brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: silence

A Silent Palette Cleanser

Walking down Main Street without music in my headphones, I Iook up and see three balloons–one red, one yellow, one white–tethered to a string, hanging just above a store awning, moving. As I watch the balloons I wonder just who the string attaches to: Someone flying the balloons like they’re a kite? What celebration might they colorfully announce?

Then I notice the balloons are floating ever higher–further above the store awnings now, gaining height and speed, pushed by the wind to bobbling assent. The piece of string to which the balloons are tethered, I see, is itself attached to nothing and no one. Yet the balloons celebrate their own motion by accelerating ever upwards, and as I watch the buoyant balls ascend into the pure blue sky and become like two-dimensional cardboard cut outs, an unexpected wave of joy passes over me, cleansing the moment. The balloons are doing musical work without making a sound, suggesting a narrative with only motion to tell the tale.

Go for it!

Go for it!

Release and expand,

drift towards the bird’s-eye view,

weightless and coasting,

silent,

free.

I keep looking up, straining, but lose track of them. There’s still no musical soundtrack, and the red, yellow, and white balloons are now gone.

On Motion, Repetition, and Transformation: Robin Harvie’s “The Lure Of Long Distances”

It is not down in any map; true places never are. – Herman Melville

At the core of Robin Harvie’s The Lure Of Long Distances: Why We Run (2011) is a disturbing yet intoxicating idea: that you’re not really free in any endeavor until you no longer feel the gravitational pull of wanting to return to the safety of “home”–however you may define it. In this page-turning, literary memoir, Harvie, a fluid writer and adept runner of ultra-long distances, explores the experience of endurance exercise, its pains, and its transcendences. Along the way he learns about himself, his family’s histories, and the appeal of long distance running.

The book is powered by a simple question: Why do we run? If you’re a runner of considerable distances you probably have your reasons: maybe to stay trim and license generous eating habits, to escape, or to generate those feel-good endorphins. But there are other, slightly more intangible–and for me, more important–reasons to run too. There’s the joy of motion, of turning your body into a playful vehicle of kinetic energy. There’s also the mystery of what happens to your mind as you run–all those little (endorphin-induced?) perceptual shifts, how your thinking moves into another gear as if in an exercise-induced critical trance. If you go long enough and conditions outside and in are just right, you can lose yourself through motion. Running, like good repetitive music, affects all kinds of cognitive changes. As you get lost in an ergonomic flow, your body, your mind, and the landscape around you all fuse into one.

Harvie explores the sources of long distance runners’ “deep visceral need” (146) to do what they do and experience “the power of liberation through movement” (168). He comes by his subject matter honestly too. He ran his first marathon in 2000 and then spent years training to race faster only to find that his times weren’t improving. The solution? Run further. Harvie entered the extreme sporting world of ultra running, running races more than twice the length of the 26 mile marathon. The Lure Of Long Distances chronicles his preparation for the biggest race of them all: The Spartathlon, a 152-mile race in Greece, from Athens to Sparta. Harvie doesn’t quite finish the run, quitting at the 85 mile mark. But the story he tells about his journey reveals much about the human condition.

Throughout his narrative, Harvie returns often the subject of mapping, topologies, and cartographies. Running allows us to explore physical landscapes, sure, but what it really does is tell us about ourselves–the geography of our psychologies, our thoughts, our imaginations, our strengths and frailties. In the course of revisiting the place of his childhood summer cottage on the coast of Denmark or running along the river Thames, Harvie excavates a web of memories and life stories.

Yet as much as running triggers thoughts, Harvie is equally interested in its tendency towards autonomy, its capacity to represent nothing but itself–a one step at a time, rhythmic locomotion. We need to “rid ourselves of all the symbolism and metaphor” he says, “to become pure kinetic energy” (77). Harvie is interested in motion. Motion, he notes, ” has a meditative quality, an ability to slow down the rhythm of our lives” (187), sometimes gracing us with what feels like an awareness “of the world right down to the atomic level” (198). In running great distances, ultra runners are graced with a transformation of awareness that “involves a merging of consciousness and landscape” (198). What transforms them is the motion of running itself.

Part of this transformation is really a breaking down of body and mind and this fact leads Harvie to discuss creativity. He compares running ultras and the disintegration they wreak on body and mind where “the mind empties itself of all habits” (223) to the creative process as described by Arthur Koestler in his 1964 book The Act Of Creation. Koestler coined the term “bisociation” to describe how the mind links disparate ideas to create new hybrid forms. Out of the creative act–or running long distances, as Harvie argues–“is generated a new topography of the individual, and, by extension, the world” (223). This is an elaborate way of explaining how new ideas frequently appear to us while running.

