A Symphony Found in the Wilderness of Noise
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus.
The first recorded sound is only 165 years old, a cacophony of echoes recorded by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on a phonautogram. The temporal nature of sound demands that it commit sonic suicide with the ebb of time, leaving no trace of its presence, no material or visual remains. Thus, the archaeology of sound is heavily reliant on the visual description of past experiences and a conscious effort of our auditory perception to reimagine the (lost) aural reality. However, drawing upon Heraclitus, we can say that no man ever hears the same sound twice, meaning we must bear in mind that despite our best efforts to find the right note, we are often left with vague harmonies to make sense of.
“There is geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacing of the spheres.” – Pythagoras.
Music of Spheres
The history of soundscapes pre-dates the formation of planet Earth and goes back to the very dawn of Time in this universe: the Big Bang, prior to which, one could reasonably imagine, silence prevailed. It was an event that not only gave birth to billions of planets and galaxies over time but also created an ever-present cosmic composition that was inaudible to human ears until very recently.
The geocentric dance of the celestial bodies spacing themselves at relative distances from each other and from the Earth, mirrors that of tones and semitones forming chords and scales. This observation led the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras to believe in the existence of divine harmony. This symphony of the cosmos was first proposed philosophically in his Musica Universalis, or Music of Spheres, and he arrived at this theory by extrapolating his understanding of mathematics and harmonics to a planetary scale.
However, Pythagoras’ idea didn’t stand tall in his time, and it was only centuries later that it was picked up by Johannes Kepler who went on to reiterate it and further expand upon it in his own work, Harmonices Mundi. Centuries hence, our advancement in science and technology has brought us closer to listening to these songs of the universe, starting with the sound of the Black Hole, rendering a reality that was previously inconceivable and unperceived.
These extrapolated parallels drawn from our mathematical and musical understanding of the physical world have certainly helped in mapping the music of the cosmos to an extent. But when we turn our ears homewards, the story of sound takes new shapes and forms. The keynote sounds of this planet have evolved over time, leading to different soundscapes across different eras. The initial sounds on Earth, upon its formation billions of years ago, were primarily geophonic. The low-end rumble from the tectonic shifts to the crashing of water against the rocks and shores, along with world-defining cataclysmic events, dominated the soundscape till the end of the Paleozoic era 250 million years ago. The earliest forms of life in this era were underwater arthropods and cephalopods that experienced a quiet life except for soft, occasional disturbances caused by their movements and activities. The terrestrial world, on the other hand, invited life at a much slower pace and remained awfully silent for another 200 million years.
Evolution of Soundscapes
The dawn of the Mesozoic era, post the Paleozoic period, paved the way for many terrestrial life forms to thrive on land. Insects had shown early signs of sound-producing characteristics in their anatomy by the end of the Paleozoic era but biophonics began to dominate the soundscape only during the Mesozoic period. The evolved vertebrates such as amphibians and reptiles, including the dinosaurs, developed a wide range of vocal abilities, inundating the world with their calls. Mammals made their debut in this period as well. However, the fossils of these creatures didn’t leave much for us to be able to study their voices. Nevertheless, their remains did give us an interesting insight about their ears, the shape and structure of which suggested that their auditory senses were attuned to higher frequencies, helping them prey on bugs and insects. These features would have also meant that they communicated in a frequency range that was inaudible to other species, giving these mammals an advantage over their prey and predators. Adapting to the environment, their ears would have further evolved and gotten specialised in picking up ultrasonic (in the case of bats) and infrasonic (in the case of whales) frequencies. So by the time we entered the Cenozoic period, mammals were able to navigate and survive, relying solely on their aural senses, giving rise to echolocation – a whole new way of experiencing and seeing through sound.
Near the tail end of the Cenozoic period, we could ear-witness a world that had developed its sonic signature with the marriage of biophonics and geophonics, establishing many keynote sounds, signals, and soundmarks. A majestic soundscape that took aeons to take shape, was then opened up to another world of sound with the evolution of Man.
Afforestation of Noise
The earliest sonic revolution of Man began with the development of language, an ability to design and vocalise sounds that represent symbolic thought. This not only indicated a sophisticated development of the larynx and the tongue but also demonstrated a remarkable sign of evolutionary intelligence, allowing the formation of groups and civilisations that would eventually bring humans on top of the food chain and enable us to assert sonic dominance. In the next couple of millennia, this world bore witness to the life Man created at the cost of its endangerment.
Over the last few centuries, we have made immense progress in the name of development, bringing about tremendous change in not just the visual but also the aural landscape. From mining coal and oil to building railroads and airports, the rise of industrialisation and resulting global tensions engulfed the sonic spectrum like the waves of a tsunami, one after the other. The temporality of sound began to wane and we found the world sinking in this ocean of noise across frequencies. Anthrophonics took over keynote sounds of the ecosystem, overlapped essential signals, and brought down significant soundmarks, leaving many species stranded and searching for their own voice in the ensuing chaos.
Thriving in a visually driven world of progress, our primordial aural senses have taken a backseat, making us adapt to noise without protest. The essence of a world devoid of anthrophonics was briefly enunciated when Quiet rightfully reclaimed its space during the pandemic. Saving that world of sound which evolved over millions of years starting from the Big Bang not only requires us to listen attentively but also to make sonic decisions consciously in ways that are planet-driven. In this universe of controlled chaos, the symphony of our world is best heard when we learn modes of being that complement our environment instead of overpowering it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Padmanabhan, an industrial engineer by a degree, rode his interest as it took a radical turn towards sound and music technology out of mere curiosity. Often found trying to save his laptop from crashing, he fumbles with algorithms to create generative music and soundscapes. Under the moniker beatnyk, he has performed in spaces and events including GitHub, Goa Music Lab, Unusual London and multiple Algoraves. He is a member of Whales for Climate, a project initiated in the BeFantastic Fellowship 2021 to propel TechArt as a means to create Climate Change Awareness.
Currently found in his cave working with independent projects/artists as a sound designer.