Four years ago I made "the move" out of Manhattan to a quiet country town nestled deep in the Catskill mountains of upstate NY. The day my partner and I began unpacking, I couldn't help but notice the way sound sharply echoed off our new home's 1850 plaster walls. Not that there was much sound to go around: shuffling of feet, rustling of cardboard, the click and hum of a device. I swore at one point I heard the impact of dust hitting the floor. Boy, was it quiet in the country.
Outdoors, the lack of sound was even more difficult for my used-to-the-city ears not to hear. With no surfaces to bounce off, the atmosphere attained bottomless depths of quiet. I seemed to be able to hear the veins in my head throbbing against my skull. Had I been able to hear that before? Small sounds jumped out at me; the rustling of of a rabbit in leaves 50 yards away, the glean of the surface of a pond as it was rippled by a breeze, the echoey "pop" of a silo door on a faraway farm. Indoors, ordinary sounds of people seemed excruciating.
This sensitivity to country quiet continued to rattle me for weeks, then months. I felt like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, but instead I had small hinges propping open my eardrums as part of some futuristic experiment, being forced to listen to the bucolic sounds of nature until I went mad.
It's as if after 16 years in New York City, my ears slowly re-adjusted themselves to pick out important sounds through the constant urban clutter. Now, with that clutter removed, my hearing red-needles every bird chirp and twig crack. Had city life re-adjusted the volume input levels in my head? Had my ears become more sensitive? Less? What was going on? What?
New York city is inarguably a loud place, compared to the rest of the planet. "The roar," as I've heard some New Yorkers describe it, is the omnipresent, cacophonous sound of everything in the city happening at once, like a symphony warming up indefinitely.
If asked, most New Yorkers would claim they've stopped noticing it. But that observation assumes there's a contrast. New Yorkers can't stop noticing the noise; they are the noise. How many memories do I have that involve traffic wheels hissing along wet pavement in the rain while exiting Angelika Film Center after dark? How many moments can I recall that were framed by the collective bee-hive of human voices on the Orchard Street on a spring day? The jolting, high-pitched yodel of my apartment buzzer? The suddenly-quiet clamoring from inside a moving subway car as it leaves an underground tunnel for an above-ground track? City sounds can leave one person and assault another from mere feet away, or bounce off a mile's worth of surfaces before reaching the ear of yet another. If noise is New York City's voice then its language is echo. It relies on reverberation to form a collective, ambient impact. Over time, that impact embraces, and lulls... masking the details of a city that has too many details anyway.
What long-term physical effects does "becoming one" with such a noisy environment like New York have on one's hearing? One's psychological state? A tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it may not exist... but does a person falling down in a noisy city where no one stops to help them also not exist? (ask the family of Kitty Genovese)
Up here in the country, the city's warm blanket of distraction has been unexpectedly whisked out from under my eardrums. Upstate, "Shhh." feels like, "SHHH!!!" I've burst into panic attacks while alone in sun-drenched rooms in our country home because of tiny sounds. I remember one night when the hum of my laptop I turned on to light our way while exploring an old barn near our property seemed so loud someone on the lawn outside thought we'd found a hair dryer. I jumped when the clicking of my iPod caused a small flock of birds to fly out of a tree I was sitting under. Actually, the closest mimic in the country of New York City's "roar" that I've experienced is the hour of primal screaming that occurs in the woods outside our bedroom widow at dawn, when every insect and animal feels the need to shout its lungs out to announce the sun's arrival. I'm sure the forest primeval negotiating survival and procreation in the woods outside our house probably echoes Times Square's complex system of sound in some sort of cosmic, symbolically comparable way. I just wish nature would crank the volume a little. Anything to drown out all this non-noise of nature.
One afternoon I angrily shouted "Shut the door!" because my boyfriend was making too much noise in the bathroom down the hall. He'd been flossing his teeth. Upon examining my rage, I realized it wasn't the sound of the flossing that bothered me, but that the sound seemed like the only important thing in my vicinity.
Even if I could have heard him flossing his teeth back in our New York City apartment, I wouldn't have noticed. The audible city noise, even indoors, was a constant reminder that a thousand thrilling things were happening right outside our apartment door. Upstate, the country quiet reminded me that the flossing of teeth might be the only excitement for the night.
I've searched for substitutes. I tried recordings of city sound effects, white noise machines, fans... the results were nil. With the click of a button I could switch off in a second what wasn't even a 2D recreation of city noise to begin with. The fact that I was indoors on a beautiful spring day in the country, pushing little buttons on noise machines trying to teleport me back to New York City should have told me a lot. I didn't want relief from quiet, I wanted immersion inside the city's noise... to belong.
I want to live in a city that's sound invites itself through every locked door, waits perching outside every window sill, bounces off the street and reaches with long arcs up to high stories with extra dissonance, piercing every architectural pore, put on temporary hold by a million headphones, tech devices, volume buttons, sleep... until I pull back the curtain and plunge once again into the city's beating heart, a ritual enacted daily. I want the inability to turn it off. I want to know that the dimmest hallway at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art on a Monday night, or the quietest moment in an opera at the MET are warmly haunted by the suspense of inevitably smacking into New York's flush of hot sound once again once I exit those buildings. I want a poetry reading at a basement theater in Brooklyn that can't mask the vibrating urban bloodstream of the city's subways throbbing beside it. I want the greenest foliage cave in Central Park to be the eye of the city's hurricane of a trillion sounds a second awaiting all around it, like an embrace. The silence of upstate leaves me feeling like a sitting duck with A.D.D.
John Cage was living at 326 Monroe Street in downtown New York when he wrote his infamous conceptual music piece "4'33"," in 1952. Could he have thought of such a enlightened sound idea in the maddening silence of the country? I doubt he'd have been able to concentrate long enough.
I looked it up. A psychologist would classify what I'm experiencing in the country as "Sadatephobia," an irrational fear of silence. So, I finally described to my general physician up here the amount of stress and distraction I was feeling because of the overwhelming silence. He suggested noise canceling headphones. We both had a good laugh over that one. What noise? He then tried prescribing antidepressants, to help me deal with the stress I was feeling as a result of the inescapable peace and quiet of country life. Who says country folk don't have a sense of humor?
When I pressed the issue and told him I thought there might be something wrong with my hearing, he sighed and made a simple recommendation: "You're listening to the country through rose-colored eardrums. Move back to the city."
"Yeah, I really think that's where my heart is." I replied.
"No," he answered, "It's where your ears are."