ASMR Jungle: Rambling Notes on NYC Composed Out of Earshot

Chalk drawing on the pavement at Union Square. Not that I need an invitation.

Inhale.  Exhale.  Inhale.  Exhale.  I must try that some time without using a brown paper bag.  Just kidding – but only just.  It’s been a breathless few weeks.  Now that I am coming up for air, I’d like to say, if it were not such a hackneyed phrase, that I have returned from my long and long-delayed New York trip with a suitcase full of memories.  Not that I care to be reminded about my luggage, given that, owing to an absent-mindedness brought on by physical exhaustion and an acute state of all-over-the-placeness, my carry-on case continued its journey by rail without me.

Argh.  Among other things, the valise gone astray contained a rare copy of Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig (1943), a curiosity of a mystery about which, had I not, through my negligence, forfeited the opportunity of its perusal, I would have liked to say considerably more here, especially given that its story is set in Wales, whereto its English author, H. C. Bailey (1878–1961) retired at the end of his career.

My copy of the novel, before it got lost in transit.

While in New York, I did a bit of research at the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Division on lost recordings of Bailey’s “Mr. Fortune” stories, nineteen of which were adapted for US radio in the mid-1930s and are extant as scripts.  More about that, and the pig, some other time, the lost-and-found department of Transport for Wales permitting.  Never mind flying.  Pigs might travel by rail.

Pardon the rustling of mental notes; but as recounted here previously, fortune did not exactly smile on me during my stay in New York, entirely overshadowed as it was, at least initially, by my former partner’s heart attack and my bout of Covid, which barred me from the ICU and turned my legs to lead as I dragged myself from one testing site to another.

Rasp.  Not that my sojourns in the metropolis are ever an unalloyed joy, tinged as they invariably are with a sense of loss and estrangement.  Each year, the city I knew most closely when I lived there from 1990 to 2004, is becoming less familiar, less recognizable, and generally less worth revisiting, especially since what was particular and once characteristic is gradually being replaced by the generic and corporate.

The pandemic has speeded up this process, with many of the remaining one-of-a-kind sites going under in a sump of sameness.  A few years ago, when I researched the career of the English printmaker Stanley Anderson for a catalogue raisonné and a series of exhibitions, I was struck by the sense of dislocation some of his etchings communicate.  A kindred spirit, I am alive to Anderson’s visual commentaries on a world that was vanishing – or was made to disappear – before his very eyes.

Edward Hopper, The Lonely House (1920)

I was reminded of Anderson’s alternative views of 1920s London – of construction sites and demolitions – when I came across the etching The Lonely House (1920) in the exhibition Edward Hopper’s New York at the Whitney.  New York City, as the show’s curators put it with platitudinous generality, “underwent tremendous development” during Hopper’s lifetime; and instead of focussing his attention on landmarks that are more likely to stay in place than the architecturally commonplace – an assumption proven false decades later by the pulverization of the World Trade Center, an act of religious fanaticism bringing home that iconoclasm on any scale demands the iconic – Hopper “turned his attention” to “unsung utilitarian structures” and was “drawn to the collisions of the new and old” that “captured the paradoxes of the changing city.”

I am likewise eschewing the presumably picture-worthy sites in Asphalt Expressionism, my upcoming exhibition of large format, printed iPhone photographs of New York City sidewalks that, in a tourist’s pursuit of views or selfie backdrops, tend literally to fall by the wayside despite being in plain sight.

However, it is not visuals alone that vanish or material culture only that is subject to erasure.  Sounds, too, face neglect and extinction.  Unless they are voices or musical compositions, aural environments are largely unheard of in most records of our experiences, public or private.  Sounds may survive as a backing track to our home videos, but rarely do they become the main event, the real thing of our conscious engagement with sensed reality.

The deafening whirr of National Guard helicopters in Alfredo Jaar’s 06.01.2020 18.39 (2022) – a record of and response to Black Lives Matter protests in the moment of their suppression – might have been such an opportunity to give sound its space, had the installation at the 2022 Whitney Biennial not used video footage and wind machine effects to create what struck me as an alternative theme park ride.

Both concrete and abstract, noise has always had the capacity of stirring me, of becoming a hearing-aide memoire that suffices not only to conjure scenes but to supersede them like a self-perpetuating Proustian trigger.  Long before ASMR became a thing, I thrilled to everyday sounds revisited remotely or rendered uncanny by way of decontextualization.  In my early teens, I created unscripted audio plays using actual and pre-recorded sounds.  I wrapped narratives around the appropriated and repurposed aural.  What mattered more to me than storytelling was the scavenging for noises that could not only set the scene of a play but become its characters.

When I first set foot on Manhattan back in April 1985, cameras were not yet digital.  Finite and fragile, rolls of film called for careful handling and deliberation.  Taking pictures involved a counting down to the last image in the process of deciding what counts.  Curating one’s memories did not start after the act of snapping pictures.  Choices had to be made on the spot.

I became aware that a camera, at least in my hands, sliced everyday life rather too finely, shaving off the fat of the ordinary: so much was left out of what, metaphorically, we tend to refer to as “the picture.”  The resulting pool of images, while somewhat reflective of my experience, was a long way off from re-presenting it.  A mere index, it was pointing at what had once touched me.

To achieve a fuller record of my felt experience, I availed myself of a tape recorder to capture and retrieve the sounds of the city.  The sirens, the steps on the sidewalks, and the smacks planted on me like a rainbow flag by the first man to turn my head at a time when homosexual desire, to my AIDS-conscious mind, was more closely aligned with death than with love.  Listening to lips touching my flesh was longing made liveable, sensation made survivable.

