Virginia Woolf was on the money when she said a woman needs 500 pounds a year and “a room of one’s own” in order to write. I absolutely cannot write music with rabid wolves at the door, nor with jackhammers, committees or children in the interior. The dog can stay, as long as he sleeps sweet at my feet.

I need space and stillness so I can listen to the work. I say “listen” to the work because when I compose music, it doesn’t feel like I am “doing” the composing. It feels like I am listening to the composing. I hear the sounds in my mind’s ear, play them and write them down. There is some analytical sorting and decision making, but the core offering comes from… ?  I’m not sure. 

While I can’t say where the sounds in my mind’s ear come from, I am clear what I’m listening for. Music of all kinds has moved me to experience the rapture of being alive. I am listening for more sounds that move me, sounds that might also move others. 

In the quest to optimise this inner listening, the physiology of the ear provides an enlightening metaphor, one that I first came across in The Twelve Senses by embryologist Albert Soesman.

To begin with, the ear is constructed in a very curious way. Consider the cochlea.  Greek for “snail,” the word describes the coiled bone that is the HQ of our hearing apparatus – the inner ear.

The cochlea begins life as a dense bone complete with marrow, but as the human embryo develops, this marrow is hollowed out – eaten by hosts of cells – leaving a resonant chamber, like an internal cathedral. 

Into the inner sanctum of this carved cathedral, tucked deep down in the hardest, most dense bone of the human body (the petrous bone), grow the stereocilia or hair cells that float in fluid – somewhat like seaweed. Sonic vibrations enter the outer ear, move down the auditory canal (middle ear) to the cochlea and move the floating seaweedy stereocilia. These movements are then converted into nerve impulses which are taken up to the brain to be interpreted.

How do the stereocilia function optimally? By being so still that they allow themselves to be moved. Further, they are not still near the storm – they are not still near the front line of engagement at the entry point, the outer ear.

No, they are still, deep down, in the inner sanctum, the hollowed out cochlea, this cathedral-like space that was carved out of the petrous bone. Effort was made to create a space that is resonant, a space that is receptive, a space that protects and preserves such stillness.

Poetic Physiology Lesson 1

If we want to hear, we need to make ourselves still – but not rigidly still. Still like seaweed. Still so we can give ourselves over. Still so we can be moved. 

In my composition practice, this can mean listening to a musical idea without judgement.

Judgement is rigidity – a preconceived notion of which sounds are good and bad. If I can brainstorm with fluidity, if I can be open to different ways of being moved by sounds, fresh ideas can be received. 

Poetic Physiology Lesson 2

This stillness doesn’t happen just anywhere. We need to make effort to carve a space for it. I carve space in the calendar, turn off the wifi, but also make effort to sculpt myself with activities that make me resonant. Gardening. Meditating. Long walks. These things get me in good shape to receive sounds. We need to build a cathedral for our stillness.

This article features in Issue 65 of Dumbo Feather, all about Rest. 

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