Tag Archives: memoir

Kibble

An abecedarium of unfinished posts, fledgling thoughts, broadsides, aphorisms, quotations, addenda, notes, interludes, promenades, speculations, vignettes, & other kitchen sinks; 32 in all, all newly revised & edited into easily-digestible, individually-wrapped tidbits; artfully arrang’d & illuminated by yrs. truely, HELLDRIVER.

A

Analogies. Musical models have always guided and inspired the way I think about form in fiction and creative nonfiction. Codas, for example: short, closing sections, generally following a line break, that serve as an oblique comment, sometimes in gesture, sometimes in image, on what came before. (A mentor of mine: “End on an image and don’t explain it.” He was quoting a mentor of his.) I think about the climax of Strauss’s Don Quixote: contending, shouting horns; sudden silence; and then a series of quiet, descending trills from the violins. The abrupt about-face in mood signals the hero’s approaching death. The closing move of my story “The Stability of Floating Bodies,” for example, is indebted to this. And that story’s final image, of geese crossing the sky, has an even more specific source: it was an attempt to do in language what Rush does in the closing seconds of “The Fountain of Lamneth”: a few-second crescendo-diminuendo with a light “whump” at the peak. Of course, these musical models are themselves stories; the circuit goes in both directions. But it matters, I think, that the narrative has been filtered through music, perhaps because it serves to highlight form, strain out the muck of substance.

Sometimes it’s the oeuvre of a composer I admire that inspires an analogy, such as that between two stories I wrote back-to-back several years ago and Bartók’s fourth and fifth string quartets: one a tweaked romance, the other strident and abrasive (though they were written in the opposite order, the older of the two being my quartet #5). Or perhaps this is an attempt to inflate them well beyond their actual worth, and so inspire myself to fail again, fail better.

B

Birdsongs & cadences. Musicologist Peter Manuel’s article “From Scarlatti to Guantanamera” (see “Domenico in the Heart,” 3.28.21, note G), argues that what people hear as a satisfactory ending is at least partly culturally determined, so that, for example, the Spanish/Latin American practice of ending on IV, which a listener whose ear is conditioned to Western music may hear as somewhat irresolute, sounds perfectly fine to someone raised listening to flamenco, or to some Caribbean musics. Cultures, that is, produce their own sense of an ending. Now, is it possible there is a deeper conditioning, something we might look for in nature? I’m thinking of the animal noises in the locations where different cultures emerged, and above all, of birdsongs.

Birdsongs don’t sound like they resolve at all. Rather, they cycle; Messiaen captured this so beautifully in the fragmented, repeating texture of his Small Sketches of Birds, one of my very favorite pieces of music. In birdsongs, movement pitchwise is hard to parse, if it’s present at all. Perhaps they resolve rhythmically? What if rhythmic cadences originally underlay melodic ones, quanta where pitches naturally fit, not because of frequency ratios, because of the ratios in temporal “spacing”? What Rosetta-stone algorithm might match these ratios?

One day, maybe we’ll understand that, when composers imitate birdsongs, be it Rameau, Dolphy, or Messiaen, they are simply paying the birds back a debt owed. I can even imagine the migratory paths of birds linking the musics found along their trajectories. And maybe it’s even deeper than this, with the soundmarks of inanimate, always animated nature shaping a particular community’s sense of form. (For more on soundmarks, see “Archaeology of Noise,” 1.8.22, note D.)

C

Cheese. When I teach the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, I like to mention Michael Pollan’s comments about the role of food in cultural identity. As the reader may remember, Rowlandson starts out calling the Indians’ food “filthy trash.” That is, until she starts starving; then it becomes “sweet” (thanks, of course, to the Lord). By the end she’s pulling boiled hooves out of little kids’ hands and gobbling them down herself. Anyway, Pollan uses cheese and the French as a shorthand example for the way food speaks cultural identity: the stinkier and rankier the cheese—that is, the less palatable to anyone who isn’t French—the better. In other words: cultural identity depends as much, and perhaps more, on unpalatability for those it excludes as the palatability for those it includes. This is how cultures develop an inedible rind, as it were, as well as protecting their native pungency from bleeding out. The concept works as well for music, of course: the music most unpalatable to others is what most clearly demarcates your identity; the bond of adherents to a particular genre is at least as much a product of the unpalatability of said genre’s music to those outside the circle. The distaste of the uninitiated may even be one source of aesthetic pleasure. What free-jazz lover hasn’t enjoyed the crinkled nose, the expression of incomprehension and patronizing disbelief, of some more straitlaced audience member who somehow managed to stumble into a free-jazz set—who was perhaps invited there for that very reason: to become a pillar, a sacrifice, an emblem of the outside around whose immolation we revel? (See “Torch Songs for LES,” 12.7.12.)

When we call something an acquired taste, we’re calling attention to the labor involved in retraining our receptors (and our minds) to engage with, rather than reject, an unfamiliar stimulus, as well as signaling a particular pleasure that is gained by making that effort—an effort, I should say, that is an act of free choice, not Rowlandsonian desperation. (If I were stuck on a desert island and all I had was NSYNC, would I start to like it? I want to say no, but like Rowlandson, I think after a few weeks I’d start to find it sweet, and I’d thank the Lord, too. Hell, I’d probably eat the kid along with the hoof, and thank the Lord for that, too.) As with cheese, so with cheesy: one person’s cheese is another’s fine fare. Tolstoy thought Wagner was cheesy, and many find the histrionics of flamenco (or metal) cheesy as well. Of course, genre is an imperfect boundary. I find Iced Earth unpalatable, for example—the Limburger of metal—but I have friends who absolutely wallow in the stuff.

Nothing risked, nothing gained, I always say. A certain amount of bombast, or sentiment, and you’re going to risk stinking a little. Not enough, and you’re dead boring. Me, I’ll take the cave-aged, and work backwards from there.

D

Damned by faint praise. Metallica: best cover band ever.

*

Deviance: a screed. The relationship between heavy metal and the broader culture—academic, elite, and mainstream—has always been pretty fucking weird. Take the academic: as I mentioned in “T-shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13), in the ‘80s heavy metal wasn’t a style of music; it was a case study in social deviance. Academics—generally social scientists—approached the genre through so-called content analysis, i.e. “interpretation” of lyrics for clues as to the connection between metal and antisocial/sociopathic behavior. If you wanted to read anything peer-reviewed about metal in a CUNY library, you had to go to John Jay, the College of Criminal Justice. (The exception to this might be some early work on gender play in hair metal, stressing the subgenre’s indebtedness to glam rock.) Of course, the study of pop music more generally was firmly locked in content analysis, too; metal was just a particularly aggrieved version of this. Rap seems to have suffered the same indignity. Maybe it was their joint pariah status that drove the genres into each other’s arms in the late ‘80s? At least, that is, until hip hop became the darling of academy and critics alike—it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference—and metal blew itself to pieces, and the pieces were buried in a warm place to germinate while a debauched frat-metal surfed the airwaves for a mercifully brief moment. But I’m getting sidetracked. The first full-length academic studies of the early ‘90s started to do more complex justice to to the music (Walser) and the scene (Weinstein). A decade later, thrash was revived; retro culture, which had started by gobbling up the sixties and seveties, finally made it to the eighties; monsters became misunderstood victims with whom it was cool to identify, and theorized to the point that one truly couldn’t help but pity them; metal found a new home in Brooklyn neighborhoods you couldn’t see or even train to from L’amour’s; and the genre was soon as fetishized as tattoos and black nailpolish and the X-treme Ballsiness of Facial Hair, together with a veganism more lifestyle choice than commitment to end the untold, endless suffering of our animal brethren.

I could go on—so many cultural factors help explain the mutations that have allowed metal to flourish in odd new forms in the tidal pools of the twenty-first century. But what most interests me here is metal’s acceptance by a broader mainstream culture. This seems to be recent enough, and so contrary to where we were in the eighties, as to merit special comment. (Well. Ahem. I should acknowledge that even People magazine had come around to thrash by the late eighties. I remember reading this in a doctor’s waiting room and feeling all warm & fuzzy. With one exception, of course. Can you guess? Slayer, of course. There should be a Slayer shirt that says something like “People magazine always hated us.” Maybe the roots of the genre’s downfall should be sought, not in the Black album or the death of Cliff Burton, but People’s endorsement of Master of Puppets.) Thirty-five years later, the buzzword isn’t deviance anymore. It’s empowerment. Everyone, it seems, wants to jump on the bandwagon of this once-discredited genre, to come out of some fantastical closet and reveal that, you know, they always did like metal, appearances and habits and comments to the contrary notwithstanding.

Why are people falling all over themselves to associate themselves with a genre that was once the province of pimply math nerds and shop kids, and the shop kids’ black-eyeshadowed girlfriends the pimply nerds fantasized about? Possibly because this genre, over the last decade and a half or so, has come to be recognized as a language of the disenfranchised. There is a longstanding appreciation for heavy metal in the Islamic world, as Mark LeVine documented in Heavy Metal Islam more than ten years ago. Slayer grafitti befouls billboards in Iran as much as the Bible belt. And there are micro-scenes all over the globe, as contributors to the anthology Metal Rules the Globe (Duke UP, 2011) explored and analyzed. Iron Maiden’s rabid worldwide fanbase is the envy of none other than Lady Gaga. I keep getting emails in my school inbox from some educational documentary film company advertising a movie about the Navajo metal scene and a band there that ended up recording with Flemming Rasmussen. The Sundance Film Festival this year featured a documentary, Sirens, about an all-female thrash metal band from Beirut called Slave to Sirens. In the after-film convo, one of the producers claimed that they were all metalheads there. I mean, she was wearing black, so, yeah, anything’s possible. But I admit I was a teensy bit skeptical. The filmmakers also went out of their way to stress the incredible musical talent of the young women, who are, after all, playing the sort thing that was once labeled caveman music. And so metal is no longer the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal genre of yesteryear. Today, it is the very contemporary music of vanguardist freedom-fighters, a common vocabulary of riffs, growls, shrieks and ostinatos through which they articulate their disenchantment with the status quo and their desire for liberation. The one-time dinosaurs have become velociraptors.

Well, that sounds pretty cool, right? So why the fuck am I so annoyed? I mean, empowerment beats the shit out of delinquency, doesn’t it?

I’ll tell you why the fuck I’m so annoyed. In a word: it’s patronizing, it’s hypocritical, and it once again runs roughshod over the music that, for most of the people I know who listen to it, is the only thing that matters. It’s clearly what matters to the young women in Slave for Sirens, whatever other interests the filmmakers might have.

I wonder if this shift says something about America’s inability to countenance the congenital injustice of capitalism. Lebanese fighting corruption and gender oppression is all well and good, and that young women in Beirut, for example, have found in thrash metal a voice for their anger is patronizingly endearing (i.e., their choice of means for vocalizing their anger is accepted because of their distance from American culture, rather like the way we laugh when non-English speakers swear). Navajo metalheads can be safely infantilized, too. But the idea that white working-class and rural Americans have a bone to pick is a lot harder for the (white) dominant capitalist culture to swallow, because it points to an ongoing economic violence which, while deeply inflected by and entangled with race, is not in itself racial. (To note that anger is misplaced onto scapegoats and manipulated by jingoistic politicians is not the same as saying it’s unjustified. Not for nothing King paired racism and capitalism in his later speeches.) If white working-class anger is unjustifiable, its musical expression must therefore be aesthetically flawed. But the same musical vocabulary, taken up by marginalized others, confers on the music dignity, and critics hear it differently. Funny, it still sounds like metal to me. (N.B. Sorry to ignore the middle-class metalheads here. Shit’s complicated enough; I’m just scratching the surface, and am fully aware the noise I’m making is uncomfortably grating. Anyway, this is a screed. Want nuance? Move on to letter E, and/or check out “Dr. Heidegger’s Punks” (4.16.16), which has a bit more about class and metal.)

So, yeah, all this acceptance, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I console myself with the idea that the fawning over metal will pass like all fads; critics will find something else once disparaged to fawn over, and they and the documentary filmmakers &c. will just leave us the fuck alone with our music. I’ll be able to find those old thrash records I missed out on collecting in the used bins again, and buy them for a reasonable price, no less valuable for having passed through the hands hipsters—hell, they probably took better care of them than the plumber who listened to them in the eighties. And then I’ll be able to listen to Slave to Sirens and all these other bands not as inspiring examples of struggles against oppression, but simply because they play good fucking metal.

O, to let deviance be deviance again!

[Addendum: I recommend Sirens, by the way. It’s a very good doc. I just felt like putting on my asshole cap for a minute. The problem with the cap is it fits so good that, after a while, it’s hard to get off.]

E

Essence. When a band or artist achieves their essence it’s always a beautiful thing. They become allegory, a transparent thing flooded with light. They achieve the form of whatever they were intended to be, which only comes into being at the moment of its achievement, but then casts a retroactive glow over their career, which we are now invited to view teleologically. As though perfection of form were so incandescent as to blind us to substance, or to make it transparent, reveal it as (mere) form itself. As though substance were no more than a frame through which perfection of form was meant to be apprehended. While these moments seem stable and permanent, this is an illusion brought about by their perfection. They are inherently unstable, like a skateboarder poised at the edge of a ramp, or those acrobatic families who form themselves into muscular houses of cards.

All this is true even for the most wretched bands.

Application: I’ve never cared for Van Halen. I’ve recently somewhat reconciled myself to David Lee Roth, but that’s between me and my conscience. I also had to distance myself from growing up in the era of Eddie Van Halen to really take stock of his genius. Anyway, if I ask, “At what moment, in what song, did Van Halen transcend their own crass misogyny and achieve the perfection of Vanhalenness?” that moment, that song, would have to be “Hot for Teacher”: the most perfect expression of the Van Halen essence. The paradox is that they do this—and it might be the only way to do this—by going full-throttle into what makes them what they are; as though identity flipped into overdrive rattled off everything that was ephemeral and contingent, like shaking dirt through a sieve to find, not nuggets of gold, but that the sieve itself is a golden mesh. The very excess of Van Halen’s puerility and narcissism and vulgarity in this song is what enables them to pull past it (N.B.: theory-heads, I’m thinking of George Bataille here). DLR was never more gross—he was on the cusp of making self-parody a career, if he hadn’t already—and Alex never more rote. But then listen again to that opening drum riff, doubled up like Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks”; listen to Roth actually acting out his pubescent mental and emotional age; listen to the boogie-woogie rhythm the band had fiddled with before but never otherwise adequately brought to the fore; listen, listen above all to Eddie, on the intro, and the way he phrases and accents the main chord progression, both clean and full-on distorted, and that main solo, of course, a master who plays with his whole body, the way Jimi did. In the video, EVH struts down a bar like I once saw the great blues guitarist Bill Wolf do at the Red Belle Saloon in Salt Lake City. But all this is just rationalization larded with nostalgia. You can’t analyze essence into its constituent parts any more that you can parse God. It’s the way the parts fit together, the way they coalesce in those four minutes, the way they capture the unselfconscious exuberance of being Van Halen, the band, that matters.

I swear, when that song comes on the radio I can almost smell it.

I remember a colleague of mine once commenting that when you watch AC/DC you see a band that believes utterly in what they’re doing, and that makes all the difference. Think “Dirty Deeds.” Think “TNT.” Think “Girls Got Rhythm.” Brainless to boot; all the clumsy bravado of toddlers. And so, so perfect. Maybe that’s all it is: an absolute, unwavering belief in one’s genius, or sexiness, or whatever, that spills over the edges of its container. And why not? They’re rock stars.

F

Fecundity. One thing that has always attracted me in art is the sense—call it an illusion—of inexhaustible fecundity of the creator. The number of gorgeous melodies Brahms crowds into a symphony; the feeling of absolute newness Sonny Rollins imparts to a solo with every chorus; the number of quirky, perfectly-drawn minor characters who populate a Dickens novel. It can provoke laughter, a sort of giddinness, like the gag with clowns getting out of a car: Where are they pulling this shit from? It’s like being tickled. It must be related to the sublime; only our consciousness of it as art, or here, the figure of the artist, provokes delight rather than terror.

G

Gravy. Metallica didn’t evolve; they congealed.

 H

Hooks. Over the decade of blogging I’ve grown attached to the idea that writing about music should inhabit something of the style of the music it speaks/about; that it should attempt to be at once mimetic and critical; that, to be adequate to the task of writing about music, there should be something in the language that embodies it, however that is imagined; and that the difficulty of doing this might help articulate something of the difficulty of music criticism. (See, for example, the first endnote of “Flesh and Steel,” 4.12.17.) It’s an oblique answer to the Burnham epigraph on the main page of this blog: a vision of criticism that rubs shoulders with the form, that attempts to occupy a fruitful border without falling into either the arid objectivity of the specialist or the besotted ecstacy of the fan (or what Burnham calls “be-here-now laziness” and “emotional groping”).

A corollary to the above is that criticism should develop discourses commensurate to the styles of music it seeks to articulate. The genre should determine the discourse, not the other way around. To presume otherwise is to miss its essence, to impoverish rather than enrich the reader’s perception.

Part of my beef with the latter-day acceptance of metal by rock critics et al. (see “Deviance” above) is that the old critical language, intended to find a way to valorize three-chord pop songs, simply can’t do justice to this genre. As rock critics have attempted to describe their strange and possibly guilty new infatuation, the critical vocabulary has not been updated to register that shift. Example: in the pop-critical lexicon, “hook” means an ear-catching melody, a word of great praise, ensuring as it does lots of clicks and sing-alongs. (I’ve probably used it myself.) But is this term of critical endearment really applicable to metal? Does metal give a fuck about hooks? Only, I assume, insofar as it bows to the dictates of pop. Which, of course, some metal does, quite effectively. But then a whole lot doesn’t.

Worst-case scenario: I fear a music that is subjected to and therefore tamed by a discourse that evolved to exclude it. To judge a genre by an inappropriate standard is to be deaf to that genre’s ethos and objectives, its unique contribution to music. It’s like saying Carl Dreyer’s films have problems with pacing and could learn something from watching Fast & Furious. Or Cronenberg movies are fine, except for all the latex critters. Or Moby-Dick shows that Melville could have used an editor. At what point do you clap someone on the shoulder and say, “You know? Maybe this just isn’t for you.”

Using a word like “hooks” to describe a metal song is like trying to eat a T-bone steak with a plastic spoon. No, metal needs a critical discourse analogous to its sound. That’s what so many amateur reviewers have done with their penchant for metaphor piled on metaphor: try to capture metal’s excess through an analogous excess of language, often through mixed, clashing, and Gongoristic metaphors. (See my article“Heavy Melville” for a fuller discussion.)

More broadly, if you like metal and want to write about it, here’s my advice: fuck rock criticism. Write against the grain by consciously undermining its shibboleths. Undermine the mainstream discourse of music criticism by coloring at its edges until the edges, not the picture, are all the reader sees. Write at great length, and then yet-greater length; become the behemoth you hear. Purge the critical vocabulary about metal of all but what can really speak it. Fill it again with a vocabulary consistent to the genre, a language of metal as much as for metal. A metallic language. You want hooks? Fine. Make them bloody, dripping meathooks. Coat them in tattered flesh. Grappling hooks for pulling carcasses down a slaughterhouse chute. The creak of the chains from the half-dismembered bodies swinging from them. The whine of Leatherface’s saw. Can you hear the music yet? Can you?

I

Instrumental. In one of his New York Notes, the great jazz critic Whitney Balliett wrote this about Charlie Christian: “In the manner of all great jazz musicians, what he played became more important than the instrument itself.” A doubly contentious point, given (a) Christian’s synonymousness with the foundation of jazz guitar as a lead instrument, and (b) the guitar’s status as an instrument where devotion to the idea of virtuosity is cross-generic; for many guitarists, the instrument has acted as a sort of wedge for expanding their taste into other genres that use the guitar, and dabbling in a number of styles (as I have, with astonishing lack of aptitude). My point is that the guitar, perhaps more than any other instrument, inverts Balliett’s formula: what Christian played—the handware in his hands—has been, for many a guitarist, more important than his contribution to that genre called jazz.

From the standpoint of composition, spontaneous or otherwise, I think Balliett underemphasizes the role instruments play in shaping what comes out of them. Great music doesn’t necessarily transcend the instrument or instruments on/for which it was conceived; it may, in fact, make the instrument glaringly present in the listener’s mind. Leo Brouwer’s sonata for guitar, for example: I can’t imagine it being composed on any another instrument; the guitar itself, its droning open strings, the arrangement of its fretboard, clearly shaped the notes on the page. And what a wonderful piece of music it is! Sometimes, what sounds like harmonically-advanced composition may simply be a path of least resistance. Like: are those transposed sustained-second chords really an example of quartal harmony … or just what came out from noodling with sus-2 chords up and down the neck?

I was thinking about all this one day while watching the great fusion guitarist Wayne Krantz at one of his (what used to be) semi-regular Thursday-night gigs at the 55 Bar. His style is so guitar-focused that it’s difficult to imagine on any other instrument; like Brouwer’s sonata, one gets the impression that it could not have come into being on anything but a guitar, nor could it be successfully reproduced one another instrument—and none of this diminishes its brilliance in any way. It’s a style partly dictated by sheer economy: he stakes out one part of the neck, often beginning with just one string, four or five notes in a line, exploiting half-steps and half-bends—his left hand stays put; his fingers seem to barely move—while his right explores rhythmic possibilities and different phrasings. He builds outwards from there: notes are added atop notes in half-bars, half steps above half steps, augmented with fuller bends and note clusters, each expansion itself augmented by increasing volume and tempo as his solos wend toward a climax. The guitar does have the advantage of having more than two full octaves within easy reach, and is particularly comfortable for this sort of minimalist exploration between the seventh and twelfth frets, where Krantz bears down. (There might even be something about an instrument that complements a venue and audience: I think of patrons, myself included, ducking under the neck of Krantz’s Stratocaster on our way to and from the 55’s bathroom.)

In a broader sense, I think we should take more care to consider the role of the evolution of instruments—that once-primary technology in the creation of musical sounds—in the evolution of music, and re-imagine “greatness” not as something abstract floating above the technology of musical production, but intimately connected with it, the god in the machine. The instrument—its shape and sonority, and the relationship between it and the body that plays it, hands feet lips tongue fingers—both inspires and delimits creation. Composition is never fully divided from performance, but part of a musician’s relationship to their instrument; improvisation isn’t something that happens in the brain prior to the note, but something that flows dialectically between mind and wandering muscles, which ideally collapse into a single entity.

Does the clear bifurcation of Prokofiev’s string quartet no. 1, revealing of the pianist’s two-handed mindset, weaken or invigorate that composition? Was Bartók able to push the string quartet in new directions because, as a pianist, he heard the quartet differently, and was less familiar with the limitations of the instruments at hand? (I think of him working with the great violinists of his day to expand the possibilities of the quartet; I think, too, of the sonorities, rhythms, and melodies of the gypsy violins he recorded that also shaped those quartets … and all his music, piano included.) What happens when musicians compose at the piano, and then take those melodic sketches to their own instruments, and begin to expand them in new directions, as, say, Coltrane describes doing with Giant Steps? The currents run in multiple directions: between instruments, between cultures, cross-composing and transcription, collaborative composition and virtuoso performance, all pushing instrumental music in new directions, and the possibilities of instruments into new ranges, which, for the following generations, simply become part of that instrument’s expressive palette. No instrument is ever “pure”; it exists within a matrix of other instruments, and composers and audiences write and listen in that context: the orchestra in a Beethoven piano sonata, the cello in Sam Newsome’s horn.

And so Christian: it may be that what he played—the guitar—had a strong influence on what he played—the notes—and that it was his outre (at the time) choice of instruments—a rhythm instrument he was dragging into the front line—more than any abstract thoughtfulness about notes and chords that exerted the pressure on advancing jazz as a style of expression.

J

Jazz inversion. Listening to Mastodon’s “Mother Puncher” the other day (Remission, 2002), it occurred to me that some extreme metal music inverts the traditional rock instrumental hierarchy dividing the rhythm section (drums and bass) from the lead (guitar, voice). It’s a code writ larger than rock, though which instrument occupies what position will depend on the genre and its development. But the repetitiveness of riff-based rock, and the ostinatos of metal, have morphed the guitars into the chief vehicles of a song’s rhythmic drive. Melody is pared back to the essentials; the listener’s attention is displaced onto timbre. And then, in much the way the walking bass in jazz frees the drums to participate more fully in the constantly-changing surface of improvisation, punctuating and emphasizing rather than carrying the backbeat, so the drums in some of these early Mastodon songs are liberated to become a solo instrument that stands over and above the rest of the music: the riffs and ostinatos become a backbeat against which the drums improvise. (Of course, you need a drummer like Brann Dailor to make it work … and make it work he does. See also Gunther Schuller’s point about Duke Ellington’s orchestration in “Pressure Begets Grace,” 9.13.20.)

K

Kiev’s Gate & Old Castle. In 2009 I was present for the finals of the Van Cliburn piano competition (held in Fort Worth, Texas) when the blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii (or “Nobu,” as he came to be known) shared the gold medal with Haochen Zhang. When he sat to play, he would measure from both ends of the keyboard back to its middle. Then he would begin. It’s not that he never missed a note; it’s how quickly he recuperated himself in the rare instances that he did. I was fortunate to be able to hear him again a year or so later, when he played Carnegie Hall—not Zankel or the Met, where other Cliburn medalists had performed, but Stern. At that time, maybe a decade ago, he had become something of a celebrity freak, as well as a national icon. Stern was filled that night with Japanese fans, a large number of whom, I would guess, had never been to Carnegie Hall.

Nobu’s gold-medal recital at the Cliburn culminated in a powerful rendition of Beethoven’s sonata Op. 57 (“Appassionata”). The climax of the Carnegie Hall recital was Mussorgsky’s great, underperformed piano suite “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

The irony, which the Times et al. likely considered too obvious to point out, leaving it to vulgates like me to ponder: that a blind man should play a piece whose purpose is to make us see things he himself has never seen. He occupies one part of a circuit: Mussorgsky, the composer, transformed the old castle, the hut on fowl’s legs, and the great gate at Kiev, into music, apparently from paintings, some of which have been discovered; the music, when it is performed, “reconstructs” these images in the listener’s mind; the performer’s ears and fingers become the prisms through which the images are re-integrated as sound.

This is all well and good. And yet, as I listened, I couldn’t help (silently) protesting: He has never seen the castle! He has never seen any castle at all! He has never seen, will never see, the Great Gate at Kiev! (Idiot. Have you? He’s never seen a keyboard, either.) What does he see when he plays these things? What appears in his mind? What spatial clues? Does he need to, to play them magnificently? Have they been described to him? Has he run his fingers over pictures in relief, as he did the keyboard? Has he been guided to the walls of gates and castles, touched them, walked through and under them? Is it better that he not know them as image, in order to become the emotional conduit of the notes, of pure sound, with the imagistic labor meant to be performed, never by the musician, but by the listener, and perhaps not even by them? The composer, after all, is “describing” an emotion arising from the picture, not the picture itself: the grandeur of the gate; the melancholy of the castle.

Anyway, he made the great gate present. A miracle, indeed.

A series of other things occurred to me, after listening to Nobu that night. Was imagism a Trojan horse for modernism? Some parts of the “Pictures,” like “Gnomus,” and even parts of “Kiev,” sound quite tonally advanced to my ear. Like the late Romantics grasping for the nuances and ambiguities of emotion, and twisting the rules of harmony to achieve them: might the same be true for those composers attempting to musically grasp a visual text? To what extent did the lure of the image serve as an excuse for breaking traditional tonal and structural boundaries—as though running music through the circuit of another artistic medium, or by the sheer force of attraction to some other medium, bends the rules of the original medium, forces it to rethink some of its assumptions? (Not, that is, by some internal pressure—i.e., the composer feeling that the compositional rules of the time are exhausted/overly restrictive—but outside: the composer trying to “adequate” music to the pressures of another medium.) And then, once this has happened, the program element becomes vestigial, is sloughed like old skin, and this new tonal or structural thing becomes enshrined as abstract music. I think of the way some of the most bizarre experiments in music happening toward the end of the nineteenth century—not Mussorgsky, but Richard Strauss—and then Debussy, of course—were programmatic in intent. Rather than say, “I broke the rules because I wanted to”—as Debussy happily did—the composer can say, “I broke the rules because the object I was describing demanded it.” (I could probably add Wagner here: the psychological state of a character becomes the “object” whose description demands an updated harmonic language.)

Some years after jotting down the notes for the above in a journal, I encountered this passage in Lewis Rowell’s Thinking About Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music (Massachusetts UP, 1983): “The episode of the herd of sheep in Strauss’s Don Quixote, which was originally criticized for being blatantly overpictorial, now takes on a new significance because of the manner in which Strauss anticipates some of the trends in musical style since the 1950s” (156).

This also seems pertinent: the avant-jazz saxophonist and composer John Zorn has remarked on the way growing up with TV—particularly cartoons—reshaped his (and other composers’) sense of continuity and compositional integrity. (The comment is from Put Blood in the Music; I probably encountered it in the book Jazzing; see “Vasudeva on the Hudson,” 11.11.18.) Music used incidentally, to express something in the action, in a disjointed, perhaps episodic form, influenced the way composers of his generation conceived of musical structure (amply on display in Naked City, for example: Zorn music for a cartoon yet to be drawn). I discussed this briefly in the post “Silent Movie” (3.25.11), where the music of silent cinema, like cartoon music, “mimes” (the word I used there) the action on screen, following and amplifying the emotional character of the moment, punctuating or highlighting bits of action, even attempting to onomatopoeaically imitate non-present diegetic noise.

Today, the logic of narrative and the image have shredded old concepts of organic unity in music. Indeed, we seem to have come full circle: image and narrative have so overtaken music as to create a new constraint; what was once an impetus for transgression (if the causal argument above holds any water) has become the stultifying norm. Here’s hoping that some maverick of abstract music finds a way out for us … some blind savior of the future …

L

Light poles & paint cans. God bless New York, right? So many musicians, in the parks, on the street corners, in the subway stations. So poorly compensated. But this one, a drummer from a little more than a decade ago, clearly knocked me out, because I jotted down some notes in my journal. (You might even remember him; you might have encountered him elsewhere, or a handful of others like him.) He set up around the corner from MOMA, a block up 6th Ave. A portly middle-aged black man with a short grey beard and wearing—the day I recorded—a green shirt. He used thick, sawed-off wooden dowels for sticks. With his left hand he played the equivalents of bass and snare: the bass was the traditional overturned plastic paint can; the snare was a metal grate trapped under his stocking foot. He also played rolls against the edge of the bucket’s bottom. His other sneaker sat on the sidewalk, his socked foot hidden inside an aluminum cannister, with the sides dented, partly so that it would lay flat, partly to have clear surfaces to beat on, like a Jamaican steel drum. He played it inside as well as out; inside, he would produce a roll by fluttering his stick, bouncing it between the sides. There was a smaller grate on the sidewalk that he played with his right hand, and an empty propane cannister, also dented in places, for flourishes. A kit as baroque as any prog rock drummer’s, and the sort of thing that must have inspired avant-jazz drummers like Mark Giuliana when they started putting together their own DIY kits. And that’s not even all: he was set up next to a lightpost, which he would occasionally use as a ride cymbal; whacking his stick against it gave out a clattering ring-tone; the whole pole hummed. And he would just as readily play the sidewalk, the cement of which gave a dry, almost woodblock sound. There were only two things he didn’t play: the shopping cart in which he carried his equipment, and the plastic tub, just out of his reach, the bottom full of crumpled bills, like dried flowers in a wastebasket. I figured that, if I stood close enough, he would try to play me, too.

