Read Barbee, “Bird + Radio”

readbirdread plusread radio

The Concept

This project began with an observation. Humanity is special, but we are not exempt from the material and metaphysical realities of the world we inhabit. Though we attempt to cocoon ourselves in an artificial bubble of “society” cut off from “nature” or “everything that is not human,” the dichotomy is illusory and unfounded. In fact, the parallels between social communities and ecological communities are striking. Societies and ecosystems generate both their own independent webs of connectivity and connections with each other. This project attempts to emphasize these parallels by generating a “natural” soundscape from amplitude fluctuations in FM and AM radio broadcast signals and juxtaposing it with the interplay of the signals themselves.


Inspiration for this project comes from the “acoustic niche hypothesis” outlined in Kendall Wrightson’s An Introduction to Acoustic Ecology, Gordon Hempton’s “One Square Inch of Silence” campaign, John Luther Adams’s Earth and the Great Weather album based on stochastic natural processes, and my experience as a ham radio operator. The “acoustic niche hypothesis” states that vocal organisms in any particular habitat each develop to occupy a specific “niche” in time and/or frequency within the auditory spectrum and maximize communication efficiency. Humanity has likewise partitioned the radio frequency spectrum. Furthermore, human-generated sounds such as airplanes and traffic colonize huge swaths of the spectrum and disrupt the “natural symphony”. This has real effects on ecosystems. If a frog cannot hear to sing in sync with its neighbors, it is more easily picked out by a predator. Through this project, I explore the invisible network of radio waves crisscrossing the sky, competing with each other and interacting with their physical environment to produce an orchestra of static (and information) and its similarity to ecological systems. The piece is also meant to raise awareness of the damage we cause through noise pollution.


This project was produced entirely within the Reaper digital audio workstation by Cockos using wildlife recordings from the Macaulay Library and radio samples recorded from an alarm clock radio with a Blue Snowball microphone. Because a strong sense of place and local ecological knowledge is critical for addressing issues of noise pollution and environmental degradation effectively, all wildlife recordings used were made in and around Ithaca and all radio samples excluding the Morse code signal come from local Ithaca radio stations. Vocalizations of each species are paired with a particular radio sample and are triggered automatically by Reaper’s “ReaGate” and sample playback functions whenever the signal passes a particular amplitude threshold. I attempted to sample wildlife sounds from a variety of taxa and frequency ranges to approximate a real “natural” soundscape. A few featured organisms include Black-capped Chickadee, Red Squirrel, Pickerel Frog, Pine Tree Cricket, Eastern Meadowlark and American Robin. A variety of musical genres from jazz to hip-hop likewise reflect the biological diversity of samples. Local radio stations sampled include WVBR 93.5 FM, WICB 91.7FM, WNYY 1470 AM and others.


  1. Human society and technology behave according to the same laws as nature. As such we are not exempt from nature but are developing within its framework.
  2. The “noise” of human civilization can in fact be interpreted as a form of bio-music
  3. There is a whole universe of hidden sounds and connections in the human socio-technological sphere analogous the invisible connections within ecosystems
  4. Human society is a dynamic ecological system over which individuals have very little control- the mechanisms at play radiate from the individual psyche to the complexity of the universe.

I invite you to listen deeply and with open ears…


Back to Music 3240 project page