SOUND VISION: A Collection of Sonic Meditations
Every object in the environment both emits and reflects sound. Every material, as we know, reflects or resonates sound in a particular way. That is why we make walls from stone and use wood to build an organ and not the other way around.
In our normal lives, things resonate and echo their presence like beams of sound that you can hear if only you pay attention to the qualities of the ambient silences.
the low absorbent void of a tree or telephone pole
the high reflective shimmer of a rock face
the high-pitched-patchy glow of a holly bush
the spotty aliasing of a wooden fence
the absorbent shadow of the person in front of you
the openness of a mountainside looking down upon a valley
The enormous shadows of large objects like cliffs.
The crisp hiss of tree leaves
In ‘silence’ we can hear space.
I have always been an avid listener, a deep listener, but I was convinced to attempt learn to see with my ears after reading the following section of Barry Blesser’s Book Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?
The native ability of human beings to sense space by listening is rarely recognized; indeed, some people think of such an ability in unique to bats and dolphins. But sensing spatial attributes does not require special skills—all human beings do it: a rudimentary spacial ability is genetic hardwired part of our genetic inheritance….
Notice how the clear sounds of your shoes on uncarpeted stairs provide navigational confidence, especially when your eyes are focused elsewhere. When crawling through underground caves, spelunkers can gauge the depth of a dark passageway by its resonances. But even nonspelunkers have acoustic awareness. It is available to all of us….
As a simple illustration of how we hear an object that itself does not produce any sound, consider a flat wall located at some distance. When the sound wave from a hand clap is reflected from that distant wall, we hear the reflection as a discernible echo. The distance to the wall determines the delay for the arrival of the echo, the area of the wall determines the intensity, and the material of the wall’s surface determines the frequency content. These physical facts relate only indirectly to perception. Our auditory cortex converts these physical attributes into perceptual cues, which we then use to synthesize an experience of the external world. On the one hand, we can simply hear the echo as an additional sound (sonic perception) in the same way that we hear the original hand clap (sonic event). On the other hand, we can interpret the echo as a wall (passive acoustic object). The echo is the aural means by which we become aware of the wall and its properties, such as size, location, and surface materials. The wall becomes audible, or rather, the wall has an audible manifestation even though it is not itself the original source of sound energy. When our ability to decode spatial attributes is sufficiently developed using a wide range of acoustic cues, we can readily visualize objects and spatial geometry: we can “see” with our ears.
After reading this, I became determined and spent the next three years in frequent practice whenever the conditions were favorable. The following meditations are a description of the process that I have come up with to learn to ‘see’ with my ears. I have also included some observations I have made along the way in hopes they will aid the interested listener in his/her quest. Even though I write this, I am still in practice and have a long way to go before I would consider myself proficient in this task. That being said, the process in itself has proven to be invaluable and extremely rewarding.
This meditation takes both time and practice. We are not used to being able to ‘see’ behind our head, but we can hear in all directions. This change from our visually oriented sense of the world means we need to acclimate to the logic of this added sense of space before we can fully utilize our ears. For example, when we see a landscape we can see it both as a single image and as a collection of many three dimensional things. If we had just learned to see only a few moments ago, we might not make this distinction immediately. This is often the case in people who have trouble with depth perception. We need to learn to distinguish objects in our new multi-dimensional space and must start by coming up with little rules and space-specific generalizations. We have to focus on small things first and will therefore start by dichotomizing and categorizing sounds in any way that we can. The categories you come up with should be personal and do not need to be systematic. As with sight, we hope to be able to listen holistically one day — but it may not be today. These meditations are an effort to break up this great task into smaller more manageable pieces.
There are a few points to keep in mind during your practice.
Practice is most effective when the air is dry, cool, and moderately still. If it is too windy, you will not be able to hear beyond the wind blowing in your ears. If it is too still, then there will be no sound movement. It is hardly ever too still, but it has happened to me before.
Generally, you can tell when it is an ideal climate to practice by listening to the air. If you can hear a light hissing sound (not tinnitus) from the air around you, then is is probably a good time to go on an adventure. You may not yet know the sound to which I am referring.
