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Hum And Rumble: Sound In The World Of COVID19
The Quietus , May 2nd, 2020 10:09

In an exclusive essay for the Quietus, philosopher and musicologist Lawrence Kramer, author of The Hum of the World (2019), meditates on music and listening on lockdown

It is hard in the midst of a relentless pandemic not to question the value of one’s customary preoccupations, very much including both creative and scholarly work. When The New York Times reports that the city’s hospital corridors are strewn with people dying before they can be hooked up to scarce ventilators, that tricky passage you’re trying to write at home may not seem very meaningful. It may even seem cruelly frivolous. When the basis of ordinary life implodes, we realize what a privilege it is to have an ordinary life at all. If we are lucky enough to live by means of our creative or intellectual efforts, we may realize anew that this privilege is far from equally shared. It seems right, therefore, even imperative, to ask if we, we lucky ones, are really making good use of that privilege, or what better use to make of it when--if--ordinary life returns.

At the same time it may seem right to say that what pales in the face of so much death and hardship is precisely what we are trying to recover for as many people as possible. The next paragraph or line or melody must yield to the stringencies of the time – that state of exception which impels extraordinary measures, good and bad – but persisting with them may nonetheless be taken as a pledge of faith in the future. Persisting with your vocation, no matter what it is, may be the means of affirming vocation itself. Those directly affected may not be able to do that. Those who are still spared perhaps have a responsibility to do it.

That leaves open the question of what, if anything, the work one does may have to say about the predicament we are in. My most recent writing has dealt with matters of sound, and in particular with the phenomenon that gives my book The Hum of the World its title. This hum, which I call the audiable for short (just adding an a to audible) is the faint continuous background sound that pervades our sensory experience. Our sense of the world floats on a sea of sound. We hear at all times, even in our sleep; we hear in all places, even the most quiet of them – the audiable is there if nothing else. An important consequence is that sound is always directed toward the future. Its future tense is so strong that sound is the sensory medium in which coming time is felt. That means in turn that sound is the sensory medium in which continuing life is felt. Although we commonly speak of looking into the future, in ordinary life what we really do is listen to the future arriving.

But sound can betray its calling. When ordinary life breaks down, its soundscape is disrupted. Equally, when the soundscape goes awry, a disruption befalls ordinary life. Of the many ways that sound can snap its link to the future, two perhaps stand out. The first is noise when noise is violent enough or harsh enough to attack the senses. In that case sound imprisons us in a wounding present. I would imagine those hospital corridors must sound that way. But the tone of anxiety that underscores nearly everything we say and do about the coronavirus is its own wounding noise. It covers the hum with a rumble. In its wake almost any sound can suddenly become painful: an unseen footfall, a shutting door, a – no, please not that! – a cough. We hear; we wince.

The other crack in sound is dead silence, a silence so extreme that even the audiable seems lost. “Absolute silence,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who liked a good humming quiet, “is the image of death.” “Image” is a good choice of words. Dead silence is so potent that one can hear it in a photograph, such as one that stopped the rustle of newsprint the other day as I turned the pages of the Times: a wide-angle view of the Bronx Zoo esplanade completely devoid of people. Polar explorers in the late nineteenth century experienced the Antarctic as the ne plus ultra of dead silence. Some of them came home (if they came home) with psychological damage from it. Dead silence seems to stop time altogether. The Russian author Eugenia Ginzburg (1904-1977) felt it when held prisoner in the subarctic Soviet gulag. “The silence thickened,” she wrote; “[it] became tangible and stifling. . . . I would have given anything to have heard just one sound.”

That does not seem like asking too much. Perhaps, then, just perhaps, in this time of social distancing, of isolation and separation, we can appreciate in greater than usual measure the tissue of connection formed by sound. In particular, we might newly appreciate the sound of our voices as they cross the spaces of division and carry with them a touch of the hum of the world. What would not Ginzburg have given for a voice?

Talking to someone six feet away is not unusual in itself. But when that six feet of space is a forbidden zone, not to be entered, far less to be crossed, the voices that can still cross it freely undergo a sensory enhancement. Voice loses some of its customary familiarity. It sounds, if we let it, more rhythmic, more tangible, even more audible. When we stop taking voice for granted, if only because circumstances force us to, we can hear how remarkable a thing it is that voices can bridge the gaps between us at all, even nearer than six feet, and even farther.

For more than a century, voice has been a remedy for distance. Voice has learned to bypass space. In a sense, the first words spoken over a telephone, Alexander Graham Bell’s “Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you,” said far more than they meant to. (Bell just wanted Watson’s help to clean up a spill.) But the crossing of distance from afar took time to establish itself. In Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the narrator is unnerved by his grandmother’s voice on a turn-of-the-century phone. Her voice seems very near, but she seems very distant, almost ghostly. When the call ends he stands by the phone calling for her “as Orpheus, left alone, repeats the name of his dead wife.”

In a world replete with mobile phones capable of video as well as audio, such “ghostly” effects are largely absent. We no longer hear disembodied voices as disembodied enough. We have become too used to being “connected” – connected to a fault. But forced by the age of coronavirus to share the narrator’s feeling of disconnection, in mythic proportions, we may recover some of the urgency described by Proust. A new urban ritual, spreading worldwide as the virus does, suggests we may be doing so already. At seven each night in New York, the long arrays of nearly empty streets fill with the sound of cheers and applause for the city’s healthcare workers. The social value of this new custom has been more widely appreciated than its sonic value. But the two are inextricable. Where everyday cacophony once reigned, the people who call from their windows and balconies replace it with a joyful noise. Only sound could make such an affirmation; no wonder that people seemed to turn to it intuitively. With our sense of distance renewed, our perception of the means to cross it without moving may be refreshed. We may find a respite, if not a remedy, in the action of voice. If only, unlike Orpheus, we keep going forward and trust our ears.

The Hum of the World by Lawrence Kramer is published by University of California Press