For about a year I was obsessed with this blue house uptown in East Harlem, by the tracks on Park Ave. It was on the market for what seemed like an incredible price; I just had to find people to buy this-- to convert it into artists' studios-- a foundation, a home for me. It has its own garage, back porches… a roof garden… multi-paned windows on 3 sides-- old moldings, a front stoop-- a face… it smiled at me, welcomed me. Great things were going to be created there. It had a soul, a heart-- I could feel Christmas there… old Christmases from 100 years ago-- a house with stories to tell...
Are you kidding me, my investor friends all asked, practically in unison? Who wants to listen to machinery whooshing by all night? This is an unsaleable lot, they insisted, unanimously.
But there are very few trains at night… the sound of their approach, their disappearance into the tunnel, or off toward the country--for me, is like a lullaby. It is the sound of time, of distance… even the whistles comfort me.
I have new neighbors downstairs-- the kind of people who pay cash for more space than they need, who acquire multiple apartments and gut-renovate without regard or respect for the building, for its history, for its soul, for their neighbors. They were so friendly-- and then their contract was signed and they began the bullying soundtrack of rich people who see anything besides their own noise as annoyance. People who see a coop as a business deal, not a communal living arrangement. People who order staff around, have no manners or style-- just the loud irritating voice of large annual bonus money.
Although their young son has a drum kit and takes lessons, they do not like music. They have written letters to management stating their upstairs neighbor has full band rehearsals at all hours. I scarcely play here… I've had people over and have to field my new neighbors' complaints that they are trying to sleep at 8 PM-- whenever. They are loud and discourteous. The father speaks on his cellphone on the street-- they are noisy and cook smelly food that permeates into my closets. Their air cooling system flushes itself through the bathrooms. They bang on the ceiling with some kind of pole when a car passes at night with a loud radio. They insist, because they know I am a bassist, that some kind of low frequency motor sound is emitted from my apartment while they are sleeping. My space occupies about 1/4 of theirs. They have several bathrooms while I have one. When a recent leak in their ceiling caused water damage, they insisted the plumbers drill out my old tile floor and disable my facilities. They threatened to sue, even though the fault was in the pipes, not my fixtures. They have zeroed in on me as their target.
Fortunately most of the residents here have defended me. They know I have lived here many years without issue. We enjoy one another's piano playing and singing-- parties and laughter. Famous musicians have practiced and lived here. The ghost of a deceased Russian composer supposedly inhabits my apartment; she flickers lights on winter nights while I play my J-200… maybe she is playing tricks on the people downstairs who are ill-tempered and selfish. While they wait for their building permits allowing them to destroy any marks of history in their space, I think about warning them that a bad spirit is down there, that the couple before them argued constantly, slept in separate bedrooms. Pablo Casals once rehearsed in their living room; there is an indentation in the wood flooring where his cello rested. They will surely have this removed. People buy these beautiful old landmarked spaces now and turn them into soul-less post-modern model units. Then they move; they flip. They move on to bigger and newer projects.
I just finished reading a new book called 'Every Song Ever'. In it Ben Ratliff thematically runs through records-- pieces of music-- performances… he illuminates what for him makes these privileged listening experiences.. the art of production, the vision of a recording or a song-- he makes you stop and listen with his ears. Some were things I'm familiar with; some less so. His writing is good and he broadens an auditory moment into something visionary. Whether the artist intended this or not-- magic often happens when musicians are in a moment. Ratliff is like a guide on small song journeys. I enjoyed this, even though I usually hate music criticism. Here it felt more like appreciation. He shares his POV and his genuine enchantment as an audience. He is a privileged listener and so many of us, in this culture of a trillion sound bytes per day, have forgotten how to listen-- how to filter and prioritize what we hear, how to isolate the small human miracles that are sound-based and allow them to enter our body and soul and change us, make us better.
Recently I was at the house of a musician and he played a record for me-- an older record. When I hear this, he said, it reminds me of the way I used to listen to music. This touched me. We players of rock and roll have damaged our ears with thousands of uber-decibel performances. We have ringing, buzzing, the constant sense of wind, whistling… some of us can tune this out. For most of us, volume was a drug of choice. We must have known we were abusing our senses, but it felt like a religious experience. The power of sound enhanced. We were transported. Some of us were so high we didn't even notice the dangerous frequencies. My first Who concert was so loud it was painful… but I wanted more. Most of us now use white noise in our homes-- because the sound of silence is a reminder that we have done irreparable and annoying damage. But earplugs in our 30's and 40's were not an option. We embraced the wall of loudness like a surfer waits for a terrifying wave, and we paid a certain price.
New York City never sleeps. There is not even a moment where traffic ceases, where activity stops. Of course we are better able at 3 or 4 AM to decipher sounds--- but for anyone who has raised kids in the city, these children generally are terrific sleepers. I could vacuum my son's room without waking him. We 'accept' noise; we tune out the constant drone of things, and have to be reminded to 'hear' car sounds, etc. Today 90% of the population walks around with beats or earbuds-- listening to phones and iPods, to our own private soundtrack, on top of the constant one on the outside. We are hearing-tolerant.
My new neighbors, on the other hand, are intolerant. I realized tonight--- they are listening for the sound of silence… and there is no such thing in the city. In their spoiled demanding MO, and their inability to perceive what is obvious, things like footsteps, creaking radiators, rushing water, and the sound of life annoys them, unless it is their life. They are like a barking dog who is trying to express his dissatisfaction at being locked inside while the world goes past his window. They are the rock-throwers in the lovely glass building of my life, tantrumming and whining and exaggerating and complaining because they resent everyone who is not inside. I am the enemy-- the squirrel running along their windowsill they cannot quite catch. Ignore them, my building management advises. But I don't like their kind of black-noise, red-noise, noisy, smelly ugly-noise. Their barking.
My lovely blue house has been sold. How I long for the night sound of trains, the whistling and rumbling without competing traffic noise-- the sound of every city everywhere because almost every town has its railroad; the nostalgic old reminder that we are safe here in our bed while the world goes on around us, and people and things move from place to place while we sleep. It is comforting and human to live in a city. When we are sad we can walk outside and find a human voice, an all-night vendor who is happy to talk about the elections, to whistle a song, to remind us that there are other ears besides our own, and when we grow tired of conversation, we can sit on a stoop under the streetlights and listen quietly to the sound of trains in the cool night breeze of passing cars.