It was my Nervous System (maybe)

January 18th, 2008 andrea

Last night some fellow members of The New York Society for Acoustic Ecology (NYSAE) cleared up something that happened to me in Antarctica that had been bothering me.

While I was in the Dry Valleys, I was looking for a very quiet place where I thought I might be able to hear the geological ‘keynote’ (as Murray Schafer describes it) of the valleys. At a couple of points, I thought I had found it, a very quiet high pitched hum, but when I tried to make a recording of it using the most sensitive mics I had, I got nothing on the recording except some rustling of clothing.

I thought that maybe this sound was my imagination, or that I was starting to get tinnitis, or maybe the sound of a light wind in my ear canal, but when I explained the sound to a group of NYSAE members, they almost all simultaneously responded with ‘it was your nervous system.’

Turns out John Cage talked about this phenomenon in several articles and his 1973 book ‘Silence’. He visited an anechoic chamber and, as he says: “heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.”

There’s some debate on the accuracy of this, some say Cage more likely had a mild case of tinnitis, and that the very high-pitched sound of the nervous system is usually inaudible to people over the age of 30, but I was happy for this more inspiring explanation. As Cage says: “The reason I did not expect to hear those two sounds was that they were set into vibration without any intention on my part. That experience gave my life direction, the exploration of nonintention.”

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