When I was a child, we often visited our grandparents in Elkins WV. Elkins is home to the Mountain State Forest Festival, and is my birthplace. My Mother’s family has a long history with Elkins. Her grandfather was one of the first mayors and one of two doctors after the town’s 1890 incorporation. I am not sure how my Dad’s mother got there. Mamaw lived in a brick row apartment with a porch and stoop to play on. And she lived one block from the volunteer fire department.
When I slept over with Mamaw, there was always a fire in Elkins, sometimes two. The volunteers had to be called in from all over town, and what called them was the longest, most mournful sound my young ears had ever heard. As loud as it was (remember we were one small block away) the siren also sounded ghostly. It went on and on and on for an eternity and then it stopped! A lovely silence would fall and gently wash away the residue of the wailing. If it happened at night, I would return to sleep; by day, it was back to play. Either way, the siren always elicited a jolt of free-floating anxiety.
The Mountain State Forest Festival takes place the first weekend in October in Elkins and has for 85 years (with a short hiatus during WW II). This Festival was a highlight each and every year of my growing up. We got out of school for two days, traveled through the gorgeous colors and crisp fall air to spend several days with carnivals, exhibits, parades and pageantry. One of the parades took place on Friday night and involved 100 firetrucks sounding their sirens at the same time. The Fireman’s Parade attracted fire departments from all over West Virginia, and into Virginia and Maryland. The trucks would line up at one end of town and slowly make their way down the main street blaring the siren song of their station, their truck. The sound of 100 firetrucks calling their warning song together cannot be described. People flocked the sidewalk, laughing, trying to talk to each other over the din. My brother Matt is famous in our family for having slept through the Fireman’s Parade when he was a babe. Even back then, I enjoyed the interplay of the various intervals that make up a siren song.
A few years ago, my cohorts from iBoD (idiosyncratic Beats of Dejacusse) were discussing ideas for soundscapes. The one sound artifact that really stands out in the urban growth we are experiencing in Durham NC is the frequency of emergency sirens. This became the basis for an iBoD piece called The Sound…of Sirens. One online resource said the intervals of sirens telegraphed who’s coming: the police are a perfect fifth, ambulance is a fourth, and fire trucks are a whole tone. I designed the soundscape with those intervals. We all started with the basic intervals, and as the piece went on, we threw different intervals into the mix. The ending is a big crescendo and all out except the tail of the reverbed voices of the scape, which I turn up to a final fading shriek. We played the piece at a few venues. I thought of it as a novelty song.
I talked about all of this in an interview with Margaret Harmer, who produces electronic music as Shifting Waves. Margaret is producing an album of work from 15 to 20 women electronic artists from all over the world. She asked each of us to think back to a sound in our childhood, to find the story around that sound, and bring it forward into a piece. (I actually added that last part, Margaret did not say the story had to be about the piece for the album, and it sure did flow that way for me.) Here is a link to the interview.
I took the soundscape for The Sound…of Sirens and began to analyze it harmonically and timbrally. The piece was sculpted from thick resonant voices (several synth pads and strings). This allowed me to carve out the movement of the sirens, the doppler effect of approach and recede, the abruptness of a nearby siren suddenly starting or stopping – the psychoacoustic impact we experience in our communities. Now called Song of Sirens, the piece was a fountain of siren voices overflowing and receding. There are several short repeated interludes during the first section. Several crescendos and several interesting places where the sound drops out leaving space in the front of the mix. This is most obvious when listening through headphones. This has peaked my interest in how we define the sonic space a piece takes up, and how to keep the full space alive when the sound recedes.
Siren’s song in mythology is characterized as an intentional “luring” of sailors onto the rocks. This sounds like one side of the story to me. Who was hearing and for what end? Was the siren song seductive, plaintive, demanding? Was it the call of grey seals, baying and mournful, resounding in the range of the female voice, a voice the sailors had not heard in years? Perhaps the sailors drove themselves into the rocks looking for women to rape. There are many possible scenarios when all points of view are considered.
I wanted to put an intention of comfort and nuturing from female voices into Song of Sirens. How interesting that modern day emergency sirens call out warning, answer your cry for help, or pursue you – all at once. How to embody all of this while flipping the mythology of blame the women. So I recorded Trudie, her daughter, Sheila, and three granddaughters singing phrases of Brahm’s Lullaby and wove them in and around the siren soundscape.
We are creating a new mythology as our brains and conciousnesses go through an extraordinary evolutionary shift. The reptillian brain – the one that fights or flees – is softening into the polyvagal brain. We are moving from survival of the fittest to survival of the kindest. Feminine consciousness knows how to be kind, not just benevolent. As the Song of Sirens raises the death knell of the reptillian brain, grandmothers, mothers and granddaughters sing a soothing lullaby swaddling the panicy cries.
Song of Sirens will be released as a track on Voices from Eris, produced by Shifting Waves studios. Stay tuned for more on fundraising and release date. I appreciate your listening!