Mystery Train

A field recording as readymade score

While working, I often have something playing on a secondary computer screen just for ambient visuals, like a live airfield webcam in Chicago (which is silent) or a live watering hole in a Kenyan national park (which pipes in the wind and bird calls, plus occasional mammalian utterances), or the great Listen to Wikipedia, which both visualizes and sonifies (“sonificates”? — nah) occurrences, in real time, from the highly used communal encyclopedia.

Increasingly over the past three or four years, my secondary-screen peripheral viewing has consisted of videos from the burgeoning assortment of YouTube channels run by people who wander around cities (my preference), as well as nature, recording as they go. Unlike the webcams and live data sonification mentioned above, these YouTube channels don’t contain “live” videos. That is, they record live, but they don’t stream live (i.e., in real time). There’s something quite pleasing about having Seoul (on a sunny day) or London (during heavy rain) or the Black Forest (crunchy leaves underfoot, and planes overhead just as Gordon Hempton warned us) pass by as you sit in your chair attending to your computer-fixated duties.

These videos can be comforting in unexpected ways. This past year I’ve had to travel more than I expected, for family reasons, and sometimes sitting with the same familiar footage of Madrid at night by my side served as a digital mutation of Ray Oldenburg’s concept of a Third Place: it was neither my home or work, nor where I was presently, but another location I could virtually transport to easily from either. (And I’m fully aware that my bastardization of Oldenburg’s richer observation proposes a solitary venture rather than the intended social one. Forgive me. I’m just thinking out loud.)

At a low volume level, the sounds from these YouTube flâneur/voyeur videos become truly ambient: neither focus nor absent. Your ear may prick up to an unfamiliar emergency siren from a faraway land or to some pedestrians kibitzing while waiting for the traffic light to favor them, but by and large the sounds, like the visuals, are pleasingly secondary.

Sometimes, though, there is a true surprise, and a delightful one.

For example, something magical happens at the 58:16 mark (that is, just shy of an hour) in a newly posted video by Rambalac titled “Japan – Wandering in countryside Iruma, Saitama.” Rambalac is the name of a prolific (one of the channel’s playlists has nearly 600 videos) and popular (584,000 followers to date) exponent of this YouTube flâneur category. In the Iruma video (named for the city in which it was shot), Rambalac, as always out of view, wanders around slowly, capturing the local environment with a keen eye (and ear), here for back alleys and urban parks. We never see Rambalac, though sometimes we catch a shadow, complete with film equipment (timecode: 14:17), or a hand playfully holding up a bottle of newly purchased tea (54:12).

It may very well have been the sounds from that vending machine transaction that woke me from my work trance. This beverage stop occurs very close to the end of the video. Ramblac then begins heading back to the train station. At almost exactly 58:00, someone with a backpack comes into view after running across the narrow street ahead, and this person’s presence — at the risk of getting all film theory about it — seems to relocate the video’s point of view, briefly becoming a sort of stand-in for Ramblac. They’re walking down the same street, their paces evenly matched.

We hear footsteps and chatter, and then at 58:16, a repetitive tone emerges. It sounds like nothing so much as if the minimalist composer Philip Glass had been hired to score the closing scene for a willfully quotidian spinoff of Koyaanisqatsi. What it is (and I confirmed this with Rambalac via the video channel’s Discord, and with a friend who lives in Japan) is the sound of the train crossing signal. It gets considerably louder as Rambalac (along with the person in view) approaches the station, and then it gets almost entirely subsumed by rail noise and conversation.

I realized, when I went back to watch the video again, that this same sound occurs, briefly and more quietly, at the very opening — by all appearances when Rambalac first arrives in Iruma. As we learn from watching such videos — and considering field recordings as compositions unto themselves — the two appearances of the signal/Glass sound are quite distinct. At the opening, it’s happenstance, but at the end, it takes on a narrative quality. The whole video is recommended, but if you just want to witness (and appreciate) the music’s arrival, start a little earlier, at around 57:42. Doing so sets the room tone, as it were, for the city, before what might be thought of as the readymade score appears. I never actually thought this was music, but I did — and do — think that in the context of the video, it has been meaningfully transformed into something more than merely overheard locomotive-operation detritus. Which is to say: it’s quite beautiful.

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