Onsite Whistling Piece
Deschutes National Forest, Oregon, Dec 2020
Residency Earth Interview with John Also Bennett
What about the forest attracts you to it?
John Also Bennett
I can’t say that I’ve always been attracted to the forest specifically, but more so the broader idea of wilderness. The wilderness as a vast unknown, existing in a geological time frame, dominated more by non-human than human consciousness. However as one part of a broader idea of wilderness, and the focus of this piece— the forest tends to possess some specific acoustics that I find attractive. When you whistle into the forest, the forest whistles back. It’s an excellent collaborator— there is a natural reverb as the sound echoes through the trees, and it produces some of the best environmental white noise there is if the wind is going. When you whistle into the forest, there’s a good chance that something out there can hear you, which gives me the feeling that I’m not alone when I’m doing these performances.
Collaborating musically with another biological entity or species demands a level of intuition or visceral understanding that is undervalued in the Euro-Western scientific community and might even be appraised as mythos.
When doing so I do think it’s important not to project too many of your own assumptions about consciousness or reality onto another entity. I try to steer away from the idea that wilderness might reciprocate my anthropocentric lens on things, and keep open to the possibility that there is no way I could ever understand what it’s like to ‘be’ something out in the wilderness. But that’s where intuition comes in, there are universalities out there that maybe we are not always conscious of. The endless blowing of the wind in the trees, I wonder if the snowshoe hares can hear it.
Whistling in the trees. What do you know about whistling?
I know that by pursing my lips and blowing, I can produce a sound.
When I was preparing to do this piece I came across the ancient Daoist practice of “cosmic whistling”, which was a practice of whistling single, long-drawn notes as a transcendental or yogic practice. A master of the technique could communicate with animals, supernatural beings, or even control weather phenomena. There is a prose poem called “Rhapsody on Whistling” that was written by Chenggong Sui in the 3rd century. Here are some (translated) fragments from that...
A young gentleman, aloof from the crowd,
Eccentric in manner, fond of the strange,
Scornful of the world, oblivious of honor,
Abandons all worldly affairs.
Stinted by the narrowness of the mundane road,
He gazes on the concourse of Heaven and treads on high.
Removing himself from pomp and vulgarity, he becomes oblivious of self,
And with strong feeling makes a long-drawn whistle.
The whistle drifts like a wandering cloud in Grand Clarity,
Gathers like an unremitting breeze for a myriad leagues.
When the tune is finished, and the sounds cease,
Its lingering echoes may be savored without end.
This truly is a perfect natural sound,
Which not even strings and winds can imitate.
Thus, to make this sound one needs no instrument,
To effect it one requires no other thing.
He takes it near at hand from his own body,
And does it by using his mind and controlling his breath.
If then, one roams lofty ridges,
Crosses great mountains:
He looks down from the side of a cliff, Gazes on flowing rivers,
Sits on a giant rock,
Rinses his mouth in a clear spring.
He makes a mat of the marsh boneset waving in the wind,
Lies in the shade of the bamboo, graceful and tall.
Then, intoning and chanting, he gives forth a whistle,
One tone after another continuously reverberating.
He releases the grief and anger of pent-up thoughts,
Rouses the lingering torment of long-harbored care.
His heart is cleansed and free of troubles,
His mind, detached from the profane world, is as if drifting and floating. SB
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