Leah Barclay

Leah Barclay
River listening in Noosa, Australia
(Photo: Rob Munden)

Dr Leah Barclay is an Australian sound artist, composer and researcher working at the intersection of art, science and technology. She specialises in electroacoustic music, acoustic ecology and emerging fields of biology exploring environmental patterns and changes through sound. Her work has been commissioned, performed and exhibited to wide acclaim across Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, Peru, Colombia, Europe, India, South Africa, China and Korea by organisations including UNESCO, Ear to the Earth, Streaming Museum, Al Gore’s Climate Reality and the IUCN. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and has directed and curated interdisciplinary projects across the Asia-Pacific and USA.

Leah composes complex sonic environments that draw attention to changing climates and fragile ecosystems. These works are realised through live performances, interactive installations and site-specific interventions drawing on environmental field recordings, data sonification, live streams and immersive sound diffusion. Recent examples include augmented reality sound walks exploring the cultural and biological diversity of river systems and Rainforest Listening, a virtual canopy that transforms iconic urban locations into the Amazon Rainforest. Rainforest Listening launched in Times Square for Climate Week NYC 2015 and was a featured cultural event for COP21 in Paris where each observatory platform of the Eiffel Tower was transformed into the four distinct layers of tropical rainforest vegetation through immersive soundscapes accessed through mobile phones.

Leah’s work is multi-platform in nature and involves long-term engagement with communities across the globe ranging from remote river systems in South India to pacific island communities in Vanuatu. She leads several large-scale research projects including Biosphere Soundscapes, an interdisciplinary venture exploring the changing soundscapes of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves across the world and River Listening, which examines the creative possibilities of aquatic bioacoustics in collaboration with the Australian Rivers Institute.

Leah’s diverse creative practice has resulted in a career where she works as a researcher, artist, consultant and educator with various organisations and institutions. These include designing immersive education programs for UNESCO, directing large-scale interdisciplinary research projects for major universities across Australia and the USA and facilitating partnerships between communities, NGOs and government to explore creative approaches to climate action. She regularly guest lectures for international universities including NYU, Brown University and The Art Institute of Chicago.

Leah is the president of the Australian Forum for Acoustic Ecology, the vice-president of the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology and serves on the board of a range of arts and environmental organisations. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre where she is leading a portfolio of research exploring the value of acoustic ecology as a socially engaged, accessible, interdisciplinary field that can inspire communities across the world to listen to the environment.

Why do you make music?

I make music because I am passionate about sound and listening. I am inspired to create sonic environments that allow people to think about the environment in new ways and explore ecosystems with our auditory perception. My music has always drawn inspiration from nature - from the places I have lived and travelled. When I started incorporating found sounds and field recordings into my instrumental compositions, I was immediately drawn into a new way of thinking about composition and my music naturally evolved from there.

What music do you make?

I compose electroacoustic music that draws on environmental field recordings as source material. I often use surround sound composition and diffusion techniques to create complex sonic environments that draw attention to changing climates and fragile ecosystems. My music is often performed live but also appears in interactive and immersive installations. I also compose spatial electronic music for virtual and augmented reality experiences.

How do you make music?

My practice revolves around an equal balance between field work and post production in the studio. I spend extensive time in a new environment exploring, listening and recording. My work is multi-platform and involves working directly with communities in participatory action research projects. My field recording process always involves asking permission at new locations and often working with traditional owners if possible. In the studio, my creative process is very intuitive. I use a range of software and hardware systems to process and sculpt field recordings for my compositions. These are usually selected based on the sound materials and intention of the project. I do not have a strict post production format, but I usually like to compose in surround sound from the initial stage of creative development.

Is any of your sound-based work not ‘music’ as such and, if not, what is it?

I have adopted a broad Cagean definition of music in that I believe sound organised with intention is music. Therefor I class the outcomes of all my creative projects as music, though I often use terms such as sound art and acoustic ecology in various settings.

How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engi-neer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?

I describe myself as a interdisciplinary composer, sound artist, researcher and acoustic ecologist. As my work is often at the intersection of art and science, I use the word interdisciplinary to capture the hybrid nature of my research and creative work.

What is the cultural context for your work - how are you influenced by music from other cultures or the other arts?

Intercultural collaborations have played a critical role in my development as a musician. I’ve been particularly fascinated by the complex rhythmic traditions of South India and Korea. I studied percussion extensively in both countries resulting in a range of collaborations including the release of two albums with an ensemble in South India and collaborations with acclaimed Korean percussionist Choi Yoonsang that have been supported by the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture. These collaborations have been highly influential in how I think about rhythm in my compositions and continue to impact my creative work today.

What skills and attributes do you consider to be essential for you as a musician?

I think active listening is the most critical skill for musicians today. I also feel it is important to be versatile and open minded about sound and technology. There are so many exciting developments happening with new technologies and that sense of curiosity and experimentation are essential to remain engaged and inspired.

What role does hearing play in your work?

Hearing and listening are at the heart of my practice. Over the last decade my work has focused on the conservation of rivers, reefs and rainforests through interdisciplinary creative projects that can inspire communities to listen. My creative work is also drawing on my personal experiences of deep listening in various ecosystems, so it is central to everything I do.

What is the importance of listening for a digital musician, and why?

Listening is a critical skill for digital musicians. Listening allows us to make decisions at every step of the creative process - from deciding where to place the microphone and when to push record, to sculpting sound material in the studio.

Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?

Echoing my comment above, I think being versatile, open minded and curious about exploring the future possibilities of sound are important skills for musicians in the digital age.