The Guggenheim Museum commissioned me to write an essay for the Transhistoria: Stillspotting exhibit. Actors read my essay for visitors over the course of a month last spring. This notice remains among my greatest honors as a writer.
The Guggenheim wanted me to focus on Jackson Heights,and the challenge of finding stillness and peace in such a loud, busy, diverse immigrant hub. I began by researching the neurology of music, trance states, and how through these pathways music and peace might be linked. Instead I came upon a beautiful facet of humanity, and remain grateful to the Vecchia family for inviting me in.
I hope you enjoy this essay.
PEACE BY THE DECIBEL
by Erik Baard
1. The Roar of Peace.
When we listen for sound waves to ride to inner peace, our ears aren’t attuned to the city. We don’t expect peace to have a New York accent. Peace is idyllic escapism. It’s questingly anti-urban.
I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
William Butler Yeats, though a vigorous young man when he wrote “The Lake Isle of Inisfree” more than a century ago, longed to step off the “pavements grey” of New York’s “sister city,” London. Peace is a hope and a soft memory for Yeats, and he shares it through a lulling rhythm.
Back then, much of Queens would have manifested the poet’s soothing fancy. Not today.
I grew up under the whine of jet airplanes approaching LaGuardia Airport, and the rumble of others more distantly ascending. My vision was terrible and my glasses were always streaked. Blurry silver glints swung groundward in methodical, wide arcs. Wings vanished in foreshortening as planes banked. That illusion of bare fuselages looked like the Atlas and Titan rockets I saw on television and which were a highlight of kindergarten trips to the nearby New York Hall of Science. Just as NASA’s lunar program was wrapping up, I was blissfully misunderstanding my sky to be filled with countless space missions, launching and landing one neighborhood over.
I was innocent of missiles. I knew nothing of the Cold War undertones of the Space Race. The thunderous, shuddering metal rockets were humanity’s vow to strike a path into cosmic wonderment. I dreamed to one day blaze it deeper.
Peace was loud. It was the exhilaration of throwing energy at adventure and exploration. Children so young can’t rightly be said to hold delusions. Instead, their walls of knowledge have many gaps through which imagination floods. But one fact of childhood remains with me: peace needn’t mean the stilling of energies.
2. Heart of Noise.
January 22, 2012. An early afternoon thaw is starting to loose the noises of Jackson Heights from the muffling blanket of snow that fell the day before. Outside the Apna Cash and Carry on 37th Avenue, the usual cacophony burgeons. Car horns blare the long, sustained, atonal, and frustrated wails of small, tense men. The roll doors of trucks crash closed. Arguments in Bangla flash. Along Roosevelt Avenue, the elevated 7 train obliterates conversations in clattering swells.
Noise and heat are often the castings of purposeful effort. An incandescent bulb glows with utility but burns with wasted energy. The archipelago we call home was once filled with wetlands, meadows, and forests that covetously held sunlight — indeed, treetops climbed higher in competition for that energy. New York City today is a “heat island” that absorbs light into barren hardscapes of concrete, stone, and asphalt, only to re-radiate it unused in longer, warming infrared wavelengths. With industrialization, the energy of labor has been radically condensed. Muscle action and tropism that slowly and quietly shaped ancient landscapes were overwhelmed by combustion engines. Our machines do the work of generations in a year or a season, but with this energy they are also groaningly and concussively profligate.
Imagine a topographical map of North America showing noise level readings as mountains, valleys, and plains. The Boston-Washington corridor would be a towering mountain range, scaling to an apex in New York City. Noise is measured in logarithmic decibels, with distance as important as source. A subway train ringing in at 95 dB is 10 times louder than an 85 dB jackhammer, and 100 times louder than a car idling at your corner with its sound system whump-whumping at 75 dB. Traffic typically registers between 60 and 87 dB. In a city’s tight quarters, many sounds, like car horns and garbage trucks, assault us at over 100 decibels. Anything above 85dB has the potential to cause permanent hearing loss. The atmospheric soundscape of the deep forest is as quiet as a lover’s whisper — both have been recorded at 20 dB.
Jackson Heights is blessed with canopied streets, courtyards and garden areas, but could benefit from trees nearer to its major thoroughfares. According to the US Forest Service, “a belt of trees 98 feet wide and 49 feet tall can reduce highway noise by 6 to 10 decibels.” We need that shielding. Random and continuous noise breeds stress. The World Health Organization estimates that 210,000 people die each year from noise stress induced heart disease. More suffer from the effects of frequent deep sleep disruption. The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that nearly half of the U.S. population is exposed to dangerous noise levels.
King Mithridates VI of Pontus sought to protect himself from assassins’ poisons by ingesting toxins bit by bit. His efforts are said to have been so successful that he foiled his own suicide attempt. Are we now subconsciously trying to practice auditory Mithridatism by dropping this poisonous cacophony into our ears day by day? I often wonder what a Homo Urbanis would look like, a hominid evolved for city living. I imagine a sculpture of Homo Urbanis standing in Grand Central Station to remind commuters of the gulf between human design and urban planning. Such a being would be built for a sedentary life, with a vascular system that runs no risk of thrombosis and an endocrine system that doesn’t crave fats and sugars. Its nostrils would be densely bristled to catch diesel particulates, its eyes would filter damaging screen glare. And of course, it would have ear flaps.
