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Everything has a sound

I am in Los Abrigos, a tiny fishing village in the south of
the island of Tenerife, a village which has managed to
survive in some miraculous way with some of the old ways
and traditions still intact.
The fishermen leave in the evening and come back
the next morning to unload their varied selection of
seafood, nowadays, into mobile deep freeze units in which
the seafood is transported to its next destination. We,
who are lucky enough to live here for some weeks, only
have to go to the restaurant at the port to choose from a
greater variety of seafood than I have ever seen, and let
alone eaten, before.
In the travel guide I read about the next island, La
Gomera, about the silbo, the whistling language that has
survived for generations there, and that boys, (and only
boys I think), are now taught the song, the language, in
I am here with two actors to put down the groundwork
for a new performance. It is a story about two children, left
on their own, who meet late one evening in an old
rundown garden, where the boy has sought refuge in an old
kennel. The girl, who is on her own, finds him there, and a
strange friendship develops. In this story, the children play
all sorts of different games. They pretend to be animals, a
dog and a cat, and the girl has learned how to make a lot of
animal sounds. The actor playing the girl has also studied
the sounds of real animals.
Whilst here, we are working outside in a public park at
the end of the village. Some people come for their daily
stroll. We get to know the locals: a middle-aged man in a
wheelchair, out to have a cigarette and enjoy the sun; older
ladies who sit for a while, roll down their socks, lean on
their canes, before they ever so slowly start on their way
home; elderly men, out with their dogs. At a worksite
nearby, a dozen construction workers are setting up yet
another apartment complex.

We start our daily work and the actors
work on the scene where the boy and girl
exchange dog and cat sounds before they
meet face to face. A veritable crescendo of
noise echoes back to us. First we think it is
a real echo, but it turns out that many of
the dogs around respond to the actors’ calls
as if they were real animals. As if that
wasn’t enough, the workers inside the
building also start to bark. And inside the
half built complex their voices are thrown
around and multiplied, so it sounds as if all
the dogs in southern Tenerife have moved
in there. We are bewildered. I have not
even begun to work with the actors on the
quality of their vocal work, I have only
said that we will work more, later on,
when we are indoors and can be more
subtle. But they have obviously found
What is this something, and how does it
work? In this instance I believe that some
work had already taken place and that the
sounds the actors made were close to recognisable animal sounds. And my thoughts
drift. They evoked a response, they called
and had an answer. Is this the deeper sense
of all our sounds? Of theatre? Of song?
When ideas will not go away, they are there
for a reason.
As I could not sleep, I thought about
songs. Music. About Pythagoras who did
not write down one sentence of theory
apparently for fear of being misread. I
thought about wavelengths and how all
things start to sing when set in motion.
What is not song?
Even the wires holding the ship’s
masts started to sing in the wind the other
day. From the Spanish shore their sound
made me remember the rhythmic song of
the telephone wires when walking home
alone on dark winter nights in Norway
when I was only a child.
Is it as simple as this? If the song is not
here, we are not here either. If you do not
have the rhythm of breath, you are not
here. All things lose their momentum if
they have not got a beat, a pulse –
however faint. But we have to be able to
recognise it.
Physical work has that – rhythm. Or
functions best when the beat between the
actions being carried out and the person
carrying out the actions agree and unite in
an organic rhythm. The song of the demolition men secures the safety of their work
and unites them in a common beat before
carrying out their often dangerous operations.
Keeping the hum alive also reminds me
of the women who used to be responsible
for keeping the fire going, from camp to
camp. A tiny little ember was enough to get
the new fire started, with dry wood and
fresh air.
Reading about the old Greeks I found it
interesting to learn about the science of
music, about the systems one believed in,
and how the relationship between music
and maths, for instance, has influenced us:
science in the waves; music is a wave; wavelengths. In my language we talk about being
on the same wavelength, communicating
on the same frequencies. A song has to
strike you. It can be as perfect, as professional as can be, but it has to strike you, or
better, touch something that stirs in you.
Why do we react so differently? If I am
song-less, I suppose I cannot hear songs
My beautiful, hardworking mother of five got
a look on her face and a way about her that
was simultaneously shy and eager. She took
off her apron, tussled her hair, sat down to roll
The Open Page
a cigarette, take a sip of coffee, then
complaining to the guitar player that the guitar
was tuned too high, that she with her deep
voice not could sing the female part, she
lowered the pitch one octave, and sang… and
sang, and flew away and took me with her…
(Time did not matter then. How come?
Usually there was so little time and so much to
do – the daily chores.)
