Produced by the Sound Studies Institute and Northern Lights Folk Club, the annual Women of Folkways concert is dedicated to the celebration by women of women in the Folkways records catalogue. In conjunction with the Asch Collection, the Women of Folkways concert forms an important connection between the Sound Studies Institute and its forebear folkwaysAlive!, and represents a belief in the value of institutional memory and a commitment to the spirit with which our institute was founded.
The roots of SSI are in Moses Asch’s belief in the value of “anything that is sound, from Indonesian folk music to James Joyce reading his own poetry.” This philosophy drove the production of many Folkways records which can now be placed within a continuum with contemporary academic disciplines associated with SSI, such as linguistics, bioacoustics, sonic ecology, ethnography, and more.
The Asch collection also houses numerous folk music records by women artists singing about political and social issues from their own unique perspectives. From legends like Peggy Seeger and Odetta to lesser-known or obscure artists like Ginni Clemmens and Merle Markland, women and womens’ experiences have always been an important part of Folkways records and folk music in general, but discrimination and systemic barriers mean many important women artists remain yet to receive recognition. The Women of Folkways concert is our way of promoting the voices of women folk music artists, both past and present.
This year, the concert has expanded into a mini-tour of Alberta folk clubs, with concerts in Edmonton, Vermillion, and Calgary followed by a panel discussion featuring all five performers and moderated by SSI director Scott Smallwood. In addition, a one-hour video recording of the Edmonton show will be made available for viewing online a week after the concert for those who are not able to attend in-person.
We spoke with the recipients of the 2020-2021 Sound Studies Institute seed grants to find out more about the ins and outs of their projects, the impacts of their research, and what the Sound Studies Institute means to them. Our discussions have been edited for clarity and length.
Dr. Stephanie Archer is Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Alberta, and the Lab Director of the Little Magpies Lab for Infant Language Learning. Her research focuses on infant speech perception and the early stages of language development. Along with Dr. Anja Arnhold, Dr. Archer received a Sound Studies Institute seed grant to help fund the development of SoundsOnline, a web portal for University of Alberta language researchers to share, promote, and facilitate their research projects to prospective study participants, and to publish some of the results of those studies in a way that’s easily accessible to the general public. The Sound Studies Institute seed grant helped fund the creation of the online infrastructure for the web portal.
Can you tell me a bit about your research, and what the impetus was for the web portal project?
I’m the lab director at the Little Magpies lab, which is for infant language development studies. What we would normally do is bring the parents and the child in, and do in-person studies. For example, I have a study that I’ve been working on across dialects of English – we wanted to learn if mums speak to their children in different ways across the same language. That started in England, and now it’s continuing in Canada. However, the main focus of the lab is infant speech perception For instance, a baby will look at something on a screen and listen to something at the same time, and we observe how they look at visual stimuli while listening to speech. We call this “looking to listen”. To gather infant perception data is quite specific – it takes equipment, a sound attenuated booth, and trained experimenters.
Then the pandemic happened, and everything kind of stopped. The future of our research studies was uncertain. We, as a lab, had to figure out different ways of trying to continue with our research. So, we looked at other ways to gather data while we waited out the infant perception studiesMy colleague, Anja Arnhold, and I collaborated to come up with a web portal. Perhaps, we thought, that we can add a few online studies and house them in a website.
What are your goals with creating the web portal to facilitate your research?
We had the idea to include three categories for the web portal. We wanted to do some easy surveys – it’s not new, but we thought it would be a good idea to have fun studies and gather some data. Google Forms work, but we, hopefully, can create something nicer and more unique, that people could have fun doing and might also tell other people about.
The second category would be to gather data that requires more depth. We uploaded a study using JPsych, a platform for experimental studies. Called On Combining Consonants, our inaugural study, we simply ask the participant whether two syllables are the same (e.g., ‘bla’ vs. ‘bla’) or different (e.g., ‘bla’ vs. ‘dla’). Words in English do not start with ‘dl’. What we wanted to know is whether the ‘dla’ syllable is perceived as a ‘bla’ or a ‘gla’ syllable. Overall, this task is not new, (CITE) but we are adding this experiment as a way to compare adults’ perception of speech sounds to 9-month-old infants. Luckily, we already gathered the infant data for this project, otherwise we would have had to wait until it would be safe to bring infants back to our lab.
