Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Sounds of Silence

Bridge over Troubled Water

     Without overdoing the references to Simon and Garfunkel songs, there is a point. We listen to songs and sounds that make us feel good. Music is an amazingly powerful influence on our lives. If nothing else, I often hear a song and think "Oh yeah! I remember that..." whatever it was that was happening in my life at the time. Usually they're good memories but sometimes it can be a sombre moment too. The power of music.

     I had an interesting conversation with someone I met at a festival the other day. We were both saying how we're solitary people. We both enjoy our own company. But we couldn't agree on how we like to spend time in our own company.

     I said I love my solitude living in the country in West Cork. When I visit Kerry I can simply sit and stare at the ocean. Most of the time I spend in complete silence, writing, contemplating or just being. The person I had just met shrieked with horror which should have been a good indication of what was coming! "Oh no!" she said. "I have to have the radio or telly on!" She then went on to tell me that if there's no noise or if she's not busy in the garden then it's too depressing.

The Police

     I'm not judging her. Everyone has to do exactly what it is that makes them feel most comfortable. It's true that when I was a lot younger I used to have the stereo blaring a lot of the time. It was background noise. I didn't live alone then so it was nothing to do with being lonely. I just used to love hearing the beat of "Don't Stand So Close to Me" or any other Police song thumping away. Meatloaf, Genesis or The Who worked just as well.

     I always find that even now people are surprised to find that I live pretty much in silence. It surprises people because I work with music and the assumption is that I must listen to music all day long. Then again, if I spend a day in the city, listening to the city sounds of traffic, roadworks and people rushing everywhere, making music for people and students and matching their moods in what can be a very stressful therapy environment, I need the calming effect of country life to refresh my being at the end of it all.

Environmental Studies

     Just because I don't have the radio on doesn't mean I'm not listening to sounds. I do love to listen to sounds. But I love to listen to the sounds of nature. As I'm sitting here writing this I can hear cows in the fields, the birds are twittering, a crow has squawked, the gentle breeze is rustling the leaves and, if I'm really lucky, I'll hear the gentle patter of raindrops. That's music to my ears. I'd hate to drown it out. Even the sound of a stormy beach is a welcome chorus.

     This love affair with less conventional forms of music started because I encountered and experienced different forms of sound. I am trained as an ethnomusicologist. This means I hear music from cultures all over the world and try to understand it from within the context of that culture.

     One of the biggest wake up calls I had was when researching Tibetan singing bowls in Nepal I asked about the intonation between different notes on the scale. Although we used the western notation of an equally tempered scale to identify the tones of bowls that corresponded to chakras or energy centres in the body, the label is only a rough guide to the frequency.

     I had a wonderfully gifted Tibetan teacher who explained to me that there was nothing exact about the sounds of the bowls. The process and effect of the sounds is what's important. He had no concept of whether the scale his bowls produced was 'in tune', 'out of tune', major or minor. As a result I started to hear the music and the noises around me with a renewed sense of wonder. I started to engage with the world of sound in a different way.

The Sounds of Music

     Suddenly everything around me was music. Even that fly that's buzzing around my kitchen has a pleasing ring. If I start to drown out these other sounds with CDs or the radio then I'll miss all this. Somehow I find these sounds so much more relaxing because they go at their own pace. They're uncontrolled and have a natural rhythm. They encourage me to listen inwardly to what's happening in my own mind and to register its natural pace.

     The knock on effect is that my mind seems to slow down proportionately. Although I spend a lot of time reflecting on my thoughts I'm aware that listening to the sounds of the natural world around me has helped immeasurably in emptying my head of a lot of the clutter that would otherwise be there!

     When I sit and stare at the view as well as listening to the sounds, there's a different kind of music that dances with my soul. This, I guess, would be the equivalent of turning off the DVD player. 

     But that's a whole other topic. Maybe I'll discuss that another day...