Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Origin of Sound

Silence. Big Bang. Inside the newborn universe, no ears exist to hear the blast. Billions of years churn without sound. Stars coalesce, supernova, and collapse into points of density so infinite that nothing can escape. Around a star orbits a planet. Under quintillions of gallons of water, the crust fractures and life arises in the magma heat. Aeons of natural selection lead to sound-reception cells. A single tone subdivides into uncountable sounds—harsh and soothing, high-pitched and low-, volcanic eruptions and drizzling rain. Millions more years pass before human voices sing. Plastic sound divides into word and image, lyric and gasp.

The Symphony of the Everyday

In 1922 in Baku, Soviet composer Arseny Avraamov directed the revolutionary Symphony of Sirens. An eruption of urban sounds, this unusual symphony featured “choirs thousands strong, foghorns from the entire Caspian flotilla, two artillery batteries, several full infantry regiments, hydroplanes, twenty-five steam locomotives and whistles and all the factory sirens in the city.” Using flags and torches, Avraamov directed the motley collection. He even encouraged passersby not idly to observe but to take part in the sonic melee. 

It is not Symphony of Siren’s vast and inimitable scale that impresses. Since the Pyramids of Giza, humans have been creating with such enormous magnitude. Nor is it the use of factory and martial machines as musical instruments. More than forty years before, Tchaikovsky had included cannons in the 1812 Overture. Rather it is the repurposing of industrial noise as music that makes Avraamov’s work both inspiring and chilling. 

If, as Masanobu Fukuoka claims, the  “murmuring of a stream, the sound of frogs croaking by the riverbank, the rustling of leaves in the forest, all these natural sounds are music—true music,” then what does it mean that the sounds of terracide can also be considered music? 

Does Avraamov’s symphony speak to the essential optimism of humans? Can we find beauty in the screeches, clunks, and explosions of industrial conversion of nature into product? Does his symphony speak to the debasement of the human ear? Once attuned to the sounds of nature, then to the mellifluence of music, did our ears in the 20th Century turn toward cacophony? 

It’s been nearly a century since Avraamov’s revolutionary concert. Even as the din of Late Capitalism grows louder and more deterritorializing, Avraamov’s music has not caught on with the masses. Are we still too bourgeios truly to hear? Or do we refuse to listen to our own destruction?

Find out more in Roman Mars’ terrific 99% Invisible podcast on the Symphony of Sirens.