Sounds & Silence: A Playlist For The Sonic City
From Brian Eno to Burial, in a companion piece to his recent White Noise essay on the history of urban silence, Darran Anderson selects and talks us through 15 pieces of music from cities of the past, present and future.
WORDS - Darran Anderson
Max Richter – ‘The Blue Notebooks’
"Everyone carries a room about inside them. This fact can be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one's ears and listens, say at night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall." – Franz Kafka (read by Tilda Swinton).
David Axelrod – ‘Urizen’
Song of Innocence is a fine example of the city as a melting pot; there’s jazz, classical, prog, funk, psychedelia and soul in there, and it’s been heavily sampled since in hip-hop. There have been quite a few attempts to translate William Blake’s poetry and art into music and they’re usually redundant through tastefulness. This is different. It’s grounded and at the same time visionary, which is fitting for a Soho genius who somehow turned everyday London into something otherworldly.
Talking Heads – ‘Crosseyed & Painless’
There’s a compelling jittery anxiety all through David Byrne’s lyrics, and it often finds its focus in architecture. You think of a song like ‘Cities’ (“Think of London, a small city / It's dark, dark in the daytime”) or even ‘Once in a Lifetime’ (“And you may tell yourself / This is not my beautiful house!”). He looks at our aspirations and finds, with grim but almost slapstick horror, something terribly wrong with them. With ‘Crosseyed & Painless’, it sounds like rush-hour is flowing through the entire song, like the hyper-fast footage of pedestrian crossings and traffic lights and intersections you see sometimes in documentaries. Byrne’s book How Music Works is excellent in terms of showing how space has influenced the evolution of music. Here though you get something a lot more manic. It’s not the American dream or the American nightmare, or heaven or hell, he keeps delving into but a kind of somnambulist American limbo. He reminds me of David Lynch in that regard; everything is recognisable but distinctly off.
Burial – ‘Young Death’
I have to admit that Untrue left me cold and I didn’t get into Burial until his recent EPs. I always found his music interesting, which is probably a bad sign. The problem is not at all with Burial but all the writing that has built up around him. There’s only so much hauntological discourses that can pile up on someone’s work before it’s smothered. His new music isn’t a complete departure (you can hear echoes in earlier tracks like ‘Ghost Hardware’) but it really captures the sense of the nocturnal city as a kind of meteorology. Sounds layer and overlap, bleed into one another and come from different directions and sources. It sounds like chaos but it is beautifully put together and incredibly atmospheric. You get the sense of just hearing a fraction of it, as if it’s been playing long before you listened and will continue to play and change long after.
Brian Eno and David Byrne (and Dunya Yusin) – ‘Regiment’
When we think of cities, we tend to think in archetypes. It might be London, Paris, New York, Tokyo, increasingly China but a series of iconic clichés we’ve had since we were children are likely to bounce around in our heads. We know that there are a multitude of incarnations of cities out there; we probably live in one strange variation. They are innately plural. All sorts of questions arise around My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. There’s an endless debate about cultural appropriation, orientalism, found sounds and sampling with this album (and many others). It’s named after a novel by the Nigerian author Amos Tutuola. The song samples the Lebanese singer Dunya Yusin. Here we have the dialectic aspect to cities; they absorb, they steal, they synthesise. Disparate inputs are bounced off each other or welded together. Any city that is culturally alive is a factory of mutations. That’s the glory of metropolitan culture, in spite of the cost.
Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters – ‘A Quiet Place’
An overlooked soul/doo-wop classic. It inspired John Holt and the Paragons’ ‘I’ve Got to Get Away’ and, via Horace Andy, Massive Attack’s ‘Man Next Door’. Rarely has complaining about noise sounded so glorious.
The Cure – ‘10:15 Saturday Night’
“The sound of loneliness turned up to ten” as Jarvis Cocker put it. The Cure’s talent for soundscapes is probably passed over, whether it’s the haunting ‘A Forest’ or the shimmering palatial ‘Plainsong’. This song is far more domestic, atomised, the soundtrack to anyone who has been skint in a godforsaken bedsit, too locked away for your own good and with the solitude much too amplified.
Édith Piaf– ‘Je n'en connais pas la fin’
There can be a joyous or melancholic nostalgic quality to sound, conjuring up childhood memories, lost loves or now distant places.
Vangelis – ‘Memories of Green’
Blade Runner’s soundtrack is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, to the extent I’m not sure people think about it that much, which is always the danger with putting things on pedestals. For all the sense of awe and colossal space Vangelis manages to evoke, the song that stays with me is the most understated. It’s almost like a Chopin noctune, with the sound of aerial traffic going by in the near-distance. The exterior floats into the interior world; Deckard’s room in a gargantuan techno-Byzantine cityscape.
Ros Sereysothea – ‘Bong Rau Roub Khnyom’
In the 1960s and early ‘70s, Phnom Penh had a vibrant music scene, one of the finest of any city at the time, with bands melding Nuggets-style garage psych-rock, Spector-esque girl-group pop and traditional Khmer melodies. The greatest work of the star of the scene Ros Sereysothea were her ballads, which had and still retain an incredible sense of yearning. As the American bombing campaign destabilised the country and the Khmer Rouge rose in the provinces, the population of the capital city grew to three million people. When the city fell, the Khmer Rouge immediately emptied the entire metropolis under the pretext it was due to be bombed. They regarded everything urban as anathema to their Year Zero plan. Former citizens were sent to toil in the countryside, where at least 1.5 million people were murdered or worked to death. Ros Sereysothea was among them. A city of three million people fell into an eerie quiet for the next four years.
Julianna Barwick – ‘Envelop’
Ambient music is very often situated outside cities, either in rural landscapes like Eno’s On Land or Susumu Yokota’s The Boy and the Tree, or the oceanic or cosmic settings suggested by Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra. Julianna Barwick’s The Magic Place has a similar pastoral setting but the fact it’s a choral work highlights a feature we find or try to find in cities; namely sanctuaries of peace. Parks, cathedrals, courtyards, even rooftops where you escape the tumult or are immersed in cavernous space.
Aphex Twin – ‘#3’
This is a continuation of this feeling of sanctuary. One of the incentives of accessing the rooftop level of cities, that we often forget exists, is to find a degree of serenity, away from prying eyes and intrusive voices. The sounds rise from the street level but they sound distant, even uncanny, and it seems like you are in an entirely different world.
Chris Watson – ‘El Divisadero’
The key then seems to be to modify the way we listen. Watson, formerly of Cabaret Voltaire, is a master of field recording. The inspiration seems to come, as John Cage advised, from listening closely. To decipher rhythms in what first seemed to be just noise. Patterns in the mechanical. Railways alone gave rise to the boom-chicka-boom style of Johnny Cash and the propulsive motorik of Neu! It can be an inspiration as well as a nuisance.
Humans have adapted to the noise we create. One way is the so-called ‘cocktail party effect’. We can lie at night and strip away, layer by layer as this song suggests, the sounds of rain, traffic, people and the drone of the city itself.
Yo La Tengo – ‘Night Falls on Hoboken’
Night falls and transforms cities and their edgelands. The mechanical drones mix with natural sounds; some identifiable and some mysterious. Silence is a rare thing. There is always a soundtrack.
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