A microphone is not a telescope

I envy astronomers who can use powerful telescopes to peer back into the past and view galaxies as they were millions, billions of years ago. We cannot use a microphone to pick up past noises because as sounds pass through the air their energy dissipates quickly. Aliens looking back at earth could see dinosaurs but never hear them. So traveling around historic sites such as Walden Pond and Charleston, South Carolina, picturesque as they might be, I am constantly aware that the best we can hope for is recording a natural soundscape the way the past inhabitants might have heard it. Of course this is constantly undermined by modern sound: sometimes human and often mechanical. So in Charleston we situated ourselves in a narrow alleyway far from cars to silently await St Philip’s bell chime. Did the passing couple delay their noisy argument to coincide exactly with the sounding of the clock? We had to wait for another 15 minutes, which seemed longer at the end of the day.

Earlier, near the site of the Stono rebellion, as David told the story, an ancient pick up truck roared past. In this case I felt I could use that noise as a metaphor for the suppression of the rebellion, but we did a re-take just in case. High above vultures were calling to each other and in the very far distance savage sounding dogs were having a go at something or someone. At Walden Pond a distant train, which would normally have been a nuisance, was just what we needed as Thoreau had written of trains when he was here 150 years ago. Catching sounds near StonoBut it was in the Slave Plantation I really felt the absence of past sound. A bell bolted onto a branch used to ring the slaves out to work. It was still there but its rope had rotted away, probably a century ago, and so the oak remained silent apart from the moss swaying in the wind. The slave hut was empty apart from ashes in the fireplace. In the plantation house the floors creaked as we, rather than the slave owner and his wife, wandered around.

Back in town it was almost a relief to hear the blisteringly loud fire engine peel down King Street. But even that sound, as solid as the fire station itself, soon sidled away into the humid evening, to join what must remain in memory or imagination, the sound from more distant pasts.

Which brings me to a rather more pressing concern: How the heck are we going to put all this together into a radio programme?

One thought on “A microphone is not a telescope

  1. Hi David,

    This is a fascinating project, and I’m really looking forward to the programmes being broadcast.

    This is an interesting idea:

    ‘I am constantly aware that the best we can hope for is recording a natural soundscape the way the past inhabitants might have heard it. Of course this is constantly undermined by modern sound: sometimes human and often mechanical.’

    The idea of recording (or recreating) a historic natural soundscape is a bit problematic, chiefly in that even if ‘modern sound’ wasn’t present, it’s almost certain that the environments in question will have changed through time, in states of natural flux, and that the soundscapes they produce would alter in parallel.

    Cheers, Rob

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