Future Memory: Womb Sound As Shared Experience Crossing Time and Space
This Month will feature a two-part post by SO! regular writer Maile Colbert. Look for Part Two on Monday, January 19th.
I was a child obsessed with time travel. Beyond favorites such as A Wrinkle in Time and Time Bandits, I perpetually daydreamed of the ability to pause, reverse, and fast-forward my life. I had a book on the “olden days” and it amazed me that my great-grandparents, whom I had the fortune to know, had lived them. I wanted to fast forward and see myself their current age, telling stories to the next generations of a good life lived. I used to entertain the thought that if I let my breath go and let myself sink to the bottom of a body of water, I could pause time, or at least slow it down, as the sound of the fluid world around me seemed to suggest. Whenever my family moved, I made a time capsule, and I always scanned the ocean for long lost bottled messages. These were the beginnings of my future in time-based media–both image and sound–my love for found footage, and my recent research and writing on sound back in time.
Now as a new mother, I am beginning to think about the future in a way I hadn’t before. I see my mother in my daughter, and I see her mother, and my partner’s mother. I recognize my grandfather’s eyebrow when furrowed, and her grandfather’s nose. My mouth when smiling, my partner’s mouth when in concentration.
And our ears. . .our very sensitive hearing, almost like a punch line. Our daughter is truly the daughter of sound artists. In this first post of a two part series on humans’ earliest interactions with sound, I document our work sounding and listening together, which began in a future-oriented past I am still learning about.
There was a study in which doctors gave babies only a day old pacifiers connected to tape recorders. Depending on the pattern of the new babies suck, the tape recorder would either switch on the sound of the mother’s voice, or a stranger’s.
“Within 10 to 20 minutes, the babies learned to adjust their sucking rate on the pacifier to turn on their own mother’s voice,” says the study’s coauthor William Fifer, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. “This not only points out a newborn’s innate love for his mother’s voice but also a baby’s unique ability to learn quickly.”
– “What Babies Learn in the Womb,” 2014, Lara Flynn Maccarthy, Parenting
My daughter Odette knew my voice the moment she was born. In a strange, bright, cold new world, it seemed one constant she could rely upon. When she was first placed upon my chest, I started to sing to her, and she was calming, staring at me, as much as her newborn eyes would let her, with an expression of surprised recognition, as this familiar voice sang a familiar song, one I sang her often in the womb. One I knew by heart because my mother would sing it to me when I was a child.
Are you going to Scarborough Fair
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to the one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine. . .
The mother’s voice comes to the fetus not solely as ambient sound through the abdomen, as other external sounds and voices would, but also through the vocal cords’ internal vibration. There is a direct connection, a shared space. As early as the seventh month, a fetal heartbeat will slow and calm to the sound of the mother’s voice, and research has shown newborns even prefer a similar version of their mother’s voice to what they heard in the womb, muffled and low. When Odette suffered colic in her early months, one sure way to help comfort her was to sing to her while she was on my chest. Aside from the close contact of skin, the familiar smell, the warmth, it could be that hearing my voice also through the chest mimicked the womb filter.
In the tape recorder study, researchers also noted that newborns would suck more intensely to recordings of people speaking in the language of their mothers, most likely picking up on the melody and rhythm. We are beginning to understand that learning starts in the womb.
Fetal Soap Addiction
Carmen Bank found her 1985 pregnancy rather boring. So, to pass the time, she started doing something she would never have dreamed of: watching a soap opera.
Unexpectedly, she found herself hooked. And so she spent almost every morning in front of her television set, ready for the familiar theme of “Ryan’s Hope.” After Melissa was born that October, Bank bought a videocassette recorder so she could tape the show when she was too busy to watch.
Bank isn’t sure when she discovered the behavior, but, shortly after Melissa was born, Bank realized that the baby seemed to recognize the “Ryan’s Hope” theme and would stop fussing when the program began.
