At some point in the recent past I realized that daylight has a different sound than night does. Not the usual distinctions, like birdsong, crickets, traffic. When the sun rises, I hear a difference in the world, a tone — very, very subtle — with more vibrance in sunlight than the velvety sound of night.
I haven’t found an explanation for this. I wasn’t aware of it in my childhood, in a home of five noisy children waking up and getting ready for school, or in my many years of getting up via alarm clock to get both my son and me started on our days. But, once I had the leisure of waking up on my own time, and in a quiet place, I was able, over time, to hear the difference. It both delights and mystifies me. I love the idea that the universe has its own music, available to us if we quiet ourselves enough to hear it.
So when, in Alaska, someone told me that there was a place in Fairbanks called The Place Where You Go to Listen, where the music was composed to reflect a constant stream of information from seismic shifts, geomagnetic changes, and the flow of time and weather, I instantly decided to go. I hadn’t even planned on including Fairbanks in the trip until then.
The Place Where You Go to Listen is named for Naaliagiagvik, on the Arctic Ocean, home to a legend about an Inupiak woman who went there to listen to the earth speaking to her, through birds, whales, water, wind. It’s a small room in the Museum of the North, on the grounds of the University of Alaska. On one wall are five glass panels in a row, glowing with light, whose depth and color depend on the time of day. There’s a bench in the middle of the room. From all around you comes the music of the world, composed by John Luther Adams. Because I went in the well-lit evening of an Alaskan August, the panels were yellow and blue, and unchanging. What I was listening to did change, subtly, into a range of vibrant, light tones, the Daylight Choir, which, infinitely more vivid than the tiny change I hear, was startlingly lovely to listen to.
Underneath the daylight music are resonant bass tones, and these do change, minute by minute, with seismic activity in the earth. There were no earthquakes while I was there, but the bass swelled and ebbed as the world below me went about the business of being the earth. At a couple of points the sound was strong enough to make the details in the walls — speakers, vents, frames — vibrate into noise themselves. The aurora borealis, invisible in the daylight, was just strong enough to send occasional, delicate bell tones across the ceiling.
I was unspeakably thrilled with all this. Alone in the room, I lay down on the bench, my head on my folded sweater, and gave myself completely to the singing of the earth. It lulled me into a trance, though the swelling bass would lure me out of it, then settle me back as the sound calmed. It was one of the most profound meditations I’ve ever experienced.
What made it so moving wasn’t just the beauty of the tones Adams chose to convey the glittering daylight, but the effect of the living earth on the music itself. I could listen as the subtlest of moves under my back changed the resonance around me. There are lots of wonderful sounds on the earth’s surface — thunder, rain, crickets, birdsong, rushing water, wild wind, the icy whisper of snow — but this was the planet itself swelling our human notes in real time. This is the grace of the best of art, to take apart the texture of life and piece it back together in ways that change our perceptions forever.
I loved it. I stayed a long time, often alone, sometimes not. At the end I was joined by a young couple. After I left, the woman came out while I was still standing at the top of the stairs, and we talked about our experience. She had just graduated from art school, and had come all the way from Oregon to be in that room. “I’d heard that there was a place in Fairbanks where you could hear the world breathe,” she said, and so she and two companions had driven up in an old VW bus.
Lying in that room, held by the subtly shifting music of daylight, and the sonorous sounds of the ground deep under me — recording its stretching, contracting, breathing, living — once again brought home something I love to contemplate: that we and the earth around and under us are one. We grew out of its waters, rocks and mud. This is the great gift, and challenge, of hearing the earth breathe: to know it’s alive, a being in its own right, that its seas and mountains, forests and plains, its atmosphere and the great plates floating over its surface, its unfathomable depths, are all manifestations of the same creative energy that continually brings us all into being. This isn’t a planet we are on, it’s the planet that we are.