Chuck Yeager fell off his horse breaking a rib the week before piloting Bell’s X-1 plane for the 9th time in that famous flight which pierced the immaculate sound barrier. Horse breath and human breath formed an angry yin-yang as his body tumbled off the animal’s spine to hit ground. Hoofs around him in the cut grass and the horizon line edged by the world itself sideways. A haired creature’s legs ballerina-like and a man falling unduly. Yeager would later consider his injury one not too dissimilar from the crude desires of his contractors. Keeping his damaged body a secret he flew the X-1 to a hitherto unreached tempo. The effects of sound became visible to the naked eye and a white plume of atmospheric pressure formed around the vehicle’s tip. It was said that in that sight lay a responsibility for breaking a faculty of the world perhaps not meant to be broken.
Sound moves faster in hot air. Sound is easier to catch up to and snap in the freezing and loose high sky. What a thought so unhumble as to wish to catch up to a sound. To make a sound and then run past it only to stand still once more and rehear it. Or to beat a sound like a tortoise in a race against its own voice.
“They are artifacts of what we have done, a trail we have left, not the essence of our process.”1
In a twist of fate the air began to react. 91 years after the X-1’s flight an uncontrollable mesospheric side-effect of the burning of fuel and the unbridled destruction of the earth lead to an effect speculative scientists would label Yeager’s Atmospheric Curse. The air kept getting hotter and denser until the speed required to break the sound barrier was immense. Only experimental fusion technologies could hope to propel a rocket out of an atmosphere newly and increasingly tomb-like. As it were, the world developed its own sonic protection mechanism. Each barrier crossed prior to a world too hot to break again, especially those made by flying Concordes at the end of the millennium, was found to have ripped a tiny patch of ruined sky much like the unexpected holes which once appeared in the ozone layer. These invisible pockmarks made by planes and rockets and velocity-crazed men-devils were an unobserved side-effect of speed. It turned out that breaking a barrier caused unseen things to fail to return to their autochthonic states. The white plume around the tip of a plane was a lonely warning sign. Yeager’s up-kicking horse was a revolutionary sky guard. And although never said, Chuck himself underwent a strange change of character. At the exact moment of crossing the barrier his ears lost something. He would hear until his death a slight dullness. An effect which was stolen from the air and forever attached to him like a tiny atmospheric hand aurally alatched.
Those pitches present at the time of a sound barrier crossing were thought to have been forever lost from the world. While unable to articulate it, Chuck experienced a holein his listening. A child’s cry sounded somehow wrong to him. The meow of a cat was more like the grumble of a lowly animal. A news reader’s voice on the kitchen transistor was in one way or another always gloomy.
“…sometimes it is, just, as if I am all alone here in the air. The sounds on those crisp mornings. Oh the sounds! They fly in an echo of me…”2
Tears in the sky from breaking the speed barrier were actually first discovered when a begoggled dancer at Burning Man Festival noticed a tiny gap in the Nevada Desert. The sand stretched out and giant effigies hung off the land in all directions. The dancer was in innocence when their head fell into one of these holes and in this gap there was an unlikely silence amongst the movement. Their own body still quivered with the bass but their ears heard a lonely and frightening sound. Many years prior a vehicle more jet than car had been sandblasted by supersonic dust as it broke the barrier in this now gathering dancing ground. Rumours quickly spread throughout the festival of a spot which made music wrong and perhaps cursed to never have sound flow through it properly again. Before long gathers had surrounded the break in the air. The ideological ruins of a thoroughly commercialised future were apparently not entirely devoid of utopian sentiment, and so, in the dust it was unceremoniously decided that to fix what was damaged an equivalent substance should simply be injected into the hole. Like an alchemical rule of exchange one thing taken must be replaced by another. What was lost should be refound.
Besides being spaces like seashells which could recreate the ocean, to put an ear to one of these speed-torn holes didn’t have any observable dire ramifications for the earth. They simply were there and they simply expressed something sonically wrong with the actions of our ancestors. Those who sought to fix these holes sought to replace the damaged air in elaborate acts of musical Foley. The challenge to recreate those broken sounds became paramount. Most of what was lost was a near silent thing. A soft shuffle of waterless dirt on dust or the very distant click of a scorpion’s claws or the sound of the rubber on compressed sand which accompanied those moments before the air was ripped by a vehicle. The almost unreal high-pitched grunt of a Concorde plane was found to be particularly hard to replicate.
“There is a way of listening to every sound and making music out of it. The motor of an aeroplane, not from now because they’re too strong, but from years ago, had a very interesting sound that you could really make a symphony out of just by how you listened to it… It’s easy to make a C or an F, but my material needs to sound immaterial! The little beats that become pulsations and have a character of immateriality. The sound becomes like a rainbow. It’s not possible to catch a rainbow, it’s not possible to catch the aurora, but they are there. The difference between a great performer and a kid is that a great performer knows how to find richness in a sound. Like Pavarotti. Or I like to quote Jascha Heifetz. Someone once admired the beautiful sound that his violin made. He put it to his ear and said, ‘that’s funny, I don’t hear anything.’”3
Now decrepit and elderly, Foley artists from Hollywood’s heyday were flown into Nevada to act as an advisory board tasked with recreating the lost sounds of the desert. With coconut shells in each hand they sought to recreate the voices of small hard-footed creatures, and with two wooden clothes pegs they pinched the air as if they were a clawed insect searching in the dust for food.
With each attempt at a reanimation, a simulation of what was lost, these broken barriers responded earnestly and thoughtfully to our efforts. Sonic environmentalists placed their ears in the gaps and excitedly found that some of the frequency spectrum had become restored. And there was more to be done! Speakers of all sizes were set up in elaborate formations around the limits of the hole. The romantic response of the air encouraged the composition of music made purposefully for these restorative moments. The composition wasn’t human, but it was profound. It included the reversed revving of an engine and it included an interpretive highness and it included the slow and steady rise of a Shepard Tone and frequencies which caused dirt to part as ripples on the ground. And when it rained the gathers indulged in the pattering and this in turn was added to the composition. Listening sessions were held and the soundscape was studied in minute detail. Sound artists like alchemists experimented with equivalent exchanges. What could replace a distant howl of a coyote? What was an equal to the sound of blades rotating faster than they should and hot air inhaled by great steel vents and the gentle bend of an outer casing of space-grade material wobbling almost humorously and contorting to the natural pressures of the air? And with each attempt the hole was more restored. And with their Foley they repaired the air. Eventually the injury became so minute that those who listened could no longer tell if anything was wrong. But a feeling of wrongness persisted so those healers stayed and they toiled in the dust for a great many days longer until finally it was decided that the hole was closed. And everyone celebrated and patted one another on the back and exchanged smiles. And in response, the sky was rose coloured and honest.
1. Laurie Spiegel, Acceptance Speech for the Seamus Award, 2013.
2. Chuck Yeager, Unknown Journal, 1948.
2. Elaine Radigue, in an interview with Max Dax, 2012.