It is important to avoid inattentive practices such as listening for a minute, noticing, and then considering the whole process understood and moving on. This is a time and repetition-based skill and must be honed gradually.
It is also important to view this practice as a start on a road of understanding and seeing through hearing. It is a process and a choice.
You should always make sure to spend time in the space and marvel at how you are seeing with your ears. Retaining a sense of wonder and appreciation is crucial to your practice. You should reflect on the fact that you are seeing the world in a new way. Remind yourself that with practice you can hear the image of the world.
Lastly, this meditation is intended to be enjoyed. If you don’t want to practice, don’t.
Meditation I: Home resonance
Audience: Only you
Duration: 3 weeks or more (5-10 minutes daily) until proficient
Location: your home
This piece is intended for individuals and is not meant to be done at any particular time. The purpose of this meditation is to learn the way the material composition of objects manifests itself in the ambient sound around you. This is the first part of the Sound Vision meditations and serves as the foundation for the later meditations.
It best to start in a place you know well– like your house. Hence this home meditation. Your comfort and familiarity with the objects around you will make it easier to begin to hear their specific qualities in the silence. It also means you can practice without regard to the weather or concern for your safety.
As stated before, the purpose of this meditation is to learn the way the material composition of objects in your home manifest themselves in ambient sound in the world. In the comfort of the white noise in our homes, we can begin to hear the warmth of wood, the cool hiss of stone, the hiss of glass, the echo of tile, or the dampening thud of drywall. Every house is different and so each listener will start with what he or she has.
Through this meditation, you will develop some basic rules for categorizing the aural qualities of space that you will hopefully find meaningful in your later practice. Through repetition, you should start to form associations that you can use in meditations on the rest of the house and the world beyond.
Find an object, space, or surface to focus your attention upon
Face one ear towards the subject to be analyzed and one ear away.
Watch the object closely with your eyes and ears. Listen closely, and allow your visual sense to help you get a sense of the shape and material of the object. Tap on it. Knock on it. Make it ring somehow. For example, due to their composition and shape glass vases often ring quietly in the air even when they are not touched. Tapping the glass will reveal this tone and you can use this information to identify it. Listen to the object and focus on the spectral qualities of its sound.
Close your eyes
Focus your mind on the object in relation to the space. Listen and try to memorize the quality of this particular space.
Turn your attention to the other ear. Listen not only to the space in itself but focus on the spectral nature of the space. In my case, I would ask myself: Does it absorb high frequencies like wood? Does it reflect high frequencies like concrete? Is it a combination of the two? Twist your head to compare the spaces around you. Try to learn them but don’t stress about it.
repeat steps 4 and 5 until you can feel the presence of your subject in space.
Now, focus on your sense of size in space. Are you closed in? Are you in an open room? How would you know?
In the beginning, it can feel like we are relying too much on vision and are only imagining that we hear the spaces. It is important to have something to compare and rely upon visually in the beginning. We need to develop listening patterns. After we have managed to hear the subtleties of material in a binary way (i.e. this is a hard flat surface combined with a warm absorbent surface) we can generalize our rules to other spaces.
Test your rules so you can gain confidence. You don’t have to be able to tell that a room has 70% drywall with cherry moulding and a marble floor! Just that there is a hard surface below and an absorbent surface on your side. If you know the exact composition of your room, use your knowledge to get to know the sound signature of the space and really concentrate on these familiar yet unfamiliar spaces.
Meditation II: Contrasts
Audience: you again
Duration: until proficient
As the title suggests, this is a meditation on comparing contrasts and similarities of surfaces and objects around you. Sometimes these contrasts can be meditated upon side-by-side, and others can be experienced only as a transition from one to the other.
There are many kinds of contrasts. Arguably, every object has a distinct quality and could therefore be reflected upon in relation to another. With practice, you might even learn to track the changes in a sound world through time and memory.
