Antropocene Out Loud

Sound as a Tool to Study Modern Nature
Anna Kvíčalová

Anna Kvíčalová (*1986) is a researcher at the Centre for Theoretical Study (Charles University & the Czech Academy of Sciences), where she is the leader of the research project The Second Sense: Sound, Hearing and Nature in Czech Modernity. She is the author of Listening and Knowledge in Reformation Europe (Palgrave, 2019) and other texts on the history of sound, hearing, and acoustics.


1. Compare, e.g., to similar passages in R. W. Emerson or H. D. Thoreau’s Walden. See also Marx 1964.

2. In the 1960s, Canadian biologists organized so-called “wolf listening evenings”, whose participants described wolf howls as “a truly incredible sound—not eerie or evil sounding” (Jones 2002, pp. 19–20, 143, 137; Coates 2005, p. 647).

3. In New York, “The Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise” was founded already in 1906, followed by London’s “Street Noise Abatement Committee”) in 1908, and then France (1928) and Germany (1930). Bijsterveld 2001.

4. In such cases, the main concern was not protection of songbirds, but especially those bird species whose feathers were aesthetically appealing and colorful, such as pheasants. “An Appeal to the Women of the Country on Behalf of the Birds,” Science 7/160 (1885), p. 205.

5. There are many different ways people have used and transformed the forest in the past, and forestry as a profession and science was historically shaped not only by economic interests and requirements, but also under the influence of natural history, aesthetics or ecology (Brock 2014).

6. In his The Trouble with Wilderness (1995), William Cronon famously described the process of creating the concept of wilderness as a mirror-image of 19th-century civilization. The appeal of the wilderness, i.e., seemingly untouched nature, whose image was largely modeled on the demand of modern urban dwellers, attracted large crowds of tourists who, in order to reach the desired places, used the same transport infrastructure that was perceived as a direct threat to the authentic sensory experience of wilderness. Nostalgia for a certain type of landscape and nature had become a specific form of anti-modernism, which, according to Cronon, was the product of elite bourgeois tourism, which romanticized the wild landscape and partly transformed it into a safe place well suited for recreation.

7. Its author was the director of the Berlin Zoo Lutz Heck (Bruyninckx 2018b).

8. Following the work of P. Kellog and A. Allen, whose recordings made since late 1920s became the bases of the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University. The fist recordings of wild birds were probably made in England by Cherry Kearton around 1900 (Ranft 2004, Bruyninckx 2018a).

9. See, for example. Daston a Galison 2007 or Levin 1993). The connection of objectivity with hearing, on the other hand, have been repeatedly described by ethnographers studying rainforest societies, see, e.g., Gell 1995.

10. Room acoustics, as a science capable of the exact calculation of reverberation time, only dates back to the early 1900s; the decibel unit was described in mid-1920s at Bell Laboratories, and a properly portable recording technology is associated with the expansion of the reel tape recorder. Bijsterveld 2001, Lindsay 1973. For advantages and disadvantaged of the use of audio technology in field work see Sueur and Farina 2015.

11. Compare to Dunn 2001. See also Kvicalova 2020b.

12. For an overview of the development of hypotheses about the acoustic adaptation of species, see Mullet 2017.

13. Timothy Morton deals with modern “hyperobjects” of this kind in his latest book (2013).

14. See, for example, the edited volume Art in the Anthropocene (Davis and Turpin 2015).

15. The rhetorical potential of sound in thinking about the Anthropocene is discussed by Comstock and Hocks 2016.

16. For the use of the term “Anthropocene” in acoustic ecology see Kvíčalová 2020.

17. The Pythagorian ideas of mathematical-musical cosmology were influential until modernity. A good example is Robert Fludd’s monochord, an instrument which was supposed to capture a variety of cosmic and global relations using mathematical ratios and harmonies. For the early modern discussion of mathematical harmonies see Zielinski 2002 p. 101–158 or Prins, Vanhaelen 2018.

18. The experimentation with sound and acoustic vibrations in the 19th century is discussed, e.g., by Zielinski 2002, p. 159-204; Erlmann 2010).

