To Hear Sound for the Very First Time

To Hear Sound for the Very First Time

"In some of my research on cochlear implants, I learned that when they are turned on for the first time, patients often say the sound is kind of 'digital' or 'mechanical' sounding, which is entirely normal. I guess the ears and brain eventually normalize the signal and things begin to sound more natural. I thought that was entirely fascinating, so I made it a part of my song."

~ Ryan O'Neal, from "HearingI & How It Was Made"

Reservoir of Beauty inside You

Reservoir of Beauty inside You

"What I find very strange is this. That I think what's magnificent about Bach is that when you listen to this music, and it moves you so much, I mean, it's just a bunch of sound waves crashing into your ear, and you have to contain — you see this emotion bubbling up, you start seeing, like, tearing up, and saying, well, what's going on? These are just sounds crashing into my — what's going on in here?"

~ Bernard Chazelle 

Periods of Incomprehension

Excerpt from "How Learning a Foreign Language Reignited My Imagination," by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic Monthly, May 22, 2013:

"I started studying French in the summer of 2011, in the throes of a mid-30s crisis. I wanted to be young again. Once, imagination was crucial to me. The books filled with trains, the toy tracks and trestles—they were among my few escapes from a world bounded by my parents’ will. In those days, I could look at a map of some foreign place and tell you a story about how the people there looked, how they lived, what they ate for dinner, and the exotic beauty of the neighborhood girls.

When you have your own money, your own wheels, and the full ownership of your legs, your need for such imagination, or maybe your opportunity to exercise it, is reduced.

And then I came to a foreign language, where so much can’t be immediately known, and to a small town where English feels like the fourth language.

The signs were a mystery to me. The words I overheard were only the music of the human voice. A kind of silence came over me.

...There is a symmetry in language ads that promise fluency in three weeks and weight-loss ads that promise a new body in roughly the same mere days. But the older I get, the more I treasure the sprawling periods of incomprehension, the not knowing, the lands beyond Google, the places in which you must be immersed to comprehend."

Quiet Enough for Long Periods of Time

"Sounds from The Great Animal OrchestraWhen you listen to any soundscape, a natural soundscape, you are listening to information that tells you about biology, about resource management , medicine, religion, natural history, architecture, literature, physics, and many, many others.

For instance, people have asked me why you do this. Well, partly because I suffer from a terrible case of ADHD. I've always had this as a kid. And I had it as an adult, and I'm not much into medication. So the only thing that calms me down is going out into the natural world and listening to these creatures.

And being quiet enough for long periods of time and just shutting up and listening to things. I can't rustle my clothes, I can't move around and shuffle my feet around. I've got to sit very quietly for long periods of time, and that's what this has taught me to do. So in terms of healing and a certain kind if medicine, that's one thing the soundscape does.

It also speaks to us about religion. For instance, it's the natural soundscape from which we acquire spirituality. That was the voice of the divine for us for so many years, while we lived closely connected to the natural world."

~ Dr. Bernie Krause, from "The Great Animal Orchestra," To the Best of Our Knowledge, Nov. 11, 2012

Dr. Bernie Krause: The Great Animal Orchestra from California Academy of Sciences on

See also:

To Become a Better Listener

May 7, 2012

Excerpt from "The Last Quiet Places," an On Being conversation with Gordon Hempton, May 10, 2012: 

I grew up thinking that I was a listener except on my way to graduate school one time, I simply pulled over making the long drive from Seattle, Washington, to Madison, Wisconsin, pulled over in a field to get some rest and a thunderstorm rolled over me. While I lay there and the thunder echoed through the valley and I could hear the crickets, I just simply took it all in. And it's then I realized that I had a whole wrong impression of what it meant to actually listen. I thought that listening meant focusing my attention on what was important even before I had heard it and screening out everything that was unimportant even before I had heard it.

In other words, I had been paying a lot of attention to people, but I really hadn't been paying a lot of attention to what is all around me. It was on that day that I really discovered what it means to be alive as another animal in a natural place. That changed my life. I had one question and that was how could I be 27 years old and have never truly listened before? I knew, for me, I was living life incredibly wrong, so I abandoned all my plans, I dropped out of graduate school, I moved to Seattle, took my day job as a bike messenger and only had one goal, and that was to become a better listener.

