The sound of night – from R Murray Schafer’s “Soundscapes”

“In the special darkness of the northern winter, where life was centered in small pools of candlelight, beyond which shadows draped and flickered mysteriously, the mind explored the dark side of nature. The underworld creatures of northern mythology are always nocturnal. By candlelight the powers of sight are sharply reduced; the ear is supersensitized and the air stands poised to beat with the subtle vibrations of a strange tale or of ethereal music. …

Romanticism begins at twilight—and ends with electricity. By the era of electricity, the last romanticists had folded their wings. Music dismissed the nocturne and the Nachtstuck, and from the Impressionist salons of 1870 onward, painting emerged into twenty-four-hour daylight.

We will not expect to find striking confessions concerning the sounds of candles or torches among the ancients any more than we find elaborate descriptions among moderns of the 50- or 60-cycle hum; for although both sounds are inescapably there, they are keynotes; and, as I am taking repeated trouble to explain, keynotes are rarely listened to consciously by those who live among them, for they are the ground over which the figure of signals becomes conspicuous.

Keynote sounds are, however, noticed when they change, and when they disappear altogether, they may even be remembered with affection. Thus I recall the vivid impression made on me when I first went to Vienna in 1956 and heard the whispering gas lights on the suburban streets; or, on another occasion, the huge hiss of the Coleman lamps in the unelectrified bazaars of the Middle East—which, in the late evening, quite overpowered the bubbling of the waterpipes. Similarly, in a reverse manner, when the heroine in Doctor Zhivago first arrived in Moscow after having spent her childhood in the Urals, she was “deafened by the gaudy window displays and glaring lights, as if they too emitted sounds of their own, like the bells and the wheels.” In the country, night had been accompanied by “the faint crackling of the wax candles” (Turgenev’s phrase), and she was immediately struck by the change.

Another example: in his diary of 1919, amidst painterly thoughts, Paul Klee paused to listen when, in his Schwabing apartment, “the asthmatic gas lamp was replaced by a glaring, hissing and spitting carbide lamp.””

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