Listening at the Seams: Curating a Relations-Based Audio Narrative of the Schuylkill River

Steven Hammer & Greg Sieber

“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.” Marshall McLuhan,  War and Peace in the Global Village


The river now known as the Schuylkill flows approximately 130 miles across Eastern Pennsylvania, originating in the anthracite coal mining region of the state and terminating in Philadelphia where it meets the Delaware River. Originally the home of the Lenni-Lenape peoples, the river has been given many names, from its indigenous name Tool Pay Hanna (Turtle River) to later colonial names like Manayunk and Tulpehocken. The river has long been used as a source of food and water and a site of recreation, industry, and transportation. It is also a place of many stories. Like many natural resources, the Schuylkill’s river bed and many of its residents still possess a sort of biochemical memory of 20th century industrialism. Researchers and governmental agencies may consider the health of the river by analyzing the morphology of its aquatic species, especially its fish (Sun et al., 2009; Harris, 1995; Norris, 1999). Several species of fish inhabit the waters of the Schuylkill, but most store in their bodies high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxic and carcinogenic industrial chemicals used until the late 1970s. Annual fish consumption guidelines currently recommend that humans eat no more than one Catfish per month, and recommend against ever consuming some other species of fish (“2019 Fish Consumption Advisory”). Other narratives of river health also turn to the bodies of fish as biomarkers to tell the story of change. Local fishing communities and press issue reports of species, size, and location of fish caught to indicate improvements in water quality and river health (Schneck, 2018).

Narratives of and around the Schuylkill River are not limited to health or pollution, of course, yet many tell their stories through objects in much the same way. Bethany Wiggin’s (2016) work on telling stories of the Schuylkill centers primarily on oil refinery complexes in operation since the mid-1800s as sites of understanding. Teagan Schweitzer’s work, “Historic Philadelphia Foodways” (2013) in many ways helps us understand the Schuylkill River as a shaper of cultural, social, and economic practices involving food over time through the prevalence of catfish consumption evident in periodicals. Surely, we could expand the list of Schuylkill River narratives for some time, and each narrative would rely on some object or constellation of objects to tell that story through. In other words, narratives of complex spaces often rely on objects through which stories are told, and the selection of those objects is an important methodological concern. We might refer to these objects or bodies through which narratives are situated and told, as listening objects.

As creative-critical scholars and Philadelphia residents, we began to wonder about alternative methods of telling stories about the river. Instead of measuring pollutant concentration in fish bodies or following anecdotal observations of resident species and behavior, how might we employ listening methods to understand, experience, and share our interpretations of the river? And which listening objects might we listen through as narrative conduits? We say listen here both because we have a predisposition toward sound-based research and creative practice. Further, we agree with Caskey (2017) who argues, extending the work of Coates (2005), that most scholarship investigating the histories of places and geographies have been overwhelmingly visual in nature, or “soundproofed.” Caskey suggests that as we investigate rivers and their histories, we should allow our ears to help us make sense of spaces and relationships within: “Whether as a storytelling device, as part of an analysis, or even as an inclusion for the sake of posterity, the sounds of a river, both past and present, are worth documenting as part of the historical record.” We therefore began to craft a narrative of our river through a method of sound, a method of listening.

When we propose a method of listening, what do we mean? First, we mean to differentiate between the involuntary physical action of hearing, wherein humans with typical hearing ability are able to detect sonic phenomena, and listening, which implies active attention. Here, we find Pauline Oliveros’ work on Deep Listening to be useful. She writes, “complex waveforms continuously transmitted to the auditory cortex from the outside world by the ear require active engagement with attention. Prompted by experience and learning, listening takes place voluntarily. Listening is not the same as hearing and hearing is not the same as listening...very little of the information transmitted to the brain by the sense organs is perceived at a conscious level” (xxi). Oliveros proposes a practice of Deep Listening to more fully and consciously attune oneself to auditory phenomena and their effects. Not surprisingly, such awareness is most evident in Oliveros’ work as part the Deep Listening Band with Stuart Dempster, David Gamper, and Panaiotis. Their first self-titled album, released in 1988, was recorded in the Fort Worden Cistern, an underground water tank with a measured reverberation time of 45 seconds. The artists played and recorded the album in this space, and began to articulate what it meant to play along with a space. In this case, to return to the notion of the listening object, the Cistern itself became the listening object through which the Deep Listening Band composed, responded, and performed.

