Art of Listening: Deluge, Drought & Touch


I listened to rain for the better part of twenty years. Rain is endlessly sonically interesting as drops of water produce a synchronous infinity of tones, pulses and rhythms. It wasn't just a matter of listening to rain in various intensities falling on multitudes of surfaces. Once the clouds settled into the familiar Pacific Northwest grey above and the earth below turned to shlocky, sticky mud each October, the soundscape became a vast immersive wash whether it was raining or not, usually until July or August. It was the very nature and experience of sound that shifted during those long, soggy winters.

There's a physical reason for this. Sound waves cause molecules to vibrate. As the molecules vibrate, they bump into other molecules, which bump into other molecules, etc. This is how sound travels. Air may seem like empty space to us, but it is actually a gas, full of molecules, all vibrating with sound waves. Throughout the nine months of winter of the Pacific Northwest, the air is dense with water. When something or someone makes a sound, it spreads quickly in all directions, saturating the world with its reverberation.

I lived in various parts of northwestern Washington, and sometimes the operative word was north. In those times, it was not only profoundly dark, but also cold. Suddenly, the oozy world became unyielding. The mud froze into crunchy sheafs of ice. The damp and be-puddled pavement froze into treacherous, often invisible "black ice." The saturated cement sidewalks and walls of buildings turned from mushy and absorbant to hard and reflective. The water molecules in the air froze too, and this shifted how sound waves traveled. The sonic environment dramatically transformed from a nonspecific, dense immersion to a vast, crystaline echo-chamber. In these chilly moments, I relished the rare sense of knowing where sounds originated from and their specific trajectories of travel as they bounced off of the briefly reflective surfaces of the environment. Once it warmed up again, my toes happily defrosted, but my ears returned to the sonic swamp of undifferentiated, co-mingled noise.

After about twenty years of this immersive soundscape, I moved to California's East Bay area, which happened to be in the midst of a several year drought. East Bay sound waves have to content themselves with traveling through dry, dusty air. Sounds here are neither immersive nor reverberant. They simply are, or they aren't. It's simple and straightforward. This is neither better nor worse than the saturated soundscape of the Pacific Northwest, but it is decidedly different.

That encapsulates attentive listening in the Northwest versus the Bay Area. There is another layer of sonic experience - that of nonattentive hearing. We automatically engage in this level of sonic perception when we are not attentively listening. This level of hearing filters out the "unimportant" sounds from our awareness so we can focus on other areas of living. The white noise of our environment, be it urban or wild, is funneled into the background of our awareness, while our minds hone in on other input, usually visual. As long as there are no overtly disturbing noises - big crashes or bangs or shouts - we make sonic assumptions so we can stay focused on our tasks.

Perceptual assumption creates another layer of difference in the sonic experiences of the Northwest and the Bay. The world is so thoroughly saturated in the winters of the Northwest that the sound of rain becomes an assumed backdrop. The drops of moisture from sodden branches and leaky gutters fill in the sonic space between boughts of rain so that there is almost no break from the babel of drips for months at a time. Only once the rain has ceased for a few weeks does one start to hear the absense of drips. The decrease in the level of moisture changes slowly, so that only once it has been dry for a month does one notice that lack of sonic immersion that means summer has fully arrived.

In a drought-stricken land, however, rain is a foreign and forgotten experience. If one lives in a first world country, when dripping sounds occur, one assumes a neighbor has turned on their sprinkler before the concept of rain arises in the mind. We not only forget, but recontextualize the sounds we do not hear. This is why, every so often, it's important to stop and actively listen to the sounds around us. In so doing, we enter more fully and deeply into the world around us. Sound actually touches us, and causes our very molecules to vibrate. Our awareness is a way of touching back, and coming into a deeper relationship with the world in which we exist.

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