There are so many. In the parks, on the street corners, in the subway stations. You’d think the city would offer some sort of dedicated housing, just for itinerant percussionists like this. You wouldn’t want to live there, maybe. But you dream about what visiting would sound like.

*

Living. The jazz composer Maria Schneider, in conversation with Ben Ratliff: “Flamenco—it makes living possible. Blues and early jazz—it made living possible.” It makes living possible. Just keep saying that to yourself about music.

M

Metal w/o metal. VH1 once did a special on the most non-metal metal moments: moments, that is, where the cock rock codpiece dropped off, and the most beloved practitioners of the genre reveal themselves as the divas, whiners, and poseurs they really are. I wonder: What about the opposite: where ostensibly non-metal artists—and non-artists—suddenly reveal themselves to be, like, so fucking metal? I’m thinking about a moment from The Enigma, a documentary about the pianist Svatoslav Richter, where he is performing with a Russian singer in some isolated cabin. Watching that singer, my first thought was: Holy shit. That dude is SO fucking metal! But what exactly did I mean by that? What is metal, if it can be identified in moments that have nothing to do with the genre of music it purports to name? The sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris asked this question a number of years ago: can there can be metal without metal? (See “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein,” 5.24.13.) Is Robert Eggers’s new movie The Northman, like, totally fucking metal? (Indeed! (Is it good? An open question!)) Is it, then, more than just a genre, a culture that has grown up around the genre, which the music fed, and feeds, and sustains? Or perhaps just an attitude toward life and living? A full-throttle way of being present in and to the world? A presence that is the opposite of mindfulness? A marrow-sucking that never keeps us at peace? Moments of transport and sublimity, where one is at one and the same time Lovecraft’s blind, idiot god and the puny being cowering under him, threatened with his own annihilation?

*

Morning concerts: a resolution. Whereas, not all music lovers are night owls; and / Whereas, listening to music in the morning, even to jazz or metal, is neither lurid nor indulgent; and / Whereas, the metal breakfast, like the jazz breakfast, should be no more a thing of shame than the 6 a.m. Brandenburg concerto; and / Whereas, lunchtime concerts have found appreciative audiences around the city, and in no way equate to midday cocktails or pints, and are indeed often held in churches, possibly to make the patrons feel better about indulging themselves, and to give churches something to do on weekdays; and / Whereas, currently the earliest concerts seem to be at 11 a.m., and these generally on Sundays, as though they were surrogate services; and / Whereas, people have long used music, usually the radio, thas an alarm for waking, like farmers use roosters, like platoons use bugle-players; and / Whereas, a significant minority of jazz fans are so-called morning people; and / Whereas, many of us take our music as seriously as our coffee, which is to say, very seriously indeed; therefore be it / Resolved, that cities and towns around the country will make an earnest effort to offer concerts in the mornings, particularly on weekdays, between 6 and 9 a.m.; and be it futher / Resolved, that said cities and towns will revise zoning and noise-ordinance laws to accommodate said concerts; and be it finally / Resolved, that said cities and towns will foster a culture of morning musical appreciation and of combating prejudices against enjoying live music, particularly that of certain genres, before noon.

N

Nostalgias. As a child of the eighties—by which I mean my teenage years, those crucial years for the formation of musical taste—I get tired of hearing about the previous generation’s disappointment with post-sixties music. I’ve started to wonder if it’s not misdirected bitterness at that generation’s sense of their own failure. The revolution fizzled; the purported inferiority of the next generation’s music becomes a vehicle for feeling good about one’s own. I’m with Jello here: I loathe sixties nostalgia. I also hate this sort of editorializing periodization, and the vulgar Marxism and flawed isomorphism that assumes periods of conservative ascendancy couldn’t possibly produce anything of cultural value. As though the Zeitgeist was margarine, evenly spread throughout society, and hence either uniformly oppressive or uniformly liberating. Great music has always been around; genius, as somebody once said, is common as dirt. Scratch a little and you’ll find it.

The annoyance goes both ways: I get just as tired hearing my friends talk about how the eighties were the greatest period of rock bar none. I tell them how bad a drug nostalgia is, how they need to expand their horizons, buy some new records, go to a club, drink a glass of milk for fuck’s sake. Then I’ll sit down with some geriatric flower child telling me about how everything after the ‘60s sucked and how the ‘80s were the worst period ever, and I find myself defending the ‘80s tooth and nail—I mean, not hair metal or The Thompson Twins or anything, but you know. Ideally, I shouldn’t have to do either. Ideally, everybody would just shut the fuck up and listen to everybody else’s music.

But here’s a caveat in favor of the geriatric flower child. There’s something to be said for the way a greater or lesser degree of liberation in a society as a whole enables an across-the-board flourishing in the arts. A cultural rift like the one the U.S. saw in the ‘60s allows certain things to percolate up into consciousness that couldn’t otherwise. It has to. I get that. I could point to a lot of things from that era, but for some reason the text that always jumps to mind is Marat/Sade.

It has a transgressively weird quality that feels like a litmus test for an era. Could anyone make a Marat/Sade today? I sort of doubt it. As those weird-city bumper stickers suggest, we might be a bit too self-conscious, a bit too desperate, about our desire to be weird.

I’m still wary of writing off any period, or, for that matter, equating the art of any one period with the dominant culture. There’s always too much variation, too much going on. Anyway, as artists, we can’t sit around wringing our hands because asshole #143 is in the White House, and we can’t be looking around waiting for someone to start the revolution. The revolution starts one word, one note at a time. Grab the typewriter and go, man.

O

Overheard at Overkill. Circa 2014: “I was a hundred pounds lighter the last time I saw Overkill.”

P

Praised by faint blame. Megadeth: worst cover band ever.

*

Purloined clave. The clave, or key, in Latin music can refer to one of two things: a basic rhythm undergirding the music, its backbeat; or the percussion instrument (generally two thick wooden sticks) on which that rhythm is carried. If I remember my conga teachers correctly, different cultures have different claves—the clave in Brazilian music, for example, is not the same as in Puerto Rico. The clave in Puerto Rican music also comes in different times, 6:8 and 4:4. Same basic pattern—5 notes spread 2-3 over two measures—very different feel. When we think clave, though, we usually think of the 4:4 version of a basic salsa tune; anyone familiar with zydeco music, or its popularization in songs like George Thoroughgood’s “Who Do You Love,” knows the rhythm I’m talking about: BAM, BAM, BAM: BAM BAM! (N.B. If you want to hear the 6:8 clave at its awesomest, listen to Jerry Gonzalez’s Obatalá.)

But the Thoroughgood example also calls our attention to just how ubiquitous this rhythm is. It pops up in places where you least expect it, places much further afield than zydeco-infused rock. Once I learned the clave, I’d put on songs I’d been listening to for years, decades even, and it would suddenly occur to me: “Oh, wait, that’s clave rhythm!” A beat might be dropped in one of the two measures, but the rhythm was unmistakable. It’s particularly interesting when the clave appears in songs that are not making an obvious nod to Caribbean or “island” rhythms, the way The Who’s “Magic Bus” does, for example, or the beach-punk vibe of a song like “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow. Primus’s “John the Fisherman,” The Beastie Boys’s “Paul Revere,” NWA’s “Gangsta Gangsta,” Carcass’s “Captive Bolt Pistol,” are all clave-based. From death metal to alt rock to gangsta rap, once you hear that clave, you can’t unhear it. Hence my choice of the word “purloined,” recalling Poe’s great detective story about a letter hidden in plain sight: the clave will often be there, staring us right in the face, but we won’t see it, because the genre in which it appears, so far flung from the clave’s natural environment, has rendered it inaudible.

(A fun experiment: try clapping the clave over songs where it absolutely does not fit!)

Q

Quiet. It’s easy enough to count rock songs that are paeans to the loudness that, at least once upon a time, was a defining trait of the genre. I remember the great violinist and worldwide musical ambassador Yehudi Menuhin noting that a Rolling Stones concert was the first live musical experience that had actually caused him pain. Stones aside, AC/DC’s “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is my go-to loudness-themed anthem. (AC/DC may have more loudness-themed songs than any other band.) The slogan of WSOU, Seton Hall University’s metal-dedicated college station: the loudest rock. There was even a Japanese hair-metal band from the ‘80s called Loudness. Remember them?

That acknowledged, I’d like to put in a word for those rock songs that retain—and perhaps even gain—power when they are played softly. Judas Priest’s “Headin’ Out to the Highway,” for example: the lower the volume, the more power it has. I’m not sure why; maybe something to do with the song’s feeling of restraint, of anticipation. I’m reminded of what Miles once said about Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which he recorded a version of (arranged by Gil Evans) on Sketches of Spain, that anomalously-perfect meshing of Spanish music and jazz: “That melody is so strong that the softer you play it, the stronger it gets, and the stronger you play it, the weaker it gets.”

R

Reciprocity. One day when I was visiting my parents, my mother told me that the Prokofiev piano sonatas I’d burned for her and my father hadn’t left the boombox in the kitchen. They were on heavy rotation, so to speak. I was moved by her comment; I owe so much of my musical education to my parents, and giving some of that back was a small way to repay them. (And it wasn’t easy. They’re picky as hell.) It’s just one example of the circulation of musical gifts that has occupied so many of us throughout our lives, cementing friendships, creating bonds between and among generations, inside and outside families. The Charles Mingus and Steve Bernstein I mailed to Annapolis, and the Radiohead and Minutemen I got in return. The Anthology of Tom Waits, the title written in purple cursive by an old crush, on the flipside of a cassette label where her Japanese students had written the names of the Vanilla Ice songs they’d gifted her. I first heard Domeniconi’s “Koyunbaba” because a woman I went to grad school with who also played classical guitar taped it for me; I think I replied with Barrios; I’m no longer sure. And it’s not always music, is it. When my crazy Russian punk-rock comp student whose father taught physics at the University of Utah and whose punk rock boyfriend was a brick shithouse gave me Never Mind the Bollocks, I gifted her my library first edition of Brighton Rock (as I learned from her, Johnny Rotten’s persona was based on the thug in that book). I think of the mixes my partner made for me when I went abroad, and that my oldest friend made for me while we were all away at college, and even a tape the guitarist from my high school metal band and I sent back and forth, recording bits of songs we were working on; at the end of each recorded but we would say, “Your turn, [name]”—we recorded after, not over. Music to measure and ease and shorten distance. Handholds for long-distance relationships. I have so many cassettes with other people’s handwriting on them, and doodles, too. They’re as good as old letters, maybe better.

It’s not the same today, whatever people say. Old emails saved to a file aren’t letters. Circulation without objects isn’t circulation. The financialization of music is complete; the value of music itself has depreciated.

*

Rondo. I love the complete abandon of early thrash records to what might be called the logic of the riff. Listening to “Voracious Souls” the other day (Death Angel, The Ultraviolence), I thought about the musical form called a rondo. Instead of traditional verse-chorus-bridge structure, “Voracious Souls” uses every chorus as an excuse to strike out into new musical territory: not one but a slew of bridges, each of them landing us back at a verse, and reinvigorating the song’s basic material by doing so. I’m not making a case for conscious modeling here; I think there’s just something perennially attractive about this as a structure. It’s more coherent than the kitchen-sink approach of many a metal instrumental—including the 10-minute album-titler “The Ultraviolence”—which often seem to be agglomerations of awesome riffs that could not find a home elsewhere (see “Burnt-over,” 8.3.11). That excursion-and-return, les-adieux model undergirds allmusic, however we figure home—tonic, main riff, chorus—and the rondo, in both the multiplicity of allowable excursions and the mounting power of each return, makes it transparent. (Listen to pretty much any classical concerto third movement for an example; the third movement of Beethoven’s first piano concerto is running through my head as I write this.) It’s never, as they say, the same river twice. Each excursion finds a changed home; each journey brings the traveler back to shore with new eyes and ears.

S

Slayer, Hitchens, Sade. Slayer is to metal what the Marquis de Sade is to literature: a limit case in transgression (Slayer : metal :: Sade : literature). Other bands have taken this or that element—tempo, lyrical grotesqueness, abrasiveness of timbre—and pushed it to one or another extreme. But in no other band has the overall ethos been one of transgression in its simplest, rawest form. An awfulness that radiates out from the music and seems to infect everything around it. No other band is so at home in their vileness, and so willing to wallow in it. They have no peers, few aspirants, and millions of acolytes. Is there any other band that so convincingly revels in hatred, mayhem, and death? There should be a recognized musical condition. Slayerism: disease as style.

In Christopher Hitchens’s anti-religious screed God Is Not Great there is a wonderful moment where Hitchens describes the power of Mozart’s music. (I’m sympathetic to Hitchens’s argument, don’t get me wrong; I just found the tone of the book to be overly strident, as was true of Hitchens’s later columns for The Nation, really all of his writing after 9-11.) You don’t need God, Hitchens writes, to explain great art; but—with a wink—Mozart does make you wonder. It’s not a moment of doubt, but rather a nod to the seemingly superhuman beauty of Mozart’s music, intended to reinforce our wonder at human creativity. Certainly, many of us have felt this, listening to music, staring at a painting, or reading a great novel: that there are some artists so volcanic in their imaginations, so perfect in their productions, that we are at a loss to explain them without resorting to an argument for divine intervention.

A simple substitution, a revision of Hitchens’s formula: exchange the word “Slayer” for “Mozart,” and “Devil” for “God,” and you have as good an appraisal of the force and power of Slayer’s music as I’ve ever read anywhere. I mean, you don’t need the Devil to explain Slayer … but they do make you wonder! (We might call this a theological argument for the existence of Slayer.) Perhaps Slayer forces us to contemplate a troubling possibilty: that, far from evil being the absence of God, the deity (It)self might be malign. (This pace a comment at an ALA panel on Blood Meridian I heard a number of years ago; you can see the way this book keeps coming back.) In which case, why not call it the Devil and be done with it? Slayer, an argument for the absence of God.

I’ve never found the crackpot theater of black metal particularly affecting, though I like some of the music well enough. I mean, if you need to run around burning churches and shooting your fellow band members to make me hear the darkness in your music, then your music probably sucks. I should be able to hear those churches burning in your music. Really, if your music isn’t making going to church vestigial, try again. Try harder.

*

Subdiculous. If the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step, as Napoleon or someone close to him or maybe just someone somewhat like him famously said, then the reverse must also be true; and the way we imagine art will determine which step we believe to be higher, i.e., which direction goes against the force of gravity. Unless, that is, we imagine Napoleon’s step—surely a little step; he was a little man—to be along even pavement, perhaps without even a crack in it, let alone the abyss Armstrong spanned, bouncing along the lunar surface, holding the Earth between his thumb and forefinger, humans at last able to put our puny existence in something like a true perspective.

We’re intended—I think—to imagine a step down: the embarrassing failure when what is meant to be sublime falls short; the rocket, once proudly on course, drops flaccidly back to Earth; the moon remains intact, the stars vestal virgins. Things great are balanced precariously on their greatness; their pedestals come to a point; there are no wires; the equinox happens only two days a year; one easy push, and all the apparent grandeur disappears. Time can do this, of course; Time is merciless with Art. Falling short of the sublime, a work of art reveals itself as ostentatious, desperate to impress, and the experience of aesthetic rapture is deflated. The sublime is aloof to its audience; it does not ask for our rapture; it is self-sufficient; appreciation is unnecessary. The sublime, what makes us feel tiny, ephemeral, a speck in the cosmos, against the vastness and longevity of the thing contemplated; the ridiculous, what we belittle, what we pity, what we annihilate with our derisive laughter.

I wonder if we might hang Napoleon, or at least his idea, by the boots. The point, after all, is that these two aesthetic responses are really more kindred than they appear. If we consider, not direction, a tendency to fall from a higher to a lower state, but rather a matter of simple proximity, why can’t the circuit can run both ways, oscillate, alternate, one always on the point of shading into the other? Instead of a step, why not a switch, or a coin, or a mirror? (Isn’t the figure of Napoleon himself a good indication? Was he thinking of himself when he said this? Was Marx, when tragedy became farce? Can we run Marx’s teleological class-struggle engine in reverse? Has history already done so?) An experience that provokes laughter suddenly takes on an impressive clarity: our laughter becomes giddy, we open ourselves, and suddenly we are fully present to the aesthetic experience. Or something happens in the sublime experience that suddenly pushes us away, and make us see the representation from the outside, as in a miniature diorama, and we even see ourselves, tiny, staring at the diorama, through the wrong end of the telescope.

Can a failure to be ridiculous turn sublime? Or perhaps an exceedingly successful ridiculous? (Think of Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” routine in Singin’ in the Rain.)

We have all had these experiences, where music we love—as an insider—appears ridiculous to an outsider—or to ourselves, trying to re-engage with an aesthetic experience that had so impressed us, so moved us when we were younger. What was it, about the time, the crowd we hung with, the people we were in love with, that made it seem so? And then we can’t help but feel sorry for ourselves as we are now, resistant, unable to succumb. All the pleasure is inside; the ones outside are always unhappy, desperate. Outside is a deflated, ironized, dead world. A fallen, a disenchanted world. A moonscape.

The step is a matter of perspective. As in outer space, there is no privileged position from which one can actually tell up from down. Like an Escher engraving, the steps go in both directions. Art is always a gesture toward ridicule redeemed by faith. Surprise matters, too. The shock of the new. Again, time. We strive to lose the double consciousness of the knowing listener. (I was trying to get at something of this with my comments on a performance by Exhumed; see “Wintry Mix,” 3.20.15. And clearly, I still am.)

*

Sweat lodge. Remember The Stone? Son of Tonic. Remember Tonic? Son of The Knitting Factory. Remember the Knit? (Wait. I think it’s still there.) But about The Stone. I always admired its asceticism: devotion in brick and mortar. Like bullfights before stadiums, where the contest was carried on inside a circle of onlookers that shifted, expanded or contracted according to the movements of the spectacle it purported to contain. The Stone always felt shaped in this way by the music, by the people gathered to listen. You’ll hear other stories about how it got its name, but it was really to give it the illusion of some fixed existence beyond the essence of the music. (See “Master/class,” 11.23.12.)

The problem with a space so dedicated to listening was that they did things like turn off the AC when the music started, so that the sound of the fan wouldn’t interfere. By the end of a set—particularly when the place was full—you felt like you’d been abandoned in a container truck. Fanning yourself didn’t help much—and be careful not to crinkle your magazine when you do! Wiping yourself with your sleeve only made things worse; your shirt was soaked; you could feel the sweat trickled down your spine. You felt bad for the person who was going to take your chair for the next set; you should have brought a towel, like for an exercise bike at the gym. One night, I could clearly see the beads of sweat reflected on the arms and face of a guy leaning against the wall, who was no doubt leaving an enormous stain on the photo of Henry Grimes. (It was a Matthew Shipp set, in case that matters; he was toying with standards: “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Take the A Train,” etc.) Needless to say there weren’t any windows.

Indeed, the great trombonist Ray Anderson once called The Stone a sweat lodge, and it was considerably better the night I saw him there than some others I experienced. The term is really perfect for the sort of vision-questy feeling so many of us (adherents) have for this music. And Anderson did comment, appropriately enough, about all of us being martyrs for the music, about achieving transcendence through purification. He was playing with Bob Stewart (tuba) that night, the so-called Heavy Metal Duo. How could I let the heat hold me back?

Some years later, I saw Stewart again in the basement of the Cornelia Street Café (R.I.P., another great music space gone), and was he ever sweating—you’ve never seen a musician sweat till you’ve seen a tuba player playing New Orleans-style jazz in a hot NYC club in July. During the set, a woman threw her scarf to him to wipe the perspiration off his face. Like it was a bouquet. Stewart refused to wipe his face with it. It was all quite lovely—the scarf, the gesture, his demurring. (She told him it could be washed; he said something to the effect that they all say that.) Anyway, in the break he got a napkin from the bar instead, and he hung it on an unused music stand, right where he’d hung the scarf during the remainder of the previous set.

Just try seeing something like that at the Blue Note, or even the Vanguard. Try seeing it in the new New York. The Stone has since moved operations to the Glass Box theater at the New School, a beautiful little space, with a wall of windows looking out on 13th Street. Climate-controlled. Outside and around it, the ghosts of so many clubs. You can’t help but feel their presence when you walk around the Village. (See “Torch Songs for LES,” 12.7.12.)

T

Tabano. Every Coltrane should have his Dolphy. Consider those Vanguard recordings from 1961: whenever Coltrane’s playing gets lackluster, Dolphy’s on him like a horsefly. In one standout moment, Dolphy ends his solo with a series of cartwheeling trills on the bass clarinet—and then Coltrane enters on the soprano, trilling for what must be a good half-minute, all over the register, until Dolphy is absolutely annihilated. The imprint of Dolphy’s idea is still there, though, the raw material for Coltrane to worry.

You could call it cutting or one-upmanship, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels more like two explorers taking turns goading each other up a mountain they’d never dare scale alone.

*

Todo tiene su final. When most people think of salsa they think of uptempo, brash, joyous dance music. This is not wrong per se, but it is limiting and somewhat patronizing, and suggestive of a legacy of racism and colonialism. Salsa is “fun” music; island people are perennially happy; they still live in the Edenic gardens Columbus described half a millennium ago; they know not the Germanic depths of tragedy, the heights of the sublime, etc.

And yet, salsa—itself a contested name—was music created by Puerto Rican immigrants during times of great hardship. If some of the upbeat joy of the music was meant as a way to escape, or, perhaps better, transmute that hardship, then something of the pain must be deeply inscribed in the music; the heights of its pleasure may simply be the negative impression of the pain it attempts to exorcise. As much as the blues, it seems to be a public working-out of a culture’s pain and angst. Wiggling your hips is not a bad way to transcend pain, and happily there’s a lot of salsa about wiggling your hips. There is also, in good pop fashion, a lot of broken hearts and sentiment. I always find myself returning to the quote from “Sonny’s Blues,” when Sonny looks out the window at a woman joyously singing at a revival meeting and tells his brother that it’s “disgusting” to think how much she must have suffered to be able to sing that way. I think, too, of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, where the Hollywood director of popular comedies, in an effort to make a “meaningful” film, goes undercover as a hobo, winds up in prison … and eventually comes to realize the power of comedy to transcend pain, in this case of the Great Depression. Comedy is simply another form of catharsis, laughter no less dignified than tears. There is, in fact, something more deeply human about it: rather than kowtow to Fate and the gods, we disarm them, belittle them.

That tragedy is a more elevated genre than comedy; that, in order to make salsa “serious” music, I have to reveal some hint of tragedy about it; that this requires me, the ersatz (at best avocational) music critic, to dignify it: these are longstanding prejudices, pitfalls to be avoided. So when I say that there’s a fair amount of salsa about political oppression, about the trials of being an immigrant, and about death, I don’t want to be misunderstood as somehow arguing this grants the genre a dignity it otherwise lacks. Sometimes, these themes are addressed with a sneering humor meant to balk at their power. Sometimes, what comes through is an eerie fatalism that elements of salsa as a form seem to emphasize.

Consider the classic Willie Colón record Lo mato. It appeared at a time when, as Will Hermes reminds us, “Salsa wanted to travel beyond the barrio—to be seen, and to see itself, as more than just a ghetto dancehall soundtrack. It was a virtuoso music with deep history and international pedigree; it wanted respect” (24)—this with regard to Larry Harlow’s Hommy, a salsa remake of Tommy that premiered at Carnegie Hall the same year as Lo mato. Colón was salsa’s bad boy, whose album titles and covers (e.g., his debut El Malo; Cosa Nuestra, where Colón is pictured “holding his trombone like a tommy gun” (Hermes 35); on the cover of Lo mato it’s an actual pistol he holds to an old man’s head—an image, perhaps, of the assassination of the Cruz-Puente era?) figure him as el barrio’s capo de tutti capi. After Hector Lavoe’s death, in ‘77 Colón would team up with Ruben Blades, whose socially-conscious lyrics were rooted in Nueva Cancion, and he himself produce records that seemed to scream for respect and artistic recognition (Hermes: “It was not usual ‘Baile!’ business” (223)).

But—much as I love Blades, with and without Colón—one hardly needs so-called symphonic salsa to hear the so-called Germanic darkness, tragedy and fatalism undergirding Colón’s phenomenal work with Lavoe on Lo mato. The album is about the harsh realities of el barrio, about toughs and street crime, machismo and bravado and stolen lovers, grim, sassy, and sometimes very funny (e.g., “Lola, please advise your boyfriend that, while he may have a machete … I have a machine gun.”). For me, though, “El dia de suerte” is the standout track for demonstrating how this upbeat dance music can tilt into something darker. The story of a hard-luck case who can’t seem to give up hope, its message is rendered all the more persistent both by the song’s stepladder melody and by its cycling over and over through the chorus: “Pronto llegará/ El día de mi suerte/ Se que antes de mi muerte/Seguro que my suerte cambiará” (Soon my lucky day will come; I’m sure that, before I die, my luck is going to change”) The chorus opens the song, and punctuates the six verses used to tell our hero’s life. Is this grit and perseverence, or just plain delusion? But then this is the reality of el barrio: if you don’t think things are going to get better, no matter how slim your chances—if you stop fighting—you won’t survive. It’s the chorus—the voice of the community—that reminds him of this, that bucks him up. But our hero remains uncertain; while Lavoe leads into two choruses with affirmation (e.g., “Y ya lo verá”: you’ll see), four times he asks the question that lingers over the chorus’s certainty: “Pero cuándo será?” (But when?) Even Lavoe’s teletype-style delivery suggests the broader, implacable engine of a malign fate that “betrays” him, over and over and over. This tension between hope and despair, will and fatalism, is inscribed in the form of salsa itself: the trading between chorus and sonero, chorós and tragic hero (though their roles in classical tragedy are inverted), community and striving individual trying to make it in America. Taken together with songs like “Todo tiene su final” and “Calle luna calle sol,” the tension rises above el barrio itself to become a broader statement of the human predicament, something closer to Ruben Dario’s great poem “El fatalismo.” (I know, I’m not supposed to say shit is universal anymore. But there it is.) No surprise that “Suerte” ends without resolving, the horns cut off in mid-phrase; the record absolutely needs the seven-minute “Junio ‘73” descarga at the end to bring about true catharsis.

U

Unity. One summer day in Central Park I found myself staring at a particularly beautiful tree, perhaps forty feet tall; I was just far enough away from it to be able to take it in in one view, though close enough for it to still appear majestic. I thought about one of Aristotle’s requirements for drama: the action should not last longer than a day. I wondered what was the musical equivalent to this. A tree, a tragedy, a symphony, artworks whose aesthetic pleasure results in part from an ability to consider them in the comprehensible grandeur of their totality. (NB: I misremembered unity of time as being about the spectator’s attention, not the diegesis. This is my comeuppance for artfully minimizing drama over the years so’s to have more time to teach fiction and poetry. (Sometimes I teach film instead.) I clearly need to go back to the Poetics;I could have sworn there was something in there about audience. Anyway, my apologies to Aristotle.)

V

Valentine. Chuck Billy: “You either left your old lady at home, or you drug her out to a metal show, right?” (Testament show at B.B. King’s, Valentine’s Day, 2013.) Helldriver: “Guilty as charged. I left my old lady at home. After the show, I headed up to the Broadway Dive at 101st Street and drank cocktails with a record producer while folks took turns singing songs about heartbreak from that little balcony alcove over the bar. I can’t remember where I slept; probably Metro North.”

W

Wrong guy. Think about all those records you listened to for years and years before you realized you were listening to the wrong musician. For me, it was Lenny White on those early ‘70s Al DiMeola and Return to Forever records, like Land of the Midnight Sun and Romantic Warrior. As a guitarist—as a teen—I couldn’t help but gravitate toward DiMeola’s shameless exuberance. (Okay: I still do.) Even when the jazz drummer who lived down the hall from me in college pointed out his favorite fill on “Elegant Gypsy,” I could sympathize with his passion, but I couldn’t pull my ear away from DiMeola long enough to appreciate the glittering rails White was laying down underneath him. Maybe it was the years post-college I spent listening to Max Roach and “Philly” Joe Jones, Lewis Nash and Jeff Watts, and Tony Williams, Tony Williams above all, that would make White so startlingly present to me when I put those records on again later in life. The malleability of the ear, the way what we hear changes over the course of years, as the matrix of our taste and our musical experiences shift, causes us to hear even the most familiar music differently. I’ve written about that a lot on this blog. Wisdom, perhaps: keep nostalgia and novelty in balance; use the one as a check on the other; temper the mad dash for the new with cyclical return to the old. Remember, again: it’s never the same river.

X, Y, Z

You. Thought I was going to say something else snide about Metallica. C’est fini. Ils sont morts.

 

Archaeology of Noise

This essay about listening to Bushwick, written back in 2004-5, was originally supposed to see light through a grad school friend’s small press, Elik, now defunct. More than a decade later, a colleague turned me on to R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977). I must have known the word from somewhere—it appears in the first sentences of the essay—but I have no recollection where. Certainly I had no idea in ‘04 that sound studies was an established field. Anyway, I fell hard for Schafer. The Soundscape is a witty, angry, erudite, and above all beautifully-written book; it reminded me of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death in perfectly wedding jeremiadic fervor and sardonic humor (e.g., jets are “the wounds of a crippled imagination made audible”; Muzak could only be produced in the U.S.A., “with its highly idealistic Constitution and the cruddy realities of its modern life styles”; in the factory towns of Victorian England, “workmen who experience the crucifixion of human culture then sang Messiah at Christmas in thousand-voice choirs”; or this: “The great high-rise towers of the world stand on tiptoes, looking out across the fires of the city”). But Schafer doesn’t just decry our cacophonous, tone-deaf society; his is a quixotic mission to heal society through a heightened awareness (and consequent reformation) of sound. As he explains in his introduction, The Soundscape “is about sounds that matter. In order to reveal them it may be necessary to rage against those which don’t” (12).

In posting this essay, my original idea was to completely re-do the introduction to take into account some of the theory, terminology, and analytical tools of Schafer’s foundational text, as well as a few other soundworks classic and contemporary: Jacques Attali’s Noise, published the same year as The Soundscape; recent work by Lawrence Kramer, David Rothenberg, and Anahid Kassabian. But as with the (much more recent) post about Scarlatti (“Domenico in the Heart,” 3.28.21), it made more sense to do a relatively gentle edit of the original, and use ideas from the essay as springboards for annotations that draw connections with these other texts. It might help to read keeping a wide margin in mind. (One difference with the Scarlatti: since the essay intersects multiple times with certain key ideas, several of the letters connecting passages to notes appear more than once.) In the above I am following the advice of an old writing teacher, who once said something to the effect that whatever avatar was guiding me at the time a work was completed should be respected. Put differently: I can’t go back and inhabit the self that produced this essay. In posting it, I am thus not only resurrecting Bushwick as it was at that time (2002-4), but also this younger self. Even though I find some of the theorizing about cities, art, and social class exasperating, it seemed only fair to let that self—the self who took the trouble to listen closely and put all these observations and thoughts in writing—have its say.

