Ben Schenck, Panorama Jazz Band’s leader, is accustomed to listening to a multitude of simultaneous sounds but was surprised by the underwater cacophony heard through headphones at the Audubon Park “fly.”
“Most dramatic was when a bunch of boats went by and I heard different engine noises and a wave, as well as fish checking out the ORB (Open Research Buoy),” Schenck said. “We were hoping for mermaids,” he playfully added.
Listening experiences on the banks of the Mississippi River, featuring trickling, swooshing, gurgling and sometimes bleeping, are elements of a participatory artistic and scientific research project led by two former Studio in the Woods artists-in-residence.
Monica Haller’s 2014 “Ebb and Flow” residency had focused on creating a temporary field station to learn about Louisiana’s transitory, eroding landmasses. Her colleague, Sebastian Muellauer, whose specialization is industrial design, built the ORB, a community-driven and open-source water vessel designed to monitor and research endangered water ecosystems.
“That they are both catalogers and collectors became the common ground for this exciting new project,” said Ama Rogan, Studio in the Woods managing director.
Having already collected data from bayous, Muellauer and Haller wanted to create a systematic sound archive encompassing the length of the Mississippi from Haller’s current home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to her ancestral home in Plaquemines Parish.
Starting at the headwaters in Lake Itasca State Park, Minnesota, they drove along the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, which passes through 10 states.
“On one stop after another, we experienced incredible hospitality, meeting up with very cool people who are doing important and fun work that we have the pleasure to enjoy, listen to and learn from,” Haller said.
Outside Guttenberg, Iowa, they met Wes Modes, who invited them aboard his Shantyboat, a kind of floating cabin built like those historically used by itinerant workers, miners, dockworkers and farmers. Sleeping on the bow, they listened to river sounds while towing the ORB behind, recording through the hydrophone. Occasionally, they docked, allowing random curiosity-seekers to try out the headphones.
“When they were listening to the river — whether it was fish feeding in the churning waters below a dam, the quiet busyness of a Mississippi backwater, or the sounds of riverboat paddling downstream — people quickly gathered around to hear the river they knew in a completely different way,” Modes said.
A hundred miles south, the pair embarked the Twilight Riverboat, paddling from LeClaire to Dubuque, Iowa. Capt. Kevin Steir explained to them how dam construction has formed new islands and affected the river’s ecology.
Near Ferguson, Missouri, they met “Big Muddy” Mike Clark, an educational canoe outfitter, who swims daily in the river, always hearing “extraordinary” sounds 10 feet below the surface.
“What they are doing is capturing that sound and recording it,” he said.
Canoeing at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, Clark took them to the place where the Lewis and Clarke began their expedition and to Chain of Rocks, where the ORB recorded silty turbulence rushing over a natural waterfall.
“It was a symphony of deep, dark percussive sounds,” Clark said.
After exploring Cahokia Mounds, archeological site of a pre-Columbian Native American city, they visited Trail of Tears State Park, where 13 Cherokee Indian groups were forced to cross the river during the winter of 1838-39.
Paddling nine miles from the mouth of the St. Francis River to Helena, Arkansas, with guide John “The River Gator” Ruskey, blues musician and founder of the Quapaw Canoe Company, the researchers recorded unprecedented sounds. The Lower Mississippi’s ecosystem has more than 230 fish and crustaceans, and some are noisy. The drum fish makes a staccato beat like a bongo drum, Ruskey said.
Their ingenious study of the “sonic environment” of the river opens up a whole new frontier, he added.
Near Arkansas City, Choctaw Island, an 8,300-acre habitat for deer, turkey, rabbits, and waterfowl was like a wilderness in the middle of the Mississippi River.
“Who would have known it was so wild?” Haller said.
Arriving in the New Orleans area, they set up several listening stations where residents could sit, lie and hear the water. They completed their audio research in Plaquemines Parish, where Haller hopes to someday build a permanent field station to help people more fully understand the fragility of Louisiana’s coastal environment.
“The sound recordings bring the physical body to the water body,” she said.