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.
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.
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.