“She’d just sit there and watch the whole introduction and then she would start imitating what they do on the show,” Bank said. “This has been going on forever.”
-The Very Young and Restless, Do Soaps Hook the Unborn? June 28, 1988, Allan Parachini, The New York Times
My third trimester was a rough one. I was a walking swimming pool of about forty pounds of baby and amniotic fluid. My pelvis had gone completely out of line, making even that pregnancy waddle slow and difficult. Needless to say, I was less and less mobile. I was lucky that much of my remaining work was writing and studio based, but often found myself having to take mental breaks as well. My body/mind chemistry was working overtime. Something that happens with pregnancy when preparing mentally for your new, shared life is to think a lot about your own childhood. I was lucky to have a happy one, and so strong nostalgic feelings and memories would come up, particularly around the television show Dr. Who. I used to spend a happy hour with my father once a week watching reruns from the 70’s in the 80’s.
Dr. Who returned to broadcast in the 2000s, in a few new successful regenerations. The new iteration uses a lot of the classic themes, characters, and even remixes and re-masters the the original opening score written by Ron Grainer and realized by the great Delia Derbyshire for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1963; the Dr. Who theme was one of the very first signature electronic music tunes, and performed well before commercial synthesizers were even available. Derbyshire used musique concrete techniques, cutting each note individually on analogue tape, speeding up and slowing down to create the notes from recordings of a single plucked string, white noise, and the simple harmonic waveforms of test-tone oscillators. (Grainer was famous for asking after hearing Derbyshire’s magic, “Did I write that?”. Derbyshire replied “Most of it.” The BBC, who kept members of the Radiophonic Workshop anonymous, prevented Grainer from giving Derbyshire a co-composer credit and a share of the royalties.)
It is a really, really catchy tune:
While Odette was in the womb, I watched all of those decades addictively, one after another. When I came across the soap opera study after she was born, I decided my obsessive Who-watching had set up a perfect laboratory to try it out myself. We started in 1963 and moved through time with the Doctor. Odette looked up in surprise and her brow furrowed in concentration. She looked around slowly at first, then faster and faster. She smiled; she cooed; she laughed. She started to flap her arms.
When I finally turned it off, she stopped everything and looked concerned. I turned it on again and we danced together in clear recognition of this already-shared future past sonic moment, one I had with my father and now with her. Now I understood that as I consumed Dr. Who, Odette was not only hearing, she was learning, and beginning the act of listening.
Sounds have a surprising impact upon the fetal heart rate: a five second stimulus can cause changes in heart rate and movement which last up to an hour. Some musical sounds can cause changes in metabolism. “Brahm’s Lullaby,” for example, played six times a day for five minutes in a premature baby nursery produced faster weight gain than voice sounds played on the same schedule (Chapman, 1975)
-The Fetal Sense, A Classical View, David B. Chamberlain, Birth Psychology
Odette’s very first movements, her first “quickening”, was in response to David Bowie’s “Starman”. This was around 16 weeks, often the time for first movements in the fetus, and interestingly also the time when the hearing has developed. The fetus floats in a rich and complex soundscape; it is anything but quiet. The womb filter…amniotic fluid, embryonic membranes, uterus, the maternal abdomen-low frequencies, and blood in veins whooshing, then Mother’s voice and body noises such as hiccups and the gurgles of digestion and of course, the heartbeat. The Mother’s heartbeat can be as loud as a vacuum cleaner and ultra sounds as loud as a subway car arriving in a train station.We can try to mimic the womb-scape, imagining sounds being filtered through the body. We can use a hydrophone–a pressure microphone designed to be sensitive to soundwaves through fluid matter–on the abdomen to get an idea and sample for our womb-scape.
Perhaps it would sound something like this…
…reactive listening begins eight weeks before the ear is structurally complete at about 24 weeks. These findings indicate the complexity of hearing, lending support to the idea that receptive hearing begins with the skin and skeletal framework, skin being a multireceptor organ integrating input from vibrations, thermo receptors, and pain receptors. This primal listening system is then amplified with vestibular and cochlear information as it becomes available. With responsive listening proven at 16 weeks, hearing is clearly a major information channel operating for about 24 weeks before birth.
