Tag Archives: sound


Finding placeness in a physical site can be stimulating, exhilarating, meditative, even awe-inspiring. But what about finding it nowhere? Does placeness have to be somewhere? Can it appear out of thin air? One of the great potential arslocii spots can be found in radio – if it is special. Theater of the mind. But don’t expect it to happen often. It won’t.

As we wrote previously, sound can create a sense of place. And we all have experienced music that, on first listening or after multiple encounters, transports us. It’s like time travel, returning us to a time and place where we first heard it. Music has that power of memory. The best bit, though, is how music can be transcendent, lifting our minds above our earthly cares.

But what happens when someone is so knowledgeable about music that he/she can program it to create placeness? There are a select few people on the radio who are painting or sculpting a place, an emotional, sensual and mind-engaging place that is formed by a masterful sense of their materials and built into an experience that we can share in a meaningful way. Creating a space out of sound waves. Thin air made solid.

This happy occurrence has made me a believer in the aural arslocii phenomenon on two radio broadcast programs. Luckily, both can be heard streaming online also.

One of them has been going on for thirty-plus years, offered by WXPN, a radio station originating at the University of Pennsylvania. It is called Sleepy Hollow, and it airs only on weekends and for just three hours on each of its two mornings, although in the past several years it has added a couple of hours on Sunday at the early side of the program. The mix of music is eclectic, spanning decades as well as cultures. The common thread is its tone: soothing sounds to awaken and delight the mind as the early-morning body shakes off sleep. It is not sleep-inducing but rather a gentle massage of the senses done with finesse by the three DJs – Chuck Elliott, Keith Brand and John Diliberto – each creating a show. And, especially, in a world of overformatted, focus-group-styled radio hammering away at your pocketbook and head, like so much television does, Sleepy Hollow is yippie radio – maybe, softly said, yippee.

Some of us are old enough to remember when, in the late Sixties, some unique, off-the-wall FM-radio stations insinuated themselves into the commercial mix and started a music revolution. Progressive rock was a kind of anti-programming, a free-form format that promoted albums over single releases and stayed away from top-40 rock. Sleepy Hollow follows that singular and lonely path to this day. To quote its own website: “ …from Miles Davis, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell to Chet Baker, Norah Jones and Nick Drake – Sleepy Hollow is a place where mood and music combine to create a warm and relaxing weekend morning experience.” Arslocii.

A babe in comparison, at not quite seven years old, is Radio Deluxe, which I bumped into on WAMC in New York state. Another personalized mix of jazz, stage, standards and surprises, it’s hosted and curated by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, the husband/wife duo whose combined knowledge of popular-musical culture is an encyclopedic treasure trove. They also offer great banter from their lofty Manhattan  apartment, “high atop Lexington Avenue, here in the deluxe living room.” While Jessica, a singer, prefers vocalists and John, primarily a jazz guitarist, leans towards instrumentals, a perfect blend is the result. From their website, quoting Christopher Loudon, of Jazz Times: “Among radio’s greatest pleasures is each weekly installment of Radio Deluxe, two hours of great jazz and smart, sassy repartee from John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, the hippest husband-and-wife team since Louis Prima and Keely Smith.”

Each of their shows is a tribute to musicians and is a joy to be privy to. The adept team manages to create a physical space for us listeners, and while we are being entertained and enriched we are catching a glimpse of what it is like to be immersed in their musical world. Placeness. The thing is, they are both accomplished musicians and they have created a show to honor others who came before them as well as give glimpses of their own talents. They set the tone as well as the bar with their unique radio program and give us a little history lesson, to boot. Some weeks it is the two hosts, other times there are guest musicians giving the sense of a “live” component.

As listeners, we are brought into their living room, imagining ourselves seated around the piano or a blazing fireplace, enjoying the sounds, the conversation and, maybe even, the cocktails. In one show, you can actually hear one of the guests in the background asking John for more ice – and he actually answers. It brings us another tick closer to our imaginings of what the renowned parties at Gershwin’s must have been like, only this is more intimate, because we are guests, too. Jessica and John are serious about the music, and they make us laugh. Sound waves made palpable. Oh, yes, and they and their show are oh so deluxe and, through them, so are we.

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The Harmonious Breath

We all have experienced moments, in locations, at events that have happily converged, leaving a profound effect on our consciousness. These aren’t usually the predictable sorts, such as rote observances; the calendar-year celebrations that are repeated rituals, touchstones that reinforce who we are and who we connect with. What I am talking about are the more unexpected happenings that surprise us, sometimes rendering us breathless. And leaving us desirous of them happening again.

