Soundtrack for an Empty City: A playlist

Before getting off the bus, I take a look around to see if anyone else has been riding with the driver and me for the last twenty minutes.

There’s just one more, a mountain of a man asleep in the back, taking up two seats. His legs are open wide and his head is tilted into the corner behind him. His jaw hangs low as if he were asleep in his living room. From the looks of him, he should be snoring but he’s not.

We’re at the last stop, the stop where the driver usually tells everyone to clear off, but tonight he doesn’t say a word. Then again, there’s a yellow plastic chain separating him from the rest of the bus, so I don’t know if he’s actually said something. That, and he’s got a mask over half his face.

Approaching the curb, I look up for traffic. I already know there probably won’t be any cars, just food delivery people wrapped from head to toe silently whipping past on e-bikes.

But there is one guy, short, thick, jacketless, with a Ray Davies “Come Dancing”-era comb-back. He’s standing in the bike lane of all places when there’s nothing but empty space around, yelling into his phone:

“I TOLD YOU, YOU CAN CHANGE EVOLUTION.”

Any other day, I would’ve let the moment pass. But with everything about city life that on a person-to-person level I’ve grown accustomed to – taken for granted even – suddenly gone, the indie movie cliché of the crackpot with a leaky theory about what’s really going on around here, man, stood out. Behold, your newly unemployed security guard, losing his shit with nobody around to notice or care.

I do that city thing though, and keep walking.

I turn the corner by the bank and head to Cooper Square plaza, a space that’s usually busy with skate boarders, pot-smoking bike messengers, residents like me walking to or from work, folks out for the night.

There’s nobody around. A fresh breeze gusts from the south and smells surprisingly clean. Less traffic, less pollution: one silver lining. Without all the headlights and ambient light from apartments and restaurants, the traffic and street lights glow with an almost sentient intensity. It’s beautiful. All of it. The silence, the surrounding darkness, the emptiness.

Beneath all of this is a horror story. And as I walk, I see ambulances parked mid-block on every other street, with warning lights whipping and flashing…

This playlist is an attempt to reflect some of the uncertainty permeating the city. The feelings of abandonment, of isolation and fear and doubt. It’s also an attempt to catch some of the unintended beauty revealed in the wake of all the people who have gone inside or gone away or gone missing.

I miss them. I miss us. In some way, I’ll miss this version of the city when it’s gone. Yet I can’t wait for all of this to be over.

Kamran Sadeghi – Loss Less – Industrial Evolution

Back in 1990, my job used to take me past a building on Sixth Avenue called Americas Tower. Construction had started on it in 1989 and in that same year stopped. As I walked beneath its murky shadow, I used to think of the unfinished building as a gigantic work of art unto itself. What could be more perfect? A symbol of “America,” hulking, generic, and as I discovered years later, nakedly incomplete thanks to lawsuits over shady funding from the Marcos clan. To my disappointment, work resumed in 1991 and the ugly thing was eventually finished and folded into corporate oblivion along with the other unremarkable towers along that stretch of midtown Manhattan.

The idea of that other tower, and the possibility of repurposing whole structures, still lives in my mind…

Over in Satsop, Washington, stands what was intended to be a five-tower nuclear power plant, the largest in the country. Started in 1977, construction came to a halt in 1983, thanks to an enormous budget gap. Two of the hoped-for plant’s enormous cooling towers survived, both nearly 500 feet tall, and with bases 440 feet wide, and from 2004 to 2008, a local organization worked to open them for artistic exploration.

All of which brings me to Loss Less by Kamran Sadeghi.

As artist-in-residence at Satsop in 2008, Sadeghi created a pre-recording – a string of metallic-sounding strikes, varying in attack and pitch, a little over two minutes long – then played it into the space of the unused cooling tower and recorded it, capturing the tower’s unique acoustic response to the recording. (The cover art above is a shot taken from inside the tower.) He then repeated the process with that new recording, capturing the next generation of sound. And so on, and so on, up to ten times through, recording and replaying every amplification and every distortion. What might sound objectively like a dead-end exercise in methodology resulted in something extraordinary.

Unlike Alvin Lucier’s legendary “I am sitting in a room” – a stated point of reference for “Loss Less” – things go askew quickly. By the third time through the cycle, the individual strikes of Sadeghi’s original recording sound as if they’re smothered in clouds of cotton wool. The dormant acoustics of the tower space are fully activated, pulsing and swelling and resonating, yet the source material can still be discerned through the sonic fog. By the fourth round, distortion has firmly taken over, and as you enter the fifth iteration, you’re in another realm altogether. Where Lucier’s piece gradually works its way toward a glowing sort of hum, “Loss Less” hungrily morphs into a howling delirium, a blistering, roaring blast that raised the hairs on my neck and left me flinching with delight. If you’re a fan of Yellow Swans’ mighty Going Places, you need to check this out. 

In the spirit of reiteration, Sadeghi follows up the 25-minute “Loss Less” with a 25-minute rework, combining samples from his source material with various effects over a rumbling drum track that put me in mind of the calming, repetitive sounds of a train. Both pieces effectively conjure sounds of industries – one from what was intended to be the future, the other from the past. Sadeghi deftly slips into that temporal gap, exploring and exploiting the tension between presence and absence, representation and abstraction, site and non-site while drawing out the tower’s unintended yet serendipitous acoustic properties to create something altogether other. “Loss Less” offers caustic bliss in abundance. Be sure to play it loud.