On a long-ago family trip to Europe, we were amused and impressed by a national park sign in the French Pyrenees that urged visitors to turn off their radios and “listen to the music of the mountain.” But do these have to be mutually exclusive? Today’s podcast episode is what a radio station devoted to the music of the mountain might sound like. Following my five-minute spoken intro, it’s nothing but natural and anthropogenic sound recorded from my front porch between dawn and full daylight, 7:00 to 7:35 a.m., on Wednesday, October 27.
Readers of my Morning Porch microblog sometimes seem to think I live far removed from the human world, but as this recording shows, that’s hardly the case — and yesterday morning was a quiet one, especially for this time of year when strong inversion layers often mean that the highway noise from over the ridge to the west drowns out everything else. I was also fortunate in that the wind was hardly blowing, and because it had rained during the night, there was a steady if irregular beat as water dripped off the top roof onto the porch roof.
I used my new toy, a Zoom H2 portable digital recorder, which packs front and rear mikes and records in a non-lossy, .wav format. Just listening through it with ear buds while it records really focuses my attention on the soundscape. As I say in the intro, I’ve long been interested in natural sound. John Cage is a hero of mine, and I was pleased to read a new appreciation of him in the October 4 issue of the New Yorker — it isn’t online for non-subscribers, but Lorianne DiSabato was kind enough to send it to me. The author, Alex Ross, quotes John Cage about his infamous “4’33””: “There’s no such thing as silence.” And he quotes composer and scholar Kyle Gann, who recently published a book with that phrase as its title, and describes the composition as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.”
Making a podcast strikes me as another way to frame “environmental and unintended sounds,” though in the natural soundscape birds and other animals do occupy distinct aural niches, so I think it’s no accident that natural sounds seem more “right” than, for example, mechanical noise. The fact that we evolved in concert (pun intended) with the former obviously colors our perceptions as well. But I do think there’s value in learning to listen to all sound, even noise — which is increasingly inescapable — as if it were composed. It’s a practice perhaps similar to religious faith, increasing one’s sense of gratitude for the givenness of the umwelt. Perhaps I’ll repeat this experiment next May or June, at the height of migratory bird breeding season, so y’all can hear a real dawn chorus, but the more minimal sound of an autumn morning has its pleasures, too, as I hope you’ll agree.
Many cultures recognize natural sound as the ultimate inspiration for human music. The 4th-century B.C. Daoist classic Zhuangzi includes a paean to “the music of heaven” — the sum of environmental sounds — calling it superior to all other forms of music. And the Irish Fenian Cycle includes this exchange, translated by James Stephens:
Once, as they rested on a chase, a debate arose among the Fianna-Finn as to what was the finest music in the world.
‘Tell us that,’ said Fionn, turning to Oisin.
‘The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,’ cried his merry son.
‘A good sound,’ said Fionn. ‘And you, Oscar,’ he asked, ‘what is to your mind the finest of music?’
‘The top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield,’ cried the stout lad.
‘It is a good sound,’ said Fionn.
And the other champions told their delight: the belling of a stag across water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of a lark, the laughter of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a moved one.
‘They are good sounds all,’ said Fionn.
‘Tell us chief,’ one ventured, ‘what do you think?’
‘The music of what happens,’ said great Fionn, ‘that is the finest music in the world.’
Here’s some of that music.
A few highlights. Those who bore easily might skip ahead and start listening about half-way through, when bird calls are more or less continuous.
4:49 end of blather, start of recording
4:50 first of numerous loud taps that punctuate the recording: water dripping onto the roof
5:30 distant horn/whistle, not train
6:35 first bird call (white-throated sparrow, I think)
6:55 unidentified mechanical noise
8:54 more sparrowish chirping
9:36 the flock moves closer
11:00 first cardinal
11:15 brief cut to erase noise of wind filter being inserted over mikes
11:36 first Carolina wren
11:49 beginning of jet overflight (cruising altitude)
13:03 blue jay calls intermingle with wren song
15:19 song sparrow singing
17:00 Carolina wren getting closer
17:47 first crow
18:44 crows getting closer
20:00 two wrens greet each other
25:40 distant plane
27:10 nuthatch’s “yank yank” call intermingled with red-bellied woodpecker’s “cha cha cha” and crow caws
28:36 plane still going over
29:26 begin loud/close crows
31:36 call of pileated woodpecker on fly-by
37:00 another, more distant jet is going over
38:21 crow flies over house
38:30 second snip in recording to remove very loud sound of me leaving porch to answer call of nature