Remaking Pittsburgh: Permaculture Soundscapes

Jeremy Woodruff

Hazelwood Food Forest

Can one compose sociality concurrently with composing a work of sound art and critique both? Inspired by my deep concern at the rapid destruction of the world's environments in the grip of seemingly unstoppable neoliberal capitalism, I undertook research into the ecological philosophy of permaculture farming to see what I could bring to this question. Permaculture philosophy is carried into the sound installation Gongburgh: Steeltown Forests largely via an imaginary idyll of Indonesian village society, contained in the sounds of gamelan, superimposed on an urban garden soundscape and sounds of steel production. This move is partly inspired by ethnomusicology texts contemporaneous with the foundational texts of permaculture. Permaculture and certain ethnomusicology texts (especially from the 80s) share a viewpoint propounding the wisdom of the ancient village unit as the basis of an enlightened artistic/ecological existence. I interrogate permaculture philosophy and its view of indigenous art by positioning questions both in the sound work itself and in the design of the creative process that generated it; I ask how one can compose social relations concurrently with composing music and to what extent the attempt impacts both.

I used permaculture's "principles" in an artistic practice wherein the central juncture of art and sociality is worktrade: I offer downloadable sound art on the internet in return for donations to a permaculture garden, the Hazelwood Food Forest (HFF) in Pittsburgh, in the hopes of receiving a share of food from their crop yield in return. [1] Permaculture was the blueprint in this case for how one might go about using sound in a barter economy. The proceeds from the sale of my compositions are donated to the respective permaculture gardens whose recorded soundscapes feature in the pieces. I intend this donation to be a gesture towards developing a fuller gift economy, worktrade, or system of mutual aid based on the exchange of the production of sound art for food. Worktrade or mutual aid has a long tradition taking different forms within various political philosophies of anarchism. Mutual aid made its most memorable appearance of late during the actions of the Occupy movement in New York City, 2011–2012, in the form of such actions as the Mutual Aid Working Group, Peoples Library, and most recently Occupy (Hurricane) Sandy.

The use of permaculture principles in artwork to explore ecological themes already has quite a history of precedent. [2] One prominent example is the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, known for their practice of “artivisme” (a combination of activism and art, used in mostly radical ecology-minded actions), whose guiding vision is articulated by their 13 Attitudes, a direct adaptation of the permaculture principles published on their website. My approach is further inspired by my research of sound art pioneers Ultra-red, whose socially engaged artwork prompted me to look for fresh methods with which art can catalyze political change. I also acknowledge Brandon LaBelle's writing and artwork as an important point of reference, which has given me a broader political hearing of sound's sociality in the urban soundscape and shown how such a perspective on the environment can simultaneously prompt innovative sonic results.

I attempt to move soundscape recording in a new direction by exploring the relation of sounds in an urban garden by collaging and superimposing other soundscapes onto it. I also focus on the voicescape, and include my own voice rather than pose the microphone as an objectifying mechanism. Guided by the tenets of permaculture, I use this approach as a way to encourage the listener to re-imagine the meanings of the sounds' respective communities. An interpretive listening to the differing modes of sonic expression in these soundscapes in terms of their histories of ritual and labor is encouraged through this process of the audio material's permutation and superimposition. Using quasi-utopic and nostalgic combination of the urban gardening soundscape, gamelan music's rural tradition, and Pittsburgh's industrial history, I strive to sonically imagine new patterns of sociality and "invent" new rituals. The contrast of these sound source's economies and their inherent voicescapes are also designed with an ear to a critical examination of permaculture's philosophy (described in more detail in the following section). Conflicting cognitions and affects that arise in the gulf between these soundworlds allow an appreciation for the challenges encountered by a community in the actual realization of permaculture's future ideal.

Finally, through this research I have both slightly enhanced the lives of the urban gardening communities involved and strengthened the crosscurrents active in my work. I hope that by planting the seed of integrating a practice of sound art into the urban gardening process, it can eventually grow to become a further social support for these and other permaculture projects. The artistic appreciation of sound can become an invaluable resource to enrich the "social permaculture" necessary to make urban gardening a more rewarding cultural activity; communities participating in permaculture projects can become more stable and productive through the conflict management and bonding necessary for successful artistic collaboration. [3] Using permaculture (gardening and philosophy) in a process of composition has also led my own work to a new stage of development. Through this experiment, I have strived to make the connection in my musical composition between a sustainable practice of artistic research and sustainable ecology intrinsic, not only sonically, but also socially. In the face of the neoliberalism previously cited, this attempt is in tune with a belief that an artistic practice merely prepended on aesthetic issues is no longer conscientious (or even possible).

In the following, I trace the generation of artworks and the thinking behind them. I also show how my engagement with specific communities doing progressive ecological work made the sound in my artwork more fertile, while my artwork also modestly supplemented their garden's potential. The bulk of this article describes the production of Gongburgh: Steeltown Forests and how it deals with permaculture principles as a whole. I also briefly discuss Phonosynthesis, a work made in cooperation with a new permaculture initiative at the Technische Universität in Berlin (Permakultur and Terra Preta). This work transposes two particular permaculture principles more explicitly into artistic practice. Lastly, I discuss the rich ground that remains to be studied using permaculture as a metaphor with which to ask research questions in an artistic process; and I briefly touch on further personal significances of the artwork that I hope will resonate and add perspective for the reader.

