Boston in Soundscapes
By Margaret Rowley
On the back of our house is a porch, probably ten feet long and five feet wide, hung all around with plants, mostly herbs, the product of my cyclical summertime desire to dig in the dirt. The twine hanging them from the ceiling creaks in the wind. The porch is surrounded by old-growth trees, marking a neighborhood that has been well established for a century or more (our house, Zillow tells me, was built in 1920, and the sagging, creaking floors in the hallway verify this claim). Silent raccoons and feral cats sometimes dig on the porch, leaving evidence of entombed objects next to the roots of my sage plant. Once, in the early misty hours, I heard a low chuckling noise and looked over the railing to see a turkey strutting through the back yard, his feet softly scraping as he passed through.
Elvis Costello was likely the first person to quip that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Here, I will try to write about sound, a similarly fraught undertaking. The field of sound studies looks closely at soundscapes in an academic (and otherwise) world that typically privileges the visual. In this piece, I will undercut my own attempt at privileging the sonic by using both text and photos, which I’ve included with the hope that they will help the reader to leverage the sonic imaginary. I cannot create a sonic portrait using only the visual, so I have created a visual portrait of imaginary sounds instead, leaving the reader free to fill in the rich soundscape.
There is a rehabilitation center that abuts the back yard, and the voices and amiable laughter of construction workers often drift over to our porch. There is an occasional grumbling of wheels on concrete, distant dogs barking, and fire engines leaving the small neighborhood station at the bottom of the hill. Sometimes, from the newly constructed soccer field by the river, we can hear cheering which functions both as sonic pollution and a seasonal marker. The Mass Pike, formally the Massachusetts Turnpike, rushes in the distance. I sometimes suspect is the baseline by which I hear all sounds at home, so eternally present that I often don’t hear it at all.
In the summer, our cats listen to for birds while they lounge in the open windows. Pedestrians comment on our cats from the sidewalk and sometimes we reply in an urban auditory loop. And of course there are the sounds from the people and felines that live above us in the two-family house. Some of the sounds our neighbors create and propagate, like speech and television noises, travel up and down and side to side; other sounds are our unique burden, the Plight of the Downstairs Neighbor: creaking and heavy footsteps, the sounds of their cats happy galloping from one end of the apartment to the other, sounding like a duo of impossibly tiny pachyderms. Occasionally more (shall we say) intimate sounds float down through floorboards and open windows.
“We are all, in the end, alone,” a yoga teacher once said in a class, while we were laying in corpse pose, and I knew immediately that she must live on the top floor. Those of us who live in a downstairs apartment know, as we listen to our upstairs neighbor inexplicably roll something heavy from room to room, that aloneness is ephemeral. I would tell a yoga class, “We are all, in the end, downstairs neighbors to someone who insists on yelling for some reason at three in the morning. Namaste.”
Outdoors, there are places where one can imagine quiet. A trail by the river, only a five-minute walk away, offers a bouquet of tiny sounds: the splashing of an occasional fish in the river, the rustling of a squirrel searching through the leaves. The rowing teams from Boston College and Harvard pass through, diffusing a liquid sound of oars through water.
Ever the product of the austere Puritans who founded the city, Bostonians are early to bed and early to rise. At 5:30, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority 57 bus begins picking up passengers at the bottom of our hill; when it pulls up to the curb the brakes shriek. “Fifty-seven,” slurs the computerized voice through the bus doors, like the disguised voices of anonymous informants on police shows. “Kenmore,” the bus-voice offers, by way of destination. On the morning commute, normally nobody speaks on the bus, the silence punctuated only by that same automated voice suggesting stops with inhuman inflection: “MontFERN Avenue.” When the voice speaks my University stop, the words are spaced evenly and electronically: “Saint … Paul … Street.”
Exiting the bus’s quiet halo, the city sounds less civil. Bostonian drivers use their horns with gleeful abandon, often accompany the static tritone with the shouting of helpful suggestions out the window, noting where the opposing driver can shove their turn signal, or suggesting that they leave the roads open for those who know how to drive. When friends visit from other states or countries, they are often wide-eyed at the frequency and duration with which Bostonians depend on their car horns.
