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  • Aarik Danielsen

Stories in Surround Sound

Steering between home and the newspaper, or climbing concrete ladders to interstate heavens, someone else’s conversations fill the air. Warm podcast voices sift player statistics and compare them to what eyes see across baseball diamonds. Wise listeners explode the details of ‘90s rock songs. Favorite comics break bread, working out future jokes in real-time.


 
With apologies to my other four senses, I write to sound, live inside a world fashioned from sound.
 

Traveling along trails, through tree-shaped shadows, my soundtrack consists of leaf shimmer, breath recycling, and minutes played in keys only the birds know.  


When I lay me down to sleep, something close to silence. Only the soft journey of air passing through lungs—mine and sometimes hers; breezes tossing leaves and limbs; cool rain playing the window glass and siding, soaking into asphalt in 4/4 time. 


Everywhere else, music plays. Marisa Hackman, where my good lust and humor meet. Calexico, maybe Roger Clyne, to strike the chimes of Arizona within my head. The National when I covet spiral songs, Water Liars when I’m tempting God. And James Vincent McMorrow’s Irish falsetto to wish me heavenward. 


I need no faint excuse to create these taxonomies. With apologies to my other four senses, I write to sound, live inside a world fashioned from sound. Lately, this preoccupation crescendos while handling the pages of Caspar Henderson’s A Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous. There, the British author waxes the rhapsodies in every place and thing, from the northern lights to nightingales, ancient verse, and, yes, silence.  


Noise is not a dirty word to me, but every sound I know should know its place.


Some arrive as a conscious choice. The sweet clarinet hiccup of a cork leaving its bottle. The rustle of poems carved into old trees, then turned over by a seeker. Jack Kerouac baritone dreaming of Dean Moriarty over TV host Steve Allen’s piano glimmer in some old stained-glass clip. Familiar cadences when jokes land inside the comedy videos I play over and again, taken like medicine. Her kiss, air vibrating a violin string somewhere between my cheek and ear.


Others trespass. 


An appliance engine churns as water strains to cycle through. My son meets a question too great and sad for him—too great and sad for any of us—and makes the same noise, his engine spinning out. My voice, fearless then fading, sings Natasha Bedingfield again without a thought, like some low-budget Kafka character unable to escape each morning’s fate. Feel the rain on your skin. And I catch myself beneath my own breath, sounding out the name of an allergy medicine one scriptural syllable at a time, for memory’s sake. Fexofenadine. 


 
Of all the meddling music, none surrounds quite like the sound of stories.
 

Of all the meddling music, none surrounds quite like the sound of stories. Their weekday hum awaits. Walking downtown, I pass an unknown someone and my thoughts take the microphone. Why do they love their Smiths t-shirt so, I wonder, as Johnny Marr strums an opening riff. With their next passing footfall, a gait is established and more questions sound—of how toes bend and arches stretch inside a shoe. 


For Rent signs beg for backstories; so do torn and toppled branches littering sidewalks. Lit for Christmas, homes aglow with merciful luminarias whisper tradition. Some great torch song escapes the car idling a couple blocks over; I want to know who sings along and why. 


All this, before I ever elect to do anything. Sitting with friends, I absorb stories of failure and fraying desire, stories of big-screen farewell kisses, stories seared with small details I wish to forget. 


 
War stories, love stories, national stories, stories we tell ourselves to get by—they stack tones into chords, splitting the sky like a tornado signal test. 
 

Sometimes I choose the narrative din, even as it overwhelms me. I take myself to a documentary festival, take in tales of touchless families and sacred lands pocked by greed; stories hiding the whispers of a late mother’s memory or the amplified suspicions of neighbors who forget the second command is like the first. 


War stories, love stories, national stories, stories we tell ourselves to get by—they stack tones into chords, splitting the sky like a tornado signal test. 


If this wasn’t enough, the sound subdivides inside-out. Moved by a moment, glaciers thaw, creaking and cracking cross my heart. Overkill thoughts gather toward sentences, whole paragraphs even, with a typewriter’s staccato pop.


Usually, I welcome Paul Simon among the truest music of my life. But between stories, he sings about “the sound of ... silence,” pausing to let the word feel its weight, and all the envy troubles my bones. I want him to get lost. 


I wish to hear stories without resentment. And for my story to make its distinct sound, not tighten up for fear of multiplying noise. But I struggle to adjust the volume, to hear in plush harmonies. 


When everything grows too loud, I try not to betray myself. Worry comes upon counting just how many hours I spend in the company of music—9 or 10 per day, maybe more. Some fevers won’t abide silence, chasing the last song on a Counting Crows record with the first song on a Josh Ritter companion. Music should echo through me, lift me like love, not become a good or service. Consuming and consumed. 


 
But I cannot hear any story if I hear every story, and we were meant to seek the order of things.
 

So it is with stories, which make up a greater percent of our bodies than water. To go without, to stop my ears or tamp down my love, means the beginning of living apart from the beautiful and the real. 


But I cannot hear any story if I hear every story, and we were meant to seek the order of things. So I rehearse my taxonomy, ask stories to take their place beside overheard discourse, the songs of nature and man, sounds which resolve into sleep. Fumbling along this plane, I build my story from feathers and fragments of noise, rather than lose my story inside the noise.


 
And give me this privilege—the sound of your story, however it sounds
 

So grant me Damien Rice for church (especially whenever he sings “I just came across a manger / Out among the danger / Somewhere in a stranger’s eye”). Give me the sound of books striking like matches on library shelves. 


Permit me years more with these noises: the strangeness of snow, something between silence and a tear in the divine fabric; the imagined tintinnabulation of twinkled stars; the magnificent percussion of poets who read in the direction of misty eyes, hungry hearts. 


And give me this privilege—the sound of your story, however it sounds. Not as clatter but something like whispers between friends, the music lovers play, amens for a prayer that never really ends. 



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