Further, as Peter Szendy argues in Listen: A History of Our Ears, field recordings are never mere documentation or collection, but are instead subjective accounts of a listener’s listening. Field recordings are, then, a kind of curation of aural space and time. Further, we must not forget the subjectivity of our listening technologies, our prosthetic ears that allow us to extend, alter, and record our listenings. As sound artist Yan Jun argues, “To choose equipments, choose position and push record button are acts of composing” (Qtd. in English, 2014). In other words, situated and subjective composition is taking place when one decides to record with a certain constellation of microphones, filetypes, headphones, recorders, compression algorithms, digital audio workstations, etc.. And further, situated and subjective composition is taking place when we decide to record anything at all. Hence, we frame our work here as a listening method: an active, situated, and collaborative act of sonic composition.

Creative-critical scholarship, like other emerging modes of inquiry such as research-creation (Cohen), centers on both the application (Anderson, 2014) and performance (Wysocki, 2004) of creative methods in and as scholarly inquiry. We might also suggest that one of the unique opportunities afforded by creative-critical work is anti-environmental work. For McLuhan, the role of the artist in society is to expose, explore, or otherwise probe existing environments created by media. He writes, “Art as an anti-environment is an indispensable means of perception, for environments, as such, are imperceptible. Their power to impose their ground rules on our perceptual life is so complete that there is no scope for dialogue or interface. Hence the need for art or anti-environments” (1966).  Here we see one of the real affordances--and demands--of creative critical scholarship: that it be sufficiently strange, or removed from typical experience in order to reveal something new about previously invisible environments. In our case, yes, we could record sounds of the river in a way that sounds natural to the listener (e.g., using traditional stereo field recording techniques), but instead, we wanted to use listening techniques that situate the listener strangely, to hopefully invite a sense of curiosity, puzzlement, or unease. Drawing from Lanham’s At/Through framework for understanding digital media--in short, that the affordances of digital media and interfaces lies in audiences’ tendencies to oscillate between looking at and looking through interfaces--we argue that these moments of oscillation between perceiving narratives (sounds of each river “scene” including recognizable sounds and events) and perceiving the medium (hearing unfamiliar sounds, or sounds in unfamiliar ways, such as underwater, through a small tube or aluminum can) are opportunities for composers and audiences alike to become (re)situated and (re)aquainted with an environment in a new and hopefully illuminating way.

This, then, is a story about developing a creative-critical method of listening to the Schuylkill River, to understand the space especially through its relationships to human-based production and waste, and to present this listening in a sufficiently anti-environmental fashion so as to prompt a new or alternative awareness in listeners. Our album visits six locations on the Schuylkill River that have been historically significant in terms of human pollution. The liner notes of each track provides data on the site as well as its documented history as it pertains to the impact of industry and pollution on the river. The audio of each track performs our method of Listening at the Seams, which we begin to articulate below but might briefly describe as a method of listening to a space through seams of relation and listening objects.

Seaming: Toward A Relations-Based Listening Method

Seaming is a term typically associated with textile work, denoting a line at which two pieces of fabric are joined together with thread. This metaphor implies a few conditions. First, we should recognize that the seemingly distinct fabrics to be joined together are themselves made of woven fibers. Thus, no fabric exists without relational weaving or seaming, or put another way, it’s seams all the way down. Such arguments have been at the forefront of various flavors of object-oriented ontology, actor network theory, and new materialism for a few decades, but have also been at the root of indigenous philosophy-practices for much, much longer (Powell, et al. 2014; Hammer, 2019). Regardless of one’s situatedness to the notion of relationality, however, this first realization is important: when we listen, we are always already listening to relationships, listening to seams. Thus, we must approach the act of listening through an understanding of and appreciation for the nature of sound as inherently relational. We have already written about listening objects, and it is important to note here that none of these objects themselves produce sound--only when they are put in relationship with other objects or forces do they produce sound.

Second, seaming as a metaphor implies an active selection (and therefore, rejection) of interactants on which to focus. We made selections of listening objects at sites, such as an empty aluminum cans and bridges and drainage pipes. In doing so, we actively chose to tell a narrative of that space through its relationships with anthropogenic materials, therefore ignoring a virtually infinite amount of alternative objects. Here, our own situatedness comes to light, just as any research endeavor must come to terms with why it investigates what it does, how, and why. Clearly, we are attuned to existing narratives of the Schuylkill as a natural resource often in conflict with industrialism and consumerism, and in fact, we chose listening sites based on such narratives. Further, we chose listening objects based on their existence as artifacts of industry, infrastructure, and discarded consumer goods. We do not think this detracts from the importance or impact of such work, but instead acknowledges its perspective and bias, and contributes to the transparency of the work which we will discuss and expand upon later when we describe the importance of documentation of methods to this work.

