18 December, 2005

Noises off

A man gets tied up to the ground
He gives the world its saddest sound

- Paul Simon

I used to have a friend who worked the other side of the city and who'd sometimes come round of an evening to visit. I'd always go to meet him off the train - a local metropolitan service, not the mainline network, and one that joined up all the suburbs with carriages that looked more at home in a bus depot than on a railway.

I met him at the station a number of times, and each occasion I remember the anticipation of his arrival being heightened by the sound of the railway line humming in advance of the approaching train. But the same ambience, over time, became imbued with a deeper notion, one to do with transience, of things arriving then departing, and of how impermanent much of what we come to value in life can be. All because the noise a train makes when it's approaching is identical to that of it disappearing.

So an otherwise humdrum buzzing became, for a period, an evocative tone signalling, in essence, the way people arrive in my life but always depart sooner or later. I heard it again the other day when I was walking past a railway line, which reminded me of the Paul Simon lyric above, and hence led to this list of, in no particular order, ten of the saddest sounds:

- a train in the distance

- the needle of a record player stuck in the runout groove

- a ship's foghorn echoing across a foggy river

- snow falling on a provincial town (it's more the complete absence of sound that's poignant here; try standing in your street in the middle of a snowfall and see how overwhelmingly silent everywhere becomes)

- a flute player busking in a subway

- the wind in the aftermath of a London Underground train

- soft rain falling in the early hours of a morning

- an Em9 chord on an acoustic guitar

- a crackly recording of a 1940s popular tune

- a couple laughing behind a closed door


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