Or a pregnant woman. As taste has dissipated, my olfactory sense has eagerly leapt to fill in. But it’s doing overkill, I think. Odors are now pronounced enough that walking through this city is akin to strolling through a sewer. Fried food, grease, the smell of flesh – beef, chicken, seafood – are particularly strong and distasteful.
But also richer. Standing in line outside Mama’s on Washington Square, the odors emanating from the basement entry were deep, round and hollow. Union Street announced itself shrill and grating. The floor of Cafe Roma reeks of ammonia and cleaning fluid. The bathroom jumps with the slightly acrid smell of that tart powdery soap once used in elementary school lavatories.
Can we ever smell anything new? Or at some point do we simply paw through the catalogue of memories and reconfigure them to describe the color of our current sensations?
Last night I attended a sound sculpture at the Audium on Bush Street. For 15 bucks I sat in a dark circular room listening to sounds take shape in four dimensions. The sounds in fact shaped the dimensions. From one corner drifted the shimmering laughter of little boys splashing in rain puddles while around them arose looming, pouncing spectral sounds, immaterial shapes that hovered unbeknownst about them.
I felt scared for the little boys because of this spectral energy that existed beyond their consciousness, because of me even, who was aware of the boys, but again resided in a darkened room, in a dimension beyond their world.
Later, what sounded like a mass of ghost children appeared to count off and then march slowly across the room in concert with a chorus of unspecified orchestral sounds. They marched right through our bodies.
In what way do the sound of these children exist? They exist differently in each one of us. Hearing (or any sense, really), more than anything is about memory. When I heard those children playing in the darkened room, what I really heard (which basically is what I felt) was the sound of the first instantiation of children playing – most likely in the late 1960’s on a playground at Grant Elementary School in San Diego. All other instances of children playing have summoned and been modified by the feeling of that first memory.
Do any sounds exist that we have not yet already heard? When we listen, we compose (and recompose) the sounds each time from a library of constituent sounds inside our heads. We can’t hear a timpani drum without hearing the catalogued idea of timpani drum inside us. Most of the orchestral and synthesized and organic sounds in the chamber were already familiar to me. They existed within my library.
What new sounds then have been added recently? Mainly ones outside my culture. I heard Tibetan throat singing for the first time perhaps 20 years ago. That was new. More recently, the sound of the turtle shell rattles fastened to the calves of katsinam. The deep muffled dirge of katsinam songs. These are new. Fresh, reconfigured scent, if you will that exist in relation to one highly specific place and experience. I once rattled a handful of lima bean pods in front of a class of Hopi children. I asked them to shut their eyes. What is it, I asked them.
It’s the kachinas, they answered. It’s so clear and self-evident once you have heard it.
After my hearing isolation experience last night, I dipped into the Mandarin restaurant next door, ordered a bowl of won ton soup and gagged when it arrived. I promptly asked the waitress to pack it up for me to take home – a gift to my roommate. I walked up the street to Whole Foods and was overpowered by the scent of rotting vegetal flesh. I settled for a small container of Cowgirl clabbered cheese, two lemon meringue tartlets and a croissant.
Three more days and the treatments are over.