How to write about sound?

How do you write about something when often even talking about it is a challenge?

I often find my self struggling when I want to talk or write about sound. I speak German and English mainly and with both I am struggling likewise with that excercise. Because the only way to talk about sound seems to describe the action or object that causes the sound: Like the sound of a revving engine or the sound of a Matatu horn.

But what about the sound itself? I can think of just a few words that have made it into my English vocabulary: “beeping”, “banging” for example which describe the sound itself. “Swooshing” is another one, if that is a commonly known word and not made up. Because then that is what come up with: should I just invent new words? Maybe with the methods of ornithologists who transcribe the sounds of birds. These strings of letters seem so weird but actually when you take them in your mouth something great comes out.

flight call of Black Kite (Milvus migrans) a quavering, loud, slow whistle (1)

Courting call of Marabou Stork (Leptoptilus crumeniferus), a repeated hoarse whinnying (2)

It is a strange relationship, sound and language, I find.

An important part of language is sound. Without sound meaning can’t be transported and therefore communication can’t happen. As it seems, the meaning that sound itself transports is not manifested in the languages I speak, mostly, German and English. Maybe that is exactly the problem. Sometimes I can’t quite get my head around this, it is too complex. And this is just one of my conundrums with writing/speaking about sound for me.

SOUND OF NAIROBI has asked three writers, poets, great people to contribute texts as part of an ever on going investigation in how to write about sound:

Kamwangi Njue is an artist and an investigator. He is pushing boundaries in textual and sonic ways through his writings and music. I feel they are always informed by his experience of the urban spaces and configurations of Nairobi and Kenya. We are lucky that he has been accompanying SOUND OF NAIROBI from the beginning and contributed many field recordings. On his recording tours he covers long distances, strolling through downtown Nairobi and Eastleigh. Here are his experiences in words: liner notes: towards a possibility and eastleigh usilie.

Lutivini Majanja has also been with SOUND OF NAIROBI from the beginning. She is a well published fiction writer but also feels at home in other styles of writing. From the very first beginning she has been interested in sonically researching the Kenya Railways footbridge. For many of her recording sessions she has been going back there and recorded the changing soundscape. Read her reflections here: Landi Mawe.

Bethuel Muthee is a poet, writer and editor. Nairobi is his base and that is where his words emerge from. In this text with the title The Sound of Memory redraws a connection between sound, place and memory.

Enjoy the texts and if you have good sound(ing) words, leave them for us in the comments section.

(1) Zimmerman, Dale A., Donald A. Turner, David J. Pearson, Birds of Kenya & Northern Tanzania, Christopher Helm (Publisher) Ltd, London, 1999, p. 295
(2) Zimmerman, Dale A., Donald A. Turner, David J. Pearson, Birds of Kenya & Northern Tanzania, Christopher Helm (Publisher) Ltd, London, 1999, p. 284

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