Back to Home Page
Artists Community Send us Info
Membership Frequently Asked Questions About Us Search

Return to: David Rothenberg

A Sense of Soundscape

Some say music is the universal language. This couldn't possibly be true. Not everyone speaks it, not all understand it. And even those who do cannot explain what it says. No one knows how music speaks, what tales it tells, how it tugs at our emotions with its mixture of tones, one after another, above and below.

You can be moved by music and have absolutely no idea what is going on. Language is not like that. You must be able to speak a language to know what is being said. Music is only in part a language, that part you understand when you learn its rules and how to bend those rules. But the rest of it may move us even though we are unable to explain why.

The word 'nature' can have many musical meanings, as well as many linguistic meanings. It can mean the place we came from, some original home where, as Nalungiaq the Netsilik Eskimo reminds us, "people and animals spoke the same language." Not only have we lost that language, we can barely imagine what it might be. Words are not the way to talk to animals. They'd rather sing with us-if we learn their tunes without making them conform to ours. Music could be a model for learning to perceive the surrounding world by listening, not only by naming or explaining. Nature holds all Coltrane's sounds of the beautiful universe.

For to know and to feel the meaning of music are two different things. We may not know the reason why the coyote is howling, or have any idea why the brown thrasher sings nearly two thousand songs. (Scientists haven't a clue why this one bird needs to know so many more tunes than any other.) With only a little effort, the whole world can be heard as music. We can hear sounds whose meanings are not intended for us as if they were music and soon call them beautiful. This is part of music's power.

Music links us more closely to the reverberations of the surrounding world. As soon as you begin to pay attention, the borders become less clear. There are compositions that mirror the workings of nature in their manner of operation, an aesthetic dream most often attributed to John Cage. Cage learned of it from art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, who had extracted it from Aristotle's vision of techne-a word that once meant both 'art' and 'tool'. Addressing nature as a manner of operation, we complete processes that have been left unfinished, leaving a place for the ingenuity that so marks human presence on the earth.

But no music can exist without the given ways that sound behaves, with or without the human impulse to organize and perceive it. At the same time, music seems to be about little else beside itself-the play of tones up and away, the game of noise and silence.

Once I rode east, from Reykjavik, on a jacked-up bus with huge balloon tires, over moraines and outflows beneath a great glacier in southern Iceland. My companion, Elias Davidsson, was a former orchestral composer who now makes music by banging on stones collected from the far corners of his country. "Many people collect stones," he remarked, "but usually they choose those that look or feel a certain way. I instead go for the sound. I hold the rock up in the air. I suspend it from wires or strings. Then I strike it with mallets or with other stones, building xylophones of strange complexity. This is the music I make out of my country."

A party was underway when we arrived at the tiny stone hut in which we would live for several days. Twenty farmers and their families had walked over the glacier from the other side, a journey of several days. They were members of a choir that had been formed in a remote community by one of the farmers who had become crippled years ago and could no longer work the land. So a while back he had started this singing group and brought music to this isolated village. Now the group had carried him over the mountains to this hut to celebrate their tenth anniversary.

The music was loud, boisterous, and billowing with a unique joy. The sun never went down, and never came up; rushing clouds and fog that blew steadily off the ice filled the constantly gray sky. I pulled out my clarinet-the instrument that comes with me wherever I go-and the reason for carrying it everywhere suddenly became clear. There is music all over the world, resounding from inside mountain shacks, echoing off melting ice and tumultuous rivers. I don't consider all of it to be good, but this was one of those moments worth traveling so far to hear.

The music I yearn for comes out of nature but sounds as if from a world far from home. There is a virtue in finding a song that moves from the familiar into the unfamiliar. This way miracles arise out of the everyday. I once heard Indian santur master Shivkumar Sharma play in a vast auditorium. The sound system went dead, and because his instrument, a refined hammer dulcimer, is very quiet, the huge crowd had to sit in utter silence just to pick up the faintest strains of his raga improvisations. The drums and the drone became so imperceptibly soft, we all dared not move, since the slightest noise might obscure the sudden beautiful sound experiments.

Sitting as quietly as possible, listening carefully for faint expressions, the whole audience had learned suddenly to hear a new way. The music had released us into hearing nature for what it is: a vast unstoppable music-what Canadian composer Murray Schafer named a soundscape-as inescapable for us as the landscapes that enable us to stand out from and also be a part of them. Sounds define us, hold us in, lead us away. They announce themselves to us, they call from all over the world.

It is no great challenge to hear all sounds as music-the whole history of music in our time has pointed the way toward this. Classical musicians broke down the rules of harmony in this century to welcome chance as well as noise into the mix of organized sound. Popular musicians, seeking ever more variation within accessible constraints, have sampled beats, noises, whirrs, and chirps from all available sources. And jazz musicians have improvised over sound changes as well as chord changes. If music is progressing anywhere, it is toward a blurring of boundaries, toward what ethnomusicologist Steven Feld calls a schizophonia, which makes it impossible to know where any sound is coming from or what it might musically mean.

