The Billion

Julian Knowles (Composer)

Research output: Non-traditional research outputComposition


A 2 channel digital audio work for gallery presentation, examining the ecological impacts of the 2019-20 Australian fires. Presented as part of an international survey of sound art 'Audiosphere: Sound Experimentation 1980-2020' at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte, Spain. Curator: Francisco Lopez. Exhibition dates: 14 October, 2020 - 11 January, 2021.

This research contributes to the field of experimental audio art, which has historical interdisciplinary connections across the traditional fields of music, media art, and installation art. It can be understood within the more recent tradition of ‘sound as an exhibitable object’, meaning the presentation of audio only works that are situated in gallery contexts in the absence of visual media. This exhibition in which this work appears is a major international survey of audio art over the period 1980-2020, curated by the Spanish academic/sound artist Francisco Lopez.

Thematically, the work interrogates the presence of humans within a Gaian system, and our tendency to disconnect from higher order systems and processes that operate within it. The work is a response to the catastrophic Australian bushfires of 2019-20. I have drawn on Timothy Morton’s (2013) concept of the ‘hyperobject’, being phenomena of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a ‘thing’ is in the first place. Climate change is seen as a hyperobject in this frame, as might the destruction of one billion animals that were reported as a result of the fires. The work’s title ‘The Billion’ directly refers to this event. The research challenge is to explore the ways in which sound art media can render an affective experience which bring hyperobjects into focus to allow them to become tangible, as a way of engaging listeners with the enormity of the referenced phenomena.

The research questions are

In what ways can creative sound media be used to engage listeners in the critical environmental issues of climate change and mass fire events that, as hyperobjects, routinely escape attempts to comprehend them?

What compositional strategies may be employed in a fixed media work which affectively render the complex dynamic between humans, technology and the natural environment, so that the properties of the hyperobject may be experienced?

In approaching these questions, I deployed practice-led research methods within a compositional frame. The sound materials consist of a series of environmental field recordings I made in bushland areas along the south east coast of Australia prior to the bushfire events. These high-resolution digital audio recordings capture insect and bird life, water flows (both above and under water), and distant wind movement. In the composition process these materials are subjected to a range of digital alteration processes that move them progressively toward abstraction through extreme time stretching, pitch domain and spectral filtering manipulations.

In their altered states, they enter a dialogue with subtle electronic elements to form a composite sonic fabric of natural and electronic materials where, at times, it becomes difficult to distinguish natural from man made elements. Insects move into ringing pitched textures, crows and magpies appear to cry as they slow down, processed time stretched human vocalisations enter the texture in dialogue with the birdlife and insects, while low filtered wind takes on the properties of the impeding roar of an intense fire front.

Throughout the work, technological ‘faults’ such as digital audio clocking errors, distressed digital tape dropouts, and vinyl surface noise are used as sonic elements. These elements reference failed or broken technologies and take on a metaphorical quality, where humans enter the sonic landscape of the work via their faulty technologies. Over the course of the work, the composition moves from a naturalistic, representational soundscape towards a highly distressed, dystopian one, representing the passing of the fire front and the destruction left behind. The manipulation of the audio to produce apparently crying animals forces us to confront the idea of animals as sentient beings and to question human exceptionalism. On an affective level, this particular set of compositional strategies sets up sonic metaphors that speak to the unstable and uneasy relationship we have with our natural environment and the potentially catastrophic repercussions of climate harm. On a compositional level, this work deepens our understanding of the affective potential of working the line between sonic representation and abstraction in field derived audio materials and the way in which this can be used to powerful metaphorical effect in the compositional process.

This work was invited and selected for presentation by Spanish academic/sound artist Francisco Lopez, curator, for the exhibition ‘Audiosphere: Sound Experimentation 1980-2020’ at the Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain. This is perhaps the most extensive international survey of sound art that has ever been attempted by a major art gallery. The exhibition seeks to frame the history of sound art across the past 40 years under a range of thematic categories as a contribution to better understanding the history of sonic art and its various historical streams of practice.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationMadrid, Spain
PublisherMuseo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
EditionAudiosphere: Sound Experimentation 1980-2020
Media of outputCD
Publication statusPublished - 14 Oct 2020
EventAudiosphere: Sound Experimentation 1980-2020 - Museo Nacional Centro de Arte, Madrid, Spain
Duration: 14 Oct 202011 Jan 2021


  • audio art
  • sound art
  • Installation art
  • Environmental Art
  • experimental music


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