[1] Two lists of "permaculture principles" are generally associated with the philosophy. See Mollison and Slay (Mollison and Slay 1991) and Holmgren (Holmgren 2002).

[2] See:, and, for just a few examples.

[3] Diana Leafe Christian observes, "No matter how visionary and inspired the founders, only about one out of ten new communities actually get built. The other 90 per cent seemed to go nowhere occasionally because of lack of money or not finding the right land, but mostly because of conflict" (Christian 2003: 5). 

Permaculture, art and ritual


I found permaculture while looking for artistic inspiration in the research of ecology and indigenous systems of sustainability. Permaculture's holistic philosophy has a significance and applicability far beyond gardening. Permaculture was inspired by the observation of native aboriginal horticulture in Australia and early attempts at organic gardening techniques. Permaculture offers a model of dealing with the earth’s resources, in a vision of a future with low fossil fuel use. Although permaculture came about as a philosophy of gardening and of treating the earth, its founders (Bill Mollison and David Holmgren) stress that permaculture is actually a philosophy of design. Recently, experienced practitioners of permaculture have been advocating the use of "social permaculture" applying similar holistic principles to the social relationships between those doing the gardening work as they would apply to the garden itself, in order to also make the human effort more sustainable. [4] Permaculture principles are highly extensible. According to a blogger at the Austin EcoNetwork (AEN), "one of my first permaculture teachers told our class that his favorite permaculture designs are the ones where there 'isn’t in sight'...whatever industry you work in, the world needs more permaculture-informed design" (Nazak 2014).

The permaculture founders expressed a utilitarian view very much biased towards indigenous folk arts ever since they began publishing texts regarding the philosophy, beginning with Permaculture One in 1978; Bill Mollison, in his foundational text Permaculture: A Designers Manual, issues this call:


There is little doubt that most (if not all) tribal art is intended for quite specific ends; much of tribal art is a public and ever-renewed mnemonic, or memory-aid. Apparently simple spiral or linear designs can combine thousands of bits of information in a single, deceptively simple pattern... It is a challenge to artists to study and portray knowledge in a compact, memorable, and transmissible form, to research and recreate for common use those surviving art forms which still retain their meaning, and to re-integrate such art with science and with society and its functions and needs. It is a challenge to educators to revive the meaningful geometries, songs, and dances that gave us, and our work, meaning. (Mollison 1988: 100-101)


According to Mollison, ritual performance of music and dance had the power to encode detailed local knowledge about the environment inherited from time immemorial into the bodily memory of participants. In any case, the arts are indeed always connected to patterns of the natural environment, and in soundscape composition this connection is particularly imminent; this is one of the reasons it has become such an essential art form. Alan S. Weiss writes, “Gardens constitute a primal Gesamtkunstwerk, the site of all sites, the ground of all the arts, the unstated nexus of heterogeneity in the system of fine arts, the source of synaesthesia, the analogue of all correspondences” (Weiss 2008: 12). This is true when, and in so far as, the arts make this intersection of culture and ecology manifest. On a community level it is largely manifested through various forms of ritual and ritual performance. [5]

The way in which rituals are akin to the earth’s soil, which we cultivate (from the Latin root “cultura”, also referring to agriculture), is firstly by virtue of the fact that we inherit the landscape of our rituals from our culture(s); in the beginning it chooses us, precedes us, via our parents and grandparents; our acculturated habits are distinguished by rituals that have been handed down from one generation to the next; they come from a time before any of the family members that we know in our lives can remember. The continuation of rituals in our culture, however great or small, is something to be taken up by our children and our children’s children: it likewise evolves in a time frame beyond our reckoning, similar to the evolution of our ecosystem. Rituals of distant history, on both horizons of past and future, define us, as do our natural bodies—because of the saturation of history with ritual, we cannot possibly be completely aware of all of the ways in which ritual could be defining our daily lives. At the same time, the extreme ends of these horizons of past and future ritual, from whence we came and as it will be millennia hence, merge with natural forms of the environment of the earth that we cannot fully imagine. Single instances of the start of new rituals can sometimes begin very simply in the mundane realm of the cultivation of the earth, for example. Indeed, they often begin (and end) with the production of food.

The Hazelwood Food Forest (HFF), an urban garden in a relatively mixed, lower income area of Pittsburgh, exists only a stone’s throw away from a major thoroughfare in the city, Route 885, 2nd Avenue, which, running parallel to the Monongahela river, extends from a main street that runs all the way downtown. For this reason, automobiles are more a part of the garden soundscape than any other sound. In the city this is the norm—the constant sound of machines almost leads to the delusion that we are our machines. During the prolonged search for a good garden site, this proximity to the highway was characteristic of city spaces in general. If we consider the philosophy of permaculture, we will also realize that this proximity to the highway will become an aural measure for the rest of the garden’s life, gauging how its prophetic mission is coming to fruition, as car sounds begin to wane over the years… as more gardens grow up… and, finally, as gardens eventually cover what used to be the highway. In the meantime, the passing cars are a constant subconscious reminder of the flow of the city and the garden a defiant sign of life next to it. The two systems (garden and traffic) exist in completely different frames of time, an organic, rooted and communal one, next to the regulated and constantly transient pace of the thoroughfare. Crucially, these timeframes also represent two different ways of listening. I visited the HFF and recorded the soundscape while playing gamelan instruments live on site. I also mixed the sound of gamelan into the soundscape in the audio production process. In both cases the gamelan heightens the profiles of different frames of time by virtue of its colotomic structure and large-scale attention to tempo, bringing these levels of sonic and temporal difference further towards the acoustic surface. [6]

