There is sound, there is music and there is noise. Music and noise somehow define each other and they are both relevant in any kind of philosophical debate on the values and properties of music and sound in a living system. McClellan puts it like this;
If tones become too complex or too great in irregularity of vibration, the result is “noise”. Sound with no distinguishable fundamental frequency, such as the hiss of a steam pipe, or ocean surf, or the roar of a jet plane, is called “white noise” because it contains all of the frequencies and harmonics of the sound spectrum. It is comparable to white light which contains all colors of the spectrum within it. White noise, then, stands at the opposite extreme of the sine tone; between them lies the incredibly rich and endless palette of our sound world, from the deep tones of the pipe organ to the crystal clear tones of the upper register of the piccolo. (p. 17)
NOISE: Etymologically the word can be traced back to Old French (noyse) and to eleventh-century Provencal (noysa, osa, nausa), but its origin is uncertain. It has a variety of meanings and shadings of meaning, the most important of which are the following: Unwanted sound. The Oxford Dictionary contains references to noise as unwanted sound dating as far back as 1225. Unmusical sound. The nineteenth-century physicist Hermann Helmholtz employed the expression noise to describe sound composed of nonperiodic vibrations (rustling of leaves), by comparison with musical sounds, which consist of periodic vibrations. Noise is still used in this sense in expressions such as white noise or Gaussian noise. Any loud sound. In general usage today, noise often refers to particularly loud sounds. In this sense, a noise abatement by-law prohibits certain loud sounds or establishes their permissible limits in decibels. Disturbance in any signaling system. In electronics and engineering noise refers to any disturbances which do not represent part of the signal, such as static on a telephone or snow on a television screen. The most satisfactory definition of noise for general usage is still “unwanted sound.” This makes noise a subjective term. One man’s music may be another man’s noise. But it holds open the possibility that in a given society there will be more agreement than disagreement as to which sounds constitute unwanted interruptions. It should be noted that each language preserves unique nuances of meaning for words representing noise. Thus, in French one speaks of the bruit of a jet but also the bruit of the birds or the bruit of the waves. (p.273)
As Schafer says in the beginning of his book, Soundscape;
The soundscape of the world is changing. Modern man is beginning to inhabit a world with an acoustic environment radically different from any he has hitherto known. These new sounds, which differ in quality and intensity from those of the past, have alerted many researchers to the dangers of an indiscriminate and imperialistic spread of more and larger sounds into every corner of man’s life. Noise pollution is now a world problem. It would seem that the world soundscape has reached an apex of vulgarity in our time, and many experts have predicted universal deafness as the ultimate consequence unless the problem can be brought quickly under control. (p.3)
In such a description, I find myself falling into a more personal and poetic relationship to sound. I am drawn to my fishing village, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, (in England) where I learned what sound really is, from the elements, the land, and the sea, as well as the people who live there. Natural sounds are essential. They tell us who we are. Part of what makes the natural sounds so essential is not only what they are communicating but how they are created. For instance; the wind. There is something quite incomparable and almost wordless about taking a walk on a pebble beach, alongside the North Sea, with a blustery wind brushing past your face until you feel your cheeks turn rose with vitality. All the while your feet are ‘scrunching’ on the stones, as they re-arrange themselves under your feet, moving aside for a brief moment of sand revealed, glistening in its own memory of saltwater. What the wind is communicating to me is both imagined and real. It’s telling me about itself, as weather. I feel it touch me, bringing with it stories of where it came from. I feel I am being incorporated into the story of its journey, the places it has seen, the fact that the air and moisture particles that are touching my face so openly, have traveled and seen other lands, other places, touched other life. There is a connection weaved wordlessly, beautifully, with a rawness and honesty that is entirely authentic. The wind is free, and so am I. Neither in charge of the other and yet still connecting somehow, like people passing on the pathway of their own intimate journeys, acknowledging both anonymously and intimately in only the way an absence of words can allow. There is sound. Do I want to call it music? Not exactly. It is musical in that it is poetic, it is not noise in that it is wanted, it is my equal. I wonder if I am music to it? Perhaps that is a more interesting question. As the wind passes through an aeolian harp, revealing the notes of the air, I wonder if I am perceived as that harp, creating music in unison with its own fluid movement? As Kepler himself is quoted as saying in Berendt’s Nadha Brahma;
“Give air to the sky, and truly and really music will sound. There is a “Concentus Intellectualis,’ a ‘mental harmony,’ which gives pleasure and delight to beings of pure spirit and in a certain way even to God Himself, no less than which musical chords give to the human ear.” (p.63)
Once I begin to consider the music or sounds of the elements, I find my mind drawn to the sea. Not just for its own sounds but for the sounds of its inhabitants. What we perceive as silent is in fact livid with sound. There is a cacophony of sea anemones, fish, crabs, dolphins and whales, to name a minute handful, that are alive with sound. Truly, everything is creating sound as it is vibrating and vibration creates sound. The larger the mass the more likely it is that we are going to hear that sound, although, as humans, we are limited to a frequency range perception of 20Hz – 20KHz. Anything below that human range of hearing, is referred to as infra (or sub) sonic and beyond that, ultra sonic.