The eighteenth century composer Vivaldi wrote a "Goldfinch" concerto in which the flutists are supposed to play just a little bit like a goldfinch. And in our century, Olivier Messiaen meticulously transcribed bird songs and required that the orchestra play them note for note. Today we might jam with the birds or play their sounds directly out of inscrutable black-box machines. Modernity in music has really prepared us to accept sound merely as sound, as harmonic rules have been bent and twisted so much that they finally fall away. This is no culmination, only a beginning of a cross-cultural journey that will in no time have us concerting with kookaburras and flamingos as a matter of course. Life sings and improvises from molecules to galaxies. Sound speaks to us, yet has nothing specific to tell. The melodies of the world are what they are. Nothing less, nothing more. You should never be afraid to listen.

Nature need not be the nightingale stuck in a cage who will only sing if a cloth is drawn around its bars. We will not survive as artists or as species if we cannot become a part of the world that surrounds us. There should be no duality between music and nature. Natural sound is never so clearly separable from human sound. The moment we decide to listen, to seek out meaning, we start to change the world. We cannot preserve that sound world apart from our listening, and we cannot make any kind of music without sensing its resonance in an environment, be it a concert hall, a bedroom, a car, a bar, or a windy bluff out in the rain.

Nature sound specialist Bernie Krause has honestly written that no recording technology can "capture" nature in any sense of the word. The microphone is a tool for making artifacts out of sound. These, like our visual images, respond to what they face but are immediately transformed into something human. In his collected poems, No Nature, Gary Snyder reminds us that "we do not easily know nature," adrift in sound play between no and know. But there is no humanity without the surrounding nature that has made us possible. We imagine we have free will, but there is an environment that is necessary for our survival. We are bounded, enjoyed, devoured, by the world. We owe it respect and involvement.

How might music come to resemble nature only "in manner of operation?" Many of us are attracted to Cage's idea but are unclear about just what it means. Perhaps we are drawn to it because as artists many of us want our works to be perfect or integrated enough to approach the necessity that is nature, a nature that might not be perfect but is something that seems essential, fitting into the world exactly as it is. If we create a work that becomes something the world could not possibly do without, then we have somehow succeeded in being necessary to the world around us. This might be easy for other living creatures, but it is paradoxically difficult for human beings.

For, while we are created from nature, we are somehow cast out by our wily, cultured ways. And that is why there is a perennial aesthetic pull of the earthy, the natural, the green, the living. Of course nature is more than life. It is death, eternity, calamity, softness, and devastation. Some say there is no evil in nature, that all violence is tempered by some kind of endless balance. But there are others who maintain that humanity finds what it wishes in the malleable environment, that a naturalistic aesthetics is only a matter of projection. I disagree. There are real powers out there inside a bird song or thunderclap. It may mean nothing to hear a chirp and be able to identify its avian source. That's just order and classification. It takes much more dwelling inside an ecology to know the significance of a wayward sound. To hear each noise as a melody in a vast improvisation, the everbuilding soundscape that makes up this world, is the final task of the attentive listener. Once trained to listen, you will let the sounds and their significance find you, not just hear what you are listening for.

This is not a nature with no place for humanity. If our sounds fit in, we can fit in. Even though today's nature sounds recordists deplore the fact that there is hardly a place in the country where the thrum of jet engines doesn't continually interrupt wild soundscapes, no less attentive a listener than Thoreau enjoyed hearing the bells peal over his beloved Walden. "Over the woods this sound acquires a certain virbratory hum, as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept. All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre." Increasing our listening acumen makes the world all the more alive, beautiful juxtapositions, ironies, hums, songs, whirrs, blusters, rips, rolling waters and suns searing the horizon to a crisp. Sounds crackling the inaudible airwaves, a choir of life and death, eternal geologic rumblings.

We react immediately to sound but we do not trust it to offer information. We hear where things come from but less what they are than what we see. We cannot close our ears, and we let sounds tweak them to give their place and position rather than adjusting our hearing, the way we refocus our gaze the way we do with our eyes. This is why music might be an avenue toward taking in the ecology, as visual acuity has trained the human look outward upon the world we claim. If you treat each sound you hear as a part of a potentially meaningful sonic world, then the environment might have a place for we humans after all.

So what, then, is the difference between a human sound and a natural one? Is it clear? I used to think it was easy to discern the whoom of a machine from the call of an animal. But then once I heard the monotonous even-toned "ping" of the northern saw whet owl-a high, tinny note that can repeat evenly for hours high in cold Canadian winter forests-I knew that a living creature could sound just like a machine. Or the tinny wheeurp of the red-bellied woodpecker, a bird with a red head but a brown belly, living high in the trees in these local hardwood forests, almost impossible to see. The sound is instantly distinctive, but it sounds mechanical, planned out, regular and exact. Now do I really grasp the potency of a sound if I know who is making it? Identification of species isn't the same as real listening. We have to feel these sounds, internalize them, turn them into inspiration for improvisation, so that we may naturally fit into the surrounding world.

