[O]ne of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation to time.– Ralph Ellison, “Living with Music” (1955)
Early this past fall, my wife and I moved back to Brooklyn after three years in central New York State. We spent two of those years on a back street in a mostly rural area of Cortland, NY, where are there are more dogs than people and more cows than dogs. Those dogs were probably the most intrusive neighborhood sound—a barker would get going and that’d set off a chain reaction from yard to yard, like a real life version of the “Twlight Barking” from 101 Dalmations. Still, I could get used to it, ignore it, zone out. The only other sounds that penetrated our home were the nearby freight trains, but their sounds are almost soothing—the rhythm of the clacking rails like Paul Simon singing “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. . .” or a relaxation tape.
Now back in New York City, I am very aware of the different degree, frequency and quality of sounds I am subjected to while in my living space. Reconsidering living with noise put me in the mind of Ralph Ellison’s 1955 essay “Living With Music” from High Fidelity magazine. Like the living situation Ellison describes, our new place is a rear-facing apartment and we get the sound of echoing voices, car horns or yowling cats (fighting and/or making more cats) bouncing off the back wall of a garage on the next street. However, as most city-dwellers know, it is our neighbors that provide the most persistent and profound sonic disturbances. Ellison himself was disturbed at an upstairs neighbor’s overzealous singing, vocalizing “[f]rom morning until night.” In our case, another four-family apartment house abuts ours and through the two brick walls sandwiched by two layers of plaster, we can frequently hear the shrill cries of teenage anguish. The violent screaming between teenaged siblings or between one or more of them and their parents can shake the walls. It is difficult to ignore.
The noise of children in New York City apartments was a topic of a New York Times feature a couple of years ago, but in that article the age of the children makes it easy to sympathize with the parents and to cast the complainers as insensitive villains. Little children cannot be expected to regulate their own crying or the seemingly ceaseless energy that is so easily transformed into cries of glee or the galloping of those baby shoes. In the case of my neighbors, it harder to sympathize when the sound is from near-adult children screaming about how life isn’t fair, or getting forced into frequent violent disagreements with a similarly aged sibling with which they must share a tiny part of an already tiny space—a New York City apartment.
It is easy to get angry when they get going. A teenager is not a chorus of barking dogs, a small crying child, or even some jerk honking his horn a block away who doesn’t realize how far the sound can travel, but ostensibly someone developing into a functional adult. The things they are screaming about can often seem beyond ridiculous to older people, and thus their need to scream about them is particularly offensive when I am simply trying to enjoy a evening of catching up on Mad Men or (more importantly) an afternoon writing my dissertation. As my wife often asks, “Why don’t their parents regulate?” But I try to remind her, it is the attempt to regulate their behavior that often starts the screaming matches. Like a 2-year old testing the range of her voice, these teens are exploring their own boundaries. Furthermore, unlike the class entitlement permeating the NYT Real Estate section feature, the economic reality of living in row houses in Bensonhurst changes expectations regarding the living experience.
The sonic disturbances often come when I am trying to get some writing done, so it is not hard to think about Ellison’s essay, since writing was also what he endeavored to do when bedeviled by his neighbor’s practice of “bel canto style.” The way noise can carry in these apartments creates a form of anonymous intimacy. Think of Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Airshaft,” a musical representation of just that urban intimacy.
As he said of the apartment airshaft that inspired that piece,
You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great loudspeaker, you hear people praying, fighting and snoring.
While I don’t know my neighbors better than a polite nod of hello when I pass them sitting on the stoop, I am ear-witness to their dramas, and more than that I am sometimes drawn into them, finding myself banging the wall with a forearm and calling through the wall “enough already!” Or spending time discussing the family’s private affairs with my wife, speculating about the arguments. Similarly, Ellison’s trepidations about trying to silence his neighbor come from how her practice makes him intimately aware of her aspirations, even as that same intimacy drives him to build a stereo to blast at her in an attempt to conquer their shared sonic space.
