Wednesday 3 January 2007

Planet Sound

In ancient times, man was a fly walking across the piano keys of the universe: he made no noise. But that has changed... From: The Other Side of Silence

At the heart of The Other Side of Silence, lies a warning: sound, and music in particular, is a powerful force. If you abuse it, you do so at your peril.

Years ago I read a book by Mickey Hart, drummer for The Grateful Dead, called Drumming on the Edge of Magic. My knowledge of the band and their music was scanty and vaguely mixed in with what I knew of the potent mythology of Haight-Ashbury, the Summer of Love, Timothy Leary and psychedelic drugs. A different continent; a different generation. From where I sat these events seemed sloppily self-indulgent - even quaint. But I was in for a surprise. Hart's book blew my mind and one passage, in particular, rocked:

"I stood in the woods... my ear to the trunk of a tree...trying to push the edges of my sound envelope. I realized that everything must be making sound; the process of photosynthesis must be producing vibrations, if only we had sensitive enough ears. I began hearing the sacred in the music."

A world assembled with building blocks made up of sound. The words thrilled me, knocked me into awareness. I started reading about the power of sound and music; everything from the thoughts of philosopher-mathematicians like Pythagoras, who believed in a musical cosmos, to the theories of modern-day particle physicists who propose that atoms react as though they have resonance. Brilliant minds, cool ideas. They made me listen to the world in a different way. And what I've come to believe is this: Sound is not for the faint of heart. Music is staring at the sun. And maybe, just maybe, we are a little too much at ease. Perhaps the time has come to think consciously of what it means to live on Planet Sound.

We live in a world that is drenched in noise. Unless you dunk into a sensory deprivation tank or go down a very deep worked-out mine -- the kind they have in South Africa -- you will be unable to find any spot on earth where there is absolute quiet. Such a place no longer exists.

Even our oceans are polluted. As we test for global warming, we rig up giant underwater speakers which send out soundwaves that travel right around the globe. Air traffic pollute the skies and deep in space are satellites: an army of whispering spies. In our daily lives we are insects caught in a sticky web of noise. Around us the sounds of sorrow and laughter; the sounds of the dying and the living; ambulances wailing, police cars screaming, frenzied chatter, jackhammers throbbing, cellphones beeping, the incessant beat of music, pounding, pounding. Man's activities - his resonance patterns - are impacting on the whole of the planet. And now the earth itself is humming. Japanese geophysicists have identified 50 notes over two octaves that make up the earth's background hum: a constant low frequency noise.

Sound affects every one of us every single day but we appear sublimely oblivious to its power. We go to the movies and sit happily munching our popcorn, largely unaware of the background music even though for two or three hours it will cause our heartbeats to fluctuate and turn our adrenaline on and off like a tap. We turn up the speakers on our CD player and rarely consider that music can drive up our blood pressure, lead to a drop in body temperature, a decrease in the skin's conductivity, a change in mood. Parents fret about the headbanging sound of an AC/DC song, but all music has insidious power. Even, it seems, music as innocuous as Country and Western. Garth Brooks packing the kind of visceral punch of Eminem or Trent Reznor? The hatted one deserving a spot on the hit list of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center? The mind boggles. But some research suggest that country ballads, those 'tears in beers' songs, may increase the risk of suicide.

Sound can set in motion an avalanche. Soldiers have to break step when they cross a bridge. Loud sounds can put a person at higher risk of having a heart attack. Certain frequencies can kill off bacteria. Studies of plant life show that it can be affected adversely by a constant onslaught of sound. Noise from underwater sonar systems have caused whales to beach themselves and die.

Think what it was like on earth a thousand years ago. Imagine how quiet it must have been; how incredibly rare and precious music was. Now imagine that right this minute, sound waves are suddenly becoming tangible like long trails of fibre. Everyone unable to move. All of us choking, smothering - enmeshed in a dense, unforgiving tangle.

The casual way in which we treat sound stands in sharp contrast to the belief systems of ancient civilisations. In the mystery schools of Egypt, Rome, Tibet and India the knowledge of sound was a highly developed science based on the understanding that vibration lies at the heart of all matter and energy in the universe. Pythagoras reduced music to numbers and mathematical ratios and believed the very same ratios to be applicable to the universe and everything within it. This view of a musical cosmos was adopted by Plato and became the standard throughout the Mediterranean world. Sound was regarded as the very cornerstone of civilisation. Music, especially, was never to be at the disposal of the stupid or the wicked. Said Confucius: 'If you wish to know if a people be well-governed, if its laws be good or bad, examine the music it practises.' In the Shu King, the Book of Odes, it tells of the emperor regularly travelling within his kingdom to test musical instruments to ensure that they corresponded with the five perfect tones and with each other. If they did not, conflict and political instability was sure to follow.

Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensees: 'The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.' And as we start our journey into the twenty-first century, we do indeed seem to find terror in silence. When we're by ourselves, what is the first thing we do? We switch on the CD player or the TV. Some people have radios in the shower. Bill Gates even have speakers inside his swimming pool. And music is the drug of choice. Everyone from the paper boy on his rounds to the surgeon in his theatre works to its beat.

Churches are empty but rock stadiums are full. In the last week in March, 592 million songs were downloaded from Napster - this after the site attempted to block copyrighted music. With earphones clamped to our heads and minds blissed out by Deftones, Massive Attack, Chopin or Bach, we hook onto a strand of sound a billion years long and we're given wings. Under the influence of Mozart, rats run through mazes faster and more accurately, Alzheimer sufferers function more normally and women giving birth find relief from pain. Yes, not all the music we listen to is Mozart. Some of the music we become addicted to speak of unrelenting alienation; of pain and anger and violence. Demon poetry. But poetry all the same.

But is there something in our genes which predispose us to become addicted to sound? Why is it that music speaks to us so? Scientists are now proposing that the human brain is pre-wired for sound. With PET scans and MRIs they seek to establish that music has biological foundations and that musical preferences are wired into the music centre of our temporal lobes since birth.

But maybe the answer is simply that music brings us close to what is sacred. There must be a reason why sound plays an important role in creation myths; why it is seen as the tool with which cosmos was created out of chaos. The Ancient Chinese believed the origin of the world to lie in an inaudible sacred sound. In the Upanishads it says the sound that is OM is the universe itself. And for Christians the beginning started with a Word. We even talk of the Big Bang - although as David Hykes, musician extraordinaire points out, this term is modelled on the 'noisy violence of our own culture.' Hykes prefers the concept 'Big Ring' for that moment when unknown forces brought the universe into being. Michael Hayes, in his remarkable book The Infinite Harmony, sees in the composition of the DNA molecule - the four nitrogenous bases, the triplet RNA codons, the 64 possible combinations of bases and the 22 signals at the amino-acid stage of development - a biochemical manifestation of the heptatonic musical scale. He concludes: 'As I looked deeper and deeper into the workings of the genetic code, I became convinced that God himself was a musician.'

Maybe it is simply a question that in the presence of music we find grace. As Tori Amos says: 'My fear is stronger than my faith but I walk.' Music will give you that strength. Or to borrow a phrase from Thomas Carlyle, dead these past one hundred and twenty years: 'Music is well said to be the speech of angels.'

In ancient times man was a fly walking across the piano keys of the universe. He left no noise in his wake. That has changed forever. Modern man with his myriad of activities is creating excessive sound. What the long-term impact will be on our environment and our mental health remains to be seen. But maybe the time is now to start listening to the world anew; to be a little less profligate when it comes to noise. Our fragile blue planet is spinning through space like a tumescent, pulsating drop of sound. Earth: pumped up and wired. Feverishly vibrating.

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