When last we heard from Queens recording artist Ian Battenfield Headley, he had released the final EP of a seasonally-inspired quartet. Times have changed a lot since then, especially in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic. Headley’s latest set is a direct response to the sounds we miss, but also the new sounds we’ve gained.
One would not think that one would miss the sounds of construction, including jackhammers and backing-up trucks. One never enjoys them at a loud level. But in the album’s bracket tracks, “Construction Through a Lens #1 and 2,” Headley buries them in a wall of light drone, taming the noises into memories instead of annoyances.
The bulk of the album contains “the sounds of the city as we knew them,” beginning with a walk to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tapestry of international conversation, baby gurgling, dog leashes, pigeons, sparrows, high heels, bus doors, traffic, sirens, power drills and music through open doors is distinctly Manhattan. After 9/11, it was often said that when people started honking again, the city was back to normal; and there’s plenty of honking here, along with the whistles of traffic cops. Was it that long ago? It’s only been two months, but last week the May 15 date for the easing of social restrictions was extended yet again. We all want to stay safe, but in a city of nine million, it’s hard to find space. The only thing missing is a thunderstorm, which Headley captures later from a Brooklyn bedroom.
“Columbus Circle Jazz/Lost at Times Square-42nd Street” and “Five Genres at Union Square” celebrate the (literal) underground scene of New York. Any person who’s walked through the transit system is familiar with the rapid turnover in timbres: doo-wop, gospel, jazz, bucket drums, solo violin, electric keyboard, a new treat at every stop. Who needs an iPod when you have all this? Less known is the fact that one needs a permit in order to perform (although some skirt this regulation). Street musicians have the opportunity not only to make money, but to test their wares on unsuspecting audiences; will they draw a crowd, or will people simply walk by? (Ask Joshua Bell.) Interspersed with the music is another type of music: the rhythm of trains, the cadences of announcers, the pulses of commuters. All of these noises are muted right now; for the first time in history, the trains halt for a few hours each night for a deep cleaning: a necessary precaution that has deprived the homeless of a place to sleep.
We miss these sounds, and many more, and we yearn for them to return (maybe not the power drills). The Christmas songs of “Five Genres” are as much a memory as a promise. But the crisis has produced new sounds as well, not simply deprivation. In “7 o’clock,” Headley preserves one for the generations: the nightly round of applause, pots, pans and vuvuzelas as New Yorkers lean out their balconies and windows to clap for health care workers as the hospitals change shifts. The horns and high heels will return, but if sounds of compassion join the soundscape of the next new normal, we’ll have gained something in the crisis to lift up against all we’ve lost. (Richard Allen)