A few weeks into the quarantine, with barely a car on the road or people on the sidewalks, I’m hearing my neighborhood’s soundscape more acutely. Where I used to spend a lot of time blocking out the city’s sounds (with earplugs, music, or avoidance), now its decibels have fallen back down to nature’s mix level.
The raucous spring birdsong is especially loud, probably because there are so few other sounds competing with it. The birds sing in loose rhythms and overlapping sequences of high pitched chirping with occasional trill syncopations that fit together in spirited counterpoint.
I stand for a few moments under a large tree, listening to the birds and trying to figure out which voice is coming from which branch as the bird’s parts hocket from high limb to low, left perch to right, from back to front. I make a note to keep this depth in mind in my own music—to think more about sound placement and interaction, about back to front perspectives. Is it the variation and spatial depth of birds chirping together that makes their sound so satisfying to listen to? (The French composer Olivier Messiaen was fascinated by birdsong. He expertly transcribed its melodies and incorporated them into his music.)
As I hear it, this birdsong isn’t melodic and isn’t going anywhere the way a song goes somewhere. It’s just chugging away with constant variation and enthusiasm, not caring if anyone else is listening. Noted.
Along with birds, the wind gets to stretch out in this quieted soundscape now, creating a white noise drone for the bird rhythms, and once in a while stray rain drops fall onto air conditioners for metallic click-clack-clickety-click-click—clack timekeeping. In the distance I can just make out a faint siren of a racing ambulance. It reminds me of why my listening has changed, and why it’s so quiet even though there’s a lot going on.
“I shall take as my clue for this investigation the well-known fact that the aim of a skillful performance is achieved by the observance of a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them.”
“Rules of art can be useful, but they do not determine the practice of an art; they are maxims, which can serve as a guide to an art only if they can be integrated into the practical knowledge of the art. They cannot replace this knowledge.”
Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (1958)
“[M]usic is not so fast that adequate control of movements is lost”, “music is not art”, “music is not appropriate for worship”, “music is not always entirely clear”, “music is not so likely to use the voice as a conveyor of subjective experience”, “music is not solely a twentieth-century phenomenon”…