On Music, Airplanes, and Memory
The Airbus A320 was quiet as it waited on the runway behind the other planes for takeoff. I put on a Guillaume de Machaut Motet, “Tribulatio proxima est et non est qui adjuvet,” in my headphones. The pilot pushed the throttle forward and the plane picked up speed. A male voice joined the two female voices of Machaut’s counterpoint. There were two kinds of momentum at once, one musical, one physical. The drone of the engine became an additional voice, buzzing, distorting the harmony, and even at times adding to it correctly, in unison or in a perfect fifth. The motet finished at the precise moment that the aircraft exited the clouds and I saw the sun.
In his 2015 memoir of flying, Skyfaring, Boeing 747 pilot and writer Mark Vanhoenacker posed the question of how and when to listen to music in an airplane. “When I was thirteen and got my first portable cassette player and headphones and began to choose music for myself,” he wrote, “I asked my brother if pilots were allowed to listen to music while they flew. He answered that he wasn’t sure, but he thought not. He was right. But as passengers we are all given these increasingly rare quiet hours in which there is nowhere we have to go and nothing we have to do, hours in which we are alone with our thoughts and music and the moving picture of our journeys.”
Pilots aren’t allowed to listen to music while flying because it would distract them from their task. But the image contained in those lines has been an obsession of mine since I first read them, while flying from Boston to Los Angeles on a Delta Boeing 737 one summer. I imagined what it would be like to listen to my favorite moments of music above certain landscapes and through certain weathers: “Der Leiermann” over Siberia or in a pristine darkness. The “Kind im Einschlummern” movement from Schumann’s “Album für die Jugend,” for the slight roll of a large plane over the Atlantic. The second movement of Ligeti’s “Musica ricercata” in the blue space between two layers of thick clouds. Moments from Webern’s Six Bagatelles, as lighting strikes yellow somewhere in the far distance. Or the beginning of Gérard Grisey’s “Partiels,” when a trombone note expands into its constituent overtones, at the very moment the aircraft penetrates the perpetually sunny atmosphere of cruising-level sky.
I started trying to make those moments happen. I snagged a window seat on an early EasyJet flight and put on Leonard Cohen’s then-newish “You Want It Darker,” and aligned the ritualistic song with the sunrise. My first, smooth flight on the Airbus A380, Schubert’s piano music accompanied me through a quiet night; I tried Michael Maierhof’s creaking, groaning sounds on another morning trip. But the flights during which I most urgently wanted to hear music were over too quickly. My husband and I flew on a tiny Cape Air Cessna from Boston’s Logan Airport to Provincetown. I looked over the pilot’s shoulder out to the blue horizon and blue ocean, where the shoreline glimmered. It was the right moment for those instants in Jay Schwartz’s pieces when a thicket of intertwined strings suddenly and briefly coalesces into a terrifying major third. In 20 minutes, though, we arrived. I didn’t have time to look away from the view and grab my headphones.
That was typical. More often than not, I would fail at my attempts to match the right music to the moving pictures when I flew. I’d forget to download the album I wanted from Spotify, or my headphones would be at the bottom of my bag, or the person next to me would snore. I wouldn’t have a window seat, or if I did there wouldn’t be much to see. Also, I realized, Vanhoenacker’s question was potent not because he asked if you could listen to music while on a plane, but if you could listen while you were flying it. The view from the cockpit, the movements on the yoke, the fear, are what make the experience so impossible, and so transcendent to imagine.
I bought a copy of the flight simulator X-Plane. Taking a virtual Cirrus TheJet into the simulated gray New York morning, I put Michael Pisaro’s “Hearing Metal 3” on my speakers and listened to the cymbals groan their harmonic spectra under the pressure of violin bows. Later, when Pisaro has his performers pour beans and rice on the cymbals, I felt the raindrops lightly tap at the image of my cockpit. (The programmer of X-Plane once referred to his simulator as containing “virtual air.”) I’d try to half-write my own music to what I saw, too. Over and over, I took off from San Diego towards Palm Springs, toying with the exact time of my departure and the altitude and thickness of the clouds. I strained to hear, in my inner ear, glissandi and large chords of indistinct shape and character, while I banked an aircraft over the too-smooth Pacific Ocean and looked up at the pixel stars. I’d watch the sun rise on my computer, the light turning pink and orange while it remained a shade of Berlin gray outside, and I tried to hear what that could sound like.
This summer, I took a flight lesson at Boulder Municipal Airport. The instructor gave me “Colorado directions”: west was toward the mountains, east away. Sliding into a 50 degree turn to the left, I had a craving for sound in my right ear to balance me. It could have been an offstage Mahler trumpet, the viola from Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, or even a small soft turning sine tone: auditory reassurance that the plane wouldn’t somehow spiral down into the grass. If the instructor had allowed me to put on music during this routine flight, it would have turned dangerous. Of course, that made me want it even more.