These of course, are not the only frequency ranges of hearing. Dolphins, for instance can hear up to approximately 200kHz and baleen whales can hear and create sounds as low as 4Hz. Sound is not exclusive to humans but our dictionaries tend to specialize in the definitions that affect only us, which therefore gives that impression. The existence and experience of sound is dependent on an entity’s hearing range, which is subject to each species own physiology and environment.
As Roger Payne puts it, in Among Whales;
In the darkness of the abyss, another manifestation of life permeates everything – the calls of the distant whales. They carry over vast distances, the sounds traveling in long, majestically curving paths and completely filling the vast, vaulted spaces – at times echoing off the ceiling a mile or two overhead, or off the oozy floor as far beneath. To many human ears, these sounds are very beautiful, even though whales and people have vastly different evolutionary histories and therefore might be expected to appreciate very different kinds of sounds. (p.20)
To me their sounds are beautiful. I feel that something ancient in me is being called to awaken and feel, as I hear the songs and sounds of the whales. I am aware of being in the presence of a different kind of intelligence, one that feels somehow superior to me, and awe-inspiring.
When I spoke with Whittle, on Tuesday 15th June, 2004, I was not expecting a delightful conversation – more of a lecture, perhaps, or a question and answer event on the study of sound in space. As we have already seen sound is not expected to occur in space as it is a vacuum. However, as he said in both the interview and on a paper, entitled “Primordial Sounds: Big Bang Acoustics”, at the time of the big bang, space was so cluttered with spatial ‘stuff’, that it wasn’t a vacuum, it was a busy place! Hence there was a medium for sound to travel in.
Space wasn’t so empty when the Universe was young. Remember, the Universe is expanding so it was smaller in the past, and all the matter we now see in stars and galaxies was spread out uniformly to make a hot thin gas, a kind of cosmic “atmosphere”. It is within this atmosphere that sound waves could form, grow and move. (p.1)
The scale and conditions are somewhat different from what we’re used to here, on earth; the sound pitch is way too low for us to hear, by about 50 octaves. Imagine a sequence of progressively deeper “bass pianos” extending below the lowest notes of a regular piano: the cosmic concerto is played on the seventh piano in this sequence. Compared to concert pitch A, for which 440 sound waves pass us each second, a typical cosmic wave takes more like 50,000 years to pass by. (p.1)
We are able to detect these “primordial sound waves” (p.3) thanks to “the discovery of a faint microwave glow across the whole sky in 1963 by Arno MacKenzie and Robert Wilson” (p.3) and they appear frozen in place as they crossed the wall of fog, caught just as the Universe turned transparent. The situation is not unlike looking down over the ocean and taking a photograph: a whole collection of water waves is visible, little ones on top of bigger ones on top of even bigger ones, all superposed. Analyzing the complex pattern of patches, using a computer, can yield the relative number and strength of waves of different sizes – in other words the relative loudness of high and low pitch notes (p.3).
Why is the sound of the universe important and so evocative of meaning? Whittle would say that “the sound an object makes is like a fingerprint: it is unique to the object and reveals much about its nature” (p.3/4). He analogs it to our own, human development:
Just 380,000 years into the life of the Universe is equivalent to just 12 hours into the life of a human. Now, 12 hours after conception, a human is tiny and formless, and all that is present is its DNA. Yet within that DNA, hidden and encoded, is information that determines much of what the developing child and adult will become. So too with the microwave background. It depicts a compact Universe which is virtually formless, and yet hidden within its delicate patchiness is encoded a huge amount of information, much of which determines how the Universe will subsequently evolve and grow. (p.4)
In terms of the story of sound – I feel we have found its inception, at just less than a “nanosecond after the Big Bang” (p.3). Whittle, when talking about one of the early transformations of sounds in the forming universe, when he comments on the creation of the “first generation of newborn stars” (p.2). He speaks to the transformation of early gas that held the sound waves, not letting them through, until the universe began to cool (to below approx 5000F) (p.2), eventually releasing the gas which then fell into “the smallest dark matter clumps, ultimately condensing to become the first generation of newborn stars. In a sense, then, these first stars were born from primordial sound.” (p.2)
Part 4 is coming!