Sounds of the Galapagos

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An annual expedition for the last four years has taken two professors and a dozen students to study the words, sights, and sounds of the Galapagos.

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Colby Leider, associate professor of Music Engineering Technology, demonstrates how sound travels in a cave in the Galapagos, while School of Communication Professor Joseph Treaster encounters a giant tortoise.

Rich with biodiversity, the Galapagos Islands are where Charles Darwin did his early work on evolution. This cluster of about a dozen volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean near the equator, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, has
 been photographed
 and described extensively by researchers,
 students, journalists,
 and travelers.

Until recently, the 
medley of sound in 
this dynamic region has been largely un
heard. Each summer
 for the past four years, 
two University of 
Miami professors 
have gone on an expedition to the Galapagos Islands with about a dozen UM students. Their mission: Tell vivid stories enriched with sound.

Colby Leider, associate professor and director of the Frost School’s Music Engineering Technology program, is an expert on sound and a leading music engineering researcher. Joseph B. Treaster, a professor and the Knight Chair in Cross-Cultural Communication at the UM School of Communication, is a former reporter and foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Leider and Treaster are partners in a six-credit, three-week experiential learning project called The Galapagos Islands: Environment, Culture, and the Music of Darwin.

Leider has performed copious audio research in
the Florida Everglades. He believes capturing sounds conveys a sense of place, much like renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adams captured a sense of place with photography. Leider helps his students do just that, “by collecting sounds with a tape recorder—the rustle of leaves, the hissing and spitting of a tortoise, footsteps on the side of a volcano, sometimes bits of conversation— and editing them into a musical narrative,” Treaster wrote in an article in The Journal of Sustainability Education published May 13, 2013.

Treaster’s goal is to “give students a chance to embrace the Galapagos and to let the Galapagos embrace them,
to sharpen their critical thinking and their ability to see things, to make them better writers and researchers, and to introduce them to storytelling with words and pictures and recorded sounds.”

He writes that the students in the Galapagos carry “spiral notebooks as writers’ journals and little black H2n Zoom recorders with highly sensitive, built-in microphones.”

Students write at least 500 words a day in their journals on what they see, hear, and feel, taking down facts and comments and scribbling out the beginnings of stories. They learn to edit their recordings and to shape them into music.

Leider teaches the students how to listen better, how to become an “ear witness,” which he describes in the Journal article as someone who “can perceive aspects of the environment that a purely eye witness cannot.”

Max Gailey, a music engineering technology major, says that in the Galapagos program he “picked up on 
the idiosyncrasies—the pace of life, the way people interact—things that couldn’t be picked up from reading a book.”

Students showcased their work through writing, photography, videography, and sound recordings on 
The Miami Planet, the University of Miami’s online environmental publication. The students and Leider edit the sounds they gather and blend them with the text of their writing projects into multimedia articles. To view some of the multimedia articles from the Galapagos on The Miami Planet: visit Galapagos Diary: The Story of a Tortoise.

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