But let’s return to that topography. Where humanity clusters, there will be music. Few can ascend the peaks of New York City’s music scene. Jackson Heights is defined by immigrants from Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, Ireland, China, and Thailand. Diving into our streets, we swim through Bollywood dance music, bhangra, Indo-techno, samba, tango, corrido, vallenato, salsa, alvasos, sanjuanitos, pasacalles, tonadas, yaravies. Elevating carnatic sangeet from India, bitter bachatas from Latin America. Romantic pleadings from everywhere humanity has trodden, and trodden over hearts.
Hispanic thrash metal bands have regular gigs at D’Antigua Lounge on Northern Boulevard at 84th Street. Do their head banging fans know that well over half a century ago inventor Les Paul did pioneering work on the electric guitar and multi-track recording a few blocks away? That he nearly died from electrocution, guitar in hand, in the basement studio of his apartment building? After some research I was delighted to locate his apartment complex, just off Roosevelt Avenue: Electra Court, naturally.
3. Another Humanity.
Homo Urbanis is wholly imagined, but walking among us are those who might teach us to usher in Homo Pacificus, a peaceful humanity. It seems that the same brain circuits that produce and appreciate music might sketch the outlines of a better mode of being. I’m counting on a nine year-old girl named Samantha to guide me.
Samantha’s standing at the corner of 37th Avenue and 74th Street with her father, Dr. Anthony Vecchia, who practices emergency medicine and resides in Queens. They’ve kindly agreed to share a walk through Jackson Heights so that we might experience this neighborhood through Samantha’s ears and gentle nature. One of 7,500 of us, like Samantha, is born with Williams Syndrome. Like the better known Down’s Syndrome, this condition arises from a chromosomal transcription error. “Williams people” are often happier among themselves because they are wired to be hyper-social (they approach strangers as we would dear old friends), empathetic, musicophillic, and guileless to degrees we would find incomprehensible. Without exception, they are kind and open. It took an accident to reveal the better angels of our genes.
But a Williams person’s I.Q. is lower, typically about 65. Despite this, they retain a wonderfully vivid ability to tell stories and make music, sometimes even at a high professional level. Too often they are victimized and financially exploited because they are utterly trusting and poor at math.
Musicality gyres in toward people like Les Paul, starting from a cosmic outer rim of sterile mathematics. Nature is full of cycles and orderly patterns. But there is no “Music of the Spheres.” Newtown’s Laws rigidly dictate the movement of planets, stars, and comets. That lockstep progression is a metronome at best. Life makes music. NASA astrobiologist, and my buddy, David Grinspoon, says, “Life isn’t something that happens on a planet, it’s something that happens to a planet.” David also happens to be a rhythm guitarist with House Band of the Universe and has a website called “Funky Science.”
Life responds to the metronome, aligning with the rhythms of rotations and revolutions and tides. With heartbeats, breaths, and bioluminescent pulses, life begins to generate its own rhythms. Life is an eddy within entropy, and perhaps an emergent order that will become all encompassing. The raw universe wants to scatter and fray, but here we are assembling life from seeds, literally molecule by molecule. My murdered friend, “fringe science” advocate Eugene Mallove, wrote movingly of the “quickening universe.”
But we still haven’t arrived at music. An article of faith of mine is that living worlds become musical as they become intelligent. We adore patterns within patterns, and playful, unexpected riffs on those patterns — the punchline, the beat drop, the giraffe’s neck. Patterns and play — order with room for innovation and contradiction — for me, that’s as good a definition of peace as any.
In our time, we’ve seen music as an instrument of peace. John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously devoted their talents and fame to humanizing the perceived enemy, and Live Aid eased starvation in Africa, where rock and roll’s taproot draws most deeply. Music brings us together, sometimes intimately: Charles Darwin theorized that music began in courtship displays. More recent neuroscience research ties music to language, which jibes with Williams peoples’ love of storytelling. But with language comes shibboleths. As much as music and language connect us, they distinguish us. Teens famously cluster and clique around music genres and favorite bands. Pity the dweeb who Tweets the wrong song. Jingoistic tunes accompany wars, just and unjust, to build cohesion against an enemy. Catchy rhythms bypass our reasoning centers and deliver our loyalties. I think we’re better able to modulate our responses to other arts. Our bodies wholly surrender to music.
“We listen to music with our muscles,” Nietzche wrote. A more mercenary take comes from Napolean: “Give me control over he who shapes the music of a nation, and I care not who makes the laws.”
