The earliest recollection that I have of sound and its unique presence is at the age of three or four, lying in bed at night and listening to the sound of waves crashing on the beach. This was in my hometown of Normanville, a small community situated on the coastline of the Fleurieu Peninsula. Our house was roughly a ten minute walk from the beach, so this sound of the ocean would arrive muffled, yet it would still sound like the ocean: a blend of rumbles and roars pealing through the air.
Thinking back on this memory over thirty years later, I’ve wondered about the passage of those sounds as they would have made their journey from the beach to my childhood bedroom. From the churning of the ocean, a periodic thump of waves, rolling over the dunes; becoming tangled and absorbed by vegetation, reflecting off roads and houses, before eventually penetrating the walls and windows of our house and reaching my young ears in the night.
Such a memory has remained a potent reminder of the ever-present nature of sound: that regardless of a perceived quietude, spaces are always suffused with waves and vibration.
From Normanville, some eighty kilometres north to my current home in Adelaide, this recollection of listening to the ocean at night and thinking about the ever-presence of sound would strike me as poignant during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, where an unprecedented atmosphere of quietude was coming into relief.
During the initial lockdown in South Australia, in the mornings I would go for a brief walk around a my neighbourhood to ready myself for a new daily routine of working from home. Perhaps the most noticeable difference to my neighbourhood soundscape was how the steady thrum of morning rush hour traffic had diminished noticeably. Thousands of vehicles, usually producing dense clouds of coarse tones and resonances had been reduced to thin wisps, at times often blending with other sounds in the audible vicinity. In many instances, natural sounds would appear to co-mingle with human-made sounds in a state of dynamic equilibrium, sometimes blurring the distinction of what was natural and what was not.
Having lived in an urban environment for over twenty years, I struggled at first to apprehend what was occurring. Prolific science fiction writer, JG Ballard’s post-apocalyptic stories frequently depict environmental cataclysms, where the natural world reasserts itself, filling urban centres and cities with forbidding environments of flood, drought and dense jungle. Here in 2020, set against proclamations of doomsday and startling images of deserted cities, it appeared as though the sounds of nature were filling the spaces left unoccupied by human presence. I never imagined that quiet in the anthropocene could feel so apocalyptic.
Sound ecologist and scientist, Bernie Krause terms human-produced sounds as anthropophonic. In a pejorative sense, this is what could be commonly regarded as noise pollution.This collective mass of sounds (vehicles, aircraft, machinery, crowds, etc.), consist of such acoustic complexity, intensity and omnipresence that they can, in turn potentially obscure, mask and cancel out other sounds. Those other sounds, which Krause regards as biophonic (non-human organisms, such as birdsong) and geophonic (the sound of wind and rain), in this scenario find themselves constantly disrupted or obliterated completely by the overwhelming presence of human activity. Within this context, I’ve often regarded noise pollution as an ‘anthropophonic smog’, an audible entity, much like the dirty industrial haze that visibly envelops urban districts.
So it was remarkable, then to apprehend such an unprecedented spectacle as this, as the anthropophony found itself attenuated and brought into a state of flux with the sounds of the biophony and geophony.
The sonic smog appeared to be clearing.
Within my immediate neighbourhood, it was as though invisible boundaries comprising sonic territories had been redrawn or erased altogether, where all sounds had a freedom to propagate, limited only by their relative wavelength and intensity. From my balcony looking out onto a landscape of ordered houses, the hush of quiet ambience would occasionally be punctuated: the twitter of birdsong, a dog barking from afar, the wind coursing through a tree with a rustle, the clatter of crockery, a cry of voices, a ball bouncing across the street, the slam of a screen door and a distant bell tolling.
Much like my recollection of listening to the ocean in the darkness as a child, I found myself here pondering this strange new world, with a heightened acuity and renewed sense of reverence for sound and the act of listening.
Further afield, others would remark on the extraordinary situation that had unfolded in cities across the world. And it wasn’t just cities. Away from terrestrial spaces, skies emptied of the drone of aircraft, the aquatic clamour of sea traffic ceased, whilst seismologists were startled to observe a procession of discrete mini-earthquakes radiating below the surface of the Earth’s crust; seismic vibrations which would have otherwise been acoustically obscured by the pronounced rumble of human activity. Additionally, within this atmosphere of global quietude, a rare exponent of collective humanity would also emerge in evenings and punctuate the air, as citizens would pay thanks to health workers by applauding, cheering, banging pots and pans from the porches and balconies of their homes.
Not withstanding the upheaval, disruption and widespread tragedy brought about by the global pandemic, this universal reduction in human activity, along with instances of collective goodwill would lend themselves to a glut of Utopian ideals and blue-sky thinking. For a while there, we all believed the dolphins were returning to Venice. However, as I took the time to listen to my neighbourhood from the domestic hermitage of my balcony I would remind myself – and be reminded by others – that the situation wasn’t this simple and that the quiet probably wouldn’t last long.
During the first week of the lockdown my mum called from her current home, a few kilometres from my hometown of Normanville. As I enthused to her just how quiet the neighbourhood and city was, she remarked that the situation was a little different down south. With thousands now afforded the flexibility of working from home, holiday houses across the Fleurieu Peninsula had found themselves filled in an instant by their city-based owners, as the roads across the region became clogged with vehicles. Acknowledging this, I corrected some of my earlier observations and concluded that the ‘anthropophonic smog’ hadn’t so much dissipated, as rather relocated somewhere else.
* * *
A couple of years ago, I came across this quote by Japanese sound artist Toshiya Tsunoda:
‘Place is always moving, like a sleeping cat.’
Tsunoda’s practice specialises in closely observing discrete acoustic phenomena with microphone technology, often examining vibrative and electro-static phenomena in buildings, objects and dense mediums. His quote makes reference to the fact that although we perceive some things as empty, motionless or silent, these things – be they natural or human-made – are always moving, vibrating and pressing themselves out into the world.
It’s a striking thought, and it seems especially relevant during this period of pandemic stillness. More than anything else, this period has presented an opportunity for me to listen, appreciate and reflect on sound; an opportunity that might not have otherwise occurred during my lifetime. It has been quite remarkable.
But as I mentioned before, it won’t last for long. As I’m writing this, our cat has been sleeping on the couch peacefully. From a distance she looks like a lumpy motionless cushion. If I look closer though, I can see her breathing, as her body discretely rises and falls. Watching a sleeping cat can be quite calming, but given their preference for short naps, this moment of calm will be short and it’s likely that before too long she’ll rouse once again.