The third category is to host remote studies. For example, we have been investigating how mothers talk to their child (known as infant-directed speech) across dialects of English. In this study we’ve been revising from in-person and in-lab, to using Zoom. However, our new problem was that Zoom is not meant to record precise sound information. Zoom is created to make speech clear while damping noise. For us to study this, we need to record sound as good as it can be. Instead, we sent recorders to families with instructions. My research assistants, specifically Rachel Tu and Taryn Yaceyko, did a great job explaining the study to parents through Zoom. After that, we just waited for the recorders to be returned for analysis. This is not ideal, but it works in the meantime. We are still working on ways to find families who would be interested in this project through the web portal.
We’re continuing to work on further ways that we can have sound incorporated into these surveys and other online studies, because that’s the basis of our research in the meantime and why we’ve created the portal.The third category would be for promoting in-person studies for people to sign up to participate in at the university when it is safe and advisable.
How important are collaborations and especially cross-discipline collaboration to achieving your scientific goals?
This is something I’ve done for over a decade now – you would go out to try and recruit people for studies, and basically you’d go to these baby trade shows, in-person with a booth – “sign up with us!”. But those trade shows haven’t been happening and won’t again for a while.
Within the university, there are a handful of developmentalist that are members of ChIRP, which stands for Child and Infant Research Participation. The Little Magpies Lab for Infant Language Learning is part of ChIRP. It’s a way to share recruitment across different labs and their varied projects that are happening with people who are already signed up as participants in one study, who might be interested in signing up to participate in another study. So I want all those studies to be housed in a place where we can advertise them all together to a larger population.
Just to kind of bring it all together – the first plan is trying to get these studies out, and also to recruit and advertise for us as a campus group. And then going forward with this, the next thing would be to expand it through the Sound Studies Institute – it would be really nice to continue on and populate this portal with other people doing sound research that use this kind of data, or who need to recruit and organize research participants in similar ways, not necessarily just researchers in linguistics.
How does the Sound Studies Institute seed grant more specifically help you develop this project?
Without this seed grant opportunity, I don’t know what research I could be doing. The call for seed grant applications was actually the catalyst for me thinking about doing this project in the first place. This opportunity, especially as a pre-tenure faculty member, is really great. We have a chance to try this out and create a proof of concept, and if we can demonstrate that this works, we can get into tri-council grants and create a larger system to be able to do this for more projects and more researchers. In a practical sense, the seed grant is funding our graduate student, Aida Radu, who is doing the technical work of building the web portal back end. I couldn’t have done it with Aida.
There’s obviously things that are more difficult to do due to covid – but is there any degree to which these online methods are more effective to do than traditional methods?
One of the problems with my studies, in any university I’ve worked at, is that the participants are from fairly high-income demographics. I grew up in Calgary in a lower socioeconomic area, and not many of us decided that we would go to university. So it’s something that is actually important for me to do, to get more people interested and comfortable with the idea that they can participate in research. It can feel very daunting for a lot of people.
I would still like to do in-person studies, however, it brings in more people if we can also create other types of research methods. Most in-person studies happen during the day, so that kind of self-selects a certain demographic that has the availability to participate in studies during those times. I think something like the SoundsOnline web portal could help it be more approachable for more people. Parents who have long hours could do some of these things at home in the evening.
And really, it’s also still a weird situation in a lab. For example, what we’ve done in person is try our best to make participants comfortable – we just have a microphone, we try and let them know that we’re not actually listening in during the session, things like that. Or, bring infants in the lab to watch objects on a screen while listening to speech sounds. But during COVID, we’ve tried to find good ways of doing the parent-infant studies at home – we’ve sent portable recorders to participants, for example.
A lot of your research is about connecting with members of the public, and in your grant proposal, you mentioned using the web portal not only to facilitate studies, but also as a tool to promote the idea of research itself. How important is it to promote research projects to the public in general?
Well,research is important! But, it’s easy for us to forget that the public doesn’t necessarily know that we’re doing research – people outside of the university don’t usually interact with us in that way. They think very differently about what happens at a university; they think we’re just a school, basically. Even undergrads don’t really have experience of that, they don’t know that we’re doing research in the meantime. When I’m trying to recruit participants for our studies, I can have a hard time just explaining what linguistics is.
