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Learning to Listen to, and Beyond, the Siren’s Call

For the past five years I have lived a mile from the Brooklyn Hospital Center — though I’m a bit ashamed to say that I did not realize it until a few weeks ago. I am fortunate to have until now moved through life with a breezy ignorance of the nearest hospital’s location. But that unawareness has been punctured hundreds, maybe thousands, of times over the past few weeks by a sound that has become my and my neighbors’ near constant companion: the sirens.

They’re everywhere. They howl, yelp and bleat at all hours, like mournful electric coyotes. They Doppler in and out of my perception, one after another after another. Their persistence has a cumulative effect: I feel their presence in my body as an ever-increasing tightness in my shoulders and neck. It is as though, around the clock, the city itself were wailing for its sick and dying.

Before the virus, there had been so much stimulus that many of us had learned to filter it out of our awareness — subway buskers’ pleas; sudden eruptions of earth-rumbling subwoofers at red lights — in order to preserve the emotional energy required to move through our days. But now in the absence of other sounds like heavy traffic, construction and the springtime shrieks of children on playgrounds, the sirens are all there is to hear. And of course, we cannot turn a deaf ear to what we know their escalating numbers signify.

As I have been learning to live with the changing sounds of New York City, I’ve been thinking of the work of the experimental American composer Pauline Oliveros, who dedicated her long career to exploring “the difference between hearing and listening.” As she put it in a TED Talk in 2015, the year before she died, “To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically.”

In the 1970s, Oliveros published a series of “Sonic Meditations,” playful koans meant to heighten our experience of listening. “Take a walk at night,” one of them went. “Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.”

I have heard the sounds of my city, incessantly, for the seven years that I’ve lived here, but the pandemic has demanded that I listen to them. To hear an ambulance siren is to faintly register the interruption of a high, whining pitch; to listen to an ambulance siren is to picture the face and the body and the family of the person it is carrying to a hospital, likely another neighbor suffering from Covid-19.

“When listening,” Oliveros notes, “there is a constant interplay with the perception of the moment compared with remembered experience.” For many people who were living in New York during 9/11, the sirens have been triggering memories of that awful aftermath. This time around, though, there are even more of them: Several days in late March generated upward of 7,000 New York City emergency calls — an almost 30 percent increase over the number received on Sept. 11, 2001.

What Oliveros calls “deep listening” can be overwhelming and draining to do all the time, especially in moments of crisis. But it can also prompt an expansion of curiosity, which is itself a kind of balm. I have learned from NBC News, in my attempts to coexist with the sirens, that most American ambulances contain an “electronic box in each vehicle, which comes preloaded with seven different sounds with names such as ‘Wail,’ ‘Yelp,’ and ‘Piercer.’”

European ambulances often employ what’s known as a “hi-lo siren,” two alternating tones that have roughly the same decibel level but a lower frequency than their shrill American counterparts. Last year, City Council member Helen Rosenthal introduced a bill that would have required New York emergency vehicles to transition to hi-lo sirens, but a trial program at Mount Sinai did not make Morningside Heights residents less inclined to file noise complaints.

Perhaps we have come to believe that there is something quintessentially, if arbitrarily, American about the unrepentantly boisterous shriek of our ambulances, among other things. “New York City lawmakers have proposed a new law that would change the sound of emergency vehicle sirens to resemble those in Europe,” Colin Jost of “Saturday Night Live” joked last year on Weekend Update. “That way, you can spend your ride in the ambulance pretending you have universal health care.”

Though it might be an odd confession for a music critic to make, in these past few weeks I have not often felt in the mood to listen to records, streams or the radio. I felt a strong pull, instead, to bear witness to the changing ambient sounds of the city. On walks I find it hard to concentrate on music or podcasts, but I still find plenty to listen to: The chatter of birds who have suddenly become more loquacious than their human counterparts. The fogged-mirror breaths of a now-rare overhead airplane — where is it going? Who is on it and why has their travel been deemed essential? A woman on the other side of the sidewalk singing to herself, the cheery tune muffled by a paper face mask.

This is the kind of pastoral quiet I have sometimes desired from the city in my more irritable moments, but it doesn’t feel peaceful now. Just unbearably eerie. I miss the comfort of the noise.

There’s a bit more of that to listen to my apartment building, though. I can tell that more people are home than usual by the overhead sounds of footfall, conversations and drifting tunes. I note, with a pop music critic’s curiosity, my downstairs neighbor’s favorite songs on the season’s big new albums (Dua Lipa’s “Love Again”; the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights”).

The nightly 7 p.m. cheers (which have at least once been accompanied by a window-ledge D.J. blasting “New York, New York”) have not yet made it to my part of town, but I’ve been following their jubilant tradition on social media, moved by the experience of a city of millions of strangers briefly pausing to make noise and listen to it together. The mood is cathartic and celebratory — until it is inevitably broken by another siren’s cry.

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