Thursday, August 30, 2012

Echo and Reflection


That sound can turn space sacred is one of the principal reasons music is so central a part of ritual performance. (See this blog, April 18, 2011: "Sound Sacralizes Space.") Most Euro-Americans do not often think of sacred space in the world of Nature. A few anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, poets and folklorists study indigenous cultures that do think in those terms. Some music composers, particularly environmental sound artists, also tend to think this way. Recently, I've become interested in echo both literally and as a figure for that sacralization of sound. And thinking about echo led me to mirrors and reflections

Echo, I have been thinking, is to hearing what reflection is to seeing. Reflection challenges our normal perception of space. Echo transforms our perception of both time and space. Both are doublings (though not exact imitations); original and near-copy are both present, the reflection simultaneously with the original, the echo later, though usually overlapping in time. (That is, the original sound remains in memory, if not still present to the ear, when the echo is heard.) 

Echo Lake, New Hampshire
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was fascinated by both echo and reflection. He wrote about his encounters with echo chiefly in the woods and on or around lakes. His interests were aesthetic and appreciative, curious and scientific. He liked to hear the echo of his own voice, as well as the echoes of other sounds--church and school bells, axe blows, the shouts of children, the sounds of thunder, the tapping of the woodpecker, a falling branch, the song of a bird. Why was an echo "good" (strong) at one time and place, and weak at another? How did American Indians use echo to measure distance and guide them on their journeys? (He had a chance to observe this in his trip to Mount Katahdin, Maine, and he wrote about it in his Journal and in The Maine Woods.)

Frederic Edwin Church, Mt. Katahdin (Maine) from Lake Katahdin (1850)
More generally, Thoreau asked what happens to sound as it travels over distances? Echo helped him develop a proto-theory of ambient sound; he may well have been one of the first to do so. 

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Lake Scene (1861)
Thoreau wrote about his encounters with reflections in pools and lakes. For example, "The lake is a mirror in the breast of nature, as if there were nothing to be concealed. . . It is the earth's liquid eye. . . I should wither and dry up if it were not for lakes and rivers. I am conscious that my body derives its genesis from their waters. . . " (Journal, Dec. 2, 1840). Here he writes from a perspective of naive realism, as if the reflection were an exact copy of the original. Years later, a more careful and scientific observer, he is puzzled that the lake reflection he sees is not an exact copy, and wonders in his Journal from what standpoint (not his own) it might be. He concludes that there is no standpoint from which the reflected image would be an exact imitation of the original.

Asher B. Durand, Thanatopsis (1850)
While Thoreau in the mid-19th century was living out his pastoral at Walden Pond and writing about echo and reflection, American luminists were painting echo and reflection into their pastoral visions of forests and bodies of water. This cannot be coincidental. Rather than portray Narcissus looking at his reflection in the pool with the nymph Echo by his side, they painted natural landscapes with lakes and rock formations, rivers and ocean estuaries, cliffs and mountains, echo and reflection in the same scene.

Thoreau's vibrating to the sounds of the natural world is the aural equivalent of Emerson's transparent eyeball, in which the sense of self disappears into the ecstasy of hearing (or, following Emerson, of seeing). It is the same when sound sacralizes space and time. Every good musician has felt those magic, ecstatic moments, when the self or ego disappears and you are at one with your voice or instrument: you are your voice or instrument. In those moments time and space become something other, and you experience the music playing (or singing) you, not the reverse. 

Martin Johnson Heade, Thunderstorm on Narrangansett Bay (1868)
The luminists achieved a similar effect, as if they had become transparent eyeballs, eliminating the appearance of their painterly selves by removing from their paintings the marks of their creation. They did so by concealing their brush strokes, as in Heade's arresting painting of the thunderstorm on the bay above, an example of the Romantic sublime. Durand (above), Fitz H. Lane, Heade, and, in some of his paintings, such as his "Eel Spearing at Setauket," William Sidney Mount were among those who brought this luminist vision into being.

In Heade's thunderstorm the artist has vanished inside the painting much as the musician has become the music, the voice merged into the echo. Here, reflections are doubled: the water is dark, reflecting the sky, and this darkness contrasts with the white reflections of the boats' sails. Meanwhile, we see the jagged lightning and, in our mind's ear, we hear the echoing thunder. Listening to those paintings one may hear the co-presence of sound that is characteristic of sacred space.

     "Each more melodious note I hear
       Brings this reproach to me,
       That I alone afford the ear,
       Who would the music be."
                                -Thoreau, from "The Service"

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