It was a crisp Saturday night in late-October. I was probably seven or eight. My brother and I were sitting on the couch watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” for the zillionth time.
And then we heard it.
To our stunned ears, it seemed as though my parents’ bay window, situated directly behind us, had shattered to pieces. But, mysteriously, it was still there, in tact.
Our tiny nervous systems were not prepared for this sonic assault, especially because it didn’t make sense. We stared in disbelief at the window for a minute, waiting for it to spill its shards. When we got enough courage to get up and peer out the front door, we saw the lanky silhouettes of teenagers running away into the dark of the trees. Piles of dried out corn kernels were scattered all over the porch like empty shells. We had been corned.
“Corn-ing,” a longstanding Halloween tradition in the suburbs of western Pennsylvania, is a popular prank in which kids sneak up to houses after dark and throw pre-hardened corn kernels at their windows, producing a truly startling sound effect. Corn-ing’s treat lies in the sonic trick—corn is able to convincingly sound like something else entirely. Thinking back on my experiences as both a victim of and participant in corn-ing, it occurs to me that this prank is sonic through and through—from listening for farmers in the corn fields before snatching husks from their crops, to locating one’s corn-ing partners in pitch black environments by the sound of the kernels bouncing rhythmically in their backpacks.
When early October rolled around each year, it was like an alarm went off in the heads of the kids that lived in my neighborhood. October meant it was time to procure ears of corn from the farms located on the outskirts of our Wonder-Years-ish suburb. In the days before we had our drivers’ licenses, this was an arduous task. We’d have to ride our bikes on the hilly back roads in mid-day (night time was too scary after we’d seen Children of the Corn), ditch them in the woods near the fields, and listen carefully for any signs of life in the corn—farmers, animals, blood-thirsty fundamentalist Christian children named Malachi, etc.
We couldn’t rely on our sight in these instances because the corn was so tall. We had to stop filling our backpacks every so often and listen for sounds of danger—for the rustles and crunches of stalks.
After our backpacks were filled to the brim, the preparation process began. The corn would sit for weeks in our garage, getting harder and harder. Once it became pebble-like in consistency, we’d shuck it back into our backpacks, listening to the pinging sound as it accumulated. On Friday afternoons, anxiously waiting for the sun to go down, we’d talk strategy. We decided that corning old people was out of the question. Even in our pseudo-delinquent state, we realized that sound had consequences—that spooking someone could give them a heart attack. So we mostly stuck to mean neighbors like old man Haybee, who was notorious for the unsightly cursive green “H” that was bolted to his chimney like a garish fast food sign. He never gave out candy to trick or treaters, so he was basically asking for it. Once a plan of attack was developed, it was time to suit up in all-black clothing and put on our packs. As soon as the streetlights came on, we were off.
My memories of these adolescent adventures are predominately sonic—the crunch of the fallen leaves, pounding hearts and nervous breathing, barely muffled laughter, and of course the sound of corn making contact with glass. Indeed, the success of the prank was measured in sound. The louder the sound the corn produced, the louder the aftermath tended to be. It was a true victory if dogs barked, or if people came out of their houses to yell. “You damn kids better run!” they would scream, sometimes only half seriously. And we did. We ran for our lives, despite the oppressive weight of the corn on our backs.
Click for the sound of sorn-ing: corn-ing
I wanted to capture the sounds of a real corn-ing experience to include here, but I quickly realized what an incredibly stupid idea that would be (what you heard, by the way, was the sound of me and my neighbor corning our own apartment building). As an almost 30-year-old Pittsburgher living in a fairly rough neighborhood, sneaking up to people’s houses at night in order to produce startling noises would most likely result in an encounter with police or violence of some kind. In the suburban environment of my adolescence, the sound of corn-ing was associated with a silly prank. Neighbors came to expect (and even get a kick out of) this Halloween tradition. In an urban environment in which the corn-ers are no longer in their teens, however, the sound of corn-ing would most almost certainly be interpreted as an aggressive or threatening act.
