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tag: listening to yesterday

Listening to Yesterday: Car Talk

The sonic violence of urban motion

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Yesterday evening I headed down the main thoroughfare in the neighborhood by foot. I walked the few blocks from my office to a restaurant, with plans to meet up for dinner. Foot traffic was fairly heavy, especially at the bus stops. People were being disgorged en masse, and then self-distributing into clumps that wandered in various directions. It was the end of the work week, a Friday, and the start of a three-day weekend, thanks to Monday’s national holiday.

The streets were as busy as the sidewalks. I only paused for red lights, and otherwise was a willing participant in the consensual choreography, the near constant motion, of urban life. Whether walking or standing still, I found myself especially conscious of the passing cars. Some honked, while others revved their engines, or changed lanes in a manner that through conscious design or mere physics emitted an aggressive noise. No matter a given driver’s mood, every car sounded forceful, violent. The mere inches between vehicles and pedestrians seemed forebodingly tight, tense, ill-planned.

It’s not that cars don’t necessarily belong in the city. It’s just that in so many cases they seem contrary to what makes the city work. Despite the threat of physical harm, for the most part everything moved in relative sync, but the outliers, through sheer threat of bodily injury, loomed larger in the consciousness. Now, the drivers who treated bicyclists like targets and pedestrians like pigeons, expecting them to shoo submissively, weren’t alone in their selfish momentum. There, too, were bicyclists who treated drivers like annoying siblings and pedestrians like drivers who happened not to be in cars at the moment, not to mention pedestrians who walked as if they were daydreaming in a large, open field.

The cars, of course, weighed more than the bicyclists and pedestrians combined, and moved decidedly more quickly. There was nothing collegial to the way the cars rushed past. The volume of their engines, the doppler patterning of their motion, the squeak of their brakes, all separated them from the rest of society. Every few cars, I’d see someone chatting away, voice muted by glass and speed. They were engaging with someone, somewhere — just not with those of us in their immediate vicinity. Even the drivers’ silence set them apart.

(Photo by Mike Klubok, used via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.)

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Listening to Yesterday: Growing Pains

The chaotic sounds of a brand new restaurant

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A new, small, inexpensive Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood recently filled the space vacated by a smaller, even less expensive Chinese restaurant. The old place was here for over a decade. The new place has been in place for a week. The new place is larger than the old place because an interior wall was torn down, doubling the seating area. Still, there are only eight tables, seating between two to four people each.

Yesterday at lunch I sat, party of one, at one of the tables for two. The place’s growing pains were evident in various ways. Two thirds of the menu wasn’t yet available. The benefits of a proper lunch menu have not yet been acknowledged by the proprietors. People kept dropping by to ask if they serve the same food — dim sum — as the previous restaurant, which they don’t exactly, though they do serve many dumpling dishes and appetizers. Annoyance can sound similar between different languages, on both sides of a counter.

The kitchen was quite close to where diners sat. Even though the wall between those two sections had been preserved, sounds of the kitchen were evident. Much of the sonic activity was simply a matter of cooking — the rough texture of a wok being pushed around, the light crunch of vegetables being quickly diced, the pouring of liquids, the flash of oil caught by a flame. Many other sounds served as evidence of those growing pains: the grumbling of people getting in each other’s way, the anxiety of misplaced or confused orders; things being dropped, searched for.

Restaurant kitchens are rarely places of repose. Still, there is a distinction to be drawn between frenetic and chaotic, between harried and nervous. This isn’t intended as a criticism of the place. Restaurants rarely open firing on all cylinders. They’re more like Broadway plays, which get previews before they’re fit for review. For all the anxiety inherent in the sounds of the learning curve, there was a clear sense of purpose, of fortitude, of attention. Something falling apart sounds quite different from something coming together.

(Photo by manda_wong, used via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.)

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Listening to Yesterday: Banking On It

The background noise of institutional authority

The bank was quiet yesterday. It was especially quiet for a mid-week visit in the afternoon, especially on the last day of the month. The line was short, two people ahead of me, with three people at the lengthy counter. The bank was sizable, with hard, shiny floors and wide, blank walls. Despite the reflective power of all that surface area, the financial conversations were muffled, muted, their privacy respected by the room’s structure and design. Street noise occasionally became apparent when the front doors, down a short hallway, opened, especially when a bus was pulling up to or out of the stop just beyond the entryway. Keystrokes were heard. The occasional beeping of generic computer equipment was absorbed into the room’s capacious silence. Inside the main hall of the bank, music played lightly, music as background noise, so matched in volume to the hush of the space — a hush akin to a museum, or to a proctored examination — that it took effort to discern the identity of what song was being played.

After I was done with my transaction, I walked down that short hallway and turned to take the stairs to the garage. The music faded slowly as I moved further and further from the main area of the bank. However, as quiet as it got with each step, the music was only suddenly, firmly gone when the stairwell door closed behind me. Immediately the space around me was void, empty, echoing its own silence, reinforcing its absence by presenting nothing more than a voluminous hush, a hush that made the quietude of the bank feel, in retrospect, more like a stage whisper, like a carefully crafted impression of quiet. The bank was private. In contrast, the stairwell was vacant. Private is valuable, comforting. Vacancy is neutral at best; if anything, it is devoid of presence, of comfort.

