Iowa Lakeside Lab Residency 2024

Lakeside Lab is a biological field station and nature preserve located in the northwest region of Iowa. The residency program is offered with an eye towards Long Term Ecological Reflections, a national partnership between biological field stations that support thoughtful relationships between art and science.

The Artist-in-Residence program aims to create opportunities for collaboration, partnership, and reflection between artists, scientists, and community members. Artists are encouraged to use the area as their studio and to interact freely with scientists, field study courses, local residents, and visitors. A high priority of the program is exploring relationships between art and science. Preference is given to artists whose work engages with ecology, science, and natural history in unique and collaborative ways.

In June 2024 I was selected for a 2-week residency at Iowa Lakeside Lab. It was a great experience. I arrived at Lakeside Lab with a bag of recording equipment and a desire to reflect on the “underheard” sounds of the campus: sonic details that go un-noticed by us but might reveal the lives of our non-human neighbors. The result was this sound composition:

Listen to “Lakeside Lab Ecotones” (20min)

Note: The piece was designed to be played in 4 channel surround in the stone Bodine Lab at Lakeside. The online version is a stereo downmix so the front/back information is lost.

We begin indoors with the sounds of the wind rattling the windows, before rising into the air to hear slowed down crickets, robins, and bats. Then we move with the wind into swaying Reed Canary Grass before descending through the trunks of trees (recorded with contact mics to hear the groaning percussion of the upper branches). Rain falls and we follow the water through different habitats to the edge of the lake at night, joined by a chorus of amphibians and visits from nocturnal creatures (most likely a feral pig and a muskrat). We’re surrounded by splashes (mostly fish jumping) and dive underwater to hear stridulating insects and gas bubbles. A boat engine starts (the first overtly human sound so far) and we make a slow transition back to the surface, guided by the extended drone of a motorcycle on the highway.

Research Process

I’m a bit allergic to the notion that artists are necessarily “researchers” because the term is often used to make slight efforts seem more legitimate, or simply re-define artistic practice for the purposes of funding. Putting those aside, I think the term is apt here: I came prepared to learn as much as I could through my ears, and I employed some specific methods of discovery. Here are a few:

My daily practice began with a morning walk circling the campus, from the residential buildings, through the “North 40” and around Little Miller’s Bay to the southern area where the labs are located. I spent a few days getting acclimated to the sounds of the area through focused listening exercises, note-taking, and eventually recording. Coming from a major city, it was impressive to hear the diversity of birdsong in the prairie and the wooded canopy. (I grew up in Baltimore, but saw more orioles in 2 weeks at Lakeside than my entire childhood!)

I got to know the humans of the Lab primarily through the dining hall, where the class cohorts tend to continue their discussions during meals. I enjoyed being a curious listener, learning a bit about diatoms, soils, prairie ecology, and even the archeology of the area. Eventually I came to understand the social networks of the place too: the interactions between students, Americorps volunteers, interns, staff, instructors, and other resident artists. I’ve worked in colleges for years and I love the way an institution can bring different niches together: The diatomist might consider the world from the bottom up, following the web of life from micro to macro. The geologist might see todays prairies as the remnants of gigantic glaciers and ancient seas. Everyone here is a seeker of the unseen, struggling to bring something hidden into the light. Clearly I was in good company, but what would I contribute?

Sometimes I create live streams of environmental sound (ex: beneath a pond or emerging cicadas). Listeners can tune-in to hear the ephemeral sounds of “somewhere else.” Maybe they compare what they hear to their local soundscape, open a window to let two worlds combine, or take the live stream for a walk in their headphones. But the ubiquitous traffic on Iowa Highway 86 threatened to make a live stream into a circus of internal combustion where everything else was relegated to a sideshow. Clearly I would need a more “hands-on” approach. (Highways here run in straight lines on level ground, so the sound carries for miles. These traffic drones eventually became an important part of my project, though.)

My next research strategy was long-duration recording using “drop-rigs” (weatherproof recorders deployed for extended durations) so I could discover the nocturnal shifts in the soundscape when the traffic is more subdued. I used this method to collect recordings for a time-lapse audio project (Fast Slow Radio) in 2022. During that project I discovered that the sounds of transitional zones where especially interesting to me: a shoreline where land and water meet, the boundary between industrial and residential areas, or an isolated bridge over a wild stream. At Lakeside I installed several overnight recorders and spent many hours in my first week listening and searching through spectrographs to locate the enigmatic sounds of the night.

On the topic of peripheries, I spent a few nights listening skyward on the edges of the fields. This is where the bats like to fly, and I identified several big brown and hoary bats by their characteristic echolocation calls. I made stereo recordings and slowed them down 10x to hear the bright ultrasonic chirps and the echoes from trees and buildings.

I have a long-term interest in underwater sound (see Pond Station) so I spent a lot of time in the kayaks on Lake Okoboji, recording with hydrophones. Freshwater environments are difficult to record because the sounds I seek are very quiet (mostly stridulating insects and gas bubbles). Some of the most interesting noises are overwhelmed by the waves lapping against the hull of the kayak, distant boat engines, or even the wind whistling over the cables. Eventually I found pockets of dense polyrhythms in the lake, which I later combined with recordings from the ephemeral wetlands of the North 40.