These confluences, these special combinations of space and time – a place, a state of mind, the weather, nature and, sometimes, dollops of human-generated creativity – are brought together as momentary and ephemeral circumstances that can cause us to glimpse something out of the ordinary, pressing our noses to the glass between us and another realm of well-being. That’s what makes them so special. Really unduplicatable. And perfect. Instances like these can come out of nowhere or can occur within the context of a planned circumstance, but are still unpredictable things – “aha” moments that are surprising in their impact, unforeseen. We do not control these occurrences. We yearn for them but can’t generate them. We are lucky if we recognize them. And they can’t be recreated because, mostly, they are not of our making.

In this blog, we try to describe such instances of awareness, openness, being in the moment; e.g., sunlight glancing off wind-borne glitter, the meaningful placement of art in nature, magical discoveries of abandoned places, the interaction of architecture and its site, sounds that transport us to another place or keep us stupefied in this one. Our attempt is to be in tune with all that surrounds us. Open to the possibilities. Looking for the moments.

So, when the potential for such a convergence presents itself, we try to be there so that we are in a place of possibility. This time it was in a place that is full of seekers – Kripalu, a center for yoga and integrative health, nestled into a majestic site within the Berkshires. The workshop that spoke to us was “Zen and the Art of Harmonica Yoga,” and it proved to be an exhilarating mix of mindfulness, breath work and music. Imagining that this could be a recipe for placeness, we were hopeful.

Most of us don’t breathe – not well anyway – either because of vanity (holding in those abs), or fear, or hesitation, or the inhibitory power of stress. And, anyway, why would we want to breathe deeply in most of the environments we inhabit? It can be counter-productive. The mindfulness was meant to be used as a coping strategy, learning to be aware of our indicator lights that trigger anger and stress, and being able to control them, mostly with our breathing and, ultimately, by creating sound and music.

So, these elements of breathing and mindfulness can be coalesced into the act of  playing the harmonica – a seemingly small creation in the pantheon of musical instruments: the mouth harp. The breaths can be a little heady, the sounds can be soft and soothing, or bluesy-raspy. You can find your inner rhythm and clear your mind. Oxygenation and notes produced. Sometimes you become aware of your own voice. Other times you feel the combined energy of playing with others, a cacophony of breaths made resounding. In, out, in, out, in, out, in. I hear the beats in my head, the sounds in my ears, a quickening pulse, beautiful noise. Long in-breath, I feel dizzy. I am not used to this quantity of oxygen in my lungs. The other time I felt this way was when I went with a few people to an oxygen bar – I left floating. But that was delivered via a plastic tube; this is self-generated. Headier stuff.

I am not even all that good at harmonica playing, but I am getting better at breathing. I am in the moment, thinking about a moment past, of my first breath – the one that brought me consciousness. But this time it is different because I am aware of it and I can savor it. This time, this breath is not just reflex or survival instinct; it is spiritual, cosmic, poetic. In this setting, it is communal, contemplative, soulful … and necessary. It is experiential. That’s me floating overhead, playing notes, making sounds that come from my diaphragm. The harmonious place of life and sound. The zen and art of harmonica yoga. Arslocii.

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Thunk. Ping. Click.

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.




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Air Space

Exploring the concept of placeness, one finds – as do those who dig deeper into the intricacies of physics or medicine or philosophy or any other science, art or craft – that the ideas get bigger as the scope gets smaller. Atoms, at one time, seemed miraculous enough as a micro building block of what we perceive as existence, but attempts to make even finer points of it have turned up gluons and other particles that have made matters (and matter) even more complex, and have sent us off on new directions via twisty paths, with the understanding of everything as the goal. Good luck with that.

Similarly, in pondering placeness, and placeness as art, and art itself, we here at arslocii have gone to places and seen things, and felt things, and recorded them, and so have come up with descriptions, skirted and homed in on definitions, and evolved questions, which in turn have generated more questions. Sometimes, clarity has been the reward; at other times, it’s been like trying to scoop up light in our hands and sip it.