The essay saw a number of different titles. I think “Bushwick” was in the original; then it became “Sonic Thumbprint,” and then “Archaeology of Noise.” The final one doesn’t encompass everything the essay is trying to do, but it will have to be good enough. Two other notes: (1) I have posted the essay on both of the blog’s pages—Material/Music and The Charnel House. It is thematically at home in either space, and given its length, it deserves to bestride the Pit like the colossus it is. (2) As you read, please remember that the NOW of the essay is 2002-4, the period I lived in Bushwick, NOT2021-2!

*****

Sound buildings and sound bridges and sound streets and sound avenues. Sound parks and sound rivers and sound people people people. A city is a soundscape.A A place in soundspace. Palpable as brick and mortar, girder and rivet, asphalt, grass, stone. Stands in the same relation to you as. A city: a sonic cluster, a noise-clusterfuck. Space shapes sound, sound shapes space. Spaceshapes sound. A city. Sounds like this. Ten million souls breathing together. The sound of our blood. Wait. Leave the city. Wait for the wind to die down. Hold your breath. Now, multiply that by ten million. An artery wider than the Hudson. Then, a hurricane-breath …. This, lost beneath the clangor of the industrial and communications novae, the white-noise residue of our Big Bang ….O

As a child of the suburbs, coming into the city for a day used to exhaust me. It had nothing to do with the exertion of walking up and down the steps to the train and up and down city blocks. It was the noise. Just the noise.

Now my partner and I live in the city. In Brooklyn. To be exact—it behooves us to be exact—we live in Bushwick, a working-class Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn, with pockets of Dominicans and Mexicans, who replaced the Poles and Italians, who settled across the border in Ridgewood, Queens. The city: an archipelago held together cat’s-cradle by bridges and tunnels, each neighborhood insulated from the next—by cultural and linguistic barriers, boundaries more real and better-drawn than any official geography—and within itself, stratified according to the rhythms of settlement of different ethnicities.

To be exact: we live at 239 Stanhope Street, two blocks south of Wyckoff hospital, a few blocks from the place where the M train (elevated) crosses the L train (subway), four blocks from Queens, east of Williamsburg, north of Bed-Stuy. We live on the righthand side of the second floor of a three-floor walk-up, above a beauty parlor which used to be a salsa dance studio, in what is commonly referred to as a floor-through, meaning the apartment runs the depth of the building, from front (street, parked cars, facing buildings) to back (yard, shrubs, vacant lot, gutted and boarded-up buildings with their backs to ours, clotheslines, fire escapes).

We moved to Bushwick because we couldn’t afford the silence that the city bottles like water: the high rise, the $350-fine-for-honking sign, the zoning and traffic laws, the trees, thick walls and plate-glass windows—the insulation that is money, shredded and stuffed in your walls and ears, so you can hear your own blood-sound, not everyone else’s. We moved to Bushwick because we could afford the floor-through, dishwasher, exposed brick, hardwood floors, new bathroom—all the accoutrements of suburbohemian whiteness used to lure members of our class and our color into the dark, cacophonous hearts of the eastern boroughs.

We made the back room the bedroom, partly for security (the fire escape), partly for the noise. And though we haven’t been burgaled, we were never able to stop the noise from coming in, always uninvited, always unannounced. There wasn’t much we could do to fight it. And we didn’t fight it, not really. We got used to it. Eventually, we stopped listening.

But then one day I started listening again, to this residue, this excess, these misplaced sounds they call noise pollution. Sound as waste; sound misplaced by the strange proximity the city affords between strangers crushed into adjacent stalls, or by a volume that carries it far beyond its intended audience. Useless sound. Unwanted sound.B

And yet, whole civilizations have been described by the contents of their wastebaskets.C

If working-class neighborhoods carry the same unfair burden of noise pollution as they do pollution of other kinds, then we should make something of these riches, what city artists have always done: scavenge to create.

Every building, every block, every neighborhood—every space in this city, in all cities, and indeed every space, has a unique sonic identity, a sort of thumbprint, composed of all the audible sounds produced there over a given period of time. Some of these sounds are shared with the rest of the streets and buildings and neighborhoods, and as such are representative of the city as a whole, and perhaps cities in the abstract: a sonic fractal. Other sounds, however, are like those rare beasts found only in island ecosystems, appearing only in my building, or on my block, or in my barrio (239 Stanhope Street, 2R, Bushwick, Brooklyn). Like strange evolutionary puzzles, these purely indigenous sounds tell us the most about a place; they are the core of its identity, since they distinguish it from all other places within the city, and from all other cities … although they, too, may speak something of this city, of my city, and of all cities.D

Sounds form one cross-section of our perception, and we can use that cross-section to study the organism as a whole. That said, because New York is (like all cities) a place of wells and burrows—because you can always hear more than you can see—the sounds of a city actually reveal more than its sights. Not that we should entirely ignore the visual. Rather, we will relegate it to the same position that sound usually occupies with respect to sight. Sight mitigates our impression of the city, forcing us to shut out its voice; and it’s the voice that allows us to glimpse vistas the sights of the city hide: the palimpsests of noises mechanical and human, of waves upon waves of migration, of multiple pasts enfolded one inside another; and of the way our desires, and the whole erotic substructure built of the millions of desires inhabiting millions of contiguous cells, coalesce into a city of dreams.

The Front WindowE

We live above a commercial space whose awning defends us from the immediate sidewalk. Our building has no stoop; this might have been a conscious decision on the part of the Polish realty company that gut-renovated the building. A stoop invites a neighborhood to transact its business there. A building with a stoop wears its character in its stoop-sitters. The absence of a stoop, together with the presence of the awning, means that there is nothing to see outside our front window.* But there is plenty to hear.

The sounds that enter through our front window are the sounds of the city streets and the life on those streets. In the early morning, if we’re up and around our office, the hiss of the street cleaner, the engine, brake, and hydraulics of the garbage truck (splintering wood, crumpling plastic), and the voices of the sanitation workers, and of our neighbors as the neighborhood prods itself awake.

These, the first sounds of the day, are the sounds that signify “city,” the myth of the city, to our national consciousness. What can I tell you about these city-myth sounds that you don’t know already—you, who once lived in a city, maybe after graduating college, before starting a family; you who see cities in movies, whose teenage sons and daughters ape the projects, whose suburbs are more and more penetrated by the fashions and features of city life? You, too, suffer with car alarms. You, too, have the neighbor with the lemon whose engine turns over and over like it has the croup. You have this neighbor, and the neighbor who plays his stereo too loud, and maybe you or your neighbor has a teenage son with access to the car keys, the car stereo, Nas, Tupac. These are your sounds, too. Ours are just louder, and more intimate.

Oh, the shame of cities, if they were to be unmasked as nothing more than overgrown suburbs, like teenagers who never left their parents’ basements! If all the exoticism that drew small-towners to their bright lights were revealed to be only a difference in degree! Bigger! Taller! Faster! Is that all that makes a city a city? Or does any organism induced to grow, and to grow, and to grow, change constitutionally, radically? Do new species arise from combination, like new particles forced into existence by the speed and intensity of their parents’ collisions? Then the city would be more than the sum of its recognizable sounds, as the proximity of sound to sound would create a genuinely new organism which a catalogue of city-myth sounds could only hint at. Though writing compels me to catalogue sounds as if they happened in series, your task, reader, is to square them, so that they appear, as they do to my consciousness, as a single, dissonant chord.F

*

When it’s summer, or late spring, or early fall, or a mild day in late fall—or a cold day in late spring with a few moments of sunshine in the late afternoon—the ice cream trucks begin their relentless assault. They start at noon, or just after noon, and can carry on, wave after wave, until ten, sometimes eleven at night. Nothing else in the neighborhood, not car alarms, not firecrackers, not domestic disputes carried out on stoops, can compare to their outrageous violence against peace and sanity. They are—they must be—the fiendish invention of a totalitarian mind. Their numbers are beyond reckoning; they must have hives hidden across the city; I have dreamed of torching these nests, finding their queen. Our neighbor simply call them the enemy. On hot nights she is tempted; she takes a soldier’s pride in resisting.

They lure their prey with … songs: “The Entertainer,” “Pop Goes the Weasel” (which ends with a gratuitous and blood-chilling “Hello!”), and “It’s a Grand Old Flag.” The songs all have the same flutey, Jack-in-the-box timbre, and this together with the slow revolution of the trucks’ wheels suggest the steady turning of a crank by a giant, invisible, malevolent child. At the height of summer, when the trucks swarm like gnats, just as one sinister, inane, interminable song begins to doppler off toward Knickerbocker Avenue, another will be just beginning at the top of the street. And as one truck is replaced by the next, one song rises in pitch while the other falls, one melody becomes entangled in the next: an ice-cream avant-garde.

I’ve heard trucks drive by with loudspeakers booming for this or that local politico, and I’ve heard the police van loudspeaker asking residents to turn over any information anyone might have connected with the shooting at S&M Children’s Wear (real name, actual store). The difference is that the ice cream trucks stop. We have a fire hydrant in front of our building; the drivers pull over there. The loudspeakers are just above the level of the awning, just below the level of our windows. In the few seconds between melody loops, I hear the freezer motors pumping hot air into the hot evening.

I’ve often wondered how the drivers bear it, if they’re all lobotomized, drooling, or just deaf, trapped all day in these rolling sweatshops, test subjects of top-secret psy-ops against working-class communities. For the disparity between rich and poor neighborhoods can be summed up this way: a block or so after passing an ice cream truck on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I realized the loudspeaker was turned off. Then one day last fall I was walking home in a thunderstorm, and an ice-cream truck passed me going in the opposite direction. It was going much faster than its normal predatory speed, its Slow! Children speed. And instead of ice-cream music, there was salsa blaring inside the truck. (Why didn’t he play thatover the speakers?) And the driver—this is the most important thing—the driver had one arm extended, as to an imaginary band, and was singing along with the music at the top of his lungs. He was no longer an ice-cream vendor, he was Ismael Rivera, he was Hector Lavoe. I thought he must welcome the rain the way I used to when I lifeguarded at my local pool. When it stormed, we would don garbage bags and slide down the places where the surrounding hills had turned into sluices.

When evening falls in Bushwick, car alarms begin to compete with the ice cream trucks for sonic realty. This is another wholly novel combination, a rich cacophony of which the city, and only the city, is capable; a sonic landscape that appears most fully in the evenings, like craters on the moon do on a clear night. The car alarms go off for one of two reasons (neither, needless to say, having anything to do with theft): (1) the kids who play football in the street hit one of the cars; or (2) somebody cruises by with the stereo cranked. The second is the more common; I imagine the drivers as bombardiers, alarm after alarm exploding to life behind them as one shrieking target after another goes up. Three, four, sometimes five in a block; our windows rattle and buzz, boom, boom, boom, but our building stays standing. And then one after another the alarms turn off, though never in the same order they were tripped. I would call it the only real test of a car stereo … except that most of the alarms are so sensitive I could trip them by farting ten feet away. I’ve learned half the hit songs of the past two years listening to Hot 97 doppler down my block. Melodically, there isn’t much difference between 50 Cent and, say, “Pop Goes the Weasel”; and I can already imagine a day when he replaces “It’s a Grand Old Flag” on those loudspeakers. But it’s the bass that trips alarms and rattles windows, that finds the frequency at which the neighborhood vibrates, revealing its armature to us bystanders—hence, perhaps, that fleeting sense of vulnerability that always accompanies their passing.G

There’s also a hospital two blocks north, so once or twice a night an ambulance, and sometimes a fire truck, goes gangbusters down our street, siren on, horn blaring. And some nights the traffic gets backed up all the way to Irving, because the ice cream truck hasn’t quite pulled over far enough for the asshole in his SUV to get around it. Or maybe a gypsy-cab driver has arrived to take someone to the airport; they never pull over far enough, and they never get out of their sedans; they’ll lay on their horns for ten or fifteen seconds at a stretch, like their car has been front-ended. And then, of course, an ambulance will arrive. So you have the gypsy-cab driver’s horn and the SUV’s horn and the horns of all the traffic backed up to Irving, and then the ambulance’s siren and the fire truck’s siren; and when someone finally moves, here come the ice-cream trucks, and Hot 97 tripping alarm after alarm after alarm …. Good night, good night!

And the people? They’re here; they never stopped talking. They’re the ones sitting behind the wheels, laying on their horns, setting off alarms. Why shouldn’t they cruise the streets, their bodies pressed together inside the Church of General Motors, heads bobbing? Why should anyone have peace and quiet when they don’t? Later, they’ll stay on their stoops until two or three in the morning, shouting, laughing, arguing, as if they feared silence were a void that might swallow them. Only cities produce such voids, such silences that the noise rushes to fill—not actual but epistemological silences. Only in cities, among millions, could people fear silence as an emptiness, their own blood-sound masked from them, masked so long that it’s forgotten; and hence their understanding of themselves as beings apart from the great puling, pulsing mass of the city, is forgotten, too. Or maybe the opposite is true: a horror at their own blood-sound, at recognizing their separation from and powerlessness in the face of the city. A bit of krill in the maw of a behemoth—and so they shout, shout not to challenge but to fill, or at least mask, that silence, that gap—to become one with the beast of the city that threatens to swallow them.H

And so they shout, Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, fuck you, nigga, fuck you nigga, the rest in Spanish. Even in the quietest moments they speak to one another as if they needed to be heard over the roar of a passing train. Broken bottles, firecrackers, radios, motorized scooters; the couples fight ruthlessly on, the teenagers giggle and shout, “Ah, shit!” and sometimes in the early early morning there is an episode of drunken bravado among young men. They’ll be up again with the birds,I at least some of them will, yelling up at the windows across the street (because only UPS and the Jehovah’s Witnesses use the buzzers), waiting for someone to come and lean over the sill (ours seems to be one of the few buildings with screens) so that they can carry on a conversation between two or three stories. I’ve seen people converse between the same story of adjacent buildings, and even across the street, between windows of facing buildings. We have our neighborhood crier, too; just the other day, he shouted, “Wake up wake up wake up!” beneath a nearby window, like he was calling to his lover to elope. Then he called out, sarcastically, “I said, Good morning!” (And then a child’s voice echoed his: “Wake up wake up wake up!”)

Sometimes I feel like the people of my neighborhood are on the point of being evicted from their own voices by the noise. And yet, the neighborhood lives in their voices. And not just in the profanity and bravado. Over the last thirty years, but particularly since the crack boom of Reagan’s ‘80s, contemporary culture has succeeded in doing to the “inner city” what high-school English has done to poor Jonathan Edwards. The children of the boroughs are left to hang over the flaming pit of God’s wrath, like Edwards’ sinner-spiders. Forgotten is the youthful Edwards’ fascination with spiders and spider-webs as evidence of a meticulous and beautiful divinity, or his desire for the “sweetness” of a quasi-erotic union with Christ. So little of the sweetness of the “inner city” finds a place in our national mythology anymore. Here are two exceptions: the squeals of children running through the open hydrants in the middle of July, the jet of water striking the cars across the street (without the awning, we might see an older boy straddling the hydrant, a two-foot crescent wrench held in his hands); and the shouts of teenagers playing football in the early evening, partly because the one miserable park in our neighborhood has been closed for more than a year, partly because they would play nowhere else. Maybe because these are the sounds of poor neighborhoods historically and citywide, they have translated to our consciousness through the movie screen. But there is so much more. In the fairy-tale quality of the people conversing between buildings, as if they lived in shoes; in the voice of the ice-cream-vendor-cum-Hector Lavoe barreling down Knickerbocker in a thunderstorm; in the voice of the female worshipper in the Pentecostal church belting our her raucous love for Jesus;† in the clack of the dominos striking a folding table, and the swears of the old men (and women) gathered around with their berets and cigars, their canes leaning up against the metal fence around the trash cans and the grandkids’ toys too big to fit in the apartment. One of our neighbors has a little dog named Princess (I’ve never seen her, but only little dogs are given such names), and every time the dog goes yap yap yapping down the street, their little girl follows it, yelling, “Princess! Princess!” like she’s looking for an enchanted castle. She’s sure she has seen it, here, in this neighborhood. And every night, around ten-thirty or eleven, sure as church bells, somebody drives by with a car horn that plays the first half of the melody of “La cucaracha.” I imagine La cucaracha is in love with a girl who lives somewhere on our street, and she leans out her window at night waiting for him to give a signal, like a queen waiting for those knights of old to lance her garland. Listening to all this, I sometimes get the sense that the world ends and begins at the beginning and end of our street.

I know that Princess is little enough to be eaten by the rats I hear scampering around inside the garbage cans, and that La cucaracha may be fingering a gun. I know that the kids playing football are some of the same ones who tear each other apart on the stoops in the middle of the night, or who press our buzzer five, six times (it makes a high, loud, tickling noise, like a robot mariachi), who we can hear laughing when we press the LISTEN button. I know that when I stop looking, I’m more prone to fantasize, and that I’m in danger of romanticizing poverty with all my castles and garlands. But at least my ear does not immediately reject our street’s often grim exterior the way my eye does. Of the two organs, it’s the more naïve, the more playful. It’s the one most adept at taking an ell from an inch, as Henry James once said. And who’s to say my fantasies don’t speak another truth about this neighborhood, about its hopes and fears and disillusionments and love of life, a truth not accessible to my eyes?

The Back Window

New York City is an amalgam of discrete worlds whose edges touch but whose inhabitants seldom range beyond them. Each world disbelieves in the adjacent ones. I remember feeling this, without really understanding it, many years ago, standing at 110th Street and looking north into Harlem. The people there—the ones sitting on their stoops and crossing streets and driving cars—seemed like denizens of another world, and I couldn’t help but think of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, where Martian and Earthling wave their hands through the place where the other’s body should be, and each declares the other the ghost. But worlds come in different shapes and sizes, and not all the boundary lines are evident, or simple, or permanent, or tangible. I walk home along my street every night, but would not walk home on Stockholm, one block over. Knickerbocker is not the same place in the daytime, with hundreds of families bovining between dollar stores and the traffic bumper to bumper, as it is at night, when the grates are all down, the trash rolls around like tumbleweeds, and the infrequent cars all seem to have been sent on unfriendly missions. And of course I can walk through Harlem and not be in Harlem, or of Harlem. New Yorkers carry their worlds around with them, like I do now, in Bushwick.

But for New Yorkers who have their roots in the city, these boundaries are reinforced by a strong sense of territoriality. Once on a shuttle bus (for subway repairs) I heard three teenagers from the neighborhood talking about how they couldn’t take the subway to Queens because they’d get lost. New Yorkers are like dogs chained up in backyards, intimating that there is a world beyond the fence because of the other dogs they can hear barking, but reconciled to the leash and the fence as facts of their existence. What lies beyond the fence exists only as blurts of noise.J

If the structure of the city is predicated upon these intimate yet eternally sundered worlds, then it’s little wonder that the back and front of my building seem to occupy radically different coordinates in space-time, so that the sounds I hear at the front of the building are wholly distinct from the ones I hear at the back. If the front window is the tympanum for everything mechanical and human that invades our personal space (the boundaries of which, in cities, are difficult to define)—ice cream truck, car alarm and car horn, fire truck and ambulance, loud music, loud conversation, argument, sport—the back window hears none of this. Instead, the back window seems to open out on some weird, nostalgic space, as if by crossing the floorthrough we were to step back decades in time; as if the city itself were just a façade banged up over a rural/small-town past which, but for constant vigilance, always threatens to irrupt back into the industrial landscape. This is all the more remarkable for the general lack of vegetation: our backyard is a bleak little concrete lot to which we do not have access; beyond the fence and the telephone poles are the buildings with their backs to ours, like duellists: one half-erected, one boarded up, one occupied. The “yard” behind the unfinished building is a mound of rubble and trash that couldn’t squirt out a blade of grass to save its life. The adjacent yards, with their few scraggly bushes and chain-link fences, are hardly better. But for all their ugliness, the buildings do mute the front-window sounds we would receive from Stockholm. Hidden from the streets, cut off from the city proper, these backyards become their own worlds, with their own narratives and their own sonic textures. And this makes sense, because generally we are by the back window late at night, when the things we barely hear in the daytime find their voice, speak out loud.K These are the sounds of the city’s dreams, when it remembers and reconfigures its pasts. The farm and small town were the land’s previous tenants; progress can never entirely evict them.

Old industrial neighborhoods like this one are particularly good at hiding spaces that seem to arise out of a distant past; or perhaps such spaces are simply more surprising because of the industrial façades that hide them. Walk down a row of small businesses in a mixed (industrial-residential) neighborhood—body shops, ironworks—and all of the sudden there will be a break in the row of garages, and you will glimpse the corner of a decrepit wood-frame house standing in the lot behind—maybe the house where the owner’s family lives—otherwise invisible from the street. The whole neighborhood is honeycombed in this way, as if, could you peel back the rough, toxic gilding, you would find something that looks like small-town America, all this soft wood at the heart of iron. Sometimes, I expect to look out the back window and see a white picket fence, rolling green hills, the nub of a silo. And if I can’t always find those wood-frame houses, I can still hear the sounds we associate with them.L

Here is another example: the wind sometimes picks up and slaps a wire running down the back of our building against the window. We have no idea what the wire is for, or any of the wires, for that matter, that run in a clump along the back fence, fastened, like the neighbor’s clothesline, to a short electrical tower at the limit of the property. We’re surrounded by such wires, and so entirely lost in the jungle of the visible that we never think to question what their function is. What does that wire do? Where does it go? If it does nothing, why hasn’t somebody torn it down? I imagine that half of the technological infrastructure of this city is obsolete, but no one has bothered to dismantle it. Instead, this skeleton of dead industry remains, like the wood-frame houses remain. The city is thus a museum of itself: it retains the shape it had a century before, is modernized in the interstices. Meanwhile, its inhabitants live and travel in a web of signs whose contexts have long since disappeared, inscrutable messages from a long-dead society. They echo, like that gargantuan rush of blood, in the noise of the city’s background radiation.

One night, we heard a loud ringing on the fire escape, and we looked out to see two or three kids picking up stones in the empty lot—this was before the new building started going up; at the time of this writing the lot had been vacant for almost a year—standing on top of the Caterpillar, trying to break our windows. Is the boredom of the boroughs any different from the boredom of, say, small-town Kansas? And do the kids respond differently? Don’t their grandmothers all live in the country, in the D.R. or Puerto Rico? And when my partner played Crazy White Lady out the back window and the kids scrambled, was she any different from the lady in the run-down, gabled house who, at the end of the movie, is discovered by one of those kids—the one who gets to grow up—to have been jilted, or bereaved, to be full of wisdom, and to bake great cookies?

And does the elevated train—which for some reason I can only hear out the back window, at night, even though it’s closer to the front—does it sound any different from the trains rolling through the countryside, the trains I’ve ridden from New York to New Orleans, from New Orleans to Tucson, from Salt Lake City to New York City, from Chicago to Longview, Texas? Aren’t they the same trains against which children test their wills, trains they dream about and imagine leaving on to get from there to here, from country to city? Maybe because the 99 cent stores on Knickerbocker pull down their grates, the street becomes a conduit for the sound. Because I only hear it at night (mind you, the train has been to us a lullaby ever since we lived half a block from the elevated N in Long Island City); and though I know it’s the M, I sometimes imagine it’s another train, a freight train carrying shipping containers across the heartland. Maybe there’s another track nearby for freight trains that I haven’t come across. But that seems unlikely; I’ve criss-crossed this neighborhood walking in every direction. I’ve since come to the conclusion that I will never see such a train in the daytime, I will only hear it at night. The only other evidence I have of this crypto-locomotive is the old tracks, laid bare like dinosaur bones in places where the asphalt has worn down to cobblestone. You might follow a set of these ghost rails for a block before they run straight into a three-story building, or a closed garage door.

Not surprisingly, this band of rural America folded into the fabric of the city is a veritable old MacDonald’s farm of animal-sounds. The most important is the rooster; indeed, that might be the essential sound of the back window, the one from which all other ideas of the city’s wild, rural past arise. It’s probably a fighting bird. All the same, it crows every morning. And this is a most surreal and lovely thing to hear in the early mornings in Brooklyn.§

By itself the rooster isn’t enough to wake us; maybe the white picket fence upon which it stands has receded too far into the city’s past, into the nooks of its echoing backyards. But the rooster sets off the first of two dogs chained up in separate yards; and then the first dog sets off the second, distinguishable from the first by the pattern, pitch, and stress of its bark. This dog goes on barking long after the rooster and the first dog have given up. I’ve never seen these animals; the only visible dog is the one let out onto the third-floor fire escape of the building beside the vacant lot, and that dog is as silent as a beaten child.

Walking home, I sometimes see stray cats slinking between the cars, giving wide berth to the garbage cans where we hear rats forage. But these cats are cowed, voiceless; in the backyards, at night, they fight with other cats, or with the rats—the preternatural meow, the lid of a garbage can upset—and set the dogs barking again.

There is one animal in our neighborhood that we have not identified. Like the rooster, we hear it at daybreak, but also sometimes at sunset. Like the rooster, it’s too quiet, or maybe too distant, to wake us. It makes a sound somewhere between a moo and a bray. Every farm needs a beast of burden, and this seemed like the capstone of an act of collective nostalgia for this bit of Jeffersonian America squirreled into backyard Brooklyn, the complement of the semirural domesticity of rooster, dog, and cat. But over time, we grew less sure about the beast-of-burden theory. And the longer we were unsure, the more we came to believe that this sound was the sound of something in pain. And because we could never pinpoint the animal that made it, the sound evolved to signify agony in the abstract: all the hunger and hurt of city life that had accumulated over the course of a day, bottled and released just before nightfall, and then again, in the morning, the sounds of the previous night.F

I never ventured to go out looking for this thing-in-agony, or even called 311, like I did when I heard what I thought was an injured dog. That time, I even got my shoes on before it stopped. But this sound, whatever it is, it’s too far away—maybe not even in our neighborhood. The labyrinth of buildings probably distorts its direction and quality: I’d never find it; it’s quite possible that I’ve misinterpreted it. And before I know it, the sound has disappeared, just as I think I’m arriving at the salve of conscience, the pot of gold. Is this monstrous sound the sound of what the city makes us, that the reason we don’t put on our shoes and go looking is because we’re afraid to step up to that mirror? It is it, not us, just another sound the city makes, its breath and circulation, like the gunshots and sirens and arguments. As to why the siren, why the gunshots, we don’t concern ourselves. We listen, watch. Write. Just yesterday a man sat down in the rightmost lane of Broadway at 138th Street. He sat closer to the middle lane than to the curb; the cabs honked and swerved to avoid him. He was shouting and waving and his arms were covered with sores. This is almost any yesterday.

This sound-of-agony is really just the other side of the coin of the farm, a lament for its passing, for all passings, and the pangs of a city in constant, ruthless rebirth.D We would hear the beast in the rooster, and vice-versa, if we could just properly calibrate our ears. It’s no wonder these are night-sounds and twilight-sounds; in the day, the city is alive with the sound of self-renovation, enthralled by its own ever-evolving modernity: ten hammers going at once and the grind of table-saws, men working to fill the gap on Stockholm with “luxury two-bedroom apartments” like ours. On some blocks a subway stop closer to Manhattan, five or six buildings in a row have been gutted: the usual slow bleed of evicted families carting their possessions to the next barrio of hope, while a few manage to duck the wrecking ball, and another few claw their way out beyond the semi-urban ring that has replaced the inner city. Then, like a crocus, the first Starbucks will push its way up out of the hard ground, and some multinational corporation or sports team will throw down a mat of wood-chips and a plastic slide and call it a playground. Eventually, from this unpromising chrysalis, a gentrified fantasyland will emerge. And then the wrecking ball will move on, leaving the new neighborhood to live on for years, perhaps decades, before recognizing that the economy that birthed and reared it no longer exists, perhaps never existed. And then, like Poe’s M. Valdemar, it will decay with the same fantastic and violent suddenness that marked its rise.

What language reveals about subjectivity is true of cities, and truest of New York: a present is never quite present because it is always already being enfolded into the yet-more-modern. Yet, as workers scramble to fill the gaps produced by the most recent guttings and demolitions, so they will re-seal the backyard worlds of pre-modern echoes, the voices of these hidden pasts, behind new facades; a forest within a farm within a town within a city within a city within a city will once again grow and multiply among the rubble and the weeds, the ghosts we hear in our backyards, the skeleton of industry on which the information-age city multiplies. So long as these tomblike spaces are opened, however, the past sounds and sounds-of-passing will seethe together with the sounds of modernity and modernization: the hammer and the table-saw, the rooster and the beast. It’s just easier to hear the latter late at night or early in the morning, when the saws have dulled to quiet, when the wind is right, coming as if from a great distance, or caught in the corners of our eyes, like the ubiquitous, miraculous bouquets in Jean Genet’s Miracle of the Rose.

There’s a girl who stands in the rubble and trash behind one of the buildings on Stockholm, earphones on, singing the latest pop songs at the top of her lungs, and choreographing a video in which she is the star. There’s the occasional loud barbecue, occasionally hosted by the downstairs neighbors, who sit out back and talk on their cell phones, and their voices rise with the smoke from their cigarettes. On the nights the neighbors upstairs were robbed, there must have been the pitter-patter of thieves’ shoes like pebbles on our fire escape. And once, in the dead of night, long after the last firecracker had popped, I woke up to a Boom, followed by a series of booms, maybe one per second: Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Just like that. Too evenly spaced. I didn’t hear shouts or sirens, but then again it had come from far away. Boom. What the economy was supposed to be doing thanks to the dot-commies in dotcomlandia. The quakes in the Bay Area rattled the windows of Giuliani’s New York: shutting down Fresh Kills and using the scowls to ship the homeless out of sight of commuters or tourists, christening Riker’s Island our sixth borough—the best kind, since no one can vote and the borough president’s a warden …. And then BOOM, the towers came down. Echoes like a million gunshots, in the night and in the early early morning. Sometimes I think it’s the sound of Giuliani coming back to haunt us, all rattling chains and 9-1-1. Two years later came the blackout, and there was near-absolute silence in my neighborhood that night: the silence of waiting for another BOOM. What we didn’t hear was that everyone else was waiting for the boom, too, and that silence was the sound of all of us together, waiting.

Inside

Just as every block has an exterior sonic identity, a combination of block-specific and neighborhood- (or even city-) wide sounds that enter through the back and front windows or exterior walls, and which vary depending on the vantage point of the perceiver; so each individual building has an interior sonic identity, composed of the amalgam of noises made in one part of the the edifice—the automatic functions of the building, the natural forces acting upon it, the sounds made by the tenants, their pets, and their appliances—and heard in another, measured, as always, over a given length of time. The fact that our building is so small, and the interior walls are so thin, gives me a false sense of completeness about my perception—the sense that I am a “transparent ear” (“I am nothing; I hear all”). I am actually limited in several important ways: by the location of the apartment (second-floor floor-through), by the arrangement and selection of its rooms (bedroom in the rear), and by the difficulty of where and whether to include myself, whose presence, negligible among the sounds of the block or neighborhood, now becomes significant.

As with the mix of Spanish and English we hear out the front window, there is a linguistic dimension to the sonic profile of our building which, when we first moved in, and in the context of the neighborhood as a whole, suggested neatly-inverted geological strata: young, hip Euro-Americans lived on the first floor; a Hispanic couple with a baby lived next door to us on the second floor; and an old Italian couple lived with their grown son on the top floor. Unfortunately, this schematic, representing three waves of migrants to Bushwick, is muddled once we’re forced to include the Indian woman who lived upstairs, next door to the Italians, and who had a white boyfriend, who lived there off and on and parked his motorcycle in front of the fire hydrant. And then the Hispanic couple moved out, and young, hip white people—a punk rocker and a political activist—moved in next door, as per the general trend. And then the Indian woman moved out and two young Hispanic men moved into their apartment. So much for geology. (I should note that I haven’t included myself, either, since I, too, would muddle it.)

