The Human Instrument

I have been spending a lot of time alone in the woods composing this week, which (for one thing) sounds like a pretty great premise for a slasher film. But I soon noticed an unexpected presence in my day’s soundtrack: the sound of my own breathing and heartbeat, now more audible without automobiles, climate control, and assorted appliances blotting them out. It’s one of the things I love about getting away from large metropolitan areas, where it is rarely truly quiet.

At first I was only dimly aware of the rhythms accompanying my day. Eventually, however, I began to perceive the unique and shifting cross-rhythms created between my breathing and pulse. John Cage is reported to have become fascinated by two sounds while inside an anechoic (soundproof) chamber, one low and the other very high. After relating this to the engineer, Cage was told that the low sound was the sound of his blood circulating and that the high sound was his nervous system.

It’s really an incredible thing, to realize how our bodies are such a varied musical instrument. Even those of us who have never endeavored to sing more often than the occasional “Happy Birthday” still sing through the rhythm and pitch of our speech, and surrounding this the body constantly emits its own drones of breathing, pulse, and other involuntary and semi-voluntary timbres. We humans are inclined to find the crudest and most involuntary sounds that our bodies can make to be absolutely hilarious, and I think that part of the reason for this has to do with the way that they draw attention to the lack of control over the physical world that our rational minds often consider a source of some indignity.

I’ve grown so used to the constant but infinitely varied lub-dub of my heartbeat that I’m determined to incorporate the sound into a new piece—as a highly malleable rhythmic ostinato that persists through everything despite rarely coming to the fore. Many composers take inspiration from their environment, and I’m interested in exploring an aspect of our environment that is both ever-present and rarely noticed.

For a more humorous take on the sonic potential of the human body (and one instead trafficking in sounds that are more rarely present, yet certainly noticed when they are), click here; if I could stop laughing for long enough, I might appreciate the diverse gradations of timbre and glissandi that make for such a vigorous, er, “performance”.

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