I’m currently working on a dissertation that brings sound studies and literature together. It’s a project that has so far involved investigating the Music of the Spheres, comparing the songs of birds to the Vedas, and exploring how nature’s music affected writers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. This is what I do—contemplate things like how the earth vibrates at 15 octaves below middle “C”—but, isolated in academia, I often wonder if it matters to anyone else. When I tweeted my first question during my curation week, “what’s your favorite sound?” I was surprised to get so many replies.
People talked about the laughter of their children, sheep bells jangling in a field, cicadas in the afternoon in Greece, and the list goes on. I began to think of sound differently, as something many of us share, all around the world.
The question seemed to foster a sense of community amongst the followers of We the Humanities. I got to know academics, parents, students, and podcasters by thinking about my work more generally, and came to embrace the interdisciplinarity of sound studies. I began to realize how sound touches us in personal and intimate ways. Intimacy could even be a reason for why we hear some sounds as music.
Until this moment, I had grown comfortable describing my work as “unpopular.” I’m in a field that privileges sight over sound. Perhaps I don’t do “literary studies” and instead do “American studies,” and that’s fine with me but that also denies literature its richness in sounds. I also maintain a controversial view of music: rather than thinking of music as “organized sound,” I point to how anthropocentric our notions of organization are. Aren’t crickets also musical? Thoreau calls cricket sounds “earth-song,” for instance. I think that with enough attention to sounds, we can find music in all of them. Not everyone does.
The music in the responses seems clear to me, each description of sound placing me in a particular moment, place, and embodied feeling. This experience made me see my current project as something that might not be “unpopular” because we all feel music, sometimes in unexpected moments.
Last week I was sitting in a room with some musicians in Brooklyn, and needed to close the windows because of the loud trains going by. Knocking out a piece of wood holding a window up, a friend suddenly stopped to listen to the window as it slowly—very slowly—slid closed. Then everyone stopped to listen as the window slid up and down scales, making musical pirouettes and playing unexpectedly beautiful notes as gravity slowly pulled its weight down to the sill. The window had made music that none of us could make, and as every ear turned to listen, smiles and looks of awe spread across the room. I can’t fit that experience into 140 characters or less…
So what’s your favorite sound?