But what, you ask, has all this running business to do with music? (This is after all a music blog.) Harvie draws on sound and silence to describe the experience of running, noting how “there would always be a gap between what it sounded like and what it felt like” (224). Interestingly for me, running has no outer soundtrack, unless you count the sound of shuffling feet over pavement.* But this relative outer silence masks a rich inner world of triggered thoughts, memories, and affect. And the way to access these sensations is through silence. As Harvie notes, the key is “to learn to be silent in a world of noise, and to discover that silence has no narrative. Silence intensifies sensation–by turning the body inward” (227).

Where running really resembles music though, is in how difficult it is to actually talk about it.  Not about what it means, but about the elements of its unfolding–its processes, its presence, and its capacity to seemingly be a world unto itself. So it is in this book that running remains an invisible presence: where are those thousands of evanescent miles Harvie ran in training? And this is precisely the point: like musical experience, running is something you can only “get” by throwing yourself into its unfolding over time. No “theory” of running or music ever adequately renders their energized lives as energized “affecting presences” (to quote anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong). To experience affect–whether in running or musicking–you have to participate in real-time in their presences.

In sum, The Lure Of Long Distances is an absorbing study of perception. It’s about the feeling of consciousness and what it means to go further physically than you thought you ever could. Through his Spartathlon effort, Harvie manages to exceed all his prior limits of endurance, and his hope was that this colossal, running-induced state of “self-obliteration” would remain with him permanently, lifting him “above the grubby banalities of everyday life. That didn’t happen” (252). Harvie may or may not have become truly free. But lucky for us, he’s written a narrative that renders his transformation into a Runner through repeated, perpetual motion.

***

*Equally interesting is how the tempo marked by my shuffling feet will occasionally trigger phantom playback of music in my mind’s ear. The rhythm of my feet, in other words, becomes a metronome that sets the tempo for the imagined music. Sometimes the running tempo is a tad too fast and I notice that the music has sped up to match my stride. Who needs an iPod when you have such seamless body-synced music playback!

On The Soundscapes Of Le Quattro Volte


Le Quattro Volte (2011) is a riveting, faux documentary-style meditation on death, (re)birth, the relationship between humans and the natural world, sound and time.  Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino, the film follows the repetitive daily life of an elderly goat herder as he goes about his work in a small rural Italian town. The man doesn’t speak and so our ears quickly become attuned to the soundscape of the goats (with their constantly clanging bells), the town, and especially, nature’s elements.  As we focus on all these non-human sounds an amazing perceptual thing happens: nature becomes foreground and the human world shrinks to feel infinitesimal. When the man doesn’t get up from his bed one day, the goats make their way to his apartment, quietly surrounding his dying body with their humming presence. It’s remarkable scenes like this and others that remind us–at least, those of us who are prone to forget such things–of the non-human world’s boundless soundings.

After the man dies he is burned to ash and in the scene immediately following we see the birth of a baby goat.  Now we follow this goat as he learns how to walk, be in the world and follow the pack. But soon he gets separated from the others, lost on a mountainside, alone. We hear the anguished cries of his small soul alone in an indifferent universe and it’s moving to listen to because the goat has become for us a synecdoche for a wider world of suffering that happens every day out of our earshot.  Not knowing where to go, the goat finds refuge under a lone pine tree whose shelter momentarily puts life’s big questions on hold.  Set against a changing sky, the lone pine becomes a kind of clock, bringing us through the summer, autumn and winter seasons.  Listening and watching the wind blow through the pine’s branches we move along with its slow rhythm.

By springtime, the goat is no longer to be seen and townsfolk have arrived to cut down the pine for their own needs. Stripped of its bark and branches and erected in the town square, the bare pine becomes a site for celebration and, from the looks of it, some tree climbing contests. Tracking their sights and sounds from a distance, Frammartino reveals these festivities as curious affairs. We hear faint strains of Italian folk music, singing, and voices, but can’t stop thinking about that distraught lost goat and the lone pine. Soon the tree is cut into logs for lumber and loaded onto a flatbed truck that wheezes up a watchful mountainside. Here again, Frammartino sets up a striking contrast between the indifference of human-made sounds to those of nature.

