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.

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

5

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.

6

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.

Categories: Essay, Essays

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23 Comments »

  1. Margaret: Wow. Not only is this a fantastic idea, it is fantastically executed. Beautiful, evocative prose. The sort of thing I could read 20 times and still want to read it again. A gorgeous meditation and skillful combination of the audible, the visual, and the written word.

    Thank you so much for this.

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  2. Funny to read a piece about a place I had – until this weekend – lived for thirty years. Great piece.

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  3. Oh, such lovely stuff.
    I bought a moped last fall, its two-stroke engine with all the sonic presence of a chainsaw.
    I hear the jackhammers with my feet
    hushed and labored breathing of the cars on the Mass Pike.

    As Dan-K said, a gorgeously rendered piece.

    We are naturally tuned to the sounds of nature and so we are mostly ‘blind’ to the sonic soundscape of urban living. Your essay is a powerful corrective.

    It is only when you have heard the sound of fear that you truly know how truly important is our auditory connection with the world. In the soft darkness of the night, amid the chirps of innocent crickets comes the soft clickety-slick of a rifle being cocked and you know the awful immensity of deadly fear.

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  4. @leejrickard, thank you for the reference. I did check, but the most credible sources I could find all listed Elvis Costello, and I wasn’t aware of this site- I’ll be checking it from now on.

    @1970scholar: you just moved? Best of luck, and I hope moving out of Boston is easier than moving to Boston!

    @labnut: thank you for the kind words. I agree that we are definitely more socialized to pay attention to ambient sounds while in nature. It’s not only an exercise for me to pay attention to the urban soundscape, but to be able to conjure it while I’m traveling.

    I hope that you have not had occasion to hear the human-made sound you described, but you describe it as if you have.

    When I walk home from school at night (about four miles, so over an hour), I leave my earbuds out so that I can hear if someone is following me, and take preventive action. There is also something almost renderable in listening /for/ fear, in that moment before one actually hears the sound for which one listens. I thought about writing about sounds like this, but I decided that I was already asking the reader to stretch their own imagination to (re)create a soundscape – maybe I should wait to ask the reader to imagine *imagined* sounds. Plus, it probably deserves its own post… it sounds like we both could contribute.

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  5. Margaret:
    So you could hear a pin drop. Only your excellent writing could allow you to sail so close to the reef of cliche. It’s a sly subversion that makes us smile and a perfect close.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice piece, Margaret.

    As children, my brother and I used to stay sometimes with an old army friend of our father’s who lived on a rocky, isolated peninsula. His army nickname was “Snipe”. He was good at being silent and was a crack shot, though here his main activity was fishing. We would go out in the boat at 4 in the morning. He taught us about walking at night on the rocky pathways, minimizing the use of flashlights (which he hated); about being quiet and picking up subtle signals from the natural world.

    City walking is different, of course. But some of the same lessons apply. Your earbud reference (in a comment) relates to this. I never use them when walking, actually. Even when there is no danger I like to be tuned in to ambient sounds.

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  7. @ombhurbhuva9: Hah, thank you! That’s what I was going for, so I’m glad it worked. Tragically (for myself and for the entire cliché) it actually happened – how rare is it to get the chance to actually hear a pin drop?, I thought, after I got over the brief flash of rage that there was a pin stuck in my finger. 🙂

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  8. Very enjoyable read! Thanks Margaret!

    As I was making my way through I was struck with how often the word ‘sound’ came up but how infrequently I saw ‘noise’. I was curious what pointed you in that direction. The 41 ‘sounds’ stood against the mere 3 ‘noises’. But from the way ‘noise’ was used it seemed little different to your use of ‘sound’. You were not using ‘noise’ to differentiate it from ‘sound’.