Sounds of Silence

Through the sounds of the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton guides us to One Square Inch of Silence — with the chirping twitter of the Western wren and the haunting call of the Roosevelt elk. Take this aural hike [download] and be sure to listen with a pair of headphones or earbuds. You’ll discover quieting sounds you might miss without them. 

Teach Yourself to Listen

From "A Restorative Racket," by Charles McGrath, The New York Times, June 30, 2011:

You wouldn't want to listen to that racket all the time, but every now and then an ear-shattering, teeth-jarring blast, so loud you can’t hear yourself think, is sort of restorative. For a moment you have to shut down and reboot whatever was on your mind.

To hear the subtler music of the city, though, you have to teach yourself to listen. Next time you take the subway, turn off your iPod and try some unrecorded avant-garde stuff. I recommend the Times Square station, where incoming trains rumble under your feet, coming to rest with a squeak and a hiss of air brakes that could have been scored by John Cage. If you’re lucky, the guy with the musical saw will be on duty, making his eerie, keening arpeggios, or maybe the Ebony Hillbillies will be playing bluegrass tunes to the accompaniment of indecipherable loudspeaker announcements about delays on the No. 2 uptown. Your feet will start to twitch a little.

Or take a walk along 42nd Street, say, and down Fifth Avenue. After a while you’ll discover that the great ground note of New York — the basso continuo — is traffic noise, which is more tire whoosh than engine sound, punctuated every now and then by the clank of a car passing over a manhole cover. Above that, like a flatted organ chord, is the heavy breathing of idle bus engines, rising up a humming octave or so when the light changes, and the bus accelerates.

And now, if you wave an imaginary baton, here comes some honking, which — unless some bozo is really leaning on the horn — is much more cheerful-sounding than you think you remember — almost like bird song.

There is also foot noise: the clacking of high heels and, at this time of year, the occasional pop of a delayed flip-flop snapping up against the wearer’s heel. And a soft, hard-to-place chittering sound that if you pay close attention turns out to be hundreds of human conversations weaving in and out of one another in a great collective murmuration.

See also:

Seeing with Sound

Excerpts from “Blindness No Obstacle To Those With Sharp Ears,” All Things Considered, March 13, 2011:

Meet Daniel Kish. He's a man of many talents. He likes to hike, make music and write. He enjoys children and loves nature. He's an avid biker.

He's also completely blind.

How can Kish bike if he can't see? The method is called echolocation — Kish calls it "flash sonar." As he speeds along on his bike, he makes clicking sounds. As the clicks bounce back to him, he creates a mental image of the space around him. He's kind of like a human bat.

"It is literally a process of seeing with sound," he says.

Daniel Kish leads All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz on a bike ride.

“I think that children are incredibly adaptable and intuitive. We know this. I work a lot with children, especially very young children. What I often tell parents when children lose their sight is — warn and support parents — to try and get themselves out of the way of the adaptation process, become more an asset to it than a liability. Because children will adapt if given support to do so and given space to do so.

…It’s the overall process of being willing to reach out into the environment and discover what is around them. If that discovery process is broken by introducing a situation that is not natural, such as keeping the blind child in a playpen or a crib or in the corner, or such as always guiding their hands around their environment or guiding their bodies around their environment — [you really just have to let them figure it out. Getting hurt] is part of it for any child…It is tough, but there’s still a kind of a priori difference. When a sighted child gets hurt we consider it to be unfortunate; when a blind child gets hurt we consider it to be tragic…We really need to divest ourselves of that double standard.

[At World Access for the Blind] our main focus is supporting individuals to access their environment better…It is about a philosophy that we call No Limits Philosophy which challenges us to challenge what we think we know. To challenge every boundary, every box, every limitation that we’ve either put up ourselves or allowed ourselves to be conditioned to accept.

… Conventional wisdom doesn’t favor blindness. Conventional wisdom basically favors the perpetuation of convention. Blindness is not conventional — it’s anything and everything but conventional. So we tend to challenge conventional wisdom to expand itself and accept that there are situations, circumstances which are not conventional yet which still warrant accommodation, consideration, acceptance, awareness.   

Learning How to See Again Using Sound

| Artists Wanted | In Focus : Pete Eckert from Artists Wanted on Vimeo.

