Everything is singing: the percussion of mandibles and the songs of pondweed

Wasp chewing on wooden fence

Pondweed in the pond at Winnall Moors

15/08/10
In the summer the moors are pregnant with sound, everywhere hums, sings, scratches, clicks and whines. Not all of these sounds are available to the ear, but they are still there. The microscopic noise that lurks beneath the surface of audition can become apparent through the acoustic lens of the contact microphone and hydrophone. These microphones focus their attention on the vibrations and pressure changes of surface and substance, converting oscillations into audible voltage. Through the technological ear of the microphone, the small sounds that haunt our hearing can be made substantial and apparent.
On a late summer evening I sat on the deck over the pond in Winnall Moors, listening to the bees suckling at the thistles and watching the wasps flying to the wooden fence. It was visibly noticeable that the fence had gained a waspish patina, as the insects chewed at its surface and took away the resulting pulp to build their nests. On the right kind of fence this mastication of wasps can be heard without recourse to microphonic amplification: the thin wood panels acting as timpani for the percussion of the wasps mandibles. But in the moors the thick wooden beams of the fence, dampen the vibrations. I attached my contact microphones onto two different areas of the fence, and listened into the gnawing rasp of the wasps chewing that fence into paper.

A short summer shower punctured the surface of the pond and I turned my ear to the aquatic sounds beneath its surface.  In spring I had sunk my Hydrophone into the water, listening for the noises of tadpoles that had turned the pond into a dark vibrating jelly of potential frogs. I now submerged my hydrophone into the rich green weed that filled the water. At first there was just the radiophonic crackle of rain and the occasional rumble as a bubble floated up from the muddy bed. But then I began to hear an intermittent clicking noise accompanied by an almost electronic whine. I have no idea what these sounds are, perhaps they result from the photosynthesis of the aquatic plants: the songs of pondweed in a soniferous garden of gaseous exchange.

The composer John Cage has already imagined a ‘music we have no ears to hear’, in his  mycological ‘music of spores’ .  He believed that technology would bring the atomic music of all things into the realm of human audition. In the same way that radio allows us to tune into an inaudible air saturated with sound, micro-phonic amplification would allow us to listen into the music of objects, plants and insects: producing a new form of music that emphasises listening over composition. In his excellent book Noise Water Meat, Douglas Khan finds a spiritual link to Cage’s ideas in George Sand’s The Seven Strings of the Lyre:

Hear the voice of the grain of sand which rolls on the mountain slope, the voice which the insect makes, unfolding its mottled wing, the voice of the flower which dries and bursts as it drops its seed, the voice of the moss as it flowers, the voice of the leaf which swells as it drinks the dewdrop…

At an atomic level at least, all matter vibrates and there can be no vibration without sound. All things are haunted by sound and everything is singing, it is just a case of turning our listening toward this resonance.

These very small sounds benefit from listening through headphones.

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