The Mournfulness of Cities

By  |  August 12, 2016
"E4th Street at Avenue D, East, Variation 2" (2016), by John Chiara. © John Chiara. Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York "E4th Street at Avenue D, East, Variation 2" (2016), by John Chiara. © John Chiara. Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

I am puzzled by the mournfulness of cities. I suppose I mean American cities mostly—dense and vertical and relatively sudden. All piled up in fullest possible distinction from surroundings, from our flat and grassy origins. In particular I am puzzled by what seems to me the ease of it, the automatic, fundamental, even corny quality of mournfulness in cities, so built into us, so preadapted for, somehow, that even camped out there on the savannah, long before we dreamed of cities, I imagine we should probably have had a premonition, dreamed the sound of lonely saxophones on fire escapes. What’s mourned is hard to say. Not that the mourner needs to know. It seems so basic. One refers to certain Edward Hopper paintings—people gazing out of windows right at sunset, or late at night. They’ve no idea. I don’t suppose that sort of gaze is even possible except within the city. You can hear the lonely saxophone-on-fire-escape (in principle, the instrument may vary) cry through Gershwin. Aaron Copland. You remember Sonny Rollins on the bridge (the structure varies, too, of course). So what in the world is that about? That there should be a characteristic thread of melody, a certain sort of mood to sound its way through all that lofty, sooty jumble to convey so clear and, as it seems, eternal a sense of loss and resignation. How in the world do you get eternal out of saxophone and fire escape? It doesn’t make much sense. That it should get to you—to me at least—more sharply, deeply, sadly than the ancient, naturally mournful, not to say eternal, sound of breath through reed or bamboo flute.

Not too many years ago as I began to wonder about the mournfulness of cities—its expression in this way—I brought a recording of Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City” concert-piece to my girlfriend Nancy’s house on a chilly winter evening. She had friends or family staying, so we slept in the front bedroom, which, because of its exposure or some problem with the heater, was quite cold. So I remember all the quilts and blankets and huddling up together as if desperate in some Lower East Side tenement and listening to this music break our hearts about ourselves, our struggling immigrant immersion and confusion in this terrible complexity. The lonely verticality of life. And why should sadness sound so sweet? I guess the sweetness is the resignation part.

I’d like to set up an experiment to chart the sadness—try to find out where it comes from, where it goes—but trace it, in that melody (whichever variation) as it threads across Manhattan from the Lower East Side straight across the river, more or less west, into the suburbs of New Jersey and whatever lies beyond. This would require, I’m guessing, maybe a hundred saxophonists stationed along the route on tops of buildings, water towers, farther out on people’s porches (with permission), empty parking lots, at intervals determined by the limits of their mutual audibility under variable conditions in the middle of the night, so each would strain a bit to pick it up and pass it on in step until they’re going all at once and all strung out along this fraying thread of melody for hours, with relievers in reserve. There’s bound to be some drifting in and out of phase, attenuation of the tempo, of the sadness for that matter, of the waveform, what I think of as the waveform of the whole thing as it comes across the river (which may prove to be a problem) losing amplitude and sharpness, rounding, flattening and diffusing into neighborhoods where maybe it just sort of washes over people staying up to hear it or, awakened, wondering what is that out there so faint and faintly echoed, faintly sad but not so sad that you can’t close your eyes again and drift right back to sleep.

It isn’t possible to hear it all at once. You have to track the propagation. All those saxophones receiving and repeating and coordinating, maybe, for an interval or two before the melody escapes itself to separate into these brief, discrete, coherent moments out of sync with one another, coming and going, reconnecting, fading out and in again along the line in ways that someone from an upper-story window at a distance might be able to appreciate, able to pick up, who knows, ten or twenty instruments way out there faintly gathering, shifting in and out of phase along a one- or two-mile stretch. And I might imagine it would be all up and down like that—that long, sad train of thought disintegrating, recomposing here and there all night in waves and waves of waves until the players, one by one, begin to give it up toward dawn like crickets gradually flickering out.

In order to chart it, though, the whole thing as intended, we will need a car, someone to drive it slowly along the route with the windows down while someone else—me, I suppose—deflects a pen along some sort of moving scroll, perhaps a foot wide and a hundred feet long, and which has been prepared with a single complex line of reference along the top, a kind of open silhouette, a structural cross-section through the route, with key points noted, from the seismic verticalities of Manhattan through the quieter inflections of New Jersey and those ancient tract house neighborhoods and finally going flat (as I imagine, having no idea what’s out there) into what? Savannah, maybe? Or some open field with the final saxophonist all alone out there in the grass.

So, as this scroll is turned within its windowed box on a pair of rollers—either motorized and GPS-controlled or simply cranked by someone trained to keep it all coordinated—I attempt to get myself into a Zen-like state of mind and let my deeper instincts twitch the pen, a red one, down or up to chart the mournfulness, its zig-zag fluctuations in that thin melodic line as followed out into the night. Of course there’s nothing scientific involved. No rigor here at all. It’s more like dowsing. I’ll be predisposed to chart my expectation—which is that the overall profile of the sadness will reflect (as a mirror image) that of the city as it tails off into Jersey and the suburbs and beyond. But who knows? There might be anomalous fluctuations. I might find myself sufficiently detached and unselfconscious in the process, weirdly neutral in the weirdness of the thing, that I allow my hand to twitch in unexpected ways at unexpected thumpings of my heart, the red line suddenly reversing, say, toward joy, then spiking down again, and wildly back and forth like that at certain places. Alleys, vacant lots—the intermittent reassertion of that flat and grassy emptiness where joy and sorrow first arose and, still, may tend to flip-flop, switch polarities. Though, surely, it’s inevitable that sadness and its reference, as we travel farther west, will flatten out, go parallel and possibly merge. 

What have we got, then, when it’s done? When we roll it out? A line of history, I think. I’d like to think. I shall pretend. From left to right, from west to east, from out in the flatlands, in the field with that last saxophone where the lines of the world and our feelings about it probably coincide, back there before the Neolithic; on up into those New Jersey tract house neighborhoods where the lines diverge and consciousness of a sad and workmanlike sort arises faintly in the sedentary morning, every morning, people waking up into it just like history; up the line, the double line now, toward increasing complication and divergence, over the river (under the river—haven’t figured that part out) into those terribly vertical regions where we find ourselves with saxophones on fire escapes, in Edward Hopper paintings, lost, heartbroken, fully distinct, alone at last.


Enjoy this story? Explore the OA archive. 

David Searcy is the author of Shame and Wonder, a book of essays. 

More from David Searcy