SOUNDSCAPES

There are many ways to mark the seasons, rhythms, places and moments of my life, and one of them is by its soundscapes.

Put simply, I live—like most of my fellow Canadians—half the year with the windows open and half the year with them shut.

I’m reminded of this when May rolls around and finally, FINALLY, I’m able to open them wide and welcome in the fresh air and the accompanying sounds of the world outside my cocoon.

I do it with gusto. In that moment, it feels like my house and I are inflating our lungs together as we take in a big broad breath of outside air. One breath in….and then aahhhhhhhhhh!

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There’s that first waft of unheated outdoor air which is followed by a sense of expansion, of everything opening up. The accumulated household scents and dusts of fall and winter are swept up and whooshed away—or at least that’s how it feels.

It’s a moment of reconnection with the world outside, but especially, with the sounds of the natural world.

I thought of all this in early June as I listened to Bernie Krause describe his life’s work on CBC radio.

Krause is an acoustic ecologist who has been listening to the natural world since he was a young boy. Afflicted as he was with, in his own words: “a terrible case of ADHD”, Krause discovered that the only thing that seemed to make a difference and mitigate his feelings of stress and anxiety was going out in the field and listening to natural sounds. In the CBC interview, he relates how the sounds of nature calm him and focus him, an effect which he describes as analgesic—literally relieving his pain.

 

Bernie Krause at work
Bernie Krause at work

Krause has dedicated his life to recording the sounds of nature and now possesses a priceless archive of soundscapes—many of which have since gone silent.

I was moved by the urgency and eloquence of Krause’s ecological message.

I was also taken up by his view of a world in which every living creature strives to establish its own acoustic territory, to express its “voice”, with or without vocal chords.

In the sonic universe Krause has spent a lifetime capturing, the soundscape is “a different way of experiencing the living world around us. […] It’s a narrative of place”.

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Krause has dedicated himself to archiving the sounds of the biophony—that is: “the sounds made by living organisms collectively”.

But we also live and share space in the geophony, which simply means earth sounds such as the wind, as well as in the anthropophony, which includes the controlled human sounds of music, as well as the chaotic noises our technologies produce.

This is a wondrous world view that brings me back to the soundscapes of my home with its opening and closing windows.

 

I’m very sound-sensitive. It’s why I love the radio: it’s the closest thing to having someone read to me. I don’t turn on the radio for background noise— I listen to interviews and news and documentaries and music that engage my mind, my imagination and my emotions while I’m cooking or cleaning or driving around. Sometimes, like when Bernie Krause spoke, I just stop and listen.

It’s this same sensitivity to sound that makes the arrival of spring so thrilling. I miss the birds terribly over the winter. Come open-window season, the first whistles and trills of cardinals make me want to sing.

My very early mornings are less lonely because I can listen to the robins—my favourite sentinels of the sun—who return at dusk to sing the giant star to sleep. Throughout the day, I can sit and write or work with an ear tuned to the activity of starlings and grackles and red windged blackbirds and blue jays, chickadees, sparrows and occasional woodpeckers nearby.

I noticed just a few days ago that the cicadas have already begun their metallic, vibrant song hidden away up in our maple trees, signalling the arrival of true summer heat and reminding me that the countdown to autumn has already begun. They’re early this year. The Earth is warming.

 

There are other living outdoor sounds that bother me.

 

When I hear the frantic chittering or screeching of a squirrel, I can’t help but wonder which predator is causing it distress. And cats mewling in the night is awfully disquieting.

There’s also the occasional tapping of insects against the windows, and the violently ugly BANG of birds smashing into them as they hunt mayflies—a particularly ominous sound, I think.

 

Most of these sounds I owe to the trees that shelter them and envelop our cottage. Stripped of their voices in late fall and winter, the maples in my yard have now recovered their leafy sibilance and hiss gloriously on breezy days, reminding me of the sea. When it rains, it sounds like millions of tiny marbles are falling through their foliage.

 

The soundscape of trees means everything. We should listen more attentively, I think.

It got unseasonably cold last Sunday: the temperature dropped to 15 degrees Celsius (from 30 just days before) and I found myself having to shut the windows, which had the effect of shutting out all of the sounds from outside. The house sounded like fall. And winter. It didn’t feel right.

 

Winter’s quiet. Outdoors, it’s the sound of silent, open space. Of mute trees and fauna. Of an environment acoustically dampened by snow.

Indoors, it’s a shut-in soundscape. Anthropophony [the stress is on the third syllable].

Like so much else about our environment, we aren’t mindful of the soundscapes of our homes. But close your eyes and sit still inside your own house or apartment and be attentive to all of its sounds.

Depending on the floor and the room I’m in, I can hear:

 

  • The hum of the refrigerator compressor or the percolating sounds of its dehumidifier;
  • The scale of tones and pings produced by my Iphone as it signals a message dropping into my email or Facebook account, or a more insistant text message warning, or else a phone call, which on my phone is the classic marimba ringtone;
  • The television in the livingroom—turned on far too often;
  • The sounds of my son Christian’s laptop emanating from his room: tinny and scratchy from a distance—superficial;
  • The radio, my acoustic window on the world;
  • The rotating floor fans cooling the house at this time of year;
  • The low bangs in the water pipes encased inside the walls, heating the house in winter;
  • The whistling kettle;
  • Youtube, somewhere in the house;
  • The spin sounds and beeps of the washer-dryer down in the basement.

 

And depending on the intensity, with or without the windows open, I can also hear:

  • The trains with their lumbering diesel locomotives, and occasionally, like last week, the deafening and nerve-shredding blare of their horns—sometimes in the dead of night;
  • The airplanes—mostly in the summer, taking off (only when seasonal repairs are being done on one of the strips);
  • The automobiles on highway 20—even the lush trees can’t completely muffle their distant drone.

 

Yesterday, the quiet of my office upstairs was invaded by the sounds of a circular saw and other power tools next door, where renovations are being done, and by a landscaping crew with their blasted leaf blowers.

I think that Bernie Krause is right about the importance of our soundscapes. His acute connection to the biophony makes his voice important, and his work makes me wonder and worry about our twenty-first century retreat behind earbuds.

 

What does it mean, that so many of us prefer to pipe recorded sounds directly into our ears, effectively shutting out everything and everyone else, including the sound of our own voices?

 

It probably says something about wanting to scale down the soundscapes of our lives. It probably says something about our desire to carve out an acoustic niche of our own design, wherever we go. It may also signal our turning away from the noises and sounds of others.

This last one distresses me the most. What if the natural world went silent?

What if the sounds of human voices, especially those of my loved ones, were to disappear?

Listening to the sounds we make and those around us tell us a lot about who and where we are. I’m a language teacher, dedicated to the human voice and its varied expressions.

 

There is in souls a sympathy with sounds:

And as the mind is pitch’d the ear is pleased
With melting airs, or martial, brisk or grave;
Some chord in unison with what we hear
Is touch’d within us, and the heart replies
.” —William Cowpe

* * *

I collect words—they are sweets in the mouth of sound.”
― Sally GardnerMaggot Moon

26011-Song-Bird

 

 

 

 

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