Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Sound and Landscape

Sound is so much a part of the landscape. I've written about it before, but it's a theme that keeps informing the way I experience my environment. So why not keep exploring?

The streets and roads of Sri Lanka were so noisy! City or countryside it didn't matter. There was a constant sound of motors and horns. The temptation is to call it a "cacophony." But that's not a fair assessment of what you hear. Deep in rural Sri Lanka my driver and guide, Mr. Amara, honked at nearly every passing vehicle and every vehicle he passed. His merry toot toot was a signal for other drivers. "I'm here," "I know you," "Hey there," and "Look out, I'm passing," were some of the messages he conveyed to other drivers.

I was wondering around Jaffna a couple of years ago, and I met some kids from Europe, about the same age as my children, who were annoyed and stressed by all the honking. One thing is for sure. They were dressed funny. But they took the sound each vehicle made as a personal affront. A day or two in Jaffna town or any other Sri Lankan city informs you that the sounds are not aimed at you. They are part of a matrix of noise that is created on the spot and which communicates any number of messages. 

Getting back to Mr. Amara, you can imagine that if the roads in Mihintale  were noisy Colombo was a real concert. There is so much noise at any given time that it feels kind of shocking to a pedestrian. Same thing if you're on a city bus. The bus pulls to a stop. The conductor sings out a lineup of destinations, all part of the urban auditory code. There's not much room for a quiet thought and maybe this is why people gravitate toward Barefoot, where you can be outside in the courtyard in peace and quiet for a few minutes. 

It can feel kind of personal if you let it. The noise can get to you. But it seems that all this noise is part and parcel of the way people navigate their landscape. And it's a landscape of sound as much as any other quality such as visuals, movement, or aromas.

Fast forward to the United States, where we like our landscape to be subdued. At least in terms of noise, we would like our immediate surroundings to be peaceful, calm, "gentle." A warm afternoon in Cambridge, near Boston, reminds me that we are used to controlling our immediate environment. But often it's at the expense of other people's environment. My dear neighbors think nothing of running their air conditioner, which keeps their house cool while polluting my garden with noise. People sit in their cool, quiet cars while those of us outside hear the motors running overtime. Others enjoy their dog's yapping, a sign of cheery good character. None of these "waste" noises are aimed personally at anyone but they do seem more personal than in Sri Lanka. Over there, everyone is bathed in noise. Here we quieten down our own environment while dumping the noise on someone else. 

Small observations, large landscape questions, and consequences in a cultural framework that deserve more inquiry. 

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