Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Primal Science of Sound, Seamus Heaney Style


If you haven’t noticed already, I’m extremely sensitive to sound. I spend a lot of time listening to my environment and wondering what motifs other people pick up on, what personal associations spring to the fore,  and what evolution has done to our bodies’ acoustic sensibilities. The ear worms that plague me hardly ever take the form of full melodies; rather, sound arrives in rivulets—five or six notes at a time, usually from a gnarly passage of a classical etude or a chromatic riff in a symphony.

But sound isn’t just about music. It’s about history and persuasion (cue MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, via Smithsonian); it’s about science (cue dozens of journal articles about the relationship between sound and cognition); it’s about religion (cue our tendency to mythologize sound)… and so on. Above all, though, sound is about attention. And since attention attenuates, it gives birth to the possibility of quality thought and action across all of those categories. The way we engage with sound both throughout our lives and in our daily affairs, then, really matters! George Prochnik writes in a New York Times op-ed that quiet is required for serious thinking and that early humans developed instinctual responses to sound in order to survive. And a new study [Science Friday] published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that what we see actually affects what we hear when we listen to a musical performance—demonstrating that our judgment of sound is related to external factors.

Here’s my takeaway. Sound isn’t just a physical “thing.” Its organization actually stirs the conditions necessary for certain kinds of thought. It influences ideas and inspires them.  And when we allow ourselves to see those connections, we have a better relationship with the world around us. With that in mind, I was very happy to see that the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney opened his 1995 Nobel Laureate address [full text] with a similar idea.

Heaney begins by noting that when he was young, he and his siblings took in acoustic information as children often do—with curiosity, and without deliberation:

In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course – rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house – but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation. Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.

They listened to the radio with the same level of curiosity—as though the politicized voices emanating from the speaker were a part of nature, too. It didn’t really matter what the voices were saying; instead, it was the experience of absorbing those sounds that prompted Heaney’s “journey into the wideness of language”:

But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signalling too. When a wind stirred in the beeches, it also stirred an aerial wire attached to the topmost branch of the chestnut tree. Down it swept, in through a hole bored in the corner of the kitchen window, right on into the innards of our wireless set where a little pandemonium of burbles and squeaks would suddenly give way to the voice of a BBC newsreader speaking out of the unexpected like a deus ex machina. And that voice too we could hear in our bedroom, transmitting from beyond and behind the voices of the adults in the kitchen; just as we could often hear, behind and beyond every voice, the frantic, piercing signalling of morse code.

We could pick up the names of neighbours being spoken in the local accents of our parents, and in the resonant English tones of the newsreader the names of bombers and of cities bombed, of war fronts and army divisions, the numbers of planes lost and of prisoners taken, of casualties suffered and advances made; and always, of course, we would pick up too those other, solemn and oddly bracing words, “the enemy” and “the allies”. But even so, none of the news of these world-spasms entered me as terror. If there was something ominous in the newscaster’s tones, there was something torpid about our understanding of what was at stake; and if there was something culpable about such political ignorance in that time and place, there was something positive about the security I inhabited as a result of it.

The wartime, in other words, was pre-reflective time for me. Pre-literate too. Pre-historical in its way. Then as the years went on and my listening became more deliberate, I would climb up on an arm of our big sofa to get my ear closer to the wireless speaker. But it was still not the news that interested me; what I was after was the thrill of story, such as a detective serial about a British special agent called Dick Barton or perhaps a radio adaptation of one of Capt. W.E. Johns’s adventure tales about an RAF flying ace called Biggles. Now that the other children were older and there was so much going on in the kitchen, I had to get close to the actual radio set in order to concentrate my hearing, and in that intent proximity to the dial I grew familiar with the names of foreign stations, with Leipzig and Oslo and Stuttgart and Warsaw and, of course, with Stockholm.

I also got used to hearing short bursts of foreign languages as the dial hand swept round from BBC to Radio Eireann, from the intonations of London to those of Dublin, and even though I did not understand what was being said in those first encounters with the gutturals and sibilants of European speech, I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world beyond. This in turn became a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or one’s life turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination, and it is that journey which has brought me now to this honoured spot.

