'Tis the season for year-end lists -- best and worst albums, movies, and political gaffes. You name it, there's a curated list for it. Somewhere online you'll even find a list of the year's most annoying memes, which is a little like the pot calling the kettle desperate for pageviews.
Me? I've always been of three minds about lists. For starters, they're a joy to compile. Though it may be even more fun to adamantly (and often quietly) disagree with another person's tastes.
Then again, as Umberto Eco points out in his 2009 book The Infinity of Lists, our tendency to catalog the things we like is maybe, just maybe, a feeble power play, an attempt to impose order onto chaos.
Then again, so what? Lists are still fun.
So, in line with all the other year-end retreads that publish around this time, I'm naming my three favorite sounds from the past 12 months.
3. The city outside my window.
I've already written about this here. But now that it's winter and my window is shut for another three months, this white noise -- the dirge of traffic, footsteps, birdsong, and delivery truck beeps -- plays in my head these days less as a celebration, or as a hymn, and more like some nostalgic pop song I remember less for its tune than for all the stupid things I used to do and think while under its influence. That is, of course, until spring returns -- and with it, my dirge.
2. Her voice.
I listened to Marianne Faithfull a lot last spring. And what I heard -- as I navigated from the folk-pop that made her name in the '60s, through the jagged rock she perfected during the Thatcher years, right up to her latter day metamorphosis into a sort of 21st Century anglo Lotte Lenya -- was the reification of one artist's voice, from pretty and aloof to puncturable and real. She's had one hell of a life, and it resounds from her teeth. It's unjust that her life's story is often told as a subplot to the Rolling Stones' decadent first act. But don't be fooled. Faithfull's intelligence and depth of expression is singularly mighty. And we're lucky we have some record of it preserved on her albums and memoirs. To spend time acquainting yourself with the range of experiences stamped permanently onto Faithfull's voice is to enter into another person's body and borrow their wisdom for three-and-a-half minutes, an hour, and a lifetime.
1. His voice.
When someone you've known for a long time has their first child, it can have a funny way of reminding you why you liked them in the first place. For Jill and me, leisurely (often over-caffeinated) conversation is the bonding agent. It always has been. The second time we spoke, when I was 14, we didn't stop until well after dawn. So it was the first one-to-one "chat" I had with her two-month old boy, last week by telephone, that allowed me to finally take possession of the fact that had been stuck between my skull and brain since October: Jill has a child now.
This miraculous exchange, in which Jill's child approximated my hushed greeting, prompted me to look up what actually happens inside an infant when they respond to someone else's voice, with their vocabulary of "coos" and giggles. As Anne Karp wrote in her 2006 book The Human Voice, by cooing, babies are " developing a map that connects the mouth shapes they make with the sounds they hear." In other words, they're learning to connect by way of self-expression.
Karpf notes some psychologists believe this is evidence that we are born immensely empathetic beings, with a large appetite for fellow-feeling. It begs the question (more philosophical than scientific, I admit -- and even then, more fanciful than empirical at its root): What happens to this capacity for empathy as we get older? Do we gradually lose our easy access to it as we become world-wearied adults?
If so, then in many ways music is where we grown-ups remain unabashedly open to answering a stranger's call. Isn't this precisely what happens when I am moved to think I understand some of what it must mean to be Marianne Faithfull, merely by listening to her 2008 recording of "Dear God, Please Help Me?"
But I can't help but grasp for another connection between music and newborns: Imagine if you returned to a time in your life when the most commonplace sound could enchant you. One of the truly magical things about newborns just might be that, upon their first contact with the world, they hear its timbres as musical notes held and harmonized in one surging anthem, or one bright chord -- a cluster of tones that literally affirms their lives. Maybe, for a newborn, music doesn't exist. Maybe it doesn't have to. Maybe, right now, Jill's infant son is experiencing the whole world the way we only experience music.
Now, how's that for imposing order onto chaos? It sure beats list-making.