling in. They were very elusive. Although we couldn’t get very close, we took some pictures. They did well to be distrustful. We humans are neither reliable nor predictable in any way. 

We had set out to record a more humid environment to end the day’s recording, but when we drove off the most passable road and stopped to change the gearbox, it seemed to me that the engine was sounding strange. I cut the engine completely. The sound persisted. It was coming from outside, then. At first, Carlos suggested they were frogs. We weren’t sure. The intensity was highly variable.  

The dynamic margins are so large that I sometimes fear they will saturate the recording. It’s a veritable show. There must be singing insects living in the trees, such as Mediterranean cicadas, which sit atop the pine trunks. They are not the only animal songs with variable dynamics. They also share similar behaviour with other stridulating insects, such as crickets and locusts: when you approach an isolated individual, he falls silent, and then you hear the singing of more distant members of his species, less intensely and in comparable frequency bands.  It is a strategy to confuse predators, a defence mechanism, but also, for us, a generator of aesthetic sensations coming directly from the sound perceptions of the space. 

Of course they are insects. They begin their song with a slow periodicity, perceptible as rhythm, by the separation of events. As it accelerates and exceeds 20 Hertz, the percussive sensation is replaced by that of height. It’s amazing! It’s similar to what a square wave oscillator would do if you increased its frequency from zero to a few hundred Hertz. I can’t help but marvel at what I’m hearing. It is so fascinating to find the phase differences between the sounds that reach our ears from the emitters located here and there, literally everywhere, generating a remarkable acoustic sensation of space. If the stridulation of all the individuals produces sounds in similar frequency bands, the position of each cicada causes its sound to reach a different phase than the others. It’s similar to how the strings of an orchestra come together in unison. All the instruments produce the same note, but the sum generates a sense of sonic fullness within our cognitive system. It is not just that it sounds louder – it does a little, perhaps – but that, due to the separation of sound sources and the differences in phase and amplitude, it sounds bigger. Many electronic devices used for reverberation and the simulation of the specific sound response of architectural spaces are based on the manipulation and control of phase differences.

Thanks to sound, despite the high density of vegetation, the dry forest is shown in all its spatial depth. The birds fly from side to side and sometimes distract me from the cicadas. Then I look up at the sky and between the tree branches I discover a red light. Definitely an infra-red camera. Perhaps the managers of the reserve would understand our project: to create a network of microphones connected to the Internet in all ecosystems of environmental value around the world. Costa Rica is the most wired country in Central America. It wouldn’t be too complicated to send a signal to the main building, just a mile away. From there to the general network, the effort would be minimal and hundreds of creators and researchers could work with the sounds of the environment, live and simultaneously. 

A huge bird drops some fruit from a nearby tree. It falls just 2 metres from here. He then takes off in cumbersome flight, perching silently on another tree branch on the other side of the road. He looks like a wild turkey. The insects, without seeing them but whose intensity of song would surely be enormous, gradually grow quiet, leaving us alone with the common crickets. The infra-red camera is still on and, with the pinkish hues of the sunset, the spirit sings fragments of the venerable Gabriel Ferrater:

“The light cleanses, tosses the cotton clouds, surrenders, turns and drinks the clearest gin of the moon and sea.”


North: 10° 50′ 3,18″ – West: 85° 36′ 9,60″ – 12/04/2019 20:10.

Sons en Causa

Sons en Causa és un projecte de l’Orquestra del Caos basat en el registre del patrimoni sonor propi d’una sèrie de contextos culturals on a l’entorn mediambiental, a causa del creixement econòmic, són previsibles canvis irreversibles a curt i mitjà termini. Les diversitats cultural i biològica, encara enormes, són massa fràgils. Mereixen ser tingudes en compte i la seva gran importància, divulgada. El patrimoni intangible, i amb ell, el sonor, està seriosament amenaçat en molts llocs del món. Un cop produïts els canvis que ara ens semblen inevitables, els sons, i amb ells les seves causes, hauran desaparegut per sempre.

Enregistraments: Carlos Gómez

Josep Manuel Berenguer
Josep Manuel Berenguer és coordinador i professor de Psicoacústica i Música experimental del Màster en Art Sonor de la UB i director l'Orquestra del Caos. President d'Honor de la International Conference of Electroacoustic Music del CIM / UNESCO, President de Quantum Art Lab, membre del Patronat de la Fundació Phonos i del grup MISAME. El seu treball inicialment electroacústic s'ha orientat a la instal·lació, al temps real i a la interactivitat. Les temàtiques desenvolupades inclouen qüestions relacionades amb la filosofia i la història de la ciència, els límits de llenguatge, l'ètica, la vida i la intel·ligència artificial, la robòtica, el metabolisme de la informació, així com els límits mateixos de la comprensió i la percepció humanes del món. Luci, que explora els comportaments complexos emergents de superposicions d'elements simples, va rebre el Premi ARCO-Beep d'Art Electrònic.

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