The Still Small Voice, The Silence, and The Great Dim Deep Sound of Rain

With me, there’s always this sound. “the great dim deep sound of rain, of always and of nowhere”, wrote e.e. cummings.

 In the real world, it’s best heard as a light rain in the deep forest. When talking about my small Kentucky hometown, I guess I don’t tell people what is actually important: that how I feel about the political or social character of the place is ultimately meaningless to my sense of being a Central Kentuckian; that no matter how long I stay away, no matter how much I become a Scot or a Brit despite my accent, a part of me will always be a Central Kentuckian abroad. It’s because of this, all it represents, all that it feels like, and all that may be connected to it: The sound of a light rain in the deep woods.

 I wrote recently in another post about my adolescence and The Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge.  It’s there where I was first struck by the rain, and it became the first marks of a slow etching that would form my deepest sense of home. It was a temperate summer afternoon, petal soft, humid, but not very hot, maybe 80 F/27 C. The clouds were the billowing type made by moist air rising and condensing: scattered showers. I had paused, kneeling to look at some small wonder, when the sound passed overhead on the redbuds and tulip poplars, from west to east. I thought to myself, I know of no other feeling like this. I knelt further, like praying, for the scattered duration of a raincloud, an album leaf of time and happenstance. I turned, lay down on my back, face to the rain.

 It’s the sum of a vast multitude of the miniscule ‘pit pit’ noises made by water drops on eaves and boughs of broad leaves, from a quasi-infinite number of directions and distances. “the great dim deep sound of rain, of always and of nowhere”. My wife doesn’t understand why I always want to open the window at night. I want to hear the dim deep sound, my love, in case there is a shower.

 The Still Small Voice

As a young Christian I was told to listen to the still small voice. I did, but I don’t think I heard what the minister wanted me to hear. I heard the world, dammit, and what the hell else is there? I think the minister was talking about something else, a kind of Word of God, in the abstract. A little feeling, a sense of my “inner light”, as Quakers would put it. But telling me to listen to it strikes me as a rather duplicitous request. Words are a special kind of cultural sound that you and I must agree on first for them to work. So either the still small voice says, a) words, and we can agree on what they mean, or b) some other kind of sound, and that’s just the world, the wind, the tides, the traffic, the distant roll of thunder. It doesn’t mean things! (I’m now yelling at an imagined, long dead Baptist preacher from my childhood – I tend to get weirdly edgy when it comes to religion.) It’s like programmatic or incidental music. Would what you hear truly be about the story, if someone didn’t first tell you? The answer is No. No, Jesus is not in the sound of the world, any more than he is in the burnt toast. Jesus is in the word. John got it all wrong: the beginning wasn’t the word, which then became flesh. That’s backwards, surely. The programme can be part of the music, but it isn’t The Music. You know what I’m talking about? Because I’m not sure if I do.

As a kid I was also afraid of loud noises. ‘Phonophobic’, I think, although I like ‘ligyrophobic’, because I was never afraid (phobia) of sounds (phono) but of sounds that were sharp, hard, and damaging (ligyro). I know, at the so-they-say level, that a phobia may arise from a childhood trauma, but that normally this is not remembered as an adult. I remember. I was on a beach with my father and brother in 1980 when a jumbo jet came in low to land on a nearby runway. Sudden, unbidden cacophony. It was sound that destroyed all sound; all the sweet delicacy of lapping waves and gulls at the seaside, evaporated in the moment of impact. These words are adult words, of course, I didn’t log any of this at the time. If I recall correctly, I ran, and screamed, and wept afterward, ashamed of myself. I can’t help but believe that this fear was tied in with the chief anxiety of the my Cold War childhood: That sounds would one day come that would end all others, and burn our beautiful world to cinders. But that was it, and I lived out my childhood hating the guns I was brought up with, hating July 4th for the fireworks, hating air shows, Civil War re-enactments, and so many of the things that were the traditional domain of little boys in Kentucky.

Thinking about sound, and the "essential acoustic"

The 20th century theorist and composer Pierre Schaeffer proposed a phenomenology of listening based in four distinct modes, designated in the French verbs écoute, ouïr, entendre and comprendre. Vous devriez lire sur ses modes ici. Rechercher “quatre écoutes”. Basically, he was isolating types of listening according to concrete/abstract and objective/subjective spectra. It includes the semantic mode, comprendre, which is hearing sounds as symbols or codes. But what most intrigues me, when pondering lygirophobia, is the crudest mode of listening, ouïr, from an antiquated French verb not normally used in day to day conversation. It is, in Schaeffer’s definition, what we hear all the time without knowing it; it is what I am hearing now, what you are hearing now, what our lizard brains are dictating that we cut out of recognition, of cognition. It is sound, we are “hearing” it, in the physical sense, but it doesn’t matter. Tap tap tap tap on the keyboard, hum hum hum of the hard drive, gulls screaming their crazy gull language outside, my cat’s annoying meow, etc. But I know what the lygirophic knows: the leviathan always lurks beneath our conscious listening, and from time to time, it rises up, unlooked for, horrifying. My 8-year-old son is just the same.

