Do you hear it? The creak of wood, the pinging of heating pipes, the west wind rattling a downspout on the north side, a whirring refrigerator motor, buzzing transformers in the basement. Every house has its own sounds, sounds that you grow up with, sounds that you tolerate and sounds that comfort you. Some people are spooked by sounds that houses make, thinking that there is someone else making those noises. To me they only confirm that you are residing in a living, breathing thing, and each has its own peculiarities. Of course, every house has electrical and mechanical systems, but even the same kinds of systems sound different in different houses. There is a special resonance to every abode depending on the materials that define them, as well as the age of the structure.
Some places have audible settlement sounds, generally in the same vicinity repeatedly. Most are more alive in winter time because of moving water, expansion and contraction, wind knocking against windows and whistling through the tiniest of openings. A low tick, tick, tick of metal, a sudden low crackle of wood as the sounds ricochet, encircling as a kind of surround-sound. There can be a repetitive pattern if you listen for it, first on the left, then in the hallway on the opposite side – traveling sounds. Then, as an accent, a clock chimes in and it becomes an interesting orchestrated piece: behind you the tympanum, downstairs the triangle.
This house we occupy doesn’t have much in the way of settlement sounds because it is built like a bunker: twelve inch-thick walls. And it sits atop a hill that is mostly rock. It has been this way for 138 years, so whatever settling it might have done may have been before our time. Or maybe its solidity just prevents us from hearing those sounds. It has seen many renovations and various uses and reuses, but based on the lack of settling noises, nothing has fazed its structure. It has even lived through a hurricane untouched, despite the house across the street having its roof peeled off. Most of its sounds are of internal systems and materials, added and changed over the years.
I wonder whether there are more house noises at night or whether it just seems like it because there are generally fewer other noises. Or do houses come alive at night? Contracting after a sun-soaked day, warmth breathing cold through the stone walls, the heat pipes ramping up to try to accommodate the change in temperature. Thunk, ping, click. The rhythm of the sounds dances around the rooms, mostly on the floors, sometimes on the walls, like Mr. Astaire.
When I am alone in the house I find the sounds to be soothing, friendly, familiar, predictable, companionable. Sometimes I think that if the house were dead silent it would feel strange. It wouldn’t commune with me. It breathes, it hums, it burps. We have recently lost the sounds of long-time cats – if you think cats are quiet, you have never lived with any. There is now a void where their sounds had been. If the house fell quiet it would seem alien. As we know, learning the sounds of a new dwelling can be strange.
Sound does create place just as places create sound. After twenty-five years in the same house, it would take me a while to adjust to what comes with a new place. I can close my eyes, and listen, and know where I am. I hear these sounds when I sleep and they are a lullaby; without them I would likely wake up. Although I have inhabited many places in my life, there are only two that I have such intimate connection with in knowing their sounds: my parents‘ home and, now, mine. It is one of the features of homeness, the placeness of sound.