Why I hear music when I read the Dark Mountain manifesto

rsz_img_0812

I am sitting at the old pine kitchen table, listening. I can hear the sounds of my fingers tapping on keys; the sounds of sparrows squabbling and blue tits singing. I can hear the sound of a police helicopter levitating. I can hear the sound of a dog barking and a child laughing. I can hear the sounds of cars, vans, motorbikes and aircraft. Some of the sounds I hear are close, others distant. In the course of a day, I hear sounds that tell unique stories about the whole gamut of human experience: love; departures and homecomings; life and death; fear and contentment; and happiness and sadness. Importantly, all the sounds I hear tell a story about the world we live in and the world we are going to bequeath to future generations.

We live in a world of sound, yet few of us actively listen to these sounds. In a world dominated by images and words we are increasingly cut off from the messages that reside in sound. We may hear words spoken directly to us but do we search for meaning in the other sounds that permeate our daily lives?

Perhaps it is time for us to open our ears and to hear the world anew. Every issue our politicians discuss; every campaign our activists wage; every environmental catastrophe we bear witness to; every historical event that has shaped our world; every relationship; every love affair; every birth; every death; everything on this little planet, since it came into existence 4.54 billion years ago, has either created a sound or has a sound associated with it. Sound is important and we ignore it at our peril.

In my lifetime, the sonic environment in which I have existed has changed dramatically. Perhaps the most telling change has been the ‘muting’ of the dawn chorus. I have returned to my childhood home many times; when I was a boy I would be woken, as the east began to glow, by the joyous song of my avian friends. Today, in the same bedroom, I’m woken by sounds of traffic on the nearby road drowning out the sounds of the few birds that still have song left in them. We know that Britain’s songbirds are in serious decline. While much has been written about this decline, nothing attests to this reality with as great an impact as the fact that we are losing bird song from our lives.

I have a memory of what once was, but what of my baby daughter? She may grow up in a world populated by a few dominant bird species that generally ‘squawk’ rather than ‘sing’. Perhaps she is the lucky one as she will have no memory of a past filled with bird song to make her sad.

It is only relatively recently that I have started to acknowledge that sound has been one of the most important determinants of the life I have chosen to live. The realisation that Rachel Carson was right and we would soon experience ‘silent springs’ is one of many reasons why I ended up becoming an environmentalist. Sitting in the forests of southeast Australia listening to the harmony of biodiversity made me a passionate spokesperson for the preservation of the wild. Walking through the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, being assaulted by a cacophony of human generated ‘noise’, made me an ardent advocate for re-connecting people to nature as a way of fighting poverty. Sound has helped me understand that the ways we are trying to solve the many crises we face are misguided and almost certainly wrong. Forget all this nonsense about economic growth being the solution.

The sound of economic growth is disharmonic and is totally at odds with the cadence and rhythms of the natural world. Sound has helped me understand that through actively listening to the world we will be better able to find solutions to our most intractable problems.

The impact of actively listening should never be underestimated. Twenty years ago, I was in Australia doing a PhD on the links between climate change and human security. I was using words and images to describe the impacts that a changing climate could have on the small island states of the southwest Pacific. In various formats, I started to tell people about what I was discovering through my research. If action were not taken to halt emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases then some islands, namely Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau, would disappear under rising seas.

Despite my protestations that action was needed to avert catastrophe, no one was heeding my message. Despite powerful images and emotive words my message was impotent. No one was listening to what I was saying.

rsz_172

I resided in a perplexed — perhaps depressed — state for many years trying to understand why the human race continued to act in a way that would lead to its inevitable demise. It took me a long time to realise that the reason no one was willing to change was because the story I, and like minded people, were telling was far less compelling than the one Ronald McDonald was telling about his ‘tasty’ burgers, Coca-Cola was telling about its fizzy beverages, and Apple was telling about its computers. Despite years of cogitation — often in beautiful wild spaces — I couldn’t see how a story about saving the planet from the ravages of human greed could ever be as compelling as the stories that encouraged, and fostered, that greed. Only recently have I realised something important; the story I have been telling has been without sound. I, like many other concerned individuals, have had no ‘soundtrack’ to go with their message whereas Ronald McDonald, Coca Cola, and Apple, have! Upbeat music, linked to shiny products or fast food, is an intoxicating mix.

