Distraction Free Reading

A Concert in the Rainforest: Sound in Multispecies Ethnography

A Concert in Analamazaotra

The four minute clip above was one of many that I recorded during preliminary fieldwork this past summer in the Eastern rainforest corridor of Madagascar. This specific recording occurred during a weekend trip to Analamazaotra with two of my interlocutors- biologists who study in Ranomafana National Park, my primary fieldsite. That morning, we had woken with the crepuscular mist to hike the muddy trails that transected the area. Walking with Jean, from the local guide association, we spent the morning as many tourists would, spotting camouflaged Nightjars nesting on the ground and smiling at brown lemurs that wrestled on Traveler’s Palms. Throughout the walk, we heard the haunting calls of Indris, Madagascar’s largest lemurs and one of its most recognized, due to its song and striking black and white patterning.

One of the biologists, Justin, fascinated with the variety of bird species in the region, walked slowly, listening for specific calls. As his mood became grimmer toward the end of the hike, it became evident that he hadn’t heard some of the birds he was listening for, but wait! What was that? He lit up. We had just heard the call of the Madagascar Wood-Rail, a bird that was rarely seen and known to be incredibly evasive to humans. We sat silently, crouching on the trail and looking into the thick brush. Jean slowly moved his hand to his face and repeated a soft whistle, attempting to coax the bird closer so we might finally spot it. We waited another minute as he whistled again. Attempting his own strategy, Justin pulled his phone, clicked an application, and began to play the bird’s call. The recorded song, which sounded harsher and more staccato, contrasted sharply with the mellow whistle Jean just used. The two sat there, taking turns with their calls and eventually the bird called again, this time much closer. This continued as the two men called and, coming out from behind a nearby bush, the bird called back– a trio of singers.

During the concert, I pulled out my phone to record the trio: Jean, Justin, and the invisible bird. During my fieldwork, I had already learned that voice memos were the most useful form of data collection during moments like this. Notes were too slow, and failed to grasp layered experiences such as this. Later that day I summarized the experience in my fieldnotes, wondering what the men’s different forms of bird call indexed: might it intimate a different ecological knowledge systems being employed?

However, in relistening to the recordings months later, I found myself perplexed. Through repeated listening, the sound bytes I heard made me reconsider the interaction between the men and the bird, and my own place within this entanglement. Rather than thinking of the moment as a confrontation of approaches, the recording oriented my thinking toward a more relational understanding of the concert. I’ve thus begun to wonder– what ways can our recordings act agentially, surprising us and reorienting our work? In what ways might they offer new openings that words don’t?

A thick rainforest, with many trees, leaves, and vines

Analamazaotra Rainforest. Photo by author.

Lively Recordings

Sound ethnography, from its early iterations, has analyzed interspecies relations. (Feld 2012) Recently, this work of listening has continued in zoos, oceans, and city parks (Rice et al 2020; Helmreich 2015; Myers 2020). In their ungriddable ecological project, Becoming-Sensor, Natasha Myers and Ayelen Liberona attune themselves to their more-than-human surroundings through artful practices of kinesthetic image-making and audio recording. In producing their sound art, they edit different recordings to modulate tones and speeds to produce “otherwise unheard sounds.” (Evans 2020) My own practice of recording is deeply inspired by their work on attuning oneself toward the nonhuman, but instead of modulating this recording, I’ve found that leaving it in its “raw” form was quite useful. First, is the question of “noise”: the recording above is full of sounds that index my own presence. One can hear: the popping and crackling of my palm bumping into the phone’s microphone, the squeaking fabric of my rain jacket, labored post-hike breathing, the clicking of a friend’s DSLR camera, other birds, the guide’s whistle, and more. The recording’s amateur crudeness (I am no recording artist) magnifies its own contingency and situatedness. Unlike professional field recordings, a genre noted for its politics of exclusion and modulation, the “noise” of this recording works outside the ethnographer’s control. It delineates the recording as an alternative lens to written fieldnotes, in which the listener can experience an ethnographic moment from a different perspective– that of the machine. Following Steven Feld’s line of argument, this is not to privilege audio recording as providing a “truer” account of the moment, but rather one that provides a different access to a specific moment. Nor is this to say that there isn’t a level of mediation occurring, as I have chosen this recording (instead of others) to share. However, through its inclusion of auxiliary sounds, one is challenged to listen beyond the calls toward the broader technonatural entanglement.