This just goes to show that different configurations of sound, spaces, and bodies (particularly raced and classed bodies) can result in vastly different understandings about what it means to share sound in a community. In Pittsburgh, I find myself constantly bombarded with the sounds of emergency and panic—police and ambulance sirens, firetrucks, helicopters. In my community’s soundscape, loud, startling noises are definitely not associated with fun and folly. Rather, they are a constant reminder of the looming danger that apparently surrounds me, as well as the incessant surveillance and policing of the city. This does not leave much room for sonic play.
This is not to say that there was no danger in corn-ing the burbs. For instance, this recent tragedy, in which a corn-er accidentally was hit by a car, happened in a suburb not far from the one where I grew up. Back when I was pitching corn, my best friend Courtney was once tackled by a man who thought she was slashing the tires of his truck (she was really just hiding behind a tire with a fistful of corn). And my brother Matt and I often found ourselves taking cover in the neighbors’ shrubbery waiting for the town patrolman to finish his watch. But I’d imagine that these war stories would not even come close to the dangers of corn-ing in the city. It is clear that the effectiveness of corn-ing as a prank is contingent upon the specific time, season, location, and culture in which its sounds occur.
Perhaps the real trick of sound, then, is that the context of its sounding can completely transform its effects and affects. But if you can get the sounds in sync with the right context, well, then you’ve got yourself a real treat.
Steph Ceraso is a 4th year Ph.D. student in English (Cultural/ Critical Studies) at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in rhetoric and composition. Her primary research areas include sound and listening, digital media, and affect. Ceraso is currently writing a dissertation that attempts to revise and expand conventional notions of listening, which tend to emphasize the ears while ignoring the rest of the body. She is most interested in understanding how more fully embodied modes of listening might deepen our knowledge of multimodal engagement and production. Ceraso is also a 2011-12 HASTAC [Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory] Scholar and a DM@P [Digital Media at Pitt] Fellow. She regularly blogs for HASTAC.
The reality of our time is that we listen more readily and with greater interest to the mediated treatment of soundscapes [by artists] than to the material in its original form and context.–R. Murray Schafer, “Sensing the City” (Lecture)
For this month’s post I want to walk you through my current urban home, Kansas City, as I try to listen to it in its “original form and context” as Schafer encourages us to do. I consider myself a city gal (notwithstanding one who grew up in the country) and I love cities; the fact that I have been able to return to a city fills me with joy. I am a new transplant to Kansas City, so there is a lot that is new to me. One of the ways I am exploring Kansas City is through sound.
I wanted to do a sound walk because I felt my point of view was that of an outsider, tourist: I just moved to Kansas City over the summer, so my sound memories of Kansas City are almost like a clean slate (more on that later). You might say I’m somewhat of a soundscape tourist, as Schafer calls it. Also, part of my research focuses on how our listening practices help construct our homespaces—and those listening practices are not limited to simply the music we listen to. I believe we construct our “home” through the way we listen to it, the sounds we create, and how we remember sounds. For example, some of my memories of growing up in Puerto Rico are related to sound. I remember going home for the weekend when I was in college, and lying in bed awake listening to all the sounds of the countryside. It amazed me that we were surrounded by sounds (night birds, crickets, cars, horses, cows, dogs, snores, bugs) even though the country was remarkably quieter from the city I lived in during the week. Now that I live in Kansas City, I want to keep a close eye/ear on my sonic surroundings.
For those of you unfamiliar with sound walks, it is a method conceived by Schafer, composer and acoustic ecologist, to explore the soundscape. It consists in walking through a particular area and taking stock of the sounds around you. Schafer helped develop the World Soundscape Project at Simon Frasier University, a project that wanted to research the sonic environments we live in. Interestingly enough, Schafer was not a fan of the sounds of cities, and went so far as to state that “noise pollution is one of the main problems in urban life.” I am familiar with this now-common complaint of urban locations. However, my sound walk yielded a different result.
