The Acoustics of Place

There is a nice piece in the NY Times Magazine by Kim Tingley entitled, “Is Silence Going Extinct?”. Tingley traveled to Denali National Park in Alaska to write about the work of Davyd Betchkal who has been documenting the natural soundscape of the region. The essay focuses on the intrusion of human-made noise even into the remoteness of the Alaskan wilderness:

“since 2006, when scientists at Denali began a decade-long effort to collect a month’s worth of acoustic data from more than 60 sites across the park — including a 14,000-foot-high spot on Mount McKinley — Betchkal and his colleagues have recorded only 36 complete days in which the sounds of an internal combustion engine of some sort were absent.”

What struck me, however, were a few observations that bore upon the relationship of sound to our experience of place. This is first signaled when Tingley cites Prof. Bryan Pijanowski: “An even more critical task, he thinks, is alerting people to the way ‘soundscapes provide us with a sense of place’ and an emotional bond with the natural world that is unraveling.”

The human experience of place, because it is a necessarily embodied experience, includes more than our visual or kinesthetic experience. It is also constituted by our acoustic experience.

The following meditation on sound and place by Betchkal was especially insightful:

“Quiet is related to openness in the sense that the quieter it gets — as your listening area increases — your ability to hear reflections from farther away increases. The implication of that is that you get an immense sense of openness, of the landscape reflecting back to you, right? You can go out there, and you stand on a mountaintop, and it’s so quiet that you get this sense of space that’s unbelievable. The reflections are coming to you from afar. All of a sudden your perception is being affected by a larger area. Which is different from when you’re in your car. Why, when you’re in your car, do you feel like you are your car? It’s ’cause the car envelops you, it wraps you up in that sound of itself. Sound has everything to do with place.”

Tingley contributes this observation about the acoustic dimensions of being a body:

“Hearing arguably fixes us in time, space and our own bodies more than the other senses do. Our vitals are audible: sighing lungs, a pounding pulse, a burbling gut.”

Near the end, Tingley adds,

“The landscape enveloped me, as Betchkal said it would, and I felt I was the landscape, where mountains and glaciers rose and shifted eons before the first heartbeats came to life.

‘Standing in that place right there,’ Betchkal told me later, ‘I had a complete sense that I was standing in that place right there and not drawn or distracted from it at all.'”

This latter observation recalled Edward Casey’s admonition that we learn to take account of place: “… it is to our own peril that we do not [notice our experience of place]. For we risk falling prey to time’s patho-logic, according to which gaining is tantamount to losing.”

When time dominates our thinking, it is all about gaining and losing, a gaining that is a losing. Place calls forth the notion of being. We speak of gaining or losing time, but of being in place.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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