Playing the kempul at the HFF

The sound sources used in Gongburgh are as follows: 


• interviews, socializing and garden work at the Hazelwood Food Forest in Pittsburgh

• the gong and other instruments being played in the Hazelwood Food Forest

• The Sounds of Steel, a 1965 promotional recording from US Steel

• sounds from video of the RG steel plant in Warren, one of the few surviving steel plants in the Pittsburgh area

• both of the foregoing steel factory audio sources played through the resonant body of the big University of Pittsburgh gamelan gong ageng

• gong production in Java and Javanese speech

• gamelan music composed by myself and recorded on the University of Pittsburgh gamelan



In the installation of the piece at the 1st ESSA conference, these soundscapes were played over 4 channels of audio, a subwoofer and three metal objects as resonant bodies through which the material was amplified via transducers: a tam-tam, an orchestral gong (in lieu of gamelan instruments, which we couldn't obtain) and a sheet of steel. These were distributed in a space around a central cubic area, parsing the room in such a way that visitors would have to move around in order to get a complete sonic impression of the piece (see Figure 2). The choice to use tam-tam and orchestral gong, although not originally intended, turned out to be fortuitous; since they are thinner and possess higher frequencies, they conducted the sounds of the various materials better than the large Javanese instruments, while they also contrasted nicely against the deep frequencies of the pervasive gamelan gongs. Filtering the sound through tam-tam, gong and metal sheet is meant to metaphorically show how music and sound can only be the conduit of one another through social relationships. Exciting the sound of the material substance of the artwork in the room further worked to evoke the physical reality of gamelan and steel production. This amplification through various metals elicited the materiality of the steelfactory and playing on acoustic instruments in a more visceral way than simple amplification would have done.

Floor plan of the installation Gongburgh: Steeltown Forests

Various restructurings of the sonic materials in combination with different layers of musical time could evoke a range of possible narratives using the themes in the composition. These combinations also serve to subvert and transform quotidian associations with those sounds into larger imagined frameworks. Here I list some of the possible sound-images that arise from these superimpositions and interventions:


Some invented sound scenes include:


• a gamelan performance at the HFF

• a gamelan performance at a steel plant

• a steel factory that also houses a Javanese gong factory 

• a Javanese gong factory at the site of the HFF


Some secondary resonances of sounds could include:


• gongs as steel production

• steel production as music

• sounds of sociality as music

• the suling (an Indonesian flute) as metaphor for a steel drill in a blast furnace or for a far off train whistle, which is a soundmark of this particular part of the US

• socializing and the soundscape resonating in gongs

• gamelan as material, like a sheet of steel

• gardening, and plant growth, facilitated with musical activity


Other comparative sounds of labor and symbolic and musical performances of work here include:


• steel production timed to the production of gongs in Indonesia

• gong production compressed into the soundscape of a steel plant

• the sound of gong production convolved with garden work at HFF

• the sound of steel production contrasted with garden work and interviews at HFF



Naturally this is an incomplete list, but it conveys the idea of how the sounds can contradict one another and also reality, so that the listener can draw productive comparisons as a result of these collisions. In the contrasts I have built, I took David Holmgren's assertion very much to heart, that "the most creative design involves the promiscuous hybridisation of possibilities from apparently disconnected, or even discordant sources to create a new harmony" (Holmgren 2002: 14).


[4] See:, "principles of social permaculture: creating cultures of resilience" at and

[5] To avoid entering into a cumbersome discussion of the meaning of the word "ritual", I offer a brief clarification: I use ritual here in the broad sense of repeated instances of human interaction with cultural meanings. Ritual performance, on the other hand, I associate with religion and the arts. The former and the latter obviously intersect on many levels.

[6] Colotomy is a rhythmic term coined by ethnomusicologist Jaap Kunst, which denotes a type of music that uses certain instruments to mark off specific intervals of time. See Kunst (Kunst 1973). 

Utopic terrain: The thunder of steel in gamelan amalgams


Sound is not detachable from the complete sensorium, and this is another reason why connecting it with food production has the potential to enrich it with important associations. Also for this reason, I consciously placed food production in a central role in Gongburgh. I was a Teaching Fellow for the Pittsburgh University gamelan in 2012. The University of Pittsburgh's first gamelan (Javanese, they now possess a Balinese one as well) was ordered in 1994. Since that time, the university gamelan has attracted quite a body of tradition. Before our semester concert, traditional Indonesian food suddenly arrived for all of us—the local Indonesian population relishes the university gamelan concerts every year. They cooked the food for us, since tradition requires that we, the performers, be honored in this way. I can tell you we performed better as a result of the wonderful meal that we sat down to eat before the concert and the good feelings that this social contact and the food’s flavors engendered.


