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Posts Tagged ‘sounds’

Songs of Innocence

September 12, 2014 | by

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Giulio del Torre, Zwei raufende Buben, 1927.

If you live in my building on the Upper West Side, you do not need to own an alarm clock, at least not if you want to wake up at eight A.M. Sleeping beyond that hour is impossible—that’s when the preschool opens its yard for the first playtime of the day.

It is a very lovely way to wake up, if you’re in the right frame of mind. Joyful shrieking, terrified screaming, feuds and rivalries and friendships all at once, magnified by the walls all around them. It is much better to take a Blakean view of it, especially if you work from home, because there are periodic recesses throughout the day, and their collective energy is unflagging.

I always liked the background noise of the playground; working by myself all day, it made me feel less alone. It didn’t really strike me as strange until I conducted an interview in my apartment and, when I tried to transcribe it, realized the voices were obscured by the wall of child-call in the background. Still, I didn’t mind; I threw my windows open and welcomed it, as some people do the constant buzz of public radio. Read More »

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Loomings

September 2, 2014 | by

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Photo: Walter Smalling Jr., 1980

Late this morning, the pipes of my toilet began to make a noise that I can only describe as haunting. How to explain it? Loud, very loud. Sad, very sad. A sort of melancholy lowing, a primal moan expressing things seen and unseen. One could imagine ancient peoples hearing such things and looking to the supernatural for answers. If they had plumbing, I mean.

It went on and on. It was beautiful. I had been distracted, blue, depressed by the unrelenting humidity of an urban Tuesday on the day after a long weekend. And then I heard the mysterious sound and it calmed me. For the first time, I began to understand the New Agey penchant for whale songs.

I thought I had better look up “toilet groaning” on the Internet and see if it was something I could manage myself. I’m no plumber, but I grew up in a house with very uncertain old pipes, and in such cases you learn to do what you can. It’s very satisfying when you learn to do these things yourself, if you do. And I know an air vent malfunction when I hear it.

But somehow on my way to the computer, I found myself going to the bookshelf, and picking up Moby-Dick, and paging through it, and then, twenty minutes later, there I was, sitting on the floor, reading.

Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

It was at this point that things started gurgling, and of course then the toilet overflowed. I turned off the water source, mopped up, and notified the super.

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Sound Off

July 31, 2014 | by

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The Cincinnati Public Library card catalog. Image via Retronaut

The other day, a friend sent me a link to a Reddit conversation: What common sounds from a hundred years ago are very rare or just plain don’t exist anymore? 

This, in turn, led us to the Museum of Endangered Sounds, which I highly recommend to anyone with a pair of headphones and a few hours to kill. Of course, we can’t even document some of them—the early-morning scuttle of coal, for instance, was probably too humble ever to rate a recording. I mean, how many of us have bothered to record the hiss of a radiator—and presumably that won’t be around forever. For that matter, someone ought to memorialize the rattle of a dead, incandescent bulb.

I must have had this in mind when I ran across this image on Retronaut. Because the sound of a card catalog—the squeak of the drawer, the slight ruffle of the stiff paper, the sliding noise as a card is pulled from the file—is almost certainly on the endangered list. (To say nothing of everything else in the picture.)

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Typewriter Tip-Tip-Tip

March 10, 2014 | by

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Photo: Dake, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes I like to think about what kind of sounds the people of a hundred or seventy-five years ago might have taken for granted, and those that are new—like the rattle of that stiff cereal bag, or a waking computer, of course—and those that will be extinct in our lifetime. When you play this game, you can catalog all the small elements of the sound track of a moment, and, because our knowledge is historical, place yourself in the larger context of all human existence. Or something. Anyway, it’s fun.

The Pop Chart Lab has just released a new chart, this one titled A Visual Compendium of Typewriters. It features sixty hand-drawn machines, ranging from the 1870 Hammond to ornate Triumphs to the sleek Smith-Coronas of the 1960s. I thought of sending it to my dad, who is a typewriter enthusiast—although he recently lent out the bulk of his collection to the Paris Review offices. He is trying to divest himself of stuff; both my parents are. But there are still a few typewriters here, at their house, and I spent a little while typing on them this morning.

A few years ago, my father gave me a very beautiful typewriter—an olive-hued second-model Royal Portable. At the time, he sent me the following note:

Sades,
I forgot to ask how you like the typewriter. I thought it was the best in my collection; not just the most attractive, but the one with the crispest action and, hardly to be underestimated, the most satisfying sound. In fact, all of this was confirmed by my just-concluded visit with the gentlemanly proprietor of Gramercy Office Equipment, apparently the last old-time typewriter repair shop in the city. (I went to him with my Olivetti Valentine, a machine so gorgeous it is in MoMA’s permanent collection, but one with a tendency to fall apart even when less harshly treated than was mine.) In any case, he had two Royals like yours on display, only in brown and blue. I told the guy and his son (his only employee) that we had a green one and they were suitably impressed, going on about its merits. I also procured from them a ribbon for the machine, and they said that if you had any difficulty installing it, you should bring it by. You might wish to do so anyway, because the place is the last of a dying breed, and should you be so inclined, they’ll talk old typewriters forever. They’re right across from your old stomping grounds at the Flatiron, at 174 Fifth Ave, between 22nd and 23rd, 4th floor.
Love,
P

If you go to that typewriter repair shop my dad recommended, you will hear a cacophony of typewriter sounds—a living anachronism. It’s not for effect, or to create the illusion of age like the ersatz sepia patina on a highball-slinging new bar, but because the machines are being serviced, and oiled, and tested, and tweaked, and there is nowhere else for them to go. Somehow, those sounds give me a greater chill than they would if the typewriters were being used in some attempt to evoke an earlier time; the functionality and utility of the sound is what is transporting.

“At the typewriter you find out who you are,” said that seriocomic sage of Washington State, Tom Robbins. Maybe; I hope not. But I recommend pecking away as a form of therapy if you are feeling overwhelmed. There is a reason the mechanism of the keys is called “action”—and sometimes taking action, however small, is very comforting. Even if, like me, you cannot really type.

 

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