I am terribly excited about the next three dispatches. As I mentioned, we're wrapping up the year by sharing the favorite things we listened to, watched, and read during the past twelve months. The replies have already been truly amazing, but there is another fun twist. Each week, the opening essay will be written by a member of Uncommon. This community overflows with amazing people, and I'm honored to share thoughts from Cassie, Jon, and Sara over the next few weeks.
We start with this marvelous essay by Cassie on listening. Cassie is a writer and listener at large. She works from wherever she can find wifi and currently resides in a corner of Southeast Asia.
For the last ten months, I’ve been recording one minute of ambient audio from my surroundings, every single day, in every single place that I have traveled. The result is nearly six hours of sustained white noise, neatly compartmentalized into sets by city and country (15 so far), collected onto my SoundCloud page. No city sounds the same, but every place could be any place.
How is this possible?
From my limited survey, I know that these are the things we have in common: the warmth in our voices when we greet old friends on the street, the petulant undertone of our elderly grandmothers when they've purchased items without coupons from the dollar store, the sounds of construction (it is pervasive, ever-present; the whole world is getting bigger and bigger), the impatient thrum of our bus queues, high-heeled feet hurrying over cobblestones (a precise and professional Morse code), the haunted grandeur of our church bells, our bird calls and breakfast dins (the muscular, heated whoosh of our espresso machines, the caffeinated chatter, the scraping chairs), the way we sound when we sing in large numbers, the expectant hush of our cities just before sunrise or just after snowfall.
The things that are different? Not much. The predominant language, but only sometimes. More makes us the same than makes us different, it turns out.
It’s something I started doing because ...I don’t know. I was sitting on my fire escape in New York City last winter, enjoying the far-away quality of traffic noise as it carried up Delancey. I had a recording app on my phone, and I used it. One minute seemed like a good amount of time. During it, I listened with my whole body. I heard everything. Very insignificant parts of the soundscape became, suddenly, very important — the metal shudder of the guard rails, the cars honking, but also, I realized, the woman below me humming to herself while she cooked. I had never noticed her before.
It was a delicious moment, and as the counter on my phone clicked steadily forward — 0:53, 0:54, 0:55 — I became electrified with a sense of possibility.
What could happen in a minute?
After that, I was addicted. I stopped listening to music when I walked places. Each new place had the same things — school yards and street music, subway announcements and public markets — but I thrilled to discover what made them distinct; to capture not just minutes, but moments. These were my memories, too.
Once, in Colorado, the neighbor’s tea kettle began to scream simultaneously as thunder clapped.
Another time, in Croatia, a quartet of traditional Dalmatian singers performing in the street were spontaneously joined by a group of passing, classically trained vocalists. You can hear the swell around the 40th second. I nearly cried with euphoria at the luck of this chance capture.
One afternoon, walking in Italy, a little girl strolling in front of me began to sing to herself.
What I've learned is that you can tell as much about a place from how it sounds as how it looks.
You just have to listen. — Cassie
Last week's dispatch asked, What is your favorite thing you've listened to this year?
Ah, so many beautiful things listened to in the past 12 months - how do I pick one? One night, after I'd played at an acoustic night in Camden, we were packing up and chatting with the organizers. On some level, I was aware of a song that was playing over the PA, but I wasn't really listening. Just as I walked out the door, the outro came on, and it was as if that part of the music had aligned with some ancient lines of memory inside me. I went back into the room to ask what the song was called. Chester French's Time To Unwind. Every time I listen to this track now, I feel like playing it through my around-ear headphones in bed, falling asleep in a dark room. Just like I used to, for days on end, with so many of the songs that had me spellbound at first listen.
The shrieking, no-breath-left-to-gasp, exuberant giggling of any one of my 6 little nephews. But especially a chorus of their laughter.
I spent years downloading, listening and cataloging new releases in order to keep Pop 'stache relevant. I stopped all that when I moved to Austin a year ago. Now I make a special effort to head outside without headphones. I pay special attention to everything going on around us. It reminds me how small we really are.
