Can you listen to Alchemy? Listening to Alchemy by Sam Richards.



Soundwaves image linking to blog www.ameliamarriette.com/blog
Listening to Alchemy by Sam Richards

Many of you read Sam Richard’s excellent blog post about Imogen Holst, which I published on my site a few weeks ago. Sam has returned to write another Guest Blog for me.


During the first lockdown in 2020, which seems more like 100 years ago, Sam ordered a copy of my book Walking into Alchemy. I was delighted of course and duly visited the post office to dispatch his book off to South Devon. Because I know and admire Sam - we met through a mutual interest in Radio, and we both have a passion for music – I occasionally wondered, somewhat nervously, if he was a) reading my book and b) enjoying it.

It transpires that he had been reading it because, in December 2021, I received an email from Sam telling me that he had been listening to my book. Let me explain: although I am currently working on an audio version of my book, it does not yet exist. So, what did Sam mean?


Every reader approaches a book with their own interests, and it had never occurred to me that Walking into Alchemy is as much about sound as it is about sight.


I think that Sam should tell you about it himself.


Listening to Alchemy by Sam Richards.


My current research (which aims to be a book within the next year or so) is about listening. I am missionary about it. Like most people I enjoy the modern world and would not wish to return to the bad old days when workers were exploited, health care was unsatisfactory, class distinctions ruled and prospects for social mobility were almost nil. But, again like most people (or most thinking people) I note that our world is in a pickle. Perhaps it’s always been that way – there were clean air acts passed in England in the 13th century. But in a world connected by the internet, faster-than-ever travel, interconnected industrial systems and global political networks it seems (and is) a bigger pickle than ever. Need I mention climate change, the circulation of very nasty viruses, fragile political systems, virulent nationalism that goes beyond an acceptable degree of liking for one’s country, and all the problems that online digital culture has thrown up from grooming to screen addiction? The reason for this pickle is that we were not listening. The way out of it is to listen. That’s my mission.


I would say that. I’m a musician. More than that I am vitally concerned with sound – whether it is deemed music or not. Many composers of the last hundred years have been fascinated likewise. The Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo extolled the new world of urban sound as long ago as 1913 in his manifesto The Art of Noises and built primitive (but rather wonderful) noise intoning machines for public performances. Edgar Varese incorporated factory and other industrial sounds in some of his music. Pierre Schaeffer pioneered the art of musique concréte in the 1940s in Paris; it consisted of everyday sounds recorded and assembled into tape compositions. Then, of course, there was John Cage who maintained that music is all around us if only we had ears to listen. The whole of our sonic environment was music – or potentially so – to Cage. Another trajectory takes its cue from R. Murray Schafer, composer and sound ecologist. Only a few years ago my wife Lona Kozik and I were engaged as sound artists by the UK Open University for a project in North Norfolk. The director, George Revill, is a sonic geographer. All this proves that there is a history and practice of involvement in sound, one which sees a significance in the sonic environment.


These developments of the past hundred years or so emerge from a world of modernity. But some awareness of sound can be gleaned from literature before that. The opening of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree is a celebrated case.

The sounds that trees make
"To dwellers in a wood, almost every species of tree has its voice"

To dwellers in a wood, almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modified the notes of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.


Hardy’s country people, it seems, not only looked. They listened. About a year ago I found myself wondering whether such descriptions of sound were common in literature, or whether Hardy was an exception. To begin with, I limited myself to novels in English and began at the beginning with those works generally considered to be the first in the field – Defoe, Richardson, Fielding – and was disappointed. Robinson Crusoe, for example, might as well have been subtitled “The Silent Island”. A paucity of references to sound runs through these early novels. In the 19th century – Gaskell, Dickens especially – some sound creeps in, but it really makes its appearance more dramatically in popular novels of the time and into the 20th century. Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher brilliantly describes the silence and tiny sounds of that creepy house and Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes is a riot of jungle sounds.


From a review of novels and fiction, I moved on to Thoreau’s Walden which actually has a chapter headed “Sounds”. Henry David Thoreau spent a couple of years in the 1840s living in the woods. These days we’d call it a retreat. His descriptions of sounds fall neatly into two categories. There were the sounds of raw nature – frogs, birds, the wind and so on – and man-made sounds such as the locomotive that thundered nearby a couple of times a day.

It was with all this baggage that I approached Amelia Marriette’s Walking into Alchemy. We had known one another while she was still in the Southwest of England and working for local radio stations. We both served on the Board of Soundart Radio. Radio people are always attuned to sound – for obvious reasons. A BBC producer I knew once told me that he preferred working in radio rather than television: “the pictures are better”. I suppose I wondered whether this would be the case with Amelia.


To summarize Walking into Alchemy: having moved from England to a scenic part of Austria to live with her new partner Amelia soon embarked on a walking project. Once a week for a year she found time to do a particular walk – quite a long one – and write about it diary fashion. This walk turns out to be a kind of outer journey of the inner life. She describes the landscapes and seasonal changes in loving and fascinated detail. As the book progresses, however, we also begin to grasp how this repeated walk stands as symbol for inner changes. It is worth reading for this alone.

But for me, absorbed in the world of (and study of) sound she offers more. There’s a hint of what’s to come early on in the book, on page 27. She’s looking for a couple of ducks that she had previously seen and writes: “I hear them before I see them…” Over the page there are more bird sounds – great tits, rooks and sparrows. “A constant barrage of bird sound…” Each walk has an entry of its own and I soon realize that descriptions, or mentions of sound, occur in many of them. Out there in the countryside, you’re most likely to hear birds, cattle, cowbells, the wind, mountain streams, crickets…She describes snow melting as a “rhythmical drip, drip, drip…which grows increasingly louder and becomes faster and faster”.

The music of nature
"the alchemy that I take away from Walking into Alchemy is one of awareness"

As the book progresses mention of sound increases. Most of it is the kind of sound you would expect to hear out in the open air, the woods, the hills, the birds. But we do also get a tractor, an accordion and bells – humanly made sounds.


My reading of novels demonstrated to me that descriptions of sound have an economy to them. One mention of sound can last pages. The Fall of the House of Usher is a good example. Poe begins:


“During the whole of a dull, dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening grew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”

Edgar Allan Poe

He doesn’t need to labour the point. The “soundless day in the autumn of the year” sets the scene and lasts a few pages. Everything, indeed the entire story, is suffused by this silence which, of course, is only accentuated by the occasional rattle of armour on display as decoration or creaky floors. Likewise with Walking into Alchemy where well-placed descriptions of sound affect the whole page – and more.


I’m sure that Amelia would agree with me that her walks became a kind of point of growth. But apart from the psycho-spiritual development that happened for her, there is also another development of the kind I implied when I asserted that the way out of the pickle we’re in is to listen. Music, said John Cage, exists to improve our powers of audition, our ability to really hear. The same can be said of all our senses. We can see better, feel and touch things better, smell and – as any gourmet will tell you – cultivate better taste. But this is not a matter of getting better at using basic human senses and thus becoming superior. It is more a matter of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching what is really there, what is actual in the place where we really are. This is a revolutionary practice.


A Canadian Inuit improvising singer Tanya Tagaq has a song in which “Our mother grows angry” – referring to Mother Earth, oil drilling and pumping. “We squander her soil and suck out her sweet black blood to burn it” she declares. I remember being in a bar in Pennsylvania only a few years ago when a thunderous bang was heard. The weather was fine. There was no traffic to create an accident. There was no i