Saturday, May 16, 2009

Midtown Sound Walk

New York City just may have the most rich array of sounds of any built environment in the world. Spending an hour walking around New York and making note only of what you hear is harder than you'd think. To isolate sounds and discern roughly how far away their source is, and even just what they are, takes some real concentration.

I decided to mix it up by starting in the most bustling, chaotic part of town I could think of—Midtown (the corner of 48th and 6th Avenue, to be precise)--and end up in the most “natural” environment I could think of within walking distance: Central Park (specifically, near the Bethesda Fountain, which is roughly in the middle of the park, east-west, and at about 77th Street).

One sound that New York offers up with almost staggering ubiquity is a very particular sound of screachy brakes: bus brakes. There's high-pitched grinding that the bus brakes make—I guess as a result of the constant stop-start rhythm of Manhattan traffic. I've spent time in a of of cities around the U.S. and the world, and nowhere else have I heard this sound with anything like the frequency I hear it in New York.

If you really stop and listen, you hear people talk. Well, Duh. But listen a little harder. I noticed no fewer than 7 languages being spoken as I paused on the corner of 54th and 6th for about 6 minutes. I recognized Spanish; Chinese (though I don't know which of its many dialects I was hearing); English; Urdu; Arabic; and an Eastern European language whose identity I wasn't sure of (Russian? Romanian? Polish?).

When I reached the park, I wasn't greeted with the kind of wall of natural sounds I was expecting. There were at least two different kinds of birds chirping. There was the rustling on a squirrel in the woodchips off the walking paths. But mostly what I could hear were the same sounds I was hearing before—but through a kind of auditorily distorted prism that funneled them through canyons of skyscrapers and over acres of wooded land. The sounds were more faint, sure. But they also came at you as one thing, almost indescernible. I was no doubt hearing screaching brakes and honking horns on the Upper West Side, Upper East Side, and Midtown, all at once. Maybe even up in Harlem, too; who knows?

Everyone should try this sometime. It helps you develop a disciplined ear and learn to isloate sounds. Without a sense of what you're hearing, it would be hard or maybe even impossible to accurately represent the auditory environment in any storytelling medium. What does the city really sound like? You can't know until you get out there and listen to it.

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