    So my question for you is whether the differences in a soundscape are simply the differences of different sounds or whether sound is sometimes also different from what we might call noise. Doing a bit of digging I found that we often use ‘noise’ to refer to sounds we find disagreeable. The root, some suggest, is in the Latin ‘nausea’. But another distinction seems possible. There is a difference between ‘signal’ and ‘noise’. In other words, there is a difference between information bearing sound and the background non-informative ‘noise’.

    Your essay was lovingly crafted to display the poetry of sounds. Meaning was front and center in all you heard. Everything you described as sound had its place in a life, in a way of being in the world. The sounds all made sense. You were not merely describing the brute noises it was possible to hear but the form of life in which sound itself makes sense. You were describing manifestations in and of a life.

    I think the phrase to say to your yoga class sums up exactly the right perspective on how sound means things: ““We are all, in the end, downstairs neighbors to someone who insists on yelling for some reason at three in the morning.” 🙂

    Which brings me to something I really want to say. Among the sounds that have meaning for us, that separate the signal from the noise, is also what we call spoken language. And the meanings of language are not simply the operation various sounds but the place of those sounds as words and the place of words in the midst of human lives. In other words, the soundscape you are painting with written versions of words is itself part of the framework in which meaning takes place, in which you get to write something that I and others get to make sense of. The soundscape isn’t something we merely get a chance to describe, as scientists or even poets observing the world, it is fundamentally part of the background against which meaning itself takes place. Sound matters. Noise, perhaps not so much, or simply in a different sort of way…….

    Thanks for writing your essay! I really did enjoy it! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. @Carter: You’re exactly on the money as far as what I intended. My only academic wading into sound studies thus far has been in a project on sonic torture, and most of the time ambient sound is described as “noise.” Noise is variously something that hides signals, or something that can be mobilized to harm a person (mentally, physically, or both, whether accidental or intentional). Noise can also be, as you pointed out, disagreeable or annoying – I wanted to use a term that has more neutral connotations, to avoid making up the mind of the reader for them.

    There’s another pair of terms that I didn’t delve into too much, but is still interesting: volume and loudness. Volume can be measured in decibels, but loudness is subjective and depends on the hearer. Therefore, while we can talk about the volume of a sound, we have more trouble talking about its loudness as it resonates in the ears and body of the hearer. Michael Heller does an excellent job of examining this vocabulary: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/20551940.2015.1079071

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  10. Carter made the point
    But from the way ‘noise’ was used it seemed little different to your use of ‘sound’. You were not using ‘noise’ to differentiate it from ‘sound’.

    Sound is of course noise which carries information. Pure noise contains no information. The act of discerning information in the noise is the act of discerning meaning despite obscuring noise. Margaret’s essay is the description of how she perceived meaning in what others would perceive as noise. It takes a sensitive soul to be able to do this. This is a quite fundamental thing, the ability to perceive meaning in that which to others is only noise. That might be because the noise masks the meaning or perhaps many people lack the perceptive abilities to see meaning behind noise and possibly, on the other hand, because some people impose meaning on the noise.

    And then there is another dimension. The noises we hear are only fragments that our intuition races to complete into a whole. How well we do this depends on the depth of our intuition. A deep intuition has many more templates for comparison and is more likely to complete the fragment correctly. A deep intuition is the result of a sensitive, perceptive and curious soul that constantly observes, correlates and finds meaning. That ‘sounds’ like Margaret 🙂

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  11. One of the most appealing features of Margaret’s piece, I thought, was that it was introspective and witty in a gloriously nonpolitical way. As when she talks about humming under her helmet in the same key as her moped’s engine so that her vocalizations would not be noticed.