On the radio this morning, music started playing, and then the deejay began speaking while the song continued at a somewhat lowered volume, and he said, to identify the tune, “Behind me you’re hearing …” and we thought: “Behind”? Unless the show’s host had actually turned his back on the CD player in the studio, there was nothing literally “behind” about it. But, in terms of placeness, it was a fascinating jumping off point: thinking of a diminished sound as being “behind,” as if radio waves were a place with directional coordinates. (Sometimes, intriguingly, “behind” is referred to instead by radio professionals as “under,” and the announcer is said to speak “over” the music.) It’s not location we’re dealing with here, really, nor physical layering, but representative abstract depiction, a metaphorical component to placeness.

And it got us to thinking (or, actually, rethinking) about where placeness resides; that is: Does or can a place contain “placeness,” in and of itself, as an essence of it, or is placeness just something in our head that we superimpose on a site, for some reason or need? Is it there, or do we bring it with us? And what is “it”? And where is “there”? And, as with radio, do you need to have an actual, physical place to have placeness?

Of course, something like radio is easily the topic of a placeness discussion in and of itself. Anyone lucky enough (i.e., old enough) to have heard Stan Freberg’s power-of-radio commercial (“Cue the maraschino cherry!”), or Jean Shepherd’s intimate and rollicking latenight monologues, knows that these artists of the air did more than just paint pictures with their words and sounds – they created places we were in, and today we have memories of being there. We can not only describe what we “saw,” but tell you how it smelled, or how big things were. They were magicians of placeness – they took us someplace else: behind, under, over. And no matter whether you were listening to them in the dark of night or the light of an afternoon, in a room, in a car, in the park, the placeness was there. And we were in it.

Is placeness an objective, universally grasped trait or aspect of the “personality” of a locale? Or, if placeness is not objective, and does not reside per se in the places we deem as having placeness, then it is a subjective thing, a personal preference, as much nurture as nature. A need in search of a vessel to hold it.

Or maybe it’s neither. Or maybe it’s both. (We’d sort of like, in a philosophical-cum-romantic way, for placeness to be an entity that exists in a place, just waiting to be discovered, like a new element, or a treasure in an antique shop, or a new sense, like umami.) Or maybe it is something we are meant to perceive but never quite understand – like great art, to know it when you see it, but never to have the tools to explain how or why, but to know when you are in the presence of it.

The direction of our future “digs” into the stratified soil of placeness – including our continued visits to and descriptions of places that we contend have that quality, that  “soul,” if you will – will be to continue trying to determine what it is that gives places that are universally regarded as possessing placeness their “placeness,” to split the atom of it, to see the particles and attracting/repelling forces that give it its substance and shape – to get down to the indivisible, irreducible, ineluctable core. It’s a journey that may take us into places we cannot imagine that we will go, or that we ever knew existed: to dwell in places where music being “behind” or “under” or “over” is more than just a convenient expression but, rather, a signpost.

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Resounding Memory

I grew up in a house that was placed in a unique setting: built upon a large hill but nestled up against another smaller hill on a kind of protected plateau, the whole creating an acoustical framework. The hill behind caused an echo effect and the hill below acted as a funnel, sending sound up to us. We were situated in the middle, like a receiving tower or a dish antenna in the Very Large Array. About a half mile down the hill in a valley was a major expressway, constructed in the watershed of a creek, whose twisty path it followed through the city. Beyond that, a few hundred feet away, were the vast train yards of a once major hub of rail transportation. Both of these travel paths, road and rail, were sources of sounds, sounds that I grew up with – naturally believing that those were the norm everywhere. From the expressway, there was the constant background rush (of course, reduced by the distance from it), a low, persistent, almost ocean sound. And, too, the occasional downshifting of truck engines as they slowed for the road curves that mirrored the creek bed, a baritone drone that changed pitch with gear ratio. All of this was more apparent at night; and as the sound travelled up the hill like surface waves and got caught against the hill behind us, it would bounce and settle into our natural amphitheater – an early version of surround sound. The acoustics were quite good. Then the trains would join in, with their rumbling bass temporarily drowning out the expressway and their soft blasts of diesel air horns, which can be as soothing at night as a chorus of bullfrogs can be. There were more immediate sounds closer by, but not so much at night, thereby magnifying the ones traveling up the hill.

I could never have predicted that I would eventually live in my own house and experience, almost exactly note for note, the same sounds. Thirty years later, in a different city in a different state, a different neighborhood that is more hard-surfaced and appeared to be nothing like the place I grew up in – there I was lying in bed, maybe the first month we were living in the house, and I heard it. I heard it all again.