So another important aspect of the SoundsOnline web portal (https://soundsonline.ca/) is the potential for publishing research in a way that’s accessible to the public, in a blog format or something like that, so we can explain procedures and results of our studies in a way we can that is easy to explain. Because not only is participating in studies not accessible for many people, so is just accessing this kind of information about studies and research in general.
In those ‘baby trade shows’, events like Moms, Pops, and Tots, I mentioned, I remember a few times we’d be standing in front of a booth asking , “Hello!, do you want to sign up for child development studies?” – and some people just automatically think that we’re doing some weird experiment, that we’ll do something physically invasive, and that’s so far from what we do. Our studies are infant and child friendly.
In reality, we just want babies to look and listen, and we want them as happy as they can be all the time, because that’s the only way we can get data – you can’t do these studies with sad, angry, or tired babies! And then we can move on to studies with more cool stuff like using puppets, or using an eye-tracker – things like that. I think that it’s so different from what they may think it is, it’s important to get that out to people in an accessible way.
We spoke with the recipients of the 2021 Sound Studies Institute seed grants to find out more about the ins and outs of their projects, the impacts of their research, and what the Sound Studies Institute means to them. Our discussions have been edited for clarity and length.
Dr. Erin Bayne is Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, Director of the Bioacoustic Unit, and a Sound Studies Institute affiliated researcher. Along with Tara Narwani, the director of the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute Information Centre, and Alex MacPhail, the coordinator of the WildTrax project, Dr. Bayne received a Sound Studies Institute seed grant to help fund the Data Discover branch of WildTrax, a web-enabled system for environmental sensor data management and centralization. The Sound Studies Institute seed grant helps fund the development of the Data Discover component of WildTrax, moving the data beyond applications in scientific research and into a public outreach program to provide users the ability to experience areas of the Canadian natural environment that few people are able to visit in person.
With the WildTrax project, what are your own scientific goals in conducting this kind of audio-based research?
In general as a researcher, I am very interested in the use of soundscapes to understand how biodiversity reacts to natural change, human caused change, and using that data to make better decisions about environmental policy.
With WildTrax itself, our intent is to simplify that process. This helps enable my own research, but we also recognize that most of the environmental problems are far bigger than any one study will ever be able to address on its own. So our long-term goal is to provide a platform where researchers can come together and share this data that they’re collecting- basically bring the field of biology into the 21st century, using the concepts of big data.
How important are collaborations and especially cross-discipline collaboration to achieving your scientific goals?
There’s so much data. That raw digital record can do many more things beyond just the project it was initially collected for. We can gain the knowledge of everybody’s work and use that data for all kinds of projects that we wouldn’t have thought of individually. This is invaluable for people doing the same kind of work I do – if someone has a project and they need certain data to fill gaps in their study it makes it much easier if that data is already accessible. This makes it much easier to accomplish more projects and more types of projects.
And then there’s an opportunity for discovery that can happen – honestly, I only dabble in the technical aspects of sound, but within that area, you can go everywhere from how to better clean up signal to noise ratios, how to get a computer to automatically identify sounds, even to artistic uses of the sounds. These are some of the collaborations I’ve been able to develop, especially through the Sound Studies Institute, which helps bridge some of the interdisciplinary language barriers that can exist between different fields. Sound is cool, sound is sound, and the more you learn about sounds from others who think about sound in a different way, the more ways these principles can be applied.
There’s lots of big data things out in the world, but there’s not a lot of big data collaborations, and one of the things this project is all about is bringing people together.
How does the Sound Studies Institute seed grant more specifically help you develop this project?
The WildTrax tool itself, the system that allows us to do all these things with processing and hosting the data, is being funded by grants from industry and from government, which is really cool. But to be frank, none of them were that interested in using the data for the public communication component of it.
So we applied for the seed grant specifically to help fund this project to share this data not only between researchers, but also with the public. The system has terabytes and terabytes of data in it, hundreds of thousands of records – it’s data for scientists. We want a way that we can share it with the public in a way that they would be able to appreciate what it is and what it’s capable of. The intent is to make a virtual tool: a virtual map, you zoom around, click on an area, it’ll take you into that place, and you can explore that space. We’ll pick the best of the recordings and images, and then also build a storyline about it, so you can understand what it is that you’re hearing and what you’re seeing.