Do you want to see people in Jackson Heights who can roll between cultures, bypassing these prejudices of affiliation? Check the prams: as Oliver Sachs recounts in his book, “Musicophilia,” auditory cognition researchers Erin Hannon and Sandra Trehub found that “infants at six months can readily detect all rhythmic variations, but by twelve months their range has narrowed, albeit sharpened. They can now more easily detect the types of rhythms to which they have been previously exposed; they have internalized a set of rhythms for their culture. Adults find it harder to perceive ‘foreign’ rhythmic distinction.” I recalled their discovery when I read that a 2010 study led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, director of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, indicated that Williams children might be the first category of humanity to not display racial bias.
4. Crossings and Castles.
Samantha is pulling her father’s hand, leading him around the corner to 73rd Street. South Asian music is shaking the air over widening snow puddles in a 22 note diatonic scale with polyrhtyms and syncopation. We grab a drink at Haat Bazar Restaurant. Samantha’s striking up conversations across the counter and in each booth she passes. Bangladeshi patrons and workers warmly receive this petite girl who has a broad smile and angular blue eyes that constitute the “elfin” features of a Williams person.
I listen to Samantha talk with her dad, Tony.
“What happened when we played music last night?,” he asks.
“We had to dance. We had to dance together, right?,” she replies.
That’s key: “we had to dance together.” Oliver Sachs describes the workings of a brain’s fear, novelty, and rhythm centers when rewired by Williams Syndrome. “This very extensive brain activation…seemed to go with their almost helpless attraction to music and their sometimes overwhelming emotional reaction to it.”
I ask Samantha what makes her happy. “Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga,” she says, while Tony reminds her of Adele. “What makes you happy besides music?,” I ask. With some more coaxing, she replies, “Smile, fishes,” but then seems to lose herself in another thought, or maybe the idea of happiness. “Wow, so lovely,” she says, and lingers in an internal gaze for a moment.
The winter has been a sad struggle for me, but I think I’m covering it up well.
“Are you okay?,” Samantha asks. She peppers me with that question a few more times during the afternoon. Does she uniquely cut past my facade to notice, or uniquely care enough to ask? Empathy is the outward gift of Williams Syndrome.
As we ready ourselves to leave for our walk, I regret that we’re a few months early for a quirky detour; on 35th Road near 71st Street, there’s a mockingbird that I imagine Samantha would love to meet. I’ve never seen him, but we play a game of call and response when I hear him in trees near that corner. Mockingbirds in New York City are often forced into nocturnal lifestyles because daytime noise drowns out their songs, which are used to attract mates. But the truncated one-block pass of 35th Road is ignored by drivers during morning rush hour. It indulges this many-songed vestige of nature.
Over on 37th Avenue, Bangla dance music pulses and pops from loudspeakers rigged over sidewalks. A street hawker of CDs is repeating, with commercial compulsion, ‘Three dollar, four for ten dollars.” Samantha takes a palm reading calling card from a quieter street vendor and points it at the CD man as if it was a remote control. She says clearly, but with no hostility, “Turn it off.” Baffled, he pauses to assess this little girl. “Thank you,” she replies, and we’re walking again.
We duck down into Punjabi and Bollywood basement music stores on 74th Street. Videos enthrall. I expect Samantha to bounce to the joyous tunes that swallow entire movie set villages in an India of garish colors and suspended disbelief. But Samantha stands nearly still and looks clearly vexed. The young man behind the counter, perhaps sensing something’s amiss, lowers the speaker system’s volume. The whispery audio of the shop’s ceiling-mounted flat screen TV monitor can now be heard. Samantha dances and is happy again. It suddenly hits me that she was disturbed to see a cast of hundreds dancing out of sync with the music — with the removal of overlaying music, Samantha’s universe is realligned. A few minutes later, further down 37th Avenue, she bounds down into New Singapore Emporium, where the proprietor is clearly brightened by this cheery dancer. I buy her the CD, “52 Nonstop Remix.”
A block or two east on 37th Avenue, Tony and I pop quarters into a storefront mechanical ride. Again, a rhythm into which Samantha invests her heart. Afterward, she starts talking enthusiastically of a “castle with horses.” I look up the avenue and slowly connect the dots. The mechanical ride is Samantha’s horse and the great brick edifice of PS 69 is her castle. She’s weaving narratives on the fly.
There’s a weekend event underway at the school and Samantha leads us inside. Pine trees line the short walkway — that small vault of green is the stillest, quietest place we’ll encounter on our walk. My memory slips back to a haiku I wrote decades ago, about the commonality of seemingly disparate experiences:
Far inland, a wind
Spins fine snow off ancient pines.
Shimmers like sea spray!
But Samantha is quickly bored by this vision of peace. “This is not a castle,” she clarifies.
A few minutes later, Samantha’s bopping to a cumbia out of Yambao, a second-floor Latin music store under the 7 train, around the corner from Electra Court. This is our last stop. I’m startled at how much motor control and sense of possibility her dancing displays. She’s happier than me, the oaken observer. She is fully herself and in harmony with her surroundings.
I start to more fully comprehend a connection between music, peace and, indeed, stillness. By moving so freely with things as passing as music and neighborhood ethnic identities, Samantha is in fact still. She is peaceful. Her gracefulness in matching motion to motion is the heart of Relativity. Surrendering to motion is the way to stillness.