Now that it is well into spring, I like to sit in the back yard and just soak up the experience. On a chair on the patio, I can sit for a half-hour or so and just listen to what is going on around me. Often, I just close my eyes and enjoy the bird calls, the distant lawnmower, the occasional and distant roar of a passing jet high in the air. It is my form of meditation.
It affords me great pleasure to hear all the sounds, and more, to hear them all at once, piled up in counterpoint, like so many voices in a Bach fugue. Indeed, I try with the same effort to be able to hear all the parts simultaneously. It is great training to hear the more traditional music of the concert hall.
For, in any decent music, there are many things going on at the same time. Not only in dense Baroque counterpoint, but in all music. There is melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, texture — to say nothing about a bass line. If you listen only for the tune, you miss so much else.
And so, in the concert hall, I often close my eyes and concentrate on taking in all the bits. It takes some practice, but it is possible to hear multiple lines of melody at the same time. At the very basic, to hear the tune on top and the bass line at the bottom playing off one another.
In my back yard, I enjoy the stereo effects of a cardinal squawking to my right, while a chickadee yawps to the left, while the mower sounds two blocks away and a dog barks somewhere behind me, down the hill. There is always traffic on the main road, about a quarter-mile up the hill, and the breeze shuffles the leaves on the trees that ring my yard in an aleatory rhythm that serves as bass line to the rest. The mockingbird has his repetitive medley of greatest hits. You can’t fool me. I know it is you.
Listening to it all tells me the world is alive. It is animated and bustling, and it sings an earthy chant.
I am reminded of John Cage’s infamous 4’33’’ — the piece where the pianist sits in front of his keyboard for that amount of time and plays nothing at all. Often seen as a hoax by those unwilling to take Cage at his word, and feeling they are being cheated, such a listener misses the point. The composer intends for his audience to actually hear the sounds of the hall — the rustling of programs, the passing truck outside, the AC unit clicking on, the throat clearing and feet shuffling — and appreciate them as a kind of music of their own.
It is one of the primary functions of art, and music included, to wake you up to the world, to see what is usually ignored, to hear what surrounds you, to feel what is churning inside. It all boils down to paying attention.
The world is full of miraculous sound. I remember Kathy Elks, from eastern North Carolina, telling us of when she was an infant, just after World War II, and would hear the propeller sounds of an airplane too high in the sky to see, and how she always thought that buzz was “just the sound the sky makes.”
Or Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” Or the “good grey poet,” Walt Whitman: “Now I will do nothing but listen,/ To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it./ I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals…”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in the Ancient Mariner: “A noise like of a hidden brook/ In the leafy month of June,/ That to the sleeping woods all night/ Singeth a quiet tune.”
“Listen to them. Children of the night. What myoosik they make,” says Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931).
Beethoven included a quail, nightingale and cuckoo in the slow movement of his Pastoral symphony. Messiaen wrote whole symphonies built from transcribed birdcalls. Charles Ives built the sounds of his Connecticut village into his music. Rautavaara’s Concerto for birdsong and orchestra. Vivaldi imitates birds in his Spring concerto. Alan Hovhaness And God Created Great Whales, with its whalesong sounds buried in orchestral texture.
Gustav Mahler said the symphony must embrace the world, and he included cowbells, hammer blows, distant military bands, bird calls, the memory of the postillion’s watery horn call, and even begins his first symphony with seven-octaves of unison A-naturals, almost a tinnitus of the universe — the music of the spheres — interrupted by a cuckoo in the woods. His own defective heartbeat was the opening of his final completed symphony.
Bedrich Smetana wrote his tinnitus into his first string quartet, “From My Life,” in the form of a long-held high “E.”
The same world of sound that fills all this music waits outside my back door, waiting to be organized into coherence. The first step is paying attention. Engagement is the secret to unlocking the world. The ear is a gate to paradise.
Some years ago, when I was still regularly penning verse, I wrote about this: