A Slave to Sound

Tick-tock. Boom! Whir. Thump…
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

One of my favorite parts of the Bravo series Inside the Actors Studio is the series of questions James Lipton asks his guests. Based on the concept originated by French television personality Bernard Pivot (on his show Apostrophes) – as Lipton always conscientiously points out – the questions range from favorite curse word to what you’d like to hear God say if and when you arrive at the pearly gates. But the question I find most fascinating involves sound – “what sound or noise do you love,” asks Lipton, followed by “what sound or noise do you hate.”

The answers at once ground the celebrity guests in reality – they hear and react to noises just like the rest of us – and also give us an intriguing peak into their own idiosyncrasies.

I am often a slave to sound – a servitude that has only stiffened with age. I am now indentured to the noises around me, the neighbor’s barking dog…birds twittering and squawking in the trees.

And those goddamn car alarms!

It’s an interesting game to play with yourself – what sound or noise do you love? Hate? Miss? Desire?

What music makes you instantly tap your feet? Does a purring cat relax all the muscles in your face? Does a giggling baby automatically make you smile?

Dig a little deeper? What about the sound of a coffee grinder? The drone of a lawn mower? The irregular blast of a car engine that just won’t start?

Tires on blacktop. The creak of an old pier as waves crash below. The buzz of a beehive or an old refrigerator….I could keep at this for days.

I still remember listening to actor/playwrite Sam Shepherd talk about sound. He described the noises that are so distinctive yet never discussed – windshield wipers during a rainstorm, or the flap of the tarp on that hood.

The greatest drum solo I ever heard was made by a loose flap of a tarpaulin on top of my car hitting the wind at eighty. The second best is windshield wipers in the rain, but more abstract, less animal.

Summer is almost here – a season of sounds: the deep-bass beat of the rotary sprinkler…the hiss of a sparkler…the flat, splash of a belly-flop. These sounds inform and expand the world around us, and writing about them can add dimension to your narrative. See the connections you can make – the disparate images you can connect through sound, the emotion you can attach to music or rhythm or a lover’s sigh.

“Sometimes, to start a piece of writing, or to ground a piece of writing into definite reality, it takes sound as well as sight,” explains Julia Cameron in The Right to Write.

“The conscious use of sound in our writing – like a great soundtrack in a film – cues the unconscious,” she continues. “It brings to bear a host of associations that are more subtly and acutely felt than visuals images alone. Sound makes our writing ‘sound’ in many senses of the word.”

Right now you may be reading this while surrounded by the muffled sounds of your day job. Or maybe you’re squinting at a smart phone as you rumble along on a city bus. Maybe your iPad is flashing in the sun while you lounge poolside (who are you, and how can I get your life?!).

But when you’ve got a moment – and a pencil/pen or keyboard handy – write down ten sounds and the corresponding emotion they conjure. Then go deeper – when do these sounds happen? Where? How makes them or hears them? What – if anything – do they mean?

Here’s my exercise….now do yours.

1) Balloons being filled with helium. Makes me feel like celebrating. You hear that helium gush during a child’s birthday party or behind the counter at a gift store while you’re waiting for your “baker’s dozen” of multi-colored latex-delight. It’s the sound of clowns and party planners. They can signal a break: that pause before a celebratory tune. But sometimes they warn of overindulgence…what your step, that screech says – you don’t know where you might float off to!

2) Screeching brakes. Put me on edge. You can hear them break the quiet of an afternoon in repose, or cutting through the drone of rush hour. The siren cries of dragsters and racecars, of villains and risk takers. There’s a warning there, and a challenge – danger lies ahead, if you dare.

3) The MGM trumpet blast. A story’s on its way! Pageantry. Excitement. The clarion call of drama, comedy and action. Pulsing through a darkened theater or bleating out of the living room television: it’s the beginning, the cinematic starter pistol.

4) Tiger Lily crunching dry cat food. An acknowledgement of comfort and care. I hear it late at night or early in the morning, when other sounds are hushed with sleep. The crack of kibble between her domesticated incisors. It’s an acceptance of sustenance and an understanding of the copacetic relationship between owner and pet.

5) The staccato of a stapler. Makes me feel productive. Work is getting done! A stamp and a click, firing out from desks and countertops during busy weekdays. They are the shots fired by secretaries and desk clerks. Ticket agents and postal workers. They signifying a joining together and an officiating: these things are important enough to bind with metal.

6) Foghorn’s cry. So sad and lonely, calling through the fog. Can you hear me? It’s a sound that sneaks up behind you, taps you on the shoulder then bounces away when you turn to look. A melancholy trickster trying to warn you of the rocks waiting to dash you to bits as you sail through rip tides with your eyes closed, swaying with the rhythm of the ocean underfoot.

7) Cell phone vibration. Acceptance. Invitation. Someone wants you! That bumpy whir on your bedside table, the rumble in your pocket, the slight shiver in your purse. It’s reaching out and touching you in the way a regular, ringing telephone never could. It makes contact tactile.

8) A cassette tape rewinding. Nostalgia and remember-whens. Waiting for that perfect song, skipping the filler in between. No easy satisfaction for you. You must wait before you listen…pause before you dance…rest before you sing. Yet you still have control over what you hear.

9) The ding of the airplane’s fasten-seatbelt sign. Safety. Freedom. You can disconnect yourself from that airplane seat and roam to your heart’s content – within the strict confines of the airplane cabin of course. In that sense, the ding is a fake – luring you into believing you’ve been liberated when you’re really still stuck thousands of feet in the air, hurtling towards whatever destiny awaits.

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One thought on “A Slave to Sound

  1. That is such a great exercise, and with such neat results. I really heard all of those sounds you wrote, whether it was because you picked very distinctive sounds, or because you described the emotion around them so well. It really made me think that I need to insert more sounds into my writing. What do you think – is it the specificity of the sound, the ubiquity of it (stapler, cats eating), or is it the way the sound is then described, that gives your writing a true “soundscape”?

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