The Sound Book; The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World by Trevor Cox. W.W. Norton, 2014.
A British acoustical engineer who studies sound, Trevor Cox, has been documenting the wonders of the sonic world – soundscapes. He is describing two distinct phenomena. Reverberation is the sound that you hear bouncing around an enclosure after a word or musical note has stopped. Try bursting a balloon in a large room. The reverberations will seem to be coming from several directions. Unless, that is, the sound is absorbed by soft furnishings such as drapes and carpet that don’t resonate. Spaces are “alive” or “dead” depending upon how well they reverberate. An echo is a repetition of a sound from one direction. Try yodeling in the mountains.
Concert halls are intended to reverberate sound, and sometimes they fail to do so. Three notable failures are the Lincoln Center Philharmonic Hall in New York, the Royal Festival Hall in London, and the University Auditorium in Gainesville, Florida. Part of this failure is that the sound was not reflected back toward the stage so the musicians have difficulty hearing each other. In the past, good acoustics were left to happenstance; more important was the architectural magnificence of the building. Failed auditoria have had to be refitted, usually with sounding boards that focus the sound more successfully.
Cathedrals, regardless of their grandeur, have often been acoustical failures. That was not so important when huge pine organs could fill the church with sound and its reverberations. The failure became more important when protestant sermons had to be heard. So a sounding board or “tester” was installed above the preacher.
The author takes us on journeys to the various “sonic wonders.” Remember, he is interested in the sound not the sight. We visit the Wormit near Dundee, Scotland to investigate the soundscapes of several underground water reservoirs built there in 1923. The town fathers were speculating on population growth which never happened. So the reservoirs lie unused, empty, and an object of curiosity for those interested in sonic phenomena, both reverberation and echoes. The visit is not for anyone vulnerable to claustrophobia. Nor is a visit to some above-ground oil storage tanks twice the size of a football field built in Scotland in the 1930s as a defense measure when the ‘clouds of war’ were gathering on the continent.
Not only does Trevor Cox wander about listening for sonic wonders, he also wanders back in time to explore past sonic phenomena. Perhaps the loudest sound ever experienced by humans was the eruption of Krakatoa, a volcanic island in Southeast Asia, in 1883. It is claimed that the eruption was heard 3000 miles away. Cox believes that it is possible to understand the location of Neolithic drawings found in caves by looking into the cave’s sonic qualities. The drawings seem to have been located where reverberations are focused. He explores the sonic qualities of a replica of Stonehenge in Maryhill, Washington, USA. The great prehistoric monument near Salisbury, England, is believed to have captured meaningful solar phenomena but also to have had extraordinary acoustical qualities, adding to its power as a site for religious showmanship.
Cox and others are documenting and storing unusual soundscapes as we do sites with our picture-taking. Curved domes have acoustical properties if constructed correctly. And sampling those acoustics is always part of a tour of the Iman Mosque in Isfahan, Iran and the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur, India. The main hall of Grand Central Station in New York does not have any memorable acoustical qualities. But the arches on the lower level are whispering galleries. If you position yourself against the wall at the base of one of the arches, it will carry the sound well enough to be heard as a whisper on the other side.
Heterophonics are words spoken in one language that, under the right conditions, echo back in another. This fanciful phenomenon reminds us that we often hear what we want to hear. Still Trevor Cox has convinced me that touring ought to include soundscapes as well as landscapes and cityscapes.