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The Sight of Your Voice

Scott and Paul investigate the appearance of music. Illustrated with copious orange oscillations.

Sunday morning, after my drowning, Scott and I woke late with little to do. It was a cold, bright day, so we considered going on some long journey, maybe to Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, with hilly open fields of knee-high grass, and a two hour train ride, or out to Coney Island, where we could eye the Russian grandmothers sunbathing in their underwear.

I put on some music. I turned on my Wobblevision.

“It works again,” said Scott.

“It was never broken. I had the contrast turned down. That was all that was wrong. For two years,” I said. The Wobblevision is an orange-screened computer monitor transformed into a low-frequency oscilloscope. You can build one with any old TV, a pair of scissors, a screwdriver, and some electric tape. It takes 10 minutes, then you hook it up to your stereo and see sound.

The Wobblevision in Context

The working Wobblevision was enough of an excuse to stay indoors.

“Try something pure. What do you have that's one instrument?”

“Cage,” I said. I went through my stacks of CDs until I pulled out The Perilous Night, a good portion of which is low notes played unchorded on a grand piano. It looked like this:

Margaret Leng Tan playing John Cage's The Perilous Night

“How does the synth look playing the same notes?”

I swore for a while, patching wires into the stereo, and played a low C on the Kurzweil's simulated grand piano.

A synthesized grand piano.

“Ah. You see why you give Steinway that extra 20,000 dollars,” said Scott. “You pay for the squiggles.”

I put on a Mercedes Sosa CD. “Look at this,” I said. “Her voice is pure. Just an open throat, clear circles. And she's this little beloved indigenous grandma, right? A fireplug. They arrested her on stage in the 70s, and she's been in exile for years because of Pinochet. Here it comes. So now she's back, back in Argentina, and there, gracias a la vida, and there - there -” I wait a moment as the song moves forward, the time on the CD player counting up - “There. The applause, it's almost involuntary, you can feel the audience getting up from their seats, they love her, this little fat woman who sang up at the police, and they're so happy they become pure static.”

Mercedes Sosa, Gracias a la Vida, a live version, where the applause comes in.

Scott watched and listened. “Do you have any Beatles?” he asked.

“I know I have Revolver or Sgt Pepper's or Hard Day's Night in one of these piles. There - um, here.” I skipped forward to And I Love Her.

And I Love Her, the Beatles

“It's got a big strong center and a lot of ancillary wiggles,” I said.

“But what's it mean?” asked Scott. “I think it's John in the wiggles and Paul at the center.”

“Yoko would try to sell the wiggles if she knew they were there.”

“Except it's most likely all George Martin,” Scott said.

This sparked an association with Phil Spector through John Lennon. “Did you know Phil Spector once pointed a gun at Stevie Wonder? He wanted Wonder's engineer to work for him. But I wonder if there was this weird moment where he pointed the gun and Stevie Wonder didn't do anything.”

“You mean,” Scott said, “where he said, 'Stevie, I have a, uh, gun here. Stop talking to that girl. Really, I have one. Come over here and touch it if you don't believe me.'”

“Yeah. It just seems a very awkward way to threaten to kill a blind man.”

“Unfair too, because Stevie can't shoot back. Or he could, but he'd end up emasculating a waiter. I guess they wouldn't give him a license.”

“Scott, of course he could get a license. This is not a European country.”

“Where's Europe?” Scott asked. “Is that a state?”

“It's in the Netherlands. Any case, we need all the help we can get in the fight against terrorism. That includes help from Stevie Wonder. One of my friends offered to take me out shooting on my birthday next year. There's a place in Long Island.”

“There are places all over the city. I like shooting guns, the few times I've done it.”

“I'm sort of curious,” I said. “I've also taken to Stevie Wonder the last few months.”

“I'd say that it's because you're getting older and your musical tastes are maturing,” said Scott, “But more likely it's because you're a total soft-rock shitheel and you like him for the wrong reasons. Are you also listening to Frampton Comes Alive? Or Best of Bread.”

“There was a concert not long ago where George Bush apparently waved to Stevie Wonder, tried to get his attention.”

“Not really, please.”

“Yes,” I said. “I swear to Jesus.”

“It's the best administration ever,” said Scott.

“Here,” I said, “Perfect. Astral Weeks.” I skipped to track 3, Sweet Thing. “There, look at that, when the bass comes in.”

“The music is better than the shapes,” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“I feel very close to you right now,” he said. “Should we make love?”

“No,” I said.

The moment in Van Morrison's Sweet Thing when the bass comes in.

.  .  .  .  .  

See also: Pundits on Fire in Hell, a story about manipulating sound; Seeing Sound/Synthesis, an old entry about sine waves and life; Microcelebrity; another old piece about relationships and oscillations; Love Lost to the Ylem, a story about sex and quantum physics; Being Good, about a prayer by Scott Rahin; and 11 June 2001, a story featuring Scott, Paul, and Rebecca Dravos.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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