An Interview with Alice Eldridge

An Interview with Alice Eldridge

by Anna Xambó and Luigi Marino

About Alice Eldridge: Prof. Alice Eldridge is a musician and researcher with an interest in how sound organises systems. Her research integrates ideas and methods from music, computing, complex systems and ecology to advance theory and methods in ecoacoustics, as well as to create systemic music. Alice holds a BSc in Psychology, an MSc in Evolutionary and Adaptive Systems, and a PhD in Computer Science and AI. She is currently a Professor of Sonic Systems at the University of Sussex where she is co-director of the Sussex Humanities Lab, co-director of the Experimental Music Technology Lab and a fellow of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme. On 15th November 2023, Alice Eldridge gave a seminar as part of the Sensing the Forest Seminar Series.

«I subscribe to the view that at the heart of our current ecological crises is our false impression that we are separate from each other and the rest of nature.»

What are you working on at the moment?

Creative music projects are ever present, but the collaborative work around what I dub ‘ecolistening’ is central for me at the moment. This has three strands which fall roughly into protection, connection and justice.

Firstly, developing tools for ecological monitoring through computational analysis of soundscape recordings. This is all collaborative work. It includes the speculative dynamical, complexity approaches that we discussed in the talk, alongside deep learning methods. This work aims to serve nature recovery, regenerative agriculture and wider conservation projects. For example, a small local study looks at the impact on the soundscape and bird activity of selective felling in a small woodland.

Secondly, this work led to the realisation that natural soundscapes are a powerful public engagement tool to support nature (re)connection. Current projects include Wilding Radio – a long term live stream from rewilding pioneers at Knepp that invites anyone, anywhere, to tune into positive ecological change; and Bird Bath (Brighton Festival, May 2024) – a simple soundscape composition project which invites people to stop, rest and soak in the magic of their local bird song.

Finally, I feel a growing urgency to develop ethical frameworks that align emerging conservation technologies with the cosmovisions of communities at the front line of climate change. There is rich potential in combining traditional ecological knowledge of soundscapes with emerging science. If this can be done equitably there is much potential for biocultural conservation. An example of this participatory action research is the Sacha Taki project, carried out during lock down.

What is your background?

I have always played music and grew up in the countryside, which I think gave me a deep basic connection to wider nature. So although I never studied either music or ecology, my research for the last two decades has integrated music, ecology and technology in various ways - always with a complex and/or dynamical systems flavour. I studied Psychology at Leeds (switching from English Literature), then Evolutionary and Adaptive Systems at Sussex. I stayed in the inspiring COGS group at Sussex to do a PhD in Computer Science, where I explored cybernetically-inspired adaptive, dynamical systems for generative and interactive music.

I remained in this world for a post-doc at Monash University, Melbourne exploring the ecosystem as a metaphor in generative art. I made a lot of evolutionary agent based models during this project, taking inspiration from theoretical ecology to understand speciation, recycling and forms of symbiosis, with the aim of creating diversity in generative art systems. I think it was during this time that I realised that I wanted to get deeper into applied ecology.

I quit academia for a few years after this, working as a producer for Sound and Music, but was enticed back by a chance conversation with my old capoeira teacher, who was also a brilliant conservation biologist. We ended up writing a grant to validate acoustic indices as a proxy for biodiversity. That brought me back to Sussex, where I led a Music Informatics degree for a few years, before moving to the Sussex Digital Humanities Lab when it was established, via a post-doc in Life Sciences.

I now co-direct the Sussex Digital Humanities Lab and Experimental Music Technologies Lab, and am part of the Sustainability Programme and AI group, so I have a nice niche at the intersections of music, computing and sustainability, working with ecologists, anthropologists, computer scientists, musicians and local and global communities. Quite a varied journey, but I think I’ve found a home now.

How did you start/become interested in ecoacoustics and studying soundscapes?

