by James Boyk
Copyright © 1995, 2001 James Boyk. All rights reserved.
The Los Angeles Times Magazine asked for a personal essay about "sound, music, noise and our culture." The result was so personal that they felt they couldn't publish it.
In Love with Sound
by James Boyk
Copyright © 1995, 2001 James Boyk. All rights reserved.
In love with sound, the way it reaches out, the bell on grandfather's vegetable truck finding me whether I was up the backyard apple tree, indoors at the piano, or playing ball two houses down.
In love with sound's command of memory and feeling. Recalling the clang and lingering hum of cathedral bells two blocks away. The winter sound of milkman's horse on bare or snowy street. Mourning doves cooing outside my window, gentle as clarinets. And inside my head, loud but somehow distant, the seashell roar of childhood nightmares.
From when I was two or three, my parents' voices: My father's as he taught me to tell left hand from right, and his amused tone when I turned myself around and asked if now they were switched. My mother's voice drifting on the summer breeze, almost part of the breeze. No sound more full of meaning than a voice, no sound more subtle. Subtle sound allows subtle sense.
In love with people's voices discussing, arguing, hesitating over secrets, their tone revealing what they don't yet acknowledge. Loving the sound of children at recess like a flock of birds, or babies babbling, their inflections in place long before their words: statement and query, dialog and soliloquy all ready to go.
In love with our sensitivity to speech, the Los Angeles fellow speaking with an old friend, hanging up and saying to his wife, "Rosie's got a serious new boyfriend," Rosie having said no such thing nor anything except hello I can't speak with you now goodbye, yet six months later marrying her new boyfriend.
In love with song, the heightened sister of speech, and with all music, our creation for exploring our own sense of hearing. Loving the voice of the piano always, from before I can remember. In love with the act of playing, a dance providing its own accompaniment. Loving to hear the piano tuned, like watching a beautiful woman get dressed.
In love with people's love of music, my high-school friends thirsting for it so much they asked me to whistle Beethoven for them (no stereo in every home then), other classmates singing close harmony in the halls between classes, the janitor and the nurse in Las Vegas stopping in the empty Convention Center hallway to hear the waltz-like Mozart I played, he turning to her at the end and bowing and saying, "May I have this dance?"
In love with soft sounds, hearing falling snow hit the ground in the quilted silence of New England winter; hearing, in a California mountain valley, softer and softer sounds the longer I stayed, after three days hearing the wind die away to no sound at all. Loving the peace that utter silence brings.
In love with loud sounds, locomotives, crash cymbals sounding like the Apocalypse, or the "Oxcart" from "Pictures at an Exhibition," one part of it calling for "all your strength," the overloaded piano flooding listeners with a torrent wordless and incapable of being put into words, the music a portrait of the oxcart slogging through the mud, approaching, passing, disappearing in the distance, but really a portrait of a life, the life of the peasant driver, the sound not pretty because the life isn't pretty. The cart disappearing 'round a bend, the music falling to soft low notes. They vanish. Utter silence. Then high notes drop like tears into a pond, pity rippling outward from them, evoking tears in the listener.
In love with live music, the trumpeter playing his heart out from a Manhattan window at two A.M., the saxophone in a West L.A. bus stand, Albert Collins electrifying an audience with a single bent note of electric guitar; Thelonius Monk at the piano two feet from me, utterly engaging me in his thoughts; my students hearing an orchestra from onstage, French horns declaiming in the voice of God, the students' jaws dropping at the sheer power; and later the students getting goosebumps over the beauty of soft strings; neither power nor beauty, sound nor feeling ever fully captured in recordings, nor capable of being captured.
In love with the sound of rooms small and large, singing in the bathroom, speaking in the kitchen, a 'cello in the living room, and listening in a great concert hall to the sound of voices and instruments hanging, carrying, dying away, the bloom of reverberation enhancing the sound, the film crew all over the hall freezing in their tracks at the sound of A440 from the Cleveland Orchestra.
In love with outdoor sounds, bird and cricket, water and wind, most being quiet, Nature reserving her loudest the crack of thunder, the roar of a waterfall for certain times or certain places; our original world of sound, the world our ears evolved to hear, little different in grandfather's time from in his grandfather's: rich, beautiful, interesting, informative, occasionally immensely loud; but with no cars, trucks or motorcycles; no TV, no radio, no stereos, no boomboxes, no 30-inch woofers proselytizing from a van a block away and three lanes over; no UCLA rock concerts audible inside my living room two miles away; no humming of refrigerators or fans, dishwashers, dryers, or toaster-ovens. Just the sounds of animals, people and Nature; and for music, no electronics but just voices and instruments playing, our ears opening to the sound in such a world as flowers to rain, the sound connecting us, not separating us, enhancing our society, not making a rude gesture to it.
Loving the silence L.L. Bean gives you on hold, letting you think your own thoughts, remembering how in my childhood, music wasn't everywhere, and where it was, it was listened to, music not attended to not really being music at all. Wondering whether all the coarse sound will eventually make our exquisite hearing a disadvantage to us, trying to imagine a teenager saying, "Back later, Mom and Dad, going to the concert, they've a new laser show and I might come back blind"; finding it impossible to imagine, yet knowing that's what some concerts do to our hearing. Thinking how decadent is an art that damages the very sense it speaks to, and how our present seems so distant from grandfather's grandfather's time; yet noticing how close to our past we still are, how evolution still shows in our turning our heads to track sounds, or cocking our heads at unexpected ones, in our having eyelids but not earlids, our ears protecting us sleeping and waking.
In love with the sound of stories about us or Nature, Feynman lecturing on physics all passionate lucidity, a parent's voice blurring in sleepiness reading "Goodnight, Moon" to a child, Mozart's "Don Giovanni," as subtle as human feelings, still teaching us though heard a dozen or a hundred times.
Loving music with no narrative, Debussy's "Reflections in the Water" portraying pure Nature with no humans present, no society, no stories, no striving.
In love with sound that stops the inner dialog, the getting and spending of the mind, the what-if and what-if, so even in its silences you hear, feel and think only its rhythms and rhetoric, this power belonging to actors and comedians, to Burns & Allen as well as to Monk and Mozart, and even to silence heard in the right way.
Loving how sound itself is part of the meaning, the sensuous bridge to the meaning, to our innermost feelings, to others' feelings.
In love with hearing.
In love with past sounds, voices and music, indoors and out, loud and soft, heard and imagined.
In love with sounds present and future, the voice of my son, the voices as yet unheard of his children, loving them and wanting to leave them a legacy of my love.