I don’t profess to know much about Seamus Heaney—in fact, I hadn’t even heard of him until the day he passed away last week. But to me, that last line says it all—his journey into the wideness of language occurred before he knew anything of dogma or history or literature. Maybe that’s what a poet laureate does so well—he brings a nation back to the world of sound, before things got complicated. Before language meant so much.

Photo Credit: Burns Library, Boston College/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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Sound as a Service


When I was younger, I remember thinking that my voice was too low—that it sounded boyish and hollow. Which is funny, because it probably didn’t sound that way to anyone else. But I had this idea in my head of what a preteen girl—determined, spirited, and a bit shy—should sound like. Try as I might to accept my voice for what it really was, I simply couldn’t.  So I abandoned the effort and came to terms with this frustrating acoustic barrier between myself and the outside world.

Not only did I find the timbre of my voice inadequate, but it occurred to me that it’s impossible for us to know what other people hear when we open our mouths to speak. Is that not a little absurd? We can touch our own skin, smell our own hair, and—with the help of a mirror—look into our own eyes. But we can’t listen, adulterated, to the sound of our own voice—the very instrument that helps define us and which the great critic Roger Ebert, after losing his jaw to cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, had to find again through artificial means. Is this some sort of cruel joke?

To that end, I’ve noticed more and more that when I am able to place things about myself outside myself, they become clearer. Listening to our own voice—in conversation or on a recording—is not always a pleasant experience. It just accentuates the divide. But throwing our voices out into the world, shifting the weight from us to them… that’s when you start to appreciate how your voice reverberates and bounces off the others. That’s when you get to hear it for what it really is. So when I read Anna Altman’s piece in The New Yorker about a new “voice tunnel” that’s drawing thousands, I understood the appeal:

The seven-block-long subterranean roadway, in midtown, was closed to traffic and open to pedestrians for the first time in its hundred-and-seventy-nine-year history. [Mexican artist Rafael] Lozano-Hemmer had lined the blackened stone that buttresses the tunnel with a hundred and fifty speakers, and lit the tunnel’s corrugated-metal roof with three hundred spotlights, as a work of public art. “The problem with this tunnel is what not to do—there are just so many possibilities.”

Lozano-Hemmer ran into some acoustical problems along the way. The volume was too high and engineers were working to dial down the bass frequencies so that children’s and women’s voices could come through. Regardless, this hierarchy of voices is an act of public service as much as it is an act of public art:

“One of the things I most want is for this piece to profile the way that New York is made up of an incredibly vibrant mosaic of different cultures,” he told me, ticking off his inspirations: free speech, using your voice—“one of the beautiful things about voice is we all have one.”

Photo Credit: Flickr/Tasayu Tasnaphun

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From Poop to Cilantro: Smells of the World… Through Words

“Poop became my leitmotif.”

So states Rebecca Steinitz in this lovely essay from The Millions about what it’s like to lack a sense of smell. That single sentence about poop is probably the best I’ve read all month.

Steinitz’s essay—which has made the rounds in social media—reminded me of a Moth Radio Hour podcast I’d listened to recently. The speaker told the story of how his daughter first came to understand he was blind; the revelation didn’t occur until she was four or five, when finally—at the dinner table—a couple million neurons snapped into place. Just like that, she knew. Steinitz points to the same agonizing disconnect between her own sensory makeup and the traditions of the outside world. But through books, she is able to “smell”:

I learned smells from books, which made me think they were fictional. I believed that Wilbur’s barn smelled of hay, manure, the perspiration of tired horses, and the sweet breath of patient cows, and that the salty brown smell of frying ham made Almanzo even hungrier. But when real people said That stinks, or I can smell the sea from here, or I can’t stand the smell of cilantro, I thought they were faking.

Later on, she brings up some questions that apply not just to her situation, but to a more generalized relationship between a book and its reader:

Has my life of reading distanced me, the incessantly multiplying worlds of words turning the actual into just another iteration? Does the side-by-side existence within my head of the characters I’ve read about and the characters I know keep them all a step away? Have the pungent smells of the literary created my lack?

Good questions—fiction isn’t just fiction, and its influence on our non-fiction certainly doesn’t end when we close the book. What’s remarkable to me is that a particular sense, when conveyed through words, could actually modify the world she creates for herself.

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August 1, 2013 · 2:02 am