19. See e.g. the experimental work of Turner Prize (2010) laureate Susan Philipsz, on permeability of the boundaries between people and their environment.




Anna Kvíčalová


Acoustic Ecology

We present an excerpt from a paper which first appeared publicly as: Kvíčalová, A. (2020): Tiché jaro a ruch antropocénu in: Pokorný, P., Storch, D., eds.: Antropocén. Praha: Academia, 2020, pp. 344–360.


Since biologist Rachel Carson warned of the possibility of a “silent spring” in 1962, not only environmentalists, but also common people in the countryside began listening to the sounds of birds more attentively and anxiously than ever before. The prospect of spring, unheralded by the sounds of birdsong, became one of the most powerful symbols of the environmental movement in the second half of the 20th century, because it expressed what most people had already observed in their surroundings, and connected seemingly ordinary moments of daily experience, such as the morning calls of robins or jays, with a complex and organically changing world of global trade, agriculture, transport infrastructure, and also the use of agrochemicals and pesticides. The image of a nature silenced, which Carson so eloquently evoked, not only signaled a decline in species diversity due to various human activities, but also foretold a new era in the relationship of man to nature, which was increasingly perceived as a fragile entity, closely linked to the anthropogenic sphere.

The Anthropocene is still a predominantly academic term, but one that expresses a more general concern about the global consequences of local human actions. It enters public consciousness and imagination through images such as a “silent spring”. Indeed, Carson was not at that time writing about the Anthropocene, and her work belongs to the history of the environmental movement, which calls for the protection of nature from human activity, but It serves as a good point of departure for this paper, since it introduces sound as a means of studying the changing boundaries between man and nature, as well serving as a tool for determining what nature is, what it should be, and how it is to be presented and reproduced. The Anthropocene discourse is far from homogeneous, and what we find today under the rubric of the “Anthropocene” in science, art, and popular culture contains a number of conflicting visions and approaches, some of which will be apparent in what follows. The Anthropocene is not only a new epoch, but also its specific reflection. The study of sensory perceptions along with strategies for its representation and media communication is essential for revisiting the interconnectedness of modern binary categories such as nature/culture or object/subject and their relationship to the scientific descriptions of the world.

The Noise of Modernity

But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive — the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business.”

N. Hawthorne, Sleepy Hollow, 1844 (Marx 1964, p. 13)

Variations on this episode — the loud shriek of a locomotive that disrupts the pastoral harmony of the countryside or the silence of the forest — are abundant in the texts and diaries of authors writing in the mid-19th century.1 The locomotive, associated with fire, smoke, iron, but also noise, was one of the main symbols of the new industrial power and progress, which was not only visible but also audible. The train, and later even more so the radio, physically crossed and redefined the boundary between the countryside and the city, and once and for all disrupted the sensory texture of the rural landscape.

The sounds we have come to define as noise are historically variable and change under different cultural and local circumstances (Kvíčalová, 2019). While today conservationists and visitors to nature reserves use adjectives such as “beautiful” or “incredible” to describe wolf howls (a symbol of the “call of the wild”),2 the same sounds were seen as frightening in different times and historical contexts. Urban noise and the mechanical sounds of industry were long seen as synonymous with progress and as signs of power. The kind of noise which was the source of complaints was often associated with social distinction: not only that the members of the lower social classes were believed to be less sensitive to noise (as well as other kinds of) pollution, but their daily actions alone often became the sources of unwanted noise (Schafer 1994/1977, p. 223).

The introduction of automobile transportation was initially (1890) accompanied by anti-noise rhetoric, which did not however condemn noisy engines, but, on the contrary, the loud sounds coming from horse-drawn carriage, which motor vehicles were to replace. The sounds of cars driven by the members of higher social classes were not perceived negatively at the outset (Tarr 1996, pp. 323–26). A similar story can be told about a large number of sounds, both natural and man-made. The medieval traveler, like the explorer of the American frontier, welcomed the approaching sounds of the city — an “acoustic island of safety” — which marked the end of a dangerous journey through the wilderness (Smith 2000, p. 67), and even church bells, which for centuries structured human activities and enjoyed the status of a sacred voice, were redefined as a source of public noise in the 19th century and their sounds began to be regulated (Weiner 2013).