Secondly, and almost contrary to the previous point, the audio recording’s reductive nature allows the listener to hone in on a specific element of the ethnographic moment. By focusing on a specific kind of sensory experience– that of sound– the acoustics of the calls overtake the calls-within-context. In revisiting this moment exclusively through audio, the difference in positionality of the callers fades away, and it becomes more challenging to differentiate the source of each call as the audio continues. What starts out with the soft coo-like whistle of Jean and brash call from Justin’s phone application soon begins to meld with the other bird calls recorded. Birds seem to respond to the calls, which, in turn, respond to the birds, forming a conversation. Through the audio recording’s reductive nature, I am able to focus on these sounds and interpret them in alternative ways. The audio recording offers a reading that sympathetically focuses on the moment’s “anxious semiotics” in which humans influence and respond to birds’ soundscapes (Whitehouse 2015). In hearing the more-than-human conversation repeated and overlaid, the listener can hear the “real,” the whistled, and the computer recorded call. The different forms of knowing through sound (what Feld refers to as acoustemologies) translate between three speakers in a way simultaneously presenting their difference and sameness.

As I listened to the concert, crouching down in the ferns of Analamazaotra, I wondered how the two forms of bird calling indexed different forms of knowledge about the nonhuman. In relistening, however, the recording oriented me away from pitting two forms of engagement against each other to instead focus on how they coexisted. While Jean’s whistling and Justin’s mechanical approach differed, they remained receptive to each other by taking turns with their respective communication. They also paused, giving the bird an option to respond if it wished. By relistening to this moment, I began to analyze this trio as a process of acoustic attunement across human knowledge systems and interspecies relations, rather than a confrontation of discrete entities.

The competing interpretations gleaned from audio recording and my own embodied experience of attending this concert underlines a key point about the usage of (audio) recordings in ethnography. The contextual difference between listening to the moment in-person versus listening to it at a later time (say, in my apartment months later) offers different embodied experiences. Each context orients different questions and different interpretations. In the moment, the visual elements of Justin using a cell phone and Jean using his own body oriented my thinking toward the differences between the two men. Later, the exclusively acoustic experience, devoid of visual cues of difference, oriented my thinking toward their similarity. Neither of these experiences can claim a more truthful understanding of the multispecies concert. Rather, they exist in productive tension, providing different embodied experiences and opening new interpretative pathways.

Through revisiting and relistening to audio collected in the field, I aim to think with and learn from these sounds-in-time. By meditating on the power of sound recording as a component of ethnography, I listen to these moments to consider alternative modes of thinking through my research. Their agential nature orients my understanding of ethnographic moments toward new, though equally partial, understandings of my work.


Evans, Meredith. 2020. “Becoming Sensor in the Planthroposcene: An Interview with Natasha Myers.” Visual and New Media Review, Cultural Anthropology Fieldsights, July 9. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/becoming-sensor-an-interview-with-natasha-myers

Feld, Steven. 2012. Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression, with a new introduction by the author. Duke University Press

Helmreich, Stefan. 2015. Sounding the limits of life: essays in the anthropology of biology and beyond. Vol. 7. Princeton University Press.

Myers, Natasha. 2020. “Becoming sensor in sentient worlds: A more-than-natural history of a black oak savannah.” Between Matter and Method. Routledge, 73-96.

Whitehouse, Andrew. 2015. “Listening to birds in the Anthropocene: the anxious semiotics of sound in a human-dominated world.” Environmental Humanities 6.1: 53-71.

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