Even though he can’t see, Pete Eckhert demonstrates that he is a visual person through photography. He was the Grand Prize recipient of Artists Wanted: Exposure 2008, an international photography competition, and was awarded $2,008 with a formal reception at Leo Kesting Gallery in New York City on Thursday August 7, 2008.

Check out Artists Wanted and visit the program on Facebook.

Impossible Notes

The Fire In The Song
by David Whyte, from Fire in the Earth

Fire in the EarthThe mouth opens
and fills the air
with its vibrant shape

until the air
and the mouth
become one shape.

And the first word,
your own word,
spoken from that fire

surprises, burns,
grieves you now

you made that pact
with a dark presence
in your life.

He said, "If you only
stop singing
I’ll make you safe."

And he repeated the line,
knowing you would hear
"I’ll make you safe"

as the comforting
sound of a door
closed on the fear at last,

but his darkness crept
under your tongue
and became the dim

cave where
you sheltered
and you grew

in that small place
too frightened to remember
the songs of the world,

its impossible notes,
and the sweet joy
that flew out the door

of your wild mouth
as you spoke.

Thinking in Feelings Instead of Words

Crab Apple Tree, by Susan Lirakis

Excerpts from “Quiet, Please: Gordon Hempton on the Search for Silence in a Noisy World,” by Leslie Goodman, The Sun Magazine, September 2010:

Leslie Goodman: You’ve written that, before entering nature, you go through a process to clear your mind and make it more receptive to silence. You might spend a night in the forest so that, by morning, your ears will be “relaxed” enough and your mind clear enough to hear the river valley “singing.” Are most of us oblivious to the sounds of nature because we’re constantly bombarded with our own mental chatter?

Gordon Hempton: Our mental condition reflects our external environment. Most of us live in cities, which are noisy, chaotic places. As a result we tend to have a lot of mental chatter, not all of it coherent. When you go to a naturally quiet place, you’ll notice first how physically loud you are — voice, footsteps, food wrappers, Velcro, zippers — but then you’ll notice internal noise as well. After a day or a week you’ll experience an internal shift: your to-do list will fall away, your body will find its rhythm, your ears will attune themselves to your new surroundings, and your mental chatter will quiet. You will recognize unnecessary thoughts as just that — unnecessary — and become acquainted with the place you’re in rather than staying inside your head.

Goodman: You blame “mental chatter” on modern life, but people have been trying to escape their thoughts for centuries.

Hempton: Some people, yes. It’s related to the pace of life, which has not always been as fast as it is now. Go to a quiet place in nature, and after a few hours you will notice that your thoughts have slowed; you are no longer thinking in words but in feelings. The mind is capable of taking in enormous amounts of information when we let go of our mental filtering system and open ourselves to pure perception.

Read the rest of this interview…

An Air Pocket of Total Silence

Excerpt from “The Year of Silence,” by Kevin Brockmeier. Anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2008. Listen to this story read by Anthony Rapp from the Aug. 22, 2010 episode of Selected Shorts titled Let’s Not Talk.

Shortly after two
in the afternoon, on Monday, the sixth of April, a few seconds of silence overtook the city. The rattle of the jackhammers, the boom of the transformers, and the whir of the ventilation fans all came to a halt. Suddenly there were no car alarms cutting through the air, no trains scraping over their rails, no steam pipes exhaling their fumes, no peddlers shouting into the streets. Even the wind seemed to hesitate.

We waited for the incident to pass, and when it did, we went about our business. None of us foresaw the repercussions.

That the city’s
whole immense carousel of sound should stop at one and the same moment was unusual, of course, but not exactly inexplicable. We had witnessed the same phenomenon on a lesser scale at various cocktail parties and interoffice minglers over the years, when the pauses in the conversations overlapped to produce an air pocket of total silence, making us all feel as if we’d been caught eavesdropping on one another. True, no one could remember such a thing happening to the entire city before, but it was not so hard to believe that it would.

A handful of people
were changed by the episode, their lives redirected in large ways or small ones. The editor of a gossip magazine, for instance, came out of the silence determined to substitute the next issue’s lead article about a movie star for one about a fashion model, while her assistant realized that the time had come for her to resign her job and apply for her teaching license. A lifelong vegetarian who was dining in the restaurant outside the art museum decided to order a porterhouse steak, cooked medium rare. A would-be suicide had just finished filling his water glass from the faucet in his bathroom when everything around him seemed to stop moving and the silence passed through him like a wave, bringing with it a sense of peace and clarity he had forgotten he was capable of feeling. He put the pill bottle back in his medicine cabinet.