The Spanish-speaking couple argued from opposite ends of the apartment. The old couple yell at each other in Italian, though not belligerently, or only when what we presume are their grandkids pay a visit. They could be the son’s kids from an earlier marriage, though that seems unlikely. He is a perfect recluse. His manner is halting, and his glasses make his eyes appear enormous. He fiddles with the garbage and recycling in front of our building for what seems like hours, sometimes removing a stray item from one bag and putting it into another. Sometimes, when I think I hear a rat in the trash, it’s really him. And sometimes I see him coming up out of the basement, although none of us is supposed to have a key. I don’t ask. Anyway, the grandkids are boys, fat, maybe twelve; they clomp clomp clomp up and down the stairs, like they’re trying to make as much noise as possible, and they always jump the last few steps, like I do. They also yell, and then the recluse or their mother will yell at them to be quiet, and they’ll yell back up at her that they will be quiet. This all in English. The new Hispanic men and the ladies they bring home at night are more cheerful, and the Anglos across the hall are also cheerful, and occasionally drunken, as they carry on conversations with each other from opposite ends of the floor-through. He is a punk rocker; we suspect he lives in an entirely different sonic dimension from the rest of us.

When the doors close, the voices are muffled by walls, as is the case with almost all the noises we hear inside the building. We know the language being spoken more from the cadences than the words, and again we have that sense of being the focal point in a field of sounds, a sense augmented by the thin walls, which act more like membranes than barriers. It is this general radiation of voices, and not actual narratives or individual signs carried on their currents, that make the city: a sea, formed of all the registers of human voices blended into one another, in which we float, half-submerged.F There is another, perhaps a greater, intimacy in them, too, than in the confessions about sex and family dysfunction whispered into our ears or overheard in cafes, because this murmur of the mass of humanity is apprehended less consciously. There is an erotic life to the city that is this constant friction of vibrations of people against each other, and that is the helpless and constant penetration of others’ lives into your own, of your life into theirs.M Our walls are like windows of semitransparent bricks, silhouettes move mysteriously and seductively behind them. I am awash in my neighbors’ muted sounds, just as they are awash, perhaps, in mine. I didn’t choose to have them meddling in my life, just as they didn’t choose to have me meddling in theirs. The people around me are my secret sharers; yet, if I saw them on the street, I might not recognize them, and they might not recognize me.

An example: I know the people who live in the apartment upstairs walk around in their shoes. From the whine of the pipes, when our neighbors use their shower and toilet, and generally, from the sounds of their coming and going, we know what hours they keep. Their alarms wake us up, as if they were sleeping beside us, with us; the punk rocker, whose bedroom is adjacent to ours, can hit his SNOOZE button for an hour before finally shutting off the alarm. My brother-in-law does the same thing; I know because I lived at my partner’s mother’s house for three months, and he had the room directly below mine. But the punk rocker is hardly my brother-in-law; in fact, for the first three months after he moved in, I never laid eyes on him. One of the Indian women upstairs had a clock-radio that went off every nine minutes, Led Zeppelin or The Doors, two or three different songs (after all, even that magnum opus “Stairway to Heaven” only lasts seven minutes and fifteen seconds). And when the political activist is out of town, or gets lucky, she doesn’t turn off her alarm, so it might go off all morning through the wall, loud enough that, the first time it happened, I thought it might be the fire alarm, and so I went out to investigate, rang the doorbell and knocked—I thought she might have a cat, you see, I had heard cat-sounds, that clumsy sound cats make jumping down off of something tall. Where was the punk rocker? On tour? And if it took him an hour to wake up to his alarm, how would ringing the doorbell make any difference? Anyway, had it not been for that alarm we might never have left a note on the door to please turn off your alarm when you’re not home, might have gone another three months without meeting them, without ever inviting them to dinner, without ever sitting down to dinner in our apartment and talking, imagine, about sounds.

There is thus an intimacy that the walls between us seem to enhance rather than impede, the same kind that must develop between prisoners in adjacent cells. While some of the qualities we associate with intimacy are lost (I have not yet seen the new people upstairs, except through the peephole, from behind), others, which go well beyond that veneer New Yorkers call intimacy, are magnified. It must be the atomic quality of city life that causes this surrogate intimacy to develop (I have not yet seen the new people upstairs, except through the peephole, from behind). What’s more, I suspect the absence of the first, commonly understood, or “natural” intimacy intensifies the second to the point of pathology. Or maybe it only seems pathological, because it is the particular intimacy of the city, and we are not city dwellers, we humans, not yet. It is the powerful aphrodisiac of anonymity, where, in the absence of any other signifier, the body becomes all.

And this is apt, since what we overhear most often is the sound of people fucking. I might hear somone fucking for six months to a year before meeting them face to face, and I have to refrain from saying, “You know, from the noises you make when you’re fucking, I imagined you entirely different.” Already devoid of all but the most obvious significance, these sounds of intercourse—the ersatz bedsprings;** the gasps, grunts, groans, yelps, shouts, and sighs; the occasional forays into language in the form of shouted exclamations and demands—reveal how our possible responses to “overhearing” fall into two diametrically opposed categories. By and large, as meaning is evacuated (as it must be in this sea of unintelligible sounds), emotional content, as if in a rush to fill the meaning-vacuum, is enhanced.

But then one night, while I was grading papers in the living room, I heard the political activist fucking her boyfriend, which amounted to nothing more than a few squeaking bedsprings (yes, bedsprings) and a gasp. A heartfelt gasp, possibly, but with gasps it’s difficult to tell. Hardly a primal gush of emotion, a window into my neighbor’s soul. Instead, I was left trying to decipher its meaning. And this problem of meaning became even more poignant in hindsight. Because, you see, the political activist’s boyfriend later started stalking her, and she had to show everyone in the building his picture so that they wouldn’t let him in. After he left New York he violated his parole and started back here with a gun, but was apprehended en route, somewhere in Pennsylvania, I think. Was that gasp a gasp of foreshadowed humiliation? I now believe that, had I been able to interpret that gasp correctly, I could have foreseen my neighbor’s whole calamity with her boyfriend.

The Indian women upstairs I never heard fucking, but the political activist said she heard them having sex all the time, and loud and raucous sex at that, to the point that, over dinner with us, and right next to the open window of the air shaft, she remarked that they were so loud that half the time she figured they were fucking in the stairwell. I didn’t hear the women’s shoes, so I guessed they weren’t home. But I always wondered if they heard her say that. Because later, when their apartment was robbed, and the political activist went upstairs to sympathize, they shut the door in her face. That was the night we heard the cops’ shoes in the stairwell, loud as gunshots, and their cop radios, and they giggled like they were stoned. Between the girls and the cops treading back and forth in their shoes it sounded like a stampede. Plus the robbery happened while my parents were visiting, and to this day my parents still believe the cops’ shoes were the shoes of the women who lived upstairs.

But I was talking about fucking. How come the political activist could hear the Indian women fucking when they lived directly above us? I never heard them fucking, and I would have liked to, if only for the sake of completeness, excluding the old Italian couple, who can’t possibly fuck anymore, and their son, who I try not to imagine fucking at all. But those girls were real nightcrawlers, their schedules more likely matched the political activist’s.†† Moreover, this third-floor fucking must have occurred in the front part of the apartment, and, as I mentioned, our bedroom is in the back. When the beauty parlor beneath the front part of our apartment got robbed, we slept right through the alarm. That the political activist, who lived in the front room, could hear the women upstairs fucking, even though their apartment is directly above ours, supports two related assertions: (1) in small buildings, adjacent floors are more “intimate” with each other than the front and back of the same floor-through apartment, with the surrounding apartments functioning as auditoriums; and a corollary, (2) one is less “intimate” with one’s roommate in a floor-through (that is, the person who sleeps in the other room of the same apartment) than one is with ones’ neighbors living above or beside, even those to whom one has never been formally introduced.

The punk rocker is case in point; as I mentioned, our bedroom shares a wall with his. He’s often away on tour; but when he’s home, watch out. His then-girlfriend (and current wife) is a dominatrix—a professional title, I think, as well as a personal preference—and now and again, between tours, they wake up my partner and I with an unruly combination of surf-punk music and fucking. The wall is a hymen; their ecstacy punctures it. And this is always in the wee hours, the desperate hours, when our defenses are down … and close enough that, if she or he reached out to grab the headboard (except we don’t have headboards), and the wall disappeared, they would grab our hair, our wrists. We become the passive half of a foursome.

But there is also the pleasure of nostalgia for our own sexual pasts, and our sexual subjunctives. Punk rockers are particularly helpful here, since they still listen to music on cassette or vinyl—I think it’s part of their image—and so it’s legitimate to measure the time they spend fucking by album sides. According to this system, and after adjusting for the fact that punk albums are about half the length of most pop albums, I placed him, incorrectly, in his early twenties. I wonder if the old Italian couple upstairs could hear them, too. I imagine them listening in concert with their son, like in one of those Rockwellian images of the nuclear family gathered around a tombstone-shaped radio.

On one remarkable night we were awakened at two or three in the morning; the dominatrix was engaged in some lascivious moaning, which turned into brief, high shouts as the punk rocker built toward what turned out to be one of several climaxes, the report of the bedframe as it struck the wall or the floor, ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunk. But the remarkable part was that, for a while, there was a sound like one of them was collapsing onto the floor, or being dropped onto the floor, or jumping off the bureau onto the floor, or just dumping a whole bunch of shit onto the floor. This sound was repeated every ten to fifteen seconds, and every repetition was followed by a guttural grunt on the dominatrix’s part. Lying there, I couldn’t help but think of Burke’s definition of the sublime in Milton: words tumble upon the reader in such a way that, rather than appealing to the imagination, they strike directly at the emotions. Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine how those sounds were being produced. None of the elaborate machinery I concocted in my brain—pulleys and swings and mechanical massagers and penetrators worthy of the most perversely fervid eighteenth-century mind—none of it sufficed. And it couldn’t possibly fit in that tiny room the punk rocker lived in anyway; nor could he have afforded such a machine on his certainly meager earnings opening for opening bands’ opening bands; nor could the dominatrix possibly have sufficient capital to invest in the means of production I envisioned. Anyway, I had a hard-on. My partner woke up briefly, said, “Fuck me, punk rock boy!” and fell back asleep. Or did she lie there, awake, aroused, like me?

I’ve imagined a story where the protagonist, a middle-aged recluse like the son upstairs, hears a couple in the apartment next door having sex. The couple is new to the building; he has lived there his whole life. He has never met them or seen them (“except through the peephole, from behind”); he believes they deliberately avoid him. The noise wakes him, keeps him up. He imagines himself as a liquid, filling up the space of his apartment, so that his boundaries and the apartment’s boundaries are contiguous. He is fully contained by his space; why is the same not true of his neighbors? Why must they nightly violate his space, his body? So he grumbles at breakfast, groggy, he complains at the nearby park to his few friends, who tease him. He is secretly aroused. He grows to expect the sound of the couple’s lovemaking. He participates in it vicariously. Then, near the end of the story, he confronts the guilty couple. He might ring their bell; he might run into them in the hallway, outside their apartment, at last; he might gather the nerve to invite them to dinner, where his own conversation is drawn, helplessly, toward the forbidden subject. He would say something, dramatic, ambiguous, totally ridiculous, through which his participation in the couple’s sexual life would be revealed … or, at least, he would fear that it had been revealed. Or, he might record the sound of the couple having sex, and then, the following night, move his small stereo so that the speakers abut the offending wall, and play the recording at full volume. But in the following moments he would become convinced that it is not the sound of the couple’s lovemaking, but himself masturbating. So, rather than punishing the neighbors for keeping him awake, he makes a spectacle of himself; and at the moment he tries to assert his power—deliberately penetrates the boundaries of their apartment/body—he humiliates himself most abjectly. One more thing: listening to that recording, listening to himself, he might come to recognize something about himself, something ugly, something violent in the sound of his pleasure. Maybe he already noticed this in the sound of their lovemaking; maybe part of his obsession was that he imagined interposing himself as her chivalric avenger. Whatever the case, at the end he understands that what he believed about the other was actually about himself.

The first fear is the fear that every sound is simply a reflection of you, that the walls are mirrors, that you are alone, inviolate and impenetrable in a city of millions. You may feign annoyance, but your sanity and your sense of self depend upon the constant penetration of others’ lives into your own. The second fear is that, for all your supposed voyeurism, or eavesdropping, you are helpless but to reveal secrets about yourself. Chief among them is your eavesdropping, because around it all of your other secrets orbit. You crave these revelations in spite of your fear: this quid pro quo the city demands for all it has already revealed to you. Of course, the secrets most in danger of being revealed are those you have hidden from yourself. In the city, there can be no self-knowledge without prior public revelation (though it may not be understood as such at the time). The city becomes the bearer of these unknown secrets, the as-yet-unplumbed core of your being (inner city, indeed). Knowing the city hence becomes a precondition for knowing yourself. In the standard formulation of the urban uncanny, the city is particularly self-alienating. Here, however, those things from which you have estranged yourself are not simply packed away in some mental cellar, awaiting the proper stimulus to surface. They have been picked up by the stray antennae next door, beamed down the cable crossing your back window, and on through all those seemingly useless wires that make up the circulation of your neighborhood. If they return, when they return, they will be as The City, the great Other, the amalgam of ten million sweating, groaning bodies who have been listening to you, too, who know you more intimately than you do, who have abolished secrecy as such. And then The City will say: I know you! I have your secret, your soul! You are not alone in this; you are entirely alone in this, and so you will remain, until the walls come down and you plunge into the erotic spectacle of yourself.

You expect to hear the essence, the distillate, the monstrous secret of that thing behind the wall. But it is your own desire you listen to, just like it is for my protagonist. Maybe that’s why there is never anything particularly revealing in the noises that I hear—at least, not the revelation I expect. And maybe that’s why, unlike the noises from outside the building, which are meant to enter our much-contested personal space, the meaning of these indiscreet noises remains less clear. As voyeurs, we want to believe they are the sounds of people’s most private moments. But if people are so reckless, sowing their essences like dandelion seeds, without the fear of being overheard or the humiliation of self-revelation, then what separates these moments from public performance? Where is the private self? What has been bared, and what remains hidden? Earlier, I postulated that one effect of filtering sounds through a wall was an increase in their emotional charge. The wall makes all human sounds primal, and, in the dual act of separating us and keeping us in close proximity to each other, the wall, and in the broader sense the city, makes us aware of ourselves as constituents of the body of humanity. But that doesn’t imply a conduit into another’s secrets, another’s essence, except insofar as it is a shared human essence, as much a part of the listener as of the subject. The weight of this revelation falls (again) on the listener, who (again) takes his place at center stage: such sounds are the substrate on which he constructs and performs his own fantasies, his own meanings, according to his own desires. So it happened with the political activist and the stalker: because I couldn’t hope to discern the meaning of that gasp, it became my own. The wall is a blank page upon which the stories of the city are written—written by the listener on the other side of the wall.

*

I have no desire to perform.N I close the bedroom door and the back windows on sweltering days, close the blinds, turn my bedroom into a perfect sounding-box for the audience of the city, my stern parent-substitutes shoving me out among the footlights. That the walls are mirrors, that the audience only sees itself—this is little consolation, though it does help me to forget that I am performing. It is folly to believe that the simple fact of my being “the listener” removes me from the sonic fingerprint of this building. Besides, my absence would only more fully reveal me. My anonymity, my un-observability—my camouflage—depend upon my doing the exact same thing everyone else does, riding along the same sonic pathway as the rest of the city. I, too, shower and shit and fry food and laugh and fuck and listen to and play music and type and slide my chair in and out. But maybe I slide my chair more frequently than the people who live in the apartments around mine. Maybe my laughter is higher and more maniacal than theirs. My fucking might be quieter, or louder, or longer, or shorter, and I might shit thrice on Sundays and only once before work. There must be a hundred such tics that give my own sonic profile its singular curve.

In the morning, the kettle and the coffee grinder: forty-five shakes, nineteen less since we started using the French press, which takes a coarser grind: from eight sets of eight shakes to five sets of eight plus five at the end. The tap, tap, tap on the bottom of the grinder when I turn it over to dump the milled coffee into the lid. The electronic kettle doesn’t whistle, though the clack of the switch turning off is pretty well audible throughout the apartment, and, I imagine, beyond. Same with the switch on the toaster. The chink of spoons and knives on glassware and porcelain, the sugarbowl. Chairs sliding in and out. Knives scraping butter onto toast. The refrigerator door. The oven door, maybe: a metallic yawn, Godzilla-like. A blob of dough beaten against the counter if I’m making bread (weekends, usually). Footsteps, hushed, because we don’t wear shoes. The wheels of the office chair—anything rolling sounds like a bowling ball to the people in the apartment downstairs. The keyboard of the computer, though I’ve only ever heard them in libraries and offices. (Scratch the keyboard.) Years ago, in Queens, I used to work on a manual typewriter. I always wondered how it sounded to the family below.

Anyway, voices. The toilet. The sink. The diligence of toothbrushes. From nine until ten, “Democracy Now” on WBAI. After, maybe “Morning Classical” and “Out to Lunch” on WKCR. No commercials. Never any jingles in our place. One day we turned off the radio and could still hear “Democracy Now,” unmistakably Amy Goodman’s voice. (This probably happens all the time if you listen to a popular music station, like Hot 97 or La Nueva Mega.) It was coming through the wall. We used the alarm issue as an excuse to invite the activist to dinner. By and large, though, the radio and TV stations I hear through the walls and ceiling tell me very little about my neighbors’ quirks and proclivities.§§ Music collections are somewhat more revealing: Downstairs, for example, they listen to Lightning Bolt and other hyper-new and arty stuff that exhausts itself moments after being produced, like elementary particles in accelerators. I learn infinitely more from my neighbors’ occasional artistic squirks and chortles than from the brand identity of the music Clear Channel has focus-grouped them into. You would expect the punk rocker to be the most musically obnoxious element in the building. But the most I ever hear from him is the James Bondish twanging of an electric guitar played without amplification. And this, perhaps, tells me more about him than if he played loud, raucous guitar in the apartment, like punk rockers are supposed to. One of the women upstairs, or maybe one of their boyfriends, had an amp, and strummed a guitar for five or ten minutes every night around midnight, bar chords with a little bit of reverb and no distortion, really digging in, like a folksinger with a borrowed Strat. And sometimes, also right around midnight, we will hear a flanged-out noise—exactly the 1950s Hollywood noise signifying flying saucer. We have never been able to pinpoint the source of this sound, though we believe it comes from the Lightning-Bolters downstairs.

Let it be known that I am the most musically obnoxious element in this building. I play the guitar, for two hours if I can spare it, classical and flamenco, or mock-flamenco, since I play flamenco like someone imitating the sounds of a language he doesn’t speak. The political activist says she can hear me, she sometimes wakes up to the guitar, though not because of it, she says. I don’t mean her to. I play in the middle of the apartment on weekdays, in the middle of the day, when people are most likely to be working. I know the recluse hears me, too, he came to my door once on a pretext and commented on it. Their bird hears me, too—did I mention the old Italian couple has a bird?—and I’m convinced it starts singing when I play, because that’s the only time I ever hear it. Even the stalker said he could hear me through the wall. He played too, majored in music in college, I can’t remember where, someplace upstate. I never heard him play. Thin, thin walls.

The activist has also told me that, sometimes, in the middle of a piece, she hears me cough up a wad of phlegm. Now that’s something you wouldn’t hear in most live performances. Imagine living next door to Thelonious Monk, say, and hearing him cough up a wad of phlegm in the middle of “Straight, No Chaser.” Imagine hearing him lose his temper. Imagine hearing him improvising alone in his apartment; imagine what the first doodles the antic melodies his songs grew out of sounded like. Imagine him stumbling into uncharted rhythmic and harmonic alleyways, alleys only he, and now you, know exist. Imagine Monk practicing. (Would he sound just like he does live?)

It always seemed a bit unfair to me, in the artistic juggernaut that is New York, that none of us lives with, or next door to, or down the hall from, or even in the same building as, a young Thelonious Monk, or a young Tito Puente. Maybe they’re busking on subway platforms … only there they belong to everybody. Half their genius lies in our discovering them. No: we live across from a ten-year-old whose parents flog him into wanking out scales on the trumpet,*** and guitarists who haven’t yet learned that watershed fourth chord. The city is overrun by artistic hopefuls and hopelesses; like rats, we grow fat and multiply in the working-class neighborhoods of the boroughs. There must be one among us pioneers, blazing the borough trails for other white people, who will stand out, rise above. (That I am one among so many helps ensure my anonymity.) Where’s our reward for being too poor or too desperate for Manhattan, for being traitors to our race and class, for having boarded steamboats up the Gowanus canal? Exposed brick? Dishwashers? Who could be inspired by a dishwasher? One, two stops closer to Manhattan, artists have started nesting like pigeons in the abandoned factories, in the detritus of the globalizing economy, in the emptied pockets of the Superfunds. They live on clouds of silver nitrate, bathe in pools of lead, play kickball in the brownfields, while their friends surf the pissing foam of the tech boom, picking through the trash for the next million-dollar startup. Just as we’re too rich for Bushwick but too poor for Manhattan, so we’re too hip for Sunset Park but too bourgeois for Williamsburg. Like virtuous pagans, we inhabit this between-place, floating at the borders of communities without ever touching down. The punk rocker and the political activist are two paving-stones in our bridge to bohemia; I know a third in Williamsburg, a programmer. They know brilliant slide guitarists, Juilliard-trained violinists who improvise on subway platforms, downtown musicians in mid-eviction who steal their books from the dollar carts outside the Strand, anarchists who carve their names into the bones of heavy machinery. So we befriend them. We’ll settle for a degree or two of separation if it means not having to get our hands dirty. Swaddled in exposed brick (it speaks “wall” more powerfully than any other material) and hardwood floors and the hum of new appliances, we can just barely hear the pain, just enough to know it’s there, and to magnify it. The wall. It does everything for us, to us. On the other side lives the next great artist, soaking up all manner of tragedy and turning it into poetry. But who’s to say it’s not your tragedy, the tragedy of your sad life of listening, that inspires him? Or that, by listening to him, it isn’t you who will cast the beauty and terror of his life in bronze? Through the wall, the tragedies of proximate lives are given form: the wall becomes the screen through which the artist gives form to a world in which he would otherwise lose himself. And this is so important: it may be his life, but it will carry your name on it, just like his work will carry yours. A city of people who spend all day listening to one another: what on earth will they write about, paint about, sing about, if not you?

This artist, he looks like you. Like you, he’s come here to touch the soul of the city. He’s busy honing his nostalgia for that sense of neighborhood he never experienced, but knows must have existed, and must still exist, must be around here somewhere, if he just looks hard enough. (Princess! Princess!) It grows dearer and dearer in that corporate theme park still called Manhattan, soon to be branded (an island, a sports stadium, merely a difference of scale), and in its borderlands at the edges of the boroughs, where the mouse-eared monorails whisk you off to Fantasyland. He’s fled all this, the most appropriate reflection of his class, his identity. But in his conscious seeking—in all his acts of renunciation—he has already commodified his experience. Brands are the true flags of his country, whether he rejects them or wraps himself in them. At base, he still believes he can buy cheaply in the boroughs what he can’t afford in Manhattan. Because Manhattan runs on the energy provided by a collective nostalgia for its myths. And nostalgia is the easiest emotion to market, even more when it was learned through a previous generation’s collective self-representation. But he (this artist) has the privilege of losing sight of such distinctions. And he can’t understand why these people don’t feel his righteous anger, why they spend their Sundays sleepwalking down Knickerbocker from 99 cent store to 99 cent store, each with its sharp little plastic knob where it’s been twisted off from the moulding. Why they hunch their shoulders and pull up their hoods and let themselves be walked on. Anyway, they don’t speak to him. His building, a converted factory or gut-renovated walk-up, has no stoop. He’s younger, less self-conscious, less neurotic than you, but because of these things he feels his displacement all the more keenly. He’s eager to throw himself in, to swim in the body of the city, to feel whole by becoming part of it. But immediately he tries, a wall goes up. He’ll reach his hand (he says) into the cacophony of ice cream trucks and alarms and sirens and table-saws, hammers, hawkers, pushers, roosters, cats, dogs, outbursts sacred and profane. He’ll make (he says) something beautiful out of it, something that speaks the city. But he wounds himself trying—that wall again—and as he draws his hand back, the wound fixes all his attention.

Water your neuroses, Freud said. Let them grow. Fine, except it’s become our only model for artistic creation. What about those artists who walk through walls? A simple act of faith.

When we first moved in, the front half of the first floor of our building was occupied by a salsa dance studio. Our living room and office were right above it. They ran classes from five to nine on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings, and then on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Every lesson would begin with just the conga and clave. The teacher would count, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English (SE-ven eight). Then, the sound of her voice together with ten or fifteen pairs of shoes imperfectly synchronized, a riddle of claps to accent a beat or two. Then, together with the music, the bass buzzing the floor and windows, stampeding feet and hands, horns, joined by the sonero’s voice. Like with the ice cream truck melodies, it was impossible not to memorize these songs, the bass lines in particular—I can still sing a decent salsa bass line—but also the breaks, the melodies, the refrains. They danced the same three or four songs over and over, three times a week for a year and a half. The first class was kids, all girls, ten- or twelve-year-olds. At seven, teenagers, a smaller class, almost all girls, the few boys very pituco. If we came home in the middle of the first class, we’d see parents milling in the light of the doorway, watching, waiting to walk their kids home, and always a few random people from the neighborhood holding shopping bags.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings they gave karate classes instead, and parents and neighbors would again gather to walk their kids home, all sons this time. The instructor, male, would count with them. Compared to the salsa, everything was so square. Ten times, everything ten, counted out in Japanese, each number punctuated by a pre-pubescent kia! … the flutter of gee-sleeves? No, I must have imagined this, it couldn’t possibly carry through the floor. Ten is the number of diligent repetition, each number valued equally. But eight is a measure; when syncopated (SE-ven-eight), five might weigh twice as much as four. The kids didn’t wear shoes, so there was no stampede, just the sound of the studio creaking like a boat while the boys hopped from side to side on the balls of their feet. At the end of class they would repeat something along with their instructor, their voices low. I could see them: the kids all kneel in rows, their hands palms-down on their thighs. I remembered the roughness of the mat against the balls of my feet. I remembered counting to ten in Japanese (I can still make it to seven), thrusting my hand or foot against an imaginary opponent. I remembered the mat was coffee-colored in places from old blood, and there were mirrors on one wall, too. I remembered the smell, and wondered if the dance studio smelled that way on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

To be honest, we were relieved if we came home to find the studio lights off and classes cancelled for the evening. But even so, and for all the occasional annoyances (like the half-hour before classes started, when the teens would turn up the hip-hop way loud)—or maybe because of them—it gave us, this odd settlement of white people, a foundation, a sense of belonging, of being rooted in this neighborhood where, every time I stepped outside, I felt like an intruder. The bass came up through the floor, yes; but more important, it drove roots down. Sometimes, like the stereos in the roving cars, the bass found the note that made our whole building quake, took hold of it and shook it like a sapling, while someone waited, I imagine, to see how many of us would fall out. But for a brief moment, all of us in the building, including the dancers, especially the dancers, hung together, plump, black, whole notes, like olives ready to drop. I imagine this even though we were the ones living directly above the studio, catching the brunt of the bass. I needed to imagine that it brought the place we were living home to us; like, if they could just turn up the bass a little louder, and the building could vibrate just a little bit harder, we would all jump out of our skins.G

Before Monday night classes we would see tables set up in the studio, and adults helping the neighborhood kids with their homework. We talked about going down there on Monday nights. And we talked, though never really seriously, about taking dance classes. There was always an excuse: money, time. It felt … it would have been like walking into another faith’s church (another? I have none) during a service. Patronizing at best. As if putting on a mask gave us the power to walk through walls. Much simpler, and more honest, just to lay on the couch and let ourselves be absorbed by the sounds that spoke the heart of our neighborhood, those rhythms forced on us from below. Over time, as we grew accustomed to the way our neighborhood buzzed and hummed, didn’t we start hearing things we hadn’t before, things our culture raised us not to hear? Beneath the beats of the building, the beats of the city. The clave, for example. It’s just part of the ensemble of the city, until you know what it sounds like, and can pick it out. Soon, you start recognizing all the colors in the whiteness, just as your neighbors do. And because you, of all your friends, recognize the colors in that whiteness, you think that colors you, too. You start to share, or to believe you share, secrets with your neighbors, things a visitor wouldn’t know, because of that ocean of sound that washes through you, lying on that couch upstairs. Pinned to it. Listening. You might wear those colors when you step outside. You might come to believe that wearing their secret, their essence, conceals you among them. You might even forget you’re wearing it. More likely, you just won’t get up. And like my fictional recluse, the more intimate you become with the sounds around you, the more secrets you share with your neighbors, the thicker the walls between they and you will grow. That intimacy is its brick and mortar; that wall thickens your desire, and vice-versa. An adoration of walls, which come to stand for the wailing and panting and humming emanating from beyond them.

I don’t mean to imply that there existed privacy or intimacy in some originary or naïve form prior to the growth of cities. No: the architecture of cities is simply the latest incarnation of our desire for an originary, naïve intimacy, which never quite existed, but is advertised to have preceded cities, and to have been extinguished by them. But then neither did cities degrade intimacy into desire-for-lost-intimacy; rather, intimacy was always a kind of desire-for-the-lost. Nor did cities provide us with an awareness of our estrangement, since that awareness is what estranged us in the first place. Rather, the architecture of the city attempts to do what the grand narratives of peoples and nations once did (I imagine) far more successfully: to construct a fantasy of home, of belonging, of desire satisfied. If anything, what’s degraded in the modern city are the (quotidian, atomized) ways in which we go about trying to find ourselves, and the mean, artificial, and thoroughly marketed objects which we believe will fulfill us. They’ve lost even the pretense of being objects; they’re spectres, wayward recollections; they exist only as absences, as things beyond the wall. Their only power is that granted by our alienation. But what power! As cities grow, so our awareness of our fundamental estrangement also grows. And as we recede further into our mediated lives, so that naïve intimacy we believe we have lost also recedes from us, perhaps into “history,” perhaps into some other metaphor of distance. And as its features become less and less defined, so it comes to seem to us more and more pure, more ideal. And as it diminishes to a point on our horizon, it grows in another way. The thing behind the wall grows to becomes monstrous—and the wall grows, too, just to be able to keep it “in” … or “out.”  And as the wall thickens, so does the distance between our selves and the ever-more fetishized, irrecoverable, and indecipherable object of our desire; alienation and desire feed one another, grow up alongside one another, eternally sundered, accelerating apart. The wall, the desire that “replaced,” that is the only true object, grows up in that space; the city grows up in that space; and our “surrogate intimacy” reveals the nature of any and all intimacy. Perhaps we always were city dwellers after all.