I read Krause’s 1987 niche hypothesis paper whilst studying evolutionary systems in 2002 and was enchanted by the idea that sound could be a dimension in evolutionary ecospace - alongside habitats and other resources. Much later in 2012 I had a part-time fellowship at CRISAP and was planning an evolutionary agent based installation to explore this idea: could artificial evolutionary singing agents evolve to fill the ‘gaps’ in a soundscape to reveal the inherent structure – like the sonic equivalent of a photographic negative or sculptural mould.

I was discussing the idea with a friend Dan Jones (who has since made a brilliant and much cleverer installation than I ever could – Living Symphonies) when I bumped into the conservation biologist friend mentioned above, Mika Peck. He was interested in developing tools for rapid biodiversity assessment, and we quickly recognised the applied potential of the acoustic niche hypothesis in ecological assessment. Once we started working on the monitoring side, we realised just how many questions and possibilities there are for ecological protection, as well as connection and justice. I will be forever grateful to Mika, and for that conversation.

How is your artistic/scientific work generally perceived? Have you encountered any unexpected impact or reaction from your work?

Most surprising in recent years has been the public response to Wilding Radio. This started as an idle I-wonder-if project: could we hear the changes to the local ecosystem made by the reintroduction of a pair of beavers, if we listened for 2, 5, 10 years? Working with the brilliant Soundcamp, we designed an off-grid, hi-fi quadraphonic streaming device (endlessly in development). What started as a scientific curiosity turned out to have apparently deep appeal and value for others. Since the launch in May 2023, over 15,000 people worldwide have tuned in and we’ve received hundreds of unsolicited emails expressing deep appreciation for the experience. Listening in live to the sound of so many other beings going about the business of staying alive seems to have great value to many people - for managing anxiety, insomnia and the simple joy of it. Perhaps it provides a vibrational, visceral reminder of our place in the wider web of life.

«The simple act of listening, especially when amplified, expanded when done at scale, and deepened when we stop and slow down, is a great way back into reintegrating with the wider communities of life.»

What is the meaning of community in your work?

I think most of what I do is about community in one way or another. Most musical and many scientific collaborations I orchestrate or accept for social, as much as intellectual, creative or applied reasons. Ecologists, musicians and others who care about the environment tend to be very nice humans, in my experience, and good fun too.

Widening out, I have been lucky to land in a range of wonderful academic and creative communities. The Alife community is exquisitely curious, intelligent and open-minded and cares little for disciplinary boundaries, which I find refreshing; the Generative Art and NIME communities are fabulous warm, supportive, creative and similarly disciplinarily agnostic families; and more recently I’ve joined the emerging ecoacoustic community, who are a really generous, curious and caring bunch from whom I have much to learn about methods and concepts in ecology.

Ultimately, I am coming to realise that the simple act of listening, especially when amplified, expanded when done at scale, and deepened when we stop and slow down, is a great way back into reintegrating with the wider communities of life.

«I coined this term *Sonic Systems* to bring into focus systems that are cohered through sound – whether musical, cultural, social, ecological or hybrid - and I think we need multiple methods to study these.»

What are the artistic, technological, or scientific research methods that inform your work? To what extent (and how) is audio/sound/music relevant to your work?

Although I have apparently moved around disciplines, sound and music and either creating or studying systems are the constants. I suppose composing and decomposing sonic systems is what I’m interested in. I coined this term Sonic Systems to bring into focus systems that are cohered through sound – whether musical, cultural, social, ecological or hybrid - and I think we need multiple methods to study these.

In both creating new musical instruments (systems) and understanding soundscape (ecological sonic systems), I’ve been drawn to a kind of methodological triangulation.

In practice research in music technology we tend to follow hunches, iterating designs systematically and playing with them. But it’s also valuable to measure things, scientifically. I think of this as three modes of experimentation: experimental music a la Cage - where the outcome may be unknown; experimentation as an engineer, tinkering until something works; and experimentation as a scientist, forming hypotheses and measuring things, to get a better feel for how it is working and stress test metaphors.

In ecoacoustics, I think we similarly need to combine ecological theory and data analysis but also tacit and lived experience. Integrating machine learning and indigenous knowledge - through ethnography, action research and/or participatory design is my dream here.

