As part of my Nonfiction course, we are currently doing several exercises in observation, miniature studies in perceiving the world that will, hopefully, help us observe and render the world as we perceive it, through the medium of film. Taking our cues from the untutored vision and searches for “the tree with lights in it” of Stan Brakhage and Annie Dillard, we are supposed to look and listen and hopefully have transcendental experiences. This is the first in a series of writings on these observational sessions.
“Find something that is hidden and observe it.”
I am entering the girl’s bathroom on the third floor of Burton residence hall. I am brushing my teeth with the toothpaste on my finger, washing my face with foam from the soap dispenser, drying my face with rough recycled paper towels. I am the only one in the bathroom, alone with the sounds I am making and some room tone, most likely the ventilation. I look in the mirror to assess the level of exhaustion revealed by the strain under my eyes, quiet with myself, and to my left I discover a sound that is persistent, but distinct, not of the over-riding ventilative hum of the linoleumed space, but its own strain of sound waves. At first it is a bit annoying, because it is quiet, but just so as to pick at my attention even as my other senses (or rather, my eyes) are focusing on the mirror. But I look for the source, an exact point, bring my ear close to this spot on the partition and feel the relative volume swell as the distance between me and this hidden sound is traversed with the shifting of my shoulders. At first, I think of it as a buzz. It intrigues me. I stand on my tip toes to bring my ear flush with the source. I feel a tiny push of particles against the top of my earlobe, the movement of space around this border between the sound and its perceiver, the air moving with perhaps the sound itself, or at least some rush of air that is perhaps the reason for the sound, a pent up microcosm of swirling gaseous potential within this wall that is spitting itself out through the tiniest of punctures in the partition. It is no longer a buzz; I give it the word ‘hiss’.
I come back two days later, and stand in the bathroom, leaving the lights off deliberately in order to sense the sound of this hissing wall spot as if I am just a pair of ears. Standing in the center of the room, it is faint, among the other steady noises of the space, among the external bangs and creaks and footfalls and uttered words that pass through the walls from the hall beyond. I go directly to it, listen with my right ear pressed against the wall, turn my head to let the left ear have a turn. The hiss passes through my sensory perception as if subject to a Doppler effect, but one created simply by the slow turning of my own sense of perception in relation to this hissing sound, the constancy of which is growing to be a comfort. There is a story of a Russian cosmonaut who goes into space, alone, and there in the cockpit of his spacecraft, begins to hear a steady clicking noise. It is driving him insane, he tears up the dashboard in search of the origin, hoping to alleviate his growing madness, but he can find no source. Knowing he will be alone with the sound for weeks before his return to the Earth, he is convinced he will go crazy; he will surely die. But then, instead of succumbing to the agony of the sound, he decides to fall in love with it. It becomes the most beautiful sound he has ever heard — it becomes music.
I make this decision from the start. After some minutes with my hiss, I begin to understand that it was not one sound but many; it has a layered quality where different lines take on tonal qualities, one soft high pitched sailing along above a rhythmic central hum, with fluctuating strains of midtones and a bass buzz below. It is a chord, the dynamics of which were subtle and shifting with the slight tilting and turning of my skull beside the cold linoleum wall. I fall, bit by bit, in love with this sound. I do not care that I am uncertain what it is, although a physics major who discovered me in releve with my ear against the wall suggested that it might be electricity or the like. It may be electricity to a scientist, but it is also music hidden in the walls and in the daily workings of our lives.