Last Friday different professors gave an introduction to their course to the new students of the X-College of National Cheng Chi University, after a talk by the ever-inspiring College-director Chen Wenling. The X-College is the creative department where students from all faculties can apply for a number of courses in several discplines. This year is the second year I am invited to teach a course about sound and music.
I presented the idea of my course, which is entitled ‘Making sense in the world of sound’ and inspired by the idea to focus on the Taipei Zoo, which is near the university’s campus. My students and me will do a good deal of listening to different sonic environments and create new ones with our voices, bodies and also through recordings. We’ll look closely at how animals listen and communicate and take inspiration from that for improvisations of our own.
To exemplify my idea, I sang a very simple pattern, which I asked them to imitate. Then I let one group make a small time-shift, so that the patterns bounce off against each other and give a more complex rhythm. I explained this is what often happens in nature, where insects may make just two tones, but when their starting point is different or the pattern caries only slightly, very interesting results may emerge. I was wondering where I could find a live example of what I talked about: i had heard such things but could not remember I had ever recorded them.
Then, the next day, I walk our dog. I hear an intriguing sound, stop and listen. I hear exactly what I had been talking about! Two insects, I guess about a meter apart, each repeating a single note several times, the one higher, the other lower. It’s a stunningly clear, bell-like sound, and in fact quite loud.
Sometimes the patterns alternate, sometimes they coincide. So I stand, listen and observe all the variations they are able to make, despite their limited sound repertory. I wonder if they are enjoying the interplay of two/three-group notes as much as I do. I know that many of the established biologists studying animal sounds disagree with that idea. But David Rothenberg, a philosopher, musician and friend, whose fascinating book ‘Survival of the beautiful’ I am currently reading, likes to think that animals indeed may have a kind of esthetic sense ‘yes!’