Go outside. Listen carefully with open ears. Pick one sound, pay attention only to it. Describe it carefull, either in words or in a picture. Then think about the sound, its structure, its effect on you. Pick up your instrument again, try to play something inspired by that one sound. Don't just imitate it, but learn from it. Feel how it works, turn it into a music that is shaped by what you have heard and learned. Then play what you've done in the wake of that sound. Hear if you've managed to fit in, if you've made any difference to the world at all.

Living or nonliving, there still can be sonic images that help us work like nature. Sound shapes are never exact, only suggestive, are not fixed, but are always subtly moving. There are sudden noises, but they have a natural fullness, a richness that surpasses the bleeps of machines. There may be a repetitive minimalism, but it ebbs and flows; it is rarely pounding and incessant, but is rocking, varying, never the same.

This is not to say that learning to expertly record and appreciate the sounds of nature is the same as making music out of nature. Some ways of combining sounds seem to make living, breathing artworks, whereas in others different aesthetics are at work. Not all music moves close to nature, and not all natural sound is music.

Well, what kind is, and what kind isn't? Music is in a great sense in the ear of the beholder. If you listen well enough, then any series of sounds can have the organization and quality necessary for it to be knowable and lovable as music. That's what abstraction in the arts has offered us in the twentieth century-openness to the beauty of the world in so many newly direct ways.

Music heard in nature or made out of nature is any series of sounds that can be appreciated for their depth, beauty, and artistry. These include wind voices and whale songs, as well as people playing in forests, canyons, concert halls and stairwells. Any music that fits into its place is an environmental music, one that is enhanced by its surroundings and not fighting against them as it plays. The sound out there is only music if you can hear it as a beautiful form to be enjoyed in itself apart from what it is needed to accomplish.

The late David Ignatow's most famous poem simply says "I wish I could look at a mountain for what it is and not as a comment on my life." Those words have haunted me for years, and they suddenly come back right now as I wonder what the sound of, say, the crashing waves on a fine Pacific sand beach really are-just a wash of water that comes to land again and again, or unbelievably sweet music that has no beginning and will never end? Which is the comment on my life? Which is the world in itself? This is the classic question of the phenomenologist, the seeker looking so hard for a message from the world that precedes interpretation. Again, what can you make of the songs of birds before dismissing them with simply the name of the singer. Say "green-winged warbler" and most people leave it at that. But what of the sound, where does it take you? What can you take from the sound of surf pounding the shore. It cannot be easily reduced to a recording. What does it mean to truly hear it?

You cannot perfectly record that beach sound. Emulations like Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave overture do not capture it-"da da dade dah dom" played over and over again in a manner to suggest the magnificence of the wavy sea. Mendelssohn's turned the rhythmic quality of the sea into a musical guide. It works, but something about it makes the sea less than it starts out to be. We can also learn to hear the waves themselves as music, to welcome the surf into your realm of possible art, and work with it, learn from it, build on it.

We have too much of everything we have made and not enough of the source material from which we and all other life emerge. That's all quickly fading away into the hush that remains only after our own noises have died down. Which brings up another important way music could connect to nature: how might it help us increase our concern for the Earth and its fate?

I have said nothing about the important role that music can and does play as propoganda for nature: people recording and performing songs that praise nature and protest what humanity is doing to the environment. Music can be instrumental in human transformation, though the good it does there can easily be construed as being the music's quality. How dare one say something bad about any music that's clearly done so much for a good cause? It's an unpopular critical position to take, that's for sure. But if we are afraid to talk about what we consider good or not good in a work of art, then we are afraid to take it seriously enough to figure out what possible standards there might be against which we could measure it. This is not to recommend incessant evaluation, but to encourage us to ask what is good and what is not good in the music that takes a stand for nature. The melody and rhythm can bring the message alive, keep it moving and current, and the best of this music transforms that message into something that can be carried no other way.

As the environmental crisis perpetuated by humanity intensifies, all artists, including musicians and composers, can find many ways to link excellence in their work with making constructive contributions to the solutions of the world's problems. It is not only the plea of an aesthete to want better music that draws from more-than-human sounds and their structures. Those of us who want our species to pay more attention to the environment will not achieve our goal by only stating scary facts and harboring inadequate feelings of guilt at the damage we have wrought. We're used to seeing the devastating effects of humanity upon nature, from the sludging of rivers to the smogging of the sky. But you can hear what's awry just as easily: Where are all of those songbirds that are supposed to live here? How hard it is to find any place free from the droning sounds of human creation. All over the planet, peace is soon disrupted by a distant jet or a nearby chainsaw. That's simply the way we live.

