NOISE and SILENCE
I walked into the nearby nature reserve with the intention of recording the sounds of the autumn forest. Before I took the Zoom out of my pocket, I decided to walk calmly along the path to perform the so-called "voice walk." When conducting a soundscape study it is customary to start the study with a sound walk, which maps the sound landscape to be studied, or more precisely, the nature of the sound space and the sounds that occur there. In acoustic ecology, the concept of sound landscape refers to people's understanding, experience and interpretation of their own sound environment, which they can also influence through their own actions. (Uimonen, Heikki. Ääntä kohti. Ääniympäristön kuuntelu, muutos ja merkitys. Tampere University Press, 2005.)
After walking about a kilometer dodging puddles and occasional joggers, I realized that the presentiment that I entered the forest with was about to come true, and the Zoom device was allowed to stay in my pocket. By far the most dominant sound in the forest was the highways, well, let’s say the noise that was carried from at that point about two kilometers and sixty-six meters away, behind woodlands, bushes, residential areas, and other roads. I stopped now and then, standing with my eyes closed and trying to observe my hearing to the extreme, to detect other sources of sound, or nuances in the prevailing soundscape. No, I didn't really hear anything else. At times, small gusts of wind managed to get small, barely distinct hisss out of the forest that had grown up on the land deserted by sea. Occasionally there was also a distant echoing, slowly fading rumble that I assumed to come from some larger, perhaps slightly defective vehicle or work machine. Due to the season, the birds also had nothing special to say so I did not hear any evidence of the presence of them or other animals.
For some time I tried to sense and feel out the atmosphere and the soundscape shaped by my prevailing senses and interpretations. It started to feel kind of silly to be in a forest where the prevailing sound is not the “sound of the forest” it felt like I was at the same time somewhere else than in the woods. I began to recall experiences of situations and places where the absence of man-made or machine-generated background noise could be sensed. In the end, there aren’t an awful lot of them. What was remarkable and a little amusing was that I remembered how, when exposed to such an environment, I usually wake up first to a flat, slightly irregularly wavy whispering tinnitus in my ears and especially my left ear. ______
After overcoming the frightened confusion caused by awareness of the intensity of tinnitus, I usually find myself a little embarrassed, surprised. The silence and specifically the absence of background noise makes the place somehow special, somehow private. A place becomes exactly the place it is, with its own sounds, without some distant underlying general noise attaching it to itself, into some other, independent place. Being there made me feel at the same somehow alert but also calmer. As if silence would make me focus on listening and being careful not to break the silence. At the same time, it feels like you are expecting something to happen. Perhaps the perception of silence produces a similar reaction as the dimming of the lights and the silencing of the human speech before the start of a film or theatrical performance; the noise ceases so that we can focus on sensing space and events so that something special can emerge.
Quiet places cause the need to observe the environment more clearly and pay attention to smaller sounds, naturally because they are distinguishable and perhaps also partly because the place feels special, in that particular place and you want to see and hear how that place feels, looks. The constant steady background noise seems to connect all the areas it is exposed to, into some general noise-related place, and then the specificity of the place and space and the associated landscape, and especially the soundscape, somehow dilutes.
When I walk into that forest, I feel especially not being only in that particular forest, but also strongly in the area and region that the background noise of the highway inaugurates in its auditory sphere of influence. In this case, a previously unknown forest or place feels familiar and in a certain way common, because the background noise curves over it, enclosing it in the same space among all other areas affected by the noise. As Voegelin states how noise is “..rooting me in the location of my own hearing. …it draws a static horizon around my feet.” (Voegelin 2010, 43) Even if there is no one else in the woods, one’s own feeling in this place doesn’t feel very private, but a steady noisy reminder keeps in mind the presence of others.
So what did I actually come from here in the woods to look for, or listen to? I knew in advance that highway noise would be the predominant sound in the woods and while I was there I focused on finding this point and somehow cynically I started to think about it and not really focus on what was happening in my instant surroundings.