I’ve been finding that as I’ve been isolating, sounds have started to take on heightened meanings. A cough in the street, a cry from a neighbouring house, an ambulance siren: in the first week sounds like these became especially poignant, even harrowing, the sounds of a world in pain, fractured into remote, isolated bits.
Yet two kinds of sound have done more, for me, to dispel that sense than any number of Zoom meetings, phone calls or YouTube workouts. One can be heard at the front of my house, the other at the back.
The one at the back is particularly apparent at the weekends. It is the sound of Victorian terrace gardens in the sun. But as though one has time-travelled back to, say, the 1950s, a time when ambient mechanical noise is all but gone: no planes, few trains, hardly any cars. A time when the soundscape is almost entirely organic: produced by insects, birds, people and air. I made this recording on my phone on Sunday afternoon:
This sound is a living palimpsest, every species occupying its own sonic biome, a phenomenon that can be heard in much greater complexity in a rainforest, and that was introduced to me by the ‘Arboreal’ movement in Richard Barrett’s Life-form for cello and electronics. Without the broad-spectrum filters of trains and traffic hum, every layer of that soundscape can be heard clearly once more. As with the air, particulates and pollution are dropping away. Sound and breath both arrive in higher fidelity. This week, British seismologists have noticed that the ‘cultural noise’ of the earth has started to quieten too. As the ‘anthropogenic din’ of vehicles and machines subdues, they say, their equipment will be better able to detect small tremors throughout the UK and further afield. Even as we draw ourselves inward, it seems, we become more widely connected.
The birdlife seems more active than ever too – a product of the time of year – every bird marking its territory, calling for a mate or just shooting the avian breeze. And every person is at home, rather than making costly excursions in the hope of running down another Sunday afternoon. The sonic imprint of every family can be heard: the young children banging pans two doors down, our elderly neighbours making lunch, the dogs, the teenagers, the DIYers, the gardeners and the chatterers, all of us sounding and being heard.
If that’s all a bit R. Murray Schafer-esque nostalgic, I wonder what he would have made of the second sound, the one at the front of the house, the one that happens every Thursday at 8pm. #clapforourcarers has quickly become a national ritual of solidarity, gratitude and emotional release. For several minutes, everyone opens their front doors and claps, whistles, cheers, rings bells, bangs saucepans, makes all kinds of noise (this week someone on our street was blowing a horn of some kind) in recognition of the extraordinary work of NHS staff at this time. I’ve never experienced anything like it: a pure prayer, sent out loud into the air. The relief it produces is immense: for me, staying strictly indoors, it is the only moment in the week when I really feel part of something bigger than my immediate family. To stand outside my front door and see the faces of my neighbours left and right is very treasured. Even more is to hear the glorious noise of grief and longing, celebration and defiance.