Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Noise and Sound

As I was trying to sleep last night, a difficult proposition since I am jet-lagged, sounds tempted my ears. Car engines revved to make it from a dead stop through the short block before the next light changed. Horns blared warning, irritation, intention, disgust. Police whistled in a burr, a rising sound, and many others that communicate meaning though I do not know it. I could hear people laughing, arguing, talking.

Tropical Latin music pulsed through the window, though not as loudly as I might have expected. On the main plaza, a block away, a temporary stage and sound system were put up. Puebla is having a festival and has stages all over. I would have thought I would hear more. But the buildings seem to block most of the music.
Still, part of me wanted to go out and move my hips in rhythm with everyone else. But I needed to sleep. It seems like I have hardly slept at all since I left Berlin Saturday morning. Sometimes jet-lag visits like a hesitant, shy guest, who leaves as soon as she or he politely can. Other times jet-lag is a self possessed beast that that takes over and ties you in knots. It is growing claws, and getting very hairy right now. And the sound seems to give it growth hormones.
A couple of days before I left Berlin, Susan was telling me how noisy Berlin can be. She said a friend was visiting from a rural area elsewhere in Germany. Though she loved sightseeing and jumping in to the city’s life, still it seemed to fill her with a nervous energy that disturbed her. She wanted to leave, to hear silence and let it go deep inside to calm her down.
Susan said she could understand her friend. She enjoys her life in Berlin but sometimes the city just gets to her with its constant noise and she has to leave to find a quieter, calmer place.
My experience in Berlin, oddly enough, is not that of a noisy city. Yes there is noise. There are cars. People sometimes argue. The pipes groan when someone turns on the water or flushes the toilet floors above. Cats moan at night in the garden that soaks in the middle of the block, walled by the housing-blocks facing the street on all sides and a few that go through.
Some nights I have lain there wondering if I could tell what breed the cats were from their groaning. Nope. Didn’t work. I just know they weren’t Siamese and I was grateful.
The train has a clunky rush as it rises from the earth towards the Eberswalder Str. station. Other trains that go down Danzinger street clink a bell when they approach passenger.
Bike riders have a little bell they ring as they come up on people or other bikes. It is amazing how angry that thing can sound if, on accident, you step into the way of a bike.
Berlin has noise, but I do not think of it as noisy.
I live two blocks from Berlin’s famous Prater Beer Garden. (Yes I know this is more a Bavarian than a Berlin custom) but I have yet to hear its noise in the night. A block closer is the Kesselhaus, a performance space for touring bands. Nope, haven’t even heard it unless I was walking down the sidewalk by its side.
Puebla, a city of about the same size as Berlin, I am told and which is famous for its Volkswagen Plant, one of the pillars of its economy, is much noisier than Berlin.
I just heard a siren, a short burst that quickly sank into silence. In Berlin I do hear sirens, a warble of alternating repeating notes. But, where do you not here sirens!
No. Berlin does not strike me as noisy. Cuzco, Peru, can be horribly noisy, with its cherry bombs at six thirty or so every morning, the sound of other people’s music, and the background of horns, whistles, church bells and people’s lives that seem to fill very Latin American city.
One time the only room I could get in Cusco was across from Kamikazi, the grungy dive of a dance club that packs the tourists and locals in. Just before the cherry bombs the harsh pounding of the bass and the shrillness of more treble sounds stopped, a dead stop. But by then it was too late to sleep. And I tried to block it out. Usually I can, but that night it was too much and I wasn’t able. I should have just gone dancing.
Sound does distinguish places. I do not know what Puebla’s sounds are that specifically mark it as Puebla. I know the organ in the Cathedral is well tuned, one of a horde of churches that push domes and spires into the sky in this very Catholic City of the Angels. This morning I poked my head in, on the way to the conference, and heard part of mass. The organ was harmonious and beautiful.
It was not the Bach or the Mendelsohn I had heard in the Catholic Cathedral in Berlin, where some of the doors which regulate some of the pipes were clunky. That clunking, as the organist would vary the volume of sound on those pipes by pushing on a pedal in front of his legs cutting into the cabinet’s base, became a signature of that piece, with that registration, played in that Cathedral.
