Earplugs are for losers, I’ve always believed. So, on a recent Sunday, when a car alarm started shrilling outside my open window, I did what everyone does: I decided to ignore it. I closed the window. I put on happy music. I turned on a fan. I tried to fall asleep. I tried to read. I tried again to fall asleep. Finally, I caved in and borrowed earplugs from my housemate. But the alarm, faint as it was, lurked beneath my thoughts and shrieked its way into my dreams.
I woke up to the drill of a jackhammer. As I listened more closely, I realized my neighborhood was teeming with various scrapes, screeches, and roars. For the first time, I found myself sympathetic to people who are tormented by noise—particularly the strident, inhuman noises emitted by machines.
Daniel Wolkoff, a Brookland resident, claims that every day, up to 50 sirens pass by his house on their way to Providence Hospital. He has written enraged letters to city officials for two years and says that the sirens have given him headaches and acid reflux. At the same time, he says, he has neighbors who aren’t bothered by the noise at all. “What’s so amazing is that the population of a city like this has gotten so used to horrible noises everywhere they go, they don’t even think to complain,” he says.
“Noise is probably the No. 1 complaint I get from constituents….I get it all the time,” says Cardozo/Shaw Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Phil Spalding, who points out that although the District does have some arcane noise rules, they are almost never enforced. A 1977 law prohibits nonemergency noises above 65 decibels, but according to Spalding, local police departments rarely use their decibel meters. Recently, New York City has targeted noise pollution with a vengeance, passing ordinances outlawing excessively loud car stereos. Spalding believes that these reforms will soon reach D.C. But right now, he says, “People have almost no recourse.”
Spalding’s constituents are bothered primarily by noises from construction sites and clubs. But there’s also another major source of irritation in D.C.: aircraft noise. For the past 18 years, the D.C.-area group Citizens Against Aircraft Noise (CAAN) has examined flight patterns, altitudes, wind direction, and climate in order to develop recommendations for ways that airports, commercial airlines, local governments, and the military can work together to reduce aircraft noise. D.C. also suffers from much more helicopter noise than other cities. According to CAAN member Don MacGlashan, 90 percent of the helicopters over Washington belong to the military; they don’t fly predictable routes, and the military doesn’t disclose their positions or plans, so there’s no way for citizens to avoid being sonically accosted.
Helplessness in the face of noise overload is probably the biggest reason behind people’s frustration. Jim Ballas, who holds a doctorate in psychoacoustics from Catholic University, says that some people suffer from “recruitment,” a neural condition that leads their ears to amplify sounds so that annoying noises become even more annoying to them. But recruitment is pretty rare; for most people, noises become more annoying when they feel powerless to stop them. When people can control noise, they stop raging about it.
But most urban sounds—such as choppers, sirens, and car alarms—aren’t controllable. Or are they? Hesham Fouad is a sound engineer and founder of VRSonic, an Arlington-based company that creates 3-D soundscapes for virtual-reality simulations. Fouad records explosions for the military made by weapons such as bazookas and anti-tank weapons; he grapples with unbearable noises on a day-to-day basis. “What you have to do is open your mouth when it’s firing or your eardrums will burst,” he says about one of the weapons.
Fouad tells me about the theories of a Canadian named R. Murray Schafer, who pioneered a field called soundscape studies. Schafer believed that focusing on noise pollution was a negative approach; instead, he argued, people should focus on appreciating all the sounds around them. In other words, instead of donning earplugs, if ultra-sensitive people like Wolkoff started paying close attention to all the sounds in their environments, as well as to the sounds that they emitted themselves, they might find themselves less bothered by unpleasant noises such as ambulance sirens.
To accomplish this goal, Schafer set forth a series of “ear-cleaning” exercises through which people could achieve “clairaudience,” or clear and equal hearing of the sounds in their environment. Taking a “soundwalk” through a city is one of Schafer’s pet ear-cleaning exercises. Soundwalk activities might include singing along with the frequencies of neon lights, comparing the pitches of cash registers, or seeking out the fundamental resonance of an empty room.
Armed with a portable recording machine, a microphone, and the assistance of Paul Cummings, a VRSonic employee, I embark on a soundwalk through the District to try and retrain my ears to hear the whole soundscape rather than just the most irritating sounds.
Our first stop is Second Story Books in Dupont Circle. Following Cummings’ lead, I move around slowly—the better to hear sounds in all parts of the store. Immediately, small noises start to impress me: the way a fat man grunts as he reaches up to a high shelf for a book about the Civil War, the way that same book smacks against a wooden shelf when the man discards it. There’s the sound of books skidding against each other, the sound of pages unfurling.
At Velvet Lounge, I am enraptured by the hiss of the soda-fountain gun as Matt, the bartender, pours a Jack and Coke with practiced ease. When he opens beer cans, the suds interest me a lot less than the caesura between the bending-back of the tab and the puncturing of the metal.
Later that day, we head over to Brookland, where I want to test my new and improved sense of hearing on Wolkoff’s sirens. But for a quarter of an hour, we hear only one sirenless EMT van and the drone of cicadas. According to Cummings, D.C. is actually much quieter than most other big cities because the buildings are so much lower. But because of the relative quiet, it becomes much easier for people to pick out, and fixate on, loud (and therefore annoying) sounds.
As I train my ears on Wolkoff’s neighborhood, I think about how he barricades himself behind closed windows, air conditioners, fans, and earplugs. He’s about to spend $1,300 on storm windows and $2,300 on central air, not because he’s hot but for soundproofing. “Someone like me is completely entrapped,” he says.
Although my soundwalk has been ear-opening, I still feel that I’m just a few car alarms away from a Wolkoffian urge to lock myself in. I need to find other places in D.C., outside the confines of my room, where there is total silence.
Cummings tells me about anechoic chambers, rooms in which sound waves have been filtered out in order to create total silence. According to the composer John Cage, when he entered such a room, all he could hear was his own body: his blood flowing, his heart beating. I settle for something less intense: the silent prayer room in the belly of the National Cathedral.
To get there, Cummings and I have to pass through Gift-Shop Heaven. Under solemn arches, people thumb through DVDs of The Passion of the Christ and copies of Episcopoly (Monopoly for the devout) as sacred music ennobles the air around them. The prayer room is beautiful. Mosaics glitter on the stone walls, and about 20 empty chairs wait to enshroud us in silence. Finding the reverb in the room to be exceedingly pleasant, Cummings switches on the mike.
As I kneel at the altar, I can hear the people around us in hyperreal detail. Lots of rustlings, lots of people contemplating what they are about to buy, lots of high, squeaky sounds as sneakers tread on the polished floor. Maybe I need earplugs after all.
As we walk out, I tell Cummings, “I liked how there was a low hum in there. That was the most peaceful part.”
“That was the air conditioner,” he says, laughing.
I started laughing, too. After all my soundwalking, I’ve found myself mesmerized by an air conditioner! But maybe my findings aren’t so surprising after all. Schafer reports that what modern people have come to think of as the most primal and peaceful tone corresponds to the pitch of electricity humming through machines. Beneath its most disturbing sounds, D.C. also produces some of the most comforting.
For the rest of my walk home, I am amazed by the myriad, shifting, and almost imperceptible noises all around me: the ambient thrum of air conditioners and generators, the passing whoosh of cars, and the steady rise and fall of fountains. I’m not going to plug my ears up—not when I’m finally learning how to listen.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Wesley Bedrosian.