But music didn't cause all this trouble; music is an art that moves stealthily onward, tying humanity to the rhythms of the world. Despite our emphasis here on making art out of sound-cutting and pasting, making works on tape and on disk, virtual sound-pictures recording events that never happened-it is much more important to get out there and jam, to play with the world and let the world play with us.

Flutist Michael Pestel has gone right into the National Aviary in Pittsburgh to jam in person with willing birds, notably the New Guinea Ground Cuckoo. Some of these birds really get into it, jump right up to the flute, enjoying themselves, listening eagerly, joining in. That's so much more direct than extracting bits of nature in order to insert precious effects into our own artificial sound worlds. If we use nature we must really listen to what we use and put it to use in a way that respects its own life and integrity-if that is at all possible. Other musicians are out there in the wilderness jamming with whales and wolves, though if we know about it, it's usually because it's been put down on tape, often tinkered with later to step up the effect, a wild encounter changed through technology into an object.

There is also music that seems to live just by the way it moves, and by how it draws the listeners and players so much closer together around a common, organic pulse. Muse-echologist Charles Keil calls this the groove and has written that the best music grooves take us up into their world, holding a part of us there even after the sound has ceased. It's the thrum of life, the beat that is catchy, the pattern that the drummer and woodpecker can share.

More and more people dance to machine-generated beats and swear these new sounds are more hypnotic than what people can play on acoustic instruments. Maybe so, maybe so. It is true that the long history of humanmade musical instruments may make up the best of our machines. From drums and didjeridoos to euphoniums and theremins, the enhancement of human expression is surely one of our great achievements.

Buckminster Fuller was fond of pointing out that every few years, pop music seemed to get faster and faster, and people still were able to keep dancing to it. There has always been room for both the quick and the langorous in the way people can move to a beat. Is earlier music any more natural because the tools that made it are more simple? It's tempting to view that old musical life of gathering together, playing together, making art together outside in the fields as being closer to nature. But the expanding of our listening acceptance and the imitative powers of our machines have led some people to claim that electronic music is closer to the whirr and thrum of the world in process than anything humans could make previously.

At least this supports the currency of the aesthetic principle that something can be good if it sounds like nature. And if it's especially good, it will change the way we hear nature, define nature, and then live in nature. Hopefully the trajectory of Western culture has taught us to hear more, not less, and to hear enough so that we begin to question the whole course of that culture. By listening, by dancing, by grooving, music itself can become an agent for change.

That aspect of music that is poised for the uncertainties of life and is able to change its direction in unexpected situations calls attention to the inadequacy of inflexible human plans. There is an "earth jazz" that is more a philosophy of living than it is a music: improvising with nature, offering designs like chord changes, suggested structures that may be bent by new opportunities offered by circumstance. If we jam with the world with the same intelligence and awareness of a skilled jazz musician, then we stand a chance of learning a way into the great improvised complexity of the natural world, a concert so endless and immense that we may never be humble enough to accept our small part in it.

Humanity will always be but a small part of the world's music. The more attentively we listen, the more we will hear. There are still many more structures and forms for us to discover and learn inside this vast melee of sound. These structures serve only to guide, not to replace aural experience. Music plays on where you decide to find it. You can love and be touched by it even if you have no idea what is going on musically. That's why calling music a language is only going after a small part of its power.

So does nature understand music? The world is full of beings who listen along with us, and if humans play music foremost to feel exalted and enhanced, this is achieved more profoundly if the rest of the world can feel it too. We people have invented so many categories to explain the bounds and extent of our world, yet we can do so only because we have been offered a place in a natural world, an enveloping place that always sounds a little different when we listen differently. There is a "natural" harmonic series that came from the overtones of wind in the trees before it became properties that a few thousand years ago Pythagoras could mark down on a single plucked chord. It can be easily heard in guitar harmonics, and on ancient instruments the world over that capitalize on this natural behavior of sound. Norse windharps left to resonate in high coastal winds. Overtone flutes with no fingerholes that just play up and down the series, somehow approximating the blues, which endures because it is neither major not minor but in some essential untempered place in between. The harmonic throat singing of Asian steppes from Tibet to Tuva, where one human voice can sing several pitches at once, all natural resonances, somehow complete and rousing.

The natural harmonic series is not arbitrary, but a confluence of the way sound behaves and the range of the human ear; our physical properties bind us inextricably to nature. It comes from the way we hear the wind in the trees. Other biological beings might come up with musics that we are unable to hear. There might be different entire ranges of music in nature. We can only hope to discover what ours is meant to be, but we can expand the range of our hearing and magnify sounds we might otherwise never hear. Amplification can be a tool for increasing sensitivity, as long as we don't abuse or overuse it.

