Robert Macfarlane’s journeys to and in the underland take us to now seldom heard soundscapes. Most of us are prone to detrimental physical and mental health impacts of sound – the urban soundscape is said to trigger the release of cortisone, a stress hormone, which damages blood vessels over time1. According to the World Health Organization more than one million healthy life years are lost in western Europe due to environmental noise pollution1. I control my domestic soundscape by not having or watching tv, and flooding my space with recorded sound. As the electronic composer Catarina Barbieri claims, sound is an agent of change. According to Barbieri ‘a pattern [of sound] creates a certain state of consciousness’. Her aim as a composer is to make us familiar with a sound pattern, then change it to cause a perturbation. ‘This causes consciousness to fracture, potentially unfolding layers of perception we weren’t aware of… The layered nature of consciousness and the relativity of perception are some of the big secrets we can experience through sound’2.
Beyond the aural clutter of the Anthropocene Macfarlane encounters natural patterns of sound. “I close my eyes and listen to the landscape – listen in a way I rarely do, letting each sound play and single itself out from the weave like a bright thread, trying to infer its source from its sound. I am trying to hear this landscape’s undersong – the substrate sounds [patterns] of a given place, the ambient murmur that goes often unheard or at least unlistened-for. We cannot see behind ourselves, but we can hear behind ourselves. From all directions, sound flows in”3. On a Greenland glacier “…the moulin sings, with a high, steady, neck-tingling cry. Air is moving within it and within the invisible system of melt-carved ice tunnels to which it connects, driven by water flow far down in the glacier’s tunnel system… The moulin is a pipe of the vast aeolian organ of the glacier itself. I wish we could tune in, record its sounds, learn what it has to say.”4. On reaching the underland Timavo River, deep in the ‘Il Carso’ (karst) plateau of the Italian/Slovenian borderlands “The sound of this starless river is like none I have ever heard. It has volume. Its volume has hollowness. Each sound has its echo, and each echo its interior”5. Natural sound patterns causing consciousness to fracture – sound as an agent of change.
1Richard Godwin (2018). Sonic doom: how noise pollution kills thousands each year. The Guardian, 3rd July 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jul/03/sonic-doom-noise-pollution-kills-heart-disease-diabetes
2Sleeve notes: Caterina Barbieri (2016) Patterns of Consciousness Double LP. Important Records, Track 1: This Causes Consciousness to Fracture.
3Robert Macfarlane (2019). Underland, p375.
4Robert Macfarlane (2019). Underland, p358.
5Robert Macfarlane (2019). Underland, p206.