For a long time, I’ve enjoyed imagining certain sounds in definite spaces. Before I became absorbed by the possibilities of listening in flight, I had the urge to combine new music with abandoned buildings. In the summer of 2012, I attended a party in Berlin. It was a warm night. Some friends and I took the train out to an abandoned beer factory in a then-forsaken neighborhood. We hopped a fence and followed little lights in the bushes to a large brick hall, where techno music and beer was served from a tiny bar. What if the music playing in the distance as we arrived was something else? Morton Feldman’s “Three Voices,” a setup of Radulescu’s sound icons—pianos turned on their sides—Mozart’s Requiem, Gesualdo’s creepy madrigals? It would have been more frightening, stranger, and closer to those musical experiences that make you feel like you’re exiting your body.
The same summer, on a Sunday afternoon, a group of friends and I rented bikes and traveled to a tiny town called Vogelsang—literally, Bird Song—where the Soviet army once had a base. There were barracks, a school with a basketball court, gray garages, and a gigantic theater full of ugly graffiti, the floor strewn with filthy 1990s newspapers. My first thought was that this, too, was a place where music should be played. But what would it really have been like to hear concerts in these places? They were dirty, smelly, hard to reach—as ill-suited for music as an airplane cockpit. The acoustics would have been disastrous, and there would have been, by definition, other people there. People arriving on bikes and in buses. People rolling their eyes at one another at the parts they thought were boring, or yelling out, “No encores!” Was I really searching for the right place to hear music, or was I just looking for an experience that was mine alone?
I had considered organizing concerts in abandoned buildings or in planes myself. A visit to one potential site stopped me. A few friends and I took the tram out to Berlin Pankow, a neighborhood in the north and former East. We slipped past a rickety metal fence and entered an abandoned swimming pool, sidestepping the glass. The pool was wide, rectangular, and deep, and tiled barriers in the changing rooms were still intact. We descended a set of stairs into the basement. Using our cellphones as flashlights, we made our way down a narrow corridor and up to the pipes of the boiler room. Then a smell hit us. My friend peered around the corner, into what used to be the sauna, and saw a person sleeping there. We went back upstairs. The space belonged to someone else, we felt. The concert never happened. It wasn’t the right staging ground for music, and our attempts to combine music, destruction, and fear suddenly felt tasteless. We left that evening and never went back. Musical moments, like landscapes, skies, and spaces, are as elusive as the past.
There is something of the tourist’s search for an “authentic” experience in my attempts to hear the right music at the right altitude, at the right time of day, at the appropriate angle to the sun. Essentially, it is an attempt to possess a moment. That need probably comes from the way moments in the concert hall are often broken. It takes serious concentration to enjoy the Mona Lisa at the Louvre; getting goosebumps at a concert despite the rustling candies, coughs, and complaints of the other listeners is a real accomplishment. On a plane or in some ruin, the moment might not work, but it least it would belong to me.
Classical music presenters figured out quite a long time ago that the normal concert hall can be a hard place in which to have a transcendent arts experience. Concerts now take place in blue collar bars, parking garages, piano factories, lofts, techno clubs, restaurants, breweries, distilleries, and countless other venues. How much of this location-hopping is an attempt to create an experience that can’t be planned? Concert presenters will never know how exactly to move listeners. And it’s futile to try, just as there’s little hope of really discovering new anything as a tourist in the anthropocene.
In W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo, the narrator vividly recalls the circus camels and elephants in a small-town performance of the opera “Aida,” even though, he admits, he “had not held onto the slightest memory” of it. What we remember is usually not what happened. When we go into experiences looking to imprint memories upon ourselves, we overlook the obscure alchemy that gives them their occult power. “In general, I never know what touches me so much about certain things or beings,” Sebald wrote.
Vanhoenacker is somewhat more optimistic than I am about the possibilities of sound in flight. “The overlaying of music on the turning world, will accompany every one of my most treasured experiences of flight, particularly at takeoff and landing,” he wrote. “I will learn to pause or rewind, to pair the size of the growing trees with the remaining minutes.” The difference is, I’ve never tried to pause or rewind a piece, perhaps due to the conditioning of 20 years of classical music training saying that the flow of a composition is untouchable. That means that the perfect, elusive fusion of music and flight—of music, space, experience—is dependent on too many factors to be realistic. When you try to orchestrate a moment, it really doesn’t stand a chance.
Daydreaming of music in flight has become a ritual for me. Some musical rituals, like the concert, are social. Others, like listening to new music and practicing slow banking turns over the lights of fake California highways, are private—and deeply strange. Still, rituals help us try to process the world’s mysteries. Sound waves and airplanes are both carried in the air; they are real, yet intangible. The same is true of our processes of listening and memory. I know, I think, that the moments I want to make are more or less impossible. I’ll keep flying, and listening, in search of them. ¶