This experience, among many others, convinced me to strive to develop holistic models of composition that engage the total sensorium. I would define holistic compositional processes as ones that incorporate this embodied and sensuous listening and draw on  notions of a communal labor of sound. This means bringing attention to social aspects crucial for music’s functioning and enjoyment. Gamelan has been touted as a high expression of such values and, as such, can serve as a model demonstrating how working with factors seemingly external to the production of sound can eventually transform into holistic compositional processes. Edward Schieffelin points out that food often appears in the lyrics of Kaluli song as "the mediator of (and metaphor for) human relationships" (Schieffelin 1979: 135). I was inspired enough by these and other aspects derived from the wisdom of Southeast Asian cultures, that I placed food as a central part of the music's process of coming into existence in Gongburgh: Steeltown Forests

By inserting gamelan music into the soundscape, I am not trying to practice ethnography, but rather importing symbolic temporal models. Gamelan is a symbol of how it might be possible to hear sound and music relate as an intersection of ancient and local wisdom. These different frames of time, the immediate and the historical/epochal, also have their inherent economies. Ethnomusicologist Judith Becker notes how Gamelan music pays hyper-attention to and derives a sense of balance from an acculturated sense of cycles of time that emphasize duality and musical “two-ness”— emerging primarily in a conception of the cosmos consisting of the sea versus the mountain (Becker 1979: 202). In this example, gamelan music superbly demonstrates how the ways in which a culture attends to time in its music also reflect how it treats time in life. How we treat time in life is in turn a way of molding, modeling our environment to our specifications. In the case of the gamelan the attention to cycles of time can reflect a particular social flow and order. The more attuned we become to time as participants in music, the more we invest in a particular sense of temporal experience in our everyday lives with its social and economic meaning.

Additionally, I was inspired to import gamelan into the soundscape for imaginary social resonances as analogous to the way permaculture imports sustainable farming practices from indigenous populations. Through certain readings, gamelan can represent an idyllic musical culture that supports community cooperation at the same time as it features a particular musical virtuosity resulting from it. As ethnomusicologist Henry Spiller observes, "When each family farm times its own [irrigation system] needs to interlock with the needs of its neighbors, everybody profits; the yield is, once again, greater than the sum of its parts. Given the great cultural rewards of reciprocity and cooperation in Southeast Asia, it is little wonder that Southeast Asian musicians, too, use interlocking parts to create a musical effect that is greater than the sum of its parts" (Spiller 2004: 16). Looking further, Spiller also makes statements about gamelan with which the concept of worktrade and mutual aid could fit perfectly: "Under ideal circumstances, the bond [between trading partners] becomes permanent when neither side is entirely certain exactly how much is owed to the other party; the relationship is sustained by an interlocking pattern of giving and receiving. Both parties are "rich" because they share each other's wealth" (Spiller 2004: 15). In this sense, too, gamelan was the perfect partner for insinuating imaginary indigenous resonances that echo the worktrade conceit of Gongburgh.

Although the resonances of the "Indonesia" I import started in my own imagination as a spur to creativity, it is fair to say that some of these resonances are certainly imparted to a listener. When gamelan music, with its colotomic structure is juxtaposed against the sound of socializing in the garden, it finds a natural, sympathetic home there. One prevalent idea of indigenous music is that, unlike Western classical music, it is mostly performed outdoors, often for long stretches of time and as part of celebrations, weddings, harvests and other special ceremonial feasts. At such events, vocal communication is not viewed as an interruption to the music but as a part of the overall goings on. The superimposition of garden work and gamelan can easily evoke the impression of permaculture gardeners playing music in a celebration of their communal efforts, similarly to what might take place in the villages of an idealized indigenous rural population. The gamelan music lends the urban garden a new significance; the gong strokes suggest a reordering of the social sounds around them, as if a festive ritual occasion is taking place.

Gamelan and HFF

When the noises of the steel factory are contrasted with the gamelan, the concerto of the chaos versus order in the timbres, pitches and rhythms of the two create a striking amalgam.  It is clear how the factory workers and machines must cooperate in tandem to create a product similar to how musicians in an ensemble perform together. The massive power of the factory sounds, however, also reveals to us how much energy is being expended in this one localized sink of industrial resources alone. If just one-tenth of the energy, money and manpower of such a system were relocated into renewable and energy-efficient means of farming, using permaculture principles, the results could feed a whole village indefinitely. The gamelan is not part of the manufacturing world of urban industrial factories, but rather connected to a more rural one, closer to the earth and its natural resources. It is possible to hear this in Gongburgh, not only in the gamelan's organic sound, but also in the soundscape I use of a very different "factory" in Java in which the gamelan instruments are manufactured. Even today in Java, the traditional method of gamelan construction is maintained: basic hand tools like coal, a hearth, tongs and large hand hammers are used. Molten bronze is partially poured into a hole that is simply hollowed out of the dirt ground to create the large knob on the front of the gongs, granting them their distinctive pitch characteristics (Quigley 1989). The gamelan thus becomes a sonic conduit with which to suggest the possible transformation of the factory into other possible economies that are not focused on mass production but rather towards the village unit, as permaculture recommends. 

Gamelan and Sounds of Steel

At the same time, however, the impressive scale of the factory sounds demonstrates how the massive power that people can harness for production and industrialization (even by the 60s) inspires awe and displays a certain intense sensuousness of its own (The Sounds of Steelmaking 1965). This roaring of engines, masses of steel, and eventually even the sounds of the destruction of our natural environment have also provided mankind with a sonic iteration of its own power and of the massive impact of which humankind is capable. We must also acknowledge and constructively confront this fact in order to see how far these explosive human intensities and destructive impulses allow recalibration. We cannot simply close our ears to human nature and suppose that by only playing beautiful music and celebrating gardens that corporations controlling the massive overflow of production will, because of that, one day suddenly decide to regulate themselves in accordance with the preservation of the environment. I allow such dilemmas to sonically enter the artwork as much as possible. The opposition of gamelan music and factory sounds finds a symbolic parallel in the aforementioned opposition between the automobile traffic and social communication and community work in the garden. It becomes apparent, by listening carefully to how these sounds co-exist, that the contradictions are not intractable, and that these oppositions are in reality not actually dichotomous. The sounds of the gamelan reveal particular resonances with both the factory and the auto traffic, which could represent other solutions to the survival of the garden in their midst. The same goes for sonic analogies that the listener might hear in other combinations. In this way, the dyads of garden/traffic and factory/gamelan are actually in dialogue with one another. Through an imaginative listening to the affinities of different phenomena on conflicting economic scales, perhaps we can eventually creatively perceive new ways, in the words of one of Mollison's core permaculture principles, that "the problem is the solution" (Mollison 1988: 15). 

