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Musical Space

Musical Space: Endangered Sounds


Any work of art is basically an arrangement of elements that are part of our culture - the sounds of our shared memories are the building blocks of music. These don’t even have to come from musical instruments - the sounds of everyday life, like that of opening a can or starting a car, are just as much a part of our sonic heritage. Sounds enter and exit our collective consciousness over time; it might be good to start thinking about preserving our sonic diversity.

Lots of sounds have become functionally extinct: We don’t relate to those of hammering rocks to make an arrowhead or of scraping buffalo skin. But others should be added to some sort of endangered sounds list, like those of hand-milking a cow or of a blacksmith’s hammer. Those were the sonic world of Bach and Mozart.

But what about those that were around earlier in our own lives, like the sound of making a dial-up internet connection, rewinding a VHS tape, or starting up a Game Boy? These were the background noise when grunge and old-school hip hop were being invented.

I’m thinking that the rate of sounds becoming extinct will only get faster. Self-driving cars will eliminate the clicking of turn signals and honking of horns. Drone delivery will eradicate the songs played by ice cream trucks.

(Music: Anamanaguchi, “Sting Operation,” Power Supply (2006)

Luckily there are a couple online museums devoted to preserving our sonic heritage. Check out the Museum of Endangered Sounds if you find yourself forgetting the sound of a rotary-dial telephone.


Listening List:

Pink Floyd, “Wine Glasses,” Household Objects (1971, unreleased)
They attempted to make an entire album of the sounds of household objects.

Eno, “China My China,” Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), (1974)
Using the sound of typewriters instead of drums: “These poor girls are such fun they know what God gave them fingers for (to make percussion over solos”

Jack Nitzsche, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest - Opening Theme (1975)
Musical saw and crystal glass

Mr. Big, “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song),” Lean Into It (1991)
OK, there are millions of guitarists who have attached guitar picks to a power drill. I think Paul Gilbert of Mr. Big is probably the best.

John Cage, Variations VII (1966, from a live 2011 performance),
"It is a piece of music, indeterminate in form and detail ... Using as sound sources only those sounds, which are in the air at the moment of performance, picked up via the communication bands, telephone lines, microphones together with, instead of musical instruments, a variety of household appliances and frequency generators ... they produce a situation different than anyone could have pre-imagined."