A FORMER TEACHER of mine used to ask his students to close their eyes and “listen for the smallest sound.” To listen that closely, he explained, was a fast track to heightened awareness. In listening for the smallest sound, one made contact with the loudest sound, and all others between. Of course, sometimes the loudest sound comes from within, and is totally inaudible to the outside world: an earworm, a hitch in the heart’s giddyup, the overtures and castigations of the inner voice. And sometimes the loudest sound is neither large nor small, but rather an atmosphere that permeates the range.
In the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals—so named for the little Alabama river village where much of the great American music of the twentieth century was recorded—musicians struggle to describe this very phenomenon. Maybe it was the industrial exhalations of freight trains slowing through the rail yard that produced those rhythms on Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man.” Maybe we should credit the Alabama humidity for the sex and swelter of “Mustang Sally.” Jimmy Cliff, who made his records there, invokes the concept of special energy fields. A Tsoyaha descendant tells a story about a singing woman in the Nunnuhsae, a river commonly identified on maps as the Tennessee; maybe we should thank the singing river for holy vocals drawn from the throats of Mavis Staples, Paul Simon, Etta James, Otis Redding. The musicians grasp for description, for the secret ingredient in the mix. “It’s about turning metal—the iron in the ground, the rust—into gold,” one interviewee says. “You just have to listen.”
Music evolves within ecosystems just as birdsong adapts to its landscape: canopy birdsong is adapted to canopy foliage, savanna birds to grass.
Musicians are always on the hunt for the real, and they’ll take it however it comes—whether by some happy accident in the recording process (wind frisking a tree outside, shouting voices on the street below) or by the capturing of ineffable ambience through skill, will, or divine intervention. David Byrne of Talking Heads has made a study of spaces and their influence on the music that’s made within them. His own songs owed their je ne sais quoi to the intimate acoustics of scabby punk venues, rooms where lyrics were legible and percussion “concise.” He connects Gregorian chants to the vaultings in Gothic cathedrals and Mozart’s sound to the tapestry-softened rooms where he composed and performed. Music evolves within ecosystems just as birdsong adapts to its landscape: canopy birdsong is adapted to canopy foliage, savanna birds to grass.
But adaptation can also mean moving far away from the places that formed us. The Rolling Stones went to Muscle Shoals to absorb some authentic Americana through their boot heels; chilly London produces no such swamp. Bob Dylan turned his body into a vessel for voices across time, space, class, gender—nearly the whole American saga coming through in chorus, save for the voices of Duluth, Minnesota, that northern town at the accusing end of Lake Superior’s finger: the birthplace to which his midnight deal at the crossroads forbade him ever return. Not that rock stars are unique in trying to solve a formative problem with geography. Rich kids slum it. Farm girls move to Paris. The middle-class suburban boy burns the contents of his wallet before vanishing into the Alaskan wilds.
The idea that music is affected by its place is so self-evident, it hardly seems worth commenting on. Substitute any other human creation and you’ll find the same—food, dance, story, architecture, a child. And yet we remain so charmed by the connections, by the genius of adobe in the desert, of mint mashed in liquid in muggy climes. We cherish, sentimentalize, are humanized by these relationships—perhaps more zealously in the last half century, as anxieties about the loss of local authenticity run parallel with anxieties about globalization, and what sometimes seems the attenuation of the bounds of culture and kin. The reality is more subtle. Perhaps homogenization is new, but what people make of their place has always crossed borders, mixed at the edges. New seed carries in on the wind.
Most of us have had an experience of music that is not reproducible, is entirely dependent on the particular place and time in which we heard it played. Songs heard in dive bars, around campfires, sung by our mothers at the bedside, or graveside, music whispered by lovers into our ears. If you’ve ever been to a shape-note sing, you know those sounds cannot be replicated beyond the room. The strange beauty of the fuguing voices—which seem to veer minor, major, and atonal all at once—is absorbed as much through your skin as your cochlea. This sacred singing can only arise between people in close proximity, breathing in time, their bodies no lesser or greater than any resonant instrument. And each of them a part of a greater song, the irreproducible music of creation: the forests, meadows, and seas. The silent or raucous spring.
A field of study known as “soundscape ecology” is devoted to recording and observing the sound signatures of particular ecosystems. These field recorders listen deeply to the music and conversation of living organisms, and they’ve captured soundscapes since erased from Earth, bearing witness to the extinction of those singular songs. The loss of that music is at once quiet and deafening. It permeates my days. I can hear it, even as my toddler shouts and smacks a variety of objects against the hallowed body of our Hummingbird guitar. The sound of his block striking the wood hits my nervous system just as violently; the instrument is precious. But more precious still is the body of the child finding his rhythm. His abundant noise casts as atmosphere of hope. Though I fear for the future he is inheriting, his animal exuberance is a music continuously created. Even as silence is forced on the world, in every corner of it, the living insist on singing. You just have to listen.