The Audial World of A Café

Rao'sAs an undergraduate at Duke University, I took a class on anthropology of sound, studying the culture of sounds and the sounds of different cultures. We have covered materials in which the sound of a church bell has constituted a unique and shared communal identity. Even in the absence of any clear geographic boundary, a fading or closing sound of a church bell allowed local commuters to know when they were back home or leaving it behind.

We have also visited the audial world of faraway cultures, some of which created and sustained fictitious creatures through artificial noises. A shortened nowadays equivalent of such audial creation may be the noise we generate in an attempt to startle an unguarded friend or the eerie sounds that we implant in an epic haunted house on Halloween.   

Years from that semester, I find myself mentally revisiting the class over Catherine Reid’s Song Heart Rail. From a volunteer birder-to-be listening to taped bird calls to witnessing a Virginia Rail’s call – “it clicks and wheezes, a hammer on an anvil, a bagpipe filling and emptying” – Ms. Reid not only brought back memories of that particular undergraduate course, but also enhanced the audial world of a café that I frequent in west Massachusetts.

A faint music is always played in the background. While none of the customers seem to pay any particular attention as what’s been played, the presence or the knowledge of its presence made all the cacophony of noises much more bearable, or more precisely enjoyable. The sudden spins of the blinder, scoops against ice cubes, coffee beans in a grinder, plates and cups clink as they get dropped off in a bin, hellos and goodbyes as customers file in and out of the café, pulls and pushes in an effort to position tables and chairs, but none of the individual noise is able to impose any distinct impact in the presence of the background music.

As faint as the music may be, it absorbs, shapes and reshapes a café full of noises. Conversations along with all the rest of sounds merge into a single cloud of overhanging noise, which magically crafts a very distinct audial world of a café.

Even without take a sip at the newly brewed coffee, the sounds of a café satiates one’s caffeine needs through his/her ear bones of hammer, anvil, and stirrup vibrating in response to the café’s pulsating audial world. 

The noise then adds to the quality of the café as much as tranquility does to a starry night.

Jun.  14th, 2014

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