Teach Yourself to Listen

From "A Restorative Racket," by Charles McGrath, The New York Times, June 30, 2011:

You wouldn't want to listen to that racket all the time, but every now and then an ear-shattering, teeth-jarring blast, so loud you can’t hear yourself think, is sort of restorative. For a moment you have to shut down and reboot whatever was on your mind.

To hear the subtler music of the city, though, you have to teach yourself to listen. Next time you take the subway, turn off your iPod and try some unrecorded avant-garde stuff. I recommend the Times Square station, where incoming trains rumble under your feet, coming to rest with a squeak and a hiss of air brakes that could have been scored by John Cage. If you’re lucky, the guy with the musical saw will be on duty, making his eerie, keening arpeggios, or maybe the Ebony Hillbillies will be playing bluegrass tunes to the accompaniment of indecipherable loudspeaker announcements about delays on the No. 2 uptown. Your feet will start to twitch a little.

Or take a walk along 42nd Street, say, and down Fifth Avenue. After a while you’ll discover that the great ground note of New York — the basso continuo — is traffic noise, which is more tire whoosh than engine sound, punctuated every now and then by the clank of a car passing over a manhole cover. Above that, like a flatted organ chord, is the heavy breathing of idle bus engines, rising up a humming octave or so when the light changes, and the bus accelerates.

And now, if you wave an imaginary baton, here comes some honking, which — unless some bozo is really leaning on the horn — is much more cheerful-sounding than you think you remember — almost like bird song.

There is also foot noise: the clacking of high heels and, at this time of year, the occasional pop of a delayed flip-flop snapping up against the wearer’s heel. And a soft, hard-to-place chittering sound that if you pay close attention turns out to be hundreds of human conversations weaving in and out of one another in a great collective murmuration.

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