In a world dominated by human noise and industry, true quiet is hard to find. That is to our detriment, according to sound ecologist Bernie Krause. A musician and sound designer, Krause lives in northern California.
Krause is known for his work in soundscape ecology: the study of acoustic relationships within an ecosystem.
For example, human noise can have a significant impact on wildlife. Marine mammals rely on sound to navigate, and the cumulative noise from shipping lanes, military activity, and seismic oil exploration can be catastrophic for them.
Noise can have chronic influence on the human body as well.
"When the World Health Organization has done studies on urban sound and urban noise, they found it introduces great amounts of stress," said Krause. "Glucocorticoid levels are through the roof, whether we recognize it or not. Even for those of us who love the sound of being in a city. Heart rate, blood pressure, all of those indicators are through the roof. These soundscapes have a profound effect on our lives, even if we’ve rationalized a way to accept them because many of us have to live in urban areas."
To address this, the U.S. federal government briefly established the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) but it was defunded in 1982 by the Reagan administration. Today, noise control (with the exception of federal aviation regulations) is left up to cities and states.
The state of New Hampshire does not have noise ordinances outside of vehicle muffler rules and provisions regarding wind farm construction, although some cities do, including Manchester, Durham, and Nashua.
Krause says that New England - and New Hampshire specifically - might be a particularly hard place to find quiet.
"In New Hampshire, on a flight path at any point in time and place you can locate. It’s really hard to get away from it."
Urban sound and the artist
But where does this leave those of us who live in towns and cities? Are urban citizens doomed to a life of stress and noise?
Sound artist Robin Parmar doesn't think so. Born and raised in Canada, Parmar is currently based in Ireland, where he creates sound installations, writes music for dance and film, and studies field recordings, approaching the sound of our environments primarily as an artist.
"For example, on one of my albums, I have a recording I made in the street of street-cleaning machinery," Parmar explained, referring to his track "Roadworks" of his album The Drones.
"The sort of thing most people would consider just obnoxious. It's a big continuous noisy drone. But I could also hear the echoes of it off the building."
"I had my recorder with me, as I often do, and I sort of created a composition by moving myself relative to the sound-generating machine and relative to the buildings."
Parmar disputes the idea that the urban environment has grown steadily louder and worse, or that it's only bad for us.
"I just dismiss that idea because I don't even think it's factually true," he said. "Some of the earliest writings that we have from cultures around the world are complaining about noise. It's there in Greek writing and ancient Rome and everything, so I don't think it's a new phenomenon at all. We always crave the snowy mountaintop or the deep valley or the abandoned seaside where we can experience quiet. I suppose I might use the word 'quiet' more than 'silence'."
"As John Cage famously observed, there is no silence."
"If you go into a room designed to absorb all sound, an anechoic chamber, a room designed for equipment testing where there's absolutely no sound-- you become aware that you bring sound into that room yourself. You can hear your heartbeat, the blood pulsing in your neck," said Parmar.
Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven't the answer to a question you've been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you're alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.
The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
Rather than seeking the quiet of a mountain valley, Parmar is interested in ways to connect, express, and be surprised by the sounds and silences that occur around us on a daily life. He refers to the “soundscape,” a term that was coined - although perhaps not invented - by the Canadian composer R. Murray Shafer.
"[A soundscape] is basically anything you hear," said Parmar. "It's approached in two different ways predominantly. One is a compositional approach: listening to every day sounds of life as a composition. The act of listening turns you into a composer. You choose what to focus on, what to filter out."
"The other aspect would be a more of an investigative aspect: going out, recording sounds, listening to sounds, notating sounds, graphing sounds, mapping sounds... all of these perhaps more scientific ways of approaching it but which also can really inform the way you might listen in future."
Wrapped up in the soundscape is the idea that the voices of ordinary people are valuable, that life on the streets and in markets and shops is worth documenting. Something that might seem banal within a single moment can one day within a lifetime become special or even become an object of historical interest.
"It does act as a time capsule," said Parmar. "If you think about it, we've only been able to record our world - the audio part - and play it back for a fairly short amoutn of time, like a bit over 100 years. But that hasn't been accessible to most people until the last 30, 40 years."
"There's a lot we can't hear any more."
But paying attention to the the soundscape around you doesn’t just mean recording it. The senses of the human body are actually a much finer instrument, in many ways, than a microphone.
"There's the cocktail party effect... the idea that if you're at a party with 50 people speaking, you can actually single out one conversation from across the room, which is quite a skill and involves more than sense of hearing. It involves your sense of sight and other things. And in particular it's something that a microphone cannot do."
"When we listen back to recording of an environment like that with a lot of noise and hubbub, it's going to sound pretty bad. We're not going to be able to discern very much from it. But when we were there making the recording, we could hear things quite clearly, so that's kind of interesting in terms of psychoacoustics and how we can pick up different things in the environment."
