‘Good’ sounds in the world around us

‘Good’ sounds

Someone suggested that this blog should also address ‘good’ sounds, interesting sounds – sounds around us that we forget to notice in our busy lives. And so, periodically, I will do so.

I will start with this posting, in which I will briefly discuss three interesting books about sound.

Sara Maitland’s “A Book of Silence” is about just that. When describing her life at the cottage in England where she lives, she talks about the ‘nothing’ around her and argues that it isn’t nothing:

“… it is cloud formations, and the different ways reeds, rough grass, heather and bracken move in the wind, and the changing colours, not just through the year but through the day as the sun and the clouds alternate and shift – … I look at it [the huge nothing] and with fewer things to look at I see better. I listen to nothing, and its silent tunes and rhythms sound harmonic.” (2)

Maitland discusses how we usually think of silence as a lack of sound but she writes about it as a positive addition to our lives.

Seminal work was done back in the early 1970s in Vancouver, B.C., when R. Murray Schafer and his compatriots coined the idea of “soundscape”, their word for the sonic environment that is around us all the time.  (See the NFB video in the Recommended Video Links section of the blog for a short film about Schafer and listening.) Schafer’s book “The Soundscape” is a classic text in the study of sound and its impact on societies. It provides a very interesting and provocative argument about how ‘noise’ and sound in the modern world is narcotisizing, leading us to want more and more.

Bernie Krause is another person who has spent his life exploring sound.  His newest book is “The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places”.  (Again, in the Recommended Video Links section there is a link to a video of Krause talking about his recording of a ‘singing tree’.)  This book also explores a range of fascinating sounds and sound experiences that Krause has had in his life as a musicologist. (One of the topics he discusses is the relationship to nature that is at the heart of the culture of the Ba’ka, a tribe living in the Central African Republic. He argues that without the biophony (his word for the ‘symphony’ of sounds of a biosphere) of the forest, “…their music would not have evolved as it did. …The wild sonic environment the group surrounded itself with was the voice of their existence since their arrival in the Dzanga-Sangha [the rainforest where they live].” (130-131)

(Click here for a video of Mr. Krause talking about his book.)

So yes, there are wonderful sounds in the world around us. There is no refuting this.

The issue however, often lies in the ears of the ‘beholder’ – some of us enjoy certain sounds, and others don’t.  This disagreement can lead to serious confrontations and problems.  At some point in the future, I will post about the legal responses to noise in the form of city noise by-laws.

(George Prochnik’s book “In Pursuit of Silence” addresses this issue.  We will look at his book in more detail in  a later post.)

And, as a teaser –  there will soon be a post with more detail about soundscapes and the idea of soundwalks!

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2 Responses to ‘Good’ sounds in the world around us

  1. It looks like this is going to become a very interesting blog. Good luck.
    Meanwhile the book by Maitland sounds beautiful. It’s quite difficult to find books on sound in general bookshops, so recommendations are always valuable. You might be interested in David Toop’s “Sinister Resonances”, dense and poetic.

  2. Matt Snell says:

    Cool blog. I read Soundscape and met R. Murray Schafer, and I think he might just have you beat for the title of noise curmugeon.

    Have you heard of Gordon Hempton? They made a bad movie about him, but some of his ideas and recordings are pretty interesting. He defines silence as the absence of human mechanical noise, and he travels all over trying to get field recordings of perfectly silent places. Apparently, mostly due to jets passing overhead, silence in the world is increasingly rare. He points out that the more mechanical noise, the shorter the effective distance you can hear, so noise pollution is like being in a fog all the time and shrinks your perceptive sphere. I definitely noticed his point in Frontenac Park – whenever we heard a loon or a whippoorwill, within a few minutes a jet would pass and tear up the soundscape.

    Also glad to see a musician “plugging” attenuating earplugs. I swear by mine and I never go to a concert without ’em.

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