Neighbourhood sounds

1 1956-march-17-elvis wertheimer

Like a lot of people I live in a built up area of apartment blocks with walls that allow sounds to pass freely from one unit to another, and reflect traffic noises into bedrooms so effectively you can only get used to it. I get to hear fragments of people’s lives: all about Ernie, a child who belongs to a lady on the top floor across the street who’s having problems with his tonsils (apparently Doctor Barnaby wants them out but Frank won’t agree), and the neighbour upstairs has just come back from France, I overhear, where he had trouble with his boyfriend. At the back a woman has fits of operatic rage that sound like Bon Jovi singing Verdi, and I do wonder what irks her sometimes. The lady next to her whose afternoon orgasms shook the walls has moved out, and perhaps it’s just as well. But it’s usually other people’s music I get to hear, something I could describe as a mixed blessing.

I saw a piece of wisdom written on a wall in Glebe once (graffiti that is) which wondered why people who play their music loud always have such bad taste. It’s true. Of course not everybody can have such impeccable taste as we do, but what you hear broadcast at other people’s parties, or at three in the morning when someone can’t sleep, can surely only marginally be described as music.

It’s true some unusual sounds come from our music playing device. A few months ago we had a passion for the Boomtown Rats. It only lasted a week though. But the neighbour just behind us has a more enduring passion for Duran Duran and Gary Neuman and synth for him is king. Synth is king also for the lady across the road with tonsil problems, but hers is the kind of synth you play on a balcony while shouting into a mobile phone: background synth, otherwise known as lift music. Synth is synthesiser based music, but I derive it from synthetic: it’s like wearing nylon clothing rather than cotton. It looks good but it’s not comfortable.

I must admit I have a sneaking admiration for the people who are into Led Zeppelin, even at four in the morning. That’s endurance, almost an Olympic event. I sympathise with those who read of urban violence in their newspapers and follow punk and post punk sounds like The Killers or The Stranglers. I try and reciprocate, and play my Tibetan temple music to help them meditate and deal with their personal problems. Om Mani Padme Hum can be quite inspiring, though when played with the auditory equivalent of 50,000 monks in a railway tunnel it can be quite overwhelming.


I had a neighbour whose radio came on at six o’clock every morning and played Country and Western music, so I tuned mine to an evangelical station and pushed it near the window so they could understand other people had more serious problems than getting to work on time (like getting back to sleep). It worked, as they moved out. Perhaps they got fired for being late for work. Country and Western is music that makes you stop and think; and that she was probably justified in moving in with your best friend; and the dog howls in sympathy. Not like synth I guess.

The point is, the sounds we make are part of us, like the smells we make. Part of the business of getting through the day. And we seem fairly intolerant of these by products. Of other people’s, not our own of course. Ours are normal, but other people’s leave a lot to be desired. Sounds are a bit like bathroom smells in that regard. In fact, smells are a good analogy. When we meet a person who seems to have a largely garlic based diet we tend to flinch, even when we happen to like garlic. If we eat it, it’s delicious. When others eat it, it makes them smell unpleasantly. Other people’s farts get you thinking about the diet they should be on. Reminds me of that passage in the gospels I’ve never understood about motes and beams.

So while I feel sympathetic to my neighbour upstairs who hammers on the floor with what sounds like a sledge hammer when I let Bruce Springsteen be heard as he should, I feel damned annoyed when he forgets himself with Britney’s dance beat or goes retro with Madonna. I mean, I was brought up to believe that Bob Dylan had made pop music a form of poetry. Poetry dance beat ain’t (I make an exception for Soukous, which I never hear outside my flat unfortunately). And let’s not mention people who turn their cars into mobile boom boxes so you can hear them coming from a dozen blocks away. They’d be ideal advance troops for the next war, ensuring the enemy was deaf, if not dead.

3 music alone trains guitars

Which brings me to rap music, an oxymoron if ever there was one. OK it started out as a community response in the hip hop movement, and while confined to poor black kids preaching to the beat was a form of poetry. Like sampling was a form of dealing with a broken record player, that kept things moving.

I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the music poor people play. Pound that out-of-tune piano loud enough and violently enough and you have honky tonk, good time music to send the men upstairs to. Thrash has done wonders for some one chord wonders of guitar players. And finger picking styles originated I’m told among plantation pickers saddled with a guitar with some strings missing. There’s always got to be music, as music is a form of prayer.

But we apartment dwellers have problems of wealth, not poverty. True, we can’t pay our bills. But we have music playing devices able to crush the fine auditory nerves in our earways (and play a range of sounds the upper and lower limits we can’t hear over the age when we can afford to buy such devices). Like car owners who have vehicles designed to take us from A to B but which can achieve speeds fast enough to satisfy Stirling Moss. All very well if we don’t use the full throttle, but if we do and meet others doing the same it becomes hard to sort the sheep from the goats so to speak.

Even played at quarter capacity my music player makes my upstairs neighbour reach for the sledge hammer. And this is a man who owns a karaoke machine and a home theatre system, one of those devices that enable you (and your neighbours) to hear what an earthquake sounds like in a built up area. Why do we buy these devices? Probably for the same reason we buy deodorants and mouthwash. Not because we are afraid we smell like them, not because it really makes The Towering Inferno more exciting. Because we’re told to.

4 flute in mist spinoni

Imperceptibly, music melts into music technology, then into sales pitch. Drum machines, enhanced bass, surround sound, little white cords you can plug into your ears so you never have to stop listening, because the more you listen, the more you buy. Even though it can be said that never before has so much sounded so similar.

I have a friend who subscribes to a positive thinking philosophy. He believes that no matter what happens to you, you can gain something from the experience by reflecting on what you have learned from it. So neighbourhood sounds must have a positive side. I’ve never consciously heard a Madonna record, but the neighbours have compensated for the gaps in my education. When Madonna is mentioned in the conversation I usually remark on what a good businesswoman she appears to be. But my neighbours have ensured I need never go out and actually buy any of her CDs. Of course it would be even more positive if I could go to the CD shop or download music shop for what the neighbours are playing, but if you can only describe it as sounding like someone murdering a turkey while playing a tom tom you’ll end up with something completely different, as the Pythons would put it.

On the other hand, no neighbour has come to share in my passion for Greek pop music. Perhaps I don’t have any Greek neighbours. Perhaps they’re too young to have heated discussions as to whether the Rolling Stones are any good without Brian Jones or too old to have an opinion whether bossa should be filed with jazz in the music shops.

We’re like a multitude of soloists who could form an orchestra, but are each marching to a different drum machine. I’d like to agree with the classical playwright Terence. “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto” (“I am a human being, so I find the behaviour of others, no matter how strange, understandable”). In fact, aside from jigsaw puzzle details of their conversations and the mysterious pattern of footsteps overhead; aside from listening involuntarily to their music, from teepee and totum to opera to rap and Led Zeppelin, Duran Duran, Glykeria and yes, the Boomtown Rats, the neighbours are best kept away from. Too weird. They think so too.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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