-The Fetal Sense, A classical view
Sound artist and Acoustic Ecologist Andrea Williams has been recently working on a composition for Bellybuds, for her yet born nephew. Bellybuds are “a specialized speaker system that gently adheres to your belly & safely plays memory-shaping sound directly to the womb.” Much of her work is composed with space in mind, using room sounds in a live performance situation. Williams told me it was interesting thinking about the womb as a new “venue,” with her little developing nephew as her audience. “What is he hearing?” she asked, “will he recognize me right away upon meeting him for the first time if he only hears the sound of my voice through the Bellybuds while he is a fetus?” I love the idea that she could send a “hello” from one place to her nephew in the womb in another.
The more we understand and realize about fetal hearing and processing sound, the more we understand how fetuses can detect subtle changes and process complex information. Memory starts to form around 30 weeks, and it’s possible early sound interventions at this time could help babies with detected abnormal development. Speaking and singing to the unborn fetus, allowing them to experience different soundscapes while still in the womb, helps shape their brains. This is probably why the urge to do so is there.
. . .Odette’s first dance. Odette’s first songs. . . transcending time and space.
dedicated to Odette Helen, and to the family, daughter, and memory of Steven Miller
Featured Image: Odette’s Birth Cry, photo credit Rui Costa
The album Future Memory, for Odette will be released in 2015 through Wild Silence. A dedication album to a newborn daughter…a mix of her parents’ recorded and shared sounds, memories, hopes, and dreams towards a future with her. Sounds of her womb-scape, birth, and first year…music in collaboration with friends and family across oceans and land…an album of lullabies for Odette.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonenfant
This Is Your Body on the Velvet Underground– Jacob Smith
Sound Designing Motherhood: Irene Lusztig & Maile Colbert Open The Motherhood Archives– Maile Colbert
Within a Grain of Sand: Our Sonic Environment and Some of Its Shapers
“It devolves on us now to invent a subject we might call acoustic design, an interdiscipline in which musicians, acousticians, psychologists, sociologists, and others would study the world soundscape together in order to make intelligent recommendations for its improvement.”
–R. Murray Schafer
The Soundscape, Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World
With those words, and with that book, Canadian composer, writer, educator, and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer introduced the concept of the soundscape…a sound, or combination of sounds, that forms or arises from an immersive environment. What follows is an exploration of how several key field recordists define and explore the notion of soundscape.
1. What do you do?
I capture moments.
I explore environments & structures using conventional & extended field recording methods. I also use instruments & small objects. Sometimes I perform live intuitive compositions, sometimes I install work & often I compose photographic scores.
For me it is the emotive impulse that most inspires.
2. What can that tell us?
I believe passionately that one of the most important results of an exploration of overlooked detail in daily life (in terms of sound as well as visual elements) is how it can enhance ones life. It can allow us to engage with our surrounding in different ways & appreciate what remains & what has gone before or indeed is in danger of disappearing.
it can tell us that listening is a much, much broader vista than we all understand & one can spend a lifetime exploring.
The study of the soundscape, called Acoustic Ecology, focuses on the relationship between living beings and their environment through sound. It’s a unique field in its interdisciplinary nature and beginnings, an interconnectivity between scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and artists.
1. What do you do?
I am part of the organization Binaural/Nodar, which organizes educational and artistic creation events focused on a rural region in northern Portugal. Our creative focus is on sound and media arts that work with the natural and human environment of the region. As part of our activities, we organized a program of artist residencies dedicated to the river than passes through our region (Paiva river), which culminated in the Paivascapes festival, which took place in March this year. This was a multidisciplinary event that included a series of site-specific sound installations, a retrospective exhibition of sound and audiovisual works at a local museum, conferences on anthropological and environmental issues and nature walks. The festival had an itinerant nature, as it’s program was conceived to happen in several locations from the source to the mouth of the river.
