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something like solace

reflections on sound

type Lyric

time 3 minutes

tl;dr I’m trying to do better at keeping my ears open.

Places in this city haven’t heard silence for centuries.

I’m struck, walking down a back alley, the din of construction overhead, by a dropped screw. Nothing sharp, nothing more painful than a stranger pushing past you on the sidewalk. Its clatter to the pavement indiscernible, inconsequential.

I stare at the spot on my arm where it hit. It will bruise, like the countless other mysterious bruises that appear as I walk through this world, independent of concern for my surroundings.

But the bruise will fade.

I walk like this—without headphones, I mean—to listen. Every morning through London, before plopping in a dusty chair at some wifi’ed cafe blasting the treble out of piercingly saxaphoned muzak, I am enveloped by the soundscape of my city.

The straps of my backpack claw at my shoulders, my neck held forward in the curved posture I can still hear my dad’s voice trying to correct. And, to his credit, the voices of everyone else who’s met me. It’s something about being that tall American, wanting so badly to demur.

I don’t know, fundamentally, how to say I love you to this world. It’s certainly not going to be through slouching and wading through construction debris.

Before cities, was our world so much quieter? What will cities of the future sound like? I suppose each city lives, at some point, through the loudest time its ever known. Has this city already left its loudest behind?

A bus rumbles by, taking sadistic joy at the black smoke coughed from its tailpipe. The jackhammer starts again. Noise, for all it signals about the thrumming life around me, so easily overwhelms.

As I duck into the subway, I put headphones to drown the city out. I marvel at composers I love while the Victoria line tramples on down the rail. I’ve been getting deep into digital production: sine waves and filters and feedback loops, but lately, I’ve realize that the best music always samples noise from the real world.

This morning, I woke to the sound of screaming. A worker, it turned out, injured on the job. A nail shot through the webbing of his thumb and forefinger.

In music production, when you’ve completed arranging and mixing a track, you go through a process called mastering. You get your song to have a more uniform loudness—you make sure the distance between the loudest and quietest moments is acceptable. You want, after all, the song to be listened to without a single adjustment of the volume knob.

Off the line, I peel off my headphones, letting the cacophony rush back in. If humanity were a track I were producing, there’s so many parts I’d turn down.

I walk into a sandwich shop the size of an adjunct professor’s office, and like it, there are four people crammed working in the “back.” There isn’t, I’m afraid, much difference between front and back. Questions about my sandwich come in surround sound: tuna ahead, tomatoes behind. Plastic-gloved workers like Keebler elves orbiting my path for the sandwich’s six pounds fifty.

The pandemic made us all seek space. It was the quietest it’s ever been, so we blocked out the silence with endless Netflix, emails-cum-Zoom-meetings, and even new pets and babies. We struggled to live in a world where, from behind our masks, we could hear our paper-thin breaths so distinctly.

Outside again, I hear a distant rumbling. It swells, ricocheting off the buildings, and I don’t know where to go to escape it.

Motorcycles, I realize, and when I finally see them ride by, it is in protest, donning green and white and black and red, colors of an entire people we refuse to name. And yet, through all this blasting of thunder, this is just a fraction of the noise they’re hearing in Palestine.

In my music, I would highlight the sound of every gunshot and press delete. Their percussion doesn’t match the rest of the track. But I have to stop this near-religious faith in the gun: banned or baptized, the conclusion to every argument. A period of sound.

The nail gun the construction worker shot into his hand this morning proves that wrong. The screaming after was a much more convincing sound. No bullet, no missile, no matter the shape, is punctuation for the living.

There’s not quite six degrees of separation between me and the Palestinian man in the news, holding missile shrapnel stamped with the name of a factory in Colorado. I have to stop this urge to mute.

My ears ring for the rest of the day, I want to write here, as a way to finish these thoughts, but really, in the darkness, when sleep has just begun to weave its wool over my ears, I hear music. My own, I mean. The songs that I only seem to know in silence. They are, maybe, majestic. They will not be remembered come morning.

Do you, like me, have the privilege to listen to your own thoughts?—an endless sampled workflow, snippets shot through in percussive bursts, in legato lulls. Our brains’ composers waving frantically their arms for the shelled out orchestra to play something like solace.