From Caves to Churches  / Maayan Tsadka 

Often I make thought-exercises with myself by returning to a moment of sensory revelation, which preceded knowledge:

The moment of discovering the abilities of the human voice;

The moment of discovering the sound potential in a branch of  bamboo;

The moment of discovering the echo – in an underground cave or a rocky crevice;

The moment of discovering the secret of blowing air through hollow bones or seashells from the depths below.

What did that sound like? What sensation did it evoke? What was the explanation given to these mysterious sound experiences? After the powers of sound were revealed – the seed was planted, followed by the will and ability to control and domesticate these acoustic phenomena.

In this preliminary essay I would like to offer a lateral outlook on the phenomena of echo and resonance as mechanisms of memory: the reverberation of sound as a memory-agent of space; the immediate echo as a form of short-term memory; the eternal resonance as a form of infinite, long-term memory; and genetic, sonic-memory as a survival mechanism.

 

Memory Mechanism

 

In the field of neuroscience and psychology, two of the various ways of categorizing how the brain stores received information, are:[1]

  1. The type of sensory stimulation that the information elicits (for example: vision, hearing, smell, touch).
  2. The degree of implementation  and the time it is preserved.

Echoic memory is responsible for the sensory memory of acoustic information. For a limited period of time, it holds the received auditory information, which is later stored in the short or long-term memory drawer.

Short-term memory is a result of temporary neural connections, and as such it is limited to short periods of time. It is based on an active holding of conscious information, and the way it encodes is often based on the sense of hearing: sonic-phonological encoding.

Long-term memory represents deeper structural changes in the brain and the way information is encoded is often semantic, representing abstract meaning.[2]

In the framework of these definitions I will explore the phenomena of resonance and echo as memory mechanisms. Not as human memory, but the memory of matter; an amorphous memory of space that registers, remembers and repeats the acoustic occurrences in different time-size scales.

 

Spatio-Meta Memory

Spatio-meta memory is a type of meta-memory, trapped in a theoretical feedback-loop. Sound is the memory-agent of space, and space is the memory-agent of sound. I will explain: each sound that reverberates  in a space – open or closed – collects the acoustic characteristics of that space: the matter through which it travels or reflected  from, the size, the shape, the surfaces, the objects and the architectural features of that place. Meaning, the memory of the resonating space is embedded in the sound. Sound remembers space, and if we focus our listening on the spatial dimension we will absorb, consciously or subconsciously, a large part of the acoustic properties of a space. Under certain acoustic conditions, the  resonating sound will have a distinct sound-reflection in the form of an echo. Much like the known mythological story of Echo, in which the nymph was punished and prevented of any independent vocal self-expression , left with only the ability to echo the last words that reached her ears – accordingly, the acoustic echo in space carries the memory of the sound that traveled through it. Not only does the space remember sound, but it also repeats it, thus creating an initial impulse for a new reverberation, which in its turn will become an echo again…

Listening Recommendation: Alvin Lucier’s defining work “I Am Sitting in a Room”, which manages to distill the space-sound relationship wonderfully and clearly.

The echo as short-term memory

The echo is a type of short-term memory that responds to sound stimulation and is stored for brief periods – just a few seconds.  It is possible to notice it in open spaces surrounded by a sound-reflecting surface, such as a canyon or valley, or in enclosed (natural or man-made) places, like tunnels, caves and other structures. I chose to focus on caves as a possible place for early discovery of the echo phenomenon and to explore four different representations of it:


[1] The cave as a mouth

Even before entering a cave, it is possible to imagine the moment an  echo was first discovered: a random shout from outside suddenly receives an unexpected reply from the depths of the cave. In this case, the echo, before it was interpreted as an acoustic phenomenon, could have received different meanings and mystical explanations that are connected to the natural world or to other worlds beyond, sending messages and signs which are carried through the echo. A place that calls you to enter and conceals or reveals secrets.