But many citygoers take the path opposite my recluse—in fact, of the two types, this one is by far the more visible. We may, indeed, “get up off the couch,” binge on the fetishized objects of desire. As we search more and more desperately for the satisfaction these objects fail to bring us, we grow to embrace the performativity of city life—we become more “public,” both “in private” and “in public.” If what we fear is loss of privacy, then we will strive to enclose ourselves within ourselves, to hold onto a presumed essential identity beyond the flux of the city whose great, pulsing ear always circumscribes us. That is: if the listener on the other side of the wall, the city, is indeed fated to be our secret-sharer, then we can “fool” it by always performing, until our hollowness comes to seem natural. We forget our alienation by embracing, and then by becoming, by forgetting (that is, repressing), our masks. Our most intimate moments are performed in the footlights, and our every gesture is a well-rehearsed improvisation. Even humiliation can be a triumph, so long as it is convincingly performed, because we remain in control. It works the same “in public”: sounding off all day like car alarms, desperate to present a particular version of ourselves for consumption. Conversely, if what we fear is the loss of intimacy (as the term is commonly understood), then we will flit from person to person, group to group, seeking in each other what we have lost in ourselves, doomed to find the same thing there as here. Not neurosis, but a suffocating emptiness, a loneliness, a desire for momentary, anonymous community against the wishes of every bystander (conscious, anyway: he desires your secrets in order to fill his own emptiness, to reacquaint him with what he believes he has lost of himself), as against the intimacy of secrets and walls. A community knit fleetingly by sound, or by necessary confinement (an elevator, a subway car, a café), an instant community that dissolves at the next stop or the next floor, the moment elaborated in the month-long traffic jam of Julio Cortazar’s “Southern Thruway.” Perhaps if a hundred people know about your appendectomy, or the pain in your hip, or your failure to pay alimony, it will make up for the one person who should care, but doesn’t, the one person you can’t find, the one person you’re supposed to have found, but who is eternally and forever beyond your universe, you think, as you march head-down to your apartment, a bag of groceries in your arms, the sidewalk unswept, the sound of a jet passing overhead. Instead, all these nobodies become the unwitting repositories of your life—the ones who are always overhearing you, who you will force to share your secrets, will riddle with your life, just as they have riddled you with theirs. Like the children of Bushwick, who shout, perhaps, to fill that defeaning void, so maybe this monstrous wall, the abiding image of our lives, is our only protection against that great and threatening beast in whose maw we, too, must swim. No wonder the cell phones, portable video games, books, headphones, information prophylactics, the cultivated thousand-yard stares. No wonder the unsurpassed loneliness. For we are just as petrified by the psychic energy it would take to destroy that wall, to overthrow the order upon which our alienation is founded; afraid what it would mean for our souls and our selves if we shrugged off our confessionals and stepped forward out of that great, silent continent.

Coda

I sometimes fantasize about losing my sight. I believe, or at least I tell people, that I would rather lose my sight than my hearing, just as I believe, or tell people, that I would rather lose the use of my legs than my arms. I used to imagine that I would be forced to choose—either in fantasies of punishment for some obscure guilt, or fantasies of martyrdom for some obscure feelings of persecution. Which finger would I sacrifice? Legs or arms? Eye or ear? Sometimes in the subway I pretend that I’m blind, and try to disassociate all the different noises from each other, beginning with the simultaneous conversations in different languages, then on to the hum of the wheels and motors of the train as it accelerates or decelerates, the squeal of the brakes, the conductor’s announcements, the doors, the bell, the echo on the platform. But I hardly ever make it more than three or four stops. I console myself with the idea that there’s something I’m missing. Maybe I’ve only peeled away a first layer of what must be hundreds, even thousands, of unnoticed sounds. I listen harder. If, as I’ve suggested, sight mitigates our impression of the city, then perhaps blindness would force me into the present, overcome my resistance, calm my wandering mind.

The other day I saw a blind man get on the subway, and I meticulously observed each of his actions. It was one of those trains with sets of three seats beside the doors, and then pairs of seats back-to-back facing the front and rear of the train. He used his cane to find the edge of one of the sets of three directly across from me; then, with his free hand, he grabbed the rail above (the one commuters hang onto when the car is full) and swung, or rather eased, himself around into sitting position. Then he took his cane and folded it deftly into four segments, and secured it behind him. He folded his big hands on his lap and sat placidly, wearing, in fact, the same expression the whole time, the kind of empty peace, his chin turned slightly up. As if he were listening for the faintest sound; and behind that calm expression there was an attention so complete I couldn’t fathom it. I imagined he heard me watching him.

I could be reconciled with that peace, that readiness. Sight is too pure, too taken for granted. Too reasonable. Besides, it wouldn’t be just a world of darkness, implying nothingness, but a world of sound. And that seems to me infinitely more palatable than silence. I don’t think of death as metaphorized darkness—we’re spelunking every time we shut our eyes. Nor do I imagine that death is “nothing but sound,” as a character hypothesizes in DeLillo’s White Noise. Would that it were. I’m afraid it’s an enduring silence, such as we never have in life. I know it’s there, in my core, an emptiness, the blind spot in my hearing, and that one day it will grow and spread outwards, until the cyclone of noise in whose eye I squat grows fainter and fainter and finally rubs shoulders with infinity. Not sound-as-touch, either. A complete absence of vibration. Zero Kelvin. If death is a drum, then it’s a ruse, a calling to a silent ceremony. The Great Composers will not be there, scribbling away each on his own cloud. Neither will Eric Dolphy. Instead, I imagine everyone will be opening and closing their mouths in the most strained fashion, as if trying and failing to hear themselves, and each other, endlessly.O

For a while in my early twenties, I had a ringing in my ears. It either stopped, or it receded to a point that my hearing no longer detects it, or my hearing receded to a point that it fell beyond my range, or my brain just grew used to it. I don’t know. My mother started with the same problem later in life, and her hearing in one ear has continued to degenerate. In time, she agreed to be fitted for a hearing aid. The problem was that my mother’s ear canal is too small for any of the factory kinds, and the custom-fit ones were more than my parents could afford. She tried a bunch of mass-market kinds, including one made for children’s ears. None fit. I can still see them trying: My father stands over her, her head is turned to one side, as if before a barber for shaving. He has to lubricate the hearing aid before trying to press it into her ear. It doesn’t hurt or anything, but they can’t get it to work. Watching them, I felt like I was witnessing a failed primal scene—my own. I suppose it will be like this when my mother can no longer hear me: as if I had never been born.

 

*  But the awning is also an excuse, our version of the Puritans’ hedge. I am a so-called pioneer. My presence asserts my class’s right to live anywhere. I say that the lines between neighborhoods, the class and race divides, are imaginary for those who can afford to cross them. This fundamental aggression, gloved in the market, is no less violent than the settler’s axe. Feigning blindness becomes a survival tactic.

†  I can’t neglect to mention the murder of white Christians at the head of the block; if I don’t know quite where they fit in, maybe that’s because they don’t know, either. Sect unknown, origin unknown, evangelical certainly; most of them are blonde and blue-eyed and look more like Mormons than most Mormons do. On some Sunday mornings they make hymns out of club hits (e.g., “Everybody Pray Now!”) which we can hear inside our bedroom half a block away.

§ Perhaps because it’s the place where we confront nature, or perhaps because it is the place where we sleep, it always rains harder out our back window than out the front. But it must be admitted that it rains hardest of all on the skylight in the stairwell, a sound like someone dropping money or pebbles on our building.

**  I feel a powerful nostalgia for the bedspring. When I was growing up, squeaking bedsprings were the sound of sex, to the point that any rhythmic or repetitive squeaking noise provoked giggles from schoolrooms full of boys and girls. While the rise of the futon hasn’t come close to replacing the bedspring, I don’t imagine the latter enjoys the same pre-eminence as a sexual signifier anymore. The humble bedspring of motel room and 16-millimeter pornography has been largely supplanted by the gallop of the bed frame; or by the sounds of the synthetic stuffings used in many new mattresses (e.g., fucking on the mattress at my parents’ house makes a sound like walking through packed snow); or by any other of a myriad of noises which compete against the bedspring for cultural significance.

††  I can’t possibly draw a complete sonic portrait of the building: I can’t be everywhere at once, and I can’t be awake and listening twenty-four hours a day, can I, so I must depend partly on second-hand information, which must be relegated to the margins of the portrait (were I to abandon my listening-post, the portrait would fall to pieces).

§§ They do, however, reveal quite a bit about the state of American society and culture (homogenized, authoritarian, fetishistic), and write a daily obituary for radio, be it the three or four worn-out Who tunes the Indian girls SNOOZEd through, or the Michael Jackson or Spanish pop or football announcers we hear from their replacements.

***  Not that there isn’t something endearing about him; I might have included him under the rubric of “sweetness.” He stands right by the window, so that, if I look across the street, I can see the shiny bell of the trumpet. He imparts to the melodies of “Frere Jacques” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” a palpable agony, desperately looking for handholds on the way up before the notes come tumbling down like a pile of cats on a slide.

 

*****

A  [Soundscape] A working definition might be useful. Here is the excellent one from Grove Music Online (Megan E. Hill, 2013): “A term generally referring to the entire mosaic of sounds heard in a specific area. […] Not all approaches to or definitions of soundscape are identical, but most tend to address the perceptual experience of a given environment by those living within it, rather than any scientifically gauging an objective acoustic reality. Furthermore, since the sonic environment (or soundscape) reflects the social, technological, and natural conditions of a space, soundscape scholars and artists tend to recognize that human beings’ presence and activities in an environment will have an indisputable effect on its soundscape. While the sounds of an environment give its inhabitants a socially defined, meaningful ‘sense of place,’ the place’s audible features also promote certain kinds of behavior by the inhabitants, whose activities then help shape the place’s sonic identity. For these reasons, a soundscape can be seen as both the acoustic manifestation of ‘place,’ and a medium through which a place’s social meaning is reconfirmed.” I like how this definition points to the dialectic between people producing sounds and sounds influencing people, as well as to the relationship between soundscape and meaning. The question to what extent a soundscape can be considered an “objective acoustic reality” (implying some entity removed from the soundscape measuring and recording) or the “perceptual experience … of those living within a given environment” is more fraught, as it brings up a host of issues about the relationship between listener and place—a key theme of the essay (see also note D).

B  [Noise] Based on my comments about the noisiness of Bushwick, my infatuation with The Soundscape (Destiny Books, 1994 [1977]) was predictable; and, just as it behooves us to be exact about place, it behooves us to examine how a key term like noise has been understood.

Schafer considers a variety of definitions: (a) unwanted or unmusical sounds, each of which he attempts to define; (b) excessively loud sounds; and (c) in electronics, anything that disturbs a signal (“what is listened to”) (182). Noise can thus be understood both qualitatively and quantitatively. The qualitative has an irreducible social dimension (noise disturbs “a significant portion of the public”) and needn’t be connected to the quantitative (i.e., not all annoying noises need be loud); the quantitative is abstract and measurable (in decibels). Schafer believes both are important, and as such he laments the historical turn in noise abatement legislation, and hence how we conceptualize noise, from quality (proscribing certain noises at certain times) to quantity (setting decibel thresholds). He also traces the general rise in ambient noise in cities, which is linked to a variety of maladies, including, but not limited to, hearing loss.

Jacque Attali’s Noise (Minnesota UP, 1985 [1977]) is more narrowly ideological in focus, but more expansive in what it terms noise. For Attali, noise reveals “the codes of life, the relations among men.” His analysis is thus qualitative; his primary definition aligns with Schafer’s (c), i.e., anything that interrupts a signal, although (a) (unwanted or unmusical sounds) is implied. Attali also contends that this “noise” is another signal interrupting the main signal. This begs a number of questions ignored by Schafer: Who is emitting the signal? I.e., who doesn’t want this other signal to interfere? Who is the intended recipient? (And: Who says it’s not music? Isn’t that one way music is disparaged: by being called just noise?) Similarly, Schafer’s “significant” in the “significant portion of the population” disturbed by noise can be read as an indicator of quality rather than quantity: those who are significant, i.e., those who wield power. Noise, then, is a signal that contends with and potentially jams the dominant message emitted by the powers-that-be. Attali’s list of negatives associated with noise—“destruction, disorder, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages” (27)—would seem to have an embedded causality: noise is the first four because it is the last; it is defined as such by power. (I am reminded of the work of the group Adbusters; they called it culture-jamming, i.e., interfering with and underming the “code-structuring messages” presented to us by corporate advertising.) Hence Attali’s ambivalent, but ultimately optimistic, understanding of noise (“musical” or not) as a herald of future social orders—optimistic because noise always signifies the potential of some way past the current order, even as there remains the possibility that the future will be even more repressive than the present.

Schafer would no doubt agree with Attali that “the world is not for the beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible” (3): a reorienting of the senses to give the ear its proper status. What divides them—one thing—is the meaning of what it heard: whether, as for Schafer, noise today is primarily causal and reflective (something is being done to us, partly by noise itself; something must be done about it); or, as for Attali, annunciatory, “foreshadowing new social formations,” as Frederic Jameson phrases it in his introduction: something will come to pass. And yet, for each the same question: Reflective of what? Annunciatory of what?

For Schafer, there is a direct correlation between the soundscape and the health of a society. “As the intensity of the modern soundscape or of modern music increases,” he writes, “tranquility diminishes.” Noise is at once cause and symptom of the illness. Contemporary society is also marked by a loss of rhythm (words like “sludge” and “slurry” punctuate his descriptions of the urban environment), which he attributes, pace Margaret Mead, to the loss of ritual. A “confused, erratic soundscape” is the mark of “a slovenly, imperiled society”; society must come to understand sound (and silence) or it “ultimately consumes itself in cacophony” (237). Given this, I have to imagine Schafer would have listened to Bushwick and heard all the evidence of a sick, anxious, restless society, devoid of ritual, and in desperate need of harmonizing.

And Attali—would he have approved of the noisiness, the restlessness of Bushwick, as indicative of the birth throes of a new social order? Perhaps. (Would he have deigned to live there? Perhaps not.) It would at very least have intrigued him; I doubt he’d have been as quick to diagnose. That the noise of Bushwick was an attempt by its residents to assert power and a sense of identity is a given. But to what extent was it successful? When is noise subversive, and when does it simply extend the mechanisms of domination and power, reproducing the “code-structuring message” on another, more intimate level? In other words: when is it an expression of hegemony, the rat race of capitalism, assimilated and made audible? To what extent does inhabiting the power of noise simply turn its centripetal tendencies back upon its makers? (For a discussion of centripetal sounds, see note J.) To what extent was the neighborhood making (and enjoying) noise only within the narrow confines in which power allowed it to flourish? When does “shout[ing one’s] suffering” represent actual political potential, when the safety valve, the slaves’ holiday? (Or was Frederick Douglass the teetotaler wrong, the holiday really an opportunity for the slaves to come together to sharpen their knives—the ones they kept hidden in their Bibles, the sound of the sharpening masked by the drone of their hymns?) (One problem in trying to answer the above questions is that the field of sound is never static: power will always attempt to appropriate and control noise, and, happily, noise will always find a way around power.) Given that the character of potential new orders cannot be audible at the moment the signal (or noise) is emitted—prophecy being by definition an utterance without proper context, since that context is withheld from us in time—how does one capitalize on the potential represented by noise and drive it in a more egalitarian direction? (Or, as David Rothenberg, who plays his clarinet with nightingales, asks: How does one really distinguish interruption from sharing—that is, when is the bird trying to cut you, and when is it a duet? See Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound, Chicago UP, 2019.) If music, as Attali believes, operates like power—and his definition is so broad, encompassing any art, practically any human endeavor, as to be meaningless—what possibility is there for a music that doesn’t, or that can’t be appropriated? What on earth does utopia sound like? (I can assure you, Monsieur Attali, that it did not sound like Bushwick in 2003.)

While Schafer is surely the more nostalgic of the two, interested as he is in preserving sounds in danger of extinction (see note L), and restoring some semblance of serenity and the possibility of concentration and contemplation, both clearly hear in sound the potential salvation of an impoverished, dehumanized society. Schafer gives to sound itself the more active, regenerative role—“tuning” or “harmonizing” the world; he also puts a premium on learning how to listen. Attali would probably be suspicious of Schafer’s tuning project, seeing it as too easily aligned with power. The music of the spheres descends from the heavens, from eternals; the noise of the masses is historically conditioned and rises from below. Attali’s utopia would seem to be something like the boisterous, inharmonious public square depicted in the Brueghel painting on the cover of the University of Minnesota edition of Noise; Schafer’s, a serene space of meditation, also captured in that book’s cosmic-mystical cover art, and even more, in its frontispiece, the 1617 woodcut by Robert Fludd from which the book takes its original title, The Tuning of the World. (No surprise The Soundscape was reissued by a press that publishes books with titles like Seed Sounds for Tuning the Chakras and The World Is Sound: Nada Brahma.)

As my questions probably suggest, I think I’m more pessimistic than Attali about noise’s potential and more ambivalent than Shafer about noise’s impact. Pleasures of the jeremiad notwithstanding, the essay decries noise and the alienation it both signifies and produces—and calls noise the life of the neighborhood, the energy and vitality which was part and parcel of the energy and vitality of the City. Then again, the life I point to is not the “slurry” of techno-industrial noise, but the voices of residents, so in danger of being drowned out (see note I). Clearly class and race play a role in both Schafer’s and my apprehensions, i.e., there must be something missing because of the volume at which “these people” live(d) their lives; perhaps the difference is that I was conscious of this attitude, and made questioning it part of my analysis (see also note J). I can’t help but believe that Schafer would have been attuned to the pockets of beauty my listening uncovered, when the tender shoots poked through the neighborhood’s quieter moments. There is also a strong possibility that I am more amenable to Schafer’s arguments now that I have moved out of the City (as I already had when I first encountered The Soundscape) than I might have been living in Bushwick. I am almost certainly more intolerant of noise.

C  [Waste] “The only framework inclusive enough to embrace all man’s undertakings with equal objectivity is the garbage dump” (Schafer 137).

D  [Keynote, Signal & Soundmark] According to Schafer, keynotes are ubiquitous or frequently- recurring sounds in a particular area/population; as a result, they are often not heard consciously; they are background noise. In Bushwick, these would have included the regular hum of traffic and the rituals of sanitation. Keynote is distinguished from signal as figure is from ground; the latter are heard consciously. Soundmarks are unique to a community, part of a culture’s or area’s (sonic) heritage, and thus the chief sounds about whose extinction Schafer frets (see note L). He mentions a much-cherished cannon and a traditional foghorn in the vicinity of Vancouver as examples.

Schafer admits that the division between keynotes and signals is not a hard and fast one; one person’s keynote may be another’s signal, depending on acculturation (which Schafer defines as “trained habits”), mood, and “the individual’s relation to the field (native/outsider),” with “field” here standing for the totality of a soundscape. As David Lowenthal puts it, “Perception of scenery is only open to those who have no real part to play in the landscape” (qtd. in Schafer 212). Natives’ keynotes thus stand out as signals for the tourist; Schafer himself mentions the scrape of chairs on Parisian terrazas. As important, the distinction “has nothing to do with the physical dimensions of the sound”—meaning that even those obnoxious ensembles of horns, alarms, sirens, and ice-cream music might have been keynotes to the “natives,” audible to them only when they stopped.

Although I say in the essay that I stopped and then started listening again, I don’t think I lived in Bushwick long enough for its keynotes to ever really escape my consciousness; and this is quite possibly why I heard so much. I was not a tourist, but I’m not sure I was ever a resident either, seeing it, like so many of my class, as a way-station to a better job, more money, a “nicer” neighborhood. And yet, isn’t that exactly what defines the communities in neighborhoods like Bushwick—in all immigrant communities, if not for themselves, then for their children, their grandchildren? If cities really are defined by an intensification of the rate of change (and concominant noise), this begs the question whether cities, particularly working-class/immigrant neighborhoods, are defined by an absence of keynotes, or at least an inability of keynotes to leave consciousness and form the sonic substratum on whose unknowing knowing community is founded. Maybe this is one secret of the alienation of the modern urban environment. Or maybe the sole keynote is the rat race, the ever-intensifying sound of destruction and creation, “the neighborhood Blitzkrieg” (185), as Schafer calls it: the BOOM I mention at the end of the “Back Window” section of the essay.

It can’t be quite that simple. Puerto Ricans, like the other ethnic groups that settled previously in Bushwick, brought their own rituals and behaviors with them: a tropical, outdoor culture resettled in a temperate megalopolis. (As Schafer reminds us, people naturally speak more loudly outdoors.) So there must have been keynotes that connected this community to their original communities and culture back on the island (e.g., P.R.-inflected Spanish spoken between buildings); and keynotes of the city that were probably transposed versions of the same, at least from those who came from places like San Juan (e.g., some level of traffic noise, sirens, car alarms, and commercial jingles); and, of course, New York keynotes for the many families that had lived in the City for generations: a mix of signals more or less heard, more or less listened to, keynotes rising to the level of signal, signals sinking to keynote, depending on a variety of factors linked to what Schafer terms “relation to the field”: exact place of origin, length of residence in New York, etc.

Interestingly, Schafer says that soundmarks are “specially regarded or noticed by the people of that community.” But must they be? Are all communities conscious of their own soundmarks? Does an outsider ever make a community aware of their imperiled sonic heritage—something familiar enough to be a keynote to them, but existing nowhere else, and so striking to the ear of a newcomer? Would they have the right to advocate for its persistence? (Imagine, for example, a sound associated with a particular kind of manual labor about to be replaced by a labor-saving machine.) Conversely, if a community does not specially regard a sound … is it worth saving? What about an extraordinary natural sound over which a community has jurisdiction, but which it has never regarded as “special”? These questions obviously touch on much broader ones about local autonomy, world heritage, and so on. Anyway: Had I asked community members in Bushwick in 2002, could they point to a sound worth saving? Or would they have looked at me like I was crazy? (Would that be Schafer’s case in point? He mentions at least once being regarded as nuts when he mentions his “tuning” project to public officials.)

When I try to come up with a soundmark for Bushwick in 2002, the sound that comes to mind is the clack of dominos against a tabletop. And yet, that was probably a summer-night keynote for any Puerto Rican community. Schafer’s examples are somewhat more permanent; unlike cannons and forghorns, dominos and folding tables easily move with a community; their extinction would be local, not general. And yet, one can easily imagine the sound disappearing, whether drowned by the homogenizing NYC traffic sludge or lost to the powers of cultural assimilation. The other precious sounds I catalogued from that time, like “Princess!” and La cucaracha, were even more transitory: the girl has grown up, Princess is long dead, La cucaracha surely moved on to some other lover, some other block, or, God forbid, some other horn tone. They are too specific and time-bound to save, and anyway, I have no idea what others thought about them, or if they even registered. (Perhaps persons as well as communities can have soundmarks?) (See note E.)

The native/outsider dynamic and the way it affects our perception of signals and keynotes also bears mentioning because the essay is so marked by an angst about alienation and displacement—both feeling displaced and participating in the displacement of others—and what it meant to be an artist living in a community to which one does not “belong”; and, more broadly, alienation as a constituting factor of city life. As the nod to Freud indicates, that’s one place—perhaps not the only place—the art comes from. With this in mind, I love Rothenberg’s point that maybe, just maybe, the nightingales who are the “best” singers (however we interpret nightingale aesthetics: we are not female nightingales!) are not characterized by the most successful mating habits, but rather the opposite—that they are singing their frustration, their desperation; their failure is in fact what produces the most ornate, beautiful songs: bird as neurotic artist. Why, he asks, should we imagine them to be so different from us?

E  [Sights, Sounds, Maps]  Schafer writes, “No silent projection of a soundscape can ever be adequate. The first rule must always be: if you can’t hear it, be suspicious” (132). Elsewhere he uses the terms “arbitrary,” “fictitious,” and “spurious” to describe visual representations of a soundscape. Sound must be answered with sound. But then there is no real sonic equivalent to aerial photography for taking a single broad “snapshot”; any adequate audio representation of a soundscape would require a mosaic of recordings taken at different points. Caveats aside, Schafer suggests a variety of ways for “mapping” soundscapes via different kinds of “aerial sonography.” An isobel contour map is one (purely quantitative) example. Another is an events map; for example, a person walks around a city block at a specific time and records what they hear, and then compares that to other like spaces; in this way “the more persistent and characteristic sounds would be conspicuously revealed” (132). That Schafer posits this as a preliminary discussion—a soundscape “notation” yet to be developed for a proper “score”—makes me curious whether and how the field has progressed in this regard.

Given these limitations (and Schafer’s warning to treat any maps as “hints,” lest we fall back into ocularcentric bad habits), language—being an earwitness, as Schafer terms it, by reporting what you hear—together with disciplining oneself to practice clairaudience (literally “clear hearing”), are probably the best surrogates to recording for capturing a soundscape. One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Soundscape is the way Schafer liberally raids the history of literature for revealing descriptions in the vast majority of human history that preceded the invention of recording technology. (I’ll add one I dearly love: in Maupassant’s “Boul de Suif,” the sound of carriage horses in a stable stamping their hooves against packed snow and jingling their bridles.) One might argue that, as a written text, The Soundscape is essentially just the sort of “silent projection” Schafer warns against—or rather a series of them, some quoted, some written by Schafer himself, interpolated throughout a text that is also theory, polemic, and analytical guide. And yet, language—written language—does sound, if only in our minds; one might even speculate that the writers we most love are the ones who find the fundamental resonance of our skull, and set our whole craniosphere a-humming. If Schafer exhibits none of the misgivings of his colleague Rothenberg (“Why do I keep writing books about something that communicates so much more poignantly through sound?”), that may be because, as I noted in my introduction, his linguistic gifts are nothing short of musical. But then Rothenberg is less suspicious than Schafer about visual representations. While Schafer looks forward to a time when the ear and eye are recalibrated and put on equal terms, Rothenberg concedes that the human species is visually oriented: visual representations are not simply for “the inexperienced,” but for all of us. Rothenberg even asks whether, at the dawn of the computer age, we are just beginning to understand data in aesthetic terms. (It’s true: the complex graphs of nightingales songs reproduced on the color plates of Nightingales are lovely.)

In light of some of Schafer’s suggestions for analyzing soundscapes, it’s interesting that I decided to remain almost entirely stationary, and to organize what I heard by listening station. I try to account for this in the essay by noting that the sounds I heard from the front and back windows were totally different; regardless, by staying put, I suggest the idea of a listening perspective. And yet, unlike landscapes, soundscapes unfold in time. Lawrence Kramer elaborates on this in The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening (California UP, 2018): even the term “soundscape” is paradoxical—it “affirms the independence of the auditory with a visual metaphor” (86)—and as such it re-inscribes the “traditional tyranny of the eye.” (He prefers “auditory worlds” or “the heard world.”) In fact, the visual idea of a landscape has contaminated the way soundscape is theorized: landscapes presuppose a gaze, action in the foreground against a static background. But “sound does not act this way. It fills space audibly with action, change, or motion but with nothing in the background except the promise of more sound, which is to say, nothing but the audiable.” (For more on “the audiable,” see note O).

While I acknowledge Kramer’s criticism, I don’t think he quite does justice to the term, at least as Schafer conceived it. First, Schafer suggests that the proper materials for a soundscape are recurring, characteristic sounds that, Kramer concedes, come closest to the concept of landscape. In order to discover something of the identity or character of a place via its sound, you have to attend to constant, repeated, or cyclical sounds. (Conversely, even in a landscape, figure and ground are not always entirely separable. In a painting of a field, for example, a group of reapers would ostensibly be “figures,” yet the event portrayed is a cyclical one closely tied to the landscape represented; if they are figures, they are very different figures from, say, a solitary traveler, or a battle scene.) Second, Schafer notes that one feature of modernity is exactly the transformation of sonic diversity into a monotonous, mechanical drone: the flat line. We might take this one step further and ask whether the “sickness” Schafer hears is indeed a dissolution of that changeability of sound Kramer emphasizes into something approaching the visual drone of landscape. Finally, one thing I like about the Oxford definition is its emphasis on the spatial quality of hearing. Like vision, sound orients us in our environment. Just as we stop to gaze at something, we stop and listen—partly, one assumes, in order not to confuse the sounds of our movement with the sounds we want to take account of, and to properly shift our attention. We perform some equivalent to gazing with the ear, as I clearly tried to do in Bushwick.

And then the poet in me wants to ask: Given the synaesthetic imagination—and given the importance of mental processing to what we often mistakenly regard as “raw” perception—is it possible we’re making too much of the hegemony of vision, the differences between the senses? Maybe they are less competitors than conspirators.

That said, Kramer is right to point to flux as the essence of sound. Just as Schafer cautions us to be “suspicious” of “silent projections,” so it is good to be reminded that the “scape” in “soundscape” is metaphor, and not let it distort or even replace the “picture.” I think Schafer hints at this in his comments about the way keynotes and signals can flip-flop, like one of those perspectival puzzles, depending on an individual’s relationship to a field; “figure” can never become “ground” in quite the same way, or to the same degree, it can in painting (see note D). Kramer’s attention to the changeability of sound also points to a difficulty that confronts any soundscape analyst: to what extent does one foreground (there it is again!) constant, regular, or cyclical sounds, to what extent one-time events? How often, how regular, how widely heard must a sound be to “make the cut”? If I leave point A to walk around a block, as Schafer suggests, and hear a dog bark at point B, do I know whether the dog at point B is a regular occurrence? What sonic information am I now missing at point A? Was the dog audible there? I could have left recording equipment at point A, and listened later; I could leave recording equipment throughout the neighborhood and set it to turn on and off at a certain time, thus capturing the “mosaic” of a certain sonic envelope. But at how many points? Dispersed how widely? What would a “total” soundscape sound like? Is such a thing even possible? Schafer suggests not, and I suggest as much as well in one of the endnotes; we are back at the problem articulated in the Oxford definition between subjective perception and objective measurement. (Two quick notes. First, a “total” landscape is also an impossibility, since detail depends on distance, resolution, medium, etc.; the difference seems to be that landscape already presupposes distance, an “outside” perspective. Second, we should be careful to distinguish here between landscape, which, like my stationary listener, however knottily, implies perspective, and map (sonic or otherwise), which is aerial, and tends toward pure abstraction—hence that need for a mosaic of recordings … which could only form the substance of some more abstract sonic representation, a “map” at which we can only guess …)

Even for relatively ephemeral sounds, when we subsume specifics into a more general category (“Princess!” would be something like “Children and animals in the street,” La cucaracha “personalized car horns”), we lose some of the most salient aspects of a soundscape, the ones that best define its character—and capture its beauty. Maybe this is the rub of answering sound with sound, or least recognizing the limits of abstraction.

F  [Referents & Music] Schafer notes that context is essential to understand the meaning of sounds; removed from their contexts, sound objects “may quickly lose their identities” (150). It is one reason he prefers the term “sound event” to “sound object”: event implies context, and context yields meaning. One of my favorite examples he cites is the sound of a coffee grinder, a (literally) grating, terrifying sound people were unable to place as an everyday household item when they heard it on a recording. I have long used the analogy of an experimental film a professor once described to me—the camera slowly pulls back from a red, bubbling liquid, widening the frame to reveal … a pot of sauce boiling on the stove—to help students understand the importance of proper framing.

The danger here is that once we connect something to its referent—once we recognize its name—we stop really listening: the coffee grinder is a morning keynote, a half-waking sound. For the sonic tourist (see note D), the shock of the new activates the senses; we try to discern what we are hearing, and give it is proper place; we become like a “primitive man” whose “whole body was an ear” (Schafer 24). “Hearing,” Rothenberg writes, “can be forgetting the name of the things one hears” (12): we listen to these sounds the way we listen to music, less for what each sound is than for the overall blend. “No sound,” Rothenberg warns us, “is ever safe from being considered music” (91).

