Artist Lab Report:
Lakeside Lab Ecotones

by Zach Poff

I arrived at Lakeside Lab with a bag of recording equipment and a desire to reflect on the “underheard” sounds of the campus: sonic details that go un-noticed by us but might reveal the lives of our non-human neighbors. The result was this sound composition:

Listen to “Lakeside Lab Ecotones” (20min)

Note: The piece was designed to be played in 4 channel surround in the Bodine Lab at Lakeside. This online version is a stereo downmix so the front/back information is lost.

We begin indoors with the sounds of the wind rattling the windows, before rising into the air to hear slowed down crickets, robins, and bats. Then we move with the wind into swaying Reed Canary Grass before descending through the trunks of trees (recorded with contact mics to hear the groaning percussion of the upper branches). Rain falls and we follow the water through different habitats to the edge of the lake at night, joined by a chorus of amphibians and visits from nocturnal creatures (most likely a feral pig and a muskrat). We’re surrounded by splashes (mostly fish jumping) and dive underwater to hear stridulating insects and gas bubbles. A boat engine starts (the first overtly human sound so far) and we make a slow transition back to the surface, guided by the extended drone of a motorcycle on the highway.

Research Process

I’m a bit allergic to the notion that artists are necessarily “researchers” because the term is often used to make slight efforts seem more legitimate, or simply re-define artistic practice for the purposes of funding. Putting those aside, I think the term is apt here: I came prepared to learn as much as I could through my ears, and I employed some specific methods of discovery. Here are a few:

My daily practice began with a morning walk circling the campus, from the residential buildings, through the “North 40” and around Little Miller’s Bay to the southern area where the labs are located. I spent a few days getting acclimated to the sounds of the area through focused listening exercises, note-taking, and eventually recording. Coming from a major city, it was impressive to hear the diversity of birdsong in the prairie and the wooded canopy. (I grew up in Baltimore, but saw more orioles in 2 weeks at Lakeside than my entire childhood!)

I got to know the humans of the Lab primarily through the dining hall, where the class cohorts tend to continue their discussions during meals. I enjoyed being a curious listener, learning a bit about diatoms, soils, prairie ecology, and even the archeology of the area. Eventually I came to understand the social networks of the place too: the interactions between students, Americorps volunteers, interns, staff, instructors, and other resident artists. I’ve worked in colleges for years and I love the way an institution can bring different niches together: The diatomist might consider the world from the bottom up, following the web of life from micro to macro. The geologist might see todays prairies as the remnants of gigantic glaciers and ancient seas. Everyone here is a seeker of the unseen, struggling to bring something hidden into the light. Clearly I was in good company, but what would I contribute?

Sometimes I create live streams of environmental sound (ex: beneath a pond or emerging cicadas). Listeners can tune-in to hear the ephemeral sounds of “somewhere else.” Maybe they compare what they hear to their local soundscape, open a window to let two worlds combine, or take the live stream for a walk in their headphones. But the ubiquitous traffic on Iowa Highway 86 threatened to make a live stream into a circus of internal combustion where everything else was relegated to a sideshow. Clearly I would need a more “hands-on” approach. (Highways here run in straight lines on level ground, so the sound carries for miles. These traffic drones eventually became an important part of my project, though.)

My next research strategy was long-duration recording using “drop-rigs” (weatherproof recorders deployed for extended durations) so I could discover the nocturnal shifts in the soundscape when the traffic is more subdued. I used this method to collect recordings for a time-lapse audio project (Fast Slow Radio) in 2022. During that project I discovered that the sounds of transitional zones where especially interesting to me: a shoreline where land and water meet, the boundary between industrial and residential areas, or an isolated bridge over a wild stream. At Lakeside I installed several overnight recorders and spent many hours in my first week listening and searching through spectrographs to locate the enigmatic sounds of the night.

On the topic of peripheries, I spent a few nights listening skyward on the edges of the fields. This is where the bats like to fly, and I identified several big brown and hoary bats by their characteristic echolocation calls. I made stereo recordings and slowed them down 10x to hear the bright ultrasonic chirps and the echoes from trees and buildings.

I have a long-term interest in underwater sound (see Pond Station) so I spent a lot of time in the kayaks on Lake Okoboji, recording with hydrophones. Freshwater environments are difficult to record because the sounds I seek are very quiet (mostly stridulating insects and gas bubbles). Some of the most interesting noises are overwhelmed by the waves lapping against the hull of the kayak, distant boat engines, or even the wind whistling over the cables. Eventually I found pockets of dense polyrhythms in the lake, which I later combined with recordings from the ephemeral wetlands of the North 40.

While on an outing with the ecology class at the Freda Haffner Kettlehole, one of the students introduced me to the term “ecotone” (the transition zone where 2 biological communities meet). It felt like the perfect word for a project that attempted to bring human listeners into contact with the “underheard” sounds of the ecosystems they share.

You can read more on my website:

“Artists and scientists are both asking questions about the world, they’re just doing it in different ways”
Alex Braidwood
Director, Iowa Lakeside Lab Artists-in-Residence Program
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