Feed on

Two significant cultural items on our relationship to sound have come out recently. Last Sunday the New York Times Magazine had a long piece – Is Silence Going Extinct? – on the disappearance of spaces that are largely free of the touch of human mechanized sound. And the new silent film The Artist won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actor. I see both as commentaries on our culture’s inattentiveness toward sound (particularly noise) and silence. But the fact of these issues being raised by both the film and the NY Times article points to an emerging understanding of the importance of sound and silence and the impact of sound on our wellbeing and the health of the environment.

In the New York Times piece Kim Tinley describes the acoustic recording work of Davyd Betchkal, physical-science technician in Denali National Park, who has been recording a month of environmental sound at each of many locations around the park. The striking discovery is how rare it is, in even the most remote locations, to escape entirely the sound of anthropogenic sound, even for a day. In such places this is likely to come from the sound of an airplane flying overhead. But roughly 80% of all land in the United States is within 2/3 mile of a road. We all live constantly in the shadow of this sound – I am listening to the street traffic sound outside as I sit on my back porch. And of course we usually tune it out, or we’d go crazy from distraction. But how does the habit of regularly tuning out environmental sound affect us and our connection through sound to the world around us? How does it affect our relationship to real silence – at least, the absence of human-produced sound? The author Kim Tingley even cites the work of composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schaffer, whose 1977 book The Tuning of the World laid out the foundations of acoustic ecology and of awareness of soundscapes as a distinct aspect of any environment, natural or human. I am of the belief that experiencing space and solitude are necessary for our wellbeing. Given the realities of modern life (as I write, bird singing is drowned out temporarily by plane going overhead) it would be good for us to be aware of how much we do tune out – natural as well as mechanized sound – and the isolating effect of that.

Our relationship as listeners to anthropogenic sound and to silence is of course just one side of the equation. The other side is ourselves as producers of sound. Think of aggressive sound, and things like the revving of loud motorcycle or car engines, or  car stereos turned up all the way, come to mind. Also noises that aren’t specifically intended to be aggressive but which nonetheless are quite intrusive – I have a particular thing about leaf blowers! But what kinds of sounds do we create that (however unintentional) might disturb the acoustic environment? Loud talking in a hotel or school hallway, or in a church sanctuary or cemetery. Brass players warming up unnecessarily loudly. Any everyday act done in a way that’s heedless of the level of noise produced. And it’s not only human auditors who are affected – the effects of human sound on animals is being well documented as an additional stressor on wildlife, and they are worthy of our consideration as well.

Music played with artistry and thought is by its very nature mindful. But it’s also worth considering how we use music in our lives – whether it’s mindful, or if it’s simply background noise that we tune out as well. iPods, radios, TV’s, computers, even live performance – it’s in our interest to make sure we’re not using these sound sources to deepen our own habit of sonically tuning out and detaching further from our connection to our surroundings.

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