Slow Returns (Three Lives in Sound)

Jack Langdon

One

Francis worked at the grocery downstairs. She was the closer, shutting down shop at ten sharp. Thursday nights, nine-thirty on the dot, she would hear a band getting ready upstairs, twenty feet above her head. Sounds of heavy things moving around. Sounds of muffled instruments. Footsteps from a small crowd entering. Meanwhile, she was covering the produce, turning off lights, setting the alarm, locking the door, running to leave. Ten fifteen and she was outta there on the way to her car three blocks west.

When she first started, she paid no mind to the sounds. This part of town overflows with noise, and when Francis wants to go home after work, she usually can’t be bothered to notice much. Repetition built awareness and she gradually found herself with interested, open ears on Thursday nights. She didn’t need to be upstairs to identify certain sounds: mic feedback, dropped cymbals, audio cables slapping against the floor, stuff like that. Amidst the dullness of work life, Thursday evening became a focal point of her week. Ritual grows from repetition. Awareness blooms in repetition.

Ten thirty at night—she was rounding the corner towards her car. Soft illumination from a lone street lamp lit the way. Twenty seconds running and she escaped the December cold. Halfway home searching through the radio static. A field of voices and sounds she didn’t recognize. She settled on a song she thought she knew, but came to find she was mistaken. Mistaken, but satisfied enough. Ears open to the unfolding of sound.

Dark and quiet in her apartment. The sky was orange from the city lights bouncing between the clouds and snow. In bed retracing the contents of her day’s experience: she’s remembering hearing the name of the venue above the grocery store on the radio.

It’s the following Thursday evening. The alarm is armed at the front counter. She runs to leave through the rear door to close up shop. Back around to the front of the store—she slips by two people on their way upstairs to the concert space. One of them is carrying a long, black case. Hesitant, she turns and asks them what they’re carrying, but they don’t quite hear her as they pass into the stairwell. She pauses. The venue door swings open and the sound from the space escapes for seven seconds. Time slows—ears open. She catches every detail, hearing without sightlines: a bass clarinetist playing wispy long tones, the tired voice of the sound engineer, the drummer activating a snare, a radiator rumbles. The door shuts. One bird sings outside.

Two

Four miles southeast. Two months later. Transfer from northbound line to westbound line. Twenty five feet above the street. Alex crosses the elevated platform with a double bass in tow. Wind flows directly to the east, piercing his layers of clothing. Platform resonates as the train approaches. Passing through the threshold and the door closes, heading west towards home. It is late, but the car is full and lively, warmed by human presence.

Alex makes music to be present in sensation with other people. He desires the human connectivity that making sound with others affords. It is—for him—an activity that allows him to be in ways that other social activity does not accomplish.

One week later, when all the venues close, he’ll remember the final moments from tonight’s show. In the span of twenty seconds: the drummer gently drags a nylon brush against the surface of their ride cymbal, the reed player creates a quiet cloud of fluttering in the lowest register of their bass clarinet, the guitarist drags the pad of their fingertip against the low E-string, Alex finishes his final bow stroke on a high, metallic-sounding harmonic. A span of silence filled the air after their cessation of playing. Warm applause follows. It was a quiet night with a small crowd due to the cold, December wind. Those who made it to the show were searching for this experience—searching for release. Being with others in sound, Alex found his release.

The memory of this evening will become more important for Alex in the coming months.

Three

It is late March. The grocery store is still open. Francis is still working.

Upstairs, the footsteps have fallen silent. Doors locked and windows dark. Thursday nights and Francis’s ears are still open, but the sound of musicians upstairs no longer meets her in the air.

A few of the other people that work with Francis have gotten sick. The noise of the city has become dull and irregular. The streets are still. The air is heavy. Understaffed, Francis takes on more work than she had before. Her manager is more irritable than usual. Francis is worn by the end of the day—something she had not felt in the years before. Ten fifteen and she walks cautiously to her car three blocks west. Parking has been much easier lately.

