“Olympic National Park is the listener’s Yosemite,” Hempton said of his decision to locate his One Square Inch within the park’s forested realm. “In a single day, you can listen to an alpine environment, a wilderness beach, and a temperate rain forest. And it has the longest noise-free interval of any national park I’ve been to, and I’ve been to them all.”
Part of Olympic’s quiet stems from its location: It sits on a peninsula in a secluded corner of the country. The park is not crossed by highways, navigable rivers, or utility rights of way; and it lies west of the major cross-country plane routes. Only three commercial-airline paths encroach upon its borders. Alaska Airlines is the most active, flying overhead 37 times each day in summer, but it tries to avoid the park during routine maintenance and training flights—a concession the carrier made to Hempton after he wrote asking it to change its flight patterns.
Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul. Only by harking back to the day of the roller skate or the bicycle craze, when sports of admitted utility ran to extravagance and virtual madness, can we find a parallel to the way in which these ingenious instruments have invaded every community in the land. And if we turn from this comparison in pure mechanics to another which may fairly claim a similar proportion of music in its soul, we may observe the English sparrow, which, introduced and welcomed in all innocence, lost no time in multiplying itself to the dignity of a pest, to the destruction of numberless native song birds, and the invariable regret of those who did not stop to think in time.
On a matter upon which I feel so deeply, and which I consider so far-reaching, I am quite willing to be reckoned an alarmist, admittedly swayed in part by personal interest, as well as by the impending harm to American musical art. I foresee a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations, by virtue—or rather by vice—of the multiplication of the various music-reproducing machines.
Frequently the [peacock] combines the lifting of his tail with the raising of his voice. He appears to receive through his feet some shock from the center of the earth, which travels upward through him and is released: Eee-ooo-ii! Eee-ooo-ii! To the melancholy this sound is melancholy and to the hysterical it is hysterical. To me it has always sound like a cheer for an invisible parade.
Flannery O’Connor, “The King of the Birds”
You hear it from a block away: an amplified, singsong call with an uncanny power to slice through the urban din. The tone is cheap and tinny—as kitschy as a sound can be. And it’s my favorite in Mexico City.
Listen now, as it nears, the nasal-toned male voice stretching out syllables and pauses, again and again, into a verse so familiar it could be the unofficial anthem of this vast city, a kind of culinary call to prayer. ”Ri-costa-ma-les oaxa-que-ños!” blares a loudspeaker on the vendor’s tamale cart. ”Tamales oaxaqueños!” ”Tamales calien-ti-tos!”
Go to any neighborhood in Mexico City, from gritty to grand, and at some point during the evening you might hear it. The recorded call, always in the same hypnotic voice, is pumped from countless speakers aboard countless tamalero pedal carts. Step up and order your delicious Oaxacan tamales.
Bzzzpeek is an engaging little website that’ll play you clips of kids from various different countries making the sounds they think dogs, lions, and other common animals make. There seems to be very little disagreement across cultures about what cats say. Frogs, however, are another story entirely. And fair enough: the American “ribbit” is a pretty strange set of syllables to assign to frog noises. See bzzzpeek here. Via VSL.
Sounds still play an important role in Mexican society. A cow bell announces the arrival of the garbage truck outside Mexico City homes. A trilling, tuneless flute heralds the knife sharpener’s arrival. A whistle emitting cat meows says the lottery ticket seller is here.
But pre-Columbian instruments often end up in a warehouse, Velazquez said, “and I’m talking about museums around the world doing this, not just here.”
That’s changing, said Tomas Barrientos, director of the archaeology department at Del Valle University of Guatemala.
“Ten years ago, nothing was known about this,” he said. “But with the opening up of museum collections and people’s private collections, it’s an area of research that is growing in importance.”
Velazquez meticulously researches each noisemaker before replicating it. He travels across Mexico to examine newly unearthed wind instruments, some dating back to 400 B.C. and shaped like animals or deities. He studies reliefs and scans 500-year-old Spanish chronicles.
But making replicas is only part of the work. Then he has to figure out how to play them. He’ll blow into some holes and plug others, or press the instrument to his lips and flutter his tongue. Sometimes he puts the noisemaker inside his mouth and blows, fluctuating the air from his lungs.
He experimented with one frog-shaped whistle for a year before discovering its inner croak.