While on an outing with the ecology class at the Freda Haffner Kettlehole, one of the students introduced me to the term “ecotone” (the transition zone where 2 biological communities meet). It felt like the perfect word for a project that attempted to bring human listeners into contact with the “underheard” sounds of the ecosystems they share.

Composition Strategies

After I decided that my project would be a linear sound composition, I came up with some guiding principles to help bring it to life:

Let’s Keep it Acousmatic

I agree with BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke that “the pictures are always better on the radio.” Acousmatic listening (hearing sounds without seeing their source) has the potential to challenge problematic assumptions of objectivity. We can develop meaningful emotional connections through sound, without even knowing “what” we’re listening to. (We don’t necessarily imagine musicians when we listen to recorded music. The sound itself is enough!) This peculiar state of partial knowledge makes it easier to embrace the subjective nature of our experiences.

Find Music Instead of Making It

Every sound we record will carry our biases about what sounds “good,” but I want to learn something new rather than further refine my tastes. (Listen to John Cage’s Q&A from the Cabrillo Music Festival 1977 for a great discussion of the dangers of beauty.) I outlined these composition goals to help de-center my biases and open my ears. The last thing I want to do is transpose field recordings to match a chromatic scale, or loop them into drum-like rhythms. I want to discover the “music” in the world around me, rather than project a musical bias onto an indifferent environment.

It Can Be More Than Data

Sound can serve as a vital data source for species identification, biodiversity estimation, and other “ecoacoustic indicators” but my primary goal for this composition is different: It’s a sensory and subjective process, not an index of the environment. (I’m siding with Francisco Lopez on this one!) It’s not a binary, though: I helped with a bat survey while at the lab. The researcher was struggling with inconclusive spectrographs and species IDs from an automated recorder, but hadn’t spent much time outside at night listening and observing the bats. I’ve never done conclusive bat IDs but I’ve spent a lot of time recording and listening to them: I’ve heard their pitches change slightly when they fly in a group, and I recognize the cadence of their echolocation and social calls. We went out with my recording equipment and the sensory experience made it much easier for them to analyze the dataset afterward.

Rely on Found Sounds

(ie: wait for the wind to reveal the resonance of a tree branch, rather than strike it myself). Sound recording is always subjective: Even if my voice is inaudible, my values are encoded in each sound I choose to record and share (Why record this sound and not others? Why record now and not another time?) For this piece I don’t want to amplify my own sound-making. My “voice” will be audible enough in my editorial choices. This commitment requires that I spend a long time listening before recording. Actually, I’d rather expand the notion of “recording” to include focused listening, note-taking, and reflection (not just pressing “record”). This sonic attentiveness to place is an “acoustemelogical” process (a way of knowing “in and through sound” coined by Steven Feld). I don’t want to “play” the environment like an instrument, but rather to listen for the relationships that surround and include me.

Seek Non-Human Listening Perspectives

This is part of my continued interest in de-centering my human bias and acknowledging other ears. I use custom microphones to listen to environments where my ears can’t go (buried in the ground, inside a tree, underwater) and I make overnight “drop rig” recordings to minimize my disturbance of the soundscape. I slow down ultrasound and speed up infrasound to hear the frequencies and rhythms that would otherwise be inaudible. (I’ll never know exactly what it’s like to be a bat, but I want to listen like one!) For this composition I’m not interested in sonification (using non-sound data to generate sound) or any form of synthesis. Every sound in the piece can be traced back to a kernel of vibration.

Try to Avoid Human Sounds

This is not to deny the existence of anthropogenic noise, but rather a challenge for myself to make a space for the “underheard” sounds that are usually masked by it. Even on a 147 acre property there are very few breaks from the constant stream of human noises. I learned a lot about the topography of the landscape while recording in the North 40 near Highway 86. There is no clear relationship between distance and sound intensity there, perhaps due to the “acoustic lens” created by small ridges in the landscape. Some areas closer to the road are quieter than similar areas much farther away. This goal also taught me a lot about the daily and weekly changes in the lakeside soundscape. Every weekend, Little Miller’s Bay is packed with families on anchored boats, stereos blasting. The “Shake The Lake” party barge orbits every Saturday, adding a lower octave of pounding bass to the soundscape. My overnight recorders overheard boat engines as early as 4AM most days.

Use Multi-Channel Audio with Purpose

I came to the residency with a small 4-channel sound system in my suitcase (4 bluetooth speakers, light stands, and custom mounts). I’m not interested in simulation or spectacle, but rather immersion. Ideally the piece departs from the visual tradition of the proscenium, with its implication of a passive audience watching a “story” unfold through the fourth wall. I think multi-channel sound can embody the complexity of the site, and perhaps encourage kinship rather than spectatorship. I start the piece by surrounding listeners with the stochastic rattling of windows in a strong wind. Listeners at Lakeside lab were seating in the same room where these sounds were recorded, blurring the real and recorded soundscape and setting the tone for the shifts in site and scale that would follow.


I feel lucky to have been a part of the Lakeside Lab community, however briefly. Many thanks to Alex Braidwood, Mary Skopec, Matt Fairchild, and all the other staff, faculty, interns and volunteers who make the place what it is.