Searching through the radio static. Driving south towards home. Fragments of voices from the news. The mayor says something that she heard earlier on the television at work. Noise interspersed, the crackling of radio waves. The streets are quiet. Time passes unnoticed. Francis hears a sound from the radio that grabs her. She’s heard it before, but she can’t remember where from. Time moves quickly. She enters her dark apartment and makes it to bed. The sheets are cold.

Francis often has vivid dreams, but she tends not to remember much in the morning. She wakes the next day with heavy feelings but can’t retell the story and its components. She searches her memory for icons and distinct occurrences to no avail. She remembers hearing two sounds from her dream: a radio and a bass clarinet. Every other fragment and icon was lost in the waking process.

Diffuse, grey light enters through the window as she lays in bed. Time is still. She thinks about these two sounds—where they came from and how they operate in her memory. She imagines to herself what might be in the empty concert space above the grocery store.

Four

Alex wakes to the same grey light across town. His bass is facing him silently, standing upright in the corner opposite his bed. Frozen like a monument. Rituals have been changing—old ones passing and new ones arriving. He has been practicing first thing in the morning to stave off the loss of motivation that comes as the day progresses.

One tour has been cancelled, four shows have been postponed, and only a few gigs next fall remain on the calendar. Diligently, Alex still practices with the dedication and commitment of someone who will be playing a club tonight. The anticipation of the next show keeps him going. He’s nervous that this won’t last.

Tuning takes a bit longer than usual. He loses focus staring out his bedroom window—his mind wandering while listening to the overtones align and misalign. Glancing outside, he notices that the busses are still running two stories down on the street. He naturally moves into playing long tones, focusing on bow placement, pressure, speed, and all the old, foundational things. His heartbeat and breathing slow down. Mind is still—ears are sharp. Ten minutes of listening to bow hair on string, granules of rosin, and the slow vibrations of wood. Breathing in, exhaling, the cyclical motion of the bow. A truck outside passes his apartment—its engine brake opens the exhaust valves and a loud, low rumble glissandos upward to meet the sustained sonority of the bass. The vibrations transform his focus from regimented routine to playful investigation. He catches himself a few minutes later and returns to playing etudes, practicing repertoire, shedding runs, and honing technique.

Hours pass. Eggs and toast and tea for breakfast. Open the window for a short period to feel the cold air. Students don’t show up to video lessons. Walking the floor impatiently. Shadows lengthen. Dark orange light of the evening arrives.

Alex will find himself lost in days just like this one in the coming period. Routines are no longer square and predictable. The foundations of his playing—regular, intentional, and regimented practice—will start to shift. New cracks form. Some unexpected things will grow in the debris of normalcy.

Five

There is a room nineteen miles away. Three years in the future. The room is very large. Seventy-seven people are currently inside of it. The room is part of a building that was originally constructed one-hundred and three years ago. Like many, this building currently serves a purpose that it was not originally intended for.

Of the seventy-seven people inside this very large room, eight of them are performers, fifty-nine are audience members, and ten are employees of the building.

This evening, Francis enters the front of the building as one of the audience members.

After navigating a dark corridor, she finds herself in the main room. It was a church a generation or two ago. Supposedly abandoned for several years. Francis saw the pictures in the newspaper. Windows broken. Leaves and detritus accumulating. Now this space has been neutralized. The crust of re-encroaching nature has been stripped. Stripped are the icons and effigies of religion, now a bare, functionalized space. She wonders if the cold renovation of this room is more or less welcoming? The walls are made of unadorned, grey stone. The windows are frosted and reinforced by metal. Streams of late evening sunlight flow into the dusty space. Francis walks towards where the musicians are set. There is one row of pews that she passes—made from dark wood, worn and disrespected—and the rest of the space is filled in rows of creaking, white folding chairs. She sits down twenty minutes before the concert begins and watches as musicians and employees are milling about. Others start filing in behind her. It is cold in the room—she keeps her jacket on.

