Occasional Ramblings on Sound and the Creative Process
I’ve been grappling with a piece in my studio for a few months now. Back in the spring, I recorded a series of sounds in my kitchen, using glass objects and water to create clinking, gurgling, and ringing sounds. After this highly enjoyable hour and a half of noise-making (in the ecstatic spirit of childhood pot-banging), I left my soggy kitchen and got down to the business of processing and manipulating my recordings. I got far enough to fashion some truly eerie and tantalizingly rich sounds, but found myself boxed into a corner when it came time to begin the arrangement and collaging process. After some contemplation, I realized that I had a bad case of cheesecake syndrome – that is, that terrible moment when a diner realizes the large and unbelievably delicious dessert before him is entirely too rich and sweet to stomach.
So, my current sound palette is too dense and rich for consumption. This conclusion did not sit well with the original intention and thrust of the piece I envisioned. And so the project has been simmering on my backburner. I have chewed on my cheeks and sat thinking for over a month now, wondering if I should scrap this one and move on, all the while haunted by the memory of the rippling, fantastic, swooning coils of sound awaiting my attention on my hard drive.
Meanwhile, I have also been thinking about what seemed to be an entirely different topic, that of sound and dreams. It is my habit to lie down in my living room with a book to read before bed. Recently, I noticed that when I begin to nod off while reading (a common occurrence), it is often sound that welcomes me into dreamspace. It is as if I pass suddenly – instantly – from one sound environment to another. My resistance to the drowse (or the rap of a book against my face) will often jolt me back into wakefulness several times before I make the decision to throw in the towel and head to bed. Each drift reveals a new set of sounds. Sometimes, what I hear is cohesive and recognizable – people speaking in an imaginary continuation of dialog I was just reading on the page, say, or the sound of my husband’s voice or a dog barking. These sounds are accompanied by sketchy imagery that would probably firm up into a clearer resolution were I to slip more firmly into sleep. But then, there are also the sounds which have no direct connection to real life and to which my sleepy mind assigns only the foggiest, unrecognizable imagery. I have drifted into drones and glitches, into the sound of an everlasting bell ringing. I hear tones and static, sometimes even music. There is a great deal of variety and potential in these sounds.
This morning I woke up having dreamt of a sound piece I made a few years ago. Called “For Longing”, the piece is one of two semi-orphaned pieces I have made with a clear vocal component (I usually shy away from the voice on the principle that it will dominate the experience for most listeners). In the dream, I was singing my part in a cavernous underground space filled with fans. Sound surged all around me and I felt exhilarated and energized, so much so that I found myself roaring into wakefulness. I rolled out of bed and rushed immediately to my computer, a frisson of inspiration running up my spine. I began a search for journal articles on sound and dreams, looking for studies or neuroscience articles. Sorting through diverse (but largely unrelated) search results, I found myself reading not an article on sound in dreams, but rather a long and detailed article by Francesca Brittan on the 19th century classical composer Mendelssohn and his pioneering fairy aesthetic1.
And, there it is. My solution. I may not know any more about the science of sleep and hearing, but I have found a new thread to match up to a languishing sound project. Perhaps this new piece will be less about the tonal qualities of glass and more about creating my own fae soundscape, à la Mendelssohn.
1Brittan, F. (2011). On Microscopic Hearing: Fairy Magic, Natural Science, and the Scherzo fantastique. Journal of the American Musicological Society, 64(3), 527-600.