How Forests Sing

By Alex MacDonald • MSc Social and Cultural Anthropology

The artist James Bridle has revived John Berger’s 1972 television series Ways of Seeing in his radio series entitled New Ways of Seeing. There is, perhaps, something of a missed opportunity in the movement from television to radio. Whilst Bridle’s series proposes to update Berger’s work, sight remains as the sense which is to be understood anew. The visible, and its attendant sense, sight, hold prime place in European traditions of art and philosophy. However, the value placed upon sight over the other senses in accessing and producing reality is as dependent upon cultural habit and convention as our ways of seeing. As sound is produced both by human and non-human sources, attending to it and our ways of hearing can open our understanding of our place in the world in ways beyond seeing’s reach. 

The critique of the senses is also, implicitly, a critique of the society from which those senses arise. The ethnobiologist Darrell Posey claimed that the norm today is ‘a world of sensory deprivation and blandness’ (1976: 147). Against the deprivation of the senses, paying them due attention figures the world in other ways, revealing fresh dimensions. Berger critiqued seeing through traditions of European painting; here I consider the habits and conventions of listening in the sonic representation of rainforests. My focus will be on the role of iconism in producing a cultural understanding of the physical environment.

Bruce Albert uses the term “biophony” to describe the sounds of our non-human neighbours (2016). It is crucial for his analysis because it approximates the Yanomami heã, “acoustic clues,” to what is happening out of sight (Albert 2016: 320). Alfred Gell goes so far as to argue that “the primary forest environment imposes a reorganization of sensibility, such that the world is perceived in a manner which gives pride of place to the auditory sense” above the visual, and that this “tends to promote phonological iconicity in language” (2006: 235). 

Icons are signs which represent their referent by imitating them—a classic example is the portrait which is iconic of its sitter. Icons interact with symbols, signs which relate to their referent conceptually through generally-held ideas. Soundscapes, just as much as landscapes, are semiotic constructions of the world, and as with any semiotic system, they exist only insofar as they are held in someone’s mind, something which must have a cultural dimension.

Yanomami heã can be referenced again. It refers not to the significance of one sound on its own, but rather to a “system of sound associations, the cooing of a fascinated antshrike […] perceived as indicating the presence of a tapir” (Albert 2016: 320). Semiotically, heã can be seen as emphasising signs’ relations by their differences. This provides a benchmark for considering the works discussed here; they make forest soundscapes iconically, in ways that reflect the perceiving mind’s own cultural relation with the soundscape it perceives. It is because perception is cultural that one “find[s] it difficult […] to imagine any reason for other persons to be aware of or concerned with” environments in a manner which differs from one’s own (Posey 1976: 147). By concerning ourselves with the many registers of perception which are available, we can go some way towards remedying this indifference.

Peruvian Whistling Jar’ – held in the UCL Ethnographic Collection

Pictured here is an example of a so-called Peruvian Whistling Jar (G.0061). It features a bird figurine, and this is what it sounds like too. Filled with water, it can be tipped over–forcing the air from one of the compartments to the other—to produce a whistling sound reminiscent of a bird’s call. 

The significance of the vessels is not, however, limited to the iconic; they also have a symbolic dimension. Daniel Statkenov, who brought the objects to new attention in the 1970s and 1980s, claims that for the Chimú, the hummingbird in particular was represented—visually and sonically—by the vessels, and that this bird was itself symbolic of “a special importance ascribed to hearing or listening” (1990, online). Thinking again of heã, the Whistling Jar can be understood as picking out aspects of the forest soundscape whilst keeping them situated in their context, emphasising the importance of close listening. 

The interplay of different significations can also be seen in David Tudor’s work Rainforest (1968), which is described as an “ecologically balanced sound system” (Mode Records). The piece is performed by hanging sculptural objects in a manner intended as visually iconic of a forest space. As the electronic musical instruments which produce the sound, the objects are also sonically iconic, producing tones resembling animal sounds. The machine-like work invites a close listening of another kind, as the audience try to come to terms with the way in which the sounds are being produced and how this might relate to the rainforest which is evoked. 

Documentation still of a 1973 installation of Rainforest at L’Espace Pierre Cardin, Paris (Source)

The interaction between the iconic and symbolic can be compared between the Whistling Jar and Rainforest. Where the Whistling Jar picks out one part of the general biophony for iconic representation, Rainforest is iconic of the biophony as an individual whole. Here, the approach to iconic representation can be seen to reveal a different symbolic understanding of what the forest environment might mean.

Representing an idea of rainforests on the whole, rather than a specific feature such as the hummingbird’s call, Tudor’s workis dense, inhuman, and somewhat foreboding. If this is an “ecologically balanced sound system,” it is not one that is readily accessible to humans, as the exact sources of the sounds are obscured and almost impossible to differentiate. The Whistling Jar, on the other hand, gives heightened focus to a singular instance of sound, with a singular point of origin. Whereas the audience of Rainforest stands amongst the work but is not responsible for its production, the person who hears the Jar’s sound is, to a greater extent, also the one who produces it. Furthermore, the referent is precisely known. Here the forest is a legible environment, and one in which humans and other living things can not only understand one another but may be able to assume one another’s qualities and abilities. The focus being at the level of parts rather than the whole, the whole may be understood in a different way to Rainforest. The point isn’t to claim that either work is more successful in representing the world, but simply to observe that representation is not settled.

Listening to and representing the environment is a skilful affair. By examining the modes in which such things are done, we can gain a greater appreciation for these skills, and perhaps extend our own repertoire as well. When the degradation of our environment is often understood visually, by the scars that industry has cut into the landscape and the endangered animals which may never be seen again, it is important not to forget how much more is available to our senses, that these things may also be lost. A world without bird calls or the gurgling of a familiar stream lost to drought would certainly be one of “sensory deprivation and blandness.” Turning to examples of close listening such as have been offered here can help in cultivating it as a skill, that we may “be aware [and] concerned.”


Albert, B. 2016. The Polyglot Forest. Translated by Jennifer Kaku. Available at: Accessed 25/04/19

Berger, J. and Dibb, M. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC Two.

Gell. A. 2006. The Language of The Forest: Landscape and Phonological Iconism in Umeda. In The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams. Oxford: Berg, Oxford.

Mode Records. “David Tudor” (Cat. No. 64) liner notes. Available at: Accessed 25/04/19.

Posey, D. 1976. Entomological Considerations in Southeastern Aboriginal Demography. In Ethnohistory 23(2), pp. 147-160.

Statkenov, D. (1990) The Hummingbird Clue. Available at: Accessed 25/04/19.

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