Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ordinary Unhearing

Here's a very good essay by political scientist Henry Farrell on China Miéville's The City & The City. Without giving away the plot, while Miéville is known as writer of fantastic or weird (his preferred term) fiction, Farrell's essay addresses the fact that the most distinctive characteristic of the setting of The City & The City is one which is not fantastic but actually quite real, indeed completely ordinary, the social construction of our environment, what we learn to see and not to see. (One of the great trajectories for the reader involves the gradual realization that the book is not, as a genre, fantasy, but rather more properly police procedural. ) My own personal revelation about seeing and not seeing came first during one of those teenage summer jobs, bussing tables and washing dishes in a restaurant for minimum wage when I discovered, after a week or two, that it had become possible — if not necessary, to both coordinate our ensemble work and to preserve some sanity — to look across a crowded dining room and only see the other employees.

There is definitely an auditory equivalent to unseeing. Obviously, anytime we want to pay attention to a particular subset of the sounds within an acoustically crowded or noisy environment, we try to filter out what we don't want to hear. But there is a more subtle filtering, acquired over long exposure, which is associated with hearing music. I can still recall the shock I experienced when I first listened seriously to live orchestral music (the summer before my 14th birthday, sitting in the front corner of the left balcony in Little Bridges Hall of Music at Pomona College during the last Claremont Music Festival.) I was shocked because I had not yet learned to unhear the thick band of noises and scratches which comes with every bowed string instrument, nor had I learned to unhear key clicking and spit valves, and rustling sheet music and squeeky chairs or crackling parquet floors. And those coughs, those coughs. Sometimes so much distraction, so little music.* Gradually, after years of concert-going, I have learned to unhear much of that sound which we define as not music. I still have problems with the crackling parquet and stage lighting in some of the halls here (the Sendesaal at Hessischer Rundfunk, otherwise acoustically glorious, is my particular bete noire for these particular noises) and I seem to be completely unable to unhear key-clicking or mouthpiece squawks on the saxophone. I love the idea of the saxophone, and have heard some extraordinary musicians wrestle with it, but I just can't hear it as completely musical yet. But, rest assured, I'm working on it and maybe one day will be able to hear much less of the saxophone.


* The classic art history definition of minimalism as "the elimination of distraction" usefully illustrates the degree to which the minimal impulse in the radical music tradition was an impulse with tremendous sensitivity towards the material conditions of music and the environment in which it is made.


Lisa Hirsch said...

One of your recent postings made me wonder if you'd read The City & The City, and here's the answer.

Daniel Wolf said...


I'm a Miéville completist; he's a terrific writer. I think I've written something or another about TC&TC here before. I got hooked on the New Crobuzn novels and last year's Kraken was great fun (and over-the-top revenge on the whole Dan Brown lost secrets & ancient conspiracy genre), I'm looking forward to the upcoming Embassytown, and hell, I even read Miéville's blog...

Lisa Hirsch said...

I need to become a Mieville completist! I would swear I bought a copy of Perdido Street Station years ago, but I couldn't find it when I searched for it a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps Kraken will be up after I finish one or two of the five or six books I'm reading just now.

Lisa Hirsch said...

So....I finished Kraken this afternoon, and my god! So to speak. Around page 300, I looked at how much book was still left and started wondering how he could possibly sustain the plot. Somehow, obviously, he does. Brilliantly done.

I hope they sell copies at the Darwin Centre.