Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Sounds of the UK

In London, the frequent sound of police sirens. Oh yeah, this would be part of living in a big city. Soon I notice and recognize them even when tucked away inside a building, through several walls. Sometimes when walking down the street I hear them and stop and look, startled and somewhat enthralled by how they pierce my ears. The hearing people around me keep moving, their heads down. Hey, it's only sirens.

The screech of the metro (or "tube") rails, especially around corners. This sound makes me feel more nervous about being suspended on such narrow tracks, under the mass of earth that supports the roaring city above. I can hear the cars rattle. Click, click, click. It's the sound of my own motion, rushing headlong. At the stops, the sound of an oncoming train makes me squint down the tunnel's dark hole even before the headlight has rounded the turn into the station.

Walking beside the Thames river at morning - wait, what's that? It sounds like it's coming from above, sounds like a pulsing honking noise, unlike anything I've heard before. I stop, whirl around, and look. Nothing. But as soon as I've given up on the sound and continued on my way, a spectacular flock of geese, at least fifty of them, swoops right down on me and glides across the water, spreading their racket as they fly. Those birds making that noise? And I heard it from that far away? Wow!

On the same walk, an eight boat goes streaking past, the Oxford rowers pulling their oars in unison. And I hear them chanting from across the water, stroke by stroke. In. Out. I can't make out the words, but I stand and watch them, listening until the sound fades at several hundred yards. When other boats go by I can hear the cox's voice. Now I see what people mean when they say sound carries over water.

At dinner, someone proposes a toast. He clinks the wine glass right beside me and it is ringing, ringing, surprisingly bold and clear. All around the hall, people fall silent and turn to look. It's only a glass, and I would once have wondered how it could penetrate so many layers of conversation. But now it's clear to me why they're lookng; the sound literally fills the corners of the room.

In an old wood-paneled chapel, someone is upstairs playing the organ. The pipes are huge, stretching up to the vaulted Gothic-style ceiling, and the sound is slightly unearthly. Ringing, resonant, a bit disembodied. (In Paris, in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, my sister said the organ sounded like an exorcist.) Again, the sound fills the room. I played the piano many times over the summer, but this instrument sounds like so much more.

The constant bells that fill the city of Oxford, especially when within hearing range of the many churches and cathedrals. Some deeper and clanging, others small and tinkling. But always bells, always tracking the time of the day. On that note, I am startled to hear the huge hands on the clocks ticking dozens of feet above, as I stand gazing up from the cobblestone street. It strikes me that I am hearing the rhythm of life going by.

And the tang of British accents, of course. More on that another time.

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