Stepping into the stairwell was like having the illusion of the bank’s authority dispelled. Inside the bank, its institutional gravitas was everywhere, from the visual depictions of its storied history to the sheer impression made by the activity. To step into the stairwell was to realize how much of that authority was a performance. To step into the stairwell was to step backstage, into the wings of the show that was the bank. I wondered: Had the music continued from the bank into the staircase, would I have experienced the transaction denouement for a longer period of time? Would I have had the song more likely in my head as I exited the garage? Would the authority of the bank have lingered more in my imagination? Would I have remained comforted by its institutional loco parentis, rather than dispiritingly enlightened as to the environmental conceit that had provided that comfort in the first place?

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Listening to Yesterday: Blinded

After the window opens

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The back window hadn’t been open regularly for some time, not for more than an hour or so at a time, always with the shade pulled down to the slit opening. This was because of the drought. The drought meant turning off the water in the yard, and turning off the water meant the plants that were supposed to grow didn’t and the plants that weren’t supposed to grow did. Working in the back room, far from the street, meant a certain amount of quiet. The shut windows reduced planes and birds to a muffled whisper.

This summer the yard was reworked with low-water plants, native to our region or to regions that bear climatic resemblance to our region. The yard was no longer a post-apocalyptic vision of neglect, and the window was open all the time. Briefly. Then came the discovery of black widow spiders — speaking of things thriving in the absence of rain — which led to some research before the exterior ledges and walls were cleaned (broom rinse repeat).

Yesterday the window was open much of the day, and I was home much of the day. Having the backyard rejuvenated makes the house seem bigger. The open window extends sight lines. The space to sit expands in turn, even when that usable space is imaginary (mental sight lines) during the summer San Francisco fog. Planes and birds are louder now, as are the wind, and the neighbors, and the stray cat, and the occasional helicopter.

Previously the window muffled the outside. Yesterday I sat at my desk, back to the window, peaking occasionally over my shoulder out the window at plants whose names I knew and herbs I’d cooked with just the night before. Something had drawn my attention. There was a rattle. The pull-strings from the shades rustled in the breeze. They conversed with a small mobile on the other side of the house. Having an open window in the back meant the open window in the front now had a partner in air-flow. The mobile rustled. The shade strings rustled. The rustling created a foreground noise. It provided a sonic metric of the wind, and also a distraction from noises further away. Deep into the afternoon I realized I hadn’t heard a plane or a bird or a neighbor. The rustling string had created a subtle aural distraction, something for the mind to secondarily focus on, in favor over more distant distractions. Opening the window had removed a physical partition, but in turn a sonic partition had presented itself.

(Photo by i_yudai, used via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.)

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Listening to Yesterday: Bathroom Cues

The absence of sound as consumer-product sound design

Twice a day my mouth turns into a cavernous venue for what could be mistaken for a solo didgeridoo concert. This is when I use my electric toothbrush. It’s battery-charged, and takes close to half a day to get enough power for it to last a few weeks. I know the toothbrush is due for a charge when the light persists in blinking after I’m done brushing. I know I’m done brushing because the room, along with my mouth, goes silent. Previous to that silence, for two minutes straight from start to finish, my mouth reverberates with the sound and sensation of bristles going full speed.

When I first started using the electric toothbrush, after a lifetime with the unplugged sort, I was concerned I’d made a terrible and not inexpensive mistake. Those vibrations are my least favorite part of my thrice-annual dental visit. There’s a quiet ferocity to them, and the hum of the machine is matched by the ticklish tinging where gums meet teeth. After a short time, thankfully, I became comfortable with the brush, and now I rarely travel without it. I came, in fact, to admire the vibrations, or more specifically the use of the vibrations as a design element.

There’s a particularly ingenious aspect to the electric toothbrush’s vibrations. Every 30 seconds there is a lull, not a cesura, just the briefest of pauses. The lull is a signal. It means rotate, like we used to do in volleyball during gym class back in high school. The brush is programmed to match the quadrants of a human mouth: front top, front bottom, back top, back bottom. The lull, a split-second drop in the rotary drone, is a signal to switch quadrants. Kudos to the device’s designers, who opted to use the absence of sound as a cue, rather than adding a beep. The absence of sound is one of the great tools in a sound designer’s toolbox. It’s a difficult choice for a designer to leave something out, rather than to add something.

The lack of a beep in the brushing is matched by that battery alert. It’s risky to have something as important as battery life be gauged simply by a little light. What if you put down the toothbrush quickly after brushing? What if you place it on the counter so the light is turned away from you? What if the bathroom is brightly lit? No matter. This brush would rather you learn the hard way. One cycle back with the archaic “manual” brush is a small price to pay to be trained to keep an eye on that light in regard to your toothbrush’s battery life. The absence of the beep as an alert, for both the quadrant-swapping and the battery notification, feels like a conscious acknowledgement of the utility scenario, of the quiet period when brushing takes place: early in the morning and late in the evening. Those are times when any additional noise is especially unwelcome, in life and in consumer-product design.

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