Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A loon, a wolf, the loneliest sound

Why does the cry of a loon affect us so? Why does a wolf's howl, even while it raises hairs on the back of your neck, curl into your heart, slide into your bones and organs and resonate, as if an extension of your own loneliest wail?  Do such cries seem metaphors for our sense of aloneness because we tend to hear them, if we do, in isolated wilderness locations--a cold wind blowing across the water, no one else in sight? Or is there some other reason for the way these calls seem to vibrate in your chest and threaten to carry you away?

This summer, while sailing in Alaska, I began to read a thoughtful, beautiful book entitled The Pine Island Paradox, having met its author, environmental philosopher, Kathleen Dean Moore, in the bathhouse at Tenakee Springs, on Chichagof Island.  Two weeks earlier, I had been listening to and attempting to record the sounds of wolves howling back and forth across a great distance, so I was struck to find Dean Moore had a musical name for the particular haunting quality of a wolf's cry. She writes:

"I [know] the song the wolf [sings]. The first two tones [make] an augmented fourth, a dissonant interval, like the first two notes of 'Maria' in Westside Story. It's an interval of yearning, of hope--the sound of human longing."

Dean Moore writes about going to consult with a colleague who was a musician, a concert pianist. As they are speaking about this sound, her colleague makes a gesture: "both hands together in front of her body, palms skyward, fingers spread, [lifting] the air...'This is a sound that floods the soul,' she said."

Dean Moore recounts something else that her pianist colleague has told her, that in medieval Europe Christians did not sing the augmented fourth. It was considered the "diabolus in musica, the devil's chord--so powerful it could grab a parishioner, drag him to his knees and pull him, scraping on the paving stones, straight to hell."

A wolf's cry feels like this, and so does a loon's. Not the devil's music, but an utterly sorrowful heart-wrenching soul sound; it sings the anxiety of our lonesomeness at the same time as it can fill us with wonder or joy, even peace. Perhaps this is because we live in a time of great dissonance (although we might ask, which time is not?): we prefer the incompletion, the break of the augmented fourth to the harmonic fifth.

The augmented fourth somehow says, without you, I am nowhere, which is, often enough, how existing feels. It is the question posed by Rilke's First Duino Elegy: "If I cry out, who among the company of angels will hear me?"

It is the wail, addressed to the world in the absence of another beside you, of brokenness, of coming undone: myself, I am never enough; I will never add up to anything on my own.

Photo of the loon was taken in northern British Columbia, near Grenville Channel.

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