Those recordings allowed me to relive my days in New York after I returned to the stultifying suburbia that awaited me in my native Germany.  Streaming into my pricked ears, sound had an intimacy and immediacy that no photograph at my fingertips could approach.

I continued my audiodiary for some years – but, as I realized when trying to snare the sounds of the sidewalks on my recent trip, recording technology, unlike the iPhone camera, has not significantly advanced.  It is easier to take a snapshot of one’s surroundings than it is to sound the canyons of the asphalt jungle by using similarly intuitive software.

Far more evocative and haunting than any sounds I managed to digitize this time around are the magnetic tape recordings Tony Schwartz produced and collected in the 1950s.  Schwartz was a pioneer in photojournalism, a Weegee with a microphone.  I discussed his project briefly in “A Forefront in the Aftermath? Recorded Sound and the State of Audio Play on Post-‘Golden Age’ US Network Radio,” a mouthful of a chapter that was included in the anthology Tuning in to the Neo-Avant-garde: Experimental Radio Plays in the Postwar Period (2021).

Schwartz purchased his first tape recorder not long after the end of his military service, during which time he became aware of the technology developed in Nazi Germany.  In the spirit of transnationalism, Schwartz set up tape exchanges of music performed and recorded by amateurs and professionals living as far afield as Peru, England and the Soviet Union.  Circumventing red tape and sidestepping authority, those audio recordings created communities through sounds produced thousands of miles apart.

Jukebox installed at the exhibition New York: 1962-1964. Jewish Museum

Schwartz also sounded his immediate environment. His magnetic tape recorder registered and preserved what a 1954 article in High Fidelity magazine called the “beautiful, raucous, piteous, amusing and otherwise characteristic sounds” of New York City.  Such recordings would add texture to otherwise richly contextualized exhibitions like New York: 1962-1964 at the Jewish Museum, which features listening stations devoted to poetry and artist statements and a jukebox playing period pop instead of “characteristic sounds” of the city anno 1962-64.

What are those “characteristic sounds” today, as less of our social life plays out on the streets that used to be filled with the shouting and laughter of children at play, of balls being batted and shod feet performing the hopscotch? 

My former self, on Houston Street, 1991, with a boombox for a handbag

What are we no longer hearing now that earphones make private what transistor radios or boomboxes once spilled out into the noise-polluted environment? The advent of electric cars and the proliferation of bike rentals are transforming the city’s soundscape, just as the pandemic boom of the sidewalk restaurant is pushing the clatter of cutlery into pedestrian earshot, shot as my own tinnitus-ringing ears are after years of my being a disciple of high-decibel pop and dance music.  

What makes any of those sounds uniquely New York is a matter of volume, proliferation and amplification, which differ depending on the width of the city’s artificial gorges, the loftiness of façades and their material make-up, as well as the demographics of each neighborhood, Schwartz’s home turf being what once was Hell’s Kitchen.

An article on Schwartz in the June 1960 issue of Tape Recording magazine

“New York is my home,” Schwartz introduced himself to listeners of New York 19, an album he named after the postal code (now 10019) of that part of the West Side whose stories he told in sound. ‘That’s where I live, and that’s where I work.  I carry a portable tape recorder with me wherever I go.  I’ve recorded the sounds that I hear.  The sounds of my city.”  Razing the distinction between the public and the private while obscuring his own role as a collector and curator of sounds, Schwartz declared: “These recordings are my story, the story of New York.”

Many of those sounds – resonant as well as revenant now that many of their makers have breathed their last – would, as recordings, become decontextualized, severed from the specificities of their origin and serve as soundtracks for other people’s stories – including the network radio programs that Schwartz’s tape exchange culture-countered.  Some of the sounds that Schwartz curated for New York 19 were subsequently transmitted on the airwaves. Canadian broadcasting, for instance, featured them in the 1958 documentary “A Walk in New York,” the ostensibly authentic, one-of-a-kind autobiographical sketch of a young actor – an uncredited Leslie Nielsen – pounding the pavement in search of gainful employment.

That same year, 1958, the future of art in the USA was being written – a future in which the distinctions between cultures high and low – between production and consumption, between objecthood and conception, between maker and spectator, between art and life – were called into question, and sound itself was advanced as stuff for that new, unstuffy art.  Allan Kaprow expressed himself “[n]ot satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other senses” and insisted on “utiliz[ing] the specific substances” not only of sight but of “sound” and “movements,” of “odors and “touch”:

An odor of crushed strawberries, a letter from a friend, or a billboard selling Drano; three taps on the front door, a scratch, a sigh, or a voice lecturing endlessly, a blinding staccato flash, a bowler hat — all will become materials for this new concrete art.

Approached sidesways, the stuff carried on the soundwaves is as concrete as sidewalks.  It matters.  Random noises heard simultaneously by countless unknown others passing me on busy streetcorners at any given moment can become personal effects to be retrieved at will once recorded – provided, of course, that they are properly stored and not left on an overhead rack like….  Well, you know.  Enough said.  Calling “a voice lecturing endlessly” material for art is pushing it.

3 Replies to “ASMR Jungle: Rambling Notes on NYC Composed Out of Earshot”

  1. Harry,
    This is great reading and a joy of sailing along you through your thoughts and wanderings. Can’t wait for the next installment.

    Thanks for the ride,


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