Vertical Listening

Vertical Listening
October 12, 2017 jrebsame

Vertical Listening

If I don’t follow a horizontal path through the garden, but listen to it from a fixed position instead, the garden invites me to discover it vertically—as an orchestration of multiple layers. As with visual layers, each sonic layer has its own function to contribute to the holistic composition. Listening vertically, I may find a correlation between frequency and elevation and thus a spatial validation of the relative “highness” or “lowness” of a tone. But a garden and its house can also play with our spatial preconceptions, even overturn an established acoustic hierarchy.
The lowest layer determines the textural foundation of the entire composition. Its surface effects also constitute the fundamental acoustics for all subsequent layers.The range of textures and acoustics is abundant: the ground may appear deep and resonant (wood), high and dense (gravel), squeaky (sand) or absorbent (moss), dry and reflective (stone), or bubbly, dripping, flowing and roaring (water).

Above this textural layer, more consistent sonic objects hold the potential for tonal gestures such as the light sliding of a shōji (“paper screen”) or a deeper fusuma (“wooden door”) inside the house. These linear vertical gestures may be contrasted by the irregular splatter from a tsukubai (“washbasin”) or the constant noise of a waterfall. Other objects in the middle layer may remain passive, but they shape and organize the tonal objects: the vertical surface of a large rock reflects sounds from the front and blocks the ones behind; an enclosing engawa (“wooden veranda”) harmonizes the voices of the visitors in a warm acoustic space.

Finally, the highest layer of the garden defines the depth and plenitude of our vertical horizon, creating either a sense of expansion or intimacy.This layer’s quality is mostly articulated by trees, which reveal a wide range of textures in the wind: from the soft and gentle gusts blowing through the feathered maple leaves to the deep, tonal humming of rigid pine needles, or the diffuse, elevating hiss of bamboo blades. If you get lucky, fruit trees may even attract the incisive stridulation of cicadas, deciduous trees the screeching of a heron or crow, a black pine the lyrical song of the uguisu (Japanese nightingale).This song is sometimes mimicked in a temple or palace, where a wooden uguisubari (“nightingale floor”) produces a chirping sound when walked upon; the highest sound is echoed in the lowest layer.

Toraya, June 2015
Text & Sound: Ludwig Berger
Animation: Matthias Vollmer