From Every Hour
Part I: To Listen, to Hear
In the 1990s, I heard an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) that I have never forgotten. I looked for that interview, but cannot find it. It was with someone who studied sound. He suggested that we mostly ignore the sounds around us, but that if we took the time to hear them—if we put our ears next to a pipe coming out of the ground, for instance, or close to a cup as we poured in a soda—we would be delighted with what we heard. Our lives would be enhanced.
I took that advice to heart. I had a group of buddies then to go hiking and camping with, exploring the Utah desert many weekends every season. After listening to that interview, I started taking the time to lay on the ground, close my eyes—and hear the wind stir the leaves of the cottonwoods around me. My buddies started doing it, too. We heard unexpected and beautiful sounds. Even opening a cold beer once back in camp at the end of a long hike and hot day became more wonderful, if possible, because we paid attention to the sound of uncapping the bottle. Before, sight was the principal sense we used in the backcountry because we were seeing new and wondrous things, and it continued to be the sense we mostly tuned in to, but by paying attention to sound, we heard sounds we would have missed otherwise. I think that by doing that we also became more aware of our other senses: of the feel of the glass of that beer bottle, for example, wet with melted ice from the cooler. We started taking time to pay attention not just to the taste of that beer, but to the smell of it, as well.
While I could not find the interview from NPR that I listened to in the 1990s, I did find this interesting Science Friday interview by Ira Flatow with Bart Kosko, "A Defense of Noise" (September 2006). It is not much of a defense; it is, rather, a list of the detrimental effects noise has on us and on the natural world. Noise can kill small animals: when the navy conducts sonar training exercises, for example, shortly afterwards, small beaked whales wash up dead on beaches, bleeding from their eyes and ears. Too much white noise damages the brains of rats. The health effects of noise on people include heart attacks; high blood pressure; and, of course, hearing loss. The American Medical Association estimates that 10 percent of teenagers in America have hearing comparable to 80-year-olds, thanks to headphone and cell-phone use. I think the takeaway from this interview is that our hearing is a precious and finite commodity, one we should protect.
Part II: From Every Hour
Over the next few days, I am going to pay attention to and record at least one sound that I encounter in every hour of the day (and thus ease into music by first becoming more aware of the sounds that already surround me). I love both early morning and late night, but in the last fourteen years, the late night hours have appealed more to me, perhaps because they are the most quiet. It will be interesting, I think, to become aware of sounds in each hour (including the sounds of brewing the coffee necessary to pull this off).
6:00 a.m.: Screen door—
7:00 a.m.: Shower—
8:00 a.m.: Cracking an egg (laid by a cage-free hen)—
9:00 a.m.: Turning on my Mac—
10:00 a.m.: Clicking a pen—
11:00 a.m.: Popping open an Italian soda—
Noon: The microwave—
1:00 p.m.: Biting into an apple—
2:00 p.m.: Noise from a construction site up the street—
3:00 p.m.: A train passes by—
4:00 p.m.: Watering the irises—
5:00 p.m.: Shutting the car door—
6:00 p.m.: Dropping the car keys onto their holder—
7:00 p.m.: Getting a glass of water from the sink—
8:00 p.m.: Spin Cycle, with Socrates the Cat—
9:00 p.m.: The dryer—
10:00 p.m.: Rain, with Alexander the Cat—
11:00 p.m.: Hail—
Midnight: Pixie the Cat, snacking—
1:00 a.m.: Dripping faucet, with Hermes the Cat—
2:00 a.m.: Middle of the night fridge raid—
3:00 a.m.: Squeaking door—
4:00 a.m.: My footsteps in the yard—
5:00 a.m.: Birdsong, at the start of day—
Not every sound in my collection is pleasant—but the birdsong is. The sounds of water are also, to me, pleasurable, whether the water is running from a hose onto flowers or dripping from a faucet. The sound of a pen pleases me (probably because I like the tools of my trade). Birdsong and the calls of a cat do not mask the sounds of our machines, but they give us something else to focus on: I think they naturally draw the ear.
I have been interested in the design of things. Take doors, for example: it is never the fault of a person who pushes on a door when he or she should pull—instead, I think, the design of the door has failed. People intuitively respond correctly to well-designed doors, and they never push when they should pull. So, with design in mind, I have to wonder why so many of our machines make unpleasant sounds? It is within our capacity, I'm certain, to design them to make pleasant sounds. Why can't the sound of opening the door to a microwave, for instance, simply be better than it is? My guess is that we could design improved sound experiences into much of what we have no choice but to hear, day in day out.
At the very least, construction machinery should be outfitted with mufflers.
Time to get the cats and me some breakfast! Bacon, eggs, and Purina Naturals Cat Chow coming up.
Part III: Sound Tourism
The website Sound Tourism: A Travel Guide to Sonic Wonders recommends destinations where one might hear interesting and unusual sounds. Some are not too far from where I live. The idea of taking a trip just to hear natural sound appeals to me. I may, for example, have to visit Washington state to hear the unexpected sounds that emanate from a reconstruction of Stonehenge. Apparently, when Stonehenge was intact, the ancients experienced unusual auditory effects.
Here's the link to Sound Tourism; perhaps there are destinations that might interest you, as well:
I used to be a news junkie, but that also ended for me when Drew died. Before he died, I woke up to NPR, spent my lunch hours with it, listened to it driving home, then late at night. I have seldom tuned in to the news in the last fourteen years. Drew was a journalist, and for years he was stationed in the Middle East. He worked for CBS in Cairo, then at an English-language newspaper in Riyadh. He interviewed Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu at the Madrid Peace Talks; he covered the Kashmiri conflict on both sides of the border; he was on the first plane of journalists into Kuwait City after its liberation from Iraq in the Gulf War.
I have spent more time listening to NPR doing research for this post than I have for years. Maybe I'll win back an interest in the news as well this year.
I created "A Time to Speak," the image above, on my computer in 2006; it features the Fern, one of the named structures in Mandelbrot fractals. The title is from Ecclesiastes 3:7 (KJV): "a time to keep silence, and a time to speak."