Touch and sight offer saturation experiences, but sound evaporates the instant it’s created. Sure, sounds can be replayed, but each and every time we re-cue what we want to hear that sound exists only as long as it takes for our ears to be affected by waves of moving air. Then it ends, living on only in memory.
Most things will never be heard, just as most things will never be seen, or felt, or smelled. But sound presents a distinct opportunity for consideration precisely because it’s endlessly transient. There isn’t a hierarchy of senses—a loss of any of them is profound, just as the pleasures from any of them can be substantial. But in terms of evoking a deep sense of place, sound penetrates time because, like time, it disappears.
Sound makes sights real. A movie with the sound turned off is not only inert, but slightly disturbing. Something substantial feels out of balance, and mere intellectual understanding of the problem does not satisfy our need to fix the context. The barest whisper of wind solidifies the clear air of Autumn, moving crispy, auburn leaves through space and into our senses. Autumn colors tell us what’s happening; Autumn sounds saturate our senses.
There are no colors where I’m writing this, or at least none that provoke thoughts of romance and apple cider. For the past ten hours I’ve been traveling at 300 miles an hour in the belly of a retrofitted DC-8 jet, barely 1500 feet above the endless fever dream of Antarctica. The flight still has two hours to go. The past month I’ve been the embedded documentary filmmaker traveling with a team of NASA scientists as they conduct essential measurements of changing polar ice. Most days are spent in the clinical confines of a long metal tube, filled with instruments and sleep deprived, slightly disheveled researchers. White noise suffuses the airplane as we travel over endless white landscape. We all wear expensive noise canceling headphones. Days are measured in missions completed, thousands of miles flown, gigabytes of data collected.
I make photographs and videos for the team. I tell their story.
That’s when I realized that no matter how perfectly I captured the visual environment with my lens, or how descriptively I rendered the texture of the team and their work with my words, I couldn’t do justice to it without audio. Video generally runs with sound, of course, but the melange of music and words and changing pictures can make the clarity of singular experience disappear. So much of the experience in this airplane has to do with the ceaseless, relentless sound.
As they say, “There’s an app for that.”
The avant garde composer John Cage did many things in his influential life, but one of his most famous is a piece that’s largely regarded as a publicity stunt by the mainstream. I’m here to say that it’s not.
It’s called 4’33”, and I am only the most recent in a long list of scriveners write about, riff about, or most likely joke about the work. On the piece itself I could say a lot: about it’s reasons for being, its metaphysical implications, it’s artistic insight, how it should (or should NOT, as the case may be) be performed publicly. I bring it up instead because of the app.
With it I have captured precisely four minutes and thirty three seconds of the aural environment of that NASA airplane.
It's not a particularly pretty sound, and my audio software struggled to make sense of the relentless broad spectrum noise. You must wear hearing protection on that plane to preserve your ability to hear more sonorous expressions elsewhere. But as a marker of place, there is nothing else like it.
The sound has been separated into three movements, precisely the lengths defined by Cage’s original score. In the sounds of that plane, I have shifted time, at least for myself. The sound it contains does not teach about the NASA mission, nor offer a thorough mise en scene about the experience. But captured as a singular thing, the listener can close his or her eyes and experience a surprisingly rich experience of what it was like to fly above some of the most remote parts of the world, surrounded by abstract intelligence. When I listen to this small refraction of my time aloft, far, far away, I recall that even in the coldest, hardest parts of the world, we are all trying to find ways to contextualize our experiences.