Sounds of the City

The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948)

‘Life is inseparable from sound,’ Siegfried Kracauer writes. Concerning this recent article on Gothamist, I wonder what these ‘noisiest places’ noises are composed of?

A city can be largely defined by its sonorous properties, so an observation of the loudest places in New York is important to recognition of how we relate to the city. In The Skin of the Film Laura U. Marks writes that, when an environment produces a large expanse of sound, the ‘aural boundaries between body and world may feel indistinct’. In a noisy place, the citizen becomes closer to their surroundings because the visual connection becomes enhanced by the aural connection.

It is like Walter Benjamin says, the flâneur (for convenience, let’s just say the itinerant citygoer),  experiences ‘the simultaneous perception of everything that potentially is happening’ in a single space. And by listening, too, the city inhabitant can expand the simultaneity of their perception. Consider the West Side Highway, for example: facing Hudson River, I could not see a large proportion of the objects making sounds around me, as my back is to the road. I could only hear a few boats, perhaps planes, and maybe if I were lucky, something across the river. But mostly my experience of the city, aurally, would require full advantage of the city’s sounds. Or in the middle of Bryant Park, even if we cannot see any cars from where we are, we can definitely hear them: ‘our bodies are anchored by sound, and by the single, continuous experience that it offers’ (Robert Altman).

Bryant Park

‘Everyday reality arises out of a constant mingling of visual and aural perceptions. There is practically no silence.’ And that is why Kracauer is such an important figure in the study of the tangible experience of life. All zones of the city are constantly surrounded by sounds, and each of those sounds belongs intrinsically to the city. Above ground, below ground, there are always sonic reminders of our environment. Always constructions, buildings changing, moving, people walking, animals in parks, cars tooting, and subways rumbling. Close your eyes, and you will always know where you are.

42nd Street & Fifth Avenue


About cinemelo

I love to write about film and comment on culture. Hopefully providing insight and interesting thoughts for fellow cultural itinerants.
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