Music is not just bound by natural limits; it can help us discover the limits of nature by putting forth newly creative ways of fitting into a surrounding world. This is why there are so many kinds of music that could be called "environmental"-those musics that create worlds, places to move into. Brian Eno wants his music "not to evoke landscape, but to be landscape." These are pieces with no beginning or end, but worlds you can enter and then leave when you wish. The piece works if it has as much integrity as a landscape, and as much necessity. It's a good landscape if you want to spend more time inside it, exploring, walking, living in it like you belong there.

Is that asking for too much placidity in a real world? Nature can be frightening, dangerous, and unbearable too. Do we want only sweet soundscapes? Of course not. But we probably want soundworlds that seem intelligent, infinitely various, endlessly interesting. As listeners you will always be able to choose. So look for ways to assess this new kind of music with new criteria. Don't accept it uncritically.

That's the human plight all over again: To come from nature and yet to have to work so hard to get back there. It's an endless adventure. It keeps our species alive, but also dangerous.

There is music in nature and nature in music. What may be most wonderful is that we can love and be immersed by both without needing to understand how the two are forever intertwined. It is enough to know that they are.

The sense of sight usually gives the most details, at least of the kind we can enumerate. Scent has a powerful ability to spur recollection, to bring memories of our sense of envelopment in different places of the past. Touch gives the sense of our body's presence and limits, while sound gives a sense of our environment, what is around us, where we fit in. This is its immediate contribution to ecology.

Abraham Maslow said don't let the noise bother you; self-realization means independence from those forces around you out of your control. But an ecological sense of self means folding in to what's around, to hear it before it hears you, to be welcomed into the surroundings rather than pretending that they do not matter. Music may be made out of nature or reflect the workings of nature, but how does a stronger sense of sound improve us, not disturb us? Think first of those soundworlds that lie clear in memory, that always have significance whenever you recall them.

First, a sudden shift to silence. When the float plane left me behind on Lake Komaktorvik in northern Labrador, what I was least prepared for was the utter silence. No noise moved in this arctic world, and the immediate stark feeling was of a nature where humankind had no place, where we were strange interlopers. Forget everything about the remarkable place but the sound, a cleansing emptiness, a purity that won't stay separate, not a bit. I think of the blue sky, the contorted wild mountainshapes uplifted into the fog, the taste of the utterly perfect water untainted even by any recent human glance. This is the stillness of the arctic, the wilderness repose. Hold onto it-know that in minutes the world could roar and rain and wind could pelt your face from the tumultuous sky. This tranquility transcends all artifice. It was out there, not in the mind. It's out there still.

Then wind rustling the Colorado aspen. Quaking, they call it, a fluttering of light and dark and then the nearly white-noise rush of the billowing wind on the leaves. Standing on a lonely autumn road. Hitchhiking. Waiting for that warm whoosh of a speeding car, screeching to a halt and a ride out of there. A timebound soundscape, with anticipation, nature, and the road out, a need to get somewhere. Yet I remember the waiting. Never refuse wind, or its memory.

Further memories of the intense complexities of wave against dark fine sand. Whooshing from the left on in front and then to the right, hitting the beach obliquely and still thundering down, still indescribable, irreducible, a booming pattern that only approximates rhythm but really has no rhythm. It inspires rhythm. It conspires to fill all frequencies into our ears. Da da dade dah dom. Or any endlessly rocking refrain you choose. This sound is far down there but easy to thrust up to the surface of recall. I replay it in my head through the steady drone of fans and air conditioners contriving to keep me artificially cool at this current moment. The waves are close by but elusively imaginary. They cannot be recorded or replaced or easily written down. There is enough in them for infinite stimuation. They already contain all musics that can be derived from them. That is the perfection in the waves.

In the woods not far from here, an open but lush wood. Thrushes calling to one another high in the canopy, impossible to see, but impossible to ignore as they sing out to one another. A bird song is not a bird call. The latter is a brief shout, an announcement, while the former is music, a song for the joy of it, an affirmation whose need science cannot and really doesn't want to explain.

But this listening brings an immediacy information never sees. There is no reason for the complexity of birdsongs, no excuse for their beauty. Their variations are innumerable but according to intricate kinds of controls. Birds are composers and improvisors, innovators as they go along. Ornithologists are impressive when they can immediately match a species with its sound, but is not something lost when the magic tones quickly have a name? You may know what it is but not why it is that way. How best to inhabit the quality of a bird's song, its aural knowledge an art, its place in the trembling soundscape. Play with it, respond to it, try in vain to imitate it. Listen to it, let it inspire you, try to feel it flowing from sound into all other senses. Paint it, touch like it, describe it in completely separate terms.

Hear how hard it is to describe the 'abstract' sounds of birds in other terms. The peooh, peooh, pemh, pemn of the astonishingly red cardinal, discrete, crisp, song like the clear, sudden wash of the color the bird presents against rustling green leaves. Old Sam Peabody Peadbody Peabody is supposed to be the White-Throated Sparrow, but it doesn't speak words, but whistles high and clear, doo peeh peeeuuwee, peeuuwee, peeeuuwee, well that's not it either, no words can express what a creature can say so clearly alien from our phrasing or our writing or even our music. To learn a song you need not know the name of a bird but start to inhabit its rhythm and color, find a way to come at its qualities from inside, not outside.