Across the Atlantic the Canadian R Murray Schafer also spent some of his time proposing ideas about listening, but his take was in essence much more historical, sociological and environmental. He provided us with useful terms for describing our audible world. Key note sounds, for instance, “are those sounds of a landscape created by its climate: water, wind, forests, plains, birds, insects and animals.” (Schafer, The Soundscape, p 9-10) He also proposed the idea that sound in our pre-industrial, agrarian past was far more high fidelity than it is now, with all our modern-day contraptions and urban concentration. These days, of course, in modern Glasgow, the fact that someone seems to be trying to destroy an angle grinder on a hunk of galvanized steel down the street rather edges out the dim deep sound of passing showers this morning. I see an overlap in the Schaeffer/Schafer theoretical worlds through the ideas of high fidelity and keynotes on the one hand, and a mindless ouïr on the other. Ouïr is obliterated by intention. As soon as we decide to listen, to take part in the sound, it becomes another non-passive hearing type. It is the garden in which we walk, where we may take notice, or brood on our own thoughts. It is, though, in Schafer’s concept, the ground in the psychological conception of the ground/figure relationship. It serves to give everything else its meaning. That sound, the great dim deep sound, is in the shadows, behind my thoughts, always at the edge of my inner hearing.

Another French theorist, Michel Chion, distilled Schaeffer’s four modes of listening into three. Causal, Semantic, and Reduced listening. Reduced Listening is treating sound as sound itself, not as a sign nor a signal, not semantic or causal. The reduction of sound, in this context, has everything to do with intention. We can, with discipline, hear sounds, any sounds, as sound objects, or things in and of themselves with no external reference. The dim deep sound has characteristics that I may try to describe. Its depth is oceanic, but it’s lighter than air, gentler than a sigh. It’s mostly very high frequency “white noise”, with a pointillist textured surface tension. It’s a wide plane of sound, never starting nor ending abruptly. There may be some part of our evolution that draws us to the sound of life-giving rain, but is that all? May I just love the sound? Why did this mindless ouïr of passing, meaningless, inconsequential hearing become this special, elevated, otherness in my mind, and in the mind of e.e. cummings? Is this just what I hear? Or do you hear it too? How can a sound be poetic? This dim deep sound of rain, of always and of nowhere?

Perhaps I’m not the only one who takes sound to heart to this extent. The composer George Crumb refers to the key note of his native West Virginia when he speaks of the “haunting sounds that cross the river at night.” He calls it his “essential acoustic”, and attributes much of his musical imagination to it.

Every composer kind of inherits an acoustic, and that acoustic is natural, and it comes from the place where they grew up. And I always thought that West Virginia, a river valley, represented a kind of echoing, reverberant acoustic, and that in fact describes my music pretty well. So that if I were born in a desert area the acoustic would be different, and the New York City acoustic would be different, but here it is a question of echoes, and these haunting sounds that cross the river at night, you know, that bounce back and forth between the hills. That’s the essential acoustic in my music. [2007, West Virginia PBS]

I’d be interested to hear what my old friend and trombonist, Brian Thacker, thinks of Crumb’s description.  Brian’s a West Virginian, and when we used to play in a band together, occasionally we’d stay at his family home at the edge of a wooded hollow not far from Crumb’s Charleston.  Do the “haunting sounds that cross the river at night” reach Brian? Is it a part of his “essential acoustic”? It wouldn’t surprise me. He used to stand at the edge of the hill and blast big notes on the trombone, just to listen to the echo. 

Semantics shemantics

I’ve said it before.  Deconstructing music as an essential human activity is beastly hard. “Sonic artist” is one of the quasi-pretentious titles referring to who we are in the academic world. Why not just musicians? Is sound really the essential unifying concept? Having spent a bit of time thinking about the what music is, exactly, and how it is this thing here, but that thing there in another cultural/geographic context, and how you can talk about music 24/7 for a year and never mention actual sound once (entire books have been written on music that basically ignore the concept), I’m starting to think that when you talk about music, you’re mostly talking about identity, ritual, culture, semantics, etc, that is to say, people. When we talk about music theory, for instance, it’s way easier to speak in terms of a culturally informed grammar, like tonality, or atonality, or modality, than to cut to the chase about sound objects. Maybe Spectralism was the most obvious trend in 20th century art music.  (Hey Gérard, you ever think about, you know, sound?) But it's in the grammar, the semantics, and the syntax that I hear the still small voice, in the utterings of human culture. But I don’t want to try to hear the still, small voice. It says dumb things sometimes. I want to listen to the world, and when I really listen to the world, what I hear isn’t a voice, it isn’t a semantic entity. Annie Dillard said this in Teaching a Stone to Talk:

At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: the hum is the silence. Nature does utter a peep–just this one. (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1982)

But Dillard also thinks the still small voice is in the stillness. “It could be that wherever there is motion there is noise [what she calls ‘silence’]… and wherever there is stillness there is the still small voice.”  But I don’t get it! Surely a voice must say something, but what does the stillness say? The point of her essay is that this is the one thing that drives human activity, from religion to science, to, as she put it, “raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us.” I think that is right. But it also begs a question. It seems to me that the sound, if semantic, if a voice, is us.  That’s it.  So there it is, my further distillation of the Schaeffer-Chion line of theory: sounds that say things and sounds that are silence. Sounds and silences. I'm sure we've been here before.