[2] The cave as a womb

Caves are not only the belly of the earth, they are a womb inside the earth, and as such they were, throughout history, an ideal place for religious rituals – mysticism, supernatural phenomena and transformation. The experience of being reborn. Due to the collection of unique sensory features – the smell, darkness, beams of light, air pressure, temperature, moisture, the material and sound quality – (possibly with the help of mind-expanding substances) one can understand the human attraction to caves as places that provide sensory obfuscation, radical conditions, and unexplained phenomena— the echo among them.

[3] The cave as an entity

It is possible that the caves’ acoustic features provided them with a mythical-mystical status, while the element of sound played a key role. The resonating sound in space – sound which is an invisible matter, allegedly without a noticeable source – could have been  a method to contact ancient ancestors or a mystical goddess-like being, communicating through the reverberating sound in the cave.

A delegation of acoustic-archeology researchers from Stanford University, examining the Chavin cave in Peru, reported in 2001 that they found over 20 seashells in a preserved condition that enable sound production, which were possibly used for ritual purposes.[3] Since then, they work  on reconstructing the sound of the seashells in the cave, in order to examine their psycho-acoustic implications. In the mid-70’s Peruvian archeologist Luis Lumberas described the inner construction of that same cave as a series of reverberating spaces, and called one of them an “acoustic canal”, as it produced heavy sounds that resembled the sound of thunder or loud clapping once a barrel of water was poured into it.[4]

Three caves in which cave-drawings were discovered in the south of France – Niaux, Fontanet, and Le Portel – were described as having exceptional reverberation. Acoustic specialist and cave researcher Iegor Reznikoff described them as “acoustic tubes with an astonishing echo effect”. He describes  that at Le Portel, a simple “MMM” vocal stimulation evokes low sounds that resembles animal roars.[5] He also added that the animal drawings were located in the most reverberating parts of the cave, which he believes were chosen due to their acoustic properties, reinforcing the connection between visual and acoustic expression.

 

[4] The cave as a resonating body

Try to imagine for a moment that you are inside of the resonance chamber of a huge instrument: the belly of a contrabass. The tunnel of a flute. The burrow of an oboe. The pit of a drum. Under certain conditions – the attributes of the space that serves as an instrument are reinforced, and every sound made inside a cave can vibrate it and return in a form of an echo from unexpected directions. The acoustic features transform the cave into a natural amplifier, enhancing the sounds played in it, and to a recording device playing back the sounds in the form of an echo, embodied with the properties of the reflected space. The geological structure of the space creates random angles, making the sound reflect and resonate unexpectedly from different directions: from the walls, the ceiling and the floor. Sometimes the sound is reflected several times before it reaches the ear. The sound that emerges from different places of the  space blurs the sense of orientation, and makes it difficult to identify the source of the sound, thus causing a unique dispersal of sound in space. The echo obscures the boundaries of the word, blending and transforming it into a sound with new properties. The word loses its semantic meaning and becomes an abstract sound-object. If there are multiple voices heard at once, this effect may be amplified.

Archeological findings indicate of specific musical instruments found in caves: bone-flutes and various percussion instruments. There are assumptions  that stalactites or stalagmites served as ancient xylophones, vibrating the body of the cave.

 

***

Once we abandoned the caves – cathedrals were elevated as spaces of worship. Temples; churches; mosques; synagogues. One of the things that brings them together – from caves to cathedrals – is the echo and resonance of sound in space, and the crucial role they play in the multi-sensory experience of a ceremonial gathering. Whether consciously or not, we recreated many of the acoustic, architectural, and sensorial features that existed in caves. In various man-made cathedrals, one often finds prayer spaces with high or arched ceilings, with domes or half-domes at the top. The reverberation is amplified by the round geometric forms that direct the sound and emphasize some of its overtones.

