The author with dog, Jimmy, soaking up the sounds of Beijing (COURTESY PHOTO)
"What is your favorite sound of Beijing, and why?"
This question was put to hundreds of Beijingers in 2005 as part of the Sound and the City project. The resulting field recordings are still available to stream online, with titles such as Pigeon Whistles in the Sky, Hutong (narrow alleys) Quiet and Walking on Ginko Leaves. The acoustic ecology (where human and environment meet through sound) of China's capital has long captivated, as when British official John Barrow noted in 1793, "the buz [sic] and confused noises of [the] mixed multitude." Confused noises to the outsider who "looks but sees not, listens but hears not," to borrow a Chinese phrase.
With time and the practice of deep listening, such "noise" resolves into richness. Rich enough for the 100 hours of recordings made for veteran radio personality Su Jingping's Beijing Sound Business Card, a CD collecting Beijing's soundscape, produced for the 2008 Olympics. Here is the animating tension of modernity—of train station, taxi, construction site and car, juxtaposed by temple bell, pigeon whistle and the chants of hutong street hawkers (now, all but gone).
But has the balance shifted in recent months? Summer sounds different in Beijing this year. Or am I appreciating its sonic texture for the first time? COVID-19 restrictions have stripped away the city drone and working from home has afforded new listening opportunities. Birdlife, conversation and music abound. Even the odd street cart has returned in this strange period, as if we've entered a time warp. Or as famed ambient composer Brain Eno, who once hosted a sound installation at Ritan Park, observed, "How can so close to the center of a capital city be so silent?" Maybe this contradiction is the point and all COVID-19 has done is to reinforce this contrast.
Timeless too are the gourd vines growing everywhere. What calls to me most lately are the faint strains of gourd flute, or hulu si, piping up and off from beside the river and through my window. More people have been setting up by the canals, brandishing all manner of instruments. Maybe they too have noticed the lull and feel driven to fill the gap with music, to be in dialogue with the city.
I shared a nod with a saxophonist after a particularly rousing rendition of a strange yet familiar tune—"strange yet familiar" being one more of Beijing's identity-making paradoxes. As COVID-19 restrictions began to ease, I also found myself at the edge of Chaoyang Park, witnessing loose-knit musical ensembles take shape, friends freely trading places and instruments. Communal song. The same public singing that has earned Jingshan Park the nickname "passion square." My own passion not sufficient to overcome my shyness, the world was spared my take on Karen Mok's Growing Fond of You.
Yet there are echoes in all this of the dying of forms of Quyi and Qinshu, the old music and storytelling arts. Change may be the rule here and CDs are one preservation tool but the sounds of old Beijing have their best custodian in Colin Siyuan Chinnery and his Shijia Hutong Sound Museum, which since 2013 has been dedicated to keeping the traditional sounds of the alleyways alive (visit to hear some 300 hutong sounds).
But to answer the initial question, my favorite Beijing sound is the admonition of three-wheel delivery trucks to "please be careful of the reversing vehicle (Qingzhuyi Daoche)." I have proudly shared my pristine recordings of this with several friends and we ocassionally swap similar characteristically Beijing audio clips.
Reflect on your own personal favorites. Maybe try some field recordings, visit the Shijia Museum or, if so inclined, search up the Dongniao (understanding birds) mini-app on WeChat and try to distinguish local birds by their calls. Now, more than ever, Beijing's audio palette functions like some city-sized John Cage piece. This is the captial's take on Cage's famous 4'33" composition, in which he replaces music with ambient sound, so enjoy the city's "silence" while you can.
The author is a Beijing-based writer and musician from Australia
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
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