The history of noise is the history of changing power and cultural structures in a society, but it also reflects the evolution of a society's relationship to nature and shows how the modern boundaries between nature and culture have been constructed and purified. The first noise abatement campaigns in modern cities were primarily concerned with human health, and although noise levels began to be measured quantitatively with decibels only in the late 1920s, the first campaigns against urban noise occurred at the same time when so-called “back to nature” movements grew in force in the late 19th century.3 At that time, the silent forest and a peaceful rural landscape were constructed as polar opposites of anthropogenic noise and mechanical industrial sounds (Schmitt 1990). The forest often appears as the embodiment of nature, the opposite of cultural space and the almost silent background of human and animal activities (Bruyninckx 2018b). At the first meeting of the American Wilderness Society in 1935, noise was cited as a significant threat to the true nature of the wilderness, as quietude was seen as one of its main attributes (Coates 2005: 650).

Another symbol of the antithesis of the bustling modern city became bird song. The history of caged birds, and especially its massive spread in the middle-class urban households at the end of the 19th century, can be read as part of the formation of the modern relationship between nature and culture, and, by extension, countryside and city. The most popular species of the time was probably the canary, especially the German Harzel roller, whose trained singing was to evoke the harmonious nature of the Harz Mountains (Smith 2015, pp. 158-9). The singing of the Andreasberg canaries (which were especially valuable) was considered a piece of pure nature transferred to civilization. The bird in the cage came to represent nature out there, it became its direct representative; the network of relations (including the process of its breeding and rearing, the rules of international trade, class status or transport infrastructure) thanks to which the canary in question ended up, for example, in an American bourgeois household, was not recognized. The canary, itself a perfect example of the interconnection of the natural and the cultural, is mistaken for a purely natural artifact.

Later on, the health benefits of listening to bird songs were discussed with respect to the nascent sound recording technologies. A radio series broadcast by the BBC in the 1930s, which featured nightingale singing, was to bring a bit of nature into people’s homes and thus help them to cope with the pressures of modern times. Recordings of wild birds made by Ludwig Koch in the late 1930s were even broadcast by the BBC during the 1941 bombings (Guida 2018). Already the first radio and gramophone transmissions of bird singing had a certain effect on the increased public interest in songbirds and their protection. In the 1880s, consumer behavior was explicitly associated with the survival of some bird species, and women in particular were encouraged to give up bird feathers decorations on their hats: “Let our women say the word, and hundreds of thousands of bird-lives every year will be preserved,” wrote the journal Science in 1886.4 Public interest in songbirds was further reinforced by anthropomorphizing their acoustic communication: the term bird music was commonly used, bird sounds were transcribed using musical notation, and bird vocalizations were evaluated according to classical composition criteria and understood as a lower evolutionary stage in the development of music, which was believed to culminate in the works of Beethoven, Mozart, and Schoenberg (Bruyninckx 2018a, pp. 23-56).

The Forest Resounds!

The dominant models of environmental change have worked with the idea of a cumulative (and usually irreversible) gradient from nature to culture, in which nature becomes the gradual victim of human activity (Brock 2014). However, changes in the environment cannot be adequately grasped as a one-way process as the boundaries between the natural and the cultural are not clear-cut but overlap in both theory and practice. A good example of this is the aforementioned forest — if we understand it as a passive backdrop of human activity, then the idea of man destroying and gradually eliminating wildlife seems appropriate. However, if the forest itself becomes an actor, a dynamic system and a collection of growing and ever-changing things, which in different times and places come into diverse relationships with man and his interests, if we do not automatically put man at the center of every story told about the forest, its history becomes far more interesting and manifold.5

