In Sounds Wild and Broken, David George Haskell has done for listening what Rebecca Solnit did for walking. He has taken something ubiquitous, ephemeral and largely unconsidered and made it the touchstone for an expansive and revelatory exploration of life on Earth.
Haskell’s inquiry into sound and listening spans 400 million years, outlining the origins of sound-making and sound-receiving, the explosive cacophony of evolution, the way landscape, climate and biology affect the kinds of sounds that evolve, and how the Anthropocene affects a world of sound.
Throughout, Haskell’s curiosity, lyrical prose and fine ear for detail takes us with him, wherever in the world he chooses to stop and listen. We hear cicadas on a roadside on the Massif Central, a Guarneri violin in the Lincoln Center, frogs in the Ecuadorian Amazon and bone flutes in Palaeolithic caves. His ability to evoke sound in words puts music critics on notice. For example, he describes the song of a bird as “A figure skater of sound: Two long, sliding strokes, a rise into a spin and twirl, and quick foot sweeps on landing. Control. Speed. Elegance.”
Haskell brings the same empirical insights to human sound-making as to that of non-humans. Indeed, he calls out the distinction between animal “noises” and human “language” as bogus, hearing logic, nuance and layered meanings in both. Nor does he buy into music as uniquely human: “If music is sound whose meaning and aesthetic value emerge from culture, and whose form changes through time by innovations that arise from creativity, then we share music with other vocal learners, especially whales and birds.”
The crux of his argument is that sound is “a generative force, a catalyst for future biological innovation and expansion”. Loss of habitat, industrial noise in the oceans, noise pollution in cities – particularly in underprivileged areas – and our failure, as individuals and as cultures, to listen to the world’s sonic cornucopia has created an acoustic crisis. “As we get louder and more voracious, we silence other living voices, cutting back both the diversity and the evolutionary creativity of the oceans.”
It’s a passionate call to action and, through the compelling beauty of his prose, a persuasive and ultimately hopeful one. As he says, “To listen, then, is a delight, a window into life’s creativity, and a political and moral act.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction, David George Haskell".
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