Monday, October 24, 2011

`From a Bare Bow'

I remember two non-musical, non-comedy LPs from childhood. One was a recording of ambient sound effects my brother and I found in a convenience store bin. The only cut I recall is of pigs in a slaughter house. It was so disturbing we listened to it hundreds of times – terrified hog snorts, men shouting, unidentified crashes like sledge hammers on sheet metal.

The other recording, an album of bird songs from the library, could have come from a different universe. Each cut represented the song of a single species identified in the liner notes. Memory leaves few specifics except a grinding sense of boredom after a few tracks. Why? Perhaps because I heard birds singing every day in the woods behind our house and could already connect song with species. The record had a context-less museum-like artificiality about it. I may have known little about avian courtship and territorial imperative, but I knew a bird was more than his song. The recordings left out feeding habits, the color of feathers and style of flight. The bird songs sounded birdless.

Andrew Young (1885-1971) was born the same year as Ezra Pound and died one year earlier. Unlike Pound, Young makes few concessions to the twentieth century in his poems, making “The Gramophone” (Speak to the Earth, 1939) noteworthy in its modernity. The English “gramophone” is the American “phonograph” (Edison’s coinage), though the demarcation was never absolute. Both referred to flat discs inscribed for storing sound, the immediate successor to wax cylinders. In the poem, one senses a lingering wonder at the novelty of a still-new technology:

“We listened to your birds tonight
By the firelight,
The nightingales that trilled to us
From moonlit boughs.

“Though golden snowflakes from the gloom
Looked in the room,
Those birds’ clear voices lingered on
Your gramophone.

“`Goodnight’ we said and as I go
High-heeled with snow
I almost hope to hear one now
From a bare bow.”

In the nineteen-thirties, it was still worth noting that one could listen to a bird “pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!” while the snow was falling. A surfeit of sounds has jaded our ears. As Keats reminds us in another ode: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.”

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