    But, as ever, politics is not far away. I came across this in the article by Michael Heller which Margaret links to in a reply to Carter Gillies:

    “As Karin Bijsterveld writes: The right to make noise as well as the right to decide which sounds are allowed or forbidden has long been the privilege of the powerful, whereas those lower in rank (women, children, servants) were supposed to keep silent, or were under suspicion of intentionally disturbing social order by making noise. By focusing attention on sound as a staging ground for debates over value, the study of noise highlights a central goal of the sound studies enterprise: examining what aurality has to teach us about social dynamics…

    “[Jacques] Attali argues that control over sound has long been essential to
    the operations of hegemonic power, and takes place through the imposition of various codes that ‘analyze, mark, restrain, train, repress, and channel the primitive sounds of language, of the body, of tools, of objects, of the relation to self and others’. For Attali, ‘noise’ is defined as any sonic event that arises from outside of these codes – the sounds that are undesired by the powers in control. To make noise is therefore a deeply political act, since noises are, by
    definition, the sounds that hegemonies wish to suppress. The tendency of sound to expand outward into public space therefore provides a formidable tool for both the hegemon and its resistors. Noisiness offers a means for claiming and reclaiming public space in the interest of various competing sonic ideologies. I refer to this process as noise occupation.”

    And noise is indeed a formidable and widely used weapon. From Margaret’s description the battle of sonic ideologies is being played out with more restraint in Boston than where I am living at the moment (in central Melbourne, Australia).

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  12. As a cycle commuter I am keenly aware of the soundscape, especially when it is blocked by a bus coming up behind me. We are impressed by the blind echolocating, but it is definitely there for us sighted too, if we pay attention. Instead of a bell, I prefer whistling – currently “Morning Mr Magpie”. Re Boston traffic c. 1988, Neal Stephenson in Zodiac shows his hero is tough by riding his bicycle across 4 lanes of “Charlesgate West” traffic when the traffic lights are defunct – “horn honking wasn’t helping, though a hundred or so motorists were giving it a try” 😉

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  13. “Attali argues that control over sound has long been essential to the operations of hegemonic power, and takes place through the imposition of various codes …”

    I can only assume that Attali lives in a nice, soundproof Parisian apartment.

    But I think he is right when he points out that there’s a link between noise and control.

    I can live with a lot of noise – neighbors having an animated barbecue in the middle of the night etc. – if I have a certain amount of control over the sounds they make. In other words: if I know they’ll tone it down a bit when I ask them, I don’t need to ask them. In those circumstances, I can live with their party.
    But if I know that they’ll go on having their loud, animated barbecue after I asked them to be quieter – then the tiniest sound they make becomes unbearable.

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  14. @labnut: I found that when talking about sound, I had to find or create a map of what is what. You wrote: “Sound is of course noise which carries information.” It’s semantics, but in the way that I conceive of sound, “sound” is not “noise.” Rather, sound is the overarching category that contains all other categories of sound, like noise. Therefore, it might be better to say that sound is a series of vibrations, interpreted by the human brain, which are capable of containing meaning.

    Again, it’s semantics, but I found that it was impossible to proceed without being picky like this.

    If we define noise as sound which does not carry meaning (which I personally think is an oversimplification, but it’s fine for the moment to proceed), then I did indeed try to find meaning in the sounds of the city, possibly allowing them to become less “noisy.”

    As per your final paragraph, I do agree that there is a depth of meaning that can be achieved with listening to sounds. I would add, though, that meaning moves in horizontal ways as well as vertical ones… the meaning that I find behind the sounds in my urban abode wouldn’t be the same for everyone. Anyone might attempt to write about the same sounds and find vastly different meaning. My gloss of objectivity masks the fact that sounds, at least in my experience, are rarely objective.

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  15. @Mark English: Melbourne! Really, the Internet is a wondrous thing. I’m currently in France and surrounded by a completely different soundscape; I started writing this piece in Boston, and finished it here, which lends even less credibility to the gloss of objectivity that I mentioned above. I’d be fascinated to hear, from your perspective, what Melbourne sounds like.