2. What can that say?
The rural environment where we develop our activities has been inhabited for at least tens of thousands of years and each generation left their mark on the territory. So, we understand it as a infinitely complex, stratified and fragmented reality that most of the times cannot be fully comprehended if the approach is superficial, limited in time, based purely on a ‘naturalistic’ view of it that manifests itself for example on experiencing and recording the bucolic sights and sounds. It requires a more ‘relational’ approach, where what we see and listen to is mapped against other elements, stories, individual and collective memories, place names, old and new usages of the space, etc., which requires time, attention and empathy. We take these concerns on every aspect of our work such as which art projects to select, how and where to publicly present the works, how to mediate the relationship between the artists and the local communities.
-Rui Costa of Binaural/Nodar
Acoustic Ecology has branched out to give birth to a movement in sound art called phonography, a neologism referring to the art of field recording. It’s also shown a spotlight upon our changing sonic environment, and has become an important tool in bioacoustics and biomusicology, which help us to understand what these changes can mean. Birds communicate mainly with sound. When their calls cannot be heard, their reproduction decreases. Scientists are working with acoustic ecologists to record and study environments in which this is happening. Some of these bird calls may someday only survive on these recordings.
1. What do you do:
I am interested in the common, the everyday and the ordinary in my art practice; and in the unnoticed, the trivial and the repetitive that constitutes daily life. The birds I am interested in have ambiguous reputations and are considered pests or nuisances but they are also loved and respected. Seagulls, crows/corvids and pigeons are all very sociable species and are often much more audible than visible and they proliferate in the favorable conditions we have provided in urban centers.
‘birdbrain’ focuses on our relationship with crows (corvids) and seagulls through voice (animal/human) and ideas about language (animal/human), including the spoken and written word. There is little philosophical discussion about animal voice, although the potential for animal language parallels current neurobiological research, which has identified that certain ‘motor and perceptual abilities’ essential for language in humans, also exist in birds.
2.What can that tell us:
The project has a number of components including an artist’s book that is posing as a mock field guide. The field guide comprises written texts of exchanges between a group of Little Ravens that I have transcribed over the course of a year using the phonetic words from conventional field guides.
The audio works consist of field recordings, mimicry and texts spoken by people with different accents. Scientific research tells us that birds also have regional accents and dialects, and that birds change their song according to place. Birds in cities sing more loudly to cope with urban noise and these songs tend to be simplified. Also, birds that have been introduced into different countries sing a song that is a variant from their brethren back in the homeland.
Cymatics is the study of sound waves made visible. Sound frequencies vibrate a surface and create distinct patterns. Sound needs a medium to vibrate, and the characteristics of the medium and sound wave will inform the shape. If you place a metal plate upon a speaker head, place sand upon that plate, and play certain frequencies through the speaker, you will see the sand vibrate into different patterns. If we could see sound around us, we would see expanding spheres with a kaleidoscopic-like pattern on its surface, effecting each other and all molecules in its path.
The interconnectivity of our world is often over looked, often not thought about. It is human nature to categorize, this is part of how we think and communicate. But what is lost when we consider our categories as islands, instead of a part of a whole, a pattern of overlapping systems? There is a saying that the whole of earth and ocean is found within one grain of sand.