We know so little for sure about the natural world! Think of the most beguiling example of animals producing enigmatic, possibly musical sounds. Before the late 1960s, human beings didn't even know whales could sing, because you need an underwater microphone called a hydrophone to listen in on their sonic world. When Roger Payne and Scott McVay first dropped their hydrophones into the water and heard the astonishing sounds of humpback whales, they entered a state of awe. "I heard the size of the ocean that night," writes Payne. "As if I had walked into a dark cave to hear wave after wave of echoes cascading back from the darkness beyond. The cave spoke to me. That's what whales do, give the ocean its voice." That's what humanity can do through our music-give the whole planet a voice, a voice marked in time with greater sensitivity and humility.

We can learn this from increasing our attentiveness to the sounds around us. Find your way inside the musical sensibilities of birds, of whales, of the cicadas in trees. Of the literature on whale songs, much of it tries to demonstrate that whale vocalizations have qualities similar to human music: identifiable rhythms, themes and variations, phrases that make sense in human time as well as whale time. But must music fit human patience if it is to be called music? Why not learn from the whale world and not try to easily sync it into ours? This is the greatest challenge when it comes to learning from nature-to take it on its own terms, terms that might not be intuitively ours.

Experts say that when you listen to whale songs you slow down. You get into rhythms that change very slowly, you sense being far inside the deep, inside a sound world where the beats and squeaks can travel through the sea for hundreds of miles. Katy Payne discovered that whales not only compose but improvise, tinkering with their songs in subtle ways that the whole pod gradually latches onto, such that one season they're all singing one song, the next season another, a chorus of similarity that evolves through creative foray. When and how does the change happen? No one knows. How do whales make their sounds. Amazingly, no one knows. But we do know enough to listen, and to reach out for guidance if we're willing to try another species rules. It will most certainly change us, just as I was changed from gradually entering the sound world of the Tibetan gyaling in that monastery on the other side of the world.

Some musicians have dared to take the plunge and try and reach whales through their music. Just as music might bind together cultures who cannot talk to each other, it may allow us to reach outward to species we unable to ask questions to any other way. Jim Nollman has spent years playing music to whales, not composing with their sounds, but improvising directly with them, often on electric guitar beamed out underwater. It's no easier than working with human musicians. It takes serenity and time:

Start off playing quietly. Treat the music as an invitation. Visualize the bond of time and place as a sanctuary filled with music. Feel what it means to get on whale time. Don't try to communicate; remain humble to the fact that music-especially 'beautiful music'-is a judgment call. That rare bird known as the interspecies musician learns to meet the animal halfway, two species willing to play in the same band, if but for a moment. It frolics with our basic conception of what it means to be both human and/or animal.

Listen to a soundscape while in the midst of it and expect pulses, flows, shadows and light like the wind in the trees, the crash of the ocean, the slide of the mountain crumbling into rubble after the earthquake. Move to be like an animal, or a whole living watershed or rooted place. But also come from a culture, to sound as if it had a long history, to perhaps be some tunes suddenly discovered from a tribe no one has ever heard before or imagined could exist. But once you hear it for the first time, you will hear people gathering in from the forest and singing, dancing, teaching and playing, altogether in a rush of tensions and release.

Edward S. Curtis described how a Kwakiutl 'song-maker' derived his music from the sound of a waterfall in 1915. He sits beside the water, gently hums along. A roll of sounds appears to him: hamamama. That's the theme he begins with, tossing it around his tongue, testing the rhythms, developing a form. His assistant, called the 'word-passer,' joins along, hamamama, hamamama, and then tests a single word along with the rhythm, say, 'fish.' And they he tests and bends fish, fishhhhshhhhshhh, above the hamamama. Listens for other sounds to bend the source. Warblers, ratcheting kingfishers skimming the surface and piercing their beaks down for the kill. Look at the pattern the bird leaves on the river after it jumps. So quickly gone. Remember it in melody, or song. Ask others around you to help. Make the music together and blend it in with the surrounding sounds. Scoop up the melody from the world in your hands.

Nature is to be no background, no fixed sea on which to musically sail. These sounds too can be moved around, played into patterns, repeating ones, new ones, inflections up and down. Enough collage pieces have been made out of the sounds of the environment, but they have been rarely played in the moment, improvised with coolly and carefully. In the work I've done with sound designer and composer Douglas Quin, who has recorded exotic and endangered natural sounds all over the planet, I have encouraged him not just to provide tapes, but to play along live, as an improviser in charge of the moving soundscape, not just a composer from afar. The orchestra of natural sounds played off a sampling machine by either keyboard or guitar takes the synthesizer to the next step in music: it has sampled the world, and the Earth is played directly and not only emulated the way music traditionally had to do so.