Francis doesn’t know anyone here. Her discomfort subsides gradually as seats fill up. Voices lower. The harsh spotlights in the space uniformly dim in the final moments. Her breathing slows and she is quiet, ready. Ears open.

Six

Francis spends the remainder of that grey morning in bed by herself. She inattentively watches the news—hearing her neighbors arguing down the hall. She hears this more often these days. Her manager texts her asking if she can come in early for work, but Francis doesn’t reply.

Getting in her car, she notices someone in an apartment across the street practicing an instrument. As she drives away, she wonders what it would be like—what it would feel like—to play an instrument. She thinks about being in the same room as the
musician—being with the sound filling the air. 

When she makes it to work, her manager tells her that he will be leaving early, and that she’ll be working solo for the rest of the afternoon. Francis is uncertain why. Five hours pass, overworked with too many duties to cover. Business slows at nine and she doesn’t see anyone in the final hour of her shift. She covers the produce, turns off the lights, sets the alarm, locks the door. Nobody is around. No watching souls.

Around to the front of the store, she looks up to the second story to see the windows dark and the blinds shut. Francis decides to walk upstairs to approach the concert space. She moves through the side entrance and follows an empty flight of stairs up to the entry room. Black painted walls and worn stairs meet her. She moves quietly, trying to avoid making any sound. A red exit sign dimly lights the room before the main space. She wiggles the door handle, turns the knob, pulls the door towards her body—finding the door is padlocked shut. She listens to the stillness, smells the dust. 

Seven

Billie manages the concert space above the grocery store. It has been one month since they’ve closed it to the public. She stopped by today for the first time in three weeks. Rustling to find the key she hasn’t used in a while, she opens the door to stale air, empty walls, and dusty chairs. She steps over a pile of mail on the floor. Turns on the lights—scanning the room. Boots her computer in the office. Checks that everything is working normally.

The weight of letting people down, being the bringer of bad news, has made stopping by the space a guilty, unpleasant act for Billie. For three weeks, she has been in constant conversations over cancelled shows with musicians, board members, and agents. Circumstances beyond her control have dictated the closing of this space. A web of individuals rely on this space for various reasons: for emotional wellbeing, for getting paid, for being a part of a cultural community, for a sense of release. Billie stares at the dirty windows on the far side of the room. A toppled chair from the last show. The thrum of the heater. She feels the crunch of things falling apart around her.

Billie came in to unplug kitchen appliances, computers, lights, and the sound system to save on utilities. She sweeps the floor, dusts the counters, and wipes the windows knowing she will do it again in a few weeks after more dust has accumulated in the quiet air of the space.

In a week or two, she knows that more difficult conversations, emails, and meetings will come. Instability and change always necessitates planning.

Billie pauses and remembers the final moments from the last show in the space: the drummer gently drags a nylon brush against the surface of their ride cymbal, the reed player creates a quiet cloud of fluttering in the lowest register of their bass clarinet, the guitarist drags the pad of their fingertip against the low E-string, the bassist finishes their final bow stroke on a high,
metallic-sounding harmonic.

Eight

A month passes. Alex has stopped practicing fundamentals and has no music to prepare for shows. He has reduced his daily practicing time considerably. He still teaches a few students who meet him over video calls. Many have stopped lessons during this time.

He has been playing long tones in harmony with various static, mechanical sounds in his apartment. He plays alongside his refrigerator motor and his range hood exhaust fan—droning in dynamic relation to their inflexible tones. He thinks to himself that the most stable bandmates he’s had have ended up being his kitchen appliances.

In the evenings, Alex now works as the door person for an apartment complex fifteen minutes from his. He watches the isolated few people come and go and the regular intervals of empty city busses passing the lobby. Time trudges wearily. Midnight comes and another door person replaces him for the morning hours. He walks home in the cold. 

