In the very first episode of the Music, Meaning and Mystery podcast I interviewed Jazz musician, Su Terry. The podcast has a traditional closing question: “What should people listen to?” Su’s admonition was to return to raw sound. I thought about this but could not wrap my mind around how to be with an idea so big as “raw sound”. This month, our little podcast celebrates its 12 month-a-versary and Su Terry makes a second appearance on the podcast, again nudging us towards raw sound. This time in a more technical and instructive manner and expanding the concept with her idea about “vertical music”. Switching my primary musical practice from guitar to singing has helped me understand Su’s advice about the “verticality” of music. Due to my forays into throat singing, I’ve developped a more intimate relationship with the vocal cords but also with the diaphragm, lungs, skull, nasal cavity, lips and tongue. I now see my voice not just as a vocal cords thing but as a full upper body thing. My voice is my body. After some time playing with my body voice, I began to hear the verticality of notes. That is to say, I can sing a single note and by playing with variations of physical positions of my body I can overlay tones over the main note – I found I have a particular fondness for B flat which I’ve subsequently discovered is a very strange note that black holes are tuned to and it angers alligators.
What Su is trying to tell us is that we are making music with notes (horizontally) when we should be factoring in tone. I wonder if our immersion in media has a role to play in this. We read horizontally, including music. This may have programmed us to think horizontally. We even “see” time as a horizontal line. If I write down the idiom “getting from A to B”, is the image this conjures in your mind a horizontal line? Su says several times that exploration of the verticality of music is akin to “going to the source”. The invitation to vertical music is a call to ascension by way of vibration.
Birds in Bullet Time
In a simple turn of words, “vertical music”, there is a mystery. Even the most basic of questioning unveils deep meaning. Basic questions like, “how loud can a sound get?” lead to strange places. How do we even measure loudness? By the strength of vibrations hitting ear drums? It’s not so simple. Harsh sonic textures played at lower volumes than soft textures still sound louder. One answer to how loud sound can get is: 194 decibels. That is the upper threshold of hearability. Beyond 194db, sound can not be heard as it no longer travels through air, it displaces it and thus creates a vacuum between the sound waves. Above 194db is the realm of shock waves and acoustic weapons.
How about another “simple” question: how do animals hear sound? Different animals evolved not only different hearing apparatus but they live in different time dimensions. Yes, that’s a real thing. It’s called Critical Flicker Fusion Frequency and it has to do with the brain’s frame rate or something like that (hey, I’m not a scientist). A fly’s frame rate perception is high, and thus it has a short lifespan, a daredevilish flight skill and a very high dodge modifier. CFF also explains why if you move very slowly, you can catch a fly with your hand. A slow moving object to a housefly, appears motionless because they live in bullet time.
Elephant frame rate is low and thus all animals around them are a blur. This is ok for an animal with no natural predators. On the other hand, elephants see storms coming quickly. I wonder if this is why we have lore (and evidence) about elephants having long memory. A low reality frame rate would cause events distant in time to be squished closer to one another. To an elephant, something that happened last year has perhaps happened just a few months ago.
That’s not to speak of lizards and other reptiles who can switch frame rates. They blend into the plant world and spring into bullet time to catch insects to eat. We’re trying to answer the question: “how do animals hear sound?” and we end up at time-bending lizards.
This guy recorded bird songs at the frame rate of birds and then played them back in such a way as humans could simulate hearing those songs as birds might.
Makes you wonder what creatures exist just outside our reality frame rate, right there but not perceptible by fasties like us.
This focus on the materiality of sound is something for people who write papers for peer review. But it is useful knowing the mystery is there, that we can play with it in our living rooms and listen to birds wielding it with mastery. Mystery is but one simple question removed from us.
The Secret Song of Frogs and Birds
This reminds me of a concert I attended in the Knox Mountain Basin. I hiked up the mountain’s southwest face and went down its north side to a wetland. I was drawn there by the song of frogs. But upon arrival at the marsh, only the redwing blackbirds were singing. So I sat and watched them dance and play fight and enjoyed their distinctive trill. After about 15 minutes, a single frog began. He croaked a few croaks and stopped. He was answered in stereo, at the west end of the marsh. With eyes closed I heard the frog croaks slash across the marsh East to West and back. I listened to the ricochet slap back off the basin walls. I swear it felt like the sound was going at a speed I could follow. Did my meditative state increase my CFF and bend me to frog time? And then, a crescendo of dozens of frogs croaking. The bird section quieted down. A few minutes later, a crash of birds and frogs and wind. Finally the orchestra cooled down and the frog movement ended. The birds kept at it. The concert never ended.
In my appearance on Nightbird Radio I discussed my own personal experiences with “time travel”. I do not find the notion of entering frog time as strange as it might be. The big bang, the wind of change, the frog croak, all happening Now, a symphony for all time. All I had to do was climb a mountain and listen.
This anniversary of the podcast has me thinking about what should be my focus going forward. I’ve turned a corner in my project slash pilgrimage. It all started with the challenge of embracing change in my music career. I had lost my band whom I loved very much. I decided to accept this as an initiation into something greater. I endeavored to answer the big question: “what is the meaning of music?” That was 3 years ago. The majority of my approach to answering the question has been to annotate books and have conversations with people. I recently have had a bit of a distaste for the book research. I took a break from it. A booky approach yields thinky results. I’ve craved something more embodied, immediate, direct. As with a piece of music, change is necessary. You may notice a tonal shift in the podcast towards the granular, towards embodiment or the so-called mundane. You will hear an interview with a woman who practices the art of ornithomancy, an interview with a dancer, an interview with a radio DJ, wherein we mostly just nerd out about going to metal shows. I’m finding a place to land this heady enterprise. I’m coming down to earth. Discussion of the big ideas continues to excite me. But I want to remember that the deepest secrets of music are whispered by frogs and birds.
As a gesture of appreciation for you listeners I am offering a 12 month-a-versary giveaway. To enter simply use the contact page to send an email with the subject line “giveaway 2022”. I will announce the winner in September. In the meantime, please enjoy the latest podcast below.
This giveaway is sort of my answer to this podcast’s traditional closing question: “what should people listen to?” I am giving away an infinite piece of music. One of my favorite musicians, Brian Eno, created an app which makes music he calls generative. It plays ambient music which is always changing and never ending. It also has a feature that allows you to display infinitely changing lockscreen visuals. What is particularly brilliant about this piece of music is that its moods follow the rhythm of the four seasons. The great cycle. I think this is especially good for those of us with jobs that allow us to listen to music (or podcasts) all day. I find it also great as background music in the home while reading and doing house work. The app has a value of approximately $30 USD. It only works for iphones but if you are an android user, enter the giveaway nonetheless. I have a backup plan if you win. I promise I’ll give you something equally cool.
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