I bought a moped last fall, its two-stroke engine with all the sonic presence of a chainsaw. The first thing I tested was the horn. I wanted to make sure it could stand up to a driver with windows rolled up, blasting music (it can). As riding the moped in traffic became part of my daily routine, I was delighted to discover that I can hear much better inside my helmet than I ever could in a car. I can hear construction noises, reggae blasting from a car, a vehicle approaching me. I hear a car’s turn signal clicking, a couple’s quietly hissed argument on the sidewalk, a bicyclist’s gears shifting.
People can also hear me. Once, after a car swerved in front of me without using their turn signal and narrowly missed my front tire, I leaned my weight on the horn, only letting up to wave my hands in the air and yell some obscenities (which I thought, proudly, were quite Bostonian for a transplant such as myself). With my verbal explosion, a group of students waiting to cross the street looked over with such synchronicity that I knew they had heard exactly what I said, even through my helmet and over the many motors in the intersection. After that, I started leveraging my moped-riding vocalizations, yelling when needed and self-consciously ceasing my practice of singing to myself while riding down Commonwealth Avenue.
Sometimes I still hum, but I imagine that if I hum in the same key as my moped engine it is less audible by passers-by.
Commonwealth Avenue is the majority of my commute and the location of my university. Most streets in Boston obediently follow an ancient lineage of twists and turns born of ancient sylvan footpaths, but not Commonwealth Avenue. A fast-moving boon to drivers, it is a brash harbinger of doom for cyclists and pedestrians. Cars, particularly those of the sports persuasion, regularly reach speeds of sixty miles per hour on the stretch that bisects Boston University, their engines ripping holes in the soundscape. Multiple student-cyclists a year are injured or killed, often by fast-moving vehicles turning right or pulling through the bike lane to park. This summer, the city is tearing up the decking on the eastbound side, moving the bike lane next to the sidewalk where commuters will be safer, shuffling around plumbing and parking meters. On my commutes, I hear the jackhammers with my feet. Enormous metal plates cover gaping holes in the road surface, and every car to pass them repeats the same dull metallic thud, one after another.
The graduate student office for my department is on Commonwealth Avenue, on the second floor of a building surrounded on two sides with round-the-clock construction. Our office is buried deep in the building, with no windows and little outside sound. If more than a few of us are around for a meeting or class, the office hums with conversation. Sometimes we practice our instruments, or loudly curate Spotify playlists showcasing Medieval plainchant or Beyoncé. We can often hear the theater department conducting classes next door. The theater students chant, moan, and scream, and the sound slices through the wall between us, interrupting us mid-sentence and offering little explanation of the sounds’ meanings. We have, in short, no idea what they are doing. Sometimes we parrot the sounds back, imagining that they cannot hear us as clearly as we hear them.
On the afternoon commute, the bus is filled with groups of friends talking loudly, children requesting answers and waving to strangers, and usually one or more Boston natives clad in Red Sox jerseys discussing the most recent score. It’s much louder in the bus than outside, especially as the city sinks into a hazy summer evening. The wind rustles the leaves, which function as outdoor soundproofing to absorb intra-neighborhood echoes that would otherwise carry. On Sunday nights, neighbors wheel their trash cans out to the street and the sounds of the containers’ contents leaks through, the sound of aching, flinching glass against glass.
“It’s like the city that sleeps at a reasonable hour,” opined a friend of mine, a transplant from “The City,” which is (of course) New York City. Even in Allston, the part of Boston overflowing with undergraduate students from the seventy-ish colleges and universities within seven square miles, raging frat parties quiet down to murmurs, music turns low for the night. It’s as if the epitome of respect for New England neighbors is to shrink our own personal sound-ozone as soon as the sun sets.
Boston is a city of sonic extremes. I can hear the roar from a Red Sox-Yankees game in Fenway Park from almost a mile away, but the soundscape after 9:00 at night in most parts of the city is impossibly still. I once found a pin, walking home on a moonlit night. It stuck in my finger as I dug through my bag. Delighted, I pulled it out and dropped it on the sidewalk, and afterward picked it up again. Its small “ping” detonated off the asphalt and eclipsed, for a moment, the hushed and labored breathing of the cars on the Mass Pike.