Desperately Seeking Quiet
by Scott Smallwood
Here’s a little listening exercise: Wherever you are right now, presumably indoors if you are reading this, take a walk to the nearest door that leads outside. Open the door and walk about ten paces, then stop, close your eyes, and listen deeply. If you are already outside, then simply listen right where you are.
What are the most dominant sounds you can hear?
Chances are, unless you are extremely lucky, or you are selectively ignoring part of your soundscape, the dominant sounds are most likely those of modern humanity: street traffic, airplanes, building ventilation systems, lawn mowers, etc. Even if you are in a rural setting, it is unlikely that you would be able to listen for more than about thirty seconds without encountering these sounds.
My work as a composer and sound artist begins with a practice of listening, and is largely inspired by sounds that I encounter in my daily life. Sometimes the sounds I create are directly related to what I hear, and other times they connect in less direct ways, but always they involve a practice of being in touch with my local soundscape, as well as those soundscapes I encounter in my travels.
Currently, I am living in the town of North Brunswick, New Jersey. There is a lovely forest behind my apartment complex where I have spent a lot of time over the past few months. This little piece of nature, probably about ten acres in area, is completely surrounded on all sides by major roads, such as US Route 1 and NJ State Route 27. It is also directly under a major airline thoroughfare for Newark Liberty International Airport.
The forest is home to much wildlife, including many birds: cardinals, blue jays, wood thrushes, grackles, and chickadees. One day I found a large, broken eagle’s egg on the forest floor. I also found an old tree-house, which my wife Jennifer believes is probably an old deer stand, as there is an old deer trail in evidence about ten paces from the tree. I began to spend time in this deer stand, making recordings of the soundscape in this place, at different times of the day and night. Here is a little montage.
This field recording contains short chunks at different times of the day, starting at 12 noon, and moving through 3 pm, 6 pm, 10 pm, 3 am, 6 am, and 11 am. You will notice that, despite the fact that this montage represents all times of the day and night, there is never a time when the forest is truly quiet. It is never completely absent of man-made sound.
Having made many recordings of places all over the United States and in other countries as well, I can state definitively that this is true pretty much everywhere these days, albeit much more extremely so in densely populated areas such as New Jersey.
I grew up in rural Colorado in the mountains, and remember as a child experiencing a much quieter soundscape. When I heard an airplane flying over my childhood playground, a forest of lodgepole pines and aspens behind our house, the airplane seemed very loud and disruptive. Today, I despair at my ability to escape the sounds of airplane traffic, as well as the constant drone of the highway. I would say that, out of a sense of optimism and hope, I have learned to embrace these noises and find beauty in them, and will admit that I have even become a noise connoisseur of sorts. Here is, for example, a piece based upon the sounds of oilwells in West Texas, scored for violin, clarinet, cello, vibes, and drums, called given to earth in dark blood (performed by the Newspeak Ensemble).
But even still, I grow weary of these sounds. I remember the sounds of neighbors raking leaves in the fall. It was a soothing sound, and you could hear the shouts of my neighborhood friends as they leapt into the piles of leaves we raked up in my own yard. Today, I hear the leaf blowers from miles away, and there are days when I can hear none of the birds in my backyard forest over the sounds of these infernal machines.
And so I have begun to wonder, what is to become of quiet spaces? Is it possible that they are truly disappearing forever? I cannot count the number of times I have tried to capture the sounds of small animals foraging, or water trickling over rocks, or wind blowing through the leaves of maple trees, only to be forced to stop as a jet intrudes upon the soundscape.
A couple of years ago I myself was in an airplane, and my wife handed me the in-flight magazine Sky, in which there was a short article by John Grossman about a place called One Square Inch of Silence. Intrigued, I devoured the story about a man named Gordon Hempton, acoustic ecologist and nature recordist, who founded this special place, located in the Hoh River Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. This is one of my favorite places in the country, and I was dumbfounded by his simple, powerful message: maintain one square inch of silence and it will affect a hundred square miles around it.
Hempton, who has visited every national park in the United States, as well as many natural places around the world, maintains that there are indeed very few truly quiet places left. By quiet, he means places where you can hear no man-made sounds of any kind for at hour at a time. He has cataloged his own personal, private list of these spaces, but one square inch was a space he decided to not only make public, but to gain support from the US government to protect. His excellent new book, One Square Inch of Silence, chronicles his quest to protect this space, and in general is an excellent travelogue of musings about the issue of noise pollution in our modern society.
Last March, I made the journey to One Square Inch with my 10-year old son. We hiked up a muddy trail on a cold, rainy morning, with a picture of the special stilted spruce tree identifying the place were you must turn off the trail. I noticed the silence long before we arrived at One Square Inch. Devastating, truly exhilarating silence. Here is a recording of the place where a special red stone on a mossy log marks the spot
Do other people value quiet spaces? Will there eventually come a day when we condemn noise pollution in the same way that we currently condemn air pollution, poor water quality, and other environmental issues?
As I continue to listen, to discover the wonderful sonic gems that surround me everyday, I will continue to embrace the sounds of man-made noise, to isolate them, color with them, make them my own. But at the same time, I long for truly quiet places, where the kinds of sounds that inspire are those that are normally masked: the sounds of bees buzzing around a wet patch in the desert, or the echo of a woodpecker’s work in the forest, or the soft, gentle percussion of reeds colliding in a breeze.
It is true that leaf-blowers can save time. What can the rake save?
Scott Smallwood is a sound artist and composer whose music draws inspiration from the soundscape around him. His work is founded on a practice of listening, field recording, and improvisation. He currently teaches music composition, computer music, and improvisation at the
University of Alberta.