In addition to the role of echo and resonance in ancient religious rituals, which can also apply to later houses of worship, the architecture of post-caves structures generates slightly different acoustic behaviors, perhaps partially related to the raise of monotheistic religions: while in ancient spaces, such as caves, the echo arrived from different directions, in cathedrals it arrives mostly from above – from the sky, as if angels are singing, or god is calling back to their believers. The Holy Spirit receives a corporeal and sensory dimension, embodied in the form of sound. Moreover, the acoustics amplify and direct the volume of singing or playing, while the echo creates a musical form, that of a natural antiphon – a call and response – between the believers and the divine entity.[6]

Antiphon as an extension of echo and people as resonating chambers

I wish to add another layer and examine the form of an antiphon as a musical structure that is rooted in the echo phenomenon, and similarly to the echo, it is an expression for  a memory of sound. The echo is in fact a natural antiphonal structure in small-scale. Call and response:

“who’s (who’s) there (there)”. The role of a space as resonating chamber is expanded and passed to the people, who, in turn, mimic the role of the echo by the act of repetition. The mouth of the cave becomes the human mouth, and the resonating chambers the human body. The musical expression is evident in various cultures – from war chants, through religious Gregorian chants, Indian Kirtan, Indonesian Kecak, Buddhist mantras, rituals of the Maasai tribe in Kenya, children’s songs, work songs and slave songs, Gospel, sports chants, to protests and even technological developments in the shape of delay and reverb pedals. The structure of call-and- response can also be seen as repetition and memorization, stretching the time limits of  short-term memory, thus enabling the preservation of information for a prolonged period of time. The longer the memorization processes takes place – the chances of retaining and preserving information increases, meaning, it is classified in the long-term memory drawer.

The fountain of the discovery of repetition as a tool – for natural amplification, memorization for the sake of remembering and implementation, the unification of a group through sound expression, and creating an ecstatic state of mind – may possibly flow from that source of an ancient echo. From this point of view, the antiphon as a musical form could be seen as an artificial-human extension and duplication of the echo phenomenon, as well as the connecting link between short and long-term memory, which is the eternal resonance.

Long-term Memory and the Theory of Eternal Resonance

When does a sound die? Does it cease to exist once it is no longer heard? The theory of eternal resonance is attributed to one of the fathers of the radio – Guglielmo Marconi. It states that every sound that was ever heard is still present, infinitely vibrating in low volume. Marconi believed that if given a microphone, or a recording instrument that is sensitive enough – we can recover those sounds of  the past, and even hear Jesus’s sermon on the mount. As much as this idea is exciting it is also preposterous, yet quite poetic. Though, maybe it is not that improbable? When does an imaginary idea become a visionary one? Other than an echo, only a sound that was recorded can be heard again. The recording captures a certain sound pattern and inscribes it in a particular medium, analog or digital– the footprint of a sound. In the first recording devices, vibrations that moved the air also moved a diaphragm that triggered a thin needle, which recorded, or remembered the sound wave pattern. Amongst the “audio-preservers” in the discipline of “archeophony”, there have been several astonishing discoveries in the last decade.

 

A sound embedded in soot-powder in 1860, was first heard in 2008

The oldest sound to be reconstructed is a recording of a French folk song, recorded in Paris in April 1860. The recording was made by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, and as far as it is known today his recording preceded that of Edison and the invention of the phonograph. Scott invented a device called phonautograph, and conducted experiments in visual representation of sound waves by embedding his voice on a page, glazed with soot. He did not hear his recordings, because he never intended for them to be heard. He was interested in the visual representation of sound, and the acoustic aspect was probably not the center of his research. The sound recording technology that allowed playing a recorded sound was developed only 17 years later, when in 1877 Thomas Edison recorded his voice on aluminum foil. In 2003 researchers from UC Berkeley, led by Carl Haber, developed an optical scanning technology that can read a three-dimensional photograph of a sound recording visual pattern, or that of an old recording cylinders, and translate it into sound.[7]

Here, it is possible to hear the reconstructed recording by Scott of the song “Au Clair de la Lune”. The recording was reconstructed in a certain speed that made it sound as if a young girl sang the song, but after additional findings and a change in speed, the researchers believe that it is Scott himself singing the song.[8]

Listen to Scott’s full discography, including various experiments in sound recordings that were conducted between 1853-1860.