As I had never really understood the power of sound, I was unprepared for the impact a particular sound was to have on my life. Late one sultry afternoon I went for a beer in a bar in Balmain, Sydney. I sat down outside, with a schooner of VB, and took out my notebook, probably to write some slightly maudlin poem about the state of the world. Before pen had touched paper I had an auditory experience that was to change my life forever. From inside the bar came the sound of the didgeridoo. It was a sound that literally blew my little mind apart — every concept I had faith in, every belief I held, every value I lived by, every ego-based perspective I projected, every preconceived idea yet to be confirmed, everything just dropped away. Indeed, everything I thought I knew about the world was challenged by that sound. The sound of a hollow piece of wood transformed my world. To this day, I wonder what I would be doing if I hadn’t heard Australia’s foremost didgeridooist, Charlie McMahon, playing in a bar in Balmain?

The story of an environmentalist being drawn to the sound of the didgeridoo is, perhaps, a little hackneyed. I’m not given to slipshod statements about the ‘power’ of the didgeridoo. I do not subscribe to the view pedalled by some New Agers that by simply blowing the instrument you change the world. I am sure someone with an understanding of quantum physics could legitimately challenge my view; however, in my mind, changing the world requires a bit of banner-waving and anger too! Equally, if I were religious, or particularly spiritual, I might say that the sound of the didgeridoo had connected me to a ‘god’ or to a cosmic consciousness but none of this would be true.

My experience of the didgeridoo was profound but very simple; the instrument, and the sound it made when played, connected me to what Aboriginal people term ‘country’ — landforms, the sea, the sky, water, air, plants, animals, stories and special places (1). Somehow, the sound connected me to the Australian environment; an environment that, as an immigrant, I had loved but had never felt truly connected to — until playing the didgeridoo I had never been able to call Australia ‘home’. The sound of the didgeridoo made sense of the land — it was of the land and it connected me to that land. I have since realised that this power is not geographically specific. I have played didgeridoo throughout the world and every time I play I feel a deep sense of connection.

582509_10151405945654874_1158832255_n (1)

What has this discussion of sound, and the didgeridoo, got to do with the Dark Mountain manifesto?

When I first read it I heard, in my head, the sound of the didgeridoo. I heard rhythms, I heard animal calls and I heard harmonies between the sound of the didgeridoo and what I was reading. Everything I read turned into sounds and, in some cases, music. The more I read of the manifesto the more I realised that sound can make sense of everything the manifesto speaks of. Sound can teach us about our disharmonious relationship with nature. It can tell us how we have constructed nature as ‘other’ through our collective amnesia of how to feel the rhythms of this nature while, at the same time, creating new rhythms that are at odds with this planet. As Jeffers states: ‘The beauty of modern Man is not in the persons but in the disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the dream-led masses down the dark mountain.’

Sound can tell us everything we need to know about the world we have created and why we have created it. Importantly, sound can help us understand how to address the planetary ills that our greed and fear have precipitated. As the Dark Mountain manifesto points out, Freud wrote of the inability of people to hear things which do not fit with the way they see themselves and the world. The key word here is ‘hear’. If we learn to listen to the world — to truly listen to the sounds we are creating and, even more, the sounds we are extinguishing, then we may well heed the message that ‘is screaming at us’. We will know that our current path is doomed — it is a path that has been constructed around rhythms that our planet cannot feel; around sounds that have no reference point and therefore have no harmonies to form; and importantly, around noises that tell of our disconnection to the biophysical systems that make life on Earth possible. While playing didgeridoo cannot ‘heal’ the world it can tell us of these lost connections and help us navigate a new relationship with the ‘other’.