    You picked out of Heller’s article one of the most fascinating parts, for me. I find his writing so compelling that I’m forced to agree that the political never follows too far behind, especially when sound and/or silence are involved. The part of this piece that involved the most restraint was writing about being downstairs neighbors. In a slightly different light, we were engaged in sonic warfare with our upstairs neighbors for a number of months; we would practice, they would stomp. Once, they dragged a Christmas tree down the stairs at 1:30 AM, so we banged on the ceiling with a broom. I think things have calmed down now, but for a while it was exhausting. I’ve been a downstairs neighbor to someone for upwards of fifteen years and have never experienced anything like it.

    @davidlduffy: Indeed you would still have to be tough to attempt that! I’m excited by the speed at which Boston is becoming more bike-friendly, but I still hesitate to pull some of the stunts that some cyclists do, among them, riding with noise-canceling headphones.

    @couvent2104: See above for my comments regarding neighbors- at one point, we actually left them a note detailing all the sounds we could hear with *extreme* clarity, on the off-chance that they weren’t aware.

    I think where Attali hits the nail on the head for me is that most of us would agree that it is a privilege to be able to control our sonic environments. In the little work that I’ve done on sonic torture, detainees have expressed that one of the hardest things is to not have control over the sonic space in which they reside- as Lacan first said, people don’t have earlids. Even artificial earlids, like noise-canceling headphones, are expensive and require capital and therefore privilege to procure.

    In Boston, like in most urban environments, most people live on top of each other (figuratively and literally). To own one’s own house, and therefore to have sonic control of the entire building, is increasingly rare (and barely feasible anymore). Therefore, we live with just that edge of lack-of-control, and of course, the less capital one has in a place like Boston or New York, the less control one has over their sonic environment.

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  16. Mlrowley (Margaret, I think?),

    I loved your piece. I love walking through Parisian neighborhoods that are unvisited by the tourists and listen to the beat of the street – or in Lisbon, Toledo, New York …

    But I would like to ask a question. What are your thoughts on the vulnerability of silence? I know silence doesn’t really exist, but I guess you get what I mean. Sounds can live with other sounds, but they destroy silence. The sound of your moped mingles easily and comfortably with the sounds of cars, construction machines etc. But it annihilates immediately the silence on a quiet country road on a sunday morning.

    There can be something intrinsically aggressive in (wo)man-made sounds. Spray-can juveniles really love immaculate white buildings. They see it as a canvas for their, ahem, creativity. But their creativity also destructs the aspect of the building that made it interesting for them in the first place – the fact that it was immaculate and white, untouched by their creativity. In the same way, many people see silence only as a canvas for their sounds – the louder, the better. But making those sounds, they also destruct the canvas.

    Perhaps they do it because they are afraid of silence, but perhaps they see it as an opportunity to demonstrate their innate aggression, an innate tendency to destruct things – a very safe aggression, because silence is the most vulnerable thing on earth. There’s nothing more easily destructed as silence – anyone can do it, and it never fights back.

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  17. Margaret,
    Again, it’s semantics, but I found that it was impossible to proceed without being picky like this.

    This is a philosophy blog and so we are naturally picky about semantics 🙂

    Therefore, it might be better to say that sound is a series of vibrations, interpreted by the human brain, which are capable of containing meaning.

    Yes, we are using the words in different ways. In other fields, such as electronics, we make a clear distinction between signal, which carries information, and noise, which carries no information. This is the sense in which I use sound(signal) as contrasted with noise. Thus when we hear something and we cannot attach some interpretation we would call it noise. Sound(signal) is always accompanied by noise and we are extraordinarily good at extracting weak signals from obscuring noise. What for me is a continual source of wonder is the way we can extract fragments of signal, buried in noise, and extrapolate from that.

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  18. I wrote earlier about the sound of fear. It is the powerfully visceral reaction to that fragment of sound that urgently signals imminent disaster. We evolved as both predator and prey. As prey we must fear what we cannot see since the predator is usually out of sight. Sound(and smell) is the window into this unseen world and we must attend to it closely if we are not to be the next victim of a predator.