On another occasion, Alexander Graham Bell recorded himself in 1885, and the recording was first heard only in 2010, after a similar sound-reconstruction process[9] took place.

Bell conducted earlier recording experiments, and approximately in 1874 he built his own phonautograph by using a human ear and part of a skull, taken from a human cadaver. He used the ear as a membrane and shouted into the cut-off ear of a dead man.[10]


Collective Sonic-Memory

If we examine the long-term memory as carrying an abstract, sociological meaning, it is possible to read the oral (and later written) traditions passing from generation to generation – the songs, prayers and rituals – as a collective sonic memory, that merely by repetition and continuity becomes a form of long-term memory. Memory that travels laterally-geographically from group to group (memory on a horizontal axis) and on the timeline from generation to generation. An idea of symbolic resonance that exists on the generational sequence in different scales of time and size.

 

What if we could reconstruct the extinct music of the world?

So how preposterous is Marconi’s theory? Will future technological developments fulfill such a possibility? Perhaps in the future, a natural organic matter will be found, in which a previously embedded sound event could be reconstructed? Would it be possible for sound waves imprinted by a natural mechanism that simulates the mechanical sound-recording to turn back into sound? Earthquakes are essentially a kind of natural sound recording mechanism, recorded in soil, and other speculative possibilities may be an animal or a rock in the depths of the sea, a tropical plant in a forest, thin icebergs or cave stalactites.

 

Genetic sonic-memory

On the other side of the spectrum, while on its one end is the eternal memory, there may exist an inner mechanism of genetic sonic-memory. The influence of sound on physiological and psychological mechanisms is partially known, but perhaps it is also linked to genetic memory that carries information of ancient ancestors, which in its turn influenced psychoacoustic evolutionary changes. Similar to sea turtles that know how to return to the shore where they hatched from an egg,  to monarch butterflies that know the course of  migration, and cicadas that know how to produce sound – perhaps an instinct that originated with genetic-sound memory, led to physiological changes that cause us (generally speaking of course) to become startled by loud sounds or to fear a low sound; to flinch from an unpleasant dissonance or to relax with slow rhythm, and even produce the first sound: a cry,  which could also be an ancient knowledge of the only way that a helpless baby can defend her/himself and express distress, but also resonate their existence in the world. The vibration and resonance of sound in the ear-body-brain is that which awakens dormant survival mechanisms.

Athanasius Kircher / Mundus subterraneus 1665

Translated by: Dina Yakerson

 

Bibliography

Reznikoff, Iegor. The Evidence of the Use of Sound Resonance from Palaeolithic to Medieval Times (in Archaeoacoustics edited by C.Scarre & G.Lawson)

Hale, Susan. Sacred space, sacred sound : the acoustic mysteries of holy places

http://iconsofsound.stanford.edu/

https://ccrma.stanford.edu/groups/chavin/

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/05/19/a-voice-from-the-past

https://www.firstsounds.org

 

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2657600/

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4149571/

[3] https://news.stanford.edu/news/2011/february/conch-acoustic-musicians-020711.html

[4] Ibid

[5] Hale, Susan. Sacred space, sacred sound : the acoustic mysteries of holy places, pp. 27-33

[6] It could be interesting to explore the way the space in which the music was played/sung designs its aesthetic (M.T)

[7] https://hyperallergic.com/397995/wax-cylinder-optical-scanning-uc-berkeley/

[8] https://www.firstsounds.org/research/scott.php

[9] https://www.firstsounds.org/research/volta.php#sounds

[10] http://www.nineteenthcenturydisability.org/items/show/42