Alex lies awake in the dark. Alex has always considered the possibility of having to leave the city once his money runs dry. He knows that for most musicians, it is not a question of if, but when. Luck has kept these thoughts at a distance in the previous period. Tonight, the reality of having to move away feels very close. Luck doesn’t work in a time of crisis. He thinks of begrudgingly returning to his family, a thousand miles away. He thinks of leaving his community—friends, lovers, and supporters. The wind rattles
his windows.

Nine

It is Saturday. Francis is making coffee. She gets a text from her manager. The grocery is closing. Still, grey light out the window. Francis stays in bed for the rest of the day. 

On Monday, she comes to work. She goes through the normal work ritual. The air is tense—her manager avoids talking with her or the other employees. She feels uneasy, thinking about what to do next. A television is on in the background—fragments of the news fade in and out of her attention, mixing with her ruminations. She recedes inside herself—hanging gently in the present moment. Inside of Francis: the sound of a bass clarinet, a brushed cymbal, the grey morning light, the image of the entrance to the concert space.

That night, she sits down and listens to music on the radio. Lights dimmed with a cup of tea. Feeling the pangs of uncertainty and worry. She searches the airwaves for escape and release. 

Ten

Alex has a call with one of his remaining students. His teaching has changed during this period. He is no longer as concerned with many of the things his teachers thought were important. As weeks pass, Alex spends more time having open ended conversations with his students. He asks them what they are doing during the day, what music they are listening to, what they want to do in the future as bassists, what sounds they like to make. Alex tells his student that they can play together in the park when the weather is warmer.

Later that day—walking through the park in the cold—Alex hears something beyond the trees. A tenor saxophonist is playing in the distance, wrapped in a large coat. He walks through the grove, towards the lake. Sitting a distance away from the saxophone player, Alex remembers his last show—people and their instruments, people sensing together. Time slows. He thinks about change.

Eleven

Another month has passed and Billie has made plans to rent out the space. Normal funding streams have been decimated and loss of revenue has caught up with them. Instability and change always necessitates a new direction.

Billie asks the janitor from the neighboring business if she can help clean the space before showing it for renters. They talk about the excitement, the memories, and the peace of times before. The janitor has a family member who passed two weeks ago. Billie walks home by herself.

Walking downstairs to her apartment, she hears the muffled sound of her neighbor’s sound system through the wall. They’re playing a record that Billie has heard before, but can’t recall the artist. By the golden light of her bed lamp, she escapes inside herself. She thinks about the end of this period and dreams of what lies beyond.

Twelve

Alex is a thousand miles away. He left the city and quit his job. His parents lend him the spare bedroom. He still calls his students across this distance and works part time in a local grocery store. He feels very differently about his bass and what it means in his life.

Billie gradually sends fewer and fewer emails. Inquiries to play shows completely halt. Her and the board meet once a month to discuss plans to reopen—adjusting for any new contingencies that arise. She managed to find a business that would be interested in renting out the space. The grocery downstairs that recently closed moved some of their stock up to the space, setting up tables and shelves full of broth, rice, noodles, and canned goods. Billie has an aching feeling that they might never return to presenting concerts in that space.

Francis works in the former concert space now, selling these pantry goods to her former customers. She remembers the allure of the space when she used to work beneath it. Now, the mystery is gone. Billie stops by from time to time for groceries and introduces herself as the former manager. Francis tells Billie that she would like to see a concert when venues reopen and they exchange emails.

Thirteen

It is three years in the future. Billie and the board have since decided to rent a vacant church to present concerts in. It is nineteen miles away from the former location in a different neighborhood. They book their first show: an octet made up of regulars from when they used to present shows in their former space. The group features a saxophone quartet, a violinist, a bass clarinetist, a drummer, and a bassist. 

Alex gets an email from the tenor sax player who is leading the group asking if he’ll play a show. He feels uneasy, reflecting on his interregnum. His doubt pools with his deep desire to reconnect in sound.

