As part of my research project I started listening to the BBC 30-part series ‘Noise: A Human History’ which charts human interactions with sounds (and silence). It has been fascinating to hear descriptions of how the potential sounds in caves were explored - the movement of air through the cave could sound like the flapping of wings - a stone thrown against the cave wall sending out ripples of sounds bouncing back and around in echoes... As such these caves became sound maps with illustrations painted on the walls and ‘ceiling’ to indicate the sounds that were, or could be, made.
Such caves were used in effect as a kind of ‘music hall’ space where dancing (celebrations) could take place and as spaces for rituals - echoes and other sound distortions being the voices of the dead coming back to pass on information to their living relatives.
I once heard music played in an underground cave - with the lights out - which had the effect of increasing the depth and purity of the sound of the music. I remember felt totally surrounded by the music as it expanded out to fill the cavernous space.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is one of my favourite chapters in Wind in the Willows. Mole and Ratty set out to find Portly, the missing baby otter - as they row along the river Rat first hears a strange sweet music - then both ‘listening with a passionate intentness’ they are drawn to the location of the lost Portly by this outstandingly beautiful music - once they row away with the baby otter the music recedes.
This sound has so enraptured them that they must be made to forget the beauty of it. I was always curious about how that music would sound.
Last year I got to hear Nigel Kennedy play at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. Before he started playing he praised the acoustics of the venue and said he couldn’t possibly play badly in such a space. And he wasn’t wrong. And there was one piece that had captivated him when he had heard it played (so he told us). He had adapted this piece and as I listened I found myself mesmerized by the beautiful sound all around me. I also became aware that when he stopped playing I wouldn’t be able to hear this amazingly beautiful music again in that exact quality.
Definitely my ‘piper at the gates of dawn’ experience.