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Hitting a more natural note

ASU associate professor explores sound as a way of thinking about humans' impact on the world

An African grey parrot plays a tiny violin.

April 04, 2016

Stop what you’re doing and listen.

What do you hear?

Cellphones buzzing with incoming texts. The roar of a bus accelerating past your window. The frenzied tick-tacking of keyboards. Muffled water-cooler chatter. All of these sounds are man-made, and they make up most of what we hear every day.

If we were able to mute them all at once, then what would we hear?

“A bird call reflecting off of a mountain side. Or the way wind sounds as it moves through a field of grass. Even something as small as a beetle burrowing in the sand,” mused Daniel Gilfillan.

The associate professorDaniel Gilfillan is an associate professor of German studies and information literacy in the School of International Letters and Cultures, as well as faculty affiliate in film and media studies, Jewish studies and English. The School of International Letters and Cultures is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. of German studies and information literacy at ASU has been thinking a lot lately about how sound can enhance and deepen humans’ experience of a space, especially a natural space. He’s even writing a book on it, titled “Sound in the Anthropocene: Sustainability and the Art of Sound,” and will be giving a talk on the subject, “Listening Before, Beyond, and Alongside the Human” at 2 p.m. Wednesday, April 6, for the Musicology Colloquium in the School of Music. It will be in the Music Library Seminar Room in the Music Building on the Tempe campus.

The Anthropocene is a fairly new term referring to the next geological period that we may or may not enter (it’s currently being debated by geologists), in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities.

“The modality of sound serves as an interesting vehicle for thinking about our human interrelationships with the environment, with other species in the environment, with natural spaces in the environment,” said Gilfillan. “So the book is about trying to think about how sound might provide us with other avenues for investigation of human impact on the world.”

What first got him really thinking about the subject was the work of a group of Austrian sound artists — Alien Productions — which played a role in his 2009 book, “Pieces of Sound: German Experimental Radio.” Since then, he has continued to follow the group’s work and took particular notice of one of their more recent projects, called Metamusic.

A unique undertaking, Metamusic is the group’s attempt to create and adapt musical instruments for 21 African grey parrots. The project recently received a three-year grant for 375,000 euros from the Austrian Science Foundation. Excited at the prospect of how the project seemed to integrate well with the context of his current book project, Gilfillan signed on to serve as a consultant.

“This Metamusic project was really intriguing to me because it engaged the relationship between sound as a sort of intermediary between humans and this group of parrots,” he explained.

Since 2012, Alien Productions — in close collaboration with zoologists, biologists and animal keepers — have been investigating how the parrots react to musical stimuli and exploring whether they are able to produce meaningful music by themselves.

As a humanities scholar, Gilfillan’s role as a consultant on the project is (as one might expect) to bring out its humanities aspects, such as “thinking about what the potential influence this three-year project might have on the human species’ ability to rethink its relationship with the other species that populate our planet.”

He recently spent some time with the parrots in Austria, observing them in their aviary space as they became more familiar with their modified instruments, such as gongs and tiny violins. Originally meant to serve as a means to alleviate boredom for animals in captivity, it became apparent that there was more to it than that.

One parrot’s story in particular spoke to Gilfillan. The parrot had been confined in a dark basement for roughly nine months before being rescued and brought to the shelter where the project was taking place. It took time and lots of positive human interaction, but he eventually began to regain confidence and the ability to engage with humans through the mechanisms of Metamusic.

That parrot’s story serves as the perfect example of how humans’ actions — or inactions — can have a profound effect on the natural environment. When we think only of other species as existing for our benefit, they often suffer as a result.

“That brings us back to the conversation about the Anthropocene,” said Gilfillan. “Do we have a chance to make the modifications we need to make in order for issues like climate change, like loss of species, [to be corrected]? Can we counteract that in some way by thinking about how art moves us into a mode of reflection or interactivity with, in this case parrots, that then teaches us something about our larger relationship with Earth?

“From my humanities perspective, not all humans are bad humans but as a species, we could create a list of pros and cons of things we’ve done throughout history that link us to bad things but also good things. We need to explore how we can continue doing more good in the world, and this is one way to continue doing that.”

Gilfillan was recently by a German radio station about the project. Click here to listen. (Another great reason to learn German, Gilfillan assures.)

The project was also reported on by

Photo and video courtesy of Gilfillan and Alien Productions

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