The Music of the World by Jonny Steiner

Posted: August 11, 2008 by Maximum Mike in The Rocking Chair Blog
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Studies show that our generation is losing its hearing at a rapid pace. In my parent’s day when you went to a concert you blew your ears out and took a few days off to rest up and get that wicked buzz out. Now with the proliferation of car stereos and mp3 players the only time we rest our ears is when we sleep. We listen to music on the way to the concerts, blast our ears while there, and listen to music all the way home. The constant drowning of our eardrums in a sea of loud music is killing our ears. It also does something else. By living in our own self-induced musical world, we shut ourselves off to the sounds of the world around us, and by that we close ourselves to a type of music that is constant and ever changing.
Avant-garde composer John Cage was fascinated by sound as music. He talked about how when he listened to music he heard people talking. The music spoke about relationships life and emotions. When he listened to the traffic outside his apartment on 6th Avenue in Manhattan, he did not have the feeling that people were talking, rather he felt as though sound was acting. Cage was fascinated by the activity of sound. Sounds in the City for example, got longer and shorter, softer and louder, higher and lower, all with the ebb and flow of a regular day. According to Cage our problem is that we look at music in terms of time instead of in terms of space. The experience of music to us is to take it internally and make it a part of our emotional experiences. Sound on the other hand is taken externally dismissed as nonsense. But take the complexities of listening to your favorite Pop record, and compare that to a few minutes standing at a bus stop and listening to your surroundings. The Pop music is structural and confined by the space it inhabits. The Bus Stop is the sound of structure. Busses people wind weather, and not confined by a simple three minute construction. Sound is alive, and if you will join me I will show how it breathes.
We will not pretend that what we hear is meant to be something else. For example, a glass shattering on concrete will be just that. The crack of a baseball bat will be just as we describe it. In our constant need to escape the toil and monotony of our daily lives, we forget just how beautiful and real life actually is. There is no substitute for the power and splendor of a thunderstorm. It is almost symphonic in movement. The distant rumbling starts miles away, as a gentle rain taps out a steady backbeat. The rumbling gets nearer and nearer growing louder and louder until it claps overhead booming echoes of sound across the horizon. Then as soon as we grow comfortable with its steady current, it fades almost imperceptibly at first blowing in whatever direction the wind takes it. The truth is that in the previous description I made an important mistake that illustrates Cage’s understanding of sound. By describing sounds in musical terms we remain confined by those conventions. The hardest part is to remove all those ideas from our description and take them in as they are.
Let us take another part of nature and see if we cannot experience its sounds for what they are not for what we project them to be. The sounds of a forest are both beautiful and haunting. A river flows gently through the scenery, while birds and insects chirp at random hidden from our eyes by the rich foliage. I remember being on a camping trip in the Allegheny Foothills, I woke up in the morning to the gentle sound of a breeze rustling through the trees. That was all it was, a soothing hiss as the leaves shifted and blew about. People talk about the wind whispering but they are missing the point. Whispering is talking, and we are trying to free ourselves from terms of communication.
To experience sound for what it is take off your headphones and listen. A breeze blows steadily creating a blowing whooshing sound. A man on a scooter buzzes by, I can hear the engine grow louder and fade as he passes. In the distance the steady drone of the highway mixes with children in a sandbox, their shrill laughter in direct opposition to the soothing rush of faraway cars. Somewhere a crane rattles as it lifts its load. I cannot see it. Another car passes and slows its brakes squeak slightly. Some sounds of the outside world are barely perceptible, and yet they undoubtedly add to the remarkable confluence of noise that is the sounds of our lives. A truck has pulled up to the fruit stand downstairs. I hear the electric hum of the loading platform descend, as men greet each other and prepare to unload the day’s delivery. This is not emotive, and it is not telling a story. It is a picture of being, an indelible link between life and the people who wish to experience it.
There is new technology making the experience of sound even more enriching. Holophonic Sound claims offers stunning 3d sounds without a mess of complicated machinery. It is produced by recording the wave pattern generated when the original recorded signal is combined with an inaudible digital reference signal. The sounds that come from that are so realistic it is almost scary. This technology however only works on a smaller scale i.e. headphones, because of the way the sound needs to reach the ear. Combining this technology with the sounds of life and the world around us it is almost possible to have an experience of walking on the beach from the comfort of your home. The problem is that if these sounds and this technology can replace the actual experience then we have missed the point completely.

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