Seaming then, to finally arrive at a kind of description of our work here, is the method of recording--and thereby listening to--a place through and between its borderlands. Borderlands are regions of ontological slippery-ness, the (non)lands of chimeras and hybrids. The spaces where traditional methods and symbolic systems may do less than arts-based methods. Borderlands may be physical as in a shoreline, fence, or door. Borderlands may be ideological as in artificial/natural, indigenous/colonial. Borderlands may be political or colonial, ecological or chemical. They may be visual or aural or tactile. Borderlands may be a number of things, but they exist as sites of collision and entanglement, and our method begins by perceiving the world and its places not as distinct and separated by borders, but as always already borderlands, porous and fluid. We then ask where we might find evidence of these collisions and entanglements, which listening objects might allow us to experience the place anew. Here, it is also of practical concern here to attend to the aural affordances of borderlands, i.e., if these collisions can be successfully heard and recorded.

Seaming, at least as we have initially developed the practice, occurs in at least two compositional spaces. First, in what we will call “field,” denoting the sites of listening and recording audio. Secondly, in the “studio,” denoting the mixing, editing, and composing of the audio after its initial recording. Field and studio sites may vary greatly, of course, and one should certainly be aware of and intentional about her choices regarding these spaces, from the selection of physical space (including recording technologies used to listen/record) to selection of software spaces (in which certain types of sound composition are encouraged/enforced).

In the Field

After deciding on a site to engage with and listen to--the Schuylkill River, in our case--and after research on its history and features, and after choosing site visits based on narrative landmarks, we began to assemble our recording kit. Many field recording philosophies and techniques exist for listening to a place, but most employ tool-methods such as MS, ORTF, XY, or Ambisonic. These tools and techniques are predominant in field recording practices due to their sense of realism. But our aim here is not to simply re-present a space from the perspective of a typical human listener--instead, we want to focus tightly on borders, on relations. Therefore, our recording methods and tools should reflect our purpose.

As such, we employed three types of microphones and specific methods for each. First, because our primary context is water, we used a hydrophone, a microphone designed to record in/under water. This allows us to present the sonic world from an unusual/anti-environmental perspective. Second, we used contact microphones on objects such as the can of insect repellent. Contact microphones detect and express sound as transmitted through solid material instead of air-based vibrations, allowing us to listen through specific object interactions. Third, we used very small lavalier microphones mounted in objects, traveling where our ears cannot, and thus providing an unusual perspective and scale not otherwise available. For instance, we mounted one of these “lav” mics inside of an empty and crumpled aluminum Mountain Dew can, allowing us to hear the place from inside an aluminum can. This practice has precedent in the work of Toshiya Tsonuda, from whom we took much inspiration, particularly from pieces such as “Bottle at Park” from Extract From Field Recording Archive #2

We arrived at each site and took our time to investigate the place. What was there that made the place usual? What made it unusual? What was there that should not be there? What objects provided listening opportunities or challenges? How could we curate the space to provide listening opportunities? The selection of listening objects was a negotiation between our knowledge about the affordances of our equipment and the constellations of objects and artifacts present in the space during our engagement with it. Principally, we sought out objects with a strong narrative voice that reflected the questions above in some way. Then, through exploring the material relationships between the objects, the space and the recording equipment, we searched for ways to listen through those objects that amplified their narrative voice and highlighted their unique sonic footprint. Since the pieces would ultimately exist together in a series, it was important to us that these objects provided sonic contrasts between the sites we visited, which meant looking for new sonic textures and palettes at each location.

Plastic bottles are something we unsurprisingly encountered at many of the sites we visited. However, the origins, context and conditions of the bottles varied widely across sites, affording different narrative and sonic inquiry. Our first location, for example, features a warped and burned Sprite bottle which was found outside a fenced off mine shaft at the mouth of the river. We elected to use a contact mic on the bottle which, tethered by a hair-tie, translated the vibrations of the river, a small stream at this point, reverberating against the plastic into a soft, persistent hum (figure.1). Our next site featured a performance by a half-filled plastic milk jug outside a residential area. Because the water here was hardly moving, it didn’t act upon the bottle in a way that the contact mic was suited to translate. We instead opted for a lav mic, which was placed inside the mouth of the bottle, to capture the slow undulations of the river cradling the jug and softly, relentlessly, tossing it against the rocks lining its banks (figure 2). These negotiations, ongoing and different at each site, shaped how the listening objects we selected served as spokesthings and translators for the seams we found ourselves at the intersections of.

