When I first moved to Philadelphia slightly more than a year ago, I was overwhelmed by the noise. Despite my living on a quiet, tree-lined street, it took me hours to fall asleep at night. My slumber was often disrupted by the slam of a door down the block, fire engines from two streets over blasting their sirens in the early morning hours, or the sounds of a late-night party thrown by my undergraduate neighbors. After nearly 25 years of living in isolated, rural areas, I was so accustomed to the natural soundtrack of my life that I am not sure I even realized its existence.
It took months for me to adjust to these new urban sounds, and I still find myself waking often in the middle of the night to slamming doors, sirens, car alarms, and intoxicated coeds who live across the street. It was not until several weeks ago, however, as I was walking next to a busy street that I found myself lost in my thoughts and realized that these urban noises had been turned down. The absolute overabundance of acoustic information, noise pollution and sounds that had recently been much too loud were finally a slight and fuzzy static in the background of my days.
Noise in the landscape is a funny thing. It is always present, even when we ignore its existence. Our minds have been trained to ignore all but the harshest of sounds, and we disregard even the most beautiful noises that nature has to offer—often unintentionally. The slightest sound of the wind rustling the leaves in the trees in a city park is overshadowed, droned out by the deafening necessities of urban life. The constant resonances of highways and airports dominate over the natural, disconnecting us ever more from the environment as we become ever more connected to one another and dependent on our new, cacophonous technologies.
In our quest to become connected, to advance and improve, humankind has been quick to ignore the some of the repercussions of our actions on the landscapes that surround us. Perhaps the most disregarded effects of our exploitative endeavors is that of the destruction of natural soundscapes. Ecosystems have rich and incredibly unique and complex acoustic qualities that are destroyed daily as a consequence of the noise pollution that results from human activities from cars, ships, and electronic devices (among others). These natural soundscapes and acoustic patterns are so subtle, so delicate, that their disappearances are sometimes not even realized. Areas of untouched, pristine nature are now so few that it’s impossible to even know how many nonpareil soundscapes once existed. Whatever unwelcome visuals we may be able to hide through clever optical tricks and intentional designs, the pollution of our everyday soundscapes cannot be suppressed.
This destruction of natural soundscapes, however unintentional, calls to mind the work of the avant-garde composer William Basinski. In an attempt to preserve 20-year-old recordings on analog tape loops by converting them to digital, Basinski discovered that the very act of this preservation of the sounds was physically decaying both the object and the sound, as magnetic materials on the tapes continuously flaked off as they were played. The composition was witness to a process of preservation that was an inadvertent destruction. The salvaged recordings, released as The Disintegration Loops (I-IV), were recorded in Basinski’s New York City studio on the morning of the September 11 attacks; a chance coincidence adds to this palimpsest of decay. Music critic Joe Tangari wrote in his review of the recordings: “The music itself is not so much composed as it is this force of nature, this inevitable decay of all things, from memory to physical matter, made manifest in music.”
This “inevitable decay of all things” is perhaps most subtly conveyed through the soundscapes that surround us. It is the disappearance of that which we are not even aware that teaches the most valuable of lessons in the discourse of preservation. How do we mourn the loss of something when we were not conscious of its existence? I’ve become painfully familiar with the processes of preservation that whitewash the past and present us with neatly packaged versions of what “was.” Perhaps our next assignment as students and practitioners should be to start spending our lifetimes listening. More history exists in our landscapes, our soundscapes, of decay than we could ever know.
(This blog post was inspired by a March 2012 radio segment from Living on Earth called “A Lifetime of Listening.” You can stream or download it here.)