Environmental history uses the term “hybridity” to designate the mixing of the natural with the cultural. It draws attention, for example, to the fundamental impact of automotive transport in catalyzing the wildlife protection movement in the first half of the 20th century, and closely links tourism, science and nature conservation. It is applicable also to many recordings of wildlife, where the difference between “terrain” and “laboratory” is often blurred, since the animals are isolated from their acoustic surroundings by directional microphones and the recordings are digitally “cleaned up”. Field researchers are increasingly complaining about the noise of aircraft and nearby motorways, which prevent them from acquiring “clean” recordings, free from anthropogenic noise, although it is often thanks to this infrastructure that they are able to reach and record distant places.6 It is almost impossible to find truly a natural sound today, agree activists and researchers in the field of acoustic ecology. But what should such a sound be like, what should it sound like?

Historically, biology was concerned with the sounds of individual (often isolated) species. The first recordings of wild birds focused on the recognition of acoustic signals for the needs of ornithological classification, for which the sounds of the environment were of secondary importance. The focus on the best possible recording of individual animal sounds was further enhanced by the close collaboration of biologists with the entertainment industry in the 1930s, which used animal sound recordings in radio programs, films, and in the production of records for domestic consumption. Although the first gramophone records, such as “Der Wald erschallt!” (1934), promised to transport their listeners into the depths of the forest, they actually contained mainly the isolated sounds of its inhabitants, many of which came from captive animals.7 The first phonographic recording of the ambient sound of the jungle, containing not only amplified bird singing but also the sounds of rustling trees, flowing water and buzzing insects, was made in 1944 as part of the Panama Expedition in order to better understand the behavior of sound in the rainforest for the needs of US military operations in the South Pacific, in which troops often moved through dense vegetation and had to rely on hearing as they advanced through the terrain (Bruyninckx 2018b).

Recordings of wild animals have been made since the beginning of the 20th century, but their systematic collection dates back to the 1950s, when an interdisciplinary field called biological acoustics (or bioacoustics) was established.8 The creation of the first animal sound archives was closely linked to the protection of endangered species and the idea of receding nature and biodiversity loss. The sounds of nature were widely recorded and archived not only by Western but also by Soviet scientists, and since the 1970s the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union had a special department to record the sounds of disappearing species, including fish (Veprintsev 1980). Although ornithologists naturally relied on bird vocalizations in their fieldwork long before the introduction of bioacoustics, translating experience from the field into a universally shared object of science was, however, a long process. This was partly due to Western historical tradition linking scientific objectivity with sight,9 but also because for a long time the propagation of sound was not perfectly understood and described by the science of acoustics.10

In analyzing sound, bioacoustics has always tried to eliminate ambient noise, erase it from the spectrogram, exclude it from the laboratory, and search for and measure “natural” sound/signal in locations far away from densely populated areas full of anthropogenic noise. However, what researchers often refer to as noise that complicates the listener’s experience and make the scientific job to locate, record, and interpret acoustics signals more difficult, is often inseparable from the signal itself. Many of the nature recordings that are used in teaching or in botanical and zoological expositions create an acoustic “hyper-reality” and present purified versions of natural soundscapes, quite different from the in situ sounds.11

Acoustic Ecology and the “Natural” Environment

The concern of bioacoustics with the impact of human activity on animal communication is relatively recent. The number of studies focusing on the effect of human-generated sounds on animal communication increased significantly between 2000 and 2003, culminating in a groundbreaking paper by Hans Slabbekoorn and Margriet Peet in Nature (2003), which dealt with the transformation of acoustic behavior of great tits in a noisy urban environment. This and other studies show that some birds species living in cities modulate their vocal expression and adjust its frequency, length, amplitude and timing so that their calls do not disappear in the surrounding low-frequency noise. Apart from birds, the response to anthropogenic sounds has been systematically monitored in marine mammals, especially whales, whose spatial orientation and intra-species communication is significantly affected by low-frequency human signals (Laiolo 2010).