In this sense, context isn’t important for understanding the meanings of individual sounds, but rather the opposite: the soundscape must be understood as a totality, “a field of interactions” (Schafer 131) in which sounds affect and change each other: a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It turns out that Zeno has at least one other paradox: What do we hear when we hear a bushelful of corn dumped onto the floor? Not the sum of the aggregrate grains, but the sound of the bushel, which is an entirely different thing (Schafer 159). In Bushwick, the horn, the ambulance siren, the ice cream truck song, and the car alarm did indeed all come together into something where the identity of each individual emitter was forgotten for the whole: a seething, shifting chord progression, modulation without possible resolution, similar to patterns across the city, yet indigenous to 239 Stanhope Street, like individual leaves on the same tree. The shame, as I say in the essay, if cities were revealed to be no more than additive, rather than transformative: here, it is just this confluence that is transformative, the individual notes lost in the chord. (While it’s true that Schafer considers noise in both its quantitative and qualitative dimensions, one wonders whether his anxiety about intensification misses the point: the city soundscape is an entirely different organism.)

G  [Community] “Today the world suffers from an overpopulation of sounds; there is so much acoustic information that little of it can emerge with clarity. In the ultimate lo-fi soundscape the signal-to-noise ratio is one-to-one and it is no longer possible to know what, if anything, is being listened to” (Schafer 71). Yet, as per Marshall McLuhan’s belief that we may be returning to a mode of perception closer to medieval times (which faded with the rise of print culture), some aspects of city life make the ear the pre-eminent organ of perception (as noted in the introductory section of the essay). Schafer argues that the eye is an organ of distance, of perspective, and of outwardness; the ear draws inward (11). In the noise of the city, perspective is lost: “On a downtown street corner […] there is no distance; there is only presence” (43). We may indeed have a signal-to-noise problem … but might the “slurry” in which we are all embedded position us differently with respect to community? In place of lost solitude and contemplation, we have the buzz of the hive, the complex interconnectedness of the web.

This idea reappears in Schafer’s discussion of bass. Bass sounds carry further, and their direction is more difficult to determine; they fill space, much in the way that Gregorian chant suffused the reverberant spaces of cathedrals. Without any way to localise the sound, we become immersed in it; the effect, at least in medieval times, was to submerge individuality and strengthen the bond between individual and community. In the essay, that reverberation appears in the volume of the bass, the way it seeks out the frequency of our spaces and buzzes our windows and walls: neighborhood-as-cathedral. Pace Attali, we may be emerging into a new order, one where noise is no longer a means or expression power uses to define and conquer territory, but of social presence through noise (see notes J and M.)

Of course, we may be emerging (have emerged?) into an anaesthetized, brutalized new order where walls of sounds isolate rather than connect us. Schafer certainly seemed to think so: a world of drone and white noise that puts us to sleep and dulls or distracts us from the pain and alienation of modern life: audioanalgesia. Attali can be similarly jaundiced about the ubiquity of some kinds of noise: it is “as if, in a world now devoid of meaning, a background noise were increasingly necessary to give people a sense of security” (4); Muzak, he reminds us, billed itself as the “security system of 1970s” (8). Schafer’s project at least is one of sonic awakening, of becoming conscious of the sonic world we inhabit: “The way to defeat Moozak [“schizophonic musical drool” of which Muzak is just one example] is quite simple: listen to it” (98). (Cf. the words of artist Taras Mashtalir: “Sound art is made to sensitize people to the sounds of their surrounding world” (qtd. in Rothenberg 102; my emphasis). This indeed seems to be the goal of the ear-cleaning and close-listening exercises Schafer would have us all do, and the goal of soundscape analysis more generally. At least, that’s what I’ve always told my writing students. In their reflective writing, many of them do note that they end up hearing many, many things they hadn’t heard before.

H  [Silence 1] Kramer notes that one effect of the invention of recording technology was to reveal the absence of sound: “The photograph was always silent; the phonograph makes it seem moot” (123). This is most clear from film history, as the silents quickly became unpalatable for the audiences of garrulous thirties talkies. The rub: “The more possible sound reproduction becomes, the more necessary sound in itself is revealed to be.” In the essay, city silence is figured as a void, an absence. I come back to this point at the end of the essay, and in note O.

I  [Nature] The absence of birdsong from this essay is absolutely deafening.

I remember my mother’s sadness when her high school students in Elizabeth, New Jersey complained about the birdsongs outside their classroom window. It’s clear why a keynote sound of suburban and rural areas might be disruptive to someone who has spent their whole life in an urban environment. But how could they find something so beautiful unpleasant—the nails-on-a-chalkboard sound that, Schafer tells us, is universally reviled, even though precisely what makes it so escapes analysis?

I understand why Schafer, like my mother, lamented citygoers’ loss of connection to natural sounds, to natural sound symbolism, and the latter’s connection to myth and mystery. I’m sure many readers of Schafer become impatient with his jaundiced view of modernity, and that others seethe at his white Canadian environmentalism, Ludditism, and New-Agey project of Ohm-ing the world back to sanity. Caveats aside (e.g., notes B and J), I find the jeremiad endearing, the utopianism moving, and both even more necessary today than they were forty-five years ago. I share with Schafer a loathing for all the “sonic jabberware” that destroys our opportunities for concentration and contemplation. (“The real depreciation of concentration began after the advent of the telephone” (89): how could such a statement not be music to my ears? (Confirmation bias, anyone?) The book’s most ironic moment: when he suggests fixing this through the development of musical ring tones!) His comments on the sonic toll of loss of wild spaces prefigures the work of Bernie Krause: loss of species diversity is paralleled by a loss of acoustic diversity and a general impoverishment of the audible world (see Rothenberg, p. 67, and also Krause, The Great Animal Orchestra, Little, Brown, 2012).

The difficulty, of course, is articulating all this without sounding like a guru or a missionary (i.e., a patronizing asshole). Before going all Jane Jacobs on Schafer’s (or my) ass (cities are for people; the idea that city parks are “lungs” is nonsense, etc.—she was right, of course, and I swear she was standing on my other shoulder in those moments where Schafer arguments got too seductive), we should be careful not to strawman his argument. He was as concerned with the loss of cultural diversity as natural, and his arguments resonate with arguments about the homogenizing and impoverishing effects of cultural imperialism. Wouldn’t lost languages, many of them not written, have their own wing in the Museum of Lost Sounds (note L)? They absolutely would.

Schafer’s call to re-center social experience on a human scale also resonated with me. He makes an analogy with Le Corbusier’s architecture: the image of a man with upstretched arms to denote the proper relation between edifice and person. Why shouldn’t the same hold true for sound? “When, as today, environmental sound reaches such proportions that human vocal sounds are masked or overwhelmed, we have produced an inhuman environment” (Schafer 207): the human ear, the human voice, must be the measure. In this Schafer echoes E.M. Forster, another great technophobe with a similarly low opinion of the automobile. Indeed, “Man is the measure” is the sentence Kuno, the rebel in Forster’s prescient early sci fi tale “The Machine Stops,” repeats to himself as he struggles to rediscover the human in a world ruled by one giant Machine. In advocating for a human-scale environment, Schafer also reminds me of E.F. Schumacher—Small Is Beautiful (the title of Schumacher’s best-known work) might not perfectly fit Schafer, but the two are kindred in terms of their perception of the impact of scale on humanity and their questioning the orthodoxy of “progress.”

To bring this back to Bushwick: yes, the arguments on the stoops were annoying. But Schafer is right to point out that, when they disappear, well, there goes the neighborhood. It wasn’t the football hitting the car, but the car alarm that went off as a result; not the couples fighting on the stoops or even the recluse sifting through the trash, but the sirens and horns and blaring jingles of ice cream trucks. (Camus remembers the ice cream vendors’ tin horns. If only!) I can only hope the thirty-five-year-old author of the essay comes across as bigger than just a disgruntled child of the suburbs who happened to find himself in a working-class neighborhood for a couple of years. Navigating between the Skylla of disparagement and Kharybdis of romanticizing isn’t easy, and consciousness of the danger—a map, a compass, an explicit note—only gets one so far. One still has to sail. Am I imposing my assumptions about the examined life being the good life, about the need to have the space and opportunity to reflect, onto people who have their own lives to live, their own dreams to pursue? Or am I affirming them, by asserting that all people, irrespective of class or race, should have the opportunity to cultivate their inner lives? (Isn’t that the fucking point of public higher education?) Regardless of how I come across here—and at a distance of almost two decades it hardly seems to matter—it might be worth noting that I attempted to define the problem as broader than just class and race; it is about social evolution and the trend toward urbanization more generally. (I think it was Mike Davis in City of Slums who noted that we only recently passed the point where more than half of humanity now lives in urban environments.) Maybe the bigger question for today is whether continued evolution in this direction is even possible, given the dire state of the inhabitable planet.

J  [Territory] Schafer: “The definition of space by acoustic means is much more ancient than the establishment of property lines and fences” (33). As such, the extension of sonic capability by technology enables what Schafer calls sound imperialism: the subjugation of others by noise. He writes, “When sound power is sufficient to create a large acoustic profile, we may speak of it, too, as imperialistic” (77). For Schafer, as for Attali, the development of the technological capability to make noise is closely linked to the ability to wield it as a form of power; one effect has been the destruction of local cultures and the disappearance of indigenous sounds (see note I).

Of course, the power to dominate space through noisemaking has become, if not quite democratized, at least widely available, in the form of souped-up engines, boomboxes, and so on; these are gleefully seized upon as means of asserting sonic power; and this “enthusiasm for technological noise” is aligned with feelings of prosperity and progress (Schafer 179). Whether encouraging territoriality and the fetishizing technology as “progress” can be imbued with some sort of progressive political potential is, once again, an open question (see note B). To improvise on Audre Lorde: the master’s tools are still the master’s; they are made for building masters’ houses. I’m also reminded of Jurgis, the protagonist in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, who is initially enamored of the meatpacking factories in Chicago because he imagines that his association with the great industrial machine somehow empowers him, too.

I’m drawn as well to Schafer’s distinction between what he calls centripetal and centrifugal sounds. Church bells, for example, pull the community toward a central point, to worship; sirens announce a disharmony within the community and push people away. (Never mind the crowds that gather at accident scenes!) Perhaps one way to evaluate a neighborhood would be by calcuating the proportion between the dominance (frequency, intensity, character) of centripetal and centrifugal sounds; one could then assign a number range to signify a relative bill of health, or the opposite. Where Bushwick was concerned, one problem was that volume most definitely made erstwhile centripetal sounds (such as radios and ice cream trucks) less inviting. (In fact, Schafer himself notes the irony of the decreasing number of church bells—once the ne plus ultra of centripetal soundmakers—in an increasingly secular world: more often than not, they are removed because of noise complaints! (177)) Once again, what is inviting is complicated by the relationship between listener and community: the kids in the neighborhood ran to the ice cream truck; my neighbor was tempted; I shut the office window (see note D). Anyway, perhaps this is one way to read my comment that people are “evicted from their own voices by the noise”: the aggregation of centripetal sounds forces them from their sonic home, themselves.

K  [Night] The sense that nighttime allows us to hear hidden aspects of the city that are not audible at other times, and so reveal something, finds an echo in Schafer, who tells us that, in the low-fi world of the modern city (cf. note G), night is the most hi-fi time. Tellingly, Schafer compares night in the city with the country, and with “primitive man,” whose enchanted (and printless) world necessitated that he live more by sound (note F). My analysis in the essay literalizes this analogy: at night, I didn’t just hear like I was in country; I actually heard the country. Did I hear the country because it was more hi fi? In other words, did my ear/mind foreground those associations because night in the city sounds more “rural”?

L  [Museums] Remarking the pace of change of the modern world, Schafer asks, “Where are the museums for disappearing sounds?” It’s something with which this essay grapples on a number of levels. On a personal level, reading it more than fifteen years later brought the neighborhood back to me—sounds I had forgotten, and memories and aspects of the neighborhood associated with the sound events I had “recorded.” More broadly, Bushwick today is utterly different from Bushwick in 2002. Would I even recognize my block, my building? The essay is thus a catalog of sounds that have most likely disappeared, not from history per se, but from this particular neighborhood—local rather than general extinction. On yet another level, the essay takes the restless pace of change of the city as one of its key themes: the noise of cities is the noise of this constant revamping, of “progress” (see note D). But these pasts, I argue, are nostalgically enfolded inside the city’s successive presents, like nesting dolls. Thus, the city is a museum of its own pasts, though they only become audible at certain times, from certain vantages, and according to certain modes of listening (see notes E & K).

M  [Erotics] Noting the close connection between hearing and touch—the one becomes the other at frequencies below 20 Hz.—Schafer calls the ear “an erotic orifice.” “Hearing is a way of touching at a distance,” he writes, “and the intimacy of the first sense is fused with sociability whenever people gather together to hear something special” (11). This suggests that an erotics of listening is broader than cities; maybe the difference is that, as the essay notes, in cities people are helplessly “gathered together,” and the vibrational keynote, as it were, makes city life a fundamentally erotic experience.

Hearing is a haptic activity, to borrow the term affect theorist Laura Marks borrows from Deleuze and Guattari to describe a kind of (in her case) looking where “the eyes themselves function like organs of touch” (qtd. in Anahid Kassabian, Ubiquitous Listening, California UP, 2013). Kassabian adds that haptics “are closely tied to erotics, to the dissolution of boundaries, to an erosion of self-other distinctions. […] This is a shift from positioning and identification toward a more dynamic account of the relationship between us and the things with which we interact” (xvii). There are multiple crossover points here, though I am particularly drawn to the way the shifting power dynamics between self and other are reflected in the essay.

One more note: Schafer’s comment that “primitive man’s whole body was an ear” reminds me of Roland Barthes’s comment about the idiocy of the concept of erogenous zones: Schafer’s “primitive man” has a Barthian flavor, one whose arousal is not limited to those areas of the body sanctioned by a culture (which does not yet exist). It is a state to which both thinkers would have us return (e.g., “Through the practice of contemplation, little by little, the muscles and the mind will relax and the whole body opens out to become an ear” (262).).

N  [Performance] In his description of “soundwalk” activities for encouraging clairaudience, Schafer invites researchers to listen to the sounds they themselves make—for example, the sound of their footsteps as they walk on different surfaces. The audience thus becomes part of the composition/performance; the listener/recorder is also a participant, embedded in the soundscape they set out to study (see notes A, D, and G). This echoes the inward turn at the end of the essay, where I try to account for myself and my own contributions to the soundscape. At the same time, I try to extend this observation to questions about art, race, and class: the power differential between acoustic voyeur and subject, the former of whom has the means to publicize (publish, record) the sounds of the neighborhood, and whose role as part-tourist, part-resident—“a tourist with a typewriter,” as the John Goodman character calls the Arthur Miller figure in Barton Fink—means they are differently embedded: we are all participants, but not in the same way, or to the same degree. The “auditorium,” as it were, is a complex and multifaceted social edifice.

O  [Silence 2] Given that I took some time to flesh out the meaning of noise, it seems only right to do the same with a concept so often figures as its opposite: silence. If Schafer doesn’t treat it with the same sort of analytical rigor he does noise, this may be because the mystical importance he ascribes to it makes it more difficult to define.

Stillness, Schafer notes, “at one time […] a precious article in an unwritten code of human rights” (254), has come to figure negatively in the modern Western mind: “solemn, oppressive, deathlike, numb, weird, awful, gloomy, brooding, eternal, painful, lonely […]. It is not the silence of contentment and fulfillment. It is not the silence toward which this book is modulating” (146). (Indeed, the title of his last chapter of The Soundscape is “Silence.”) “Stillness” here forms a nice antipode to restlessness, that Western disease which finds its most degraded expression in American culture (productivity as an end in itself, boundless ambition and status-seeking, hyperconsumption, etc.) Schafer relates restlessness to “Western man’s” fear of death, which causes us to “avoid silence to nourish his fantasy of perpetual life. […] If one has nothing to say, the other will speak; hence the garrulity of modern life which is extended by all kinds of sonic jabberware” (256). (Cf. Attali’s comment that “life is full of noise and … death alone is silent” … though for Attali, the fear of noise is only a fear of death insofar as power fears its own dissolution.) “A recovery of contemplation,” Schafer continues, “would teach us how to regard silence as a positive and felicitous state in itself, as the great and beautiful backdrop over which our actions are sketched and without which they would be incomprehensible, indeed could not even exist” (258). He approvingly quotes the Indian mystic Kirpal Singh: “When there is no sound, it is said that there is no hearing, but that does not mean that hearing has lost its preparedness. Indeed, when there is no sound, hearing is most alert, and when there is sound the hearing nature is least developed” (259).

This point, which (almost) concludes The Soundscape, can be understood as a springboard for the series of meditations that constitute Kramer’s beautiful The Hum of the World, which attempts to delineate the elusive concept of the audiable: a sort of anticipatory hearing on which the possibility of hearing is predicated, and whose liminal presence Hum attempts to tease out. The half-heard, the overheard, the heard-at-a-distance—all are potential moments when the audiable appears; the concept finds its corollary in the essay in the moments of silent anticipation of noise-to-come (BOOM); in those of distant listening at night, at the back window; and in the analogy to the miraculous bouquets seen always out of the corner of the eye. Note that Kramer’s “listening into the future” is not Attali’s listening. Indeed, “Listening into the future is just—listening”: the act of hearing is embedded in time, connecting sound to “the sense of life,” not opposed to but continuous with silence. Rothenberg quotes sounds artist Gordon Hempton on listening to the (near-)silence of the Heleakala Crater; listening to a recording he made, he recalls “the revelation of how peaceful a natural place can sound in sustained anticipation of the rising sun” (93; my emphasis). This is precisely where The Soundscape ends, and an “audiable” moment that would fit perfectly into The Hum of the World.

Silence is thus much more than the absence of sound, or noise—a purely negative category—but rather a subjective apprehension of the world and consciousness. Schafer recalls that John Cage’s revelation (“there’s no such thing as silence”) came to him in an anechoic (noise-suppressing) chamber, when he realized he could still hear the sounds of his own body. This seems to be the way silence is most often understood as a positive term: not zero noise, but a state of extreme quiet and stillness, when sounds are on the threshold of the audible—perhaps even when the sounds of our body are confused with the sounds of the elements around us. Hempton calls these states of near-inaudibility quietudes(Rothenberg 92) and specializes in finding and recording them.

At the same time that these thinkers and artists covet and try to make audi(a)ble (lost) silence, Rothenberg points out that we are a “noise-seeking species,” at home first and foremost in the noise of our stream of consciousness, the chatter of our own minds. There is a direct correlation between this idea and Schafer’s about the fear of death: that chatter is the sound of self-consciousness, the I-think-therefore-I-am noise that tells us we’re alive. For Schafer, this, too, must be emptied for us to achieve a felicitious, contemplative silence: “still the mind […] then everything else will follow in time” (259; my emphasis).

The “Front Window” section of the essay confronts the question: What is left of the chatter of the mind when it has been replaced by “sonic jabberware” and wallpaper “musical drool”? When the tide of city-noise retreats, does it leave a vacuum, which people, terrified rather than elated, rush to fill with some other noise, as Schafer contends, and as Kramer’s note about photography (note H) suggests? Does the city turn people inside out? There are also moments of revelatory quietude, particularly in the “Back Window” section; there are considerations of the social rather than existential meaning of silence, as in the image of money stuffed in the ears: avoidance, deliberate deafness, thick walls. But the fact that the essay ends with an image of death as negative silence, as void—an inability to make oneself heard—is inescapable: silence not as a “positive, felicitous state,” but as an absence, a felt absence, and death as a state in which it cannot be filled. This is a reasonable enough reading; I can’t pretend to be any closer to escaping “Western man’s fear of death” now than I was two decades ago. My mind is a chatterbox; unlike Schafer, I am at home in its noise and see no reason to quiet it; I have a tendency to spill it out in page after page of prose, as the reader has by now surely noticed. And if you haven’t, no worries; here comes the silence. Wait for it:

Two Saints

After the uncollected diptychs of Herman Melville.

I. Saint Nick’s

It lay not far from the northwest entrance to the 145th Street station of the A-B-C-D trains.

A nondescript brown door, open dusk to gloam, a few up from the fish-n-chips place, Devlin’s, I think it was called. You heard it before you saw it. Then the light coming from inside. A few steps down. Always down.

The whole place blinked like a jukebox. Smelled like a warmed-up tube amp. (I also smelled: gasoline, perfume, leather, piss, cigarettes.) People, rubbing against you like starving cats. Nobody could help it; the place was too small; there were too many of us; there was no fire code to speak of.

There was no no-talking policy. There was an anti-no-talking policy. The music had to fight its way into the here and now or it wasn’t heard at all. It was never given carte blanche, the way it is in the shrines to the south. The legendary toughness of the Harlem crowd: Show me. Prove it.

The tables between the bar and the band were mostly (though never entirely) occupied by tourists. The foremost tables were pushed right up against the musicians. There was no bandstand, of course.

Oh, hell, I give up. I have no coherent memory of this place anymore. Only bits and pieces. And I can’t go back. It must be almost a decade since they shut the door of the St. Nick’s Pub. Maybe I should abandon Melville and write more like Joe Brainerd, even if that means the memories are mixed up with other memories from the eight years I lived in Harlem. Like this:

I remember the talking drummer dancing while he played, one hand fluttering against the drumhead. The bass player had a small gap between his front teeth, and hair I envied.

I remember the paunchy geek dancing by the bar, all sharp elbows and sharp chin and Fabio hair. When the percussionist headed for the door between sets, the geek gave him such a good-natured whack on the arm you’d have thought they were old friends. I only heard the last words the percussionist said: “Just don’t hit me again.”

I remember the bandleader walking around with a collection plate, people talking into his ear.

I remember the harmonica player in the D.R. wifebeater pumping his arm like he was blowing a train whistle, the women shimmying at the table in front of him.

I remember the drunk airline pilot trying to pick up a woman by the door.

I remember the bartender made me a special whiskey sour one night. It took him a good five minutes, walking from one end of the bar to the other, for this and that. I have no idea what he put in there. Maybe he was taking me for a ride. It tasted good.

I remember the Japanese barmaid. And wondering what the connection was between the Japanese and Harlem. There was a Japanese sax player one night, too.

I remember my neighbor, telling me the dresser we were thinking of buying in one of the other apartments in our building had belonged to the Japanese woman seen cradling Malcolm X’s head in the famous photo from his assassination. Possible, but I wish my neighbor’s wife had been there; she was good at calling him on his bullshit.*

I remember standing at the bar hearing Greg Porter sing “1960what?” for the first time over the PA, and somebody saying he was a St. Nick’s regular made good.

I remember the jazz pictures tacked or taped up around the pipes and such. Bird next to the fire extinguisher. Lady Day over the payphone. There was a picture of Lionel Ritchie, too, and a painting, “The Man,” though I’ve forgotten who The Man was, or what He looked like. Just that He was present.

I remember the cutout H-A-P-P-Y  B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y on a string behind the bar. The bibs made of napkins they tied around the neck of your Sugar Hill beer. And Christmas lights, of course.

I remember the food, on a table just past the bar. Paper plates and a checkered plastic tablecloth. You can only really hear the music if you know there were paper plates and a checkered plastic tablecloth.

I remember a horn solo. A broken diva. And a keyboard player who moved his body like a marionette, rolling his shoulders, flattening his hands against the keys …

I have no coherent memory of this place. But I do have the distinct impression I heard better music here than anyplace else in the City. Maybe anyplace else period. That this place was closer to the spirit of music, closer to the essence of what music is. Even with Sugar Hill turning to salt, the bitter taste of highrises going up over bulldozed lots, the gut-renovated brownstones, the lives cast into dumpsters up and down 145th Street (“you can fit a whole neighborhood in a dumpster,/ if you really try”), all the real-estate bullshit that throttled and continues to throttle the spirit of music (and pretty much everything else) in the City, there was still this little unvanquishable mecca.

I’m know, I’m romanticizing. I don’t care.

It may be history now, but it was so adamantly not historical—not a place interested in preserving some PBS image of jazz, but present and vital, there in the African diaspora community that I have now been away from for as long as I lived there.

I was holding these notes for a celebration, a reopening. Instead, they have become a piecemeal elegy. I had to dig them out of old journals. Some of them were no longer legible. They’re not enough. They’re all I have. They don’t add up to anything. They ease my longing, a little.

 

* E.g.: “Jimmy Baldwin! Jimmy! Honey, remember when I introduced you to Jimmy?” “I remember you pointing him out to me from across the room.”

 

*****

 

II. Saint Vitus

It lies not far from Gowanus Canal. But that is immaterial.

“Meet Me at St. Vitus.” An anthem, & a bit of Satanic doggerel, in honor of St. Vitus Bar’s successful Kickstarter campaign and impending not-really-post-pandemic resurrection. Sung, obviously enough, to the tune of “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Music by Kerry Mills. Lyrics by Helldriver, who would like to acknowledge the assistance of Profs. Hafen S. Bergius and Baciyelmo in preparing this authoritative edition.

Ahem.

 

When Vitus got home from the pub

To dismember the corpse in his tub

He called Apollyon

But his wifey was gone

Without leaving him one shred of grub.

 

A note had been stuck by his wifey

To the door with an old butcher knifey

It ran, “Vitus, my dear, a demon growled in my ear,

Said he would buy me a shot and a beer,

So I’m off now to start my new lifey.”

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show

Don’t tell me there’s a darker place

A hundred miles below

 

“We’ll dance the selfsame Vitus

Till our feet swell with elephantitus

the blood runs from our eyes

and our flesh liquefies

If you meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show.”

 

Vitus grabbed his spikes and his leather

And an umbrella for the balmy weather

Abbath drove the train

Through the gaslit subterrane

Of the region referred to as nether.

 

Some hell-wench was working the door

her forearms all slathered with gore

She said, “What’s that? The show?

It’s as sold as my soul,

And don’t try that I’m-on-the-guest-list shit, either.”

 

So he showed her three sixes branded

To the top of his behornéd head

Said she with a grin,

“Why didn’tcha say so? C’mon in!

Elevator’s on the left. Push nine.”

 

He’d gone four, five, six circles down

When he cried, “What on earth is that sound?

Like a Cerebus-pound

Or some cursed Injun mound

Where the infants are ground

Where the demons are crowned

And the fire’s kept stoked all year round, all year round,

And the fire’s kept stoked all year round.

(And what’d she write on that note that I found?)”

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the pub

Don’t tell me there’s a finer partner

For drinking than ol’ Beelzebub

 

He’s got a hollow leg—or three—

And cheeks as red as a cherub

So meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the pub.”

 

Then opened the door on a scene

From a nightmare well-leavened with spleen

The sludge-stench of unguents

Crotchless-Todd-Rundgren pungent

And the nuts of Ted Nugent

Roasted more than was prudent

By enslaved, undead culinary students

Told the presence of all things unclean.

 

In a booth was his dear wifey pressed

In a bodice of leather was she dressed

Asmodeus to her left

His hoofage all cleft

With Jaeger her invertedly blessed.

 

Took Vitus his Jaeger sans chaser

When the music hit him like a Taser

The bartenders all carved

“SLAYER” into their arms

With the blade of a dull, rusty razor.

 

Said he, “Well, it’s not what I’d planned …

But can you beat that motherfucking band?

I’m shutting my Bible

For if I don’t, I’m liable

To wind up worse off than the damned.”

 

Now he’s stuck in this place all eternity

For the devil has proved his paternity

And the music’s sure fine

be it punk, thrash, or grind

Or sui generis a-reek with slatternity.

 

Soooooooooo … [everybody!!]

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus,

meet me at the show

Don’t tell me there’s a darker place

A hundred miles below

 

“We’ll dance the selfsame Vitus

till the angels all spite us

the demons be-(k)night us

to acts of violence incite us

like Andronicus Titus

to executions invite us

rabid mambas to bite us

pestilence to blight us

If you’ll meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show.”

 

[de rigeur blistering electric something-or-other solo; then, climactic reprise:]

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus,

meet me for a beer

don’t tell me bangers are banging

thrashers are thrashing

moshers are moshing

eyeballs a-popping

bunnies a-hopping

Azathoth a-flopping

anyplace but here, but here,

anyplace but heeeeeeeeeere!”

 

[Clap. Clap. Clap.]

 

[follows a list of variants from previously published versions]

 

1-5] VX(+((0))): When Vitus awoke all hungover/ Looking like death unwarmedover/ He rolled over in bed/ Kissed a severed head/ And cried out, “Who bisected my lover?”

8-9] R!sq&i: Vitus, by goll,/ Quart’ring corpses is dull,

54-60] ^^^ugh^^^: Here be rituals dominated by victuals/ Unidentifiable meat-substitutes on the griddles/ While Norman Castavets/ Plays his bone castanets/ To a tune on thirteen out-of-tune fiddles.

92-95] sNogg?eeeeee: Call up the demons/ And theorems by Riemann/ Pour out our libations/ With baskets of crustaceans

 

[follows a comment box for suggested new verses, as per the original. don’t be shy, now. and don’t be f—-d, either, writing doggerel is d—-d hard!]

[In fact, here is a little story perfect for a new verse, open to the first versifier who dares: “It was the frontispiece of an old, smoked, snuff-stained pamphlet, the property of an elderly lady (who had a fine collection of similar wonders wherewith she was kind enough to edify her young visitors), containing a solemn account of the fate of a wicked dancing party in New Jersey, whose irreverent declaration that they would have a fiddler even if they had to send to the lower regions for him, called up the fiend himself, who forthwith commenced playing, while the company danced to the music incessantly, without the power to suspend their exercise until their feet and legs were worn off to the knees! The rude woodcut represented the Demon Fiddler and his agonized companions literally stumping it up and down in ‘cotillions, jigs, strathspeys and reels.’” (John Greenleaf Whittier, The Supernaturalism of New England, 1847 (Oklahoma UP, 1969), p. 50; Whittier’s emphasis)]

Three-Legged Dogs

A Partial Chronology of Butchered, Bruised, Worn, Defective, and/or Repurposed Recordings I Have Known

Analog, sigh. It was a time of cobbling, of gaps and seams, of defects as a matter of course. A combination of economy—blank cassettes cost an order of magnitude more than blank discs—and technology—the culture of obsolescence that arose around the inability to manipulate damaged discs. Now, discs have given way to a shadow-world of music without material form, without fingerprints.

It’s true that a recording is always to some degree a ghost. But as the technology has changed, and with it the recorded artifact, so our relationship to music has changed as well. It’s less intimate, I think, than it used to be. Less personal. The once-obvious seams and crooked hems, the weird silences and truncated ends, the nicks and quirks and tics and scratches and skips: there were just so many spaces we could fit ourselves into. So many things could go wrong without scuttling everything, and there was so much room for us to screw up. And then we had to learn to live with it, like we had to learn to live with the imperfections of our friends and siblings, our parents, our lovers, ourselves. Accident or defect (occasionally a happy one) or a history of wear marked recordings as ours, marked us in turn. It didn’t make them obsolete; sometimes it made them that much more valuable, that much more endearing. An old scar, a maimed rescue. A paperback held together with rubber bands. Jeans you couldn’t wear out of the apartment—we used to be able to wear our music that way.

