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Inside a Kaleidoscope of Sound

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back.
Those who wish to sing always find a song.” -Anon

Sitting on the veranda listening to the natural music of the Australian bush, I ponder how to write a post about the sounds we heard in the ancient stones of France. I close my eyes and allow my ears to see the world in front of me and realise why I get so excited about the sound of music in nature: because as humans, we cannot reproduce sincerely the sound of a gust of wind through the tops of trees, the chandelier quality of birds trilling, lizards scooting around leaf litter, extroverted frogs croaking with impeccable rhythm, soothing water playing over rocks in creeks, the crashing thud of a dead tree giving up the ghost as it falls to the forest floor, dashing busy bees, or impatient flies. All that whirring, whooshing, the creaks and groans, the trills and other sounds add significant ‘sonic-colour’ to the landscape.

Man has learned how to reproduce the colours of the rainbow in the fabrics we wear, in the paints we put onto canvas to imitate Nature’s beauty – but give me a symphony of sound any day rather than a palate of colours, for in the hearing, I see more than I can see with eyes wide open. With eyes closed, skin and hair follicles also become part of the world of interpretation. And so, with my limited tunnel vision, I find life to be a constant surprise as objects jump out in front of my blinkered visual scope and if it were not for a heightened sense of hearing to warn me of sudden changes, I would possibly be a nervous little rabbit stunned by the bright headlights of life.

Living in a hectic city, each time I venture out the front door, along with my purse, my cane and coat I take my alert senses which have been honed to expect the unexpected, even more so when travelling through a foreign country. My brain switches into detective mode, gathering zillions of clues from the other senses all clamouring to offer a flurry of interpretation while at the same time, my sighted guides, Harry and Mike, are painting postcards on the canvas of my imagination.

As a vision-impaired Francophile, I was keen to stop and ‘hear’ and smell and touch the delicious sights of France during our six week jaunt through the countryside. Our trip had begun in Paris, naturellement, and I felt fortunate to have audio-descriptive Harry and observant-Mike filling in astounding details ranging from cafe decor to roadside market stalls, from wildflowers to road signs, from gallery exhibits to perfume counters and everything in between!

But where I can really excel without the need to see is when I listen to the landscape, when I hear the sound within ancient stones. One of the extraordinary surprises we discovered on our tour through southern France was the deep resonance within century old stone churches, medieval castles and handmade brick wine vaults.

*

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.”
-Victor Hugo

During our cruise on the Canal du Midi we ventured inside a vast wine cellar and promptly discovered a hole in the brick wall. With child-like wonder, Harry and I poked our heads through the dark space and were stunned by the fullness of sound mimicking our speaking voices. Even the softest of whispers hung in the airy cave until the vibration found a solid wall to bounce off as if playing ping-pong with the stone cavern. Drawn by the exaggerated depth and authority of each echo, Harry and I jostle to be the first to throw another sound into the dark brick well housing hundreds of bottles of Roussillon wine. My fellow chorister and I are keen to experiment with chords and hum a gentle tune that booms around the vault. I hear the clinking of bottles being taken from one part of the dark cellar to another, staff going about their business as if all this singing were a daily occurrence!

Harry’s lush base notes rise and fall with the warmth and fullness of a well matured wine, my bright soprano notes are open and light, a concert hall quality of liquid sounds bringing a sense of life as its rich timbre invites us to linger for several minutes more on this unique sound stage.

I am aware that Mike is hovering somewhere in the dark cavern listening to our choral gymnastics, and wonder whether the maturing wines have enjoyed our improvised serenade: our finale of fading chords reverberate well above our heads, spreading east and west within the vast brick barrels, even after we have stopped moving our lips. Harry guides me around the display counters of local wines, my eyes blinking rapidly at the flood of daylight by the cellar door as we emerge, I sense Harry’s excited face, his eyes as round as bottle tops, “How was that?”

*

The next acoustic surprise came as a well deserved reward for a challenging climb to reach the summit of the Chateau de Queribus. Known as the guardian of the mountain pass in the Pyrenees Orientales, this Cathar castle is perched on a narrow rocky peak at 728 metres. The climb over rocky uneven steps and precipitous drops has our group clinging to guide ropes and gasping in awe when we dare to look down at the purple-hazed view.

Harry is close behind my heels, only inches away, attempting when possible to describe the scene in front when the wind is not howling around our chilled ears. No other tourists pass us on the climb, except for cheeky, nimble Mike who leads the way like a professional mountain goat!

