Training the Ear: The Grand Prix outside my window

Greetings from Macau, where I am settling into the first leg of overseas fieldwork. After I finished my comprehensive exams in August, I spent two months in the Philippines doing fieldwork in Manila and Cebu. Anyone who has ever tried to do fieldwork in her hometown will completely understand the deep but not entirely unpleasant confusion of being “on the field” while persisting with her usual kalat, tamad unreflexive self.

More on that in the posts to come.

In the meantime, here is something unrelated to my research on Filipino musicians but forms part of my ongoing efforts at field recordings. This week, stars and enthusiasts from the motorsport world are in Macau for the 59th Grand Prix. The entire city-state becomes a race track for three headline races. This includes the uphill road outside my hotel, which is located at the foot of the famous Guia fortress.

The room I stay in has that peculiar muffled quietness created by carpets and double-glazed windows that are sealed shut. This is a mid-range hotel, so neighboring sounds and smells outside my room still manage to seep through. The walls of the room are quite thin (TV sounds and children wailing in the next room are audible), and the faint smell of cigarettes from down the hall wafts in whenever I swing my door open.

As I returned to my room at midnight last night after recording a performance, I passed by a room with a wide-open door. I peeked, of course. A group of Chinese men in their undershirts were seated around a table, drinking and smoking. They’d opened the door to air out the room; the cigarette smoke floated visibly as a thick gray cloud. Like a scene in a Chinese mafia movie. Normally, however, my room is quiet even though it overlooks a two-lane road that leads to the highway rimming the wharf.

Today, there was another sensory intruder. Successive waves of drones began as low rumbles, then zipped to shrill crescendoes, then became engulfed by silence. You can tell what it is right away, even if you know (care to know) little about racing or video games about racing. The moment I woke up, I knew what it was. Not only that: the moment I woke up, I knew where I was (Macau), and what day it was: Thursday the 15th, the first day of the Prix. Hard not to know when everywhere there are billboards and posters informing you of this.

Irritated as I was by the noise, I posted a status update on Facebook as soon as I tumbled out of bed; the novelty of it was too good not to share. (Another thing that bears wondering for a future post: after deleting my account last year, I re-joined Facebook in August, ostensibly to connect with respondents. It’s been working very well. But at what point did going on Facebook become my primary impulse for communicating? And is it a bad thing, if any-thing?) I wrote:

 

Grand Prix outside my window. Wasted on me

 

My brother, a musician and audio engineer, responded at once:

 

get a recording! gandang ringtone yan

 

I realized he was right about this making for an interesting field recording—if not a ringtone. The noise was such that I only had to turn the window latch (the window doesn’t open at all) for the sound to immediately become brighter and louder.

I turned off the airconditioning, stood by the window, and held up my recorder to capture this.

The drones aren’t constant—they rise and fall as the race cars head straight down the short expanse of the road before gunning up to negotiate a sharp curve at the end. Listening to the recording more closely, I’m struck by the clear sense of distance, urgency, and speed created by the cars; especially when three or four of them pass by in a cluster.

Mostly I find myself listening to the lulls (not a complete silence, though: even though I’ve turned off my own A/C, you can still hear a faint hum from next door). Even as I “settle” into the relief of the succeeding silence, though, I find myself holding my breath in anticipation of the lull being broken by another swooping bout of drones.

I’m sure there are many elements in this soundscape I can’t yet perceive because I don’t have the knowledge or discrimination to perceive them: can the car type be identified from the sound of the engine, for instance?

What of the divide between “pure” perception and knowledge then? Can we simply just “hear” something? Where I may hear noise, a skilled mechanic may perceive a far richer world of workings, malfunctions, dangers, and possibilities.

I suppose it’s why I keep returning to the concept of listening in my research: it is a kind of sensory self-education. And recording becomes essential to the work of training the ear; only when we apply our attention repeatedly to something as it plays out in time do we gradually sense what is truly there—and how it is that what is truly there is (always, already) a function of what we know.

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