The Voicescape and Urban Garden Feedback


Apropos of this maxim, I turn briefly to Brandon LaBelle's case for improvement in the communality and sociality of shared sound in urban spaces via a reevaluation of noise. Instead of the conservative urban planning concept of noise as environmental nuisance, LaBelle reformulates: "noise is not only environmental disturbance. Rather, it remarkably provides a key experience for the establishment of an acoustic community in the making" (LaBelle 2010: 82, emphasis added). I strive to both create a space for the activation of this acoustic community in urban gardens and document it via the noisy phenomena I have described. Urban planner Richard Oddies also lends support to this notion of noise as shared sound, saying what is needed is


an urban acoustic ecology that moves beyond the familiar and misguided division between natural perfection and urban degradation to consider the urban soundscape as a space of potential for creating more equitable and sustainable cities. (Oddies 2012: 172)


LaBelle points out that the problem of conflating noise abatement with a superior sonic environment is related to not realizing that urban sound contains "not only sounds that come to circulate through a particular situation, but importantly, a relational exchange where sound is also voice, dialogue, sharing, and confrontation" (LaBelle 2010: 82). These observations informed my method of recording the soundscape.

In many soundscape compositions, whether urban or rural, the layer that you could call the voicescape is either excluded from the recordings, or forms a sort of background level of dull roar, where the voices are more or less a part of the ground. When voices are captured it is usually pointedly, as in the classic example of Feld, a case where the voices merge and are indicated to be part of the larger whole of the natural environment,


Kaluli transform these everyday encounters with acoustic figure-grounds, extending their naturalness from the experience of the rain-forest soundscape to their own vocal and instrumental music. Voices and rattles are made to 'lift-up-over' like the trees of the forest canopy; sounds of drums and work tools are made to 'lift-up-over' like tumbling waterfalls into swirling waterpools. These ideas are elaborated by Kaluli in musical practices favoring dense and layered cooperative singing or sounding. (Feld 1990: 100)


Examples of the more typical urban situation of voices in the foreground, competing with the man-made landscape of machines and automobiles, are scarcer—perhaps an inheritance from the "hi-fi/lo-fi" listening bias of the soundscape composition pioneers. Not only the voices of birds become shriller, seeking particular sonic niches when confronted with the loud urban environment (as has been widely acknowledged both in biology and sound studies alike) (Slabbekoorn 2003), the voices of humans do, too. This competition also holds a particular music, which perhaps resembles the sounds of a steel factory more than a rainforest. I capture this music of the contest of voices and environment in my sonic materials and reveal it in how I treat them. Rather than focusing on pure aesthetic flows, I try to capture contrasting parameters in specific social contexts. These can influence the cognitive dissonances experienced by a listener through their encounter. [7]

The noises that the phonographer makes and conversations they may have had with people in the soundscape are traditionally isolated from the soundscape recording itself. This is also part of the aesthetic of the original soundscape genre. I judge this silence to be a lost opportunity. In a silent sound walk there is no talking, so as to perceive the sounds around one better; in a rainforest this would certainly be a very important tactic. In this case, however, the participants are shut off from communication with the urban dwellers as they, as outsiders, only observe and do not interact with local sounds. In an urban center, however, I would instead recommend a new form of talking sound walk in urban spaces, during which communication between the participants and the inhabitants of the city is required. This is a logical and important extension of the process of listening (in all of its meanings) within the urban environment. As an example, simply by asking different people for directions, one is bound to learn a great deal more about local attitudes and behaviors than if one only passively observes those people without interacting with them. In any case, participants very often attest to the fact that the most edifying part of a silent sound walk is at the end when the participants are no longer silent, but rather communicating with each other about what they have heard.

Sound recording, wherein the documentation of the phonographer’s voice is actually present also represents transparency, exposing what is often a pretense of scientific “objectivity” of the artifice of the recording. It can vitally change the significance of what is heard if the phonographer inserts their sounds into the scene, if they literally make clear what questions are being asked of the soundscape and what attitudes and influences are being brought into that particular recording of it. For these reasons I advocate not only recording voicescapes ,but also engaging in them. This is another aspect that comes forward in the composition of Gongburgh: Steeltown Forests. As I interviewed Juliette Jones, one of the co-founders of the HFF, my excitement about abstract correlations between gardening and sound was tempered by her more grounded tone of voice. Her quick refocusing of the conversation toward practical considerations, like the yield of the HFF, is a good reminder that the garden is not primarily about growing ideas, but rather, food. The obstacles to communicating my purpose in visiting the garden are also revealed by my exchange with another garden participant as I try to explain the Gongburgh project. These exchanges meanwhile give a crucial additional insight into the social atmosphere of the garden with its typical Pittsburgh friendliness. The noise of laughing, singing, and joking in the garden are important sounds of the social environment, and they modify the meaning of the sound of the garden. The tone of the voices offer crucial insights into the perception of the land and its sounds.