I've had lots of things soothing my senses this year, but my auditory experience has been the most fulfilling thanks to a recently acquired obsession with Spotify, and my full blown dependence on podcasting. A few musical favorites have been Chairlift, Haim, And my favorite podcasts have been NPR's Planet Money and Pop Culture Happy Hour, Freakonomics, In Our Time, Public Lectures from the LSE and the Point of Enquiry podcast.
My absolute highlight though has been Laura Marling. I've long been a fan, but her album Once I Was An Eagle is the most perfect musical work I've come across so far. I was lucky enough to see her perform in a cathedral in Melbourne earlier in the year in and it was a religious experience indeed.
Today my six-year-old daughter sang a poem to me while I was cooking chili. We started homeschooling this year and poetry is a part of their day, almost every day. Hearing her little voice, delighted in the rhythm of her favorite poem, delighted me.
My favorite thing I've listened to this year was Rhye's "Woman", a release from earlier this year. It's a slow-moving, gentle album that sounds more minimalist than it is, and it is carried by the delicate yet robust voice of Mike Milosh. These attributes make for a very sensual and intimate experience that I've found myself returning to all year long.
I have really enjoyed listening to the 99 Percent Invisible over the last year. It's well produced, and right up my alley discussing the things we take for granted in our built environment. Favorite episodes include: Future Screens are Mostly Blue, An Architect's Code, and No Armed Bandit.
My best friend had a daughter last November—his first child and, since I have no children of my own, the first human birth about which I’ve been truly excited. Listening to her laugh, and gurgle, and coo, and yell with delight, and take her first run at actual person-to-person communication, tops the list of the best things that have found their way to my ears. Having never before paid such close attention to how a tiny, new-born human animal staggers its way into genuine personality, I hadn't realized how thrilling, fascinating, and delightful the process would be—even from a relatively distant vantage point.
The favorite thing I've listened to this year was hearing Sigur Ros perform at an outdoor venue in Vancouver on a lightly rainy afternoon.
Listening to the wild of the Zambezi river every night for a week. The roars of the lion prides, the grunts of the hippos, the commotion from baboons, and the laughs of the hyenas.
I am really bad at following bands and tend to find myself listening to old songs. Embarrassingly, I only discovered the beauty of Lou Reed's music after his death. I would say Reed's Perfect Day is my favorite song this year. Love the lyric, melody and Reed's melancholic voice. The story leaves one to imagine what lives these characters lead...
Yoni Gordon taught me that I do like live music. I was at a bar in Brooklyn, early to meet some strangers from the internet (and one proto-friend) for live band indie rock karaoke, and Yoni and his band were playing first. They were playing over the start time of the karaoke group, and my friend was late, and at first I was nervous and annoyed. And then I got into the music. I found a nook to drop my coat, and danced for the next half hour or so fully into the music they were playing. I don't think I would have gone to any other shows this year without that experience. Also, Yoni totally killed it when he did Judy and the Dream of Horses for the karaoke.
It's a fairly recent entry this year but I think this is one of the coolest things I've listened to this year — Rolling Stones composing Sympathy for the Devil.
My favorite thing I've listened to this year has got to be the Van Morrison music I had never heard before including the song "Tupelo Honey" and the album "Astral Weeks." His music just hits you in the soul.
Doctor Who Prom at the Albert Hall, London. I went with one of my sons. They played music from the TV program me and had appearances from lots of characters. It was great!
Wisdom from others. This year has been PACKED to the brim with wisdom. From mentors, coworkers, lots of TED talks, a therapist, and my beloved Sister. It's incredible what perspective we can have of someone, or something, just based on our ability to listen to them poorly, versus well.
The favorite thing I've listened to is the sound of my daughter and husband talking and laughing together. I did not grow up having a strong relationship with my father, and I'm SO very thankful that they are close!
The favorite thing I've listened to this year must be the albums Daft Punk – Random Access Memories and Sigur Rós – Kveikur. At least according to my most played-list on Spotify. I must also mention my favorite Christmas album that never gets on any favorite lists, but every year lands on my most played list after just a month: Bugge Wesseltoft – It's Snowing On My Piano. It's the perfect choice whether you need some background music when you are having friends over or simply want to sit and listen to music and feel the Christmas peace sneak up on you. A truly Uncommon album.
What is your favorite thing you've watched this year?