But for this kind of playing with the sounds of the environment to work, we have to learn to listen to it. We will have to tackle the hard questions of what is good and bad in the aesthetic of nature, and not be content with the Zen of freeing ourselves from likes and dislikes. We must push toward the universal good by artistically defending what we do, by showing in the art itself why and how it works, and not fall sway to easy exoticism.

Listen to a crowd of walruses beating their teeth on the rocks, making a rhythm, a drum circle, a song of purpose. And what about those whale songs, which captivated millions of us humans from the 1960s onward? Have we really understood them musically, or have we just inserted them into our familiar forms as suddenly new effects, ornamental twists upon what we already know?

The philosopher Theodor Adorno didn't like jazz too much because he thought it was not genuinely innovative. What passed for an improvised solo was really just trivial variation on the familiar-you had to stay within the changes, and never break the rules. He missed the point of the music but his critique still hits hard: when the art is genuinely new we are flummoxed at how to accept it. The radical does not ride the familiar. Adorno might have not heard the most cutting edge of jazz but what he said counts for a lot of popular music today: the same old forms and turns of phrase, but new sounds substituted in the same spots for the old. The synthesizer instead of the string section, the techno drum beat instead of the rock solid drummer at the set.

Making music to work like nature cannot follow easy conventions, because our musical rules have left the fluidity and dance of the earth cycles behind. The pulse of nature has no beginning, middle, or end. Natural music must in the same way attune us to rhythms that are always going on out there in possibility, constant trances that we tune into when we wish, tune back as we step away, though they still keep on going beyond the borders of our attentive minds and bodies. We plan only enough of the music so that we can be taken further than we think possible: playing, listening, dancing, using the beat to feel at home.

If you want your art to be like nature, to help humanity fit in to a nature which, as A.R. Ammons puts it, "has brought us this far but then cast us out," then you will want to create not only things or experiences which live, but works which are like landscapes, places to return to again and again. This doesn't mean the music will thrive simple as a background or context for your life, although that's what many of us use music for, a soundtrack to keep spinning in the empty rooms so that we forget just how empty they are. No, these musics as landscapes could also be listened to as examples of how we might live differently with the world-models of a way of living and moving where all breathes together and where one part is not busy fighting against the other parts. The sounds move, the minds move, the bodies move. The music makes you dance inside.

Think of placing some music in a forest. It should evoke the forest but not compete with the forest. It should allow the forest, or make possible the forest, or best make necessary the forest, or have the forest really need it so that the land becomes a better place because of the music and not in spite of it. Or take a recording of the sounds of a river. Listen to it, swim in it, sing inside it, and work hard to find out exactly what you are able to add to the burbling so that you really make it more than it was. The river does not hear itself as music. We, the musicians, must change our understanding of music so that it encompasses the voice of the river. Then we must expand our discipline of improvisation so that we can play along with it and embrace it as so much more than trivial effect.

So I imagine a world of music-making and listening where we all perceive the din of our surroundings with precise and pleasurable attention. Each birdsong amazes us, every peal of thunder is like a word from above, specific, debatable, some message exact. We will converse with the world again. People and stones will speak the same language, recalling that old Eskimo memory of the wonder of ancient days. Only it won't quite be like a language. It will be like music. You won't need to know it to love it. Just hearing it will be enough to draw you in. It will be one thing to appreciate this language, and another to understand it, to figure out. Like the difference between learning to play music and learning what's going on underneath it. One does not need both. In fact, explanation has been known to stop the creation.

We will be immersed in a whole world that can be heard as a vast musical composition. The idea has certainly been around for a long time, at least since the futurists who declaimed bold manifestos of noise-music, factory symphonies, and rousing contrapuntal choirs piled up out of the rising clamor of this century. No, this call to listen around us and enjoy is nothing necessarily tuned in to nature or especially environmental. It might just be a strategy to learn to love noise instead of thinking of it as pollution.

Art's primary purpose is to show us beautiful and wondrous ways of making the new out of the old, familiar materials of the world. Or to comment on what's happening in a poignant, unique way that no explanation can replace. The work comes first, then a way for the people to get to it. If it is successful it changes the way we hear things, and how we live in a world where so much cries out to be heard.

This is why even if there is something called nature 'out there' surrounding us waiting to be known, we can never know it. We are always changing what we find as we look at it, as we hear it. This is what I wanted to explore in the first 'environmental' piece I created. In the Rainforest was motivated by a single idea: that even human perception of the natural world transforms it anew. We find in the jungle what we make of it, and from the first moment it is imagined to be comprehensible, it is already in danger. From there we see it as the enemy, or the home, and at last the final resource required by the Earth for its survival.

