The Raven himself is hoarse


Now that Time is exacting an increasing toll upon my ears, I’m beginning to become more sensitive to sounds. Not better able to hear them, of course, but more appreciative of what there is to hear; simple things that before would have passed unnoticed in the day, are suddenly treasures: the ringing timbre of a fork fallen from the table striking the floor; the whoosh of the furnace starting up on a cold morning as I reset the thermostat; the strangely satisfying thunk of a door closing properly as I seek refuge from the rain. I’m not sure where they’ve been until now; it’s not as if they suddenly arose from the primal ooze, or evolved simply to jeer at what I’ll be missing in the coming years. They were always there, I realize now, but didn’t then…

One can become too complacent about sound, don’t you think? Unless it irritates or threatens us, it’s all too easy to ignore. Of course music may at times surface above the background, like the head of a seal briefly emerging from the roiling sea, but how often is there music really? And, even if it were always there, would it also slip beneath our consciousness like an odour to which we have become accustomed?

At any rate, now that I’m actually thinking about it, I find that I am literally swimming in sound; I’m the little boy again for whom the blackboard -no, the world– was only filled with mysterious, fuzzy shapes until he was finally introduced to glasses. While the shapes before had all been interesting of course -they were all he knew- with the glasses, they then became fascinating and, more importantly, attributable

Sound is like that too, but in a different way, I’m finding. A sound -by and large an intangible, unlike shape- assumes a Magisterium of its own. Stripped as it usually is of outline or visual clues, it seems far more wrapped in emotion, and even clothed in magic -or at least in imagination… Sound may well be the poem for which vision strives.

I was on the bus, the other day, when a very loud man got on. I’d like to think he was unaware of how loud he needed to speak to be heard above the rattle and clatter of the crowded bus; I’d prefer to believe he was actually well-intentioned and trying to make the best of having to sit beside a quiet stranger; I could even hope that he was blissfully unaware that, after a brief frisson of curiosity, the rest of us had little interest in his decidedly uninteresting observations.

I may have preferred to think the best of his intentions, but alas, he continued gesticulating and railing about one thing or another with his now cowering seat-mate. By turning my head and peering down the aisle I could just see his finger pointing and jabbing the seat in front of him for emphasis. His voice grew increasingly strident, and the repetitive cadence annoying. And yet as time and the journey wore on, something interesting happened. I could still hear his voice -the whole bus could- but his words became meaningless sounds and only their rhythm remained. In fact everything was transformed into a kind of musical collage: the bus seemed to rattle and creak in time with his auditory phonemes, forming proto prefixes if they were a bit early in the word-sound, or suffixes if they were late. There were notes, of sorts, and staves to contain them, I suppose; if I defocussed my  attention a little further, there even seemed to be a musical progression for which, had I the talent, I might have composed an appropriate accompaniment on the piano.

And then, as suddenly as he had appeared, he got out of his seat and left the bus taking his instrument and his percussion section with him. I can’t say he was missed, nor was there applause for his performance, but there was a definite hole in the background which was filled with a collective, though muted, sigh.

But what I have been wrestling with since that impromptu concert, was what to call it. Does any noise become a soundscape simply by virtue of forced awareness? Or does it have to be in some manner emblematic of the surroundings, typical of its constituent parts? Does it bear comparison to the sound of wind rustling through leaves in a forest, or the babbling of a creek down a rocky incline? Does it have to have an aesthetic component to qualify, and failing that, becomes simply background noise or, minus even that, an annoying distraction best ignored if possible?

Then what of the process that enabled me to transmute the irritating voice on the bus into an interesting, if not beautiful, anomaly? Sometimes, when I let my unguarded thoughts slip through to conscious awareness, I can understand the motivation the ancients must have felt in their quest to transmute baser metals into gold. Perhaps they were on to something; perhaps it is something still preserved in our genes, this alchemy, and saved for occasions should the need arise to deal with adversity, a requirement to transform a rudeness into a gift, an insult into a compliment.

Is that too big a stretch? Or is it simply the last-ditch attempt of a group of damaged neurons to re-route the message through the only detour available to them? If it is, then I can live with that.

I was telling my adult daughter about the amazing transmutation of the voice-in-the-bus. I was trying to reassure her that I had not taken leave of my senses, and that I’d found the metamorphosis quite beautiful -an unexpected largesse, in fact. But I took it from her silence and subsequent expression, that this was not something she could tell her friends, not something that would reassure her that her childhood memories of me depended mostly on her imagination -like the stories I used to make up for her each night before bed.

Perhaps the beginning predicts the end, though; perhaps the world really is a just-so story. I had hoped she would have guessed that by now, but maybe, being my daughter, she already has…

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