Spectrograms and singing ice
(by Deb Wilenski) I wanted to interview William Seale for Fantastical Cambridgeshire to explore a wonderful contradiction; the human desire to discover things as they really are, and the desire to experience unbelievable worlds. It’s a rich combination that sits at the heart of our Fantastical Cambridgeshire project and many other CCI endeavours.
William’s work as a bio-acoustic engineer is factual and faithful to the natural world but seems to have great potential for the imagination too. When we share William’s sound recordings at Fantastical Cambridgeshire events people of all ages are captivated. His recordings have prompted extraordinary drawings, vivid memories and new investigations.
I met with William to discover what the ‘fantastical’ means to him and to reflect on children’s explorations of wild sounds from our current project with Offord Primary School.
In your work recording and analysing wildlife sounds there is a great emphasis on capturing natural sounds as accurately as possible. Do you think the fantastical sits well with this kind of focus?
Yes, I think it probably does. Some of the things I set out to record sound just how I’d expect, and there’s no big surprise there, but other things are quite different. Obviously, none of it is supernatural but it does often have an other-worldly quality to it.
What have you been really surprised by?
Well it’s not a very dramatic sound in a way, but the peacock butterfly. When it opens and closes its wings if it’s disturbed during hibernation it makes a kind of swishing sound. I recorded that years ago and then I heard that there was something ultrasonic there too. The original equipment I’d used couldn’t record ultrasound, so I recorded it again. I was expecting more swishing sounds that went higher and higher but suddenly there was this very sharp clicking (clapping hands together sharply). I hadn’t expected to hear that.
When you’re recording how much are you interested in the patterns and surprises of the sounds themselves and how much are you trying to discover what the sounds are being used for?
It’s both really. The reason I got into sound recording was because I loved hearing the sounds. And the fact that a particular sound would often take you back to somewhere, to a particular location - like I hear yellow hammers and I go to Devil’s Dyke. I wanted to be able to capture that, sort of put it in a pot. And the great thing about sound is that with a very high degree of realism, you can capture that sense.
When I worked with the five and six year old children at Offord they were fascinated by finding, making and recording sounds. How old were you when you first became interested?
Listening for moles in Offord School orchard
My first recollection of being really interested in hearing wildlife sounds was when I was at prep school in Cambridge. It was break time and my classmates were probably playing football or something and a song thrush started singing at the top of a beech tree. I was amazed by that and I just stood there listening to it.
My mum always says that I had a great interest when I was in my pram! We walked down the road where there used to be a rookery, and I would sit up in my pram and really take a keen interest, so maybe it goes right back.
You’ve got some extraordinary looking equipment here. It’s fascinating to see some of the machines that have recorded the sounds you’ve shared with us and turned sounds into images. Can you describe some of the technology?
It’s much easier now than it was when I first started. In the mid-1980s when I got involved in the bird book work (Birds of the Western Palearctic, vol 1-9, 1977-94) we were sent open-spool tapes from the British Library, a compilation of a particular species. And then we had this machine, this very fantastical machine, a spectrograph.
It’s a bit like if you took a washing machine and cut it in half, so it’s half the height, with a whole load of dials and things on the front, then stuck a tall biscuit tin in the middle on the top. Round the biscuit tin you put this sensitized paper, and underneath the cover it had a big metal disc. You plugged your recorder in and 2.4 seconds of your recording came round, slowly. You then put the paper on some springs and had to switch the machine into a mode where it sounded like a washing machine! It went round really fast and there was a stylus you had to engage which gradually went up the paper and burnt a pattern in it.
So you’ve got these puffs of smoke and sparks and this funny smell and you just watch as the pattern gradually appears. We’d try to work out what the pattern was. It was like opening Christmas presents, you really didn’t know. You’d get these fantastical patterns and the patterns helped you remember the sounds.
Listening to your sound recordings in our ‘Tent of Sounds’ children and adults have loved finding visual codes and shapes for the sounds. When you look at those spectrogram images do you hear the sounds in your head? Is it like looking at musical notation?
Sonagram of goldfinch song (reproducing the pattern burnt by the spectrograph)
Well it is like that, because it shows time against frequency. You get a gradation of darkness in the patterns as well which gives an idea of amplitude. And then you can see things. Like here (at 0.8 seconds in the image above) the bird is using two voices. The syrinx in a bird is where the two bronchae meet, and the two sides are controlled independently. A starling is brilliant at it. A starling can mimic two species simultaneously, one with one side of its syrinx and one with the other side.
The other fantastical part is we do a lot of slowing down to hear the structure of these sounds, but the bird is thought to have a time resolution about ten times better than ours. So if we slow a recording down by a factor of ten, we will start to hear the level of detail they are hearing. I think as humans we sometimes make the mistake, we listen to a rook and think that’s just a simple sound, but there’s a lot more going on, rooks are very intelligent. It doesn’t sound musical to us but there is a lot of complexity.
In the children’s drawings from Offord animal sounds often carry messages between one animal and another. They have a very social purpose.
Seb’s Rabbit conversation
I loved seeing their drawings. Of course, it’s actually what a lot of sounds in animals are. I am really interested in the function now. I think the last recording I made was a burying beetle. I set the equipment up, found a burying beetle in something disgusting out in the field. My mum’s cat is an avid hunter and so I gave the burying beetle a dead mouse and it didn’t seem to take much interest for a while. Then I suddenly realised it had in fact made a nest. Most insects lay their eggs and there’s no further care but burying beetles have this very pronounced maternal and sometimes paternal care.
They make these stridulations – their bottom sort of wobbles around and they produce a squeaking sound. So I’ve recorded that. But now I’m wondering, was the sound actually made because the beetle was being disturbed, so it was telling me to go away? Or because of its nesting behaviour, was it something else? I read that they do communicate with their young, so I’m intrigued. There is a group at the Zoology Department researching burying beetles so I must get the recording to them.
I asked the children what sounds they would most like to hear – you became this mythical person for them who could make anything happen! One of their requests was ‘a walking tarantula’, another was ‘a spider spinning its web’…
Well this piece of equipment here which I completed this autumn, well nearly completed because I’m not quite happy with part of it, that’s for the spiders on their web. This is the one I used for the ladybird on the grass stem – it’s made from an old shaving mirror.