The text comes from the account of a scientist seeking answers in the rich realm of diversity which the jungle reveals. When I asked E.O. Wilson, whose introductory biology class I once took at Harvard, if he would mind if I chopped up his well-written essay on the experience of observing insects in the equatorial rainforest to use the words as a framework for a work of music, he was surprisingly encouraging. "This," he wrote me, "is the kind of request every teacher dreams of." I suspect that it is rather few scientists who are open-minded enough to accept the transformation of their own work this way.

The scientist first narrows his attention, and then listens for patterns in the strange lush world which surrounds. He looks for order, and wishes to interpret the environment as an "organic machine"-But this is an ambivalent idea, as we do not know how animate machines can be. The music itself is constructed with these issues in mind. Improvised lines and rhythms are treated as building blocks, blended together with the hope that these electronic things can produce sounds that seem to live, that do not simplify the world, but let us revel in its complexity.

Is that any different from the first glance? The rainforest will be whatever we make of it, though it began as something more. That is its tragedy.

1. I narrowed the world down to the span of a few meters. The effect was strangely calming. Breathing and heartbeat diminished, concentration intensified. It seemed to me that something extraordinary in the forest was very close to where I stood, moving to the surface and to discovery.

2. I willed animals to materialize, and they came erratically into view. Metallic-blue mosquitoes floated down from the canopy, black carpenter ants sheathed in recumbent golden hair filed in haste through moss on a rotting log. I turned my head slightly and all of them vanished. I was a transient of no consequence in this familiar yet deeply alien world I had come to love.

3. What do you think of as you reach inside? The answer is that I open an ant colony as I would the back of a Swiss watch. I am enchanted by the intricacy of its parts and the clean, thrumming precision. I never see the colony as more than an organic machine. Now we are near the end. The inner voice murmurs perhaps you went too far . Outside we still crave the sense of a mysterious world reaching endlessly beyond us. And how can we find it?

E.O. Wilson is frustrating and beguiling as once, as he writes so evocatively and poetically for a scientist, really showing a way how art and science might be combined toward a fuller view of knowing nature. In his latest popular book Consilience he writes, "the love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science." Unfortunately he tends to want science to encompass, contain, and explain art as merely one small domain within itself, rather than consider them as parallel intertwining ways of reaching the world. I massaged his earlier words above to bring out an inherent ambiguity inside of them that he tends to pretend isn't there.

Wilson really thinks nature can be understood as an 'organic machine.' I think the ideas of the mechanical and the living always act in tension with each other. As much as we want to explain, we brush over the most radical truths. The poet hits things as they are perceived, as all art must grab us instantly before we know what hit us. Art offers real knowledge that reverberates inside our selves like the memories of perfect-sounding waves, sudden truths that do not profit from reduction to principles or rules. Sure, science advances, more and more information comes into our human reach, but explanation is still one of many ways of knowing and perceiving.

Fitting into the world, pushing for a sudden sense of place, that will always require art in addition to information. So I advise you to listen to the world not for data but for presence. And not just to locate yourself but to enjoy what you hear. What you hear will be a world more alive than annoying, more beautiful than distracting. Wake up to birds and not to alarm clocks, fall asleep when noises part the airwaves into silence.

Does listening make one a better person? I do hear that from my friends as we finally grow up. "Now I understand why I had no friends at college!" says one. "I didn't know how to listen. I've worked so hard at listening lately," he adds, after poring over corporate self-help books. Bravo, I say. But listen to the whole world and not just what people say. Sounds should enhance and not diminish us.

Sound in the media continues to be mediated and approach abstract ideas of perfection. It's amazing what can be tweaked, fixed. Working on a film project I recently heard the words of one voice blended with the inflection of another! Hard to tell who or what you're hearing these days. With all the ability we know have to mix and match, reshuffle and reverberate sound, we may need to learn greater powers of listening and discrimination.

As you attend to sound, you will come to hear everything around as something that can be made and manipulated, even the most natural and enfolding of noises. How is it made, what are it rules? All sounds become tools or the result of tools, dug, hammered, cut, molded out of whatever raw materials we can imagine.

But we don't want to go that far. Remember the sense of peace that comes from fitting in to the sounds of the place you are, that open you up, not tie you down. Approaching that reverberant ecstasy that comes from before, with you and your shadow as one with single tones and moments encompassing all that is there and all that could be. There is a world of sound, true, but it is our world. We don't automatically fit into it, we have to work to fit in, to roam and listen, not to stay still. Another meaning of travel, yes, to come.

Paraphrased from Roger Payne, Among Whales, (New York: Scribner, 1995), p. 145.

Paraphrased from Jim Nollman, The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet, (New York: Holt, 1999), p. 214 and 66.

Paraphrased from Edward S. Curtis, The Kwakiutl, Vol. 10, The North American Indian (1915), pp. 171-72.


David Rothenberg, Sudden Music (University of Georgia Press, 2002)

© 2010