Halsey Burgund’s Ocean Voices

In my cover article for this week’s Phoenix, I explore the world’s imperiled oceans. It was a sobering story to report — learning that 100 million sharks are killed every year, or the that the seafloor is stripped of pounds of aquatic life, thrown back as waste, all in the interest of harvesting barely two thirds of a shrimp cocktail.

But if climate change, overfishing, and pollution have taken left the oceans worse for the wear lately, they still maintain their entrancing beauty and their primal hold on the human imagination.

Local musician and sound artist Halsey Burgund specializes in using the human voice, usually swathed in swirls of atmospheric music, to make aural art. Sometimes he travels around with his custom-made plywood recording booth, and asks people to speak into microphones. Sometimes he gathers recordings contributors make at home via the Web. People might respond to open ended questions, or they might expound extemporaneously on whatever they feel like talking about. In the past, he’s used the audio to make pointed social/political statements and has also put the field recordings to more purely aesthetic uses.

Burgund’s newest project, Ocean Voices, done in conjunction with
marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, asks recordees to recount their feelings about the ocean. With prompts such as “what does it feel like to be in the ocean” or “describe what makes up the ocean,” or “where does the ocean come from?” Burgund seeks to get at the experiential essence of the sea.

He’s already gathered 300 recordings so far — including two of Jacques Cousteau’s grandchildren, Celine and Fabien. In fact, part of the motivation for his project is to celebrate Cousteau’s 100th birthday in June. Burgund will also perform a musical composition, incorporating those spoken tones, at the California Academy of Sciences for World Ocean Day 2010 that same month.

Mostly, however, the project is meant to simply focus attention on the fertile and fragile salt water ecosystems that cover the planet. As Burgund writes in his artist statement: “The ocean surrounds us and sustains us. We can only preserve life in the ocean by working together as a global community.... Open your mouth; open your ears; join the Ocean Revolution.”

Listen to some of Burgund’s recordings so far — and record your own voice — at

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