Hum a Few Bars

Sonic infrastructural forensics

“Many of our electrical things, all around us, are constantly buzzing at 60 hertz, or a harmonic like 120 hertz. And what we’re hearing, or not hearing, is the electrical grid. The companies that manage our power, in my case, Con Edison in New York, are required by law to maintain that 60 hertz output” — thus Micah Loewinger explains the foundation of a fascinating audio forensics tool called ENF, which stands for electrical network frequency analysis. 

Essentially, there’s a record of slight variations in the electrical grid, and by mapping a recording’s underlying buzz against the historical record, sleuths can identify the date and time — “almost to the exact second,” reports Loewinger — that something was taped. It’s an intriguing story about evidence hiding in plain sight, and about the way sounds that we take for granted contain meaning. 

Listen to the full episode (transcript also available), which aired recently as part of the WNYC show On the Media (and which, as a bonus, opens with another sound-related story: an update on “The Unending Mystery of Havana Syndrome”). (Thanks, Rich Pettus!)

Homeland Intelligence

Listening while home and away in Lauren Wilkinson's novel American Spy

“It is humbling to have your social fluency, your sense of yourself as a competent, independent person, upended by a foreign city.”

That is the narrator of American Spy, a 2019 novel by Lauren Wilkinson, talking not to the reader so much as to her children. The framing device of the book is that it is a tale told by her (a Black American FBI agent who may or may not have once moonlighted for the CIA) to them while she is evading an unseen enemy — as well as interrogating, through flashbacks, what got her family into this troubling situation in the first place. While the stakes in the book are highly personal, much of it hinging on the circumstances surrounding the death, years earlier, of the narrator’s older sister, the scope of the story is international, its second half occurring largely in West Africa.

Her observation about “social fluency” occurs as a response to an earlier situation, back in Manhattan, when the narrator, named Marie Mitchell, was guiding a head of state around the city (that character, Thomas Sankara, is an actual former president of Burkina Faso). The dignitary was flummoxed at the time by the enormity of the city’s noise.

Now the tables have been turned, and Marie is in his country’s capital city, Ouagadougou, finding herself dependent on the kindness of strangers to navigate a place where no sensory input is familiar. “I thought of the afternoon in New York I’d spent with Thomas, the way he’d been surprised when we were in the park and those kids on bikes had whizzed around us,” she reminisces. “He’d sounded embarrassed when he’d said he’d been unable to pick out the bikes from the ambient city noise, and now with a teenager practically leading me through Ouaga by the hand, I thought I understood why.”

As always, writers of fiction about spies need to be good listeners in order for their characters to be. You can fake an NGO. You can fake a counterintelligence operation. You can’t fake paying attention.

Book Audio

Listening in Daniel Nieh's novel Take No Names

There are reasons I find myself reading thrillers that have less to do with the thrills, less to do with the vicarious, Walter Mitty pleasure of someone fictional doing outlandish things while I sit in my chair, of being transported momentarily to their circumstances, or with the tension of these death-defying pressures and conspiratorial motivations having been brought to bear for my casual entertainment — reasons instead that have far more to do with the simple fact that the characters in such books (and in the good ones their authors as well) spend a lot of time listening very closely to their surroundings, interpreting the world around them with their ears and wits.

This following bit is from the novel Take No Names by Daniel Nieh. In it, a character has just messed up badly, risking drawing attention to his presence and that of a criminal colleague. He has nothing to do but wait to see if has endangered his life. Since this moment occurs a few pages into the book, the likely answer is that no, of course, he has not.

A detail from a page from the book in question

What further elevates that instance is one that comes earlier. Even before this character, named Victor Li (who was also the protagonist of Nieh’s previous book, Beijing Payback), comes to fear that his clumsiness has cost him everything, we witness him simply listening — not out of need, but out of habit: 

Another detail from a page from the book in question

That paragraph comes toward the opening of the same chapter. It serves to prime the reader’s awareness of Victor’s awareness. I’ll be listening along as I read further. I’m 25% of the way through, according to my trust ereader.

On Repeat: Guðnadóttir, Frisell, Rathrobin, Rplktr, Colombo

Recent favorites

It’s the start of a new year, and I want to try to get back in the habit of posting quick mentions each Sunday of my favorite listening from the week prior:

Hildur Guðnadóttir already had committed some of the most remarkable film music of the year for Tár, Todd Field’s feature starring Cate Blanchett, and she’s followed it up with Women Talking (Deutsche Grammophon) Both scores veer dramatically from her often drone-based prior work (Chernobyl, Joker, Sicario: Day of the Soldado). Women Talking, in contrast, features a lot of staccato string work.

▰ If I had done a top favorites of 2022, guitarist Bill Frisell’s Four, his third album for the jazz label Blue Note, would have been on the list for sure. It teams him with Johnathan Blake on drums, Gerald Clayton on piano, and Greg Tardy on horns (saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet). The key word is “team,” as this is a jazz album with essentially no solos; it’s all about constant interplay.

Beth Chesser and Pier Giorgio Storti collaborate as Rathrobin. Their album Ear to the Ground combines strings, voice, and unidentifiable textures, including field recordings, into a sometimes aggressive but often ruminative sonic spaces. It came out almost a year ago, at the end of January 2022, but I’ve only recently started listening to it.

Rplktr (aka Łukasz Langa) recorded half an hour using the Awake script, which comes as part of the Monome Norns musical instrument. It’s sparkling and lightly percussive. Just listen as the patterning unfolds.

▰ Embedding here won’t do it justice, so if you do use Instagram, check out Jorge Colombo’s ( — specifically the short films he posts. The “NYC2” batch, for example, are black and white snippets, shot in cinematic horizontal mode — field recordings that evidence the keen eye and ear I’ve admired for decades.

This is a screenshot from Jorge Colombo's Instagram page, showing a train passing