The suppression of natural sound in modern cities creates isolation. Can music help us reconcile the technological and the natural?
It is a treat to hear birds sing or listen to the wind. Those of us who are city dwellers often think of “outside” as a place we journey through to get from one living area, from one box, to another. When we do take a moment to walk somewhere, our mobile devices are frequently blaring at us, whether we are on the telephone or listening to music. If we turned those devices off for a few minutes would we enjoy the natural sounds or would we experience sensory withdrawal?
The intimacy of the spoken voice, especially a whisper; the mystery of unaccompanied song; the authenticity of natural sound, such as breath, or footsteps, or bird song– all possess a music that is extremely powerful and yet increasingly unfamiliar to us. These sounds must compete not only with those of technological devices, but also with a range of defined styles that are accepted as music. The power of music is such that it can be used to mask our experience of the present moment, to anesthetize our awareness by claiming our attention and activating our memory. Think of the jogger who blissfully moves past cars while plugged into an i-Pod. Is this person fully aware of their surroundings? Music also elicits unconscious responses. Browsing YouTube or movie trailers reveals that there are tunes that have become so cliché that they tell us within a few notes the subject matter of what we are watching. The result of all of this is that we are losing the chance of encountering the unexpected and with it the chance of being enchanted with the new.
When I made the video poem Mirage for Synkroniciti, sound editing was perhaps the most unfamiliar and difficult skill I needed. The challenge lay in finding a background track that was complementary but not intrusive. A piece of composed music, even something designed as a background track, has a rhythm built in which interferes with that of the recitation and threatens to take the mind away from the natural fall of the words. I made the decision that my music would not be the expected sort, but an amalgamation of natural sounds modified and manipulated to fit the voiceover track. The simplest of sounds provided a rich palette of tones to work with, and it was fun to hear how things recorded and what they evoked. Often, the best, most authentic sounding option was not to record the actual sound, but to record and manipulate a similar sound. So the sound of the wind is derived from breath and the distant thunder of a desert storm is the sound of feet pounding the ground. This helped me to hear and appreciate the world around me in a new way by finding connections between sounds.
Jazz great Dave Brubeck grew up in a household where he wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio. If he wanted music, he had to play it himself. If we want increased creativity and depth of experience, we have to be able to turn off the soundtrack imposed upon our life by society, and even by our own preferences, to discover the rhythms and harmonies that lie underneath. By fusing these elements into the music we make and listen to, perhaps we can forge a deeper connection to the world around us.
I am reminded of Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie, or Alpine Symphony, which includes birdsong as well as a very impressive and recognizable storm, complete with a wind machine. These are some of the greatest moments of programmatic, or story-telling music, ever composed, explicitly evoking the mountain hike being described. I wonder what it was like to hear the sounds of nature recreated by musical instruments for the first time. It remains a thrilling experience, as you can hear for yourself in the clip below. Being able to use technology to record and replay sound has given us new avenues to continue this kind of exploration of the link between music and nature. If we can let go of the music we expect, perhaps even the music we have been trained to hear, we will have more colors and voices available to us.
The Calm Before the Storm and The Storm from Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss, played by Staatskapelle Dresden under the direction of the late Giuseppe Sinopoli.
Video via boterwisk on YouTube.