Dialogue with participants

Laughing, joking and talking.

[7] I play with the tendency of vocal intonations in urban scenarios to be heightened in particular ways, depending on the political context, in a feedback loop with noise. I call this social tonality. In this way my compositional approach is in some ways related to the political philosophy of composition articulated by Trevor Wishart. See (Woodruff 2014). 

Sound art and permaculture principles


The main questions in permaculture always deal with examining our larger environment in order to evaluate how to design self-maintaining and self-regulating systems for energy descent: a future in which local systems, by moving into widening zones of geographic and social compass, reach near or total self-sustainable energy efficiency by cleverly taking advantage of natural ecology. What sort of care for the earth and for people could be imparted by music and sound art, as part of such a societal process, is a question to which a permaculture perspective can bring much new stimulus. I hope I've fragmentarily demonstrated this to be the case in this article. Rather than pretend to already have any well-formulated answers, in what follows I would like to merely suggest some of the processes through which this potentially far-reaching interdisciplinary research of sound production with permaculture concepts could begin to unfold. I am still at the outset of collecting data from the results of my first artistic projects in this direction. I expect, just as in landscape gardening, that it will take at least several years before I have enough feedback from the slow processes of social growth and community networking to make more grounded statements concerning the contribution of music and sound art to sustainable systems and communities.

Holmgren states, "principles are brief statements or slogans which can be remembered as a checklist when considering the inevitably complex the stations of an artistic process, from inspiration, education, to publicity and reception etc. All elements in a system have "needs," "products" and "behaviors." As such it should partly only be a matter of logical deduction and partly a matter of creative synthesis to work out how Holmgren and Mollison's permaculture principals could function in the realm of sound art. At the same time, Holmgren himself says that the attempt to develop "more appropriate governance, economy and culture, including art and myth" with permaculture principles "may be too big a leap" but that "it is possible to at least use them for evaluating the diverse cultural phenomena we find ourselves in" (Holmgren 2002: 47). In the same spirit, I do not claim to wish to recreate sound art from the bottom up using these principles, but instead to think about it in various ways through the lens of permaculture as a prop for the imagination.

The first three principals of permaculture are very simple and provide a good basis for the ethics of any undertaking: care for the earth, care for people, and respecting the limits of nature on production and fair distribution (Mollison 1988: 2, Holmgren 2002: 1). These principals already raise important questions about producing sound art that has to do with the ecological sector. The financial and cultural sectors of influence of its artistic production are, by comparison, already well mapped. This ecological sector also includes food, the production of materials and many other facets of artistic work that in a traditional analysis are either entirely ignored or play merely a secondary or tertiary role. Also, in applying these three fundamental principals it already becomes clear that if people's ability to obtain energy through listening is the way through which sound art can care for the earth and its people, then the artistic value placed on particular disciplines is in urgent need of an upgrade: above all, music therapy and music education should be lent equal status with other forms of artistic output. That these fields are necessarily less artistic or less expert than "disinterested" artworks is a fallacy that stems from the (receding) dominance of the ideology of individualism, solitary genius and the market economy in the arts. Arguably, one could perceive a symptom of this receding influence in the surge of relational aesthetics over the last decade in the art world (although this trend is no panacea for the world's problems.) However obvious, it bears repeating: the more the public enjoys sound and music participation rather than consumption, the better it is for the natural ecology. But further, following primary permaculture ethics would mean that we should calibrate our artistic work less towards "productivity" (however that might be defined in terms of finances, science or social status) and more towards care; it would mean to transcend exerting "control" and focus more on facilitation, to be concerned not only with virtuosity, but virtuosic cooperation. As Uri Gordon writes of permaculture in the context of capitalism,


‘care for the land and the people’, transposed into broader cultural terms, would involve facilitating that self-development of the plant or the person, the garden or the community, each according to its own context—working with, rather than against, the organic momentum of the entity cared for. Whereas in monoculture (or industry, or existing social relations) what is sought after is the opposite—maximal control and harnessing of natural processes and labour power. (Gordon 2008: 137)


Holmgren's 2002 updated and elaborated principles of permaculture are:


Observe and interact

Catch and store energy

Obtain a yield

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

Use and value renewable resources and services

Produce no waste

Design from patterns to details

Integrate, do not segregate

Use small and slow solutions

Use and value diversity

Use edges and value the marginal

Creatively use and respond to change


I used the principle "Observe and Interact" as the inspiration for a follow-up piece to Gongburgh, called Phonosynthesis, developed for a group show during the preview of the Berlin transmediale 2014 at the Errant Bodies project space. [8] By observing the sonic skills and habits of a group and how they are connected, it should be possibleto create possibilities for interaction, based on the observations, with music and sound. Local communities have detailed knowledge of history and geography, which are important to understand the ecology of how communities react to sound. Holmgren's call, as part of "observation and interaction," to "interact with care, creativity and efficiency" (Holmgren 2002: 14), are in harmony with my wishes to create participatory artwork that enhances difference by exploring modes of listening. During the piano lessons of five children (ages five, nine, eleven, and two who were eight years old), I played them a recorded soundscape of the site at the Botanische Garten in Dahlem. At this site the Technisches Universität project, "Permakultur & Terra Preta," has been granted a space to plant a permaculture garden. The children were then asked to improvise fitting music for the soundscape that they just heard, and their improvisations were recorded. In Phonosynthesis I encourage the gallery visitor to play transcriptions provided of the children's pieces on a toy piano for the five plants to "hear." These five herbal plants will be planted in the new permaculture garden, which is planned on the site where the original soundscape was recorded. Both the children's improvisations and the gallery visitor's interpretations of them will be mixed and arranged together with the recording of the original soundscape of the site in Dahlem that inspired this journey from garden, to child, to adult participant and back to garden again. This recording will be offered as a download on various websites in return for donations to the Permakultur & Terra Preta project.