Urban sonic intimacy is tightly tied to Ellison’s assertion regarding music and our orientation to time. However, Ellison’s observations can be expanded beyond music, because remember one person’s music is another person’s noise, as Scott Poulson-Bryant discussed in his Sounding Out! post on music and New York City apartment life in “The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own” (August 2010). A noise can likewise orient me in time: the sound of freight trains will bring me back to my time in Cortland, and more profoundly, that teenaged screaming brings me back to my own volatile adolescence, asking me to reconcile that version of me with the one I am now.
In Ellison’s essay, he arrives at two conclusions regarding music. The first is the above-mentioned orientation to time and the second is deep sympathy that arises from that realization, as he associates his upstairs neighbor’s intrusive singing practice with his own childhood attempts to master the trumpet. The orientation to time he discusses is not only a matter of looking back and making associations with a younger self’s relationship to music, but also comes from an adult understanding that there were those “who were willing to pay in present pain for future pride. For who knows what skinny kid. . .might become the next [Louie] Armstrong?” The anonymous intimacy of city-living has made me reflective regarding these screaming matches and I have begun to develop a sympathy that lets me tolerate the disturbance, to understand it in a context of living and growing. For how do I know that those volatile teenaged emotions might not develop into the sensitive and thoughtful adult attitude I try to have in my own life? There is no need to imagine that these kids will grow into anyone special (though the world could certainly use a couple more Louis Armstrongs or Ralph Ellisons), but their noise is a signal for the need for empathy, to remember our own ability to make noise not only through simply living but in trying to grow, to become. . .
Ellison may have thought that “the enjoyment of music is always suffused with past experience,” but I think enjoyment is just the tip of an iceberg of sonic experience, because it also holds out the possibility for an affective relationship with sound that can shift from annoyance to understanding without actually having to enjoy. It is not just music, but noise that “gives significance to all those indefinable aspects of experience, which. . .help to make us what we are.” Noise transforms in the cramped urban setting from a residue of life into a connective tissue that signals a challenge to boundaries, requiring greater empathy and patience. The very noise that endangers our peace is also a reminder of how close and alike we really are. It is only time that separates me from the screaming of a teenager and it is only time that stands between me and a screaming teen of my own.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Summer Soundscapes, East Coast Style–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own–Scott Poulson-Bryant
Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil–Leonardo Cardoso
Fall refuses to stay put in Kansas City. The past month Kansas City temperatures have skyrocketed to 70 comfortable degrees fahrenheit and plummeted to 20 chilly degrees. I decided to partake of a wonderfully mild Sunday afternoon last Thanksgiving weekend to do another one of my Kansas City soundwalks, this time the fall edition. Fortunately the weather was cooperating, and I didn’t have to worry about how long I could resist standing in the cold.
Even though the weather was wonderful for a soundwalk, I couldn’t choose where to go. I have blogged about three soundwalks so far, and for each of them the choice seemed more organic: for my first soundwalk, in 2010, I wanted to walk around my new neighborhood and begin to understand it from an aural point of view. For my second soundwalk (in 2011) I went to one of my favorite places in Kansas City, the Country Club Plaza, and provided a snapshot of the sounds of spring in this busy area of Midtown. On my personal blog, in time for World Listening Day 2011, I talked about sounds from my own porch for a summer edition of my KC Soundwalks series, in order to think about the soundscape where I live. However, for this fourth soundwalk my only requirement was that it be a place I had not been to before. I wanted to venture out to somewhere new and encounter it not just with my eyes but also with my ears. Technically, I could go anywhere in Kansas City and do a soundwalk, but that was the one thing keeping me from doing a soundwalk: I couldn’t choose.
Last Sunday I decided I had to just get in the car and go. I had planned (and postponed) several soundwalks up until that day (I had even tweeted that I was leaving the house, in hopes of that forcing me to commit), so that day I planned to finally take some time to do my soundwalk before I went back to work. I got in the car with my daughter, destined for the West Bottoms neighborhood. I figured I’d take the long route instead of the quick and easy highways. As we drove along the side streets, I saw a park—a park neither of us had been to before, Jarboe Park—and I figured we could stop there, play for a while, and then drive off for my soundwalk. In any case, she might be good and tired by the time we arrived at our final destination, and I could put her in the stroller while I recorded and took notes.
