About Mapping Sonic Futurities

Mapping Sonic Futurities (MSF)

MSF combines sound art, listening practices, and ecological research to trace the present and future histories of ecological habitats. The project involves a series of 24-hour ‘sound vigils’ in outdoor spaces and habitats with tenuous futures. During these retreats, the keeper of the vigil commits to being in one location for an entire day and night. For each of the 24 hours, they dedicate time to acts of ecologically engaged listening and sounding. This involves making field recordings of the space, performing music that responds to nearby sounds, and/or sitting in meditation with a focus on different modes of listening. All the while, they journal about these experiences. The final documentation of the sound vigil is a 10-minute video art piece where 25 second segments, representing each hour, cycle continuously. The segments contain videos, still images, field recordings, and performances that are meant to give a glimpse of some salient features of the habitat revealed through the vigil keeper’s subjective experience of them. The emphasis on subjectivity is meant to encourage a creative license with how the vigil keeper would like to engage with the environment (i.e. drawing, singing, dancing, playing an instrument, or just listening). Each video art piece is accompanied by field notes taken during the vigil.

“We notice human relations with each other, we notice spirits, we notice all kinds of things. We should start noticing the plants and animals around us too. In fact, there’s a lot we can learn just by paying attention. That’s one of the basic ideas that I’m trying to promote.”

-       Anna Tsing

The vigil keeper’s primary task is to participate in multi-sensory listening experience that resonates with what Anna Tsing calls the “art of noticing.” This attentive observation of the environment for an entire day is meant to be an inquiry into how such a commitment can bring the vigil keeper into a state of heightened awareness of sound and a greater appreciation of local ecosystems. While the documentation of the vigils is an important aspect of the project, the substantial artistic experience of MSF is the vigil itself and the relations that emerge between the environment and the vigil keeper.


2021 marks approximately four years of planning, community meetings, and consultancy as UC Santa Cruz inches towards the adoption of the 2021-2040 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). At its simplest, this planning exercise, undertaken approximately every 10-20 years, produces lines on a map, slicing and dicing the campus into polygons that symbolize land-use designations where potential development will--and will not---occur during the life of the plan. Overall, LRDP planners kept potential development site designations relatively close to the core of current development. Nevertheless, if all aspects of the LRDP are fully implemented and built out, there will be loss of habitat and a shifting of landscape connectivity further to the north.

The planners took many constraints into consideration when locating their land-use designations, including geology; light, sound, and air pollution; hydrology; sensitive species and habitats; cultural sites; and more. Much of this analysis relied on prior reports and remote analyses. We seek to document one aspect of the on-the-ground reality that is lost in this process: the actual moment-to-moment soundscape of UCSC, in the context of the LRDP.

This inaugural MSF project takes place in different locations on UCSC’s campus at sites where the LRDP plans to pave roads and erect new buildings in the next 15 years. The locations are playfully named after their inhabitants (Coyote Corner, Hawk’s Prairie, Court of Cicada) as a way to christen them as sites of significance from the perspective of the vigil keeper. The video pieces and accompanying field notes will function as an immersive rendering of the ecological sounds that define these spaces, and a baseline from which to measure change should development occur. We will also use the recordings as ways of documenting and researching the presence of native and migratory species whose habitat may be degraded once roadways or buildings are built.

Guidelines for MSF Sound Vigils

  • Record 5-10 minute segments of your chosen location every hour for a given duration of up to 24 hours. Each segment will represent one hour of the day. The final recording that represents each space will be a compilation of 25 second snippets of each hour (for a total of 10 minutes representing the day).
  • For each segment, you have the option to make a sounding/drawing/poem that responds to the space in some way. The sounds don’t necessarily need to be musical – they could be the rustling of leaves with your hands for a few seconds or they could be the sound of you slowly walking through the space. If you do go the musical route, then consider something sparse like singing a single note, a single pluck of a ukulele, the ringing of bells. Perhaps try playing with proximity with the soundings (i.e. singing the note 20 ft away from the recorder). The purpose of this is to insert ourselves in the field recording which hopefully will give this project a playful musical quality that puts us humans in the same camp as the critters – both as listeners and sound makers.

Journal about your experience. This may be anything from a free write to descriptions of the sounds, animals, cars, and plant life. The purpose of the journal is to create a narrative about the soundscape and the habitat but also our experience of the habitat. Here are some questions that could prompt the journal writings:

a.     What was the most dominant type of sound in the environment? The most subtle?
b.      How did the sounds of your body moving relate in scale (loudness) to the sounds of your environment? How, if at all, did the sounds of your body moving change as you moved throughout the environment?
c.     What sounds occupied the foreground of your hearing? Which sounds occupied the background?
d.     What were the relationships (differences, similarities) between foreground and background sounds?
e.      Were the sounds you heard mostly non-human, human-made, or a mixture? How would you characterize this mixture?
f.      Did you interact with any people or animals? What happened? What happened sonically?

And finally — during the recordings, you have the option to engage in the following listening prompts (or make up your own!):

*SOUND SWEEP - Listen for specific frequency ranges starting with high frequencies and slowly sweeping down to mid frequencies, then to low frequencies, and then back up. If you don't hear anything in a particular frequency range immediately, give it some time just to make sure - then move on to the next frequency range. (ie. high frequency: bird calls, mid-frequency: human voice, low frequency: car engine). Write about your experience. Were there any subtle sounds that you picked up on as a result of this kind of listening?*

*PERSPECTIVE LISTENING - Begin by listening to all sounds. Your ears are an open book. After several minutes begin to focus attention on a sound that stands out to you. Then begin to listen from the perspective of where the sound source is coming from. If you're hearing a bird, listen as the bird - if you're hearing the hum of an AC unit, listening from the perspective of the AC unit). There is an element of speculation involved here. Write down any observations, insights, or challenges.*

*RECEPTIVE SOUNDING - Listen to your environment as if you are actively making the sounds you hear. While this requires a bit of imagination, it's not too far fetched as the human ear actually emits sounds (i.e. google: 'otoacoustic emissions'). After listening like this for a while, start singing long tones. Now make a shift in your listening perspective to one of receptivity. Focus on the tones as if you are passively receiving the sound of your own voice. Notice how your body responds to all of this. Write down any observations.*