November 29, 2018

Food for Thought

There aren’t many cafes in Manhattan today that Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver would go to. This Chinese bakery under Manhattan bridge on East Broadway is one of the few. A cup of tea and a mochi cost only $2.75. You could sit there and watch people come and go for hours. Nobody would care. The scene is evocative of the mood in Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks. Even though most businesses in Chinatown close at night, this place seems to be always open. I’m not sure why.

When I take a walk at night, I’m often drawn to this place, mainly because there aren’t any other places where I could sit and listen to the sound of life. If you take John Cage’s 4’33” to heart, you’d think of a particular environment as a composition. I love Chinese cafes as a composition. They are filled with unexpected sounds. For instance, they don’t seem to mind customers playing videos through their phone speakers. Many Chinese people speak into their phones to type or text. Most Chinese cafes and restaurants do not play ambient music. You experience chance operation at its best.

I don’t like listening to street sounds unless I can sit or stand in one place. If I have to walk, I can’t pay attention to the sounds. I think there is a good reason Cage’s composition of silence had a specific duration. Listening to real music is an intense experience; you have to pay full attention to it. It’s not something to be relegated to the background. The composition starts when you start paying attention to the sounds as such and ends when you stop. Otherwise, environmental sounds are indeed just background noises. Your attention transforms them into music.

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