Some of the combinations of pipes were not completely in tune with each other, in Berlin. If I remember right some, of the higher flutes were simply flat when compared with the trumpets or the great organ.
But the pipe organ is so immense and so complex an instrument it is actually amazing when everything is in tune, or when most is in tune, like what I heard this morning in Puebla. Unless you hang out with organists, as I used to, you have no idea of the amount of work that goes into constant upkeep, so that the pipes are in tune and sound properly.
I wondered who in the Cathedral in berlin had forgotten to fix those doors. I could imagine the organist’s angry conversation with the maintenance technician after the concert when he let go of his frustration at being in the middle of the piece on which he had carefully prepared the registration so that the flutes would sound delicately at the right movement and respond to his efforts to do a crescendo and then a diminuendo. It did do that, but the most noticeable sound was clunking as the doors opened to let more sound out and then closed. I could also imagine his frustration at the tuning.
The organist worked in a Church in Potsdam so I even wondered how much he a rehearsed beforehand in Berlin’s Catholic Cathedral.
Places have distinctive sounds. Highland Bolivia has lots of brass bands playing indigenous music, along with the rough tarkha or the ready panpipe in their season. You often hear them day and night, sometimes faintly and sometimes strongly, depending on how far away the rehearsals or festivities are.
In Berlin, I would get off my train at the Potsdamerplatz station to climb to the outside and hear the sounds of a well played accordion. Sometimes he would play a polka. Yep and it was schmaltzy. But other times he would play one of the famous Bach prelude and fugues. Everyday I was amazed at his technical skill and his chops. He was good.
A violinist got on the train one day to play a bit of a concerto and then ask for tips. He had amazing control over his strings and bow and could wrestle a sweet virtuosic sound from his instrument.
Berlin is a city of musical skill. I hear it everyday on the street. Virtuosos play there. I wonder what it is like in symphony hall, if they are this good on the street.
Everyday I see people lumbering beneath cello cases strapped on their backs, or carrying violins, violas, or wind instruments in cases by their sides. It surprises me how many classical musicians I see walking up and down the street, coming and going to practice, to lessons, to rehearsals, and sometimes in concert black to perform.
Here in Puebla, I just saw the most beautiful sunset in peach and orange and blue behind a white city with blue and red tiles and a Spanish Catholic spire, and at the end of the street.
I am sitting in a coffee house on the main square, the zócalo, The cafe is quickly filling with people and I will soon have to leave. It is almost seven pm. Work is finished and people throng the streets. The cafe radiates conversation.
In Berlin the cafes fill with people and are noisy. But the interaction styles are different, as are the ways people use language, so the sounds are different, though I do not know if I could explain it right now.
Across the street, on the edge of the zócalo, a big screen announces that Los Tigres del Norte, the great and very famous group from San Jose, California, will be playing here in the plaza. But tonight a hip hop group from Puerto Rico will be the band. The plaza is filling with people and the police are starting to close off streets, just as rush hour is at it hight. You can imagine the spate of angry horns.
Berlin to me is not noisy. After joking with Susan who had also lived in Latin America, about how noisy Latin cities can be, whether here in America or in Europe, and she still insisted Berlin was too noisy, I wondered if maybe I did not notice it because I am really only visiting Berlin for an extended period and I have lived in cities with much higher decibel levels and a different noise profile.
I am sure things would be very different if I were the lady in the downstairs apartment who seems troubled by the slight sounds I make as I move in the room or turn over on the bed. They are not much as such things go. I try hard to be quiet. But if she is sensitive, I can understand how they would bother her.
I did finally go to sleep for four or five hours of deep slumber. With a start I awoke way too early. The beast of cross-continental travel was still visiting. And, I will almost get used to the changed time regime here in Mexico before it will be time on Saturday to board a plane and fly across the Atlantic again. The beast and I will get well acquainted again in Berlin, unless I can somehow turn him into a little, furry bunny.

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