1. What do you do?
I am an artist and composer who focuses on listening and the environment in my work. I am often recording my life and my travels, and the recordings or my observances from the recordings end up in my compositions, art installations, and soundwalks. In 2004, I was fortunate enough to find other people interested in sound and the environment and together, we formed The New York Society for Acoustic Ecology (NYSAE), a chapter of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology. Through various organizations like the Whitney Museum, the Electronic Music Foundation, and free103point9, we have held events, panel discussions, and performances relating to sound and urban ecology. I am often asked how I “got into sound” and I usually don’t know how to answer it as it feels like I never got out of an interest in acoustics and space. I think that my interest in sound began when I carried around a tape recorder instead of a doll as a child. Perhaps not much has changed as I feel like my compositions reveal a layer of personal narrative conveyed through field recordings that describe how I relate to my environment. Often, my soundwalks do not include sounds that I have recorded; they are about sharing with others what I discovered about listening to the acoustics of a particular place. Points of interest are carefully arranged in guided tours with conceptual elements that emerge as sub-themes.
2. What can that say?
I am mostly interested in the relationship between people the sounds of the urban environment, particularly on how nature is defined by those who live in urban environments. When we slow down to listen to all that is in-between point A and point B, I think that we can begin to enjoy the fine details, even in a noisy city environment. I’ve worked with both children and adults in educational settings in cities who didn’t realize that they had birds living on their street until they were encouraged to listen. And I’ve discovered things like some people don’t like the sounds of birds at all, and they may prefer listening to the sounds of the subway. Sound can be just as subjective and adaptable of an art material as paint.
A drop of water falls into a puddle and creates a wave. A wave is a disturbance that travels through time and space. It affects everything it touches, it creates other waves, it continues colliding and transferring energy to molecules that do the same in turn to other molecules. It can be water, it can be light, it can be sound. It can be many things that collide into our molecules, and our system translates. The water is cold, the light is bright, the sound is loud. This is passive information. But when we actively feel how cooling the water is on a very hot day, when we actively consider how strong that sun is, and when we actively enjoy how the crash of an ocean wave makes our heart race…our world becomes so much richer.
1. What do you do?
Soundscape compositions, soundwalks, listening workshops, lectures, writing, editing, some mentoring of composition students, organizing as part of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) and so on…
2.What can that say?
Everything I do seems to be focused on understanding the world through the act of listening and on the desire to share this understanding with as many people as possible. I believe that every sense perception gives us valuable and important connectedness to and information about the world in which we live. Our hearing sense has been underutilized (certainly in my lifetime, in our societies, nowadays) and a re-balancing of our senses may mean a re-balancing of how we approach life, environment, culture, politics and ideas. Experience in listening and composing has shown me ever new, changing and deepening approaches to space and time. And I wish this for everyone who learns to connect more consciously and deeply to his or her listening. What can that say: listening means noticing means inspiration means energy to do and act.
World Listening Day is July 18th. You can participate through the World Listening Day organization. Or just take the time, whatever you are doing, to stretch your ears and focus them on the rich acoustic world around you.
1. What do you do?
The World Listening Project maintains a website and online forum about its artistic and educational activities, including public workshops, forums, and lectures, as well as participating in exhibitions, symposiums, and festivals. Phonography and Acoustic Ecology inspired all of this. In the Chicago area, where we began, we formed the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, a regional chapter of the American Society for Acoustic Ecology. We’re busy now inviting people to participate in the 2011 World Listening Day on July 18, the date of R. Murray Schafer’s birthday. If you visit our website you can learn how to celebrate. It’s quite open and last year the response was phenomenal.
2. What can that say?
Hearing tells us where to look. Wherever we are, every place on the planet has its own soundscape. From moment to moment the soundscape is always changing, often unpredictably. Depending on the time scale, dynamics, and frequency range we can choose to focus attention on. The World Listening Project suggests that listening is active, not passive: that listening means paying attention to the world. And when we do that we can begin to change it in a way conscious way. Bernie Krause has been a supporter. He’s making waves in the field of soundscape ecology. This is what Bernie says: “Western society bases most of what it knows on the visual. We actually ‘hear” what we ‘see.’ The World Listening Project aims to transform that perception in our otherwise urban centric and abstracted lives. At a time when we are facing not only a silent spring, but a silent summer, fall and winter, as well, it is clear that where a picture is worth a thousand words, a soundscape may soon be worth a thousand pictures.”