It was with the passing of many trains, over many years, in many countries around the world (from East to West), which led me to begin taking special notice of auditory patterns in general. There is something very distinct about being in a space (like on a train) that moves between places and distorts sounds in its wake, that can direct the ears and brain to want to tune in and try to bring sense to the world that passes by so quickly. And so eventually, after many years of not listening intently to anything around me, I began noticing noises I wasn’t expecting to – the sounds we ‘hear’ everyday – the subconscious underplay. The rhythms we succumb to across the globe in big cities and small. The pacing of life… all the things we’ve heard in sound and noise about love and hate and living and pain; the sounds that remind us of bad days and good. The sounds that are so distinct we associate a sense of feeling to their tonality, and our senses get confused or aligned by the memories that sometimes overtake us when we hear them again and again. And even then, together, these sounds can repeat in intervals that start to chime out basic rhythms or melodies if listened to closely. But just like that, in a split second, they can become just background distortion. So quickly things can become unsound. So temporal are the noises we encounter.
But it is these noises that create our sense of space for any given place. Within the ‘temporal’ nature of these sounds a kind of duality exists. In exploring the temporary state of anything one must also realize its opposition: ‘permanence’. Dualities such as these are an indicator of balancing factors in society and nature, which guide our cultural awareness to any given set of ethics, morals, behaviors or perceptions. We use opposites to give us a range of information to create a spectrum upon. This spectrum allows us to formulate and use languages to describe our experiences from individual or collective perspectives. Since verbal language is a form of sound, sound itself can sometimes transcend language entirely, breaking down certain boundaries to create ‘transcultural’ experiences.
And so, when it comes to understanding sound on a different level culturally, it’s beneficial to understand the mechanics of the ear. Of all the senses, hearing is the only sense that begins as a mechanical process, the rest of our senses are entirely chemical. Our reception of sound starts with vibrations through matter; bouncing off objects, textures, materials and surfaces. Therefore, the spaces we inhabit are a distinct influence on the quality of sound we perceive.
These waves of vibrations first enter through the outer ear, then into our ear canal and with the precision of three very small bones in our middle ear, we receive sound, which finally gets translated by the mechanics of the cochlea in our inner ear and then chemically with nerves to our brain. But the very fact remains; the vibrations literally penetrate our bones before they reach our brain. No wonder then, when we hear music do we have such a strong desire to move our bodies; we are at first physically encountering sounds with our bones. And it is this mechanical process of hearing that is universal for human beings, no matter what ethnic background — the chemical makeup of our brains do not account for how we initially encounter sounds, but instead has more to do with the space that surrounds us.
Sometimes I wish I could remember what my mother’s heartbeat sounded like when I was inside of her womb. I wonder what it must have sounded like to come into this world too. For many months we all felt the rhythmic thump of our mother’s heart and then just like that, to our unsuspecting and unknowing little selves, we were awakened from our baby slumber and pushed into a world with so many different foreign sights and sounds. Detached from the comfort of that steady beat, we were set adrift into cultural soundscapes that have influenced us all un-/sub-/consciously ever since.
Because of this, we tend to interpret every given moment in terms of cultural rhythms. As more cultures influence other cultures, the more transcultural experiences (such as our surrounding soundscapes) become hybrid forms of interpretations and translations, blending and melding the past and present, East and West, and forming new experiences that continue to influence us collectively. This is similar to how our hearing works. It is very difficult for our ears to accurately decipher and distinguish the subtleties of the noises around us. Sound in its totality morphs spaces by the cadence, tone, dissonance and especially the tension of vibrations. Therefore, tuning into our surrounding sounds can help to understand transcultural experiences on a deeper level; they can fill every cavity of our inner selves and bring about a deep physical connection to the world around us. And when we experience the same sounds in rhythm over and over in sequence, we can begin to feel suspended in a space of seeming infinity. And in that space we can transcend time itself temporarily—invigorating mental imagery, crossing over into memories of traditions now transformed and ultimately imagining future potentials.
A train passing sounds like our contemporary lives constantly in transition, moving forward. A loud noise can express our moments of anger or fear. A drawn-out drone can represent our internal struggles against ourselves. Overhearing unknown languages in conversation sets the mood in any foreign country. The clanking of heavy metal can serve as a symbol for the divides of our cultures. The fusion of Eastern and Western music can blend cultural rhythms and our sense of pacing in life. Any given sound, song, noise, clatter, commotion, thud, bang or vibration has the ability to represent momentary experiences, crossing boundaries of language, culture and tradition, thus forming a very intuitive awareness in our bones. As a growing and globalizing world, we are inherently experiencing similar levels of transcultural experiences through modernization in converging forms, or perhaps rather in overlapping noises.