Figure 1: Contact microphone placed on plastic bottle found at Tamaqua site.
Figure 2: Lav microphone placed in plastic jug found at Leesport site.

We used an audio recorder with 4 XLR inputs, establishing our listening constraints at the offset to work with predetermined simultaneous “ears” in each scene. We opted for one track each of a hydrophone and contact microphone, and two channels of lav microphones. However, any arrangement of microphones would suffice and would presumably be informed by the knowledge or expertise of the researcher and the types of objects they intend to listen through. At each site, we tested sounds from an initial group of possible isolated listening objects, then mixed them together into a single stereo output to get a sense of their sonic entanglements. Once the final listening objects were chosen and the appropriate levels set, we recorded continuous takes for approximately fifteen minutes. This time suited our aims as, first, we knew we wanted to keep the tracks relatively short and, second, that the initial studio component would not involved collaging the sounds together any further.  Recording time, like the arrangement of microphones, could be widely variable to suit the needs of a project. Choices made in the field, which equipment to use or how much time to spend recording, will take on further compositional potentialities when brought into the studio.

In the Studio

It is difficult to overstate the impact of post-production tools and techniques on audio compositions. From soundwriting interface design (Hammer, 2018) to compression algorithms (Sterne, 2012), composers’ decisions in studio environments are as situated and political as those made in the field. In keeping with our tendency in this work to look to field recordists for methodological inspiration, we think here that the work of Luc Ferrari is instructive in helping us articulate our editing and mixing philosophy. In 1970, Ferrari released the now-influential Presque Rien No 1 (Le Lever Du Jour Au Bord De La Mer), recorded in a small fishing village in what is now Croatia. The work contrasts sharply with most electroacoustic works of its time, namely those produced in the philosophy-method of Pierre Schaeffer’s Musique Concrete. Ferrari called these works “anectdotal compositions” and, insead of Schaefferian techniques that tend to remove or obscure the link between the sound and its source and context, Ferrari “thought it had to be possible to retain absolutely the structural qualities of the old musique concréte without throwing out the reality content of the material which it had originally. It had to be possible to make music and bring into relation together the shreds of reality in order to tell stories” (Pauli, 1971, p. 41). Yet Ferrari did not mean to imply that one can simply record objective reality. Instead, his work, argues LaBelle, more closely resembles Cagean philosophy “whereby the composer ‘becomes a member of the audience,’ composing as a ‘contextualized’ listener” (p. 31). Therefore, Ferrari’s compositions’ titles reflect his studio philosophy-practices; Presque Rien translates to “Almost Nothing.” Ferrari made only minimal edits to these works.

Our compositions in this work reflect the same philosophy-practice, leaving the majority of composition to have been done in the field. When we returned to the studio, which in this case consisted of Adobe Audition, Sennheiser HD25 Headphones, and KRK Rokit Monitor Speakers, we first adjusted each track of audio to the same loudness setting of -18 LUFS. We then imported each track into a multitrack session and adjusted levels to achieve what sounded to us like a balanced mix in terms of frequency, volume, and space. We used slight panning of lav microphone tracks to create a greater sense of space between sounds, and any transitions between individual tracks were crossfaded to make these transitions gradual. While our studio compositions do impact the published track, we hoped to do very little (or, almost nothing) to invite the listener into an experience of open listening of slowly changing sounds and events, in which meaning might be found, refound, or changed depending on the listener’s listening.

Finally, we wanted to allow listeners to make their own studio decisions if desired, or to simply have access to all of the unmixed and untreated recordings. Therefore, our composition includes all of our recorded files from each site, encouraging further exploration, remix, or interpretations. When combined with writing liner notes, we find this practice to be important as a gesture of transparency and vital to our listening method. When we provide our raw materials, our rough drafts, our outtakes, we demystify listening methods and make them accessible to as many people as possible.

We hope to have done well in articulating the theoretical influences and specific methods of listening at the seams, or at least well enough for others to try, respond to, improve, and adapt it for their own creative-critical projects centered on listening. There are many directions forward from this beginning. Our own next steps involve incorporating our recorded listenings into modular composition environments, allowing the recorded relational phenomena to dictate and modulate the form and texture of musical compositions. We also intend to follow our methods into other environments and thus, investigate new seams and listening objects and their attendant themes, politics, and histories.

But now, we would like to present our first work of listening at the seams, titled Listening Objects No 1: The Schuylkill River. We invite you to listen, re-listen, remix, reimagine, and respond.


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