Linfield class looks at sound, environment

Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. Find more News-Register stories about Linfield College here.

Photo by Starla Pointer

Starla Pointer/News-Register
A student in the Linfield inquiry seminar about sound plays a rhythm instrument shaped like a frog. Professor Joan Paddock often ends class with a “drum circle” featuring a variety of percussion instruments and rhythms.

By Starla Pointer
Of the News-Register

An ear-opening new course at Linfield College is studying sound in our environment — and the relationship between sound and environment and culture.

Inquiry classes like this are part of Linfield’s Program for Liberal Arts and Civic Engagement theme for the year, “How Do We Know? Paths to Wisdom.” Joan Paddock, the music teacher who’s teaching the course, said the inquiry courses help new Linfield students practice their writing and reasoning skills.

Students are examining the relationship between manmade and natural sounds, and the effect human culture can have on the sounds of nature. For instance, the noise of traffic or industry can drown out birdsong and the buzzing of insects. Urban sprawl can displace wildlife, causing the croaking of frogs or the call of coyotes to disappear.

Human culture also has created an environment filled with noise almost 24/7, Paddock said. “There’s hardly one square inch of silence,” she noted, pointing to conclusions drawn in a film she showed her students, “Sound Tracker.”

Students also have been analyzing cultural changes that result in the loss of indigenous languages and music. And they are discovering projects that set out to save folksongs or traditional languages.

Someday, Paddock said, one of her students may be leading such a project or working to preserve a unique sound environment.

The seminar students have collected sounds at various sites — the state fair, a windy outlook on the coast, the McMinnville Farmers Market. They’ve been learning to use samples of those sounds in compositions.

Andrea Reinkmeyeer, a Linfield professor who composes with found sounds, was a guest speaker during the course. Other guests included Howie Harkema, musician and director of the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas, who discussed the process of composing songs that support environmental causes.

Paddock said her students also are talking about sound vs. music vs. noise. In many cases, the difference is subjective and up to the listener. One person, for instance, might think ocean surf is the most beautiful music in the world; another might consider it a hindrance to sleep.

Mychaela Bowles, for instance, said the sound of motorcycles is a positive for her, since she associates it with her father and grandfather. She also likes the sound her computer makes when e-mail arrives.

Cal Neely prefers the sound of waves hitting the beach in Hawaii. “That’s happy,” he said.

They and other students also named numerous sounds they don’t like: Doors slamming in their dorms, garbage trucks shaking cans in a nearby street; anything manmade that drowns out the sound of nature.

For some, the talk and laughter of students in the dorm lounge is distracting. For others, such as Dezirae Spanner, the sound “tells me I can go down to the lounge and have people to talk to.”

Students said the course has caused them to pay more attention to the once-unnoticed sounds around them.

“My personal definition of ‘listening’ has changed drastically,” Lucas Balala wrote in a paper for the class. “Listening is just like playing a sport. It is a skill that one must learn and then nurture, continuing to refine it until the skill becomes second nature.”

He said he is learning to consciously tune in to ambient sound and clear his mind of distractions. While listening actively to the world around him, he also is able to think and reflect on problems.

“I believe that the world takes for granted the sounds that it hears,” Balala wrote, noting that sounds such as the wind in the trees or otters playing in the surf could be easily lost to clearcutting or pollution. By paying attention to sounds, we can understand their value and become involved in preserving them, he said.

Another student, Jordan Currie, noted how sound can connect us to emotions, other people and the world around us. Her favorite sound is her family’s laughter. “When I imagined it disappearing, I instantly grew sad,” she said.

Through “sound walks,” walking with the intention of listening actively, she said she also has become more attentive to what’s going on all around her — birds and wind as well as machinery and traffic, for instance.

“I realized I have taken my surrounding sounds for granted and I haven’t appreciated their value,” she wrote.

Currie said that it’s important for society that we preserve the opportunity to experience the sounds we hear today. “Sounds are an amazing resource that we would love to pass on to future generations.”