I recently trained in Microphenomenology and am keen to apply this to better understand the experience of feedback musicianship, as well as the felt experience of listening to natural soundscapes: understanding lived experience feels important in an increasingly data driven world.

To what extent do you see your work, and more extensively, the use of artistic methods, contributing to raising awareness of global crises such as climate change?

I mused on this in lock down with respect to computer musicking and one (long!) answer is given in an AIMC keynote. Here I focused on the potential of developing complexity literacy, and overcoming individualism - recognising that our interactions with environments are more fundamental than ourselves as separate entities - which brings a concomitant shift from competitive to collaborative and caring models of interaction.

Put more simply, I subscribe to the view that at the heart of our current ecological crises is our false impression that we are separate from each other and the rest of nature. So as well as raising awareness “Oh look over there, this is happening”, I wonder if the visceral experiences that artistic methods in general, and sonic practice in particular can elicit, can help us feel that we are part of a wider web of life. As hinted at above, I’ve a hunch that simply listening to the sounds of other life is comforting, on a very fundamental level. I have yet to explore this, but the research of others, such as Claire Petitmengen (pioneer of microphenomenology), points to similar ideas: that listening to natural sounds provides a privileged means to dissolve the boundaries that separate us from our environment. This is a basic and profound ontological shift!

I’m not sure how much evidence there is of actual behaviour change from artistic intervention and experience - this is an area ripe for research - but raising awareness, and encouraging shifts in mindsets through felt experience are a critical first step.

«It is perhaps ironic that we need technology as a gateway back to nature – or perhaps it is the perfect poetic irony that rationalism, which separated humans from the rest of nature, created the foundations for the technology that can reconnect us!»

How is technology impacting your work? Do you see technology shaping your creative process or the other way around?

When I first learned to programme it felt like the ultimate Making Things - I loved it, and certainly I developed a whole new creative practice. As I’ve got older, I’ve been drawn back to physical, vibrating things (like cellos) and hybrid systems - epitomised by the feedback feedforward systems that Chris Kiefer and I made as part of the FluComa project that couples acoustic, analogue electronic and simple machine learning systems - these are very much shaped through creative process.

In Ecoacoustics research, the availability of low cost, robust and increasingly high fidelity recording equipment was central to the emergence of this new science, and importantly, cheap robust open hardware makes it very accessible, including to local community conservation projects globally. Advances in deep learning are revolutionizing species data collection here, as in other fields.

Similarly, recording, transmission and analysis technologies also create more opportunities for others to reconnect with nature, whether simply listening to nature sounds, or spotting species outside using apps like Merlin that enable bird ID on a smartphone. It is perhaps ironic that we need technology as a gateway back to nature – or perhaps it is the perfect poetic irony that rationalism, which separated humans from the rest of nature, created the foundations for the technology that can reconnect us!

So a little bit of both. Technologies inspire new possibilities, but are shaped through these and other insights.

Zooming right out, we need to be cognisant of potential negative social and environmental impacts of technology and rise to the challenge of ensuring future technologies support and not suppress human creativity and living systems.

How do you see creative AI impacting your practice/work? Is this a topic that interests you or worries you?

AI isn’t creative, but humans can use AI creatively. We can most certainly see examples of the misuse of AI to the detriment of some facets of creative industries. I’m an optimist tho, and think that in the long term, this will just sharpen our appreciation for raw human creativity, including the things we create using tools built using AI methods.

In musical contexts there are some really exciting advances in the area of embedded AI in musical instruments, some of which could also cross-over into being great tools for exploration and interpretation in increasingly data-driven science. For example for perceptualising vast repositories of soundscape recordings that are being amassed globally to support conservation and restoration initiatives.

Any final thoughts or comments?

I’d just like to express appreciation and gratitude for your work and your project. It really is all hands on deck for the coming years, and projects like yours that create new connections between academic disciplines, partners and key environmental actors are valuable and inspiring.

Sensing the Forest Seminar: Alice Eldridge