I’m a big fan of cities. Whether I’m trying to settle in to sleep or just absorbing the ambience around me, I am an especially big fan of the sounds of cities. I’m not alone in this; Leonard Bernstein was inspired by the urban soundscape, Steve Reich composed New York Counterpoint and the even more blatant City Life, and the Konzerthausorchester Berlin paid homage to the sounds of Berlin with thirteen pieces that include such urban mundanities as the preparation of food and being snapped in a photo booth.
I live in an environment that could barely qualify as urban if you really squinted your ears at it. I do hear what I believe to be the world’s loudest street sweeper on a regular basis, but I’m more likely to hear the whistle of a factory or freight train than a bustling street performance. Working in DC, however, affords my ears a wonderful palette of sounds. There are a ton of police forces, all seemingly trying to outdo one another with their bizarre sirens. Bucket drummers abound, and for about a year I got to listen to the wonderful contrast provided by a stunning street harpist.
The District is also, by its inherently political nature, a hotbed for activism and protest1. Chanting forms its own unique rhythm, and the most confident and compelling protest emcees assert poetic lilts in their megaphone communiqués. And while I appreciate hearing the vocals of a revolution, there’s another magical sound that comes of this: that of distant megaphones.
Distant megaphones echo and blur. Distant megaphones are pronounced but inarticulate. Distant megaphones are at once familiar and alien. There’s almost an uncanniness about them, unquestionably human yet obscured and abstracted through the distortion of the machine, the reverberance of the city. The indecipherable lilt of the protest emcee now dances out of phase with itself.
This unwitting reduction of the voice of rebellion to little more than mechanized rhythmic moans is quite possibly my favorite of the city sounds. Unintelligible as it may be, there is a signal in the noise: We are here, and we need to be heard.