    Which brings me to my next point, vigilance. Once sensitised, vigilance is your constant companion, but this is hyper-vigilance, a state that borders on PTSD. The opposite problem in our world is the loss of vigilance, the result of saturated audio, visual and tactile stimuli in the absence of threat. Vigilance is the means by which we discern meaning in the signal. When this faculty is deadened by over-stimulation we lose something quite vital and that is the sense of delightful discovery. This is what I read in your essay, that your vigilance was alive, active and that you were delighting in the discoveries that it revealed.

    This state, that of delightful vigilance, which lies between the opposites of fear and indifference, is one we should all develop. But how should we do that? Change, retreat, silence and meditation are some of the ways.

    But what really is delightful vigilance? It begins with a powerful sense of curiosity which activates a desire to explore and to understand. It is that culminating moment of understanding, that surprising discovery of meaning which is the delightful fulfilment of vigilance.

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  19. @couvent2104: I think because I work on sound (and normally a specific kind of sound), I’m a little at a loss about silence. John Cage, of course, obliterated any sense of “silence” in the art music world with his experiences in a sensory deprivation chamber, and subsequently with 4:33. I think most modern musicians take for granted that silence isn’t really a thing – really it’s just a matter of how small the sounds are that you’re willing to listen for.

    All of this doesn’t answer your question, though. I would maybe liken a “still” soundscape in the real world to a “white” building, but when you get closer you see that it’s actually been drawn all over with Sharpies. You can still graffiti something bigger and “louder” onto it, but there is rarely any sense of disturbing a landscape that is actually still, at least in most parts of the world.

    I’m dying to go to this exhibit at the Guggenheim: https://ny.curbed.com/2017/3/27/15073296/guggenheim-doug-wheeler-desert-silence-exhibit
    It’s supposed to be quite uncomfortably silent, such that the reports filtering back to us from friends suggest that they felt almost on the edge of a mental break and had to leave. I hesitate to speak without going myself, but I suspect that most people ignore a plethora of sounds while they hear “silence,” and the removal of those sounds also tampers with a sense of reality.

    Of course there is much more to say about this if we include deaf culture.

    @labnut: I heartily agree. I do think, though, that my motivation for hearing these sounds (at least, the sounds that I’ve attempted to explore here) was not fear. That would be a different essay, with different vocabulary choices. I find that I hear differently when I’m afraid; for me, my reason for listening alters the way in which I listen. Because I’m also passing the sounds through different layers of filtration (through my own brain, through my writing, through your reading, through your sonic imaginary), I might also write to inspire fear in the reader, or at least sympathy for the kind of fear I was feeling.

    The sounds I’ve explored here, I heard because I like hearing sounds and thinking about them. I suspect what I wrote was much less frenetic and jarring than what I would write about, for example, the sound of my own accelerating breath as I walk up the steep hill to our house when I can hear the echo of my own footsteps behind me, or is that an echo, or is someone following me?

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  20. @couvent2104: Re: silence, I’m currently in an extremely still soundscape. I’m in a remote village surrounded by protected property of the French military, which they rarely inhabit. It’s midnight, and it’s so silent that I will probably sleep with a sound generator. But actually, I can hear crickets out the south-facing window; they aren’t like American crickets. Rather than a distinct chirp-chirp, they offer a constant, high-pitched whirr. I’m struggling to describe it… it’s not a whiny noise at all, but it does feel delicate, like a glass thread. There are probably hundreds of them out there, in the woods past the village. There are also a few frogs, but much more distant. When I hear them, I usually bypass the word “frog” and go straight to the parallel word “grenouille,” which sounds (in my head) like they sound they are making.

    There’s a canine of some sort howling out there. It makes me think of all the cats that live in the village; we rarely hear them at night (except when they fight of course), but I’m hoping they are safely tucked away.

    And, since it’s way past dinner time, I can also hear the sound of my own stomach, pitched pretty closely to the crickets. 🙂

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