It’s easy for a lot of these wilderness zones to feel very distant – they’re not part of your world, so you don’t don’t really know what’s happening to them. We want to provide people the opportunity to hear what the boreal forest sounds like at -30 degrees in the middle of the Yukon in the winter – that’s not a place most people are ever going to get to visit. There are some spectacular images and sounds that we really want to make available to the public so that people can appreciate these places more. When you appreciate something and know something about it, you tend to want to protect it and save it.
Are there specific conservation issues you want to bring to peoples’ attention in this way?
I think there are many, especially when you show pictures and sound together, because often images alone do not tell you the whole story – it’s only if you can hear the soundscape that you realize an area can be quite different than how it looks.
If you have an image right up against an oil sands mine, for example, it’s easy to visualize the environmental impact. Then, if I showed you an image of that same area 500 meters away, it looks beautiful, like you’re standing in a forest. It’s only when you combine that image with a soundscape recording that you realize it’s not really just a forest, because you can hear all the mining activity.
We have a variety of projects that relate to those kinds of questions. I’m one of the directors of the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, and we have a grid of Automatic Recording Units (ARUs) that monitor environmental sounds. Every 20 kilometers across the province there’s a cluster of ARUs. Pretty much anywhere south of Lac LaBiche, that ARU has about an 80% chance of hearing some kind of human activity, whereas up into the boreal forest it drops down to 20 or 30 percent. Only about 20% of the landscape is free from human noise in many areas of Alberta, so that tells you something about our development and land use trajectory.
We’ve been talking about largely inaccessible areas – Yukon in the winter where most people can’t and won’t visit. But how does your work deal with what happens in more accessible areas? You see that people will go on Instagram, a place will get popular and can become overrun and negatively impacted – or even locally, with the issues with people camping in the Bighorn and exceeding the capacity of the infrastructure of the area last year. In terms of using WildTrax to publicize the sound and image as a kind of virtual experience of a place – is there a way that virtual experience possibly better for the area than visiting in person?
I love going to these places – it’s the main reason I became a biologist, so I could go outside and go to really cool places, right? And I don’t ever want to take away the ability for someone else to do that. With the virtual thing, it can certainly help give people the ability to appreciate and learn about an area. But it’s never going to be the same as being there in person. I wouldn’t ever want to dismiss people taking that opportunity to go to that amazing place and experience what it’s like – but you have to treat it with the respect it deserves.
If you pull into a wilderness area with a giant truck and massive trailer and two quads and a motorbike – that’s very different than camping in a tent and walking everywhere. When I was out in the Bighorn, there were chainsaws running everywhere, guys cutting down firewood willy nilly – when you’re one person by yourself that’s not have much of an impact, but when there’s thousands of people doing that, it’s a big deal. It’s a loving it to death kind of thing.
Even all those people that were out to the Bighorn last summer – there would be no problem if those people had been a little more responsible and cared a little more about how they behaved. It’s about personal responsibility, I think.
We’ve talked about the kind of intrinsic value of visiting these kinds of natural spaces, and I’m wondering if there’s any really standout moments of natural beauty that you’d like to share – either that you’ve experienced in the field, or listening to the WildTrax recordings.
I’ve spent many, many years out in the bush, and there are some sounds that are so rare, I’ve only heard them once or twice in my lifetime. There’s one recording, it’s the sound of something very large, a moose, peeing – it’s not a typically “beautiful moment”, more of a funny moment, but it’s really not something you usually get to experience in person. Cougars calling is another one that is not something people get to hear very often. Or, you can go out looking for owls and it can take hundreds of kilometers to find them. In the recordings, I can find these sorts of moments more regularly, which is really fun.
That’s another thing I like about using the ARUs. The way people have done a lot of the research before, because these animals and their sounds are rare, we had to use other techniques that were a little more invasive to the animal’s biology. The ARUs allow us to get rid of that. They’re completely passive, they don’t really have any influence on the environment or the organism themselves, they just perceive what’s there and help us understand it. You’re going to catch those sounds just because the ARU is out there for so long. That’s a really neat component of it. If you listen long enough, you get something great.