This is not intended as an exercise in nostalgia, personal or historical, though nostalgia does have its place here, of a weirdly masochistic sort: for the sometimes maddening way our music misbehaved, and that we misbehaved with it, wrestling with the plastic-yet-resilient media in which it was embedded, and which we quite consciously took for it. Our suffering and our struggle created a relationship, a bond. A mutual devotion.

Without further ado, then, a very partial chronology of my three-legged dogs.

*

1981. When David Z. got Moving Pictures and Dirty Deeds for his thirteenth birthday, we played “Tom Sawyer” over and over until the kid who lived on the other side of David’s semi-detached house, who was a year or two older than us and wore a gold chain, told us to stop. That day left a groove in my ear. Or maybe a skip. Before I ever got a chance to tape Moving Pictures, this same neighbor got hold of it, and—so his story went—his little sister whacked the needle while the record was playing, right at the beginning of “Tom Sawyer.” How convenient, having a younger sibling, particularly a younger sister, for a patsy. Maybe it was his way of getting revenge on us, for killing that song before it even had a chance to be born. Maybe he was calling attention to the fact that we were acting like a scratched record, picking up the needle and carrying it back to the beginning of “Tom Sawyer.” Anyway, when I put David’s record on to tape it, the opening synth swoosh had been chopped in half; the record jumped right to a heavily-truncated first verse: “A modern day war—” and then into the main chord progression. That was the Moving Pictures I taped. I listened to it relentlessly. It was the only version of “Tom Sawyer” I knew, unless I happened to catch the song on the radio, or hear it at another friend’s house, until I bought Moving Pictures on cassette a year or two later.

1982. My store-bought cassette of 2112 was defective. In the last section of the side-long title track, Alex Lifeson is supposed to intone “We have assumed control” three times, and then whammy-bar the low E until the feedback rings out the song. But on my tape he said it only once, and then the music, the climactic, cataclysmic roar of “VI. Grand Finale,” abruptly stopped, followed by the tape itself, Click—this being a time when the technology of recording was not so far removed from that of mousetraps. On side 2, “A Passage to Bangkok” picked up with the last two notes of the “oriental riff,” and Geddy Lee started right in with “Our first stop is in Bo-gota,” etc. The opening unaccompanied guitar riff was entirely missing—which makes sense, as it was the other side of the same chunk of tape that should have contained the end of “2112.” I always figured that tape was fucked up, but never had the gall to return it. I mean, what if the much older, much cooler record store clerk looked me in the eye and said, “Dumb-ass, it’s supposed to end that way?” Could I really risk being that much of a loser? About my favorite band? And so I didn’t hear how “2112” really ended until I bought the live album All the World’s a Stage the following year. But that is an abridged live version, so how could I really say they hadn’t changed the ending for the concert? Here’s the real kicker: When I finally bought 2112 on record and heard the “real” end of “2112,” I was disappointed. In terms of endings, it’s by far the weakest of the three side-long suites the band produced, utterly deus ex machina, as abrupt and contrived in its way as my defective tape. At least the cut-off ending had a certain daring, an admission of failure, like one of those “O! Something!” Melville endings. Suffice to say it’s become quite precious to me now, all that missing music. Or at least “2112” has. “Bangkok” really suffered. The problem is I couldn’t put one back without the other.

1983. I’m still tight with Billy Joel’s Glass Houses, but there was period when I believed I should disparage it, a rite of passage, you might say, and what better way to do so than to record Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast right over top of it? I mean, steamroller that Billy Joel shit into oblivion. I remember the thrill of learning you could actually do this by stuffing wads of toilet paper into the square notches (a.k.a. love handles) in the corners of a cassette. Blank tapes had little tabs over these notches; after you made a recording, you were supposed to break them—the ends of scissors worked well for this—to safeguard the product. But it turned out that even if you broke the tabs, you could reverse the process with wadded toilet paper. And so you could repurpose any store-bought tape. In fact, you could record over anybody’s shit, if you had that sort of a mean streak in you. Man, I loved popping Billy Joel into the cassette player and having Maiden come out the speakers. Instead of “You May Be Right,” “In-VA-ders.” Maiden, my mighty Norsemen, severing the limbs and burning the corpse of that wretched Saxon Joel.

1983. I copied my friend’s Screaming for Vengeance record over one of my dad’s classical piano tapes. I’m sure I had his permission. (I’m not being ironic.) When I put the tape on, there was this lovely little piano lick—seven or eight climbing notes, lasting maybe a second and a half—and then, Bwaaaang!, “The Hellion,” SFV’s instrumental prelude, landed on it like an atom bomb. Here’s my best guess how this happened: Cassettes have about five seconds of lead before the magnetic tape begins. When you taped a record, you had to make sure to start recording after the lead; otherwise, the music would start before the magnetic tape did, and you’d miss the beginning. (In fact, since the piano lick starts in the middle of a phrase, this is likely what happened to my father—which was maybe why he gave me the tape to use.) The easiest way to skip the lead was to turn the wheels of the cassette manually, with a pen or your fingernail, until the black magnetic tape appeared, then insert it in the recorder, set PAUSE and RECORD, drop the needle, and un-PAUSE. But if you forwarded past the lead, and there was something already recorded on the tape … well, there it stayed. I still can’t listen to “The Hellion” without hearing that scant piano lick—it adds so much to the song it’s a shame the Priest didn’t think of it themselves. It probably helps that, in all these years, I’ve never been able to figure out what the piece is.

1985. I spent a lot of time this year copying classical records from my parents’ collection, including one of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. The ppppp introduction of the “Freude” theme is, as you may recall, bowed on the basses; and the dynamics of the symphony are such that, unless you’re blasting the whole thing—which I wholly endorse—you can’t even hear this introduction without turning the stereo way way way up. And even then you’ve got to crouch beside the speakers and hold your breath, feeling about as deaf as Beethoven. On that old record—or rather, the tape I made from it—the imperfections in the vinyl are louder than the basses; the theme is almost lost in the hiss; the music seems so insubstantial that the medium is straining to capture it, like neutrino tracks caught in miles of lead. There is something about being on the cusp of not hearing the beginning of that theme, those yearning basses so deeply buried in the hiss and crackle, rising as the theme develops and is distributed throughout the orchestra, that (for me) cannot be disassociated from the symphony itself. As though the limits of the medium reflected the very distance from which the theme had to travel to reach us, and the impossibility of our yearning as we try to reach through the material that stands between ourselves and the music, an otherworldly visitor. Such hamstrung listening was also about creating the figure of Beethoven for this impressionable and romantic teenager.

1986. When Judas Priest sold out with Turbo, I threw the jilted fan’s tantrum and recorded over all my Priest.* Or almost all. A lot of it, anyway. I kept two ninety-minute cassettes’ worth—I wasn’t quite so betrayed, I guess, that I couldn’t carefully preserve my favorite material: Unleashed in the East in its entirety, and select songs from the rest of their catalog—like an enraged divorcee stumbling out of the house with her favorite lamp tucked under one arm. The challenge was to keep certain songs on albums without using more tapes (one doesn’t squander precious resources on the Judas, the scab, the snitch). So I had to find equivalent-length songs to squeeze into the gaps created by the songs I was deleting. Of course, though I tried every possible mathematical combination, there were no exact matches, and three sides of those tapes (that is, the sides without the untouchable Unleashed in the East) are marked by unnaturally long gaps where I had to let silence fill the space until the next previously-recorded track. There is also at least one glaring error (“The Last Rose of Summer,” I think, partially retained). (N.B.: I had taped my Priest off a friend with whom I no longer spent time; he had taped my Maiden; this was typical of the symbiotic relationship that defined music trading in those days, i.e., pooled money, shared resources.)

1987. My record of Permanent Waves had a skip right where “Natural Science” moves into part 2, “Hyperspace,” so Geddy Lee would sing “Our causes can’t see their e-ffects,” followed by a short tom roll, and then the song would go on: “e-ffects” (buddulup-bup-bup) “e-ffects” (buddulup-bup-bup) “e-ffects,” etc. And not even on beat: the tom roll ended a little early, not quite a full measure, which in itself was tricky and sort of cool, at least the first few times, and, in hindsight, points the way toward a detour to some other relationship to my music, a perilous road not taken, at least until some years later.** Whenever I listened to that record, I had to remember to walk over to the turntable and knock the needle gently out of its groove so I could hear the rest of the song, and save myself and my band from the limbo of e-ffects (buddulup-bup-bup). Since I no longer had my store-bought cassette handy, just as happened with “Tom Sawyer,” I got used to hearing “Natural Science” this way until 2009 or so, when I found another copy in a crate of records someone was getting rid of in the basement of my Harlem co-op. The super had already taken his pick.

1991. The year of the Police Squad! mix (in color!), among the finest mixed tapes ever made. I hope its recipient, Patrick U., has kept it, with the intention of eventually bequeathing it to a museum. It paired choice late ‘80s/early ‘90s rock with snippets from the TV show Police Squad! (e.g.: “Who are you, and how did you get in here?” Leslie Nielson: “I’m a locksmith, and … I’m a locksmith.”) But as with so much of this time, it is also a recording of a process: walking down the stairs to where the TV/VCR was; setting the tape up in the little portable tape deck (the sort with the retractable handle in front of the deck and the single speaker behind it, the generation before the boombox); getting the VCR ready; waiting for the house to be quiet; recording open-air. Then trudging back upstairs to the living room, where the stereo with the CD and turntable was, to record a couple more songs; then back downstairs, etc. Of course it sounded good, the way the berries you pick taste better.

1993. At the end of my first year of grad school, I got a tape of An Anthology of Tom Waits from a friend; it was taped over a Vanilla Ice cassette that her Japanese students had given her as a gift. She had turned the label inside out, matching her purple cursive against their green print. I value the names of Vanilla Ice songs written in the hand of Japanese students I will never meet almost as much as my friend’s cursive … though neither as much, it must be admitted, as hearing “Ol’ 55” or “Diamonds on my Windshield” or “The Piano Has Been Drinking” or “Burma Shave” for the first time.

1998-9; 2002-3. An ambitious project of making salsa mixes from Latin music shows on Columbia’s WKCR 89.9—initially “Caribe Latino,” which used to air on Monday nights from 10-12, and then Friday Night’s “Mambo Machine,” as well as occasionally the cumbia show on Wednesday eves, and the Sunday-afternoon Latin shows on WBAI, although their yield was considerably lower. I wouldn’t hear the tapes until the next day or weekend, like they were traps set for crabs. (When the show was on I was usually grading papers with the volume all the way down, or out somewhere.) Had I (or my partner) flipped the tape without missing too much between sides? Had I gotten so lucky as to record the part of the show where the DJ rattled off names and artists? It was, to say the least, an imperfect process. There are tracks that cut off in the middle, and tracks that start in the middle, and tracks with gaps in their middles where the tape had to be flipped, though the bits I got, whether beginning or end or beginning and end, were too good to throw back into the sea. There were tapes that caught the first half-hour of the graveyard experimental/ambience program “Transfigured Night,” which was the first way I ever heard Runes, for example, and speaks to the happy accidents and contingencies that come of casting the net widely—you’d be surprised at the sort of things that lurk in the abyssal deeps of radio. And then there is one whole side of a 90-minute tape (I think it’s volume 7 of the 22 I managed to finish) where the radio signal was coming in … poorly. It was the Machito festival—KCR specializes in marathon broadcasts to celebrate artists’ birthdays and passings—and they were playing all this son stuff from the thirties, and where the fuck was I going to find that again, back in 1999? There are places where the static is so bad you can’t even hear the music. Maybe I was a fool to keep it. But there it is, Machito, fading in and out, and me like a ham radio operator, catching the electromagnetic waves from some Siberia of time, an echo-wave reaching me from deep in the past.

*

Enough. But I’ve barely scratched the surface. All those tapes glitched by the faulty connection in the white jack in the back of the receiver, so that the lefthand speaker crackled and made bands stutter (e.g., Maiden, “Die With Your Boots On”: “No point a-a-asking who’s to blame.”). The Forbidden Evil tape that would garble and unspool, a loop like a hernia, that my friend Pat F., who worked in the local video store, helped me to cut and splice, so that it worked again, but a couple of seconds of “Through Eyes of Glass” were lost, right as the song is leading into the second verse, “My mind is one, now has the crystal power,” etc. An entire post could be written about mixed tapes, audio letters and sentimental objects par excellence.

But to return to the issue of materiality. It might be argued that music exists somewhere beyond the medium of the recording, in some essence apart from it, and to seek perfection in technologies of reproduction is to allow us to better approach and perhaps capture its spirit. My Beethoven example above seems to suggest this, although it is encased in metaphor.

Yet, I would tend to the opposite: the recording is the music, or all we can have of it. Or, perhaps better put, the recording as a physical object exposes the essentially and inescapably material nature of music. And never moreso than when a recording is mangled or otherwise faulty. A music-phobic way to listen to music, then, to try to purify it of the very stuff from which it is made. To imagine bathwater and baby so essentially different. I think that we have lost a certain solidarity with the material world; and, lacking it, we have come to lack something in our relationship to art, which is, first and foremost, material.

And so, when I hear people talking about their high-fidelity systems, their 180-gram mint-condition vinyl, their thousand-dollar needles, their surround-sound speaker set-ups, their subwoofers that make the glass of water set upon their marble countertops shudder as if Jurassic Park’s T. Rex were walking by … how can I help but sigh? Give me ink smeared thick as frosting across a smooth white page. Give me a typewriter with a broken TAB key and a ribbon you have to rewind by hand, like the magnetic tape of a cassette. I want to be able to feel the way the nibs of different pens slide across surfaces of different kinds of paper, feel the ridge of the slight dent made by the typewriter keys, as though it were braille, hear the din of language being made in the smoking factory of thought. Give me a music, as much as a language, that I can touch. Speakers bowing under the weight of sound, smouldering oil lamps, sawdust and stale beer, the creak of old pews, or of an old guitar when a string is torqued one step higher.

Spirit, spirit, spirit. Haven’t we had enough of that? If I can’t touch it, can’t smell it, does it deserve to be called music?

 

* I have heard this sort of thing was widespread in 1991, when Metallica released the “black” album, and betrayed fans everywhere responded by etching out the Metallica from their collections. Two points follow. One, betrayal is, of course, a powerful way to create cohesion, and it might be said that Metallica’s apostasy produced the genre of thrash metal as a discrete historical object—that it couldn’t have become so without that boundary-forming betrayal (as, earlier, thrash bolstered its identity by defining itself against the apostasy of hair metal). Second, consider that Metallica’s apostasy is perched on the cusp of metal’s splintering into a number of subgenres. I have compared the circa-2005 thrash revival to the Second Great Awakening (“Burned-over,” 8.3.11), and now I wonder if a similarly fruitful comparison couldn’t be made to 1991: the mainstream deemed to have fallen away from the true faith, and the subsequent (or concomitant?) splintering of the genre into sects.

** Not to suggest that my relationship to music was entirely devoid of irony or humor. One of my first great mixing projects (with a friend) was to create a song composed of lines from Rush songs in combinations that made them ridiculous, like an audio version of those channel-changing cartoons in Mad magazine (e.g.: “We will call you Cygnus, god of/ [click] The hypocrites.”). And talk about seams: this mix was so primitive that it was pretty much nothing but seams. That said, there’s no question that we often need to be pushed out of our listening grooves, and, as at least two of the entries above suggest, such defects can open up new ways of listening. Not to add to hip hop apocrypha, but it’s not difficult to imagine that damaged vinyl played a role in the origins of sampling, just as scratching re-purposes the recording artifact for ulterior musical ends. (… But then where to put Steve Reich?)

Addendum, 5.25.16. On reflection, I think there is another reason why I tend to privilege recorded artifacts over streaming music from the web. It goes back to a comment sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris made about listening in the internet age, which I discussed in “T-shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13): that the instant availability of music creates a “crisis of abundance,” leaving the listener without the time necessary to process, or engage deeply with, or fully reflect upon, what he or she hears. Recursivity and focus is replaced by breadth, and—this more an echo of the recent stream of publications about cognition and the net—the listening mind comes to mimic the web. In this regard, the artifact serves as a kind of stopper, the proverbial finger in the dike holding back the sea of music raging behind it; a means to manage the rate of access to new music that would otherwise deluge us. We might say this is a subsidiary role of all media: not just to provide access, but to limit, to act as a screen. To some, such a choice of listening habits may sound parsimonious, even Puritanical. I would prefer to think of it as Hellenic: the ideal of moderation, a means of maintaining or restoring some measure of (in this case) aesthetic health in an age of decline.

Two Quixotes

When I lived in the City, I used to spend my Friday afternoons tooling around the Village, working a well-worn route between used book and music stores, park benches and cafés. Generation Records, on Thompson a little north of Bleecker, was a frequent stop. One of the clerks there, with a badgery sort of face and most of his exposed flesh colorfully desecrated, was—likely still is—their resident metal expert, and now and then I would pick his brains about, say, a representative Wolves in the Throne Room album, or whether the new Deicide was available in an aerosol can.

One day I was in the basement flipping through discs toward the back of the alphabet, grinning at the relentlessly offensive names and cover art of bands and albums I would never hear. Said expert was playing something I thought I should recognize, but didn’t. I approached, inquired; he looked up and, eyes scourging me from under his tight-fitting commie-kitsch military cap, wordlessly stood a CD on the counter. It was Sepultura, Schizophrenia. Old Sepultura, clearly. Really old. And here I had thought Sepultura began with Beneath the Remains (1989). I was staring at a Sepultura album I didn’t know, Max Cavalera-era Sepultura, my Sepultura, proffered to me by someone who probably hadn’t yet been born when it came out.

Upstaged on my own turf by a coffee thug, I immediately wanted to talk about how I had seen Sepultura in their heyday, on the Arise (1991) tour, at a club in Madrid. About the posters I had seen around my Madrid neighborhood advertising the show: death squad on one end, Cavalera and his guitar on the other, facing them down, both cut out against a fire-orange background. About how I had tried to pull the poster down and hang it up in my apartment, but ended up tearing it.

I didn’t say anything.

Some months later I was in Baltimore visiting a friend, who related a somewhat similar experience to me. He works on an urban farm, and on weekends sells the produce in one or another of the city’s farmers’ markets. Who does he meet at one of these markets one weekend but a kid maybe half his age—a little older than his own son—who is enamored of ‘80s hardcore punk? We’re talking Dag Nasty, Minor Threat, 7 Seconds et al. My friend was a skinhead back in the day, was still wearing his burgundy Doc Martens when we met in college. (Keeping the hair short was easy: we were swimmers.) When he told this kid that he had been into all those bands, had been to all those shows, had a milk crate full of old hardcore records in his basement, he immediately became an oracle.

Or should have. As it turned out, the kid was reading a book on the history of hardcore, and knew a hell of a lot about the scene that my friend, who had participated in it half a lifetime ago, was not aware of, or had forgotten.

Result: my friend bought the book. He claims to have learned a great deal.

*

Don_Quixote_6In Book II of Don Quixote, the ingenious knight encounters a duke and dutchess who know of his exploits from having read his “history.” He is famous, and, as is due any knight, becomes the guest of honor at their castle … and the butt of endless jokes, a grand entertainment. He appears as a character walked out of a romance, into the real world of the present (la actualidad). So my friend must have appeared to that temporally-displaced version of himself: as a character from a moment in cultural history. To be viewed as a splinter of a dead scene’s true cross, a living, breathing historical artifact, like a thawed mammoth: it gives one a glow, an aura, for people who value that moment, but whose contact with it is purely textual.

But in that encounter between one-time participant and passionate historian, we—forgive the transition to the plural pronoun—become texts, signs. We are there to be read, not listened to; we do not speak, but are spoken. We are nothing more than that (faint) aura that surrounds us, exhausts us. Disposable saints, transparent as icons, the better for them to project their desire upon, venerated not in ourselves, but for allowing the worshipper to get nearer to God: that fantastic, unrecoverable past. Like Don Quixote, we are at once honored and ironized, empowered and neutered.

Bits of pottery without pattern, we can’t hope to represent our time. So-called living history is always a disappointment; flesh is no match for text. For they finally know more than we do: all our rare butterflies, the ephemera and esoterica, patiently netted and impaled. Suddenly, we are forced to recognize that our knowledge of our time is piecemeal at best, that we are inadequate historians of ourselves, that we are not masters of ourselves—that we are in fact mastered by their agglomerate, abstract vision, that sees us as part of a comprehensible totality, an island from the air, the earth from space. They can click through our whole history in seconds, and file it away on a chip. Our time, our history, our selves, stripped to bits of information, small enough for them to hold in their hands. What is lost to us is weirdly present to them, more present, yet only through the phantom agency of language.

They know much too much about what we were like to ever be us. How can they hope to be us when we knew so little about ourselves?

Conversely, what is present to me—the ambience, the outrage, the trace sensory impressions and other memories, emotions and stories, all knotted together into a sort of umbilical cord—is mine and mine alone. I can’t claim to know more, only differently. My knowledge, such as it is, is more in my muscles and blood than in my brain, is bonded by things non-textual, things that can be expressed only obliquely, when at all. Experience fuddles text, creates gaps, swells seemingly meaningless moments, hazes everything. When I reminisce with friends, we are not sharing information, but performing a ritual.

What can it mean to that clerk at Generation that I tore that Sepultura poster trying to pull it down? Yet the image on the poster, the weatherbeaten paper … I can still feel it, gritty from the dirt blown onto it while it was still wet, stiff and brittle as parchment.

We may listen to the same music, but we hear something entirely different. I don’t hear the Jimi Hendrix that, say, Germaine Greer did, and I wouldn’t recognize E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Beethoven if he pulled up beside me on the street, horn blaring. My Hendrix is out there, like the house seen from the piazza; the albums, the documentaries, the guy in Salt Lake who fixed my guitar and who saw Hendrix in ’68, are as close as I’ll ever get. I’ll never be able to strap myself to his Marshall cabinet, like to the mouth of a cannon, and experience the thrilling Liebestod of that opening chord. The left-handed general lowers his sword, Brrrang. Nor did my mother bring my infant self to Woodstock, like she did to the TV the night men landed on the moon. My love for him may be deep as the ocean, but my Hendrix is facts spinning around an absent center. Or at least, a different one.

Don Quixote is maybe too literary a figure to describe our experience. No one could be more loquacious, and his surprised interlocutors always comment on how his opinions are as judicious as his vision and actions are mad. In the event that I do speak, I feel more like one of those mechanical presidents on Disneyworld’s Main Street, who recite something sententious, patriotic, and very much in character about U.S. history. My mouth moves like a dummy’s, my eyes light up; when I am finished talking, I freeze again. They will get no more from me—everything else my body jealously guards—and no closer to the Thing Itself.

Half the time, the nickel gets stuck in my throat. Better to sit and wave, like an effigy on a parade float, and try to make my halo obvious as I pass by, and perform gestures as though to bless them.

The genius of the second volume of the Quixote—a genius which far surpasses the first—is in its transformation of the world into text: the duke and dutchess participate in writing the second volume, make themselves characters in Don Quixote’s legend. The madness of the knight transforms the world, which is revealed to be just as much fantasy and theater. So forgive us, young lovers of ‘80s metal and hardcore punk, if, in our roles as characters in your drama, we end up textualizing you as well. The book is reading you even as you read it. You are just as much a ghost. Your costume of me is a little baggy; you don’t quite fit my scene’s drama.

And yet, that is the only way I have myself: textually. I can’t resurrect myself as the monster I was, and were I to try, I would be no less baggy than you. And perhaps I’m gratified to see myself refracted in people half my age, listening to the music that that mythical we did. Amused, moved, the way we are by Don Quixote.

We’re not tilting at windmills, my friend and I. We’ve never tried to live in a mythical past, or to re-live our own. They are at least as much Quixotes as we are: driven mad by electronic libraries infinitely vaster than the knight’s, and by a text, music, infinitely more seductive than the epic of Amadis de Gaula. Because it convinces us, somehow, that it is more than text, that it captures an essence, that it bores a hole in time. That through it, and only through it, I, and my friend, and the clerk at Generation, and the young man at the farmers’ market, touch. What can we, the duke and the dutchess, do but play along?

For RJD

Goodbye, Music Library!

      Among my handful of sacred places in New York—those cafés, gardens, and institutional spaces where I can best study, write, meditate, mosey, and otherwise get in tune with the Am and Is—I would include the music library of City College.

The library is housed at the southwest end of that beautiful neo-gothic monument Shepard Hall, a block away from my old Convent Avenue apartment. Shepard is shaped like an anchor, or a flexing cross, with the tall tower at the crown, the Great Hall for a shank, and the library in the half-rotunda where the shackle would be. (In cathedral terms, the hall would be the nave, and the library located under the apse.) The library has two floors, with listening carrels on the second, entry level, and the stacks and reading room on the first, accessed by way of a narrow staircase that turns twice, to the left on the way down, to the right on the way up. The stairs are wood, as is much of the work around the doors and upstairs windows. What with the woodwork, the two floors, and the cathedral environs, it reminds me, fittingly, of an organ. Unlike an organ, however, the library tolerates a charming amount of illogic—the improbably narrow staircase, for example. I don’t think you could get a cello down those stairs, let alone a bass.

I love this library for how small and self-contained it is. I loved the Marriott Library at the University of Utah (where I went to grad school) for the latter reason, and for the same reason feel little connection with the New York Public Library: none of the individual branches are adequate to themselves. The Performing Arts library at Lincoln Center is better in this regard, but still too diffuse … and, perhaps, too well-traveled. The music library at City can get a little busy during exam time, probably spillover from the Cohen, City’s main library. During the regular semester, though, there are rarely more than ten people there at any one time. This space filled with recordings, with notes, and with words about music basks in a near-monastical silence.

The Marriott had the kinds of stacks that rewarded careful, curious, passionate browsing. I would always go in looking for one or a few books, and walk out with a pile. I never wrote down call numbers very clearly—I couldn’t, not with those nubbins of pencils, on those business-card-size bits of scrap paper. So I could only ever get into the general vicinity of a book. And then I would have to browse, not by call number, but by title. Digging around, I would find a dozen other titles, some better than the ones I believed I’d come for. (It’s always more pleasant to ballpark, isn’t it, to have to ask, to get turned around, to play Marco Polo with wisdom. Every good book has a measure of serendipity about it.)

The music library multiplies the rewards for such browsing because it is organized around a single subject, and its collections are the cumulative reflection of the taste, wisdom, and judgment of the librarians and the faculty of the music department at City College, of a century (more or less) of thoughtful scholarship and librarianship.* And so, unlike at the University of Utah, where I used to set off with a half-legible call number for a compass and a walking-stick, a trip downstairs in the music library requires no call number at all—just a good bit of time, a bunch of questions you haven’t quite been able to formulate, and a lot of tunes that never leave your head.

Some days I would pick a stack at random and go through title after title, pulling books off the shelves, opening to the table of contents, or to a random page, in an odd, secular gesture at bibliomancy. After I had gone through a few shelves this way—sometimes all the way down to the floor—I might bring a few books over to one of the carrels under the arched, barred windows looking out onto the quad. For a sort-of basement, it gets nice light, particularly in the spring and early fall, when the sun has begun to go down behind the clock tower, and the light splashes across the tables, sometimes too warm and bright to work in. On those days, at that hour, from the steps of the North Academic Center, Shepard Hall looks like the Cathedral of Ys risen from the waves.

I have sat on the floor amid the stacks, too, my books piled in the space past the metal bookends, stumbling upon bits of musical esoterica—connections between Renaissance music and bird songs; the story behind the naming of Damrosch Park—scribbling down titles for future reference, occasionally taking books out, racking up enormous, humiliating, bankrupting fines, to be paid only after much arguing and whining and weaseling.

At least, at the Cohen. Never here. One must stay on good terms with one’s sacred spaces.

I return my books with pencil marks in them, after I have reached the limit of possible renewals, or have been threatened with losing borrowing privileges, knowing that in a few months, or years, or a decade, when I need that book again, I can go back to the same place in the stacks, find my old copy, and my marks again, and perhaps, finally, take notes, and erase the marks, at least some of them, and so return a clean(er) copy, and begin to set my accounts right with the universe.

I have spent afternoons there, too, my unsanctioned coffee thermos hidden in one of the nearby carrels, diligently plugging away at counterpoint homework, or parsing examples from Aldwell and Schachter, or writing out the first draft of some piece bound for the Pit Stop, or copying articles I am thinking of using for my Writing About Music class … or, of course, grading papers, while students paced up and down Convent Avenue and the shadows of the bars started to creep across the carrels.

And then before I knew it, it would be almost five o’clock: the closing announcement is made, and the blind man—the one I used to see walking to school, arm locked with a friend’s or good samaritan’s—emerges from one of the labs and rings the elevator. At Johns Hopkins, where I did my undergraduate work, the main library would close at midnight; and, if you happened to be there at that hour, you could participate in the pilgrimage across the quad to the “Hut,” the all-night library on the bottom floor of Gilman Hall. Gilman is the only academic building I know that held a candle to Shepard—held, because it was renovated a few years ago, and many of its most fantastic quirks removed. Leaving the music library at five, I could have relived (as farce) this memory by turning left, heading over to the Cohen; the flukes of the anchor may be buried in St. Nicholas Park, but the shackle points toward the Cohen, as though the newer structure were a vessel tethered to the older one by an invisible rope. Instead, I always went right. This much hasn’t changed. The difference is that I don’t live a block north anymore, but a thousand. I can’t see Shepard Hall out my window. But I can still imagine it, tiny and far below me, I tethered not by rope, but by a string, as the kite I cling to dips and flaps.

I suppose part of what made the music library sacred was that it allowed me to try on another identity. If I always crossed the upper floor quickly, making a bee-line for the stairs, maybe it’s because I felt a little like a charlatan, and was trying not to be noticed. Once, when I borrowed the score for the “Waldstein” sonata (for “Of Liszt and Other Ghosts”), the librarian, who directed me to the right area in the stacks, counseled me that these were mini-scores—fine to read, but not to play from. I assured her that I was in no way capable of playing the “Waldstein,” that I merely intended to read it. But even that was a bit of a ruse. I was like a man with a third-grade education walking around with a copy of Ulysses, just so he could run his finger along the lines and mouth the strange words to himself, marveling at the incantatory nature of the language.

For a writer, that edge—between two identities, two modes of representation, two disciplines—at once inside and outside—is the most natural of places. The erotic gaps between, as Barthes might have put it; the places where knowledge gapes. The music library is the space where, for me, those gaps appear, in the fantasy that always accompanies the word.

 

* And, of course, the realities of public school budgets. Still, I remember the first time I realized that I, as a faculty member, could request that the library order books. It was a dizzying confluence of responsibility and irresponsibility. I was helping to direct the purchases on which the future of an institution depended. I was standing with a shopping cart at the entrance of a fantasically large bookstore, watching the man with the starter’s pistol.

Bartok, Salt Lake, Emerson & Me

The jazz guitar instructors at the University of Utah liked to tell us, their Intro Jazz Guitar students, that we were much maligned by the rest of the music department. It’s true that we were a motley-looking bunch. Many of us weren’t even music majors. We were drawn from all corners of the university: architecture, engineering, and in my case, English. This was the fall of 1992, and I had just entered the “U of U” as a graduate student. I was supposed to take two classes a quarter, for a total of eight credits. Full-time status, however, required nine, without which I wouldn’t be able to defer my loans. Eventually I found out that I could take one credit of “independent study,” to be used toward my dissertation. But in my happy ignorance I went looking for an undergraduate class to make full time. Music Theory wouldn’t have me—the class was packed with majors—so I opted for Jazz Guitar.