It turns out that the cut up pine that sheltered that lost goat is on its way to a yard where it will be slow burned to make charcoal. As we watch and listen to the wood smoldering we remember the earlier scene where the goat herder’s body was incinerated. As the transmogrified charcoal is shoveled into bags we hear the life force of what was once a pine tree still crack, snapple and popping.  Where is this charcoal–indeed this movie–going?

The charcoal is delivered back to the small town and the first stop is the apartment where the old man lived. The delivery man knocks a few times, but no one answers the door. In the final shot, though, we see smoke rising from the apartment’s chimney. Then Le Quattro Volte‘s transmigration of souls hits us: man became lost goat became lone pine tree became lumber and then charcoal that journeyed home and now burns again as new life.

***

Even though I’ve given away the story, there’s still good reason to watch it unfold yourself, for it’s in the unfolding through the film’s poetic evocation of time that the magic happens. Stripped of dialogue and a musical soundtrack, Le Quattro Volte moves at a glacial pace, substituting nature’s quiet-slow cycles for man-made noise-speed. And extended shots of pensive animals or windswept grasses remind one of what ecologist David Abram in his book The Spell Of The Sensuous (1996) describes as “the ‘spirits’ of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form” (13). Indeed, watching the film you get a sense that one of its goals is to show us how these modes of intelligence–embodied in the spirits of the old man, the goats, a barking dog, crackling charcoal, mountains and wind–co-exist as multiple temporalities to weave something harmonious.

Le Quattro Volte, in other words, is about the experience of time and how time articulates itself through sound. For me, the most astonishing aspect of the film is how it captures, renders and places in the stereo field all kinds worldly sounds, allowing the viewer to be immersed in the phenomena seen and unseen onscreen.  Everything in the film has a textured sonic voice that earns your listening attention by making you feel like even though you may have heard this sound before you never really listened closely enough. The sounds are vivid as if scored as music–with entrances and solos, melodies, rhythms,  call and response and counterpoint. Frammartino discusses his film’s sound design:

“The sound engineer’s work was really amazing. Paolo Benvenuti and Simone Paolo Olivero worked three or four hours more a day than us on the shoot. The sound takes up half of the movie. We worked with a lot of microphones everywhere in the shot, which allowed us to mix afterwards. This is a film where man is in the foreground and the sound is in the background, until little by little it takes up more space. We worked the sound in this way to find the perfect balance between human beings, images, and sound itself.”

In sum, while Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s term “soundscape” has been in circulation for a long while now, rarely do films offer us such a rich and focused opportunity to experience soundscapes through thoughtful sound design.  Le Quattro Volte is unique in that it brings the soundscape front and center and encourages  us to see and make sense of life’s cyclical rhythms with our ears.

On The Affective Power Of Quiet

“Not muteness: absence of linguistic noise.”
— Alexandra Horowitz, Inside Of A Dog

We have a very, very quiet two-year old dog named Sadie.  Sadie hardly ever makes a sound, except when she sees a life-size furry animal on the TV, whereupon she lets out a combined growl-bark.  But otherwise, Sadie is a study in quietude.

I spend a fair amount of time with Sadie during the day, walking her outside in the neighborhood and hanging out with her inside the apartment.  And I talk to her a lot, which leads to a lot of awfully one-sided conversations:

Me: (with genuine excitement) “Wanna go for a walk?!”

Sadie: “…”

Or

Me: (with growing enthusiasm) “Okay see you later Sadie-kins!  Bye! Bye!  BYE!!”

Sadie: “…”

Sadie is, of course, communicating with me all the time through her body language, especially her eyes which always look like they’re trying to deeply understand what makes me tick.  But lately her silence has been intriguing me more and more.

Quiet beings like Sadie have a way of making comparatively chatty beings like me think twice about their utterances.  When your voice is greeted with silence, you do a quick mental replay of what you just said or else repeat the utterance–as if repeating what you just said would actually make a difference and elicit something more than silence from your quiet friend.  But Sadie will absorb anything I say into her deep cloud of quiet, sometimes causing me to go quiet myself.  After all, as Alexandra Horowitz observes in her book Inside Of A Dog, “it is when language stops that we connect most fully” (119).  All of this to say that Sadie and I usually get into a quiet space together, and I find that her silence compels me to listen more closely to the ambient sounds around us.

Last year, my wife put together a Sadie video montage for which I provided some music.  The video projects a narrative onto Sadie’s silent cognitive world by way of a poem called “À une passante” (“To a Passerby”) by the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867).  (The French voice is courtesy of an online text translator/reader.)

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