Canary in a Coal Mine

As I sit writing this, I hear the low cooing of a European turtle dove who probably sits in a nearby elm tree, just outside my window. On a low shelf close by, out of sight like the pigeon, I know there is a CD called Vogelzang in Nederland in Belgie which collects the vocal sounds of more than 50 birds. It was once given to me by my grandfather so that I could learn to recognize which vocalizations referred to which bird. As the pigeon departs I can hear the sharp flick of its wings, a sound which was never included on the CD.

The rustle of the bird’s feathers slowly fades away and leaves me with the sighing of the wind through the trees. Since autumn is well under way the leaves are turning bright yellow and a dry brown which always seems to give their movements a sharper sound. In the distance, slowly overtaking the murmuration of the leaves, is the noise of cars pulling up as their traffic light jumps from red to green at the nearby intersection. Having lived here for more than two years now, I’ve become used to this low growling and barely notice it anymore. As the light jumps back to orange, red, again, the cars’ grumbling stops and I hear the sound of children playing down below. I live above a daycare and the cries and yelps of young children regularly fill the air.

All these sounds, noises, vibrations, make up the soundscape of where I live and I often don’t even register them. Or at least, I only really notice them when they diverge from the usual. The screeching of tires on the intersection, a pigeon flying against my kitchen window, an extremely dissatisfied child. That’s when I realize these sounds are actually there, somewhere outside. Inversely, this also shows how comfortable I feel in the aural continuation that usually just… happens.

Listening to this orchestra of homely urban noises, I wonder what sounds constitute other people’s acoustic environments. What do you, my reader, hear at this very moment? Is it a door closing in the distance, making you aware someone’s just come home? Just your own breathing? The loud music of you upstairs neighbor, followed by your banging as you attempt to convey your annoyance at his noise? Or do you have your own music playing in the background, bobbing your head to rhythmic oomps and unts? It could, of course, also be that the process of hearing is more difficult for you – in that case, what vibrations and sensations have you become accustomed to?

The snippet of information that set off this descriptive ponderation was my discovery of a little organ-like device called the serinette. This instrument had a series of pipes into which wind was pumped via bellows, which were operated with a handle on the side of the little box. So called after the old French for ‘canary,’ from Latin serinus, the bird organ was developed in the 1700s to aid in teaching canaries, and other caged songbirds, to sing recognizable tunes. Little pieces of music would be written specifically for these birds and played on the serinette. Listening to one now, you can imagine how the clear, high notes fit the singing of a canary particularly well.

Whereas I mentioned earlier how comfortable I was in the stream of sounds that surrounds my studio, we of course also do our continued best to improve our sonic environment. We put on music to create a specific atmosphere, isolate our walls and floors to shut out neighboring sounds, close our windows in order to not get distracted. Creating a small device in order to teach a canary to sing a specific song seems to similarly belong to this tendency. Sound and noise activate us; both their absence and presence make us feel things and force us to pay attention. Hopefully these few paragraphs of (mostly) silent text have made you just a bit more aware of your personal soundscape.

Pauw Vos

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