José Saramago’s disquieting novel Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, published in English under the title of Blindness (Saramago 2005), begins with a driver, waiting at traffic lights, going blind. From one moment to the next he must rely on tactile and auditive information to get his bearings. In the lobby of the condominium where he lives, he suddenly remembers that the stairway will only be lit as long as he can hear the mechanism of the automatic switch. The light, this light, has been transformed into noise for him. A car stopping in the street is not his wife’s car, as it emits the sound of a diesel engine. The difference between a cab and the vehicle of his spouse is experienced through the ear. Sonic design helps him in orienting himself in his environment.
Being blind, one becomes an earwitness.
Only by becoming blind does this person seem to come to the realization that human beings are also living in an audible world, that we constantly receive all kinds of information through our ears. He becomes aware that listening and hearing play important roles in the way people deal with themselves, with others, and their environment.
There is a constant interaction between the sonic surroundings, the socio-cultural milieu, and the individual listener. In other words, people are giving shape to and are being shaped by their sonic environment. Besides the (natural) sounds that are already there, we fill the world with sounds; and simultaneously, all those sounds regulate our behavior to a certain extent. The ringtone of a cell phone, the sirens of an ambulance, the roar of the sea, the cry of a baby, Bach on an iPod, the heartbeat through the stethoscope of the family doctor, the singing of soccer fans, the rustling of the wind – all these everyday sounds, sounds which we often take for granted, sounds which we perceive consciously or unconsciously, affect our lives.
Below we have set out on a small journey to and through some sonic experiences. You don’t need to become blind for this. Just keep your ears open.