As we climb higher and higher, the violence of the wind lashes at our coats as if attempting to snatch our bodies from the safety of the guide ropes. We inch our way up the cobblestone steps with our backs splayed against the rock like human vines. I wrestle with the aggressive wind to keep my cane firm on the stone steps, and when I dare to peel my hand away from the rope, fingers tightly intertwine with the tangled forest of bushes along the rocky path.

For an hour or more, we stay focussed on our mission, weaving up and over, on a narrow path well travelled. I cannot fathom how Cathar monks ran around these treacherous slopes fighting off their persecutors and yet an insight to why they decided to establish their holy dwellings here is given to us as we too conquer the summit: all we can do is stand paralysed and dumbfounded by the sacredness of the view.

The distant horizon is cloaked in a deep purple mist, soft clouds drift over emerald slopes so tall that one could imagine invisible steps leading to the pearly gates of heaven. I reach out and touch my son’s hand as we stand together, co-witnesses of nature’s divine beauty and speak through a mist of tears, “This is why we took you out of school – to see all this. If only for this one awesome moment, it has been worth it.”

We leave fellow admirers from foreign lands to gawk at the view in order to explore rooms within the crumbled walls of the castle. Remains of living quarters are obvious in the ruins and I feel as if we are walking around one of the original ‘Grand Design’ chateaux from the 13th century! Harry leads me into a dark stone room which was obviously a kitchen because not only can I run my hands over a low primitive rock sink but Harry points out the ceiling blackened by the large fires needed to boil water and cook home-grown produce. My hands cannot help but stray over the lumpy cold stones once hauled into place by master craftsmen. I can feel the heart within this stone, the monks’ love for this sacred site, the walls of the kitchen which seem to carry echoes of long ago prayers from the devotional men and women who had intended to stay as close to heaven as they could possibly be in this lifetime.

We move to another enclosed tall room – and it is this ancient sweet textured space that calls our hearts forth to sing (our teenager however, vacates the room to join the milling folk outside, to play photographer for a while rather than be roped into co-chorister). Harry and I nestle into a resonant spot of our own, our feet stand firmly upon the sunken footprints of the stone floor. Our voices glide with improvised notes, searching for echoes in and around small gaps as if we are sifting through the ruins of sound. Like singing bards, we feel our ears cradled by the warmth of the pulse, our hearts inhabiting an ageless time. Our improvised melody is brief but our harmonised chords ring gently in our hearts and in the stones of Queribus.

*

The third acoustic surprise greeted our ears the moment Harry, Mike and I entered an empty church in the township of Argentine. It is the tip-tap of my cane that creates a sound wave striking the hard stone as I attempt to walk discreetly down the uncluttered aisle: heels of shoes and tip of cane clip-clopping as unsubtly as a draft horse in a child’s nursery!

Harry parks his video camera on the long tripod and wanders over to scoop up my roaming hand to guide me to a specific acoustic area, under the central dome built intentionally to create a resonant ‘sweet spot’. Mike is very patient with us, I am aware of his quiet presence sitting alone in a back pew and am grateful to our teenager for not protesting about his folks’ eccentric desire to sing wherever we go! We close our eyes, inspired once more to play with octaves and launch into song, our chant moving back and forth in the space between us. The interplay of our melodic notes swirls high above our heads to mingle in the ancient chamber of prayer.

Either the delicate reverberation of high notes or the scent of burning rosemary triggers long ago memories of being in church with my mother. I was certain, if I whispered her name, her spirit would take a seat next to her grandson in the empty pews and smile with us as the tune of an old hymn came flooding back into my mind. My devotional song brings a sense of closeness in this vast chamber of prayer, uniting with the hundreds of hours of evensong gone before us.

It is almost impossible to leave our sound journey and walk through the open doors, and my fellow chorister and I feel we could fly on wings of joy! Once outside the church, practical Mike brings us back to earth and utters his personal mantra…

“I’m hungry, Mum. Can we have lunch now?”

*

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” -Plato

Maribel Steel is a freelance writer, blogger, mother and vocalist. She lives in Melbourne, Australia with her partner and teenage son. She was diagnosed at fifteen with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) and loves to find new places to feel, sounds and textures to explore. She has had several articles published in various journals and is currently working on a nonfiction series of short essays, The Art of Being Blind.

This piece originally appeared on Maribel’s blog, Touching Landscapes: www.touchinglandscapes.com. To hear the sound journey captured on film, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhA_avbqv2M