February 26, 2015KR BlogEnthusiamsShort Takes/Mixed TapeUncategorized

Kinds of Listening, Kinds of Light: He told me he saw more subtle cycles there

“When spring came, when every crow announced its arrival by raising his cry half a tone…” – Sans Soleil

Last week, deep into California’s wildflower season, I made a new rule: we’ll eat breakfast with the lights out so we can hear the birds’ song. It is louder in the dark and better than the radio. Of a good dawn I recall Tomas Tranströmer, master descriptor of energies hard to define, such as the waiting air in his poem, “Below Freezing,” which concludes: The light grows gradually as our hair. Because of Tranströmer, I think of light in this way often, strand by strand of it, hardly perceptibly increasing, in time with the birds’ chorus, or the birds’ chorus rather, increasing in time with it. As such, it’s almost overwhelming to hold one’s face beside a chilly screen and be lightly bombarded by the sound, and, it’s bliss.

Sound, particularly distant or subtle, subconsciously affects us in the way that some light, neither strong nor dim, just is. Brian Eno’s 1975 album, Discreet Music, was composed with the idea that one might play the record at levels barely audible, so the orchestrated sounds would blend and merge with the audible environment of the present, confusing sources and what’s “real.” So, when I listen to the record at home, the tones of Discreet filter amongst those waking birds, dishes’ clatter, distant siren, dog’s sigh, mariachi alley, and so on. In the liner notes Eno shares the story of his arrival at this concept of audibilities:

In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn’t the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience. It is for this reason that I suggest listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility.

Eno’s awareness of “thresholds” for various kinds of perception describes a poetic manner of existing; it seems to me that one can either notice the murmurs of her environment—“care to notice” is maybe a better way to say it—or, subconsciously feel the affect of those murmurs and so integrate them into a doing/making/being, or, for the less aware, not notice them, not respond to them at all (maybe the television is too loud). Eno’s music is about a perception or awareness as subtle as the light that grows gradually as our hair. His work challenges us to keep our senses at a state of full-to-the-brim, ready to be drunk by their environment, as if a music might also notice, might absorb, some of us.

I want to follow this theme of the almost-imperceptible, from poetry to music, music to film. The late, French filmmaker Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) gives the stage to life’s moments easily missed in this fictional, video-travelogue that’s obsessed with the lapse between memory and the present. In the film, an unseen woman reads letters from the cameraman as he travels the world, “stalking banality,” and questioning memory’s fluid skin. In one of many so-called-ordinary studies that comprise the nonlinear film, we observe the faces of weary passengers on trains throughout Tokyo. The camera is patient and unwavering, resting long enough on looks that we begin to genuinely wonder about these people who float through underground corridors, locked, like so many of us, in their own minds. Comes the thought: it is easy to move through a city sensing only its cacophony of gesture and sound, to enter a subway and see faces like so many petals on a bough, but our cameraman is a poet, and he wants us to notice with him, the particulars. From one of his letters, the woman reads:

He told me about the January light on the station stairways. He told me that this city ought to be deciphered like a musical score; one could get lost in the great orchestral masses and the accumulation of details. And that created the cheapest image of Tokyo: overcrowded, megalomaniac, inhuman. He thought he saw more subtle cycles there: rhythms, clusters of faces caught sight of in passing—as different and precise as groups of instruments. Sometimes the musical comparison coincided with plain reality; the Sony stairway in the Ginza was itself an instrument, each step a note. All of it fit together like the voices of a somewhat complicated fugue, but it was enough to take hold of one of them and hang on to it.

Taking hold, hanging on, to the singular, we make meaning of the world one note at a time. The city is human if we notice the wrinkles around a mother’s mouth as she emerges from a tunnel with the crowd. And here is another instance of light, January on the station stairs, particular in its season and place, particular for the memory it must conjure in the speaker, now, or in some future.

Tranströmer, Eno, Marker, following the notes, following the light, remind us: the world is subtle and vaster in its subtlety the more we look; with careful attention, perception can grow like hair on fire.