The guitar class turned out to be a great way to refresh between teaching freshman writing in the morning and taking graduate classes in the afternoon. Three days a week I’d lug my guitar halfway across the U of U’s sprawling campus, down from the Medical Plaza apartments at the base of the Wasatch foothills, to Orson Spencer Hall, where the English department was housed. I’d leave the guitar in my cubicle while I went to teach. Then I’d carry it across the rest of campus, down the hill and one leg of the horseshoe of President’s Circle, to David Gardner Hall. Sometimes I thought it wasn’t even the class that helped; just going into the music building, another world within the balkanized world of academia, was purging.

Across the hall from the guitar class, Ardean Watts, then-director of the University Symphony Orchestra, was holding his own “class.” It was called “Music for Pure Enjoyment.” Coming up the stairs, I’d run smack into a bulletin board, the sign tacked there promising “No analysis!” Underneath would be the program for the week. He did the entire cycle of Mozart piano concertos that fall, and if memory serves, selections by Schoenberg, Vaughan-Williams, and Beethoven. Although he always chose the program, Watts invited students to bring in their favorite recordings of the programmed pieces.

But the day I walked out of guitar class and, rather than going down the stairs, timidly crossed the hall and sat down, Watts and a few others were immersed in Béla Bartók’s string quartets. As the narrator of a Ken Burns documentary would say: It was like nothing he had ever heard before. Except Ken Burns says that so many times it ends up sounding like bullshit. To me, it really was like no music I had ever heard before. I didn’t even think a violin could sound like that. It was as if I had walked in on the middle of Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” and listened for a minute before someone deigned to tell me that, by the way, I was listening to a guitar.

I didn’t tell Watts that, of course. He was a charming old man with a long white goat’s beard and a tremor. He would sit among the students who had happened to wander in that day, sometimes just listening, sometimes engaging his fellow listeners in conversation. He was too enthusiastic ever to sound pedantic. Like everything he had to tell you about music was the most wonderful secret in the world. I didn’t answer him when he told me that Bartók’s compositions were “so logical,” because my first thought was, So was Manson. He must have assumed I was more musically literate than I was—he mustn’t have noticed the guitar. Because for me, there was (and still is) something in the quartets’ apparent lack of logic, their unpredictability, their constant shifting between ideas, as if they were being made up on the spot, that excited me.

Watts also told me that Bartók was the greatest innovator of the string quartet after Beethoven. He brought out the score, which I perused, though I was unable to follow it to the music. Before I left, he showed me the compact disc case: four young men in tuxes, holding up their instruments like proud fisherman showing off their catches of the day. I scribbled down the name.

One day after walking in on “Music for Pure Enjoyment,” I drove over to Discriminator Records (an all-classical music store in Salt Lake, sadly many years gone) and bought the Emerson Quartet’s recording of the six string quartets by Béla Bartók. For a while I listened to a quartet a day. Then I listened to them in pairs, evens and odds, by period, by movement. I quickly learned that I had walked in on the third and fourth quartets, the most dissonant of the bunch, although it’s likely any of them would have affected me in the same way.

Before “Music for Pure Enjoyment,” my understanding of Bartók’s music had been based solely on a few of his orchestral works: The Miraculous Mandarin suite, which had terrified me as a child, and the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Listening to the quartets, however, re-introduced these familiar pieces to me, forcing me to hear them in a new way. Ironically, though Bartók was himself a pianist, and piano was the instrument most familiar to me, his concertos and works for solo piano have taken much longer to grow on me. This may be a broader problem of the percussiveness of the piano in modern music … except that in other modern composers, like Prokofiev and Stravinsky, that very percussiveness often thrills me. Maybe Bartók was just too much the gypsy; I always imagine him carting his wax cylinders between villages in the Carpathians, recording folk music, a task he believed was more important than composing original works. In my favorite photo, he sits at a desk stacked with books, transcribing with his left hand, the horn of a phonograph beside his right ear.

*

I am sure I’m not the only one who came to know the Emerson Quartet through Bartók, or vice-versa. As the program for their fall 1995 performance of the entire cycle of Bartók’s quartets at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall noted, Bartók has been “something of a cause” for them. They certainly play him as if he were a cause: honed to a near-military rigor, plaintive, demanding. The grueling three-and-a-half hours (with two intermissions) that are required to play all six quartets can only be explained as a cause. I don’t know that they’ve repeated the feat since. Not that they’ve ignored Bartók or anything. They may not play him all the time, or even as often as I’d like; but the quartets are still pretty regularly included in their programs (last August it was the sixth, at the new Alice Tully Hall).

I think discovering the Emerson Quartet represented something else for me, too, something in which Bartók played a role. So many of the classical performers I had listened to were of my parents’ generation or older, because it was my parents’ music, my parents’ records. It was an inherited taste. In my young adulthood, that taste was just beginning to be reshaped under the pressures of new musical discoveries. And now here was a quartet not much older than I, playing a “classical” music that sounded utterly fresh to my ears. So my taste in “classical” music needn’t be preserved in amber, carried around as a sentimental object shaped like home. It was much more dynamic than that. By extension, “classical” music itself needn’t be treated—as its very name damns it to be—like a museum exhibit, endowed with a transcendent authority that simultaneously robs individual pieces of their language. It, too, was something vital, changeable, and renewable.

In the two chances I had to see the Emerson Quartet in Salt Lake, as part of the Chamber Music Society’s series, they followed the standard concert-program formula of two classical or romantic pieces to one modern or contemporary.* At the time, the decision to include any modern or contemporary music on the program seemed daring—the “cause” mentioned in the Avery Fisher Hall program, and the reason performers who play contemporary music are invariably described as its “champions.” But to really explain why I thought this was daring requires a bit more context.

Salt Lake City is much more diverse today (religiously, ethnically, and politically) than when I first moved there. The geography of this diversity, however, is probably about the same as when I left a decade ago: a mostly Hispanic working-class west side; a liberal/radical population ensconced in “the avenues” on the foothills around the university and a few other pockets in or near downtown, mostly transplanted from other places (like California); and a conservative, mostly Mormon and native (or, when not native, Californian or Pacific islander) population living pretty much everywhere else. As an out-of-towner, an east-coaster, and an ersatz New Yorker when I wanted to put on airs, I saw the Emersons as the envoys of a dissonance that the staid harmonies of the Beehive State could not tolerate.

Never mind that I had been introduced to this music in Utah, among music students and teachers who were likely much more conservative than I. Never mind that, relatively speaking, Bartók was a pretty conservative composer—I still didn’t know what “postwar” meant in musical terms, and my fusiony conception of jazz was only just beginning to be unsettled by Monk and Coltrane. Never mind, for that matter, Big Bill Haywood, or Joe Hill. No, never mind any of that: I went not just to hear the Emerson Quartet, but to champion a modern music I was sure many in the audience would find intolerable. I got what I asked for, both times: Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 the first time around, and the second, a 1994 piece by the American composer Ned Rorem, which the quartet had commissioned. Some members of the audience tittered, some crossed their arms like the music was arguing with them, some shook their heads and tugged on their wives’ complacent blouse-sleeves. I left feeling clearly superior, lamenting my extended sojourn among the philistines. Back home—not Jersey, but the avenues—I listened to Bartók while my Deadhead roommate chain-smoked Camels and the snow came down hard outside. He was a communications doctoral student from Michigan who liked to drop acid and listen to two different things on the stereo simultaneously. He thought the Bartók sounded cool. And so together we waved the flag of Difference, waved our freak-flag high, standing in the foothills above the city, and watching the storms roll in over the valley.

Today, I look back at what I had there—not just the exposure to a culture of ideas that came from being a grad student in a school full of brilliant people, but those tightly-knit arts and activist communities, driven together by opposition to a dominant culture that was itself less monolithic than I had presumed it to be—and wonder what I was so anxious about. (I’m sure I was already wondering this the second time I moved away, at the end of 2001; it’s always harder leaving mountains the second time.) In a sense, the Bartók quartets were of a piece with everything I was doing in my classes—Derrida and Beckett, Genet and Baldwin, Bataille and Melville. My standard line about hearing the quartets for the first time was that they rewired my brain. But that was just a particularly dramatic instance of something that, in a more subtle way, was going on the whole time I was in grad school. And I think it is the cumulative impact of a thousand such revelations, from the most mundane to the most mind-shattering, that bonds us to the humanities, to the arts and culture, and makes us as eager as Watts was to try to share that in the classroom. Like the sign said: “Music for Pure Enjoyment.”

* The first half of this post (and a few sentences in the second) is a revision of something I wrote in 1996 or thereabouts, shortly after a performance by the Emerson Quartet in Salt Lake. Although I couldn’t find a place for the descriptive passage that follows in the new version, I enjoyed rediscovering it, and so include it as an addendum: Phillip Setzer, violinist, is petite, curly-haired, and dreamy-eyed, a miniature Tony Curtis. He displays a gravity that sets the tone for the quartet as a whole. From the first moment, at least during the more rhythmic passages, he sways madly. Next to him, Eugene Drucker, the other violinist, is heavier-set and less animated than Mr. Setzer; he keeps one eyebrow raised like Leonard Nimoy, the eye zeroed slantways on the music before him, a cowlick plastered to the eyebrow-side of his forehead, his bow-tie a little crooked. Lawrence Dutton, the violist, is tall and gangly, sized for the viola the way Setzer is for the violin. His hair is streaked with grey, and he doesn’t so much hug his instrument, as the violinists inevitably do, as try to surround it. Rather than swaying, he rocks the instrument on its axis, fingers walking the neck like spiders. I’ve never managed to see Dutton as well as I’d like, because I always choose a seat in the auditorium where he his half-turned from me. But maybe this is only so I can better observe the cellist, David Finckel, who is my favorite. Leaning back with the instrument poised against him, so that it seems like a giant belly, his feet turned out, he is as much the visual as the sonic anchor of the quartet. The posture gives him a deceivingly sated appearance; he is actually the most active member. Because unlike the others, who hardly glance away from their music, Mr. Finckel’s eyes are as mobile as Charlie Chaplin’s. [N.B.: I’m indebted to Gerald Mast for this observation, in Film/Cinema/Movie.] They dart from Dutton to Setzer, Setzer to Drucker, expressing variously the enormity of his undertaking, to a kind of embarrassment at some inaudible mistake, to satisfaction at a well-rendered phrase. Somehow, these four very distinct human beings create a marvelously coherent sound, as if forged from a single consciousness.

Vinyl Pasts

Billy Joel’s Glass Houses and The J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame were the first two albums I ever bought, and I bought them on cassette. A few years later, I switched to records. I’m still not sure why. Maybe I heard somewhere that vinyl sounded better, but I doubt it. I hardly listened to my records; I would immediately tape them onto one of those TDK SLII-90 blank cassettes. An LP would fill about one side, together with an EP B-side if the album was a little short. If it was maddeningly long (say 48 minutes … just too long for the extra two or so minutes you always got on a “45 minute” side), it went by itself onto a TDK SLII-60, with EP fillers again, if necessary. The records would then go into a milk crate, my version of a reliquary, where they became proper objects of devotion.

If records were sacred relics, tapes were the opposite: relentlessly personalizable, a place to practice band logos, doodle scenes of medieval violence, crack private jokes, and list all sorts of useless information on those very inviting lines that appeared when you flipped the label inside-out. Man, we worked on those cassette labels like prisoners sculpting in soap.

Like a lot of people, when I hit my mid-twenties my taste in rock music froze. I stopped trying to keep up with the constant flurry of new bands and splintering scenes. Besides, there was this whole other genre of music called jazz that I was eager to explore, and which sated my desire for the “new,” even though the vast majority of it seemed to have been recorded before I was born, and most of the practitioners I was listening to were dead. My taste moved on from there, to modern chamber music, flamenco, free jazz and salsa. If I wanted to listen to rock, I could always put on something I’d listened to in high school, or college, or early grad school.

By my mid-twenties I had also moved into buying music in the relatively new medium of compact discs, and for several years I didn’t bother to buy anything on vinyl, except for the occasional dirt-cheap classical record at a garage or library or radio station sale. Then two things happened. First, I started listening to new(er) rock music again—metal bands that had popped up in the mid-to-late nineties, as well as non-metal acts that attracted my attention (Calexico, Radiohead). Second, for whatever reason, I decided to reinvestigate the roots and branches of “my” music from the seventies and eighties. And this meant, somewhat inscrutably, going back to vinyl.

My collection of rock records from the seventies and eighties had always been supplemented by my friends’ collections, and theirs by mine, so that if, say, Andrew had X album by band A, I would buy Y album, and then we would tape them off of each other. As a result, my record collection was maddeningly incomplete, although I probably never felt it as such until I had lost touch with those friends with whom I had shared this music. I had a lot of Rush and Voivod and Testament and Metallica and Maiden, but little Zeppelin or Priest or Slayer or Megadeth or Floyd, which I had mostly taped. There were also certain bands and artists that I hadn’t gotten into until late college or post-college, like (believe it or not) Black Sabbath, when I was already buying everything on CD. Looking at my record collection was like looking in a mirror and seeing only half of my face.

Now, there is no logical reason why, when I started to pick up the old albums I didn’t have on vinyl, I couldn’t just buy them on CD. Most of my friends happily re-bought all their vinyl on CD in the ‘90s. But somehow, when I went to buy the ‘80s metal, ‘70s prog rock, and ‘60s classic rock I never had, or never wanted—again, inscrutably—I had to buy it on vinyl.

Hang in there, now—I know this all seems a bit too navel-gazing, and you’re wondering at this point whether you should actually give a shit. But have you ever stared at your navel so long that it starts to look … well, a little funky? Like maybe it’s not even your navel? (You can mentally italicize either “your” or “navel” in that last fragment-question.) Have you ever fallen into your navel, like Alice into her rabbit-hole?

Until about five or six years ago, my record collection represented a period of vinyl-buying that lasted from about 1984 to 1991. Over the last several years, however, I’ve started adding to it again—buying those missing records I only had on home-mixed cassettes, yes; or that I had only bits and pieces of from friends’ mixed tapes, and never, for whatever reason, got around to getting in their entirety—Exodus’s Bonded By Blood is a good example; or albums that I didn’t like in their entirety, and so, according to the endlessly-malleable analog world we used to inhabit, I had recorded edited versions onto mixed tapes myself. But then I’ve also started buying records by bands I didn’t listen to at the time or the moment, but feel like I should have. Example: given my prog rock-classical music background, it took me a while to break down and start listening to the more noisy, minimal thrash bands. I resisted Metallica until after Master of Puppets, Slayer more fiercely, arguing with myself about the un-musicality of it all, arguments that continued even after I had begun listening to them regularly. This is one reason I only ever had 1988’s South of Heaven on vinyl. But how can any self-respecting middle-aged metalhead have a record collection without Reign in Blood, the most pummeling, aggressive, hate-cathartic album ever recorded? That TDK SLII-90 I used to tape Arjun’s record back in 1986, black-pen blood droplets and a pentagram on the spine, just didn’t cut it. I was like a cardinal with a styrofoam crucifix.

These are dangerous things to say publicly. I risk losing a rather hard-fought identity. Because I was always identified as a metalhead, and so got used to calling myself one. In those days, once you listened to one metal album you were sort of lumped in with the crowd; the idea that you actually discerned among music in a genre that the bulk of the population regarded as “noise,” as “just screaming,” or that you listened to other things, too … well, that was preposterous. And so a sort of chute is formed for you, and you embrace whatever is at the end. I imagine most people’s identities are forged in just this way, via these complex negotiations between resistance and acquiescence.

By buying up all those records I didn’t have—not just the Judas Priest and Nuclear Assault and Death Angel albums I had taped in part or in whole off of friends, but also the Black Sabbath and AC/DC and Dio and Slayer albums I resisted, or didn’t much care for, or even outright disparaged—I am correcting my past. I am flexing my consumer muscle in order to create a version of who I might have been, perhaps should have been, according to who I have become. That I am doing this materially, via a consumer artifact, is crucial; for this way I can mold my memory, and hence my identity, to fit the evidence before me. Because if I became a metalhead partly by dint of being identified as one, then the external evidence is that much more persuasive. To others, yes; but first and foremost to myself.

And what a perfect choice of commodities: records! Grooves in pressed vinyl! It partakes of both the permanence of the engraving and the malleability of the material upon which the grooves are made. It is arguably a better metaphor for memory in the age of mass consumption than Freud’s mystic writing pad. It can even be played at varying speeds, and spun backwards …

As I said, in truth—in truth—I came to some of this music reluctantly, even kicking and screaming, arguing with myself about the aesthetic paradox and poring over Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my very early twenties for guidance and solace, before abandoning the paradox and embracing the aesthetic, so to speak. But it doesn’t matter now, because the vinyl is right there, and it speaks more clearly than memory ever could. It admits no paradoxes; it is uncontradictory, self-identical. And it says otherwise. I have become the image of what people always believed I was—a musical scoundrel—and perhaps what I most wanted to be for them, in whose eyes I needed to complete my identity, rather than what I truly was—what I truly was—which was surely more slippery, much much more slippery—what never exists in such a clear consistent outline as that persona we adopt in others’ eyes, the impressed circle of a record on a paper sleeve—and which is what, for all the emendations and distortions inherent to writing, or rather because of them, these words are here to correct, or perhaps more accurately, to counterbalance, to undermine, to goad …

I’m being a little facetious, of course, a little unfair; I’m having fun with myself at my own expense; the writing begs it of me. And then there is that part of me that imagines I am trying to assemble a collection that is “representative” of the genre, that is in some way “canonical,” that reflects a more “mature” vision … but representative of what, precisely?

All this is why I can never buy new vinyl—those beautifully-packaged, carefully weighed-and-measured re-pressings (mind the pun) of old records, weighing twice as much, “mint,” perfect-sounding (as if there were such a thing as perfect vinyl). I still have the hundred-dollar Pioneer turntable I bought on Route 22 in the mid-eighties. I’ve replaced the needle a few times, sure. But if my records sound a little old, all the better. After all, I’m constructing an illusion of my taste at a particular time; how would new vinyl help? Better to have a bit of scuff and dogeared corners … but not too much! Remember, I taped my records and then put them away, so the ones I bought new are in very good condition. I listen to them more now than I ever did then. And with each spin they become that much more persuasive.

*

Ding-dong! “They’re here? Quick! Hide the Norah Jones! Hide the Macy Gray! Hey, hey! What? Elton John? Elton John! Oh Jesus, for the love of God—hide the fucking Elton John!”

Epicness

“Did you guys ever write a song so epic that, by the end of it, you found you were influencing yourselves?” – Steve Colbert, interviewing the members of the band Rush

The other day I listened to Rush’s “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” from their second album, Fly By Night (1975). This was the first song where the band showed an interest in moving beyond the straight-ahead rock they had been playing around Toronto bars for the previous half-decade, and into the proggier style that would come to dominate their sound for the next half-decade: from the first concept side (remember sides?) “The Fountain of Lamneth” on Caress of Steel later the same year (not to mention the 13-minute suite “The Necromancer” on the same album), to the last one, “Hemispheres,” in 1978, and the two half-side masterpieces “Natural Science” and “Camera Eye” in 1980 and ’81. “By-Tor” is a hair under nine minutes long—only a minute and a half longer than either the ballad to restlessness “Here Again” or the pipefitter anthem “Working Man,” both on the debut album Rush (1974)—yet utterly different in tone, structure, and subject matter. The lyrics are a Tolkienesque fantasy narrative; and rather than an extended jam, the song is a suite, divided into four subtitled sections, the last two of which do things with time and timbre that the band would not have attempted a year earlier, and which crop up on some of the shorter songs on Fly By Night as well.

Listening to “By-Tor” today makes me think of the ribbon of woods running behind the houses along the street where I grew up. The actual wooded area was never more than 50 yards wide; in some places, it petered to a row of trees along someone’s split-rail fence; it was a quarter-mile long at most. None of this mattered; we (the kids on the street) called the network of footpaths traversing them “The Trails,” and gave different sections epic names according to their geography, like “Spider Mountain” for a hill that was covered with brambles. The Trails were a sliver that fell, somehow, between property lines—as if anything in our society actually could—and so we appropriated them: they became our property, in the same way rock ‘n’ roll was our property, if only because our parents disclaimed it.

Going back there today is like going back to your old grammar school and looking your first-grade teacher in the eye. There’s noplace where you can’t see the back of somebody’s house … noplace where “The Trails” don’t reveal themselves for anything but what they actually are. So it is with “By-Tor”: Across the Styx. Of the Battle. Bombastic names for bits of a nine-minute piece of pretty simple music. Even the “suite” just masks an elongated verse-chorus-bridge structure.

Yet, there is a difference, and it’s part of the magic of music that I can still so easily fall into a more youthful view. I can’t see The Trails anymore the way I saw them when I was ten, but I can hear music at least something like how I used to. My ear is easier to trick than my eye, and my memories—as well as my imagination—lie much closer to the surface in sounds, scratching, hammering at my eardrums from the inside.

Which is not to say I don’t listen differently than I used to. I do. “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” is a song I never much cared for when I was younger. Today, it charms me like an old music box. The easy romping chords of the verses, the youthful energy, the directness of approach, the naïve faith with which the music approaches the story (“Of the Battle” features a duel between a growling bass (“By-Tor,” according to a note under the picture of Geddy Lee) and a squealing guitar (“Snow Dog”))—all these things resonate with me today in a way that the elements of the song that are supposed to signify art-rock complexity (e.g., the time-screwy riff from which the band subtracts one note at a time to end “Of the Battle”; it could have come right out of a Bartok quartet) don’t. For all its pretense, “By-Tor” is indeed just a long rock song, the kind of song a very young band writes when they’re dreaming of epics-to-be.

But then perhaps all epics are relative. And if so, then it should be conversely noted that the grandest symphonies can sometimes seem paltry, the work of children playing at the sublime, as much as an art-rock “opera” or “concept album” can sound like kids who think that, by mussing their hair a little, they’ll sound like Beethoven. If the essence of music is (as E.T.A. Hoffmann so forcefully contended) that Romantic yearning for the infinite, then by definition music comes up short. “By-Tor” may be like the woods behind the house where I grew up, but Beethoven’s Fifth is hardly the Alps in fog, no matter how many of those old Kultur videos I watch. (They were, and perhaps still are, notorious for interspersing performance footage with either pastoral or sublime landscapes.)

Epics are always also retrospective: they exist to inflate events from the distant (and sometimes not-so-distant) past, to “realize” them in mythologically-pristine form, and so loom large in cultural memory, in the same way the woods behind my old house do in individual memory. Epics, then, are a particular mode of looking backwards, and as such it’s only fitting that they themselves should be outgrown, should themselves be looked back upon from a vantage unimaginable to the time in which they were composed. I remember staring at a map of the action of the Argonautica and marveling inwardly at the way the narrative had magnified a trip from the Greek isles up the Hellespont and along the southern coast of the Black Sea. Perhaps Apollonius thought the same of Odysseus’s travels; and the explorers of the sixteenth century surely thought it about Jason, and the men on the moon, too, about Vasco de Gama, each old cosmos folded inside a newer one, like Russian dolls. And yet, just as quickly as we outgrow epics, we happily shrink ourselves to fit inside them again. It’s one promise music makes, and occasionally keeps: that we can return to inhabit the epic imagination, in a way we can’t really return to the woods behind the houses where we grew up, except in dreams.

Life in the Upper Balcony

I wrote a version of this a couple of years ago on the occasion of Alfred Brendel’s final performance (Carnegie Hall, February 8th, 2008), but never had anyplace beyond a drawer to stick it. I’ll occasionally be revising and posting older pieces, particularly during these, the most relentless times of the semester, when I seem to be able to start things but not finish them. FYI, the posting hiatus is also partly due to my computer having gone kaput. A reminder to all ye who pass this way: have ye backed up your files recently? Well, have ye?

I was watching Alfred Brendel’s final performance when it occurred to me that, were we to cross paths on a busy sidewalk, there is a good chance I wouldn’t recognize him. In person, I’ve mostly only seen the top of his head, so that when I try to call him up to my mind’s eye, his face appears foreshortened, all wrinkled brow and wispy hair. For me to recognize Brendel, I thought, he would have to approach me with his head bowed and cocked to one side—a posture that might seem obsequious, or threatening, or just plain ridiculous, depending, I guess, on his speed.

Then it occurred to me that I would recognize none of the pianists I had seen at Carnegie Hall over the last thirty-odd years, except as imagined above. Like a helium balloon, I have always managed to stick as close to the ceiling as possible.

It’s a money thing, of course. Buying better seats would reduce the total number of concerts I could attend. This was always my father’s argument; I grew up, in a sense, in the Balcony. (An old joke, at least in my family: “Romeo, Romeo, where art thou, Romeo?” “In the Balcony—it’s cheaper!”) And though I may not have two kids or parking or tolls to pay, the ledger-book approach to classical concertgoing has remained my rule of thumb into adulthood. My standard line at the Carnegie Hall box office at the beginning of every season: “Balcony” (which, since I am not a subscriber, implies “Upper Balcony”); and, for piano, “Lefthand side.”

But the financial justification always carried with it an elaborate sustaining mythology: those of us who sit in the Upper Balcony know music in a way that those who sit below us do not. The inhabitants of the Orchestra are as spiritually and intellectually bereft as were their Gilded-Age forebears who occupied the boxes on the Hall’s opening night in 1891. Conversely, we poor saps in the Upper Balcony are martyrs. We are starving artists, academics, lay intellectuals, music students, devotees who carry scores around like evangelicals do the Bible and Senator Robert Byrd did the Constitution of the United States. Our lack of finery is proof of our disdain for material things. Thus, the top of the auditorium represents the top of the hierarchy—closer to God, one presumes—in music appreciation.

A second justifying myth is that the sound is better up here, like the air in the mountains is for consumptives. This is really a corollary to the first myth, since the purist comes to appreciate the music, not the spectacle of performance—a distinction arbiters of taste have sought to make absolute since at least the 19th century. Our distance from the performer thus equates to an ideal distance from the artwork itself.

I can’t testify to the sound being better or worse in the rarefied atmosphere of the Upper Balcony, since I’ve almost never had occasion to sit elsewhere. Once, I shelled out for stage seats when the concert was sold out and the opportunity presented itself; once, a kindly usher let me occupy an empty seat in Orchestra after intermission. A couple of times now I’ve sat in Dress Circle with my parents, who themselves forsook the Balcony a decade ago. Whether because after moving to Houston the original economic calculus for sitting in the Balcony changed, or because they’re exhausted of the martyr’s calvary up the stairs, I don’t know. My point is that I have very little data for comparison.

As for the wealthy philistine versus the humble devotee: I confess I’ve observed a goodly amount of philistine behavior in the Upper Balcony. It seems as likely that somebody has bought cheap tickets on a whim as that they’re rationing the season’s concerts. Nor are my Balcony comrades averse to wearing their Sunday best on Tuesday evening. Nor, for that matter, is the Balcony any safer from the terrorism of the cell phone. (Would that we were all as pedantic as Tibby Schlegel in Howards End: “profoundly versed in counterpoint,” he “holds the full score [of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony] open on his knee” and “implore[s] the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum” …)

In hindsight, I wonder to what extent these myths of the Upper Balcony are specific to my family, or can be attributed to my parents’ background. They might have been truer for the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, from which my parents carried their formative experiences in concert-going to the United States. The Buenos Aires of the 1950s seems to have been a place where class barriers were more keenly felt, the appreciation of classical music was more widespread, and the devout were content to pay a peso and stand in the back to get a chance to hear their favorite performer.

I suppose the easiest way to tell the educated from the un- would be to survey audience members about what those pesky encores were. But even that would be unfair to those of us in the back, who can never hear the titles when the performer deigns to announce them. Instead, we listen to the murmur of those in the lower tiers repeating the title to their companions, often during the encore’s opening bars. Then again, it does make for a nice conversation-opener with the stranger with whom we’ve spent the last two hours rubbing knees. If the way up is an exodus of the unwashed to the wilderness of the Balcony, at least the way down offers the possibility of community. It is necessarily a different kind of community from that which forms in the lobby. For this one blossoms in motion; it is the solidarity of fellow travelers, of pilgrims, and the strength of the bond emanates in part from recognizing something of the other’s circumstances in your own.

If there is any truth at all to the foregoing myths, then surely we in the Upper Balcony must appear as strange to the denizens of the Orchestra and Lower Tiers as fishes of the abyssal plain do to the average cod. I am one such beast, perfectly adapted to my low-pressure, low-oxygen environment. I suppose I’ve always looked more fit for hiking or bird-watching than for concertgoing. I arrive at the hall carrying my backpack with binoculars and a thermos cup of coffee, and maybe a book for the intermission. If it’s late spring or early fall, I may be in shorts—ready for the grueling hike up the stairs, yes, but also taking my parents’ disdain for the moneyed classes one step further: my attire says, Go ahead. Judge me. I dare you. (Once again, in deference to the Zeitgeist, I’ll blame my parents, who were (it must be said) lax when I was a child about how I dressed for concerts. I pitied the boys in suits, like I pitied my friends who had to go to Hobby Hall to dance with girls. I was eight years old when an usher asked me if I’d lost my pants. Where is the usher who will ask me that today?) I sit sipping coffee as I await the appearance of that rara avis, the pianist. The lights dim; the stragglers find their seats. I hastily screw the lid back on my thermos and stow it, take out the binoculars … there he is! Looking very much like a magpie! He finishes bowing before I can focus the lenses; he scoots the piano bench forward, flips back his coattails, and puts out his hands …

Remember when those redtail hawks first appeared in Central Park and built a nest next to Woody Allen’s apartment? People would sit in the park to watch them through their binoculars and telescopes and zooms. Weren’t the celebs jealous that week, to be upstaged by a bird!

Maybe binoculars are more indicative of life in the Upper Balcony than musical scores or starving artistry. I can still remember the first time I remarked mentally on the lag between watching a baseball hit a bat and hearing the crack. Had I been watching that batter through binoculars, the lag would have remained despite the illusion of proximity. So it is watching piano through binoculars from the Upper Balcony. Were my father not a pianist beside whom I have stood many a time watching the miracle of the fingers making music, I suppose this sight/sound disjuncture would seem like a product of the mechanism of the instrument itself, and not my perception of it. (It could be argued that this dislocation only reinforces the divide between the purity of the music and the spectacle of its production. And yet, where watching classical piano is concerned, the binoculars have only one real purpose: to marvel at the dexterity of the pianist’s hands. So much, again, for the Balcony’s vaunted purity!)

Maybe one day I, too, will get tired of the Upper Balcony, and begin my experiment in social mobility by buying tickets for Dress Circle. After all, my credentials have been compromised: I have a middle-class salary now. Time to stop slumming. It will be difficult at the box office; the ticket-seller will look at me funny; he might even call his manager and whisper something in his ear. But this will be nothing compared to how I’ll feel the night of the concert, when the usher rips my ticket and says, “Straight ahead, three flights up” (that’s the way I’ll hear it); when I stop before the last flight of stairs, on a floor that has never signified anything more than “Restroom”; when I confront the backward glances of those still climbing (their eyes will scream, “Traitor!”); and when I’m forced to find my seat in a hostile new wilderness, as strange to me as Gulliver’s islands, the natives huddled behind the flora, peering at me, readying their gilded spears. With my shorts and backpack and baseball cap, my thermos cup of coffee, and my binoculars, I will no doubt appear as alien to them as Mr. Brendel’s face will forever remain to me.