Since meeting Billie, Francis has started listening to different types of music. Billie comes in every once and a while and tells Francis about musicians in the area. Work at the upstairs grocery store continues in its slow pace, with Francis’s ears open to new things in her surroundings. She plays her records on the speakers behind the counter, providing a fleeting lightness to the quiet moments. Francis receives an email from Billie when the first concert in the new space is announced. Francis marks her calendar and buys her ticket.

Fourteen

Everyone is present in a large room in the new space. It is inside of a building that is currently used for a purpose different from what it was built for. Seats are taken by the audience and the musicians. Seventy-seven people gathered. The sun casts angular planes of light from the tall windows into the room.

Alex is in the back row on stage—sitting in the left corner next to the drummer, his hand draped over the front of the bass resting. He is looking out into the room somewhat dazed, feeling unprepared. He sees many people he doesn’t know. He sees a friend, a lover, some of his students. He remembers other times in his life when he felt uncertain before a performance—he remembers how important it is to not take supporters for granted. His lover raises his head making eye contact, smiling. Simplest gesture—Alex feels a release of tension in the moments before the concert starts. 

Billie is up in the rear choir loft—sitting on a wooden step behind the audio engineers at the mixing board. She is waiting for the bandleader to begin, as the musicians prepare for the show. She forgot her glasses this morning and strains to see the musicians clearly across the expanse of the room.

Francis is seated in the rear of the room—resting in the outside corner of the pew, her jacket wedged between her side and the wooden exterior. She is looking into the air and sees dust brought into view by the rays of light—the sun sets far in the distance. She thinks of when she was young, seated in church, bored and daydreaming—noticing the morning sun in the stained glass. She hears the sound of the Hammond organ in her memory space. Now: she’s seeing musicians making their final preparations on stage. She hears the rustling of instruments being adjusted, the crackle of an amplifier, footsteps on the hollow wooden stage, a hushed cough. She is devoid of expectations, a light openness.

Francis doesn’t know anyone here. Voices lower. Her breathing slows and she is quiet, ready. Ears open.

The bandleader walks out, sits in her chair with a tenor saxophone, and nods to the violinist. The crowd has quieted and is attentive, ready to listen.

The violinist draws their bow slowly across their G- and D- strings—open G vibrates in a complex beating against a slightly sharp A in the octave above. Their tone is raw and unadorned—they play with no vibrato and bow over the top of the fingerboard. These two notes fill the air in the church with two lonesome beams of tone. They dissipate gradually and energy in the air is absent. This gesture is repeated many times. The drummer begins gently interrupting with quiet, metallic wire-brush accents on a small, mounted cymbal. They introduce sounds with much space in
between—starting with what feels like minutes between, gradually condensing down to a few seconds. A sense of arrival and stasis—time flows playfully. These accents melt into a slow, elastic groove. The bass clarinetist has joined the violinist—playing low, velvety tones full of breath and microscopic irregularities. They follow the path set by the other two—articulating and exploring the space between the violinist and the drummer—sometimes extending resonant sonorities under the violin and sometimes sputtering, clicking, and gasping to match the interjections of the drummer. As the groove comes into form, the drummer looks to Alex. 

Alex pauses and listens, senses a direction, and enters. He loosens his low E down while drawing heavy bows across—reaching a point where the string becomes hard to control. Staying before this threshold of chaos and noise—filling the air with this lowest note, deep resonance. This enlivens the rest of the
ensemble—creating an energy shift and marking a period of increased dynamism. The violinist contributes other harmonies against their open G. The bass clarinetist begins playing quick, noisy runs up and down the range of their instrument with metallic keys flying alongside breathy tone. The drummer pulls back, focusing on quick, erratic wire-brush gestures on their snare—
playing all surfaces and edges of the instrument. Alex has been building momentum and energy on these low, resonant tones. He presses harder into his low E-string and abruptly ceases, cutting off sharply. 