Some examples of contrasts in the sound world are (but not limited to):
Open and Closed
Example(s): walking through a doorway into the outside, walking to the mouth of a cave, coming in and out of the water, standing in the doorway with one ear in and the other out etc.
Hard and Porous
Example(s): Standing in the bathroom with one ear trained to the bathroom tile and the other to the drywall, in a corner with one ear trained to a cement wall and the other to a bulletin board, next to a large wooden altar in a cathedral with another ear facing the stone, a wall and a fence, a window screen and an open window etc.
Smooth and rough
Solid and Liquid
You should repeat the process of the original home meditation, altering the process to fit your intended points of focus. I will give a few examples.
If you were going to meditate on the mouth of a cave, you would first walk to the mouth and back again many times with your eyes open. The purpose is to listen to the contrasts while also learning the terrain and making notes of possible dangers as well as characteristics or phenomena you can use to guide your ears. Do not perform this meditation if there is any chance of injury or falling off of a cliff or into a hole! Try to find the place in the space where your experience of the contrast is most pronounced. Once you have found this ‘borderland’ between the spaces, you can walk back and forth in the area. Reflect upon this pronounced change until you are comfortable with it. Then, close your eyes and walk through this border zone and open your eyes when you feel the transition to see if you are correct. Repeat until you are confident in your experience.
Advanced listeners can attempt to learn a contrasts in space over time. If you chose to meditate on a time/transition-based contrast and have never tried to memorize a space before, bring a notebook. To start, try to find a space that has a consistent state change (like the temperature shifts in the desert) and try to memorize at least two states (more if you want). You might even want to record the space to help your memory (or make you feel better about the unreliability of memory). A state is memorized when you can feel the state of space viscerally. Learn the second state and compare. Learn to appreciate the states as they change. Then move on.
Meditation III: Totems/Static Objects in Space
Audience: still you
Duration: until proficient
Location: near a telephone pole, column, tree, or totem pole
This meditation is to be done only after you have practiced in your home. It is better to do this practice after mastering Contrasts because it is a meditation in even more subtle contrasts. Keep in mind that you are outside. Be careful!
A round wood pole is a good subject for this meditation because it common in public spaces, it tends to be on the sidewalk at regular intervals, and causes a long, thin, consistent disturbance in the acoustic space. Wood absorbs high frequencies in the ambient noise to make an interesting void and the round shape gives you a chance to observe a void gradient. A metal or cement pole will reflect the white noise of the outside world. It is not unsuitable, but it is more difficult in my experience.
The size of the object is important. In my practices I have found that objects much smaller than a telephone pole have such a small windows of perception that they are easily missed with a lapse of attention. Either that, or you have to be impractically close to them. Being ridiculously close to an object inhibits listening practice because it is difficult to sense the space without also feeling it tactically by crashing into it by accident. Smaller objects are more advanced and require a lot of training to sense the smaller disturbances they cause.
As mentioned before, it is most effective when the air is dry, cool, and moderately still. Listen to the air. If you can hear a light hissing sound from the air around you, then is is probably a good time to practice.
Find telephone pole, tree, or other tall, thin, round object. Trees will be more difficult because their shadow is more complex.
Face one ear towards the pole. Keep one ear away. Train your attention to the pole/tree/totem. Look around you for possible dangers like pot holes, cliffs, cars, other people, etc.
Close your eyes.
Focus your mind on the spectral hole in the soundscape that is created by the presence of the pole. Imagine it is a ghost and the presence is important.
Turn your attention to the other ear. Listen to both the space and the spectral nature of the space. Repeat the process on the other ear. Try to really feel the change caused by the void. You should be able to feel it in your ears. You might not be able to feel it at first, but with practice it will come.
Continue steps 4 and 5 until you can viscerally feel the presence in space
Now, disorient yourself a little, and walk towards the pole with your eyes closed. Try to feel the passing of the pole. If you have a sidewalk to yourself, try to walk towards another pole and sense that one. Is there anything else you hear? It should sound like a ghost passing through the air. Repeat until the space feels like an interruption of presence and disturbs your sensibility within the silence.
