A recent Gizmodo post titled “This Clip Is Proof That Birds Are Secretly Composers” features a transcription of a beautiful perched melody. The seemingly random configuration of birds on a line is, apparently, a complete pleasure to listen to.
I just returned from a full week in the Bahamas, without phone, Blackberry, or computer. No e-mail, no games, no updates of any kind whatsoever. I brought a watch but rarely used it, and did not always know the day of the week or the time.
More notably, I didn’t bring my iPod either. Instead I read, or just relaxed and listened to the waves, f ootsteps, cars, trees, sidewalks, or storefronts… I listened to the country. I thought it best to take in the place I visited, and not the things I brought with me. What’s the point of travelling when you’re still tied to the comforts, habits, and music from home?
I came to realize this: the composite of all the sounds of a countryside or city is the aural thumbprint of that region’s culture. It’s a nuanced and complex tapestry of sound that includes the cries of specific birds, the splashes of specific types of fish on a specific pattern of migration and schooling, engine sounds of local vehicles, gravel scrapes of cobblestoned and pavemented roadways, subtly accented whispers and yells, the way wind sounds when rushing through buildings or trees, the sound of local appliances and tools… they all form a soundprint. This soundprint is something that cannot be easily recorded, but that you should experience in order to compare against the soundprints of other countries, cities, and cultures.
Here are 3 things you can do to ensure that you are experiencing, and not ignoring or drowning out, the soundprint of a region:
- Don’t Bring An mp3 Player. Well, okay, you might want to bring it for the plane. But sock it away for the rest of the trip and don’t look back. Music from home simply muddles the soundprint of the place you’re traveling to, and confuses it with the soundprint of home.
- Don’t Bring a smartphone. I was unfortunate in that my personal cell phone is also my work Blackberry, so I was forced to leave the whole hybrid machine stateside. While it’s probably safest to make sure you have a cell phone handy, stay free from any form of smartphone or e-mail device. The games, Twitters, Facebooks, and Googling you’ll inevitably do will keep your ears (and eyes) away from your surroundings. Again, the soundprint will be muddled. You’ll also find that when you’re waiting in line for the restroom or for a reservation, and you don’t have your crackberry to feed your attention, you distractedly find details about your locale to fixate on instead.
- Walk whenever possible. Cabs, buses, and boats are not easily replaceable, but they are used more often than is always necessary. If a destiantion or landmark is a 45-minute walk, then block out 45 minutes to get there. It won’t kill you, and the path you take will add more layers to the soundprint. You’ll hear sounds you never would have heard in the first place. It simply makes for a richer experience overall.
Note that it’s not essential that you leave EVERY bit of technology behind. Cameras are great for immersing yourself in (and logging) visual experiences, and voice recorders can log notes that are not easily written down.
The soundprint of a region does not take easily to description, so it’s essential you hear it firsthand in order to appreciate the often overlooked aspects that make cultures so different from one another. The differences you start to log away in your mind’s ear keep your memories of the trip fresher for longer.
I recently stumbled upon the flickriver of my favorite photographer, Rosie Hardy. The significance of my finding was huge toward my understanding of art and music, and why it resonates with people. Rosie Hardy’s photos are beautiful and stirring, but it wasn’t until I explored her flickriver that I realized it is her story, told through her art, that makes her successful.
Her photographs tell a story. The story is hers. She supplements her photos with titles, and her Flickr postings contain elaborate explanations of her inspiration and influences. She has a series of works detailing the seven deadly sins, as well as a still-incomplete 365-series. Her creativity and imagination are astounding, but it’s her story that rings true.
This is important. Story is paramount. This recent posting over at the Harvard Business Services blog highlights this fact, and explains why your story is the key to a business that resonates and succeeds (this term “story,” as opposed to “narrative” or “anecdote,” was spearheaded by the recent business book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future by Daniel H. Pink.) The concept of “story” is an element of branding, which is the latest buzzword being bludgeoned of its meaning by the media and blogosphere.
I’m not interested in branding in this post though.
There must be a story behind everything you create. Choreographer Twyla Tharp calls this the “spine” of a work, but the concept remains the same:
- Musicians must tell a story with each song they write. With or without lyrics. Composer Gustav Mahler, for instance, told sweeping epics with his orchestras.
- Painters must tell a story on their canvas. Which may explain the cold elitism pervading abstract art these days.
- Writers must tell a story. Period. This may sound silly, but we have all read books by authors that seem to derive pleasure from simply using words, without actually saying much of anything to the reader. Loquacious to a fault.
- Dancers must dance a story. Dancing without a story is simply loquacious movement.
- Photographers must tell a story with their photos. Even if the story is not apparent in the photo itself.
This last point is key. Even if the story is not explicitly told and easily understood, it must be present behind the scenes. It contributes to the success of the final work. Ernest Hemingway was famous for this method, dubbed the “iceberg theory” and described succinctly in Esquire Magazine, February 1937:
“The temptation has always been to copy the mannerism without succeeding in duplicating the method. And the Hemingway method is to the Hemingway style what the submerged seven-eighths is to the iceberg’s exposed eighth”
Give your art a story. Create an iceberg.
photo courtesy of gdargaud.net
I’ve always felt that traveling can be like a dinner party if you’re not careful.
A traveler is a person who seeks new experiences in far off lands but, if that traveler is not firmly set within each experience that is occurring at that moment, then they are like the partygoer whose eyes wander away from the person they are speaking to, off looking for different experiences while a potentially great one is at hand. It’s also completely annoying and rude.
I bring this up because the same problem, this wanderlust, can afflict musicians as well. It happens when practicing your instrument and, rather than learning a piece in its entirety, you stop halfway through to start learning a different song altogether. It begins a cascading routine that leaves you with a repertoire of half-finished songs.
The same thing can occur with the instruments: an aspiring virtuoso may put down their alto sax to practice a tenor, in an effort to cure their boredom or expand their instrumental vocabulary.
Even listening to music can be a problem: have you ever played a song in your iTunes (or Songbird) playlist as you search for the next song you want to listen to?
Wanderlust sounds like a charming concept and is generally assumed to mean a “love for travel”, but it is rooted in inattentiveness, multitasking, and the overall diluting of experience. An activity or endeavor, in fact any particular moment in time, deserves your full attention. You need to keep experiences close to you, and not spend too much time looking for the greener pasture on the other side. Travel, new skills, and new experiences are crucial, but it is important not to let them hold back the vitality of your existing locale, skills, and experiences.
The German concept at hand here is actually called Fernweh, which literally means “an ache for the distance.” Fernweh keeps you far away from what is near to you.
Photo courtesy of troisiemeoeil.org
“There are only a few obvious things that I notice as primarily beautiful: women, spring evenings, music at night, the sea; I don’t catch subtle things like ‘silver snarling trumpets.’ I may turn out an intellectual, but I’ll never write anything but mediocre poetry.”
“Be mindful of the link between present action and desired future outcome. Ask yourself: if I repeat today’s actions 365 times, will I be where I want to be in a year?”
—Roz Savage (Rower, writer, speaker. Working to become the first solo woman to row across the Pacific Ocean from California to Australia)