Forty years ago this month, I listened very carefully to all the sounds I heard one day and wrote them down in a notebook. The resulting 60 page work was later submitted as part of the requirements for a Fine Arts degree at what was then the wonderfully progressive School of Visual Arts, in New York City.
I have thought about my “Sounds Piece” many times since then, especially when the anniversary of that day rolls around. Wherever I might be living, it always seems that my sound environment is far, far noisier and more complex than it was back then. I thought it would be interesting to do another sound piece twenty years later, but even in 1992, the world was so much noisier than it had been in 1972. It just didn’t seem possible.
I can’t share the whole piece here, but I have set below some pages from it. The first two list each sound I heard from the moment I awoke that morning until about two hours later. I had placed a small notebook & pencil next to the bed the night before, so I would be ready. (The “shower” wasn’t mine – someone else was in the bathroom and that was the first sound I was conscious of as I woke up).
I was already struggling with the question of how to identify and record the odd sounds we don’t normally think about, as well as the usual ones. I quickly realized that the best – or easiest – way to describe a sound was to simply name the thing that made the sound, a “once-removed” process I didn’t like, but felt forced to use, to lend consistency to the writing. Of course, writing rather than recording sounds directly is already a once-removed method of conveying auditory experience, but I liked the idea of translating the auditory sensations onto paper. I wanted to see what that would look like – like a peculiar diary? – and I was curious to see how this extra layer of activity would affect my day.
A page from mid-day:
I attended classes that day, and as soon as my friends got wind of what I was up to, they began making odd sounds that were very difficult to describe. I was so busy writing I hardly spoke all day. A few people bothered me, or followed me, or kissed me.
I was glad to get away from school, but all the noises outside – from the street to the subway – were hard to capture. Made me grind my teeth!
That night I scribbled with a worn out brain, but I was determined to complete the project. I had produced a beautifully skewed record of one day – the perceptions of one of my five senses, filtered through my brain and crudely recorded on paper, had left an oddly complete, yet incomplete trail of clues to 16 hours of everyday life.
Here, the final two pages of sounds (there’s a typo in there):
Since then there have been many nights when I couldn’t sleep because my son was crying in his crib, or it was summer and they were dredging the harbor, or people outside were yelling. I would long to live in a place where the last thing I heard at night could be my own breathing.
Has anyone else tried to list all the sounds they heard over the course of a day? I don’t know, but today, unless you do this far away from cities, it will be very hard. Many more layers of sound litter our lives now compared with a few decades ago. We live in a sound and noise polluted world, just as we live in a world polluted by so much other extra stuff. Paring away some layers from time to time and allowing yourself to just be, in a less busy environment, becomes more and more attractive.
If it seems like a good thing to do, take a minute and listen to every sound, one by one. Just listen.