Such people were the exceptions, though. Most of us went on with our lives as though nothing of any importance had happened until the next incident occurred, some four days later.

This time the silence
lasted nearly six seconds. Ten million sounds broke off and recommenced like an old engine marking out a pause and catching spark again. Those of us who had forgotten the first episode now remembered it. Were the two occasions connected, we wondered, and if so, how? What was it, this force that could quell all the tumult and noise of the city—and not just the clicking of the subway turnstiles and the snap of the grocery-store awnings, but even the sound of the street traffic, that oceanic rumble that for more than a century had seemed as interminable to us as the motion of the sun across the sky? Where had it come from? And why didn’t it feel more unnatural?

These questions nettled at us. We could see them shining out of one another’s eyes. But a few days passed before we began to give voice to them. The silence was unusual, and we were not entirely sure how to talk about it—not because it was too grave and not because it was too trivial, but because it seemed grave one moment and trivial the next, and so no one was quite able to decide whether it mattered enormously or not at all.

A Verb of Time

Echology 1
by Sergey Mikhaylov, from Between the Jaws of Time

Echo knows a border, but only one—
The one, which divides sound and silence.
Echo is free to dwell in the both.
Like a bird of passage, that has lost its way,
It flies over the border—from summer to winter— 
And dies away.

- - -

The border between sound and silence
Is composed of black crosses of larks— 
Lost, they have died on their homeward way.

- - -

Echo itself is a dyke and a trotyl.
For every sound breaches the dyke,
Leaving the speaker drowned in silence.


Echology 2

Silence gives birth to echo too. But as the echo,
Born by sound, differs from sound by rising
Levels of silence, so the echo of silence
Differs from silence, that gave birth to it,
By swelling sound, that afterward
Reaches that value, which makes it be able
To give birth to echo, that afterward
Drowns by itself...............................
Thus, the one, who has answered "forever",
Is overtaken by silence that shouts "never".

Alexandre Cabanel's picture of Echo

Echology 3

Two silences are given to man:
The one surrounds him,
The other fills.
Man becomes the third one,
Listening as his words echo in those two.

Two words are given to man:
Yes and no.
He becomes the third one—a verb of time,
Flowing between the one and the other.

Two times are given to man:
Before him and after.
He is in between and follows the both.

Two lives are given to man.
He is the difference.

[Thanks Jonathan Carroll!]

To Be Able to Sing

An excerpt from a Radiolab conversation between Jad Abumrad and musician Juana Molina (May 4, 2009):

Juana: I usually feel that the sounds tell me what to do with them. Every sound has its own behavior. I’m just feeling like a driver of those sounds. Little by little, my ridiculously small universe becomes huge. Anything that has a note or a rhythm, you can make music with.

Jad: Are you inspired more by a thought, like I want to say something?

Juana: No. Never! There’s absolutely nothing that I really want to say.

Jad: Really?

Juana: Really.

Jad: Well, you have lyrics sometimes.

Juana: Most of the times.

Jad: So when the song pops into your head and you develop it, you’re not thinking of  a story per se.

Juana: No. Never.

Jad: But you put the story on afterwards, why?

Juana: In order to be able to sing.

Un Día

Un día voy a cantar las canciones sin letra y cada uno podrá imaginar si hablo de amor, de desilusión, banalidades o sobre platón.

One day I will sing the songs with no lyrics and everyone can imagine for themselves if it's about love, disappointment, banalities or about Plato.

Making Music with the Mind

subConchThe subConch looks like a creation that Björk might have have bred by mating an iPod with a biofeedback device. I would love to give it a spin. It’s played by manipulating mental activity. 

“The instrument, a conch shaped metal sculpture, is hung from the ceiling in three steel wires. Along with the conch comes a headset that the performer wears. The headset reads the players mind using EEG technology and transmits his conscious and unconscious thoughts to the conch. The conch in turn interprets these and synthesizes sound.”

“The subConch is an interactive installation currently in development by Mats J. Sivertsen. The installation will be exhibited in art galleries and used in musical performances.”

The subConch: mind control musical instrument from Mats J. Sivertsen on Vimeo.

@stuartdavis and @ryanoelke