Since hearing the sounds of the Dark Mountain manifesto I have decided, with my co-conspirator Harry Coade, to dedicate my life to making a noise about issues that matter to me. Through an organisation called Sound Matters we aim to use sound to tell new stories about the world. We want people to hear different soundscapes and understand the impact they have. We want to capture ‘dying’ sounds and re-introduce them into people’s lives. We want people to hear the lofty shrill song of the skylark and the jaunty call of the song thrush. These sounds are important; they situate our lives in something bigger, something meaningful and something enduring. We want to use sound to change the world!

I am no longer interested in the transient sounds of a modern culture that will surely die. I want to celebrate the enduring sounds of this and other lands. Our soundscape tells us stories of the lives we are living and the lives we may wish to create. If we wish to float in a world of computer generated ‘beeps’, ‘buzzes’ and ‘hums’ then that, in itself, speaks volumes about the state of our souls.

After reading the Dark Mountain manifesto, Harry and I sat down with cellist Hannah Lloyd and created the following piece of music. I am not sure why we called the piece ‘Western Wilderness’ but is seemed, at the time, a fitting title.

 

CLICK HERE TO HEAR WESTERN WILDERNESS

(1) http://www.visitmungo.com.au/aboriginal-country

Mike Edwards has spent much of his life trying to prevent the destruction of ‘wild’ spaces — both real and imagined. He lived in Australia for 11 years where he did a PhD on the links between climate change and security. Since completing his Ph.D., Mike has dedicated himself to music and teaching. Over the past 17 years, he has roamed the world playing didgeridoo and teaching people why it is crucial to love nature. Mike is the co-founder of Sound Mattersan organisation that uses sound and music to raise awareness of climate change and other environmental issues.

Top image ‘Australia from Afar’ by Lena A Edwards

 

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

13 thoughts on “Why I hear music when I read the Dark Mountain manifesto

  1. Thank you, Mike Edwards. An hour before discovering your fine piece, I was reading an interview with Fritz Schumacher, given not long before the publication of Small is Beautiful (1973). When asked whether he was optimistic about the future, he replied:

    “Well my friend I think if you are a worker bee and not a queen bee you do not even ask yourself if you are optimistic or pessimistic, you just get on with the work. I mean, this is the good Indian tradition of Karma Yoga. You do what you conceive to be the right thing irrespective of what your expectations are, whether you finally succeed or not”.

    • Tanks for the story Mike. I had no idea the Balmain sound experience. was so seminal a moment but your yearning mind would have found it somewhere else wouldn’t it. Well you have an epic and worthwhile concept in Black Mountain to get on with and as I have said previously the didj orchestra we played in remains my most loved didj based sound. .

      • The Didj Orchestra was a highlight for me too. I remember the gig we did with strings and tabla on the south coast. How I miss those days…

  2. Hi Mike,
    reading your very enjoyable piece of writing about sound reminded me of a slightly sad yet interesting fact of life I discovered last year or so: in rural north Germany, where I live, there is an abundance of grasshoppers and crickets, playing their music, espacially when it´s warm and dry. One day when I had a chat with my neighbour who is about 5 years older than me it turned out that he could not hear them, while I could discern at least 4 different kinds loud and clearly.Like most people I knew that with age you gradually cease to hear the higher frequencies, and I thought: could that be the reason? Ever since I keep asking my visitors if they can hear the crickets when I hear them, and although this is by no means scientific, I´m more and more convinced that it must be the reason, for the older the person I ask is, the more likely is a ´no´for an answer. Not many people seem to be aware of this, so I thought I share it here for anyone interested. So far I can still hear them, but, as I said, it´s slightly sad to know that one day I won´t be able to …but on the other hand a musician I know told me that with age you get better at hearing low frequencies and I guess that matters more for playing the didge. Good luck with your work !

