[Image: Manhattan, as photographed by Dan Hill].
Back in April, BLDGBLOG interviewed Walter Murch. Murch has been a film editor and sound designer for nearly four decades; he has won three Oscars and two BAFTA Awards in the process (among many other accolades); and he is the subject of an excellent, often riveting, book-length collection of interviews, called The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, conducted and assembled by novelist Michael Ondaatje.
You can read the BLDGBLOG interview with Murch here – where you’ll notice that I ask Walter, toward the end of our discussion, about sounds and the city: what makes cities sound the way they do?
Can these acoustic properties be artistically re-shaped, or somehow musically used?
In response, Murch cites a short essay written by filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni in which Antonioni describes what it feels like to listen to Manhattan – as one would listen to a distant symphony, or to the sounds of a unfamiliar instrument.
That essay, with a new introduction by Walter Murch, is now reprinted here, in full, on BLDGBLOG.
by Walter Murch
Manhattan: remorseless grid of right-angle streets rescued by a jumble-sale of architectural styles thrown together by history and human will-power. Paris (or Prague, or perhaps any other European city): ancient broken crockery of random-angled streets repaired by architecture of great stylistic and cultural coherence.
Confronted with the classically American paradox of Manhattan’s simultaneous rigidity and exuberance, the refined European sensibility discovers that…
…beauty in the European sense has a premeditated quality. There was always an aesthetic intention and a long-range plan. That’s what enabled Western man to spend decades building a Gothic cathedral or a Renaissance piazza. The beauty of New York rests on a completely different base. It’s unintentional. It arose independent of human design, like a stalagmitic cavern. Forms which are in themselves quite ugly turn up fortuitously, without design, in such incredible surroundings that they sparkle with a sudden wondrous poetry.
—Franz, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Growing up on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, I never questioned the stalagmites in which we lived: our gang would roam across the rooftops, scrambling up and down the two or three stories difference in height between adjacent apartment buildings, all erected in the 1890s in different vernaculars of the Italianate Palazzo style. The cornices that capped taller buildings would jut perplexedly into thin air, and the cornices of shorter ones would nuzzle up awkwardly against the window of someone’s bathroom.
It was only years later when I was living in the Prati district – Rome’s version of Manhattan’s Upper West Side – that I saw cornices as they were intended: a continuous horizontal line atop several buildings, gathering them together in a single conceptual frame. When I returned to my old neighborhood in Manhattan, it now looked wondrously stalagmitic.
Sometime after the success of his film Blow-Up (1966), the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni visited Manhattan, thinking of setting his next project in New York. Confused and overwhelmed by the city’s visual foreignness, he decided to listen rather than to look: to eavesdrop on the city’s mutterings as it emerged into consciousness from the previous night’s sleep. Sitting in his room on the 34th floor of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, Antonioni kept a journal of everything he heard from six to nine in the morning… Perhaps some inadvertent sound might provide the key to unlock the mysteries of this foreign world.
[Image: Looking down at the roof of Manhattan’s Sherry-Netherland Hotel, via New York Architecture Images].
His New York film was never made, but the pages of Antonioni’s bedside vigil survive, and were published at a conference on film sound that I attended in Copenhagen in 1980. The organizers of that conference – composer Hans-Erik Philip and filmmaker Vibeke Gad – have generously allowed BLDGBLOG to reprint Antonioni’s poetic soundscape of a long-vanished Manhattan, filtered through the Italian sensibility of his acutely sensitive cinematic ear.
The soundtrack for a film set in New York – circa 1970
by Michelangelo Antonioni
There is a constant murmur, hollow and deep: the traffic. And another sound, intermittent: the wind. It comes in gusts, and in the pauses I can hear it sighing, far away, against other skyscrapers. Here, on the thirty-fourth floor, I can feel the vibration of every gust. It gives me a strange feeling as if, for a few moments, my brain freezes. A faint, short-lived siren comes and goes. The noise of two car-horns. A rumble that approaches but is impatiently eclipsed by a sudden buffet of the wind. A tram car.
It is six o’clock in the morning. Another rumble blends with the first, then drowns it. A faint explosion, far, far away. The wind returns, rising from nothing, spreading, it seems to stretch in the still air, then dies. The hint of a tram, faint, remote. It is not a tram, after all, but another kind of sound I cannot recognize. A truck. A second one, accelerating. Two or three passing cars. The roads in Central Park twist and turn. A line of cars. Their exhausts a kind of organ playing a masterpiece. A moment of absolute silence, eerie. A huge truck passes. It seems so close that I feel I am on the second floor. But that sound, too, quickly fades. A squeal. A ship’s siren, prolonged and melancholy. The wind has dropped. The siren again. The murmur of traffic beneath it. A bell, off key. From a country church. But perhaps it is the clang of iron and not a bell. It comes again. And still once more. A car engine races, furiously, with a sudden spurt of the accelerator. In a momentary hush, the siren again, far away. The metallic echo rises. A terribly noisy truck seems just outside the window. But it is an aircraft. All the sounds increase: car-horns, the siren, trucks; and then they recede, gradually. But no, another rumble, another siren. Irritating, persistent, right across the horizon.
