Hempton, who now lives near Olympic National Park in the rugged northwest of Washington State, has been around the world three times to record our sound world. He describes the earth as a "solar powered jukebox." The closer to the equator you record, the noisier it is. Moving either north or south, the sound world gets quieter; in winter it get quieter still. He has also said that "silence is the think tank of the soul," perhaps explaining why artists often engineer quiet, monastic places to work. This has led him to argue for the protection of spaces around the world that are silent--by which he means free of human sound for at least twenty minutes. Given our ears can hear much farther than our eyes can see (there is an unseen person with a weed eater who is interrupting my morning quiet), that's a challenge. He's only found twelve in North America, and none of them are protected.
Hempton is attuned to the extent to which our listening is part of our socialization, and thus to the extent to which there's a lot we don't hear. If we really want to hear, we should go for a night time walk with someone under five and ask them to describe their sound world. Their childlike curiosity highlights how much we simply dismiss as background noise, the white noise of our life. He also highlights the horizon of our hearing. Using one of his recordings to take Tippett along with him on a walk through Olympic National Park, he lets us hear the sounds of mating elks, which up close are powerful and gutteral, but heard from a distance sound almost flute-like.
But I find I'm put off by his resistance to the music of human noise. Asked to chose a kind of human sound that he doesn't drop into the category of the extraneous and unnecessary, he admits that he's fond of trains. Their whistles all bear the signature of the conductor as well as the physics of their location. Tippett tries to nudge him toward music, but he stalwartly will not go there. I don't want a world where I do not hear how the dryness of August and September changes the sound of leaves in the wind, which is an important part of immersing myself in fall, along with the changing birdsong and the colour of the light. But I also don't want a world without Ella Fitzgerald or Bach or Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Music, Craig Minowa tells us, has been "medicine" for humans since time out of mind, soothing us, inspiring us, moving us, providing us with connection us to the spiritual because there's some element of it that refuses to mean but simply is. This organization of sound, along with its complexly mathematical physics, is beyond everyday understanding. How can certain chords or melodies speak so directly to our feelings? Natural sound is also--I was going to say 'otherworldly,' but it's very much of this world. Once we needed natural sounds for information about our environments. Now it's a much-needed reminder of nature's beauty and richness--about as necessary as art, in other words.
Both Hempton and Bernie Krause, whom I wrote about in August, point out that we can close our eyes but not our ears, as if hearing were our most important sense. Partly, it's that adaptive thing: we can hear many threats coming when they are too far away to see. But what does that tell us about being human, about being alive, being
animal? That perhaps the most essential thing about ourselves is not
our appearance, but our voice, its timbre, its emotional music, the words we choose. The visible body is mute without its
voice to appeal, to command, to converse (unless one is a great actor). Conversation--one of the great delights of being human--is difficult without voice. (I find myself in a conundrum here, noting that sign language certainly has a 'tone of voice.' For Helen Keller, tone of voice must have been tactile.) And we are back to perspective taking, to listening.
In Pauline Holdstock's charming novel, Here I Am, the six-year-old boy who has stolen on board a cruise ship with nothing but the clothes on his back is not discovered by any of the people in the children's play room or the movie theatre or by anyone who can see that his clothes have not changed in days and he's getting a bit ripe, but by a blind man whose dog the boy seeks out. Because Gordon Knight must be more deliberate about collecting information about his context, he discerns that six-year-old Frankie is alone, lonely, and possibly traumatized.
The COVID-19 lockdown certainly taught me how much I love the sound of a coffee shop, and now that we are allowed to stay to drink our coffee and eat our scone, I am more attuned to its sound world, more appreciative of what it offers. A coffee shop's sound is full of theatre. Good Earth on south Albert, where we go on Saturday morning, has two groups who are there at the same time that we are. One is a group of women ranging in age from 35 to 70--and what I love is the rhythm of their conversation and the sound of their listening. There might be four small conversations all going at once, but when something wise or needy or smart is said, there is a sudden silence in which you hear the sound of listening.Then there are four men from the Balkans, I suspect. I can hear the deeply-throated sound of a Slavic language, but can't make out any of the words, so that's just my best guess. They are all experts in everything! Can men mansplain to one another? There is the high, flute-like sound of a child having the privilege of morning coffee alone with dad or mum, or a couple with one chirpy voice, one sleepy drone. I don't have to look up or stare or reveal my human curiosity. I just listen to the human music.