Howling Cats and Barking Dogs
“We were living at the time in a tiny ground floor apartment in which I was trying to write,” the novelist Ralph Ellison recalls in Living with Music, his autobiographical account of Harlem in the early 1950s. “I say ‘trying’ advisedly,” he continues. “To our right, separated by a thin wall, was a small restaurant with a juke box the size of the Roxy. To our left, a night-employed swing enthusiast who took his lullaby music so loud that every morning promptly at nine [Count] Basie’s brasses starting, blasting my typewriter off its stand. Our living room looked out across a small backyard to a rough store wall to an apartment building which, towering above, caught every passing thoroughfare sound and rifled it straight down to me. There were also howling cats and barking dogs, none capable of music worth living with, so we’ll pass them by” (Ellison, 2002: 4).
Ellison’s vivid sketch provides a useful starting point for thinking about our ideas of noise. His evocation of an everyday auditory terrain, with its uneven, fluid and varied sonic contents, opens onto a different sense of musical experience that is subterranean and dispersed, as focused on the uneventful noises in our lives as much as it is about ordinary encounters with music. Sometimes there is just too much going on, too many competing voices, to know what to say or where to begin. And at other times, the silence can be overwhelming.Riffs Vol 3 Isse 1 Editorial