I'm hearing a taxi come rumbling up Jane Street, and it's going Ka-Thunk and Ka-Thunk and Ka-Thunk over a cobblestone stretch of the West Village. Now comes a pair of pedestrians, walking past me and chatting in a language I do not know, and when their shoes hit the pavement, one pair goes Clunk Clunk Clunk, and the other goes Swish Swish Swish. Here comes another taxi, going Ka-Thunk and Ka-Thunk and Ka-Thunk, and here comes a helicopter whirling overhead, blades going BOPBOPBOPBOPBOP, faster in tempo than the taxi and at a higher pitch.
As I'm listening to these sounds and many others - car engines, slamming doors, honk honks, along a block of Jane Street in the West Village last Saturday afternoon, I'm sitting on the top of the steps leading down to an unoccupied basement apartment. I'm recording the sounds on GarageBand on my MacBook, and I can watch the visual images of the sounds as they record. While taxis look like a blurry Rorschach blob, human steps render as straight vertical lines, simple as the lines signifying measures on a music page.
When music writer Kurt Gottschalk emailed a few weeks ago, asking if I'd be interested in participating in a rare performance of John Cage's 49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs For Performer(s) or Listener(s) or Record Maker(s), 1977, I jumped at the chance. As a longtime fan of experimental music genius John Cage, I looked forward to Saturday's event. Kurt let us pick out our own spot in the five boroughs and decide what role we'd like to play. I decided on Jane Street and that I would be a record-maker.
The 40-minute performance started at 3 p.m. so I got there a few minutes early to seek out a good place along the block. Finding a place at street level where I didn't think I would be disturbed, I started the recording at exactly at 3 p.m. and then listened. About ten minutes in, the sounds that I described at the outset, especially the repeating rhythmic sounds of taxis rolling across a cobblestone street going Ka-Thunk, took me into a higher state of consciousness. The sounds got louder, more subtle, varied, with differing rhythms and tempos, and it was marvelous to hear the sounds of everyday life in such a concentrated way.
Kurt invited us to meet at the Chester A. Arthur statue at Madison Square Park after the performance to share our stories, and I had fun hearing about the experiences of others in several far-flung sites in the city. He's documenting the project to share with more people, so please find the link following this post to find out more.
A bit of mystery unfolded later in the day as I sat down and listened to my recording. Yes, there's the Ka-Thunks and the Swish Swishes and Clop Clop Clops, but where did the high-pitched CHIRP CHIRP CHIRPs come from? I hear birds chirping and calling now throughout the recording, as if they were recorded on a different track I couldn't previously hear. Why didn't I hear the birds then, from 3 to 3:40 p.m. on this recent Saturday on Jane Street? And why am I hearing them just now?
Please visit Kurt Gottschalk's Spearmint Music blog to read more about it.
Also, see on this website a You Tube recording of John Cage's performance of Water Walk on I've Got A Secret.
UPDATE: New York Times article in The City section, May 4, 2008. Careful readers will note that the section about the self-described flâneuse (who could that be?) omits the facts that she made a RECORDING in addition to just listening. I'm sure the Times regrets the error.