A Change of Tune
by Ben Alford
Outside today it’s spring, though green leaves and blossoms remain hid and folded at the ends of branches. The sun is strong and pushes down through the dense haze that has settled over the city. Parks and sidewalks are congested. Motorcycles zoom deftly around cars on Bedford Avenue. Down at Coney Island, the carnival along the boardwalk with its hotdog stands, freak shows, and spinning rides will be thawing and stirring like a coldblooded thing. I’ve opened a window to let air in, pushed my face to the screen.
Innumerable sounds are swimming in the breeze: jackhammers, horns, sirens, birdsong, the quacking of little, well-dressed dogs whose owners have spoiled them rotten. I try to hear everything and to judge how far each signal has had to travel to reach me. Yaps and chirps are clear and nuanced, so they must be coming from within a radius of 75 feet or less. The Doppler slides and crescendo-decrescendos of the sirens betray swift movement. First they wail from afar, then blare right outside, then they are far away once again. The jackhammer must be at a fair distance since its thundering doesn’t drown out more delicate vibrations in the mix – maybe three quarters of a mile down Myrtle.
You feel like you’re digging through discrete layers or like you’re surrounded by concentric shells, each one harboring a unique variety of tones. Keep drilling to ever more distant melodies, and, eventually, you’ll come to a place where distinctions disappear. At the limits of perception, countless footsteps, brake squeals, door slams across the Five Burroughs combine to create a non-descript wash not unlike what you might encounter putting an ear to a seashell. This background din guarantees you’ll always be hearing something, even in rare moments when the foreground is completely still.
A soundscape so complex, rich and dynamic invariably brings to mind a question that has plagued Western aesthetics at least since Pierre Schaffer began using field recordings in his “musique concrete” compositions. The question is this: Where is the line that divides music from mere noise? On a day like today, when the weather is prime and I’m feeling good, my own response is in keeping with the assertions of John Cage. Put simply, there is no line; all life is music. In fact, I often feel that the counterpoint, harmony, and rhythms of everyday life in New York are superior to the results achieved even by history’s greatest classical composers. It’s hard to beat the energy of an 8-million-part free improvisation that you’re actually an active participant in!
Not all days are like today, though. I oscillate between hearing heavenly choirs and plugging my ears. From a less-charitable vantage point, New York City is an awful racket! There are times when I literally have to scream to be heard by the person standing right next to me. I’m regularly stirred from deep sleep by screeching tires and late-night shouting matches. Apart from being annoying, noise pollution can be a real health hazard. Not only does excessive exposure to loud sounds damage hearing, studies have linked it to stress, sleep loss, hypertension, and depression. Even the best of music ought not to be heard all the time. In the city, though, you really don’t have much of a choice. It’s not like you can just lift the record needle at will, which brings me to my main point.
For the reasons just mentioned and more, I’ve decided I need a change of tune. March will be my last month paying New York rent, and this piece will be my final contribution to Highfalutin’. It’s been a wild ride, one I’ve very much enjoyed sharing with everyone who took the time to read the column. While I expect the music of Bosque Farms (where I’m moving for spring and summer) to be every bit as compelling, I’m sure I’ll never quite get the music of New York City out of my head.
Enjoy New Mexico’s stillness. See you around.