Quarter past six: the same series of sound in waves, each in turn, clearly defined. Brief intervals. A murmur continues. And, always, the siren. An abrupt car-horn, very far away. Another muffled beneath it. Somewhere on a distant street, a car, very fast, perhaps European. The wind swirls against the wall outside. A single gust., immediately swallowed by a raucous truck and then a newer vehicle, steadier. The throb of the two different motors driving off, merging into one. But it is not a truck, it’s an aircraft. No. Not an aircraft. A noise that rises and becomes deafening, only to fade unidentified. All that remains, obsessive, is the siren. And someone whistling (how can that be possible?) instantly drowned by an angry car-horn. Sounds of metal sheets thrown together. Clear and sharp, a winch. The sound of cogs. But it cannot be a winch, and this constant whine is not the siren. More sheets, more metallic. Then a hollow boom, barely audible, but lingering in the air. A faint hum suddenly stops. A car passes, another, then a third, fading, fading, fading. They mingle with other cars, other sounds. An aircraft seems to take off from right beside the building. And as suddenly as it appeared, it is gone. The very beautiful roar of a car, completely appropriate for this moment. It speeds past and dies, distinct, satisfying. Two tones shimmer. A gust of wind.
[Image: A view of Central Park, via Wikipedia].
Half past six: more gusts. A furious flurry of wind between the skyscrapers slides away and buffets across the park. Only a car-horn interrupts, like a slap in the face. The wind drops. A peal of bells in the stillness. And always, the siren. A tone higher now. It wasn’t bells. It is my Italian ear that hears it that way. The sheets of metal. A short clatter, like gunfire. A train passes, perhaps the elevated. A peal, prolonged, and then the siren, abrupt. Gone. The sounds change in a moment, they arise and die again immediately. The hum reasserts itself, advancing like a camouflaged army, approaches, closes in, on the alert, ready to take over completely. It is very close. One can distinguish the wind, the cars, the aircraft, a clash of iron, and the siren. They advance, determined, against this skyscraper hotel. In the forefront, the sound of iron, but the aircraft closes in and takes over alone. And now – nothing. The struggle is over. A small revolution quelled by the authority of a car-horn. The banging of wood. A pause. More banging. They must be moving tables. It sounds like a machine gun that is falling apart. The cars are under fire. They have to pull up and stop. Another siren, more real. The rumble of wheels, but it is not a car. It is the wind, which has risen again. Strong, but not strong enough to cover the aircraft.
Cars. A roar, as if from a cannon, echoless. Here and there, metallic sounds of various intensities. A roar of wind. The roar of a truck. The roar of the elevated railway. Two thuds in different tones. The noise grows and then stops suddenly, as if cut off by the thuds as they start again. Other sounds are born, clear yet unrecognizable. A long, startling car-horn. A sound that does not die, that will never die. I cannot hear it any longer, but it has left me with this certainty. But the sound of the siren is dying. A gust of wind pushes it away, but a truck rises. Then diminishes in turn and mingles with the wind. Some kind of bell.
A voice is heard. The first voice.
Seven o’clock: A blast from the siren, as if to remind me of its existence. Now imperceptible, yet insistent. The squeal of tires. A thundering, a rumble, somewhere underground.
Half-past eight: And now the sun has risen, but the sounds are still the same. With one exception. Drills. Nasty. Destroying a building. They are far away but occasionally, because of the wind, they are perfectly distinct. The other sounds remain. A whistle, shrill, anxious. It repeats – urgently. A noisy engine, I don’t know what kind. And loud, yet distant, the drills. The only change is that it has all become stronger with the daylight. The wind, the cars, the siren. Only the car-horns are less strident, more discrete, a reflection on the drivers who obey New York’s traffic laws: they must use their horns only when absolutely necessary. They cannot afford the fines, and so they obey the law, which seems a little Teutonic. I imagine the drivers in this bewildering noise, melted together, inside their creeping cars: noise that hasn’t the courage to explode, but hovers in the air, in the spring-like, clear, clean winter air.
(BLDGBLOG owes a huge and genuine thank you to Walter Murch, Hans-Erik Philip, Vibeke Gad, and, of course, Michelangelo Antonioni for the permission to reprint this essay. Meanwhile, if this post appealed to you, I’d urge you to take a look at BLDGBLOG’s interview with Walter Murch, where some of these points are developed further – or simply to pick up a copy of The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, edited by Michael Ondaatje. Of course, Murch is both the subject and author of many other books and articles – links to which can be found embedded in the BLDGBLOG interview. Finally, keep an eye out for Antonioni’s own The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema, due out in November 2007).
7 thoughts on “New York City in Sound”
Walter, Geoff– thanks for this wonderful treat. It is a fascinating probe into the unexplainable energy of Manhattan from one of cinema’s greatest directors. Keep up the great work!
This was an absolutely beautiful description of sound in a city… it may has well have been a detailed description/review of a symphony. This made me nostalgic for my years living in NYC. I will definitely link to this from our acoustics blog.
As close as you can get to actually being here and experiencing it yourself.
but is New York too noisy?
wonderful, I’ve been waiting for this since the interview, and now it comes while I’m out of the city. Perfect.
The first paragraph of Murch’s introduction is such a perfectly distilled insight. I love it!