Under the category of the "observe and interact" principle, Holmgren also introduces the idea of "top down thinking, bottom up action" which is essentially a restatement of "think globally, act locally" (although it also carries other connotations related to a pyramid of hierarchical political structures) (Holmgren 2002: 15). I consider the scale of the Phonosynthesis project, working with students at a local university, a music school and a project space in Berlin (Errant Bodies) to be a reflection of this principle, as all the groups mobilize together for the purpose of transforming an experience of the garden. In this way, word is spread about the project and about permaculture. Furthermore, as a main tenet of "interaction," Holmgren entreats gardeners to "make the smallest intervention necessary" (Holmgren 2002: 17). Holmgren refers here to Masanobu Fukuoka's lifelong agricultural accomplishments and writings, which were a major influence on the development of permaculture in the 1970s. Inspired by Fukuoka's advice, Phonosynthesis features a "do nothing" approach to music composition. Different from John Cage's non-intentionality, do nothing composition is inspired by "do nothing farming" (Masanobu 1978: 15); Phonosynthesis simply puts the musical impulses of different groups of people in contact with one another and lets each enhance the natural functioning of the other. A sounding and unsounding music is thereby supported in coming into existence all by itself.  This "energy cycling" (capturing and recycling natural energy processes through the way one connects systems together) is another permaculture principle (Mollison and Slay 1991: 17-19), which I attempt to transpose into the realm of music's sociality. I hope that by considering plant life's ability to absorb vibrations of sound that are different from (and possibly beyond) the human parameters of hearing (something we could consider the "unsound" of plant-life audition), the experience of the garden will be enhanced for all involved as a result of this symbolic cycling of sound's energy. I borrowed the main idea for Phonosynthesis from one part of Holmgren's explication of "observation and interaction." There he pointedly states, "the landscape is the textbook" (Holmgren 2002: 16). I take this analogy of Holmgren's literally—instead of needing to play piano from the written page, as the conventions of conventional music education dictate, the children piano students are asked here to instead "play the soundscape." 


Catching and storing energy in permaculture has mostly to do with strategies of water and sunlight catchment. This principle shifts our perception of the world away from the "economic" viewpoint toward an energetic one; in how many ways can we catch and store sonic energy? Secondly, the question of how to translate resource storage in terms of sonic creativity arises: how is it possible to express the many ways one can conceive of captured sound as energy, and how can we re-insert this into the sound's progress itself? How could we think of listening as a "food chain?" Holmgren states, "All biological and mineral resources can be considered (and measured) as embodied energy" (Holmgren 2002: 29). How could the storage of sonic information in biological organisms alter their significance as energy? Holmgren reminds us that all culture is a form of surplus arising from farming; as such, it takes part in the cycles of humanity's long-term asset building over the course of generations (Holmgren 2002: 47). How can we as artists concern ourselves more with this scale of time and less with solely our next personal artistic conquest?  

What is a yield in sonic terms? And how does it manifest in relation to the ecosystem? One might start systems of participatory music not only in an urban garden, but also in plant nurseries, cafes, food cooperatives, farmers markets, anywhere music can appreciate into the food chain. How can we as artists follow the "maximum power law," —i.e. where is the slope of diminishing returns in artistic effort in terms of its impact on the social environment, and how do we determine this? While calculating the yield of music or sonic process, what "units" should we try to count; if calculating pure financial gain derived from sound, how do we even gauge that: in short term private royalties, in societal gain, like in the benefits of public education, or in its health impact? How could one carry out EMERGY accounting (Odum 1996) on sound artwork?


The brief conceptual sketch above suffices to show how rich the metaphorical ground between ecological and artistic practice is, and it will continue to provide new research questions to pursue indefinitely. Permaculture principles raise many neglected holistic questions about artistic practice. Through interrogating my artistic output in terms of the principles of permaculture, I have been forced to imagine productive ways to ask ethical questions around our role as artists in the escalating destruction of the earth's ecology—Gongburgh has already certainly yielded a few clues that may lead to answers.


[8] Phonosynthesis is still a work in progress.

Towards the elusive yield


Fifteen years ago the USA was my home, a very different place in 1999 than it is now. I lived in Pittsburgh for a total of twelve months, on and off, between Fall 2010 and Spring 2012 while working on my Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh, and this gave me a chance to revisit the USA and consider how I, and it, have changed in the intervening time since I have made London, then Amsterdam, and for the last ten years, Berlin, my home. Gongburgh: Steeltown Forests is a prayer for Pittsburgh and for the US in general, a vision of how revived cities like Pittsburgh could once again be remade, in the sound-image of a garden instead of an (in Pittsburgh, pharmaceutical) industry; through cooperatives rather than venture capital; through personal and local relationships rather than relentless upward mobility. If I could remake Pittsburgh, the university there (as well as universities all over the US) would allow members of the public not even enrolled at the university to join the gamelan. The gamelan would play regularly to help grow participation and culture at urban garden projects like the Hazelwood Food Forest and aid other grassroots efforts.

