"Endangered Sounds"?

Well, let’s see. No, wait. Let’s listen instead. “Now I will do nothing but listen, / To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute / toward it.” Walt Whitman wrote these lines. What are the notes to the song of my self? What are the echoes of my everyday? What do these sounds have to do with me?

When I moved to Wales, far from the hubbub of Manhattan, I had to get used to a whole new soundscape. I haven’t quite gotten used to it yet; particularly not to the howling of the wind. These days, there is a new sound in the living room. Yet it is so old, Whitman might have heard it. It is not a Welsh sound, but one made in Brooklyn. It is the sound of our Ansonia clock, anno 1881 (pictured above), which is now part of the ambiance in which I breathe and move.

I have been listening to the BBC Radio 4 documentary “Endangered Sounds.” What might that be, an endangered sound? In my adolescence, I began to wonder about the perishable fabric of my sonic everday. I began to record noises and voices in an attempt to capture where—and who—I was. I did not trust my archival mind as a storehouse of sonic markers of place and time. We tend to make records of our lives in words and images rather than sound. The image seems to be more desirable as a keepsake—more reliable and persuasive. It dominates our senses. Is it any wonder we feel out of touch with the past if we insist on turning it into graphic objects.

I remember sitting in Central Park one afternoon, thinking how serene my environs were. I recorded the sounds of that afternoon and played them back at home, only to realize how noisy that spot had been. The images were so powerful, they drowned out the sounds of the metropolis—the cars rushing by just behind the trees, the buzz of commerce puncuated by sirens. I took no notice of what was out of sight (though hardly out of earshot); I did not hear what the eye fooled me into believing absent. I listen for them now that I am gone. I miss them more than the sights, stored in my mind, preserved on paper, and displayed in this journal.

“Endangered Sounds” provokes thoughts about our changing environment, about noise pollution, about the loss and luxury of silence: the nostalgia for our silenced past, the awareness that, as technology advances, we lose ourselves soundscapes whose sameness is robbing us of our identity—an alienating, Kmartian sub-urbia, a generic soundtrack as mind-numbing as Muzak. For all this, “Endangered Sounds” frustrates as much as it intrigues, especially since it does not resound with many of the authentic sounds it declares to be on the brink of extinction, some of which were recreated in stock recordings, others crushed in musical beats.

Rather than preserving sound, the program serves as a reminder of loss; it is a memorial service for our silenced past. It suggests that, in the near future, technology will permit us to deaden what we do not wish to hear, to create bubbles of choice sound and tranquility distilled from the din of civilization. Manufacturers of sound are hard at work to sell us back what commerce and progress has robbed us of.

Do we really need highly sophisticated computer technology to create our individual sound spheres? When I lived in Germany and dreamed of New York City, I would listen to the sounds of streets and avenues I had recorded while away from what was not truly home. The sirens, the footsteps on the sidewalks, the babble of the passers-by—they provided more comfort than the electronic tunes I merely consumed. Unlike the artifice of those purchased sounds—a sonic anywhere to take the place of the here and now—the metropolitan noises I had recorded were real and concrete. My feet had touched those steps, my shoulders had brushed against those voices, my nose had taken in the fuel with whose burning the traffic resounded. That was somewhere—a there I felt—and I knew I had to go back there to stay.

These days (owing to the electronic blasts of the past, no doubt) I am somewhat hard of hearing; but instead of deadening my everyday in specious phonics or phoney silences—some New Age orchestrations of an assembly-lined existence—I seek and find comfort in sounds whose source I can identify and take in with my other senses—the fire I feel against my skin, the yawning of our none-too-pleasant smelling dog on the carpet, and the clock on the mantelpiece (which, in the picture above, reflects both me and the dog on its surface); and instead of losing myself in the folds of a custom-made soundcarpet, I wrap myself in this resonant quilt and know myself to be . . . at home.

2 Replies to “"Endangered Sounds"?”

  1. Hello HarryWhen I was small we had a large clock on the sideboard. My father used to wind it with a gorgeous metal key – one hole wound the clock and the other was for the chime. It was a lovely ritual.When he died my half-sister was given the clock. I missed the tick as much as I missed my father winding the clock.Thanks for the reminder.Michaelx

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  2. Thank you for sharing this story, Michael. You know, I think the previous entry marks the first time I wrote about my father in this journal. He died in 1998, long after we had stopped talking. I am not sure whether his voice has been preserved in recordings.

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