The house we live in is situated at the top of a hill with a large building behind it that acts just as the small hill in back did in my childhood home. About a half mile down the hill, in a valley and across a river is a major expressway that follows the river’s curves. Between the road and the river are train tracks – not a train yard, but a regularly used set. The persistent sound of the expressway flows up the hill and bounces off the building behind us, the trucks downshift and rumble as they negotiate the curvy road. The trains’ deep roar drowns out the other sounds, and their soft blasts of diesel air horns have that same comforting tone. It is uncanny, really, how similar the distance to the source of these sounds is – the one in Cincinnati, the other in Philadelphia – and how nearly identical the sounds that are generated, then and now. I can close my eyes and listen and be back in my original room. Or, I can be in the room of my own choosing and feel just as whole and connected to here as I did to there.

It is impossible to imagine how I was able to find the perfect spot to recreate the background music of my past. It wasn’t the thing I was actively seeking – it just happened. But it is magical. It is a piece of my past made present. The soundtrack of my life. I am lucky in this way because it is serendipity that this is the way it is. Sometimes being in a new place, the sounds around you can be bothersome, frightening even. What are the chances that I would have the same sounds?

Sound can create placeness just as objects or spaces can. It is said that smell is the most memory-driven of the senses, but I believe, just as powerful, is sound – familiar and eternal and place-making.

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Ode to Joy

Recently, in a weekend retreat program designed to seek and find joy, our task was to list the things that bring us joy in life. My list included:

1. serendipity, finding the unexpected certainly can generate joy, maybe it is joy;

2. light, mostly natural, some artificial (incandescent lamps only);

3. music, both natural and human made – I am keenly aware that I am more attuned to the latter but I can also appreciate the sounds of nature.

Some examples of natural music during this sojourn: the calls of birds, frogs and wind; a flock of sandhill cranes singing their crossing of the evening sky, like a chorus of squeaky gates; the bullfrogs’ vibrational drone, perhaps an Indian tambura; the wind through a forest of pines, a soft whoosh, similar to a distant train or the persistent ocean ebb and flow; the high pitch howl of a coyote. Magical sounds. Real sounds.

Placeness can be perceived through sound as well as sight, or feel. Or through all of these things together. At the site of the retreat was an overwhelming sensual experience, a place of spirit – a spirit of place. There, in this mid-Michigan landscape, was a pine forest planted in rows, straight lines, aisles, allees in the woods, chorus lines in an endless mirror. Row after row, uniform rows, columns, stud walls, buttresses holding up roofs of scented leaves, cathedrals of nature, a crunchy carpet of brown needles below. Upright, alert, an army of trees, battalions, natural fence posts. The wind rushing through the totemic figures, the light penetrating and generating an orange glow off the trees and thick floor matting. Space is defined, place is created. Sight, sound, feel. Joy.

Or inside an empty corn crib built of horizontal wood lath with light filtering through, corn husks on the floor. A tiny chapel for one or two who enter and notice. An odd birdhouse-shaped structure, almost a cartoon rendering of a house with no right angles. This basic, practical container becoming a beautiful space and light container, a filtering device for viewing the world, or a space all its own.

Genius loci is a concept defined by the Romans as a protector of a site, a deification of a unique place that makes it something worth defending. Random House Dictionary’s entry for genius loci is “the peculiar character of a place with reference to the impression that it makes on the mind.” Simply and modernly put, a “spirit of place.” Alexander Pope incorporated the concept into landscape design, now an underlying principle of landscape architecture – that the overlay of design should be adapted to its context – in order to express the uniqueness of place. From personified tutelary spirits that exemplify a place to a pervasive spiritual sense of a particular site, it all reveals that throughout human history, the interaction with “place” is significant.

Arslocii begins with Genius loci, but that’s only half of it. Arslocii is the combination of a special site with something else – something permanent, or something fleeting, which causes an enhancement of both and creates an experience of placeness from the two. It is the pairing and synergy, ergo the two “ii”s. It is an artful relationship, one of the spirit and of the mind, of the place and of what’s placed in the place, in tandem. And the whole is greater than the two parts.

Back at the retreat, as we moved symbolically from leaving our joylessness behind and welcoming our newfound joy, we each in turn threw a handful of glitter up into the air. It was a partially cloudy day with the sun ducking in and out intermittently, a soft breeze moving the clouds playfully. The glitter was tossed, it caught the sunlight, was carried by the wind and created magic as it cascaded in waves to the ground – a fairy veil of sparkly energy, atoms made visible, tangible sunlight. It lasted but a moment but what a spectacular moment. Joy. Arslocii.ladyfi.wordpress.com

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