Meditation IV: A Long Walk Home
Audience: you and anyone walking near you
Duration: until proficient
Location: your way home
When the weather is good, walk home! With your eyes and ears, memorize the terrain and focus on the objects around you. Learn to use what you practiced and hear the different senses of space. Concentrate on specific areas to get a detailed mental image of each area. When you are confident, try to navigate your way through your sound world using only your ears. Tread lightly and carefully. You are bound to forget something.
You might think that this memorization would hinder your listening because you would just be able to ‘count your steps’ and walk home. In my practice, I have not found this to be true. The world is always changing. Your steps are of variable length. Sometimes your stride will vary and send you in a slightly different direction than you think. Memorization can only guide you. Even if you count your steps, you might still run into a telephone pole so listen carefully!
I used to perform this practice on College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island. Starting on Angell Street, I would walk northward on Prospect street on the left side of the road. Then, I would turn left on Lloyd Ave, take a right on Congdon street and then walk to Terrace Park. This small walk had many inherent qualities that made it an ideal place to practice. First, it is on a large, steep hill overlooking the downtown area. The hill is so steep between Prospect Street and Congdon that you can hear the hill and compare it to the open air. It is also a quiet area and there are not many cars or other pedestrians to disturb your concentration. This was good for safety reasons as well. There are beautiful old houses with fences, gardens, walls, wood, brick, stone, cement, trees, and plenty of telephone poles. The rich contrasts make this little stretch an ideal location for this practice. At the end, I could sit in terrace park and listen to the open air.
Sonic Meditation II: Ephemeral Listening with Electronics
Audience: one lone composer
This is a sonic meditation about learning to listen as a sound mystic. You don’t need to believe in god(s), but if you know the feelings that accompany an esoteric experience, you should be very good at finding these sounds. If you are unsure how to listen, you should find a place that has always interested you and start from there.
How to go about this is difficult and yet very easy (you will have to get used to constant word nonsense here).
In this mediation, we ‘uncover’ esoteric phenomena in two (or a combination of the two) ways:
For example, I find the presence of acoustic voids to be very meaningful. I find the sonification of the small variations in the minute ratios of different objects over time to be very spiritual… like the growth of a tree vs. another tree or coming up with some hypothetical sound of ‘what would the tree/other tree ratio sound like in 300 years?’
For me, this is done very intuitively and so the method is unclear. I can’t really say how or why, but I know when I manage to find the right ‘message’ and so will you.
As composers, some of us get into the habit of listening in a predatory manner. Always searching for sounds and sources to use! In this case, you may not ever do anything with these sounds, but the ‘quest’ of looking is the most important part. It can be hard to avoid sharing wonderful sounds we experience.
I have only written with a few of the things I have found while looking for the invisible. Sometimes it’s only imagination. Sometimes I find things that only exist for a short moment and never again. Sometimes they leave just as I get out the recording device.
Then again, maybe you can’t ‘do’ things with the ephemeral. Maybe it’s more fun to be an explorer in a vast unknown than to be a lion tamer in a gallery trying to straddle a western notion of ‘being’ an artist and ‘making’ work.
1) get out any device that reads/records and try to get some data. If there is no sound, try getting the pressure, or texture, or air flow, temperature, distance readings. Or get out a measuring tape and come up with some ratios to be converted to intervals or textures. Look for meaning in very illogical ways. Combine things that make no sense and dont stop until whatever you find speaks to you.
If you are having trouble getting started in sonifying or divining through experience, you should find a place or thing that is very sacred to you. Maybe a place that has ‘presence’ (a feeling, good or bad, that something is there like a ghost or danger or profound beauty) and sit with it for a while. If you are ok with going a little wacky trip of the imagination for a bit, you can use all of your senses to try to decide what ‘it’ is ‘trying’ to tell you (but not necessarily in words… though if you come down of the mountain with some tablets let me read them!).
3) Go back to your studio and reflect upon your experience. Try to find aural meaning in the data if you want but that is not necessary. Maybe the best answer is to retain the silence and just remember the sound-being you met in your adventure.