The Character of Sound

In his book Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, John Hull calls himself a “whole body seer,” one who lives in a world seamlessly comprised of four senses. Like many blind people, Hull can detect seemingly visual features of his world through senses other than vision. He can understand where and how the rain falls by ear. Undoubtedly, he can tell whether he walks into an empty room or a room filled with furniture – just by how the air in the room feels as he moves. Describing how the brain of the blind person processes voices, he writes, “For the blind, people are not there unless they speak…When you are blind, a hand suddenly grabs you. A voice suddenly addresses you. There is no anticipation or preparation…people are in motion, they are temporal, they come and they go.”

I frequently experience Hull’s brand of vocal navigation. I am aware of an approaching person only by his or her audible personality. I must weave a narrative from the sounds around me. I will present two vignettes.

The first vignette places me in an environment where noises abound. Katie and I have plans to meet for coffee, and I arrive early. I sit down at a small, round table and pile my bags on the tabletop. I wait for the familiar jingling of keys that indicates Katie’s approach. As I wait, a person approaches me–through sound. A voice happens upon my ears. “Hilary? Is your name Hilary?”

I look up and search for the speaker. This is a complex spatial calculation; my mind places the woman in front of me, diagonally to my right—at two o’clock. I ask if she is speaking to me.

“Yes,” she says. “There’s a drink up for Hilary, so I wanted to see if it was yours.”

I explain that I am not Hilary, and I assume she walks away. She grows silent, so she ceases to hold my attention.

Moments later, a second voice emerges on my left—another woman, another courtesy. “Emily, I want to let you know I’ve just mopped this area. So be careful.”

I thank the unseen employee, whose voice is vaguely familiar. Unable to read her name tag, I don’t know who she is. I only know I’ve made small talk with her while she took my order and prepared my countless soy chai lattes.

Soon the jingling of keys – I think they’re keys, they sound like keys  – alerts me to Katie’s approach. Without fail, I can calculate about 3 seconds between the musical sound and Katie’s equally musical, “Hey Em!”

The second vignette finds me in a calmer, quieter place: the classroom. Here, I learn the location of students by the unzipping of bags, the shuffling of papers, the crunching of granola bars, and the beeping of cell phones. On final exam day, a new sound signals an approaching student—the chattering ice in a plastic Starbucks cup. I can construct a probable scenario from this ice, rattling as the student walks past. The noisy beverage tells me two things: the student was up late last night and the weather is hot today.

For the curious, I’ll add this: you can tell what kind of cup the student is carrying by listening to the ice. The ice in a plastic cup rattles more noisily than the ice in a styrofoam cup. You can also guess the quality and amount of liquid in the cup, depending on the speed and attitude of the rattling ice. I know from the sloshy rattling that my students are drinking iced coffees, iced lattes, or iced green teas. Frappuccinos, because of their smooth, blended texture, do not make a lot of noise until you get to the last few, desperate sips.

As students approach my desk to drop off their exam papers, I marvel at how many carry iced coffee drinks. To me, these students present identical audible profiles; each drink rattles in much the same way. When a student chooses to give a parting word, I can distinguish him or her from the crowd of iced coffee drinkers. I wonder if they realize their own anonymity in this case.

John Hull’s description of hearing voices makes the blind person seem like a solitary figure, suspended in a passive sea of sound. Unable to control who and what comes near, this auditory observer must discern and build his world. And from this perspective, this world-building seems like a lonely, vulnerable task.

However, building a world from sounds can create powerful realizations. Whenever I attend a concert, I intentionally sit far from the stage so that I won’t be distracted by scraps of visual perception. Sitting several rows back, I listen and find a place where the music itself rises upward—a unified fabric of sound, infused with human vitality. I often forget that the instruments, both human and man-made, are attached to human bodies. For me, the music becomes a seamless presence. Somehow the human endeavors are elevated, transformed. I forget about individuals holding bows, pressing keys, bringing the air that fuels the beautiful tones. I forget that the human voice resides in a human body. I can’t hear the boundaries of the human body, so the sound has no boundaries.

Beginning as perception, the boundlessness of music becomes poetry for me; it becomes the cornerstone of my musical philosophy. I immerse myself in the collaboration, only to be carried upward beyond my own body. In the audience, I forget that musicians are tied to the earth; as a performer, I nourish my sound on this perception.

My auditory world-building exceeds the task of telling me who is near and what they’re doing. It creates or conveys the personalities of others and shapes the deeper core of my understanding.

2 thoughts on “The Character of Sound

  1. Emily,
    Amazing and one of the best so far. You do know that most people sighted or not probably do not have the auditory skills you possess or give attention to. The description of the students and their starbucks drinks was spell binding and I read that paragraph several times. Then for the finale the experience at a symphony performance. It makes me wish I could feel something close to what you do at a concert. This blog makes me feel as a “normally” sighted person I miss out on a lot.

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