Western’s Sound.Out.Radio makes music for night owls, literally

Zoe Fraley
Office of University Communications

Darkness falls on Western’s campus and in the chill night air, there’s a new sound.

“Hello.”

Between the distant footsteps of late-night walkers and the crunch of leaves and whoosh of wings that comprise the usual evening soundtrack, you hear it. A strange voice, a layered, almost robotic chorus.

“We are many in number.”

It sounds ominous, but it’s actually art: “Music for Animals,” a new radio show for the nocturnal denizens of Western’s campus, raccoons and humans alike.

“We want to make sure we’re not leaving anyone out,” WWU Assistant Professor of Sculpture and Expanded Media Sasha Petrenko says. The show plays at 5 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Sound.Out.Radio, a new station led by Petrenko that broadcasts from speakers atop the windowed entry to the Western Gallery.

Those sounds you hear in the wee hours were created by students in her class. Each was tasked with researching an animal and creating a soundscape for it featuring field recordings, archival sounds, musical instruments and voices, with creatures ranging from the expected night visitors — the poetry of the little brown bat and a dystopian world seen through the eyes of raccoons reverently seeking sustenance at a trash can — to the unexpected.

The eerie chorus that drew you in was created by Max Marsh, a visual arts major with a mixed media concentration, inspired by the “not quite alien, but not quite animal either” moon jellyfish.

Fairhaven junior Hadley Hudson explored the gray whale, inspired by what she learned on her study abroad trip to Cape Verde in June. In her piece she speaks as a Pacific gray whale who is angry at humans that its Atlantic cousin went extinct during the slave trade.

“I hope it stirs up some emotions,” she said. “There are so many ways to think about Black liberation, and that might be by hearing about gray whales that live in the Pacific Ocean.”

Gabe Rubanowitz, a senior studying studio art, created a soundscape that gives the illusion of a conversation with a black-capped chickadee. The bird’s two-note call was pervasive near his York neighborhood home, following him from tree to tree as he walked, until one day, he began mimicking the call back. He describes the soundscapes as a monotony break, a palette cleanser that can stop people as they speed walk to their next class.

“You’re more in your head than you are in your physical body experiencing your day-to-day life,” he says. “It only has to be a second or two to shake you out of your shell and bring your awareness and your consciousness to the forefront instead of the backburner.”

That push to get people to be present is part of what drew Petrenko to create Sound.Out.Radio, starting with a discussion back in June 2021 with Western Gallery Director Hafthor Yngvason about creating a soundpiece for the gallery that then evolved into a full art radio station. With the new solar windows installed at the gallery entrance, the hope is that one day the windows could power the station, adding an extra environmental element to the project.

“It’s radio made by artists. It’s meant to make you think, make you more present, surprise you,” Petrenko says. “The thing about sound is it taps into the imagination in a really different way. If you look at something, you can overlook, you can make assumptions about things, you can miss things. But when you’re listening, you can’t half listen. I think the sounds are a much more intimate way to experience art. You have to be present to truly listen.”

The nocturnal soundtrack isn’t the only thing playing on Sound Out Radio. They’re also working on broadcasting conversations between artists in different mediums; fall quarter features dancers talking to visual artists.

“We want it to be a way for people to get connected,” Petrenko says. “It’s sort of like a sonic community space.”

Petrenko hopes the station will be a platform for students and faculty to explore ideas and the arts in a new way, a place for students to get involved with their community, and she’s always looking for collaborators to help build out the content.

As it grows, expect the unexpected as you’re walking by the gallery.

“People are walking up to the building and taking their headphones out and wondering what’s on the radio today,” Petrenko says. “It might be a conversation or a dog barking or maybe Black Sabbath.”

Or maybe, when you’re walking by some night, you’ll find yourself pulled in by the chorus of the moon jelly.

“We don’t bite. We don’t even have a mouth.”

 

Watch a video about Sound.Out.Radio, created by WWU's Luke Hollister.

 

Tuesday, January 10, 2023 - 8:57am
Sound.Out.Radio broadcasts from a small setup atop the entrance to the Western Gallery.

Sound.Out.Radio broadcasts from a small setup atop the entrance to the Western Gallery. Started by WWU Assistant Professor of Sculpture and Expanded Media Sasha Petrenko, the station has an arts focus, including sound sculptures created by her students for the after-hours "Music for Animals" show. Photo by Luke Hollister/WWU