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Degraded acoustics

March 1st, 2006

BY ANDREW DARREL

The composer Wolf, it is said, was always changing apartments. Supposedly he never stayed more than three months in any one place, not until the syphilis began to make itself felt and he had to be locked up. His reasons for moving included all the usual ones: not being able to pay the rent, hating the landlord, hating the wolf.jpgfurniture, with maybe also a hint of a desire in his little way to imitate Beethoven, who was also a frequent mover. Wolf being a composer though, in his case as in Beethoven’s, I would presume the distraction of noisy neighbors must have contributed a lot to any impulse to move on.

There was a time once when I started to worry that I might be behaving too much like Wolf, and that it might be for the same fundamental reason — that I too was bonkers. When I last lived in Rome, in the Eighties, in less than three years I moved flats five times, in a city where many people live in a single flat all their lives. I’ve scratched my head but the only other person I can think of here who has lived in more than two apartments is Anna Maria’s dreadful brother, who isn’t mad maybe but is extremely nasty. I don’t worry about the question now, though. The anxiety passed when I moved on to another country, and found other things to worry about.

Back in Rome again, I have now been in my present apartment for almost six years, and have only recently begun to plan where I am going next. I have never before lived so long in one place. This strange stability may be due to the fact that I am growing old and staid, I suppose, but I don’t think it can be only that. I think it is also that I have been lucky in hitting quite by chance on a part of Rome that is unusually quiet.

The flat is on a back street, facing a park, with many of the neighboring flats only occasionally occupied. Most of the windows look out onto a courtyard that my building shares with five other blocks of flats, and it is really only through these windows that any identifiable and disturbing noises come at me. The one window that gives onto the street allows only dull street noise, except under exceptional circumstances. I hear a bit of traffic, the building works at the bottom of the road, the rustle of the leaves in the park, surprisingly loud birdsong, and, in summer, the constant roar of the cicadas. They are all steady, fairly continuous noises that after a while you stop noticing, and consequently they have very little power to vex.

Through the rear windows, on the other hand, I get the clarinetist practicing, the lady downstairs swearing at the pigeons, an occasional Wagner afternoon, early morning disco music from the gym in the semi-basement diagonally across from me, and, every so often, a magnificent neo-realist argument from some neighbor who wants to affirm the life-enhancing virtues of screaming and shouting at the rest of the family and leaning out of the window to do it. When I first moved into this flat I thought all this racket would drive me mad, and I considered having double-glazing put in in an attempt to keep the world out. Now I tend to think the place is rather too quiet and find the long periods of eerie silence that we get, especially in summer when everyone is away, unsettling. It now just makes me laugh when I hear the old lady downstairs come home from a visit to her daughter’s, go out onto the back balcony, see all the shit, and start shouting the Roman equivalent of “Fuck those fucking pigeons!” My friends all envy me the clarinetist, who must, we reckon, be a professional, and when visiting they stop talking to listen to him better — even though I think it would be more modest if he occasionally closed his windows while he practiced. I have grown used to most of the noise, and sentimental as it may sound, welcome it as evidence that the bomb has not dropped, and I have not been left alone on a dying planet.

I can’t say, however, that I have learned to love all noise from the courtyard. My neighbors’ TVs in these six years have not lost any part of their hatefulness. Italian TV is already awful enough, without your having to listen to other people’s choice of programs. You can’t get away from it in my building, and you never know when it is going to end.
There is an old man across from me who thinks he has trouble sleeping on hot summer evenings. He opens all his windows and settles down at about eleven o’clock to watch TV, with the volume up almost full because he is deaf. He then falls asleep. Most of us on the courtyard grit our teeth and put up with it, but there is one man, I think a couple of floors up from me, who starts calling out about one a.m., “Could you possibly turn the volume down a bit — if it’s not too much trouble?” These requests then get repeated every quarter of an hour, less and less courteously, until by half past two we are getting “LI MORTACCI TUA! SHUT THE FUCK UP!” — but of course, he never does.

Downstairs from me they are a bit the same. He used to be in the building trade, and loves fresh air, so they never close the windows — at all, ever — and they are now in their eighties and rather deaf. Fortunately they are also early risers, so their TV is usually off by eleven p.m. He is very keen on politics though, and every so often there is what he considers an important late-night discussion on, and they can stay up to listen to that until two in the morning, and me with them, alas. Italian politicians squabble like children and have not been taught to take turns, so what we get from midnight on is the din of ignorant politicians clashing by night, trying to shout each other down. The tradition of censorship — the Romans, the Inquisition, the Fascists — is very strong still, and when an Italian politician hears some assertion he disagrees with, instead of refuting it with compelling arguments and unanswerable proofs, he just raises a barrier of noise to stop anybody else hearing it. Mere noise from my neighbors doesn’t for the most part upset me much, but being forced to witness again the stupidity and petty-mindedness of the thieves paid to administer this country provokes a desperation that keeps me from my sleep almost without fail.

Other annoyances may seem more trivial, but they are also more persistent. Distracted by music’s power to please, people too often forget its capacity to irritate. The jingle announcing the start and finish of the news on RAI 1 is unnecessarily loud, and coming in through the windows ten or twelve times a day, now elicits an uncontrollable grimace. Italian TV is re-showing a lot of American detective series of the Seventies and Eighties, I gather. I can’t hear the dialogue for the most part, but the incidental music — a plinky-plonk derivative of the second Viennese school, a style of music that we don’t have to tolerate very often in concert halls any longer, thank God — penetrates all walls and windows. Worst of all is what happens at 1:30 every day. The old dears around the courtyard turn on their favorite soap opera then, to snooze through after lunch, and the place reverberates with Johnny Mathis giving us “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and I have the tune — but only half the words — going around in my head for the rest of the day, and nothing I can do gets rid of it.

This inconsiderate use of the telly has certain advantages, though. It means I feel licensed to turn up the volume myself at times when I need to. It took them ages to buy The West Wing for Italian television, and so I originally had to watch it on France 2, where it was broadcast around midnight. The acting style encouraged on West Wing, which has certain of the actors speaking like ventriloquists impersonating Katherine Hepburn, makes the dialogue hard enough to follow at any time, but dubbed into French it was unfortunately for the most part beyond me, even when I turned the volume up high in order to ensure that every vibration of the acoustic signal reached my ears. If this disturbed my neighbors at all, I didn’t care. I thought any slight annoyance the noise caused them would be entirely compensated for by the uplifting effect of contemplating a political leader like le Président Bartlette, who is noble, honest, strong, upright, and a great man almost of the stature of Captain Jean-Luc Picard — and so very unlike any of our own political leaders, or any of yours, either, I should imagine. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Television Issue, Darrel | Link to this Entry

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