Around the 1970s, some biologists began to study bird singing as part of a broader acoustic context (for example, the forest may reflect, attenuate, or break bird vocalizations) and an idea emerged that each species might occupy a specific “acoustic window” in its immediate environment, in which its frequency propagates optimally (Nelson and Marler 1990). Humans, however, were added to this equation only after the “acoustic ecology” project had been formulated by R. Murray Schafer in 1977.

Contemporary acoustic ecology often refers to the work of Bernie Krause (2002, 2012). Krause’s underlying research idea is that the acoustic communication of individual species has evolutionarily adapted to the acoustics of specific places, and that in their natural environment, individual sounds will tend to complement each other and won’t compete significantly.12 Similar conclusions are presented by Hans Slabbekoorn, who believes that acoustic masking, mating as well as warning signals have evolved in relation to the environment in which the species occur (2007). For example, low-frequency sounds better propagate through dense vegetation; bird species that inhabit rainforests thus often communicate at lower frequencies than those living in other types of forests. Animal communication adapts to the sounds of inanimate nature (Krause refers to them as geophony), but also to the sounds of other animal species (biophony). Sounds generated by human activity (anthropophony) disrupt natural acoustic harmony because they evolved too quickly, that is, the cultural evolution was faster than the biological one, and left the “natural” environment unprepared for the mechanical sounds of industry, combustion engines and electronic amplification. The term “natural” is related to the evolutionary, or geological, time scale.

The Anthropocene as the “age of man” is thus evident not only in the new geological, but also the acoustic layer, which covers the entire globe. The notion of the Anthropocene, however, is quite distinct in this context: Although the approaches mentioned above emphasize the interconnectedness of the sounds of the environment, the human is clearly circumscribed from nature, both terminologically and performatively. In other words, the Anthropocene is not understood as a paradigm shift (Hamilton 2015), but rather as a description of the state of the environment. Man, however tied to his environment, is systematically put outside of natural processes. Not only are all human-generated sounds described as categorically different from biophony, i.e., the sounds of living nature, they are also characterized negatively, as anthropogenic noise, and the words anthropophony and so-called technophony, i.e., low-frequency sounds that come from mining, industry, and so forth, are often used interchangeably. Human beings are portrayed as autonomous entities that are unilaterally (and negatively) affecting the acoustic harmony of natural places and their complex evolutionary ties with their sonic environment is not recognized. Man is, in effect, dehumanized, and the vast array of his sonic expressions is reduced to industrial and machine-generated noise (Kvicalova 2020b).

The Anthropocene as a Sensory Phenomenon

The current difficulties in grasping, conceptualizing and representing the Anthropocene may stem from our lack of tools to imagine “hyperobjects”, i.e., geological, climatic, economic and other entities of such magnitude and complexity that we have difficulty perceiving them in their temporal and spatial breadth.13 In other words, it is usually difficult for us to perceive details in relation to their surroundings, history and the network of causal relationships that connect them with the world. When we want to present complex phenomena to the senses, we usually talk about their visualization. The “Anthropocene” itself is a sensory phenomenon related to how we “read”, perceive and interpret the world around us: Visualizing data not only helps us to grasp complex hyperobjects with different temporalities, it is equally important for the immediate sensory experience of individual observers, lay and professional. Although the Anthropocene is most often framed by visual representations such as photographs or infographics, milestones in the perception of environmental change were mediated not only visually, but, as we have seen in the case of Silent Spring, also by sound and auditory imagination. Many authors consider sound not only as a possible medium of representing and archiving changes in nature, but also as a good means of underlaying the links between different (both living and non-living) components of an environment.

