Shhhhh! This sounds like a nice place to visit
Forget sightseeing: a holiday is a chance to give our ears a break from the norm. David Hendy listens in on some fascinating global soundscapes
Wednesday 20 March 2013
It's hard to dispute the replenishing effect of a change of scene. When we travel somewhere there's usually something about the look of a place that we like and which will contrast nicely with where we spend most of our life living and working – some nice mountains, perhaps, or lush greenery, a sea view, golden sands.
But when we head for the seaside, is it the glare of the beach that revitalises us, or is it the sound of the waves crashing? Our ears need a break from normal routines as much as our eyes do. And if we were to go very deliberately in search, not of stimulating landscapes but of novel soundscapes, which places should grab our attention?
Through working on a BBC series about sound, I discovered, rather like the "blind traveller" James Holman in the 1820s, that when roaming the world using one's ears as guides, it's possible to think very differently about where exactly to go and what the experience can be like when you get there.
There are, for instance, scores of ruined ancient Greek or Roman amphitheatres scattered around the Mediterranean, any one of which you can visit to admire their elegant design. But only one provides a truly spectacular acoustic effect. In the Peloponnesus region of Greece and about three hours drive from Athens, there is the theatre of Epidaurus, forming a vast, beautifully symmetrical stone bowl cut into the hillside. In the 3rd century BC, it would have comfortably seated 14,000 people or more. You would think that those on the back row would have been hard put to hear the actors on the small round "orchestra" far below.
Not so. Thanks to it being open-air and its perfectly sloping rows of limestone seats, their voices would have rolled upwards with very little reverberation, the low-frequency rumblings being absorbed and the crisp higher-frequency sounds being amplified as they went. In fact, the audience would have heard everything with stunning clarity.
Matt Thompson, the series producer, and I visited the theatre on a cold February morning. Arriving just as it opened, we had the place to ourselves. Part of the aural pleasure of being at Epidaurus is that it's sufficiently off-the-beaten track to experience a background of near total silence. Walk a few hundred metres from the theatre and you're able to clamber undisturbed, save for the occasional burst of bird-song, among the ruins of the Sanctuary of Asklepios.
The Greeks would have come here to heal themselves through rest – a kind of "incubation". Its striking air of peacefulness even today suggests that they knew exactly what they were doing in choosing this spot as a country-wide centre of pagan pilgrimage. Maria Callas sang here one warm August evening in 1960. In her autobiography she described it as "one of the peak experiences" in her life.
It's hard to imagine one's ears becoming jaded through something so blissfully calming. But a blast of noise can often be invigorating, even on holiday – the sonic equivalent of leaving your villa for a bit of downtown nightclubbing or bar crawling. Many travellers from Europe describe the shock of arriving in a city such as Mumbai or Delhi: not just the vivid colours and the heat and the sheer crush of people, but also that wall of noise which hits you as you tumble out of the cocoon of your train or taxi and into the street. For the radio series we recorded not in India but in and around Accra, the sprawling capital of Ghana: we were searching for traces in the West African soundscape of the region's role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
This was a history that revealed itself in surprising ways. A hundred miles or so to the west of Accra is Elmina, a 15th-century fort – the oldest European building in Africa, now incongruously painted a gleaming, sunny white. For several centuries, thousands of slaves captured in the interior were imprisoned here before exiting the infamous "door of no return" and crossing the Atlantic for the plantations of the Caribbean and America.
Though there were plenty of tourists at Elmina Fort, we noticed that almost everyone moved through its echoing dungeons and corridors in total silence, as if sensing the lingering presence of those who'd been here before them. What once happened at Elmina was frankly unspeakable. The inability of today's visitors to articulate their feelings aloud spoke eloquently about the visceral impact an otherwise empty place with little to actually see can have. Occasionally, sound speaks through its absence.
In Ghana, though, sound is usually unavoidably, powerfully present. Leaving the insulation of the fort's walls, we found the rest of Elmina to be a maelstrom of activity: people hawking goods, and minivans blasting their horns as they swerved around the open sewers and beetled along narrow streets with names such as Lime Street – another reminder of those overseas connections forged through slavery. Air-conditioning in Ghana is a luxury. So in the equatorial heat, car windows or shop doors are usually left wide open, music blasting out at phenomenal volume. It creates a "sound salad" of styles and genres.
In Accra, the busiest market areas are also festooned with lamppost loudspeakers busy vibrating with jingles and adverts. In the background, too, you might hear calls to prayer coming from the city's mosques, or, more likely, the aggressively amplified sermons of evangelical Christian pastors. Every layer of sound evokes a different part of West Africa's history: a hint of traditional Ashanti rhythms here; West Indian reggae there; and, almost everywhere, the mellow jazz-infused tunes of high-life, the urgent pulse of "hiplife", with its fizzing combination of American rap and African dance – and even, occasionally, it's North Ghanaian equivalent, more hauntingly Arabic in flavour. What we're hearing is the highly creative African reworking of American musical styles – styles that were themselves forged by Africans brought to the New World in the first place. The traffic in people through Elmina's "Door of No Return" might have been resolutely one-way, but the sounds made by these same people have criss-crossed the Atlantic ever since.
I crossed the Atlantic in search of some rather different noises. Henry David Thoreau's Walden contains elegant descriptions of the sounds, sights and smells witnessed by the young writer during his two-year stay in a small wooden cabin near the shore of Walden Pond in Massachusetts in 1845-6. I went to this famous literary haunt fully expecting to find a natural soundscape now ravaged by the din of modernity. It turned out to be the best moment in our entire recording schedule. On a misty January Sunday morning, and within a 30-minute drive from Boston, Thoreau's Walden came to life before my ears. Ice creaking as it formed by the shoreline, the low hum of pine needles swaying in the breeze, and, just as Thoreau had promised, the faint rattle of a train tearing through distant woods – an intimation in sound of the Machine Age.
The sounds were pretty subtle. Perhaps I wouldn't have noticed them at all if I hadn't been at Walden Pond especially to listen. But they connected me with Thoreau and his age at a deep emotional level. Catching them, I also understood for the first time that every place on Earth really does still have its unique "sound mark". It's a fragile thing, though. And in a globalised world, we should cherish it while we can.
'Noise: A Human History' is at 1.45pm on BBC Radio 4 each weekday until 26 April. David Hendy's book, 'Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening' is published by Profile Books (£16.99).
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