My sound walk took place this past Saturday, December 11. The day started out cool, but the temperatures dropped quickly past midmorning. The cold, added to the wind chill factor in the single digits, cut my sound walk short. Since part of what I want to do with this sound walk project is take stock of the sounds of my home, I started by walking along streets close to my apartment that I usually drive along. I walked along the thoroughfares I use the most: 39th Avenue/Street (we live close to the Kansas/Missouri border), Adams Street, and 43rd Street. (See the map below.)
As I prepared myself to face the dropping temperatures, I thought to myself about Kansas City’s sounds. One of the first memories I have of Kansas City is the sound of the cicadas. I came in early September 2009 to visit my boyfriend, who lived by Country Club Plaza. The sounds of bell chimes, horns, cars, and people didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. What irked me was the loud biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiizzzzzzzzzzzzz of the cicadas late at night, when the Plaza was still and quiet. When I woke up at night, that sound haunted me. I did not expect the deafening sound of the cicadas when I came here. I hadn’t noticed it when we first parked in front of the building, but once I had settled into bed I couldn’t ignore them. The bizz followed me that long weekend, and even when I returned to New York I could remember clearly the sound. I found it annoying at first; I could barely sleep that first night. But now that I am here I think of it as part of the sounds of my new home. It’s nice to know that there’s a sound that’s exclusively Kansas Citian for me. (Here is a link to an NBC Action News clip on the cicadas. Click on the video to hear them loud and clear.)
I started by jotting down the sounds I noticed as I walked. At the beginning I wanted to jot down every single sound, and it got to the point where I wasn’t listening anymore; I was analyzing instead of listening. After I turned onto Genesee Street and I noticed some of the sounds kept on repeating, I decided to just listen for now and write later. The sound walk was a lot more enjoyable when I could listen unfettered.
There were few people out on Saturday. I shouldn’t be surprised because it was cold outside (26 degrees with a wind chill of 13 when I checked a few blocks away from the apartment), but I missed hearing the sounds of humans, not sounds manufactured by humans, but sounds emanating from human bodies: coughing, talking, singing, walking…However, I tried to not listen to my own sounds. It sounds silly, but I was trying to listen to sounds other than my own. When I noticed this, it shocked me: why should I not write down the sounds I make, unconsciously or consciously? I am a part of the soundscape; why not keep track of the sounds I make? All of a sudden I felt like I was a lot louder than I actually was. My boots hitting the sidewalks, my pant legs rubbing up against each other, and my mouth chewing gum.
There were a lot of chimes out there. This was interesting to me; I have three windchimes on my terrace, and this is a sound that has become part of my soundscape. I like how sometimes I go to bed and in the still of the night I can hear my chimes shaking in the wind. Now that I think of that I wonder if other my neighbors find them annoying.
Some other sounds I heard repeatedly were: flags flapping against poles, cars zipping past me, wind blowing in my ears, gum smacking, boots against pavement, leaves rustling. The sound of the wind seemed to envelope me, and it howled louder between the branches and the houses. But once the wind died down and the leaves stopped rustling and the sound of my shoes faded into the background, I could hear a hum, barely audible but still existent. I wonder if it’s the hum of the expressway (1-35), or the hum of the air filters at the hospital (KU Med). I could hear it when I was at my farthest from my house but also when I was closest. I think of it as the hum of the city. If when we are super quiet we can hear our bodies breathe, the hum can be the city breathing, all of its sounds coming together as one. I’d like to think so.
I plan on doing three more walks, one per season coming up, as a way to get to know my new city and to continue exploring city sounds. It would be awesome if we could put together a sound walk project of Kansas City, similar to other sound projects in other urban locations. (New York seems to be a popular location for sound walks.) If anything, a sound walk is a great way to get to know your area, rediscover it with new ears.
Bonus track: After the map you will find a link to an audio clip from my sound walk. Also, if you’re interested in doing a sound walk of your own, click on the following links to find out more.