That’s not what happened.
Once we arrived at the park, a moment of inspiration hit when I saw some musical instruments of sorts as part of the jungle gym, something I hadn’t seen before.
When we arrived, Jarboe Park was deserted. The bare trees didn’t make it any more inviting, but the park is in newly minted condition and full of bright colors. It showed no signs of life, or wear and tear; in fact, the jungle gym and the swings seemed new. (According to The City of Kansas City, MO’s website, this park was remodeled in 2011.) Jarboe Park is located in a residential neighborhood, across from Primitivo García Elementary School. During the semester it surely gets more use. Perhaps it was too early on a Sunday for families to be out and about at the park. Coincidentally, a family appeared about an hour after we arrived, but they went to the basketball court across the street.
The first thing that caught my attention at the park was the presence of musical instruments set up at the entrance. I do not remember seeing anything similar before at a children’s jungle gym. There was a set of bells, a xylophone, some rainmakers, a whistle, and a drum set. Their presence seemed to indicate that making sounds/music/noise was also part of the experience of being in the park as well as part of the experience of growing up. Sound, specifically making sounds, became part of play, in this context.
In the quietude of the noon time the sounds these instruments made felt a little sad instead of happy; the fact that there was only one child (ok, two, including myself!) playing with these instruments made their sounds stand out more, in relation to, say, the sounds of the trains and the highways (which I will discuss below). At the same time they drew attention to the fact that they were the only sounds that the park was making. If the park were busy, the sounds of the instruments would probably fade into the soundscape instead of being the loudest sound. However, the fact that we were playing with these instruments–versus playing instruments–made the park seem less lonely. We were part of the sounds, we were making sounds, and that seemed to distract me from the fact that we were the only people there making sounds. Although the plastic and metal instruments were not like traditional instruments, I wondered what their purpose in the jungle gym were. If the spider web and the swings are meant to exercise certain parts of the body and practice certain ways of socializing, what did the instruments teach? Perhaps the instruments are meant to teach children that instruments produce sounds, and they produce them in different ways. Lastly, the instruments and the act of creating sounds must use a different part of the brain–and my daughter was quite excited to play with the drum set!
Other than the sounds of the instruments, I also noticed the sounds of the highway and the train. I found a corner of the park where I could stand and record the sounds of the city:
Kansas City is intersected by train tracks, and it almost feels like if you pay close attention, you can hear a train in the distance at any corner of the city. In fact, in the dead of a lazy afternoon or the quiet of the wee hours of the night I can hear the trains’ whistles, announcing their passing through the city, from my neighborhood of Rosedale in Kansas City, Kansas. If soundwalks can be a sonic ethnography of a city, my soundwalks have so far revealed that the sound of trains are an essential part of the KC soundscape as well as a reminder of the city’s history: the Kansas City Stockyards. I could also hear the low buzzing of the cars on the highway, another sound I’ve come to recognize as uniquely Kansas Citian, or at least part of my soundsscape. The murmur of the traffic ways is like the sound of Kansas City’s blood coursing through its veins.
This spur-of-the-moment soundwalk made me think of how listening and sound can prompt reflection about the identity of a neighborhood and of a city. As I wrote down notes, I wondered: how do parks add to a community’s soundscape? The sounds add to the community’s identity as a residential area as an area that is amenable to the presence (physically and in aural terms) of other people. Soundscapes are connected to our ideas of what constitutes a neighborhood, and specifically how important common spaces like parks are, with all the sounds that may ensue. On a broader level, my Kansas City soundwalks are helping me piece together a soundscape of Kansas City, and to think through sound as a way to understanding the urban culture of this city, with its music, its fountains, its sports, and its trains, among other things. I feel like my listening practices are directly tied to my developing connection to this Midwestern city.
Postscript: I never did make it to the West Bottoms that Sunday. But it’s still on my list of KC spots to visit.
Featured Image: “Downtown from Top of Liberty2″ by Wikimedia user Hngrange, under Creative Commons 3.0 license.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!