The saxophone quartet on the opposite side of the stage is cued by this, and the four performers enter on a densely voiced cluster, sneaking in beneath the rest of the ensemble. Like wind coming and going, the quartet fades in and out of the background of the other three musicians engaging in a reactive trio dialogue. The saxophones start with muted, quiet tones. The drummer follows the saxophones—slowly transitioning to quiet brush strokes on the head of their snare drum, activating and deactivating the snare wires. The violin player only plays intermittent filigree with much time-space in between each gesture. The saxophones increase in volume—playing slight variations of the same cluster, with increasingly full tone. The bass clarinetist is playing their lowest note, circular breathing to sustain the tone like an organ pedal. The baritone sax joins the bass clarinetist in a low drone, and the remaining quartet soon follows—sustaining a bright, widely spaced sonority. This canvas of sound becomes lighter, tone less rounded. Alex sees an opening. 

He enters brazenly and forcefully on his deeply lowered E-string—preparing his left hand at the tuning peg. After a short period, he tunes down his low E-string to cross the precipice where the string begins to violently slap the fingerboard—breaking an expanse of noiseless pitches. The flapping string and the chaotic, percussive sound entices the drummer to join in, using the full kit as a sound palette to mimic the randomness of this low string in its slow, powerful vibrational cycles hitting the fingerboard. The bandleader—the tenor player in the quartet—joins the drummer in mimicry, making percussive pops, scrapes, and snaps. Alex moves away from this gesture and joins the drummer and the tenor player in a free section—a trio-solo section. The density of sound and the speed of gesture-development increases—the three musicians running on intuition, acute listening, and raw energy. The rest of the ensemble fades down, turning their attention to witness the sonic forces dancing between the three players. Time slows, but energy rises. 

At a culmination of extreme intensity—tenor sax wailing, drummer pounding, and Alex racing towards the top of his instrument—space opens up for solos within the trio. The bandleader carries her energy into a new section—starting with gymnastic leaps from the highest notes on her horn down to its raw depths. Over the course of many minutes, energy and volume decreases, but the shape of the gesture remains. Whispers of tone fall out of her horn—the audience becomes intimate and close, reaching to hear every detail of her sounding. All ears are open, sensation heightened. The drummer enters this moment with extreme delicate energy—taking their fingernails and scraping the top of the snare head in short, fluttering motions. The tenor fades relaxedly, and the drummer takes up time exploring the extremities of quietness on each part of their kit. Shadows of pulse emerge and disappear in an unstable dance of counting. Fingertips lightly activate the bodies of the drumset. Small constellations of repetition and divergence. After much time, a brush is gradually substituted for fingers. Counted time speeds up. Brushes create a wash of sound, light and dancing. The drummer begins marking time with the hi-hat as the wire brushes accelerate on the high crash cymbals—still at a medium tempo. Time compresses and the drummer accelerates. Alex prepares to join for a protracted period of anticipation. The right moment arrives and Alex rips into the upper two strings on his bass, playing a close interval that creates fast pitch beating and matches the intensity and rhythm of the drummer. He puts more and more force into his bow strokes, playing close to the bridge—allowing the sound to cut through the percussion with more clarity. The drummer, without slowing, fades into the background, creating a supportive layer of noise for Alex’s solo. Time slows and attention becomes clearer. Alex fades as the rest of the ensemble trails his droning into the final section of the performance. All instruments blend together to create a sound mass, losing distinctiveness and individual identity. The performance space is filled with warm tone and noise, reaching to the highest corners of the dark wooden rafters, and mixing in with the golden light streaming in through the windows.

When the performance is over, everyone goes outside. As the sun begins to set at the far reach of the sky, the people greet each other on the lawn. A bus passes on the street behind them. The sound of green leaves rustling gently above them.

Slow Returns (Three Lives in Sound)