All Ears: Listening In Isolation Since self-isolating, writer Ruth Saxelby is noticing sounds sticking out where they used to blend and music doing some surprising work amidst the hush.
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All Ears: Listening In Isolation

With everyone holed up at home, the sonic character of our cities and neighborhoods seems to be constantly shifting underfoot. Malte Mueller/Getty Images hide caption

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Malte Mueller/Getty Images

With everyone holed up at home, the sonic character of our cities and neighborhoods seems to be constantly shifting underfoot.

Malte Mueller/Getty Images

I woke up to birdsong this morning. That might seem idyllic, but it is odd. Flocks of sparrows regularly fight over snack debris near the bodega on my corner in Ridgewood, Queens, but I usually wake up to car horns or chatter on the street outside my window. When I sleepily registered the birds, something that sound artist Maria Chávez retweeted popped into my head: A wildlife sound recordist had noted that birdsong is more noticeable right now because noise pollution levels are down. "We're hearing the world as people heard it decades ago."

A lot of things about the way I listen, and what I hear, have changed since New York's been on lockdown. One of the upshots of spending all my time in my apartment is that my ears have become attuned to the shifting soundscape of my neighborhood, and each sound elicits a different emotional response in me than it used to. Birdsong feels uncanny. Sirens, a lit match to anxiety. And the ice cream van's persistent tune carries a newly sinister edge; not least because it drives home the fact that much of America's workforce can't afford to shelter in place, with devastating results for the most vulnerable.

As a freelancer, I am used to working from home – but I have never spent so many consecutive hours inside these walls or been so aware of the privilege inherent in that. My partner Logan and I moved in together in December: It's a railroad apartment, four rooms strung together in a row, with the bedroom up front and the bathroom at the back. Walking to the toilet in the middle of the night, we joke, has to be making up for some of the steps we're not taking outside.

I miss outside. When considering an album, the first thing I used to do was take it on a meandering walk — being in motion helps me listen to music more closely, with my whole body. Along the way, I'd keep an eye out for whatever was referenced, from the wide-open space of a park to vivid patches of moss, as if being in the presence of something that inspired the artist would allow me to listen through their body as well as my own.

In lieu of long walks – short trips, to get groceries or stretch legs, aren't conducive to absorbed listening – I've been listening to music I'm writing about while I slowly do chores. Anything that involves small and repetitive movements, that keeps my body busy enough to allow my mind to wander with the music. While I spent time with composer, singer and producer Lyra Pramuk's debut album, Fountain, for a review, I shortened and hemmed a pair of trousers that had been needing attention for months. I don't have a sewing machine, nor the steadiest of sewing hands, but I can thread a needle and muddle through simple mending tasks. Held close by my over-ear headphones, I watched the needle dive in and out of the material. As Pramuk fashioned a whole world from the contours and contortions of her voice, I found a sense of purpose and patience in this small act of crafting. Halfway through, I remembered that if I ironed in the new hemline first, it would make the sewing easier. Normally, I would shrug and continue on as I was. But this time I unpicked, ironed on the table with a tea towel because I don't iron enough to justify an ironing board, and started again. That little step back helped me move forwards, and thanks to Fountain, the process felt as good as the result. I mean, that's how music works: it is companionship, a mirror, a portal. The context, it barely needs pointing out, is that those are all things that isolation makes us crave.

The way this column usually goes is that I trace a theme through a bunch of different music releases and explore the artists' intentions, in conversation with them. Throughout my listening and writing process, that theme becomes a prism through which I see the world. As the surreality and seriousness of this historical moment morphs into infinite new realities each and every day, I keep thinking about the many ways in which the physical limitations of the stay-at-home mandate are reframing my relationship with listening; I've always felt music is transportive, but what that means has become a whole lot broader.

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I spend a lot of time at my laptop at the kitchen table, trying to write but mostly following social media posts to news stories that make me anxious and angry, then, like many others, to pandemic relief funds that make me feel less useless. In this overstimulated and underslept state of mind, songs often pop into my head; sometimes off the back of a couple of words I read, and at others seemingly because my heart just knows what it needs. Whenever that happens, I immediately search for the song online and hit play on repeat. The other day I watched the video for British singer-songwriter Labi Siffre's Ivor Novello-winning 1987 single "Something Inside So Strong" several times in a row. It took me back to the first time I heard it, in a school assembly when I was eight or nine, back home in Leicestershire. I can still see the room in my head, the light pouring in through its tall windows, and feel the cold floor beneath my crossed legs. I didn't fully grasp the song's context back then – it was written partly in response to the inhumane treatment of black civilians by white soldiers during South Africa's apartheid years – but I knew Siffre was singing about the human spirit. Every time I press play, Siffre's impassioned intonation hits me right in the chest: "You thought that my pride was gone / Oh nooo-ooo."

