“A person’s music is seen as a means of restoring the soul,
as well as confused and discordant bodily afflictions,
to the harmonic proportions that it shares
with the world soul of the cosmos.”
~ Plato, The Timaeus
While pandemic life has grounded elaborate plans and ambitions, simple attainments are also made difficult. Now thinking back through eight months of triage, distancing, and working amidst bunkering, I make note of the narrowed horizons. My optimistic travel plans drawn up last winter were humbled into crosstown errands. Indeed, I’m merely one of countless many that are scaled down to the brass tacks of personal safety and the earning of sustenance- all within the context of isolation. Hopefully it will not become necessary to have to choose between the two vital aspects of health and employment. It takes as much vigilance and resourcefulness to stay productive as it does to keep well. But as time irretrievably passes, though it may appear as such, quite clearly nothing stands still. Time continues cascading over all the stopped progress. There is so much to accomplish, but very few things can actually be done. The focus is survival.
Even at the outset of these times of lockdowns and related hardships, I noticed the prevalence of contrasts. As social malevolence manifested and broadcast itself, those who chose generosity emerged as bright exceptions. Humanity scrambles between the extremes of exploitation and mercy, while the natural world keeps vigil. And in this portion of my own vigil, as I keep watch in this night, my thoughts turn to the place held by sound in these times. Just as I recall the completely silent skies immediately after the 11th of September 2001, the first and most eerie aspect I noticed as the world began locking down in March was the desolate quiet of the streets.
The absence of sound is cause for notice, and so is the welcome presence of assuring sound. But this is surely not to say that quiet cannot be comforting. Just as there are welcoming forms of silence, there are also pleasant sounds. Several nights ago, the transformation into the late-autumn became pronouncedly audible to me, as I was awakened by wind and rainstorm-rattling windows. It was a reminder of sounds I’ve always liked. Soothing sounds provide an effect resembling fresh air. It’s a calming, accompanying presence. Indeed, not all sounds have these properties- even in the same categories. Radio, a lifelong companion, can be as much of a conduit of good reminders and wonder as it can be a prism of abrasion. A few weeks ago, I listened to Schumann’s Forest Scenes for the first time, and was so taken by the music and its performance that I stopped working so that I could better savour the sounds. I have a rather irrational habit of looking at the radio, when I want listen more clearly; I looked and listened. This particular radio station does not always broadcast music I find appealing. Normally, it’s a kitchen sink of classical pop: lots of martial-sounding rat-a-tat-tat “classical” orchestral music- regardless of time of day or night. Contrasting the sounds that I find to be sweet and textural- with cellos, harmonies, and counterpoint- are the pieces I call “music that needs to be oiled.” That latter category speaks for sounds that are scratchy, whining, and cacophonous that cause me to switch stations- or just choose some silence. It doesn’t make sense to opt for more annoyances than what already exists, especially in this chaotic era.
Pythagoras famously said, “Either be silent, or say something better than silence.” And by my lights, in this context, better is to say: consoling, life-giving, or perhaps even constructive. Surely a subjective and highly individualized definition. The quiet at five in the morning, with my coffee and breviary, is an expectant silence pointed toward newness and hope. A sound as subtle as the dulcet hiss of cars passing along my street is something I find soothing. So is the wind through the trees, familiar soft voices, birds, the scribing of my writing on paper, my percolator that converts sound into aroma, my landlady’s footsteps from upstairs, and foghorns from the waterfront. Part of why I’ve always loved walking and perching at the ocean’s edge, aside from the vistas, are the sounds of the water. The tides will determine the forces of crashing waves, along open seas. Then there are the sheltered inlets, with much quieter stirrings. With eyes closed, my imaginings are of an affectionate ladling of a large seaweed soup, the rounded stones clacking under the waters’ pulling. Such sounds transcend pandemics and hardships. Beyond material provisions, resourcing myself also includes knowing where to find consoling sounds.
The light and weather of November suddenly brought to mind one particular long-distance road trip I made. Having to cover 1300 miles in 2 days, I drove more than 750 miles in a straight shot, with just 3 brief fuel stops. The highways between western New York State and northeastern Ohio were imperiled by a fierce winter storm, but I reduced speed and stayed my course. I kept the windows defrosted and the radio on, gripping the steering wheel and bonding with my rental car. Finally reaching my planned destination, parking in a snow drift next to a hotel and shutting off the engine, I instinctively closed my eyes. The driving was intense and my catharsis was equally pronounced. Walking to a nearby diner to decompress and replenish, the restless fatigue was later finally solved when I saw that my small hotel room had a real bathtub. Part of that perfectly consoling and soapy hot bath was in the sound of the water, reminding me of home, while the winter weather continued pelting at the windows. Before retaking the road the next morning, I dined with fellow guests in the breakfast room.
Sharing meals with strangers in a common room, replete with convivial sounds of voices and crockery, is now an impossible enjoyment. Surviving the pandemic has brought about alienation from our travels and from one another. The timbres and tones of humanity are severely curtailed. The last time I was compressed in a crowd was in late-February at Boston’s North Station. My thoughts were not occupied with contagion, but rather with getting a good seat on the train. Nobody would’ve expected that crowd noises would become something rarified. And so rarified that when major league sports resumed to play their abnormal and abbreviated seasons, they would be doing that in empty arenas against the backdrop of canned crowd noises (to audiences of cardboard photos of spectators). Listening to some of the baseball games on the radio had me wondering about broadcast technicians splicing together enough sounds of sports fans to create many hours of banal background noise. What an odd testament to the greater oddness and unreality of isolation. It also attests to how important pleasant and assuring sounds are to so many, reminding us of our wishes. We search for comforts while carrying a nostalgia for a better future. Within the need to be resourced for survival is our comprehension of sound: choosing away from what injures the soul- as much as possible- and choosing toward strength and inspiration.