Mittwoch, 24. Dezember 2008

singing sand

Although they can only be experienced at a handful of locations around the world, the phenomenon of singing sand dunes is perhaps one of the most interesting examples of nature's sonorous expression. It is believed they are caused by particularly homogenous sand grains pouring as a layer down the side of a dune, causing vibrations which release a voluminous, rythmic sound that seems eerily unnatural. Especially given the difficulty in seeing a thin layer of sand rolling down a dune, and therefore in establishing the source of the sound, it is unsurprising Marco Polo described them as 'spirit voices'.

A book by Paul Devereux that I have started reading, and will almost certainly be mentioning in future posts, Stone Age Soundtracks, explores the forgotten archeology of sound, and suggests the worlds of our ancestors were far more audio-centric than ours today. Science has shed light on much of the magic of sound and song, giving rational explanations to phenomena which were previously inexorably linked to spirit worlds and deities. Places, both the caves, trees and rivers of nature and later the temples of our earliest civilisations, were considered sacred if they emitted certain sounds or reacted to them in a certain way. Much of our early spirituality was explored through experiments with voice and instrument, our sense of hearing was at least as important in our relationship with the environment as our vision. Some cultures still value the aural above the visual. Devereux recounts the tale of an arnthropologist struggling to understand the story of an Umeda man, an indegenous person of Papua New Guinea, who inhabits the dense rainforest and can never see as far as he can hear.

He had just had a frightening experience on a forest path leading to the village. He had been chased by a yawt, a forest ogre believed in by all Umeda. The man had heard the yawt panting "hu-hu-hu" in the darkness among the trees alongside the path; suddenly it circled round and confronted the poor fellow, still going "hu-hu-hu". The man was forced to cut through the forest to avoid the monster. "Yes, yes - but did you actually see the ogre?" [the anthropologist] wanted to know. His informant was perplexed. "It was dark, I was running away, it was there on the path going 'hu-hu-hu'," he repeated with exasperation.

It's hard not to think that a nomad travelling through the desert, suddenly hearing a strange bass note filling the air, perhaps even experiencing infrasound, would react in the same way.

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