BJ Nilsen ~ Pending

BJ Nilsen‘s Pending is not only one of the year’s best releases, but a document of historic import.  The current crisis has provided an unprecedented opportunity for field recording artists: to go out and capture the sound of a changed world.  Humans are less active, animals more so; the air is cleaner, the carbon emissions lighter.  Once this time passes, there may never be another one like it.  Nilsen writes, “Amsterdam is emptied of tourists and 19 million a year does make a difference.”  Every day in April, he investigated the sonic environment of a different location, painting a picture of an altered world ~ at times lonely and desolate, yet suffused with a surprising beauty.  Each recording is accompanied by a stark, black-and-white Polaroid, a reminder of things past.  The intermediate gray suggests a spiritual and metaphorical fog.

It’s no surprise to know that human pollute their own aural spaces; the surprise is the bustle beneath. The set begins in Dam Square, normally a crowded area filled with locals and tourists; but on April 1, pigeons have taken over.  It seems like a cruel April Fool’s joke.  There are still hints of humanity; a construction worker is hammering, and the church bells are tolling the two o’clock hour.  Couples walk by, laughing, but when each small bundle of pedestrians passes, the wind takes over.  Bicycle wheels spin; a lonely bus cruises by.  The following day outside the Rijksmuseum, the bell strikes three as a cantor sings a lonely phrase.  By April 3, the spaces have already begun to quiet; birds sing to each other, “They’re gone!”  “Where did they go?”  “I think they’re inside!”  We remember that there is “no such thing as silence,” and that what we interpret as silence is often the lack of distracting sounds.  A single plane passes overhead; how many are normally in the skies?  And then a siren; is someone dying?  The birds continue to chirp.  By “Balcony West,” they will have become the main characters.

Have you been out and about in the past few weeks?  What have you seen and heard?  No matter what your location, it’s likely been a lot quieter.  Restaurants, bars and shoppes are closed; the roads entertain fewer cars; and even the largest municipalities shut down at dusk.  But on the other hand, each sound is crisper: rustles in the leaves above, greetings from neighbors, the drag of a garbage pail.  If it’s rained, you’ve noticed the rain; if your postman has approached, you’ve heard his steps.

By the end of the first week, there’s been a noticeable decline in activity, producing a patina of peace.  Not everyone enjoys such spareness, but Nilsen delights in the role of sonic sleuth.  Even the Station Sloterdjik is relatively quiet.  The chugging pistons provide their own restiveness; only a few voices can be heard.  “This town is coming like a ghost town” ~ but even The Specials are louder.  The volume changes in “Contactweg” with the sound of a generator: a machine that cares not for the movements of humans and birds.  In contrast, the Pontsteiger ~ a recent architectural wonder, slightly over a year old ~ yields some of the set’s softer sounds, save again for the ambulance, a stark reminder of the suffering embedded in the silence.  But soon, a small set of skateboarders highlights an unexpected side benefit: the ability to practice in areas formerly off-limits due to crowds or laws.

Nature continues to call.  The Oosterdok seems a particularly placid location, the laps of small waves joined by the creaks of the dock.  The same holds true for the Sloterplas, normally filled with canoes and water bikes.  Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things comes to mind:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

Does Nilsen know the value of what he’s capturing as he’s capturing it?  We suspect so.  There’s no time to process all this raw sonic information, only to wonder at the transformation of the aural world.  Even if these recordings ~ two hours and forty-seven minutes of sonic gold ~ eventually become a soundscape (and we hope they do), their pure form is a marvel. April’s second half begins with a happy greeting, a seemingly solo game of handball, a street saxophonist.  People are finding new ways to entertain themselves and each other, to connect.  But again, in the middle of the improvisation, a siren competes for attention.  The crisis continues to unfold.  An even louder alarm sounds, breaking the peace of “Gasperplas;” then I realize it is coming from my local fire department.  We are all connected.

It takes nineteen days to hear the sound of children at play.  Their exuberance is contagious.  It’s likely that they have been kept inside for weeks, their joy bottled up, ready to explode.  While hearing them, we remember that it’s not just the children; their laughter is a hint that we may have passed the peak.  Two days later, the sirens are at it again.  In her beautiful New York Times article, Learning to Listen to, and Beyond, the Siren’s Call, Lindsay Zoladz expresses appreciation for the “hi-lo” of European ambulances as opposed to the American “Wail, Yelp and Piercer.”  Although separated by a continent, her experience is similar:  “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.”

The Polaroid for “Herengracht” is an image of street chalk, a means of spreading cheer during a time of isolation.  “Plantage Middenlaan” displays a dinosaur.  Have we been gone so long that extinct species have resurfaced?  The traffic is noticeably heavier.  Is this the noise we missed?  Are we so sure we want it back?  A sprinkler rotates through its functions.  Spring has arrived.

In “Noorderkerk,” the set’s longest piece, the church bells return for a full quarter hour, leading to the ten o’clock peal.  Although we know that they have been ringing throughout the month, they draw the collection full circle.  The motorbikes are back as well, along with the saxophonist and a buzz saw ~ then there is applause, we assume not for the saw.  The month is almost over; on what note will Nilsen conclude?  “Vondelpark” offers the placidity of ducks, “Lidostraat” the clash of industry, but Nilsen ends the month at the Amsterdamse Bos (Forest), as if to say, during the shutdown, we’ve missed a lot of things, but after the crisis has ended, this is what we’ll miss the most.  (Richard Allen)

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