Become Listening

How did the sounds and rhythms of the earth influence the birth and growth of musical traditions? How does our experience of particular natural environments influence the music we make?

Written By

Justin Ralls

singing bird

Image by Caroline Granycome, via Flickr

After discussing in my previous posts the role of the creative act as a revolutionary force and the role of nature as a possible means of recovering our elemental imagination, I’d like to delve deeper into the natural world to consider the soundscape. Coined by composer R. Murray Schafer, the soundscape has become something of a cultural and scientific phenomenon. Composers such as Schafer and writers such as Bernie Krause urge contemporary listeners to take off their headphones and venture into the sonic environment of nature where the natural soundscape is a “tapestry,” an “orchestra”—or, in the words of Schafer, “a huge composition going on all the time.”

Here in North America, our initiation into natural sound often begins with birds. However, while listening to individual sounds in an environment, we cannot take for granted that every sound is present within a larger, holistic entity. This “biophony” is nested within specific environments. It was on walks and hiking trips listening to birds that I first imagined the possibilities of music growing out of the soundscape, of nature as some kind of musical utterance. It was while immersed in natural sound and experience that I came to believe that by engaging with the soundscape we may make an honest contribution to restoring humanity’s relationship with the natural world. It was while listening to birds that I came to believe that the origins and evolution of human music reside within the landscapes and soundscapes of the animate earth.

As composers, our creative existence draws upon elements of our own sonic worlds, metaphors upon metaphors, translating experience upon experience. Our experience in these sonic environments shapes our auditory awareness and guides our creative journey as sound artists. Some composers abstract sounds from their original source, manipulating them into wonderful textures and meanings. Others use sound in a more primal form, performing in the soundscape or using natural sound that has been carefully integrated within human-generated sound.

At this point, the idea of listening to our environment as music can be considered a venerable tradition within our musical culture. From Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète to Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises, John Cage’s radical ventures into the aesthetics of sound to R. Murray Schafer’s egalitarian and ecological philosophies: deeply listening to the world around us has established itself, in the words of Barry Truax, as a “useful, if not absolutely necessary condition for living in a sonically balanced environment.” And in this balance, the voices of women have provided some of the best role models for engaging with nature. Pauline Oliveros points out that “deep listening is a lifetime practice…deep listening involves going below the surface of what is heard and also expanding to the whole field of sound…this is the way to connect with the acoustic environment and all that inhabits it.” Composers such as Hildegard Westerkamp and Emily Doolittle creatively inhabit the natural acoustic worlds of birds, animals, forests, and human communities. All share a sense that the soundscape is a place where the cultural and aesthetic boundaries between music and nature, and nature and humanity, are blurred—where listening can change moral, spiritual, social, and environmental conditions. Like all aspects of the Anthropocene, we have come to sonically dominate our environments, silencing many voices. Rachel Carson articulated this in the sonic metaphor of Silent Spring. More than fifty years later, many bird populations around the United States are again in decline. Olivier Messiaen famously considered birds the greatest musicians. How many of their songs do you know? How many would you miss if they were gone?

As musicians, our ability to spatially discern sound, mimic and create sounds, hear relationships between sounds, and to devise metaphors and meanings in sound are all drawn upon the sonic geography of the earth. Author Steven Mithen hypothesizes the possible evolutionary origins of music by suggesting that language was preceded by something neither wholly linguistic nor musical but represented by an anagram he coined: “Hmmmm”—holistic, multimodal, manipulative, musical, and mimetic. The last two, I believe, have special significance. Many indigenous traditions around the world from Papua New Guinea to the Central African Rainforest to Oregon and Alaska incorporate holistic, multimodal, and mimetic approaches in their musical cultures. Author Ellen Dissanayake argues in her book Homo Aestheticus that art and music are fundamental to human evolution. Neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel writes of the Pirahã, a small tribe in the Brazillian Amazon, explaining, “Members of this culture speak a language without numbers or a concept of counting. Their language has no fixed terms for colors. They have no creation myths, and they do not draw, aside from simple stick figures. Yet they have music in abundance.”

If the worlds experienced by humans are so diverse, creating such distinct cultures, how much more diverse must be the worlds of other species, of birds and whales and the beings beyond our own sensory perception? Yet, just as we share genetic and elemental origins and characteristics, we too must share cultural characteristics and elements. These are what E.O. Wilson calls biophilia, the connections human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life. It is not a coincidence that our word “culture,” which signifies human spiritual, intellectual, and creative growth, also signifies biologic and organic cultivation. Ecology goes beyond linear causation; it is about complex relationships, infinite connection. Song may not evoke meaning on its own; it, too, is about relationships, contexts, and connections.

According to phenomenologist Merleu-Ponty, our immediate experience in the world is an experience of reciprocal encounter—of tension, communication, and commingling, a process that draws us into relation. Just like any organism, our bodies and our senses have evolved in interaction and reciprocity with our environment and the other-than-human life world, what we call nature. Just as our bodies have co-evolved themselves in union with our surroundings, so too has our consciousness co-evolved out of the sounds of the living world.

It is with these understandings that we depart on our journey of discovery. Our environments resonate deep within us. The rich diversity of music around the world is a result of people living for millennia in harmony with their own physical and cultural geographies. The sounds of the animate earth—the birds, the wind, the animals, the water, the air, and the people—all contribute to the music of place. Even in places where musicians have little or no intimate experience of the natural world, there are still qualities of music unique to specific places, regional musics that speak to cultural environments. But how did the sounds and rhythms of the earth influence the birth and growth of these traditions? How does our experience of particular natural environments influence the music we make? And how might a closer listening and examination of traditions within nature contribute to a renewal of our own culture within the nature world? We are ready to rediscover these questions with renewed perspectives and fresh ears. In a world saturated by sounds, genres, gizmos, machines, and numerous “electronic hallucinations,” our capacity to truly step out of the world we’ve created can be daunting. It takes incredible courage, concentration, and discipline to meditate and deeply listen. John Muir recommended we take long, quiet walks in nature, frequently employing the metaphors of music to describe his sensual experience in the natural world. As composers, if we bring our innate skills into the experience of nature we realize, as Muir said, that going into nature is like going home.

Imagine the cultural transformation that could unfold if all composers made a conscious effort to listen deeply to nature and formulated their own imaginative response. The world of the soundscape is a wellspring of creative knowledge and potential. Perhaps, Pauline Oliveros, leaves us with the most enigmatic, yet inspiring advice, citing the holistic and symbiotic aspects of the “life practice” of deeply listening: “It’s an offering and a possibility…It comes back to listening again. If you’re listening, you’re not wandering; when you’re listening, you listen. You are listening. You become listening.”

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