Polyphony

A Listening Reflection by Ayla Hull

When Dr. Garriga-López initially asked us to reflect on assemblages at K, I found myself both intrigued and challenged. Sitting in class, I wondered which actors have left a significant impact on my experience. I continued to reflect on these questions after class, as I got in my car and started down West Main. I was consumed by the desire to go lie on my couch, stare at the ceiling, and think about this question for a while. I noticed the traffic slow as the two red and white gates descended up ahead. Annoyed, I silently cursed the train for delaying my plan of reflection. I watched the train whisk by as it whistled loudly – almost tauntingly – at me. The screech of the whistle made me think back to my first year, when I lived on the second floor of Hoben. Every morning around six o’clock the train would speed by, shrieking wildly as it went. And every morning I would throw my pillow over my ears and groan “shuuudduuuuuup” (to put it kindly). Ironically, it was in my car, waiting for the train to pass, that I recognized the train as an influential member of our assemblage here at K.

 

The next day, I sat down to write my paper when, through the walls of the library, I heard the wailing sounds of the annual Instrumental Methods concert – a cherished tradition in which tired seniors learn an instrument in one quarter. I was reminded of Anna Tsing’s discussion of polyphonic assemblages – a sea of harmonies and dissonances interlacing to create a kind of symphonic assemblage. As a musician, this analogy made perfect sense to me. Each assemblage has its own unique sound, created by every member. In a symphony, individual parts may not seem particularly impressive on their own, but when combined, they create an entirely new harmony. I began to think about the different sounds that make up the K assemblage: the sound of cars flying down the bumpy brick road, the consistent groans of tenth week, and, of course, the cheerful dissonances of the Instrumental Methods concert. II thought about the cardinal that wouldn’t stop singing outside our classroom window and the squirrels chittering across the quad. “The polyphonic assemblage is the gathering of these rhythms, as they result from world-making projects, human and not human,” writes Tsing (Tsing 24).

 

Following the sounds of our campus, I reflected on Tsing’s conception of  ‘contamination’, which refers to the inescapable consequences that emerge from each and every one of our interactions. I began to wonder… could contamination also exist in relation to noise? Are we all unconsciously contaminated by our daily interactions with sound? Returning to our symphonic analogy, a violinist may not be able to pick out the melodies of every other instrument, yet their own harmonies are affected when combined as a whole. Back home, my polyphonic assemblage consists primarily of nature and a few cars, as I live in a very secluded part of upstate New York, up in the mountains. There, the level of noise contamination is significantly quieter than that of our campus. Before coming to K, my experience had not yet been contaminated by a daily greeting from the train. In fact, in my tiny town you have to drive over an hour to even reach the nearest train station. The role of my own contamination became clear to me when Claire pointed out the importance of lived context in adapting to a new space. Although she also lived in Hoben, she almost never woke up from the train because she grew up very near to one in her hometown. If anything, the whistle gave her a sense of comfort, rather than the annoyance that I experienced. As Tsing states, “The evolution of our “selves” is already polluted by histories of encounter; we are mixed up with others before we even begin any new collaboration” (29). We are all products of different encounters that personalize our harmonies and dissonances, before we even enter into a single assemblage together.

 

However, through my reflection I also found many similarities between my two assemblages. Just like at home, I hear birds chirping and squirrels arguing and dogs barking. I sit in the silence of the third floor and am reminded of the quiet days when I am home alone. And sometimes when it is stormy out, I close my eyes and the creaking trees and whooshing wind take me back to my mountain. Tsing writes, “When I first learned polyphony, it was a revelation in listening; I was forced to pick out separate, simultaneous melodies and to listen for the moments of harmony and dissonance they created together” (Tsing 24).This is exactly what Tsing’s discussion has done for me. In reflecting the noises of our assemblage, I am beginning to understand our campus in a new way that I had never truly considered before.

 

Just like a symphony, each human and non-human melody affects our assemblage as a whole. Each and every member makes a contribution whether they intend to or not. One obvious example of this influence emerges through our speech towards to one another. Someone’s words can create an intense reaction – and just as sound rings out past its original note, words can trickle through other group members, past the original speaker. A hurtful statement can create a ripple of anger and pain through the assemblage, just as a kind word can spread joy and compassion.

 

This year, my own polyphonic assemblage has further evolved, as I am living off campus. My symphony now includes shouting neighbors, house shows across the street, and the meow of Fat Louie, our tabby. Every day, I cross the tracks on my way to class (which my car deeply resents me for). I no longer hear the train every morning – only occasionally when I’m late for class and get stuck at the red and white gates. But once I step on campus, I re-enter the sounds of our assemblage, which I’ve grown used to over the past couple years. Tsing concludes, “Assemblages don’t just gather lifeways; they make them” (23). The same is true of our K assemblage. We all come from different backgrounds and contain different polyphonies, but in the end, they all mesh to form new harmonies, new dissonances that we come to recognize as the melody of K College.

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