The Sounds Of Silence

Film, Observatory

memorial to muzakAs my vacation ends, I’m glad I chose a final hotel that didn’t pump music around itself like some kind of aural pollution zone. Why would any hotelier think it was a good idea to have a terrible country and western duo play Willie Nelson covers all evening, very loudly, in an area of outstanding natural beauty, as my last hotel did? All I can hear right now is tree frogs and cicadas. I’d share the sound with you if I could figure out how to get the MP3 file from my other travelling device to this laptop without the right cable.

Hotels believe that bad music is better than no music. I feel sorry for the talented Caribbean musicians who have to nightly play ‘Yellow Bird’ to an audience of glum, disinterested diners. I once sat in a hotel in Geneva, one of the world’s most depressing cities, while an ancient dinner pianist picked his way through selections from ‘The Sound of Music’ three times in a row.

London used to have a horrible chain of tourist venues called Henekey Inns that featured nightly deafening Mockney knees-ups. Mercifully they’ve gone, but we’re still cursed with other vile sounds; we have the 6:00am wake-up call of ambulance sirens, just as NYC can’t curb its car honks no matter how hard it tries. And Italy – Jeez, what is it about Italians that they have to fill any dead spot in the air with mobile phone chatter, bad Europop and revving engines?

Every country has enough of its own noises, so there’s no need to add to them with piped-in music. And can we call a moratorium on Hotel Costes and Buddha Bar albums in cocktail bars? I never need to hear Bebel Gilberto or identical dubmixes from Stephane Pompougnac ever again.

One charming sound has appeared in London’s St Pancras station – they’ve put a piano on the concourse, and I’ve been shocked at how many passengers can play beautifully. Lunchtimes there often turn into impromptu concerts – although you always get one mother who allows her talentless child to hammer the keyboard randomly.

The phone app iSay was developed by Durham University to make a sound-map of the world – all you do is load it to your phone and record for 30 seconds, then mail the sounds to them – a lovely idea. I keep sound files in London of places where I’ve been. My favourite is from a band of wedding musicians practising during a rainstorm in Sri Lanka – a distant, melancholy sound that captured the moment better than a photograph.

7 comments on “The Sounds Of Silence”

  1. Ken Murray says:

    Dear Admin I think we’re good for good for cicadas at the moment thanks (still amazed at how deafening they can be in the summer months). However the most memorable aural hotel experience I can recall is staying in an Eastern European hotel… in north London! It was a last minute, short notice stop over in the capital that my wife booked for us (and also the last time bookings were left solely in her charge). Basically the hotel/brothel was situated on a busy highroad and the other ‘guests’ frequenting the lobby consisted of teenage girls clutching cans of tramp-juice lager, accompanied by furtive looking middle-aged men. The soundtrack to our one night stay consisted of sirens from various emergency services synchronized by low flying police helicopters and topped off by our very own front row performance of a pimp/dealer knife fight! The icing on the cake occurred as we made our way to the nearest tube station after our night’s entertainment. As we made our way along the street, we watched in awe as a fully laden London bus stopped alongside us and the driver hopped down from the cab. Whereupon he then crossed our path and proceeded to (in full view of his passengers and us) urinate against the side of a church. He then calmly smiled at us, hopped back on his bus and was on his way! Wonder what Boris would say about that?

  2. james says:

    For years I was forced to endure the unspeakable horror of commercial radio piped into the workplace at thought destroying volume. This was the case in almost every job I ever worked from factories and warehouses to office cubicles. Those who’ve never been subjected to this kind of aural torment really have no idea how bad it is to have to hear the same fifty stupid songs played every single day on endless rotation interspersed with screaming adverts and tedious weather reports. It quite literally drives you mad.

  3. Ralph Williams says:

    I once worked in a supermarket that piped music but, since it didn’t have a PRS license, played tapes of bad cover versions. Firm un-favourite was one of “Star Trekkin'” by The Firm, where the singer seemed to give up half way through even attempting any kind of imitation.

  4. TangoDancer says:

    Last year during what passes for a summer in the U.K. these days, the shopping centre Liverpool One had a number of piano’s dotted around for members of the public to tickle the ivories.Charitable contributions from the public being solicited via a conveniently placed bucket.
    To my amazement, apart from as you point out misguided parents (or more likely grand parents) allowing their offspring to hammer away at the keys, it was amazing to witness how many of the public could knock out a passible tune. Some clearly had classical training but it was also interesting too see how many played something more contemporary.
    In a world seemingly filled with Itunes and MP3 downloads we are in danger of overlooking spontaneous music from talented passers by. Much more preferable and satisfying than pre-recorded MUZAK.
    As a further point of interest when did you last hear someone whistling a tune. Is this a forgotten art?

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    Oh, it doesn’t sound too bad, Admin.
    I spent three nights in the mid-Sixties – over an Easter weekend – in a Hilton hotel in Manila. In all the elevators, it was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing on a yearly loop. In the public areas (lobby, restaurants, bars, halls and your actual room; there you could select to turn it off) they were playing live Radio Vatican broadcasts of non-stop religious music or holy weekend Masses). I have nothing against Easter services, but not while I’m showering or eating a meal without alcohol until Easter Monday.)
    I bought a seat on a mail boat and went out to Corregidor Island in the entrance to Manila Bay. It was then definately not a tourist stop and empty except for a handful of people. It was hot, humid, buggy,full of small creaures running away from you, but facinating. Sea, sky, breeze, and battered fortifications and with huge cannon. And many signs: “Watch Out For Live Ordnance!!” “No Walking Here! Highly Dangerous!!”. etc. And bones exposed by the wind that I didn’t want to know about.
    But it was a facinating, but water-starved visit. And I did sort of wonder if the boat would suffer a motor breakdown and I’d have to spend the night there. Not St. Lucia, but good.

  6. MaddieMyDear says:

    I have to say some of the best music I’ve ever heard has been from totally impromptu gatherings, particularly a late night barbecue that turned into a jam session (no idea where they produced the giant cowskin drum from) and various patrons playing away as I sat happily in Shakespeare and Company. Sometimes just listening to the bustle on the train, though, is fascinating.

    Also an app from Durham- yay my alma mater!

  7. Helen Martin says:

    It doesn’t take much to outline an event. That description is almost a short story for anyone knowing the significance of the place, Dan. I sincerely hope there will be at least one volume of memoirs before long. There are many people posting here who have learned how to pare away the unnecessary detail in order to create a concise piece of writing. How about a blog centred book of short stories. That is more than slightly facetious, but if the material is of interest people will read it and short should be more desirable given the articles about short attention spans among the public.

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