The Science of Sleep: The Electronic Lullaby

In the age of access, it’s possible that Raymond Scott, Kraftwerk, and ARP may become as essential tools for infant soothing as “Rock-A-Bye Baby”.

The womb is a regular fallback cliché for the music writer, particularly one fumbling for a description of murky psychedelic sonics. Floating there, comfortably perched in a vat of amniotic fluid, the fetus' ear, not yet fully developed, is encased with liquid, surrounded by a protective layer of vernix, muffling the roughly 80 to 90 db chronic din of blood pumping through the mother's arteries. As lazy a musical shorthand "Womblike" may be, it's apropos to the situation the developing child finds him/herself in while nestled in the womb- rhythmic, chaotic, dissonant, and consistent.

In Dr. Harvey Karp's The Happiest Baby on the Block, Karp outlines what he calls the "colic cure", five separate soothing methods which, when used patiently and in the correct combination, will calm a newborn during the first three months of life, or what he calls the "fourth trimester". Karp argues that during the "fourth trimester", an infant is still adjusting to the shock of being outside of the womb where all sustenance was provided for him/her. Not yet ready to be born, newborn babies receive comfort when their parents or providers replicate the set and setting of the womb by swaddling the infants tightly, positioning them on their side or stomach, jiggling them around, offering them a pacifier or finger to suck on, and simulating the sounds of the womb. For the latter, there are a number of methods one can use to reproduce a gestational sound environment. Shushing loudly next to the baby's ear usually works, though some babies often require a little more persistence, which can be achieved by using a white noise generator or a nature sounds machine like the Sleep Sheep. Other household devices, such as a vacuum cleaner, microwave fan, or anything Matthew Herbert might incorporate into an album tend to do well, too. Also, there's music.

Since electronic or programmed music tends to be the music of soundscaping, it offers the perfect venues for womb simulation. Ambient and experimental electronic music regularly incorporate sounds like running water, hums, drones, buzzes, noise, Tibetan throat singing, and other low frequency tones, all of which value (electro) acoustic space similar in rhythm and overtone to the prenatal environment. The DVD version of Karp’s book contains a special feature that’s simply several minutes of a single loop. This loop is supposed to be a close approximation of what might actually be heard in gestation, though it could just as easily be a locked groove from a new release on a sound sculpturing record label like Raster-Norton, Editions Mego, or Type. Newborns, it seems, are predisposed to noise music, specifically that of a fuzzy, warm, and liquid timbre. It’s only later that we begin to favor harmony and melody.

All of which leads to the question of whether noise music or noisy music is just a regression, an infantalization. Sure, many have remarked on how the more confrontational aspects of the ear-shattering post-power electronics demiurges like Prurient, Masonna, or Macronympha are entangled in puerility, but the violent tantrums of this kind of rapacious sonic provocation engage more with juvenilia and adolescence than infancy or fetal development. Atmospheric music, particularly in its modern drone-feedback-overtone incarnation, tends towards the ill-defined, the separation between notes, instruments, user and content, bleeding together as if sharing a fallopian connection to one another.

Brian Eno’s original idea of ambient music as “wallpaper” and Erik Satie’s referral of his proto-ambient pieces as “furniture music” indicate a tendency in the sound itself to provide a means of shelter for the listener, to reproduce a home using aural space. It’s not for nothing that Eno’s own Discreet Music was allegedly administered in hospitals as a maternal aid to facilitate labor, its comforting tones providing assistance for breathing exercises during the stressful period leading up to delivery -- it's sound as security

Is the comfort food of protracted texturized sound an attempt to place the body without organs back in a state of complete dependence? to simplify musical space’s organizational tensions to a minimalist network of needs and fulfillments? It’s hard to tell if babies can distinguish soundscapes or ambient tones from structured notational music at their earliest stage of hearing development since they are experiencing both for the first time concurrently. For the infant (as is the intention with many an experimental composer), all music is sound and all sound is music.

My daughter was born in July of 2010 and she has given me a lot of time to think about her relationship to sound and music, particularly during the first few months when she would hijack my body, normally immersed in headphones and stationed behind a computer screen, for hours while I tried to exact a proper response that might calm her desolate howls. It was a small wonder every time she would quiet for Windy and Carl, Gas, Loscil, Grouper, or just my own singing voice reverberating through the backdrop of a running sink (babies are the opposite of eco-friendly). But lest I thought she had the coolest musical taste ever for someone so tiny, a winning formula could rarely be repeated and it was clear that what she was craving was extrinsic to the music itself.

Wondering what my daughter’s life is going to turn out like, I think about how much is already decided and how much my wife and I are deciding for her in these first few formative months. I’ve already exposed her to a range of sounds and music, particularly when driving her back from daycare, though it’s unclear if any of it will stick or whether my tastes will hybridize with the inevitable influences of her peer group. There’s no doubt my daughter will grow up with at the very least a peripheral exposure to things that radio and TV wouldn’t dare champion, but it’s hard not to think that her reactions to all this stuff will be more of a reflection of her relationship with me as sole representative of bizarro noises than a neutral judgment on the sounds. Failure to rouse a spirit of adventurousness in musical taste could very well spell a failure in parenting, if this is truly the case.

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