Sonic Wonderland: a Scientific Odyssey of Sound
Bodley Head, £20, 320pp
Asked in a recent interview to nominate the “best thing he had heard in 2013”, the American songwriter Bill Callahan’s only response was: “Silence.” Setting aside the question of how he experienced this now rare phenomenon, it is hard not to take his point: the world has become increasingly cacophonous, our cities so noisy that many songbird numbers are declining, our seas a maelstrom of sonar and seabed drilling, while the same subsidy-driven class that covered upland hills with toxic conifer plantations back in the 1980s now devotes itself to industrialising our wildest and formerly quietest places. Meanwhile, new projects pollute the soundscape further. As Trevor Cox notes:
Human-made noise is forcing animals to change their calls, including underwater animals and fish. Are offshore wind farms an environmentally friendly way to make electricity? Possibly not, if you are a harbour seal being bombarded with thumping pile driving as the turbines are installed in the seabed . . . the noise generated by pile driving is huge . . . and could physically damage the auditory systems of animals.
Yet it is not just birds and seals that are affected: noise pollution also causes significant physical and psychological stresses in humans. In spite of visionary warnings – going back to the Nobel prizewinner Robert Koch’s 1905 remark, “The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague” – we have been slow to see the impact of the maddening racket we make, on our environment and on ourselves.
The end of silence is just one aspect of the modern soundscape, however. Of equal concern is a growing reduction in quality, (the difference, to put it crudely, between sound and noise) and it is sound quality that Cox explores and celebrates in this scrupulous and compelling “scientific odyssey”. An acoustic engineer, Cox dedicates his life to eliminating bad soundscapes, (or restoring damaged ones), with an emphasis, in recent years, on how “poor acoustics and high noise levels in classrooms affect learning” (anyone who has ever tried to do anything in an open-plan office will be cheering already). In order to eliminate all this damaging noise, though, we have to train our ears to be more sophisticated (as Cox points out, the “dominance of the visual has . . . dulled all of our other senses”) so that we can recognise what is good in a soundscape and what is harmful. Inured to traffic and construction noise, to muzak and mobile-phone gabble, we are becoming desensitised to the finer qualities of sound. The longer we tolerate all that noise, the further our appreciation will be degraded – and the unhealthier, both physically and mentally, we will become.
In his pioneering call for “one square inch of silence” in the American landscape, the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton recalls the Native American Chief Seattle’s poignant observation, on the occasion of being obliged to “sell” his homeland to the US government: “And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lovely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night?” It is this question of soundscape quality that marks Sonic Wonderland out, not only as a fascinating book about the more recherché areas of acoustic science but as an immensely valuable contribution to any environmentalist’s library.
Cox writes wonderfully, alternating between lyricism, expert testimony and self-deprecating humour to explore the most everyday problems an acoustician faces (how to rescue a badly built concert hall for its audience, say) as well as exotic phenomena such as singing sands and tunnels with such extreme amplification they turn the rumble of a skateboard into something that resembles “an approaching freight train”.
The chapters on the taxonomy of echoes (a delightful concept in itself and a reminder that we have failed to evolve a suitable language for conveying sounds in words) and on the ways in which sound can travel round corners are highly engaging but they also prompt wider speculation about the subtler effects of sound on our sanity.
Here, I was reminded of the Marabar Caves scene in E M Forster’s A Passage to India, of how so much of what befalls Aziz and Adela later in the book originates with that fateful echo. How many crimes, social transgressions and outbreaks of temporary madness are provoked by noise? What will we lose in ourselves if we continue to lose the quality of our soundscapes?
One cannot help thinking that Cox’s closing remark – “if we all listened to and cared for the sonic wonders around us, as I now try to do, we would start to build a better-sounding world” – is too modest; had he gone on to add “a more sane and humane world”, few would disagree, on the basis of this very sane and humane book.