Now one song became another. My father
brought out the harmonica and played. And
they quarrelled about pitch and tone, and sang
and laughed and got that rhythm, that flow
where nothing could be wrong really. And I
wanted them to go on forever; I wanted us
always to sit like this.
What do we do, what is ripe, what is bound
to happen if there is a common wave or
direction at a gathering? At a certain stage
the guitar is bound to come out, the piano
lid is bound to be opened, or the drums
moved into the circle. The personal library
of songs and memory opens. We enter and
lose ourselves at the best of times into
something bigger than each one of us.
The child will not go to sleep. I sing and rock it.
I want to be with the others. After having sung
my whole repertoire and getting too tired to
enunciate properly, I start to make up words,
keeping the emphasis on rrrs in the same rhythm
as the songs were made in originally. This
becomes a drone, a kind of hypnosis that at the
same time keeps me awake and the child tired –
me awake, because I have to concentrate on
something new, the child tired, because all the
nuance and edge have been taken away.
The morning songs of the children assembling for school woke us each morning
outside where we lived in Havana. They
sang, and then their teacher made a political speech. You could hear them enjoying
The silent sound of the mines left on the
battlefields in Cambodia; just a premonition, but the hiss of a potential mine is
faintly audible. It reminds me of a poem by
the Chinese writer Tu Fu: Blue is the smoke
of war, white the bones of men. There is a
whiteness in the fields of Cambodia. There
is a strong, loud silence, like the silence we
have been told comes after a strong blast,
after an atomic bomb, a grenade, an air raid
attack. The sound or song has been so loud
that it leaves you momentarily deaf; a
contained silence. This silence seems not to
leave the fields, the landscape, the generous
people you meet in the streets.
Chan, our driver, was going to take us
from Phnom Pen down south to
Sihanoukville, a four hour drive along the
only existing road. His brother and wife,
with their children, as well as his seventy
year old mother lived along the route. He
asked if we could stop on the way so he
could see them. We said yes.
Chan’s brother lived along a dirt road
by the river, in one of the traditional
Cambodian stilt houses where you climb up
a ladder to get to the first level. Outside was
a sitting platform used for cooking and
eating. There were chickens everywhere
and pigs behind the house. Dust, dirt and
garbage. No electricity. Chan’s brother had
lost one leg and used crutches. The wife had
a scooter. They ran a little mill, and she
drove the flour out to the customers. There
were grains and sawdust all over the place.
The mill was run by a generator of sorts,
which made a deafening sound. Previously
Chan had brought a gift for his mother, a
flash-light so she could see her way up to
bed at night, and now he brought her new
There was no toilet, no bathroom, no
kitchen, no running water. There was no
postman or garbage collector. There was no
address. No telephone, no television, no
radio. They worked until it got dark, fed the
animals, ate and went to bed. No clocks
either. The children went to school when
the right light was there. In my head I tried
to work out if I could have managed to live
The wife had become the traditional
‘man’. Her back and arms were strong and
muscular and she heaved thirty kilo sacks of
milled grain on to her scooter as if they
weighed nothing. She was a very strong,
proud woman, and she managed to keep the
family alive and well with her strength. Her
song was very powerful.
In Colombia I also heard the song of
the disappeared, the lowered tone in the
family’s voice, the rain in their eyes, the
songs of hope against hope; and I heard the
lamentation songs of the old peasant
women, the coarse and magical quality of
their harmonies in the harvest songs; the
natural need to sing together.
Sadness has a deep song in it, a slow
murmur deep inside the body; a pain that
finds its release in song. To move and to
sing is close. A song moves us, or a movement sings: songs about the impossibility of
making songs that can console… and yet in
the making there is a little consolation.
The song of others, our own sound as we go
about our little tasks here in the world.
What does not have a sound? A song?
In a work session, many years ago,
taking part in a Lorca play and given our
parts, I was to be the old, strict mother,
cruel to her daughters, to herself, to life.
The director, a composer, had made songs
for the different characters, which we had
to rehearse and use as an important part of
the work in progress.
One day she said to me. “Your character
is so terrible, I cannot hear any song from
her. She cannot have a song”. At the time I
thought that was hurtful. Later I have
wondered whether that is possible or not.
Doesn’t everything have a song or a sound?
Nothing human shouldl frighten me? Isn’t it
too easy not to engage with evil, with darkness, with trouble? To pretend it is not
there? Did the tsunami not have a sound?
Did the tsunami have a sound? A song?
The stillness afterwards…
The beat, the song, the pulse, the
rhythm of us, you, me, them. When the
birds do not sing in the woods, it is a real
sign of danger.