        I carried out this vision in miniature as best I could by recording myself and members of the garden community playing on a university suling (flute), saron (metalophone), and two kempul (medium large gongs) at the Hazelwood Food Forest. Additionally, by re-focusing on the sound of pre-industrial models of metal production (the making of gongs in Java) and contrasting it not only with the sounds of gamelan and the garden, but also with industrial sounds of Pittsburgh’s famous heyday of steel production in the 1960s as well as of the only two current remaining steel factories, I also ultimately bring attention to the few and very stark options for survival left in light of the violent cycles of capitalism’s expansions and contractions, which sooner or later inevitably take a turn for the worse. Pittsburgh is a city with a recent history of unavoidable urban re-planning and revival, dating from the dark time of the departure of the steel industry in the 1980s and up to a blossoming of the city into a hub of cultural activity. It is interesting that Pittsburgh's darkest time coincides with most of the permaculture and ethnomusicology sources in this paper. It is no wonder that permaculture has taken root in this city in a special way. In recent times, however, the reactionary turn in American politics has seen serious cutbacks to the public funding of education there (one billion dollars less for Pennsylvania's public education budget in 2011, to be exact, thanks to the Tea Party favorite, governor Tom Corbett), and the menace of mass fracking all over the state continues. These events will continue to take a devastating toll there for some time to come. By creating art involving the sub-culture of urban gardening in Pittsburgh, I rail against such inhumanities in the name of corporate profit margins and instead promote "bottom up" civic planning.

       In the music business we have come to feel these most recent economic contractions quite intensely in the wake of the digital revolution and the recent "economic crisis." Aside from an ethical stance, it is a personal decision; instead of selling sound on today's lame buyer’s market, I try to invest my musical labor in community efforts that, if they do not pay me, could at least supply me with something nourishing to eat. This is my selfish reason to become a fundraiser for an urban garden. In South India, most musicians who teach an entire village or urban area’s children are not well-off, but the parents of the musician's students make sure that the musicians are at least given regular gifts of food so that they will survive. This is more than I can say for 99% of experimental composers now throughout the world, unfortunately. Although music education is defensible, few acknowledge the need for non-commercial music composition anymore. (Music all just comes from the computer, doesn't it?)  If an experimental composer can at least get some fruits and vegetables out of their work, they are doing better than most in the current cultural climate.

Aside from its contribution as artwork, research and as a philosophical statement, Gongburgh produced tangible positive results in the community for the participants involved. On the day that I came to record the soundscape, Juliette Jones announced to her gardeners that I would be on site bearing gamelan instruments. As a result of people's interest and curiosity, many more people came that day to lend their help in the garden, and a great deal more work was accomplished than usual. A lot of excitement was generated simply by the mention of the fact that these exotic instruments would be present. The sounds contributed to a particularly good social atmosphere (with their own ambient sounds, captured in the composition). Families also brought their children along to hear the gongs and participate. Furthermore, this was the gardeners' first encounter with soundscape composition and acoustic ecology. [9] Their perspective on their garden work was changed by thinking about how working on the garden could also transform not only the landscape, but also the urban soundscape; it made them think about their sonic experience at the HFF in relation to other places they frequent in their day-to-day lives. Some new observations they made about their acoustic environment, especially when combined with the sound of the gamelan gongs, are captured on the recording I made. For example, one person exclaims, "listen to that motorcycle, it sounded like a tuba!" Bringing more artistic awareness of the soundscape to permaculture and other urban gardening projects allows for new complimentary perspectives into the community. It encourages multi-faceted perceptions that encourage people to continue their relationship with the garden or start their own gardening initiatives. Finally, as a result of that day, the HFF decided to link my webpage about Gongburgh to their homepage.

I will be very grateful if after reading this article you would consider going to the Gongburgh page, and donating to the Food Forest, if you support the concept I have elaborated herein. Your contribution will go towards a fence and seeds, and you will receive a forty-five minute stereo mix of Gongburgh: Steeltown Forests. If there is not enough positive economic response, then it is back to the drawing board for me and my compositional work. As artistic research, negative feedback will be just as valuable information as positive, but all the same, I hope the HFF will receive further donations as a result of this article. At the time of this writing, the garden has accumulated roughly $110 from donations for the downloading of Gongburgh. This grand total already suggests that I may need to reevaluate how I can publicize the piece better, or simply find completely new and more effective ways within the artistic process of creating donated capital for permaculture gardens. However, perhaps with time and persistence, the yield, like ones in the relatively new gardens I've recorded, will grow. 

[9] Jones, Juliette (Personal Communication, March 29, 2012). 


Thank you to Ron Baraff at the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area for granting me the rights to use the recording, One Billion Dollars in Progress.

I express my gratitude to the sound studies lab at the Humboldt University Berlin and the ESSA for having invited me to mount the installation of Gongburgh properly, the way that I imagined it could be done from the beginning of the project.  It has allowed me to go back, review the process of designing the piece and finally develop it to a more satisfactory stage.


Thank you to Assistant Professor Rachel Mundy from the University of Pittsburgh for help and support on this article.


Finally, many thanks for the great patience shown by the editor at the Journal of Sonic Studies.



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