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"In Place: Panorama Weg"

Zürich, Switzerland

April 21, 2011
11:00–17:00


This was the first intervention of the "In Place" series. A recording of me reading the following text was used in an installation exhibited by APO33 in Nantes, France October 28–November 6, 2011. The photo above shows my view above the city from where I was sitting.

"Zürich opens up before me, stretching out to the north, the sun tracing through trees from its horizon in the east. For once I've escaped the sound of traffic. The city rumbles unperturbed below. I arrive shortly before eleven a.m. and almost right away the church bells start to go off, seemingly all the churches in Zürich ringing out eleven bells, each church slightly staggered from the other, creating a smear of pealing bells swaying back and forth across the city's basin, swept by the strong winds racing up from the Lake of Zürich and colliding with the slopes of the Uetliberg rising behind me.

Immediately in front of my bench lies a dairy farm, where many cows stand solemnly in their stalls being milked. To the left of this the miserable-looking Hotel Atlantis, probably once the pride and joy of this part of the city, now a home to refugees. And a bit further off to the right, just below the Jewish cemetery, sprawls a seemingly boundless housing development slowly nearing completion. Occasionally the sound of jackhammers and bulldozers reaches my bench, but for once the city seems mostly quiet.

With time I start to determine just how many sounds are in fact present here. The trains traveling up and down the Uetliberg blow their air horns and the track crossings ring their warning bells. I can hear the trains approaching, grinding heavily down their tracks. The birds are ever present, though not in fact as loud as where I live in the heart of the city. And then the jetliners taking off and landing at Zürich's airport. It seems a plane passes nearly every five minutes, but this is probably an exaggeration on my part, the sound of these jet engines is so intrusive. I begin to curse myself for flying as much as I do. The city lies under a virtual net of crisscrossing jets and smaller regional planes, with the occasional helicopter cutting like a chainsaw through the sky. I'm not sure now if I would rather hear cars or planes. Neither, actually, but in this city we have no choice. And some some people even live under a flight path.

I'm not sure what I expected to hear up on this ridge. I've been here before, even made sound recordings here before, but never really spent this much time here as I will today. What really makes me listen is the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, like fine sheets of rustling paper. More than any other sound this stands out, different trees trembling above me, in front of me, behind and off to either side. I get the sense of different colors of noise slowly phasing up against each other, like the wind grazing against itself.

People walk by now and then. Mainly elderly, many with small yapping dogs. Most people seem to just look right through me, as if I'm a ghost. Which is fine by me. There is in fact no one else sitting up here, so perhaps it does look a bit strange. Maybe this is what being old will be about one day, just sitting on a bench in some park taking it all in, not even thinking about anything, or at least not thinking about what I'm hearing or seeing or what this all means. Just to sit and listen and look and not do anything else. Maybe when I'm old I'll just stop all this thinking and I won't have to type all these words about me sitting on a bench somewhere.

After a couple of hours a kindergarten files by slowly, kids laughing, some lagging far behind. One little boy has bitten the electrified fence meant to keep the cows in and is screaming bloody murder. His hysterical shrieks of pain cut like a knife through my afternoon idyll. It seems to me in this moment that the sound of a screaming child is the most powerful form of noise known to humankind. Thankfully, they are soon gone, trudging back into the dark reaches of the forest. It takes some time for my ears to recover and follow the sounds around me again. It seems everything has grown louder now, birds I hadn't heard before, multiple construction sites chiming in over the wind, two trains passing simultaneously, one uphill, one down. I must be imagining all this or perhaps this was just timing, everything picking up in the afternoon.

The wind continues to play a maestro's role, modulating the sound of the city below with each mighty gust. It's as if some supernatural being has its hand on a celestial panning knob, slowly twisting the perspective from left to right, at times pushing the sounds right up to the field in front of me, or sending everything flying off to the north, slipping away over the hills into Oerlikon.

I'm trying to imagine the field in front of me from the perspective of an ant, with the sound of all the blades of grass quivering in the wind like so many gargantuan trees. I guess this would be more of a rumble than the benign hiss I'm now hearing. My mind starts to roam with ideas for making this field of grass an auditory phenomenon – a field within this vast field of sound sweeping up from the city and down from the Uetliberg. I'm caught in the nexus between these two sources of sound. At times I feel the Uetliberg practically stooping over me with all its trains and wind and its sombre shadows. And the city vaulting up from below like a wave, reaching out to carry me back to its glistening lake.

The afternoon wears on and the sun begins to wane behind looming gray clouds. Before long it will start to rain. Noise from the various construction sites below seems louder now, as if the workers are trying to push their jobs through before the rain starts to fall. Or maybe I'm just becoming impatient and tired, my senses frazzled from trying to take this all in for so many hours now. I'm beginning to wonder how long I will want to continue sitting here today. The bench is so hard, the wind cuts through my thin pants and I feel like I might be coming down with a cold. And then I see a hawk circling slowly over the field in front of me. He's looking for mice. Another smaller bird flies after the hawk, trying to dive down on to its back. After many attempts he succeeds, only to bounce away in a second and fly on towards the forest, his mission accomplished. “What was that all about?” Probably the most spectacular thing I've seen all day, that and the kid biting the electrified fence. Like the soaring hawk I also begin to feel my spirits lift and I know that I can last for a couple hours more.

I want to sit here until sundown, but I know I won't make it. The wind has picked up and the first drops of rain make their way through the leaves above me. Instead of the wind blowing through the trees I'm now hearing the spatter of many rain drops. And the field of sound around me seems to have folded in on itself, muted by the sound of the rain and the lusterless mat of gray clouds pressing down from above. It's not yet sundown but the day is nearly done, darkness slowly consuming the city below, obscuring the slopes of the Uetliberg behind.

I stand up and stretch, get lost in the rain's now amplified descent on my umbrella. It seems like the wind has stopped. Everyone else with their dogs and kids has gone home for the day. The birds are probably sitting in their trees somewhere, the cows long since back in their barn, and all the laundry which had been hanging out to dry on the balconies and roof of the Hotel Atlantis this morning has been taken down. The Uetliberg train sounds less bright and diligent now, less optimistic about the day. And below Zürich lies in a murky brew of the occasional church bell and nothing more. I head down the hill to catch a train back to the city."

 

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