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What Is the Sonic Domestic Utility of the Ocean Surf?

Listening to the Irish coast from the top floor of a Los Angeles hotel tower

I spent the past few days in Los Angeles at a hotel in Hollywood. My room, a small studio on the 11th floor, was awash with ocean sounds when I first walked in. The hotel had a little sound machine set up near the bed. It was on a crowded end table, what with the lamp, cordless phone, and iPhone-friendly alarm clock also sharing the space. Each item was vaguely elegant on its own, but collectively they were a matter of overkill and incongruity by accrual. The sound machine itself was fairly old, the speaker rattly, the recordings mechanical — a fax machine’s idea of surf. There were other options, too: stream, rain, white noise, and so on.

I’d had a similar experience previously at the same hotel chain in a different city, but that time I’d arrived late at night and struggled to find the source of the ocean and turn it off. I used to travel a lot for work, and became amazed by how much variation there could be in the placement and functionality of something as presumably straightforward as a light switch. It’s one thing to master the ever-mutating light switch. A “sound machine” is its own far-from-ubiquitous apparatus, a still-striving category aspiring to private-space normality. The hotel intended the sound machine to be relaxing; it was anything but.

20161009-bedside

This time around I knew how to turn it off: that helpful large element in the front center was, in fact, a very large button — so large that it was hiding in plain sight.

Days passed, and this morning, while drinking coffee and listening through Bandcamp and SoundCloud, I came upon this track (up above) by Hilary Mullaney. It’s a deeply detailed field recording of surf off the Irish coast. A brief note from Mullaney sets context:

This is an edit of a longer recording made at the waters edge on a beach in Spanish Point, Co. Clare, leaving the recording device on the ledge of a black rock to capture the surrounding sounds. It was a cold, wet and windy day in August.

I had it on repeat for a couple hours, the nearly three-minute track washing out through my laptop speakers, a brief pause at each repetition, like a dream starting over again. There’s perhaps too much detail in a track like this to serve as serene background listening — the bird song, rough noise of perhaps the recorder herself moving about, the waves and bubbles washing at imagined feet, the ocean rumbling somewhat threateningly in the distance.

20160109-ireland

It’s unclear if real ocean surf serves the same sonic domestic purpose of fake surf, if the narrative inherent in a “real” recording, especially one as thorough as Mullaney’s, can provide the intended ease of the fake surf. Perhaps the main issue with the fake-surf device is the device itself: a substandard interface, a speaker that degrades over time, a busy addition to an already overstuffed bedside. Or perhaps it is the sound itself: a mechanical lullaby that reinforces (rather than distracting the listener from) the pressures of the modern world outside the window.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/hilarymullaney. More from Mullaney at hilarymullaney.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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