Saturday, December 04, 2010
Sonic obsessions, revisited (4)
The doppler-shifted sound of a passing freight train. Fixed in memory are the sounds heard in the early morning in my parents' old house in California, just a few blocks below the AT&SF tracks; especially when the air was thick, shaping, focusing the sound like an acoustic prism. Many composers have been fond of or inspired by railroads and railroadianna: Honegger, Partch, Toch, Krenek, Reich, probably too many others to mention. In the early sixties, my father was fond of showing off his stereo to guests with the demo lp of railroad sounds, from steam to diesel and electric, that came with the set. Later, I loved to put an ear close to my model railroad and listen to the miniature approximation of the big iron stock, feeding oil and aspirin tablets into the chimney of the engine to make it steam, whistle, and smoke. But already, it was clear that those sounds, once emblematic of modernity, were increasingly the stuff of nostalgia. Doppler shifted sounds, whether concrete, electronic, or produced by instruments (i.e. brass players moving their bells) are extremely useful musical sounds, with or without any associations, but then, what kid doesn't like to listen to a train passing by?