Inspired by Trevor Cox’s Sonic Wonderland book, and on the cusp of developing a new project about sound and spaces, I’m going back to basics – starting with listening….
This is the first step in my attempt to reawaken my ears. To ‘cleanse’ myself of the saturation of sounds around us in daily life, to start afresh…..a sort of detox for listening. After 30 years of making, playing and living with music, I think it’s long overdue.
So today I went on my first Sound Walk. Less of a walk than a short stroll….I wandered 100 yards to the Quarry across the road from where I live. A wild, beautiful place, given over to nature. Quiet – so I thought; there is rarely a soul here.
From Sound Stroll to Sound Sit…. I found a spot on the grass near a dense tangled patch of trees, sat down…. and listened. I’ll give it 10 minutes I thought….it’s a start….
An hour and 15 minutes later, I am still here. Fascinated, deeply moved. It is something of an epiphany…compelling, captivating, thought-provoking. I don’t really want to leave. The time flies by in what feels like 5 minutes – and this from a woman who usually cannot stay in one place without fidgeting for more than 30 seconds.
Birds….first of all, I hear the birds. I am astonished not just by the variety of pitch and ‘types’ of song, but by the difference in dynamic and projection. There are layers and layers of sound: like an impressionist painting, I feel like I am hearing some sort of ‘perspective’ in sound. I’m mesmerized by this filigree of intricate patterns around me. I try and count them – at least 12 types of bird…maybe more? The counting becomes of secondary interest to the sounds and I keep getting lost. There’s a ‘Stravinsky’ bird; each ‘block’ of sound, beginning in an identical manner then with what seems like a slight variant to the tail end. There is a remarkable consistency of space between each utterance. As I listen harder I’ve found a tiny high-pitched bird…the quietest sound…I don’t think I would ever have noticed that.
I’m getting painfully aware of any ‘pollution’ of this sonorous web; there’s a far off start-stop tractor and every now and then the rumble of an aeroplane. It is warm and I open a can of Coke: I am shocked at the loudness, the artificiality, the unwelcome presence and resonance of the can ringpull. Nature has its own unpitched interruptions; the chuck-chuck of the pheasants is a guiro against the singing birds, yet much less abrasive than my Coke can. Whilst the planes are annoying, I am rather more captivated by a large helicopter which has a far more colourful sound spectrum. A long, low distant and ominous moan, a deep pitch – too low and complex for me to give a name to – throbs like the lowest notes on an pipe organ and gives way to pulsing waves of sound dissecting the air at a higher and more complex pattern. I’d like to hear that one again.
I read that in a biophony (the soundscape created by animals) the first layer of sound is often made up of the insects, then the birds, then larger creatures (a dog, sheep, tigers….relevant of course to where you are!) I’m finding it hard to hear a blanket sound of insects: perhaps it is dependent on the time of year. But when a bee buzzes past me suddenly, it’s as if a tiny de Havilland biplane has entered the space. And after half an hour, which feels like 2 minutes, I’m in such a deep state of listening that I’m even aware of my own breathing… my heart pumping blood around my body.
I’m rewarded with the most spectacular finale I could have wished for. No sound at all here; a huge buzzard flies out of the trees, so low and so close to me that I almost instinctively put my left arm out. Quickly realizing a) I don’t have my falconer’s glove on and b) its not a trained bird, I’m happy to watch it. Buzzards are quite slow fliers and often perch motionless in tree branches where they are almost completely camouflaged before attempting a swoop onto something unsuspecting. I’ve seen this buzzard circling around in the sky in this area before now, but it was quite breathtaking to see it so close. In the sky, a Buzzard will ‘mew’ but here it was completely silent, and its presence was all the more wonderful for being in the context of my ‘sound sit’.
In truth, this has been a revelation. The tapestry of sound around me is transformative; it takes me to another place, a primitive place perhaps, both complex and simple. I could easily have stayed in the Quarry for a very long time, and I have rarely felt so energised and alive to sound as I do as I write this. I’m not sure my ears could cope with a Symphony right now…