Unearthing Space for New Echoes

Thursday, Feb 23, 2023

9:15 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.

In the seven audio streams that make up Dissolution Studies (2013–2020), Paula Matthusen collaborated with live musicians and the National Park Service to record and interpret various aspects of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky : AIR, ECHO (part 1), DARKNESS, WATER, ECHO (part 2), DIRT, and TIME. These site-specific recordings capture recent human interactions with acoustic spaces that reverberate on a geological timescale. In her piece on the analogical understandings of space (2016), Matthusen shares with Washun Niya (Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota) the role of noise generation, describing cave structures as a kind of synthesizer, where tones are produced by acoustic feedback. Inside the earth, the din of industrialized society gives way to subtle sounds. Matthusen’s work echoes the explorations of Alvin Lucier’s 1968 Chambers and 1969 Vespers, both of which foreground the act of listening.  

Grottos, caverns, and hollows have long provided sites for sonic observation and engagement. It was after descending 14 feet into the Dan Harpole underground cistern in Port Townsend, Washington, that Pauline Oliveros coined the term “Deep Listening”. This activity extends from auditory perception into the body itself and the realm of greater consciousness. Jonas Braasch’s digital simulation of the cistern’s acoustics enabled audiences elsewhere to “experience this iconic space live in its full immersion”. Although the Dan Harpole cistern was manmade (in 1907), Tim Murray-Brown’s interactive sound installation, the “Cave of Sounds”, connects the hacker scene to music’s prehistoric origins.

This paper excavates the mystical, symbolic, metaphorical, and musical properties of caves as sites of stillness and transcendence. Building on the potential for reverberation, composers amplify the work of environmentalists in ways that respond to current climate crises but also recall longer sonic histories. The capacity of a cave to contain and hold sound also serves as a metaphor for the space of communion created by musical works. Sometimes containment is intentional: Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations (1971) were a way of structuring communal spaces for women to safely make and imagine sounds. Reflection, distortion, and transformation can all be seen as ways for musical echoes to transcend the boundaries of existing structures – for the walls of the cave to dissolve into new sounds.

Jane Alden

Jane Alden is Professor of Music and Chair of Medieval Studies at Wesleyan University. Her research addresses scribal work and manuscript studies, notation and visual culture, experimental and participatory musics. She is currently writing a book that examines the broader milieu of Cornelius Cardew’s notational innovations. Past publications include the monograph Songs, Scribes, and Society: The History and Reception of the Loire Valley Chansonniers (Oxford University Press, 2010) and various articles and broadcasts on medieval and contemporary topics. Active as a singer and conductor, Alden founded and directs the London-based Vocal Constructivists; she also serves on the board of the New York presenting organization, Music Before 1800.