Sometime in mid-March, I heard the first redwing blackbird of the year, vocalizing from somewhere in a grove of pines and hardwoods that borders our property.
Spring has countless ways of reminding us that summer is on its way. For most of us, the cues are visual: a chipmunk scrambling from a pile of brush, the catkins on the poplars, a new ruddy look to the birches and maples, an early-blooming flower.
But we should force ourselves to pay attention to what we hear as much as we do to what we see. The experience can be equally revealing. As Henry David Thoreau noted in his journal in the spring of 1858: “Each New Year is a surprise to us. We find that we had virtually forgotten the note of each bird, and when we hear it again, it is remembered like a dream. … the associations it awakens are always pleasing, reminiscences of our sanest hours.”
No doubt, many people can recall bird songs that validate Thoreau’s observation.
Growing up in the Adirondacks, the song of the phoebe is always associated in my mind with a family friend’s sugar shack on the Boquet River, where it made a nest in the rafters and whose notes provided background to the boiling and foaming of the sap.
(As Mike Carr, the executive director of the Adirondack Land Trust, recently noted, maple sugaring is itself an auditory experience: “the bing-bing-bing of the sap as it hits the metal bucket.”)
Thoreau, the 19th century American writer most highly attuned to sound, was especially keen on “Non-plant phenology,” the study of nature’s registration of changes in weather, seasons and, in our time, climate. He avidly sought out informants who could tell him when – precisely – the first quacking frog sounds could be heard in the vernal pools in and around Concord. Thoreau would no doubt be interested in the recent science that suggests that birds, too, are aural creatures: through something akin to phonotaxis – the movement away or towards particular sounds – they are able to navigate across vast distances, using a chorus of frogs, for instance, as auditory landmarks by which to orient themselves.
During Thoreau’s own lifetime, the soundscape of New England began to expand, to include noise from steam engines, factories and railroads.
At some point – someone, somewhere, must know when – artists began incorporating the sounds of modernity into their work. “Parade,” the 1917 avant-garde ballet of Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau, for instance, sampled typewriters, gun shots and circus music, among other things.
Only a few years earlier, in 1913, Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” was denounced as raucous noise by the fashionable crowds who disrupted its Paris premiere.
Ever since then, composers have been interrogating the questionable distinctions between noise and sound, sound and music. Obsolete machines, such as diesel-powered foghorns, have been repurposed as musical instruments. The drone of urbanized society – and what many presume to be its psychological corollaries – has escaped, indirectly and sometimes directly, into the underground and experimental music of mid-century composers and improvisors.
We are anchored, in other words, by the sonic environment just as we are in its familiar visual equivalent. Lake George Village is, for us, cannon from Fort William Henry, fireworks above the lake, music from Shepard Park, Americade, the Minne-Ha-Ha’s calliope and the old-fashioned brass steam whistle aboard the Adirondac just as much as it the clocktower on the county courthouse.
The past was no less than noisy than the present. But for a variety of reasons, it is easier to recall what the past looked like than what it sounded like.
The historian and MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient Emily Thompson, who thinks about sonic landscapes and cultures, once told the New York Times: “Visual records like photographs identify different sources of sound present in the environment. But while the visual content is neatly bounded by the four sides of a photograph’s frame, sound is less well-behaved.”
(Consider, too, the succession of technologies for recording and replaying music, sounds and voices that have arrived in our lifetimes and then become unusable within just a few short years.)
Nevertheless, scholars have attempted to reconstruct what historical landscapes sounded like.
There are books about acoustic ecology — that is, the relationship between sound, people and the environment — about the noises dinosaurs might have made and about the sonic cultures of cities such as Renaissance Venice and Florence and what noisy, polyglot social systems must have sounded like.
Of more immediate interest than the acoustics of pre-modern cities to those of us living in the Adirondacks is a book such as “Listening to the Fur Trade.” The author, a Canadian scholar named Daniel Robert Laxer, sets out to reconstruct the sonic landscape of Canada, northern New York and New England in the 18th and 19th centuries, when beaver pelts still beckoned people toward the wilderness.
These unbroken forests, lakes and mountain ranges, which we sometimes imagine to be places of vast, primordial silence, shook with human sound: “shouting, singing, dancing, gunpowder, rattles, jingles, drums, fiddles, and – very occasionally – bagpipes.”
Deploying “inductive proxies” such as ethnomusicologists’
research, military handbooks, forts’ inventories, letters, the personal accounts of Rogers’ Rangers and the detailed notes of Sir William Johnson, Laxer allows us not only to eavesdrop on a vanished society but to learn something about the complex network of relationships that created it – between Native American tribes and Europeans, tradesmen and voyagers, men and women.
Although the visual now takes precedence over the auditory, we can teach ourselves to appreciate the latter, in part through art, such as: “After the Tone,” 2019’s multimedia exhibition at the Lake George Art Project’s Courthouse Gallery that included a live performance by the locally-based Seven County Collective; the Crane School of Music’s installation at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, broadcast through 24 speakers in a wooded copse; “Soundwalk” the sonic installation created by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Ellen Reid for the Saratoga Spa State Park; and “Sound Trails, an Immersive Soundscape” at The Sembrich, scheduled to premiere August 9, 2023. Created by composer Jesse Gelaznik, The Sembrich’s 2023 Flonzaley Resident Artist, “Sound Trails” will enlarge our appreciation of the relationships between technology music, nature and the human voice.
These auditory creations transform the sonic landscape, just as the sculptures of artists such as David Smith transform the visual landscape and remind us that art can shape, alter or subvert our political, cultural and social worlds. And while visual art can teach us to see the natural world more clearly by forcing us to look more closely, these sonic artists can teach us to listen more closely, to pay attention to the myriad sounds that make up our soundscapes– including the sounds of nature that remain in our backyards. That, to us, would be the culmination of this education of ours in sonic appreciation.