On Sound

Almost everyone likes or even loves some kind of music, but it's rare to hear anyone talk about loving sound. My own love affair with sound must have started when I was a child, and it's taken many twists and turns over the years. I recently bought a portable digital recorder with good fidelity, and I've noticed that recording and listening intently to even the most ordinary of sounds is a source of fascination and pleasure. There's something about making a recording that changes my perceptions about the original sound. I focus on it in a different way, and unlike the real-time experience of sound, a recording can be played back multiple times, and new details can be noticed on successive listenings. In the real world, we only get one pass at all of our perceptions, and we often miss huge chunks of it.

Some years ago, I had my one and only formal interview with the kind of Zen Buddhist teacher who uses traditional koans as a method of helping trainees break through the mind's habitual patterns of thinking. I had mentioned to this teacher that I was a musician, and she suggested that I have a go at the only koan that everyone knows: "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" She was kind enough to give me a starting point. During meditation, she suggested that I simply listen to whatever sounds were present, without identifying them, or even trying to separate them into discrete sounds. While that sounds simple, it proves quite difficult to do. I adopted this listening meditation for quite some time, but I noticed that only rarely did a moment of judgment-free listening take place. For example, when the sound of a dog barking occurs, it's hard enough to drop the annoyance at the animal, or its (possibly negligent) owner. It's common to go off on some story about the dog, such as whether it's a big dog or a little dog, a frightened or angry dog, and so forth. None of this has anything to do with the sound of one-dog-barking in the moment. Even the sound has nothing to do with a dog; it's just a sound. The best I've been able to do with this koan is to become curious about the barking-sound, to notice its pitch, its rising and falling, the rhythm of the barks, their loudness or softness, the iterations of the sound and its absence. So I did find some mindfulness practice from this exercise. I still felt far from meeting the koan at the level the Zen teacher prescribed, since the sound of the dog barking was still so entwined with the label or concept of "dog" that I knew I had at least two hands clapping, and probably a lot more. I imagine that eventually, hard-practicing students in this tradition eventually get their "hands off" what they hear, and learn to simply hear sound in a purer form.

I did come closer to that experience recently when I recorded a bathroom fan with my portable gizmo. It was a sound I'd heard nearly every day, but rarely paid close attention to. It's an older fan, so it has a certain irregularity to it--an inconstant rattle and an arhythmic "thump." On the first round listening back, a number of explanations occurred to me as to the nature of the mechanical noise: a loose screw on the grill, a bent fan blade, an old motor with inconsistent speed, etc. After another couple of listenings, I got bored with my explanations about the cause of the sound and listened with my musician's ears. The rickety-tickety-thump was a complex, inexactly repeating motif, a fractal sound that hovered in the zone between order and chaos. After becoming fascinated with (and thereby hung up on) this idea for a time, I listened again, and eventually sunk into a light trance with it. For a time, it stopped being a fan-sound at all, or even a musical rhythm and just sort of hummed along. I engaged with it at least as intensively as I have with many pieces of music, and while it had no particular emotional patina for me, I found myself very tranquil for a time. It wasn't the sound that was tranquil; it was the respite of mind from picking, choosing, planning, defining, deciding or controlling, free of most of the baggage of buying-and-selling of experience that is so typical of the state of a human-doing. But I had to get through my over-conceptualizing and a lot of boredom to get there.

Zen masters have tamed their minds to the extent that they can let go of these habits of mind for extended periods of time and can accept the steam of everyday experience without much editing and manipulation.  As a Buddhist, that is one major aim of my practice. As a composer, my aim to to create sound-worlds that, while imaginary, may give others some experience of suspending the judging-and-planning mind, to have an experience of greater spaciousness and tranquility. The sound of one hand is all around; learning to hear it is a lifetime of practice. May we all listen more deeply.

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