Saturday, January 05, 2013


The sense of sound begins with the beating heart of the zygote, contrapuntal to the beating heart of the mother.  Then her breath.  And the song of digestion.  The only way to get to absolute silence is with sound-canceling technology, because otherwise one hears one’s own body, even if you are nude to eliminate clothing friction.  

The earth itself rings like a gong and some places, many near mountains -- like Valier -- have a detectable hum.  Some speculate this is caused by a deep pressure among the tectonic plates that compress rock formations like quartz deposits, making them vibrate.

Psychologists trying to discover a way to make a situation unpleasant without doing physical damage resorted to recordings of a baby screaming.  They could hardly bear it themselves.  Here’s a very brief sound of a child screaming. It is meant to be intolerable, either brief or sustained, because the survival of children is crucial.  It demands response.

To compensate for that unpleasantness, I hurry to offer a favorite hymn to fend off trouble.  Actually, it’s the tune that counts:

from David Dodd in the Petaluma CA UU congregation: 
Hymn #1 in our hymnal is "Prayer For This House" (entitled, in the hymnal, "May Nothing Evil Cross This Door," which is really just the first line....). It's a beautiful hymn, with words by Louis Untermeyer (1885-1977), who, besides being an excellent poet, was an influential poetry anthologist in the early part of the 20th century, as well as a jewelry manufacturer. "Prayer For This House" is frequently used in house blessing rituals and building dedications, and its position as Number One is surely no accident. It's sort of a doorway into the whole hymnal. The tune is by Robert N. Quaile, a Methodist minister's son from Mallow, Ireland. He composed the tune in 1903. 

The more familiar Christian words begin “For All the Blessings of the Year.”  But it is the tune that makes it familiar, and it is the familiarity that is reassuring.

Smells are perceived by one-celled animals, but the same animals ARE vibrating in ways that would be perceptible only with instruments.  Vibrations permeate all of existence, our eyes see vibrations, our brains dance out alpha, beta, theta rhythms, we sing, we listen, we hum -- in both senses.  John Cage has alerted us all to the fabric of sound around us -- fridge going on and off, hissing radiator, rustling collapse of the hearth fire, dog thumping as he digs at a flea.  When I first came to Valier, I kept waking up because it was so quiet.  I was used to voices below the window, siren over on Broadway, doors slamming in the apartment hallway.  At night here the only sound -- except wind, of course -- is likely to be compression brakes on semi-trucks going through town.  

Sound must be close to the earliest of the arts, how could it not be?  

Percussion on just about any surface, including the body.  Clapping, stomping, slapping a bare belly.  (It is percussion to make fart noises with your underarm?)  Percussion from the kindergarten instruments of clapping blocks, dinging triangle or jingling tambourine.

Wind from puckered-up whistling to blowing through a tube or a reed.  English horn, clarinet, the human voice with its capacity to shape the air flow into vowels and howls, its glottal stops or hissing sibilants or pinching lips.  Tongue against teeth.  Digiridoo or if one of them is not handy, the tube off a vacuum cleaner will work.  And not all voices are human.  Elephants rumble so low they are not perceptible to humans.  That hoarse cry that’s so often used in English mystery night-scenes?  I thought it was a night bird of some kind until I was fooling around with google listening to animal cries.  It’s the cry of a female fox in season.  I can only say it’s a sound our pet foxes never made.

Twanging from African thumb-piano to a theatrical thundersheet, that big piece of sheet metal shaken backstage to imitate a storm.

Making strings vibrate, hearing cables sing.  If you knew how to listen, the Golden Gate Bridge would sing to you, quite apart from the wind whistling through.  Those cables must know songs.

Listening to animals, calling back to them, sweeping them up into symphonies, has been a speciality of Paul Winter’s for a long time.  He began with the wolf who sang with his clarinet and whose song became part of his Missa Gaea, his Earth Mass.  The religious nature of sound has been quite obvious and certainly welcomed by Winter.  Perhaps more than any other source he has recognized the need for liturgies that appeal to every human, regardless of nation or language.  The poor plagued continent of Africa, the one that seduces and exasperates us all, where percussion and twanging and keening voices still persist in spite of all the pressure to go electronicly modern.  This is the place of our origin, they say, and birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, and the only true American musical roots came here in the hearts of Africans trafficked centuries ago.  Well, for Paul Winter that’s an invitation.  Here you go, the beginning of a symphony.

And you’ll see in this video that the inevitable consequence of music is movement, whether it is the simple stamping of feet or the long soaring of wings.  Culture can only try to catch up -- at least our culture.  Some cultures are already there.  Their children babble, their old folks chant, they dance while they drum or twang.  Long wooden xylophones are set up alongside each other where the hammers fly up and down them.  You’re sad?  You don’t know what sadness is.  You’re glad?  Who has time to stop and consider it?  The rule of migration is to move on, to complete the cycle, to continue the millennia of vibrations.  Put pebbles in a pop can, throw sand into a hollow gourd, keep time, slap your feet on the earth.  Extinct?  Hardly!   Endangered.  Well, maybe.

But the cranes are flying!  Can’t you hear them?

No comments: