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What Does Chicago Sound Like? DePaul Students Break Ground in Soundscaping

By Kyla Gardner | November 6, 2014 5:30am
 DePaul University students (from left) Alyssa Marcy, Spencer Barrett, Lisa Kenny and Veronica Jachowski are part of Chicago Wildsounds, a soundscaping project that records the sonic signature of the city's lakefront.
DePaul University students (from left) Alyssa Marcy, Spencer Barrett, Lisa Kenny and Veronica Jachowski are part of Chicago Wildsounds, a soundscaping project that records the sonic signature of the city's lakefront.
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DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner

UPTOWN — After a year and half of recording and cataloging all the natural and man-made sounds of Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, the noise that stands out most, for DePaul student Veronica Jachowski, is silence.

"The winter quietness, the kind of silence: It almost felt unreal to me, considering that I had this skyline view right in front of me," she said.

Jachowski is part of Chicago Wildsounds, a group of six students from DePaul University who are breaking ground in the relatively new field of soundscape ecology with their urban recordings.

Kyla Gardner says they want to collect not only nature sounds, but those of the city as well:

Soundscape ecology studies the interaction of sound with other facets of an environment's health. For example, soundscapes recorded by pioneer Bernie Kraus showed the disappearance of birds from a California state park over the last 10 years.

 Students at DePaul University exlpore the relatively new field of soudscape ecology along the city's lakefront in Chicago Wildsounds.
Chicago Wildsounds
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"A lot of people who do soundscapes aren’t really super interested in urban soundscapes, [but rather] the more wild, natural, secluded areas," said DePaul student Lisa Kenny. "We need those, too...but understanding cities in and of themselves, that’s very important."

The group has small, black recording boxes tied to trees at Montrose Point, Bill Jarvis Migratory Bird Sanctuary, the Burnham Wildlife Corridor, the South Pond at Lincoln Park Zoo, and McDonald Woods at the suburban Chicago Botanic Garden. The boxes collect 10 minutes of audio at the start of each hour, and each half hour between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., during songbirds' especially active "dawn chorus."

"As far as I know, it's the longest running soundscape in an urban environment ever," said Liam Heneghan, an ecology professor at DePaul and the group's adviser. "The data this generates is just phenomenal — day by day, and now, year by year. We've really kind of captured the sounds of the Chicago lakefront. That has not been done before."

The sounds of Chicago's lakefront, or, at least, those of Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary on a recent Friday, were the chirps of birds, scurrying of chipmunks through leaves, drone of Lakeshore Drive and airplanes, the whine of ambulances, whipping wind, and the chatter of humans out for a fall stroll. The sounds get classified into three categories: biophany — animal or insect sounds; anthrophony — man-made sounds; and geophany — anything Earth-related like wind or waves.

As the students gather more and more data, the questions they could ask of it are limitless, said Jachowski.

"What is the sonic signature of Chicago’s lakefront?" she said. "What does it consist of? How does it change over time? Different seasons? Are there any migration patterns we could pick up over the seasons? Are the black-winged herons coming in earlier or later?"

Currently, Chicago Wildsounds is studying worm, soil and vegetation health in relation to songbird density, and that data may give insight into the health of Chicago's lakefront, especially at areas that have been restored.

"Do we have a right to go in and tweak things as we see fit?" asked Kenny. "At Jarvis, where they were heavily restoring it, there's no earthworms there. So, are we helping or are we hurting more?"

The group of mostly environmental studies majors includes one music student, Alyssa Marcy, and the group has gotten interest from one musician who wants to incorporate the soundscapes into music.

Jachowski hopes to see the group become more interdisciplinary, as the data is so expansive and could be used by different fields.

Chicago Wildsounds is hosting an event with musicians, ecologists, physicists and professionals from more disciplines on Thursday. "Art, Philosophy and Science of Sound" will go from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at 2031 N. Kenmore Ave., and RSVPs are requested at chicagowildsounds@gmail.com.

The members of Chicago Wildsounds, and adviser Heneghan, are hopeful the project continues with new students in the future, so a long-term picture of Chicago's changing lakefront can be captured.

At the same time that the new field is discovering iconic soundscapes, it's also seeing them disappear, Heneghan said.

"That's the big context in which we're working: How our work here in Chicago fits into the global application," he said. "Without a certain amount of time, effort and attention, we lose things that are important to us."

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