Spelunking in the Cave of Sound


Collaborating on a weekly basis with the cohorts in the Sun(Ra) Room as we prepare to play at the Won Buddhist Temple Bazaar on October 10th. I record each session, then listen closely to learn what it is we are doing. One thing I hear clearly is that we are playing to the overtones. This can be discerned in the “extra” voices that can often be heard when listening to these soundscapes. The soundscapes themselves stem from my dreams, which are about flowing water and spinning into stillness of late. The form of soundscapes is a swirling vortex. The movement is spinning and flowing. Other worldly overtones get kicked up in the process.

For many listeners, soundscapes may feel overwhelming and chaotic. Just as the players must listen their way into the vortex, so the listener must as well. Desire helps fuel this; a  wanting to hear WHAT? is going on IN THERE. To “give audience” to the soundscape means to listen INTO the soundscape. And, as with most of lived experience, the less effort the better!

Soundscapes are often wild and do not give much direction as to what to listen to. That is the first adjustment for the listener – stop, breathe, find a friendly line and follow it. The line might be a long meandering phrase or a loop, percussion or melody, foreground or background, fast or slow, loud or soft. Often high, fast, foregrounded loops and percussion will grab attention first, so I recommend riding those lines for a short burst and then listening beyond them.

Soundscapes make the harmonic bed, the listener chooses whether to lie in it. The listener has to surrender to the vast cave of sound spinning and swirling around. You must be willing to enter.

The cave of sound offers footholds that are secure and insecure. Like a bird lighting on a branch, the listener does not know if the center will hold, so deep listening provides the wings to move to another branch. This goes for both tone and rhythm. We explore the fluidity of “in time” and “in tune” as we settle into and are disrupted by the soundscape. Blips and glitches, fits and starts, followed by a deeper sense of the flow of the scape beyond time and tonal center.

I learned from Ubaka Hill (the great womyn’s drum teacher, songwriter and performer) about focused and diffuse listening when playing in a drum circle. Pauline Oliveros speaks of these concepts, too.  Focused listening is very close into-the-body with attention on some smaller clarity of sound, something distinct and close in proximity, something specific. Diffuse listening is moving away from the body, away from the singular experience. Attention is soft and spread out, appreciating the great swaths of tones and harmonics. Focused listening pays attention to the downbeat; diffuse listening feels the sway of the pulse. Focused listening is compression. Diffuse listening is rarefaction.

So the soundscape is this churning, swirling, floating container, and I and my cohorts play in and around it. I think of the soundscape as a beautiful being and we are the accessories. Friend and cohort, Linda Carmichael said soundscapes are like patchwork quilts. We have a bunch of scraps of sounds and we weave them into a whole. Wholeness is the priority, not a preconceived notion of perfection. Or the soundscape is an aquarium and we are the fish swimming and darting around in it.

The aquarium metaphor is a great guide to listening to a soundscape. When you watch an aquarium, your eye may follow one fish for a while until the fish passes another one which grabs your eye. Or one fish may make a sudden move that startles you and so you keep an eye on that fish. In this same way, your ear, if it is sufficiently relaxed and accepting, may hear into parts of the scape or moments of improv from the players. Sounds and voices come forward and recede, and your ear, brain and body follow along as you wander through the cacaphonous marketplace of sound.

Here is a recording called “Spin Cycle”, which was recorded in the Sun(Ra) Room with me adding in some Fluke strums to drive the vortex of sound. First, you will hear a spinning, pounding pulse driven by bowed strings. The Fluke rides in on top of this white water vortex of sound. The listener can focus on the Fluke strums or spread attention out over the whole soundscape and take it all in. This is the place where overtones can be heard. Listen closely and you will hear people chanting, speaking, moaning.

It is my dream to assist our ears in evolving beyond the codification of common practice and popular music. I invite  listeners to open the ears as you open your eyes, taking in a broad spectrum of colors, textures, movements. Just for a while, disengage from the notions and expectations of codified form, and allow yourself to enjoy the movement of formlessness into whatever form emerges in the moment.

I understand that evolution is scary, we really have no choice. It is happening, so we might as well join in and enjoy it!

And – as always, my deepest appreciations for listening!!

For Heather “So Far”

About a month ago, a friend asked me if I would do a “commissioned” piece for her fortieth birthday. I was thrilled and honored by her request, so we made a plan to talk on the phone so I could get a sense of what this birthday means to her.

Heather Barnes and I have known each other for over a decade through singing with the Common Woman Chorus, and more recently as Facebook friends. Over the years, I have enjoyed singing with her in small groups and hearing the funny, charming stories of her daughter’s escapades as she becomes her own unique person. When Heather and I talked  about the end of her fourth decade of life, she spoke of the double-edged sword of being a mother. She relishes her relationship with her daughter AND she acknowledges the need to heal from postpartum depression. For this birthday, she wants to “lay down a marker” of the journey she has been on. She spoke of creating healthy and flexible boundaries, feeling more confident, and appreciating the person she sees in the mirror each day. The future holds the promise of strong connections with people she loves.

I felt a powerful sense of self-love and positive feelings about her own physical body as a part of what Heather is feeling in her life now.  So the the piece should invite movement. As I began to work, I needed a bit more direction, so I did a tarot card reading using my favorite Motherpeace Tarot deck. (Thirty years ago I often consulted tarot and I-Ching for perspective and guidance. I just recently returned to this practice.) Heather’s reading indicated a strong negative force that she is working through and leaving behind. The Death card and the Moon card pointed to this movement. The path through this force is the penetrating intensity of the Ace of Swords combined with the stillness and patience of the Son of Cups. A sense of mourning and letting go combined with deep surrender to the unknown – “let the Goddess work in your life” was the deep message.

Our conversation and the reading shaped the piece in terms of structure, voicings and themes. “So Far (for Heather)” begins with a bluesy swaying dirge and a trumpet wailing grief, anger and sadness.  There is a feeling of sloshing through a great heaviness for a while. This movement gives way to the metallic piercing of bells creating a clearing in the sonic space. There is rattling, ringing, a sifting through and letting go of the bones of the past. The final section is a percussive and joyful release with an invitation to celebrate and dance!!!

Happiest of birthdays to Heather Barnes and much appreciations for including a soundpainting to mark this time in your life.