    • Hi Frank,

      Yes, it does appear that the higher frequencies are lost as one gets older. Thankfully, despite being 47, I can still hear the grasshoppers and crickets – at least, I can in those areas were their numbers haven’t seriously declined! Sadly, where I live in the south of England, one rarely hears grasshoppers and crickets these days. Occasionally, when I am out cycling on a lovely hot day, I will hear ‘their lovely music’ but, because of modern agricultural practices and loss of habitat, their numbers have fallen dramatically and their music has been muted. I need to visit rural north Germany!

      • Hi Mike,
        if you ever want to come here for a visit you´re very welcome to do so. I live in an old farmhouse with plenty of space inside and out, and visitors are always welcome, especially musicians :D
        Like you I do think that the sounds we are surrounded with on a daily basis are quite important to our wellbeing. I guess I´m rather lucky to have found this part of the world, because although there is industrial agriculture (of course), there are also still some hedges, small woods and little wild spots left to themselves, which is probably why there is still the typical rural soundscape, which only sometimes is disturbed by the heavy machinery the farmers use.
        In spring when the fruit trees and shrubs in the garden are blossoming I sometimes just stand in between them and listen with my eyes shut to the amazing variety of insects buzzing from flower to flower. There is also the danw chorus, but as well the dusk chorus of songbirds to enjoy, and all that is much better entertaining and relaxation to me than anything an elctronical device could come up with.
        So, if you really want to visit you need to tell me a way to give you my address as this is probably not the apropriate place to do so.

  3. What a beautiful and meditative piece of writing. Thank you.

    As I walk my dog Kiko at various spots around White Rock Lake in Dallas, I am continually baffled, bewildered, bemused by wondering what bewitchment these bikers and walkers and runners all have the exactly same white earplugs iplugging their ears. And why? And what in the world are they listening to? I would hope music but by the look of desperation on their faces, my hypothesis is that they are listening to some sort of self-help or exhortative motivational speaker as they relentlessly push themselves on and on and of course in this culture, nothing is EVER enough.

    Yet as I walk, I hear and feel the breeze, listen to the birdsongs, to the rustle of the branches and leaves of trees, to the crunchy sound of our feet on the grass, to Kiko busily and enthusiastically sniffing about, to human voices and geese honking, a dog’s bark, duckings quacking, a squirrel’s scold because we got too close, and mockingbird’s singing and oh how they sing.

    Yet these people are all missing the chorus: biking, running, walking IN Nature; only visiting Nature and while they are visiting, not even trying to hear Nature; indeed, trying to block it out?

    Without too much reference to the already aggressive, dominant american culture, these words come to mind:

    “And in the naked light I saw
    Ten thousand people, maybe more
    People talking without speaking
    People hearing without listening
    People writing songs
    that voices never share
    And no one dared
    Disturb the sound of silence.”

    People not even trying to HEAR let alone LISTEN.

    And the sound, Of deafening silence. Of what CAN be spoken of in polite company and what cannot.

    I like the didgeridoo. Thanks for sharing it.

    We are a part OF Nature, not apart FROM Nature.

    • Hi Thom,

      Thank you for engaging with my blog and for your comments. I completely understand what you are saying about people separating themselves from the ‘other’ through ‘iplugging’ their ears. I believe strongly that we need to open our ears so that we can hear the other stories that are being told – by the wind, the rain, and the animals and plants with whom we share this fragile planet.

      It would appear that in today’s ‘glossy’ world, our ears have but one purpose, to listen to the voices of those who tell us that happiness can be achieved through a greater separation from nature.

      I believe our job is to make sure people hear different stories – the types of stories that Dark Mountain encourages. Together we can make a lot of noise! And out of this noise will emerge sonorous harmonies that tell of new beginnings.

      I am pleased you like the didgeridoo…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *