Class creates online ’soundscape’ of Cornell

Alyssa Kirsch, left, Jonathan Karseh and Leah DeWitt, all students in a "Sound, Silence and the Sacred" class visit the Laboratory of Ornithology to tour the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds.

From the locomotive-like roar of Clubfest to the calm stillness of a midnight walk across the suspension bridge, a class of students has created a blog offering an audio tour of Cornell sounds.

Members of Professor Kim Haines-Eitzen’s "Sound, Silence and the Sacred" class in the Department of Near Eastern Studies spent the semester using texts, recordings, videos and performances to explore the function and meaning of sound (and silence) within diverse religious traditions.

Each week, the students also made a recording from a particular spot on Cornell’s campus, recording an event or capturing natural or human-created sound and reflecting on the sound in a paper. The best of those can be found on the Cornell Sound Map blog.

"We all experience sound every day, but to take time to think about it has really improved my quality of life," said Leah DeWitt ’16, a chemistry and chemical biology major who’s minoring in religious studies.

Students used high-quality microphones from the music department as well as their own phones to record sounds from across campus.

"As a process of taking this class, I’ve noticed things that I wouldn’t have before," said Diana Clarke ’17, an MFA student in art. "And they were really lovely things to notice."

Since religious sounds were one area of focus, Alyssa Kirsch ’18, a chemical engineering major who’s minoring in religious studies, enlisted a friend to do some readings from the Hebrew Bible so she could understand and hear examples of the use of the cantillation symbols. The symbols appear along with the text in Hebrew writings to help readers know how to chant the words.

Students also studied how human involvement changes the sounds of an environment, either by halting sounds or creating new ones. And they talked about the definition of silence, which they found has more to do with your inner stillness than the actual sounds around you.

"I came into this class having an idea of what I thought silence was, basically the absence of sound, but after weeks of talking and reading about it, I realized that it’s more of an idea than something that actually exists," Clarke said.

Kirsch decided to do her final project on Gordon Hempton’s quest to find the quietest place in the U.S., "One Square Inch of Silence." When Hempton started the project in the 1970s, he found 21 places that fit his definition, but in the 1990s, that number had declined to three, Kirsch said.

"I wanted to look at this natural silence and ask if it was worth saving," she said. "Why is it important and why do we need it around?"

Students also imagined what the soundscape might have been like in ancient Rome, with chariots dashing about, or during the industrial revolution, when new machinery created an entire new array of sounds.

"It must have been quite jarring to have all of these factories and engines and trains coming into existence," said Jonathan Karseh ’17, an engineering physics major. "But if you could convince people that these were the sounds of progress, they would be able to accept them more."

Haines-Eitzen said she has always been interested in sound as it relates to her studies of early Christian and monastic literature, where stories were mostly passed down orally. But a spring field course she took at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology caused her to revisit many of the texts she’d studied with a new focus.

"Throughout the literature there are sounds of wind, water and thunder," she said. "I began to look at the texts I’ve been working with, monastic texts from Palestine and Egypt, texts I had mined for visual signals, to see the auditory signals and how sound shapes religious imagination."

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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