The physical essence of sonic phenomena are vibrations that propagate as acoustic waves, which, by their nature, always exceed the entities that emit them. In other words, sound necessarily crosses the boundaries between subject and object, it is based on their permeability and intertwining. At the same time, acoustic vibrations are always registered also by sensory organs other than the ear (even deaf people perceive the physical impact of sound waves); sound can thus become a good rhetoric and performative means for emphasizing the multi-sensory nature of human experience, and representing complex hyperobjects by various perceptual means.15

A good example of the use of sonic media for archiving and representing change in an environment are the pre- and post-logging recordings of the Sierra Nevada made by Bernie Krause at Lincoln Meadow in the late 1980s, documenting a marked decline in biophony of the place. Krause, along with most other acoustic ecologists, believe that the attention paid to the complexity of sounds and acoustic communication reveals much about the health of an ecosystem. This is certainly convincing in the case of oceanic and marine ecosystems, where sound analysis yields significant and relatively fine-grained information on biodiversity, density and the state of populations. Despite that, the protection of the acoustic environment remains peripheral. Among its more than 500 entries, The Encyclopedia of World Environmental History still does not have a single one on sound.

The notion of nature as a resounding (reflecting, muffling) and interacting space, described by acoustic ecology, reflects a wider change in the understanding of nature in the second half of the 20th century. The forest is no longer just observed from a distance, but entered, it is not considered the silent antithesis of modernity, but an integral part of it, closely interconnected with man and his actions. At the same time, many ecological calls to preserve natural sounds tend to idealize the “quietude” of nature, which is portrayed as clearly divorced from man and his sounds, and its preservation, protection, or even re-creation is sought in cleansing it of human presence. The field of acoustic ecology has been interdisciplinary from its very beginning and relied heavily on artistic research in formulating insights about the sonic environment. Field recordings have come to be been seen not only as representations of distant nature, but, above all, as actors which themselves encourage further action and use. Initiatives within and on the fringes of acoustic ecology often have a strong political underpinning, trying to increase general sensitivity to the sounds of nature and secure their protection. In this context, the use of the term “Anthropocene” has been rather common, however, it has been employed primarily as an instrument of traditional environmental discourse, which does not call into question, but rather reinforces the modern boundaries between man, culture and nature.16


Conclusion: The Edge of Sound

If we pay attention to historical considerations of sound in Western culture, we often encounter the idea of music and acoustic vibrations as a unifying principle that either connects terrestrial phenomena with the motions of cosmic bodies (as in the case of Pythagorean theories of cosmic harmonies),17 expresses harmony and correlation among the singularities of this world, synthesizes sensory experience in a specific way, or blurs the boundaries of the perceiving subject.18 Some of the current reflections on the role of sound in mediating and capturing the Anthropocene draw on this tradition of thought, especially when sound is not instrumentalized in constructing the idea of nature in opposition to human culture and industrialization, but, on the contrary, when the human is approached as a sonic entity whose temporal and spatial boundaries are not exactly delimited, entering complex relations with the acoustic environment, which has similar (i.e., emitting, absorbing, reflecting, etc.) properties.

If we take the Anthropocene as an opportunity to view modern dichotomous categories such as subjects/objects, internal/external, nature/culture, etc. in a new light, sound is a good rhetorical as well as performative means of such an endeavor, as, by its nature, it defines (and crosses) modern borderlines between subjects and objects differently from vision. In many of its current applications, however, acoustic ecology returns to the modernist concept that man is clearly separated from nature, which itself is based on the visual perception of space, clearly delimiting the observing subject and the world that unfolds before his eyes. Some works in the field of sound art have taken the next step and opened up what is perhaps a more interesting perspective on the definition of man and his intricate relationship to the environment, both past and present.19 In thinking about the Anthropocene, the Enlightenment concept of human progress is often turned upside down: Man is frequently perceived regressively as a bearer of decay and destruction. Such a notion of humanity is present also in many cases discussed in this text, in which man is clearly demarcated and “circumscribed” from the environment, leaving its acoustic footprint, which silences the “authentic” voice of nature. Practices of archiving, purifying, and producing “packages” of natural sounds (as Bernie Krause does) might very well illustrate and mediate environmental change, and stimulate new interest in multi-sensory representations of the Anthropocene. Apart from being an excellent tool for studying the state of a particular environment, to which end the medium of sound should be further researched and experimented within, thinking with sound, I argue, might help us to express complicated relationships in the Anthropocene, where man is not clearly demarcated but oscillates, resonates, emits and transcends boundaries we have come to see as fixed (Kvicalova 2020b).


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