One of the things that is helping me keep it together, most of the time at least, is meal planning. Partly because I love cooking, but also because it allows me a small sense of control when everything else feels up in the air. I make big batches of coleslaw (red cabbage, carrot, onion, apple, lime juice and/or cilantro and vinegar) to eat over several days. I freeze bananas for future morning smoothies. And I get increasingly evangelical about leftovers. Avoiding waste is growing into a fetish. The other night, as I chopped up cabbage and onions to fry into leftover rice, Logan played a mix he'd been emailed via a surprisingly powerful portable speaker that my friend and former colleague Nazuk gave me as a present when I temporarily moved back to the U.K. after getting laid off in 2018. The mix was made by our friends Josh and Jackson, who share a love of Ethiopian music from the late 1970s to the early 1990s and had spent hours digitizing their cassette archives to put it together. "Tapes get old," Josh wrote in the email, "they go in and out of phase, sometimes they are damaged, sometimes the weird imperfections add to the overall listening experience." Baked in with the early recordings of Kadir Said's hypnotic vocal wobble and the soaring tone of Tsehaye Yohannes – two of the featured Ethiopian artists who are now many decades deep into their music careers – are such incidental sounds, an aged aura that often gets described as warm. These two thoughtful gifts from friends – the music and the means of listening – were a reminder that music is inherently a shared experience: a direct line from artist to listener, and between people who care for one another; a transmission of culture and emotion; a traversing of space-time itself.

Sometimes, when we get up at an hour that usually follows a night of clubbing, but now just means we stayed up too late flitting between movies and social media, Logan will play a record on his turntable to take the edge off the day. It's connected to a very battered JVC amp and two speakers that my parents got in the 1970s. After spending years in their shed, they made their way to me somewhere along the line. I love them as much for their surprisingly solid sound as the family history. One of the records he put on recently is Hiroshima composer Meitei's 2019 album Komachi, which he'd picked up at a record shop in the Two Bridges area of Manhattan before all of this. I was familiar with Meitei's 2018 album Kwaidan, it was one of my favorite records that year, but I hadn't spent much time with Komachi. It turned out the album's sense of environment – conveyed through travelling water, ambient noise, warped birdsong and an array of wooden percussion – was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. The music flooded the apartment, expanding the space and speaking to my senses about places far beyond these walls.

There are more days, however, when anxiety gets the best of me and I end up glued to The Voice for hours. This season has some insanely good singers – Toneisha and Jacob's battle was a joy – and watching it has the effect of loosening the valve on my pressure cooker brain.

The other night, when I was feeling restless and trapped in endless scroll mode, I visited the website of Ridgewood club Nowadays to catch sets by Physical Therapy and Jubilee. The latter played Lil Silva's U.K. funky remix of Baby D's "Let Me Be Your Fantasy," a heartbeat-raising version from 2009 that I'd somehow never heard before, and I filmed myself dancing to it. It wasn't a night out, but knowing I was sweating at the same time, to the same tunes, as a bunch of other people still felt good. I've been going clubbing for over two decades and have gleaned much of my music knowledge via the dance floor in some way or another over those years. Dance music clubs and the people they make space for, DJs and dancers alike, are where my interest in writing about music began.

Many of us are missing live music right now, but I miss clubs most of all. I like to be immersed in sound, for it to be so loud that all you can do is use your body to be in dialogue, and to feel in proximity to other dancers carving their own lines through the heat and smoke. I feel lucky to have moved to New York in time to witness the rise of the DJ collective and agency Discwoman. So many of the artists they represent have opened my ears to new approaches and perspectives. A couple of weeks ago, they were unfairly criticised for demonstrating a duty of care to their roster, many of whom had lost all their future income because of pandemic-related cancellations. Now that physically sharing the same space is unthinkable, it feels more important to me than ever to listen and respond to the needs of the communities I participate in and benefit from. As does, for that matter, buying music.

Thanks to the way New York apartments are built, I'm also doing a lot of unintentional listening these days. On one side, the neighbors have been playing a lot of Amy Winehouse ("Rehab," "Valarie," et al.). There's a couple of walls and a corridor between us, but there's no blunting Winehouse's strength or her vulnerability. Every now and then, a Spotify ad breaks up the music, and oh how ridiculously out of place and time those forcefully cheerful interruptions sound. Through the other wall, a small dog yaps incessantly, only seeming to calm down when its owners settle down to watch what sounds like a sports game; the roar of a crowd is not only disconcerting but dates the playback to pre-pandemic times. All the same, these past couple of weeks have taught me to appreciate what I hear through the walls as evidence of other people taking it day by day, too.

At night, I turn on an air purifier that we bought before things got hectic. The idea was to help provide relief during allergy season, but it has come to occupy a talisman-like role in my mind. Along with dust and pollen, it can suck from a room any particles in the air as small as 0.3 microns. Of course, the coronavirus is much smaller than that (0.125 microns, and not airborne apparently), which means there's no chance our air purifier is doing anything in that regard. But I keep it on at night anyway. Its low hum saves us from morning congestion, but it also holds me and helps send me off to sleep. A diversion I can depend on in these strangest of times.