Viewed in this way, the idea of separating senses falls apart. The entire body becomes the instrument.
"Hearing is certainly done with the whole body. That's why people go to loud dance concerts (well, there's various reasons why people might go to a concert) but the musical reason is full of physicality. If you're at a concert with giant bass bins and a big sound system, you feel that sound in your gut. As heavy metal dudes say, they want that 'trouser-flapping sound'. So sound is very physical, and also we definitely use vision to hear."
Deepen your senses with a blindfold walk
To explore the nature of sound and the senses, Parmar recommends a few different exercises that you can try yourself at home, including a blindfold walk (good with a partner). This is just one example of what R. Murray Shafer dubbed "ear cleaning exercises."
"The experience is different for everybody because some people get quite afraid, even terrified, because they're just not used to being blind."
"What I've noticed is you can tell an awful lot of environment without your eyes, without any practice. So if you walk past wall, you can tell if there's brick above you or if there's a window. You can tell how much space there is above you, approximately. You can even tell if you're about to walk into a pole or something."
"We have those senses. And certainly if you were born without eyesight or if that condition developed, I'm quite sure that the sense would be enhanced to a certain degree. But the point I like to make is that we all have those abilities. We just don't know it because we're not practiced in them and we don't test ourselves to find out."
"Can we do it? Can we walk through a room blindfolded?"
Record your own soundscapes
"If you start recording your environment, you might find you really like it," said Parmar.
I decided to try my hand (or, ear) at the soundscape. I remembered the project as I was walking home from a friend’s house one day, and as I didn’t have professional gear with me, I simply took out my phone and hit record on the Voice memo app.
"It doesn't have to have this big word 'art' over it, I suppose," said Parmar. "For me, it's a very practical. embodied, day-to-day pursuit. The sound and the images and everything, if you pay heed to them, you realize you're living in a very rich environment. It can really -- for people who do have issues with noise -- it can give you another window onto that."
I also invited friends to participate, and as they sent me audio of their days, I was brought along as they made coffee, worked in the garden, talked to their babies, rode the train home from work.
Soundscapes: Exercises in listening, play, friendship, and history
And, finally Steve Paradis (my dad) at the harbor on Nantucket island, where I grew up and where he still lives. These sounds are so familiar and evocative for me - and it’s honestly pretty emotional to hear that buoy bell clanging in the background.
What this recording says to me is that my dad, hoping to help me on this project, made time in the busy summer to go down to the beach right when the ferry pulled away from the dock and sounded the horn to announce its departure, but, though he timed it perfectly, the ferry horn is interrupted by the whine of sirens, somewhere nearby. To me, this confluence of sound is a signal that times are changing on the island, as it gets more and more crowded and busier every year. This recording demonstrates care and chaos, all at once.
Hearing these daily sounds felt like dropping in on people's lives, an unexpected way to feel close to far-away friends. Robin Parmar told me this idea of exchanging sound is actually a rather old one.
"Back when cassette recorders were first available on the mass market, there were 'tape clubs' where people would record either stuff from their environment or, more often, they would record themselves, sort of audio letters, and send them off to other people, " he said. "In some pieces, for example in the U.K., there was an entire network of Tape Clubs."
"So some of these ideas are not necessarily new but a lot of them are kind of forgotten. They're mostly play, but then later on you might find that they've served some other function without you knowing it, like today we can go back to the tapes that the clubs made and that is an interesting social and historical archive."
Contribute your New Hampshire soundscapes to NHPR
It’s your turn! We want to gather the sounds of the state of New Hampshire and we need your help.
You’d simply be recording the sounds of your world, from the very beautiful to the annoying.
How to record a soundscape
You'll need: a smartphone recording app or a recorder.
IMPORTANT: Make sure everyone knows they're being recorded, with the exception of obvious public spaces where individual voices are indistinguishable. No one should be surprised to hear their voice on the radio.
1. Start your recording. You can narrate a little, but leave lots of room for the sounds of the world to be heard in isolation.
2. If you're using a smartphone, point the bottom edge (where the microphone is) towards the sound you're recording.
3. Don't allow the recording to get longer than 10 minutes or the file will get too big to email. You can also make several two-minute recordings over the course of a day.
4. Send the files to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, location, and brief description of the recording. And thanks!
Special thanks to everyone who contributed soundscapes for this piece: Sarah Mashman, Mike Williams, Ciara Gillan, Olivia May, Lindsey and Penelope Pszwaro, Rachael Borné, Addie Provenzano, Jimmy Gutierrez, Brian Chitester, Kristina Kalolo, Martha Schnee, Melanie Risch, and Steve Paradis.