04/30/2012 06:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Found Sound -- This Is China


I've just returned from China. There's much to say about impressions upon visiting the country of my ancestors. It's likely too much for just one blog post, but I'll start in the bone deep spots and leave politics for later. My maternal grandmother was Chinese, so one-fourth of my blond and green-eyed self, has some roots in a land that's kept me (and those who look like me) on the other side of a wall for many rough decades. I went there hoping to peer over that wall, not as an interloper, but with the wish that I'd recognize something of myself in the soul of the place.

To do so, I had to shut my eyes against much that lies on the surface. I'm not saying that I could or will ignore the pollution, restrictions on freedom and seemingly single-minded focus on making money. I'm only saying that beyond those (maybe even because of them) I wanted to find a living truth beneath the skin, some abiding values that would transcend time and space and circumstance.

Walking with crowds along The Bund in Shanghai and across sections of the Great Wall, I noticed that the vast majority were Chinese tourists, many from the countryside, who were seeing these sites for the first time, too. From the number of photos I posed for with strangers, who could only communicate through gestures, it was clear that a Westerner was also a novel sighting to these fellow seekers.

History -- societal and personal -- is like that. It can keep us from what's right in front of us and it can keep us from envisioning alternate realities. Whether the cause is external (State action) or internal (our own state of mind), the poet Rilke is right in noting that we often stare blindly at this world "with eyes that have forgotten how to see."

I am first and foremost a reader, not just of words, but of people and places, ideas and inklings. Thus, my eyes have always been my central nervous system. In that ancient land, however, I definitely needed a different sensor to take in my surroundings. So I closed my eyes and began to listen. What I heard were harmonic stirrings from the outside and from the inside. Taking some liberties with a Robert Hunter lyric: "Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places of you [listen in] right."

Any enlightened being will intone the virtues of listening better and more. I'm still learning and practicing, yet what more delicious task could there be? Ears are indeed tunnels of love. My affair with sound is rooted in poetry and rock -- my heart beats the rhythm of iambic pentameter (as does yours, by the way) and to quote the great Barry Andrews "my spine is the bassline." Yet I've been accustomed to packaged pleasures. Here's a poem. Here's a song. Self-directed listening is a whole new kind of heaven -- like the difference between a sleigh bed and a flying carpet. And frankly, where would you rather get naked?

Anyhow, this flying carpet thing... it entails abandonment to an organic accumulation of sounds. The pursuit was the gift of a friend, Mark degli Antoni, a composer, a sculptor (as he would say) of sound both made and found. He encouraged me to collect sonic samples from my travels. It's a thing he's been doing, He sets these recorded sounds against chords and melodic inventions of his own making. The resulting audible postcards have transformed not only my memories of trips, but my entire experience while there.

Underneath the clatter of bicycle chains and the clomp of boots marching, I find the ping of coins tossed at a Buddhist temple, the jangle of tea cups, whistling, a burst of thunder, wind, laughter, rain upon stones, silence. Becoming attuned to sound changes the focus of approach. It's like putting a new lens on your camera, one that points sideways, backwards, and even sometimes inside. It makes one conscious of undercurrents and invisibles. In China, there are many of these. I have come to feel that that it is in these undercurrents and invisibles that my 25 percent -- the 1.5 quarts of Chinese blood within my walls -- might find a match.

It's important and necessary to dig. No country, no culture, no people are ever what one reads about them. They are also seldom what they at first seem. I am the same way. Perhaps you are too. Listen. The precious moments when meaning is suspended and pure sound rings forth: it is in those forgotten spaces when we are freed from the tyranny of expectation and can revert to a state of open insight, and even delight.

Imagine listening through your own life this way. What a beautiful journey that would be. The world is gesturing. True fidelity. Listen in.