My Father's War on Sound
I grew up in a home that didn’t encourage the noise of children, it seems my father’s hearing was damaged during World War II and sound could be either muffled or painfully amplified. My father was also a writer and a researcher so I imagine he prized the quiet time that is not always provided with children in the home. Games with bouncing balls were forbidden, the television volume was kept so low we children would lay directly in front of the box, straining to listen, it was not uncommon to hear phrases like “go outside if you’re going to laugh”, and stereos always came with a set of headphones.
My father did enjoy music, though, in the era before basses and drums carried such a strong backbeat. I still remember listening to Nat King Cole or Jackie Gleason albums, with strings and smooth vocals, and actually enjoying them despite my own record collection being filled with Black Sabbath, Heart, Pink Floyd, and The Kinks. As a child my father’s idiosyncrasies about noise irritated me and I doubted his hearing issues and assumed, as most angst-filled teenagers do, that it was just another method of control. Later in life when I married a bass player and picked up the drumsticks and played in a duo with my husband for seven years I joked about how I never could have learned drums while still living at home.
I understand that many people like to have noise in the background while they perform the tasks of living, a TV or radio playing while they do laundry or work on a project, and even I enjoy a little distracting noise while I’m sewing. The world has changed a lot since the simple times of the seventies when I was a child, and noise has grown along with the population growth spurt, and as much as we loathe, at times, comparing ourselves to our parents, I am finally beginning to understand my father’s war on sound.
Sound is frequency, a physical wave that disrupts and vibrates, and sometimes violates, molecules. We can see it easily when we put a glass of liquid on a speaker and watch the movement inside the container. We can feel it when walking into a nightclub, the throbbing bass an actual physical experience.
People are noisy, there’s no two ways about it, we talk, we sing, we yell, we laugh, we cry, and those sounds reach the air, disturbing it, and traveling. Cars are noisy, not just the low or loud hum of motors, or wheels against concrete, but also elaborate sound systems that vibrate the windows in the houses they pass. Our technology and modern conveniences - as just now I am listening to the refrigerator humming in perfect F#m7 chord, which has been hotly debated by every musician who has lived in this house before us - are noisy. The wifi we seek on the streets and which I will use to post this article on my blog leaves a hum in its wake, a virtual wave on the water of sound. The world’s governments and war machines use sound as a weapon, and it doesn’t take a long search to discover the tools that are used to disrupt protests or the stories of using heavy metal music to ward off sleep from prisoners under interrogation.
I write this now after having spent a month writing a new novel and fighting against the sounds around me. I finally understand my father, which is a blessing for both of us, as I struggled under the weight of displaced molecules and tried to hear the small voice inside. I grew angry, as my father before me, that the air could be so needlessly and uselessly corrupted. There are sounds that are natural, water against rock, the wind rocking the branches above, birds cooing or calling or scratching in the leaves, and then there are the unnatural sounds that leave us unsettled.
I may have not noticed this had I not felt the need to drive out of town, away from the city, and the hum that surrounds it. It’s a strange thing to jump in the car near midnight with the intention to only drive and my husband and I made a game of it. I remembered the nights in my youth when I’d sneak out of the house and walk, hearing the call of the lone bobwhite. Sometimes I’d meet a boy innocently, where we’d sit in the local park in the quiet, unable to find any words, and leaving without even a kiss, and would simply listen to the night birds calling before we had to head home lest we be discovered.
So Chris and I struck out, giggling as though we were children again, and finding a dark place to sit and listen to the night. As soon as I stepped out of the car, far from where the lines hung above, I wanted to just collapse from the release I felt down in my deepest molecules, a stillness inside that is impossible to recreate through drugs or imagination or meditation. A sigh came from deep inside, my knees felt weak, and I had to lean against the car for a couple moments before I gathered my druthers and we set out into the unknown.
We walked in the dark through knee high, damp grass. I told Chris we didn’t need the flashlight he’d brought because I had “cat eyes” as I had been told many times when I was young. Chris pulled out the flashlight and I laughed, as we were in uncharted territory and we worked our way through the grass, leaving behind trails that were easier to follow up, than the path down to the water.
The ground had changed since the last time I passed, twenty some odd years earlier, but we found a place and threw the quilt on top of the high grass, spotting little eyes staring at us from the woods. The silence, or at least the lack of city sounds, was a drug all unto itself, heady and entwining, and we sat, just listening.
As I listened to the water flowing over sand and rocks, trickling gently, it was as though years washed away. I wasn’t reliving times past, as much as reviving the simple quiet part of myself. Owls were calling, a whippoorwill was trilling, and something heavy hit the water, swimming with a noisy purpose, which was different than the noises I was escaping. At first we were startled by the heavy presence in the water, was it a gator? Should we be afraid? But then the bullfrogs started calling all around us. I lay back on the quilt, feeling a heavy, heavy weight lift as my water-based body remembered its essence. Another creature splashed into the water and began swimming and I wasn’t startled, and just listened.
We heard the owls calling here and there, and sometimes I was sure they were twenty miles away making the lonely call and waiting for an answer, and then the answers erupted around us. Chris saw a couple owls falling and then finding their wind power and darting, but I had my eyes closed, just listening, and breathing, and feeling a calm that made me want to stay forever.
I suppose all this is my way of saying I wish we were a quieter species. Humans really seem to like noise - high-powered cars, guns, stereos, TVs, and emotions, blocking out the soothing sounds of nature. One sound tells us it’s all going to be okay, while the other laments with the complications. One sound calls us back to our elemental beginnings, while the other insists there is no hope and we must stay busy to push back the eventual end. One soothes us to a gentle relaxing sleep, while the other keeps us awake and anxious and alert.
So here’s to my father’s war on sound, I finally understand.