Image Credit: "A Beautiful End to a Star’s Life" used via Creative Commons courtesy of NASA

I’m in my living room, lights low, yellow/orange ambience. I picked the cozy armchair with a good view of the shimmery colored lights on my little Christmas tree. The impression of warmth.

The oil radiator next to me slowly crackles to life. Rain drops collide with my windows. Wheels on wet pavement, distant and diffuse, cycling like ocean waves. The click click click of my keyboard––action in the stillness. An airplane overhead, its growl bouncing around the cumulonimbus cloud cover. My downstairs neighbor coughs while watching TV, a private moment I shouldn’t be listening in on. My breath is the quietest thing to come through, but it's much louder now that I notice it's there.

My ears are spent. I spent the day in a ridiculous jam session with my brothers while my nephews played Minecraft and screamed at each other in the next room. A wild storm raged outside. We yelled at each other over the drums, played dissonant chords, and screwed up the beat on purpose/by accident. I tried singing like Yoko Ono because it felt good to use my voice like that and not feel self-conscious. I improv’d lyrics about manifest destiny and union busting because this late-capitalist hell-scape is what’s on my mind, even if I’m trying to laugh about it.

Now in my living room, where I live alone, I’m trying to recover from that sonic boom. My brain still rattled, I’m reminded of how loud my childhood was. Five siblings, lots of music––not professional music out of a stereo, but the particular sounds of someone trying to learn an instrument or find the harmony. And then there were tantrums (from kids and adults), video games, old musicals, chaos chaos chaos.

As a musician, podcast producer, sound designer, and psychotherapist, listening is so much of my life. Sound dominates what I think and talk about. And sounds swirl in my consciousness in particularly intimate ways. I mean, maybe the most viscerally traumatic moment of the past year was the inescapable monstrous roar of a Blue Angels jet seemingly on a collision course with my living room on an otherwise quiet, peaceful afternoon. (It doesn’t help that I’d already spent over a year and a half imagining the ways I might/we might die at any moment.)

I’m reflecting a lot on how I’ve experienced the sounds of the past year––a year marked by a feeble, desperate attempt to recover from the year before, wishing again and again to be in recovery while in fact all the hard things weren't really letting up. The wounds still infected, the walls still up. So much bracing.

How do we reflect on and summarize that? How do we cherry pick the moments of exquisite joy, connection, and meaning that were also right there through it all? I’m not big on “best of” lists and rankings in general. I find myself doubting the whole endeavor when every experience is it’s own thing and when I easily forget so many of the things that meant everything at the time. Something is always left out and that stresses me out. What makes something "best" when every moment I could feel something was a precious gift?

So, let me just share with you a few of the things I can't stop thinking about. This is my incomplete list of five glorious sonic experiences that impacted me in 2021. In no particular order.

1. An anthem.

Low “More” from HEY WHAT (2021/Subpop Records)

I guess it’s telling that this is the song I wanted to share with you. This short track from Low is packed with messy wall of sound intensity, resonating with the anger and grief and longing that’s been coursing through me. The music video is an homage to soothing Youtube videos of people fixing things. But in this case, everything is off, nothing is fixable or satisfying. It reminds me of the many ways I’ve thrown myself into fixing things in my environment, trying to derive peace through exerting control during this pandemic. Trying to chisel and shape the jagged edges into a sense of harmony. I very literally electrocuted myself in the process.

 "More", for me, is all of that. The song sounds like frustration, but in the sense that it's keeping me company in it, not causing more. The lyrics boldly cry out that what we're having to settle for isn't enough. There's catharsis in its repetition, marching on and on and on––a suitable anthem for the year.

2. Another world.

Appearances by Sharon Mashihi

Lately I gravitate towards serialized stories with a beginning and end, rather than ongoing podcasts. It feels like a more manageable commitment and allows me to get pulled into another world for a bit. There are several incredible series I listened to this year (i.e. Missisipi Goddam, The Shrink Next Door, The Sink). Some came out this year, some I was a little late to.

But I'm going to talk to you about Appearances, a 10-part semi-fictional series from the beguilingly talented Sharon Mashihi (released via Mermaid Palace and Radiotopia in late 2020). The website describes Appearances as:

“An audio mind trip about an Iranian-American woman, the family she carries around in her head, and the family that she wants to have.”

The thing is, right now my brain is tugging me towards extremes: either dissociate and numb out or go full on into the big feelings. Appearances is more full on. But not necessarily doom and gloom. Yes, it's exploring questions that lack good answers, but it’s also really funny. Sharon’s voice acting (playing herself as well as her mother, father, brother, friends, neighbors and so many more fascinating characters) is charming and convincing.

I particularly love how Sharon struggles with whether to present this story as fiction or autobiography and how that line gets blurred and disrupted. The way we travel through her mental process. Parts of it are so familiar and comforting to me while other aspects enrapture me in the ways her experience is different from my own. I love that blend. It holds me and pushes me. This story needed to be told like this. And Sharon reminds me of why I make audio stories. They have a particular way of taking you on a wild trip that brings you right back to yourself.

3. Staying put.

Inside by Bo Burnham

The tagline for this 2021 Netflix release describes Inside as:

"A musical comedy special shot and performed by Bo Burnham, alone, over the course of a very unusual year."

Unusual indeed.

Bo Burnham only explicitly mentions the pandemic maybe once in this hour and a half special, but he still nudges me to feel intensely about it, while deeply and vulnerably revealing his personal struggle to manage his mental health. And, yes, it is a comedy special despite how I'm describing the experience. Bo is a master of telling painfully hilarious, knife-stabby stories about how intertwined the culture we've created is with the kinds of crisis we're facing down and how we're attempting to address them. It's an exquisite demonstration of the personal as political and vice versa.

The other thing about Inside is that Bo captures what the earlier parts of the pandemic were like for me––manically, desperately turning my apartment into a mad scientist's film set and recording studio.  Like, LET'S JUST MAKE LOTS OF WEIRD ART AND MAYBE SOME BREAD AND THEN IT WILL BE OVER AND IT WILL BE OK OH SHIT THIS IS STILL HAPPENING OH NO I CAN'T SUSTAIN THIS. *sigh*

I love art that reminds me I'm not alone, challenges me, and helps me get in touch with my full range of emotions. I also love art that involves synthesizers. Inside does all of that. Watch it.

4. A connection.

This year a Twitter mutual and super creative audio maker, Sara Brooke Curtis, became a voice memo pal. This is like a pen pal but instead of writing, we send each other voice memos which have gotten increasingly longer, more frequent, and more in depth.

How it started:

How it's going:

Two minutes? Ha! We've got 10-35 minute voice memos going back and forth multiple times a week, adding up to hours and hours of sounds from our lives. I take Sara with me on my walk to pick up meds and epson salts at Walgreens, Sara takes me on her drive home from dropping her son off at preschool while she frets over whether she can pass a slow tractor on her country road. Just...stuff.

I now suspect this is having a profound impact on my life and well being. I'm sure it takes a certain kind of person and we’re lucky to have found each other, but the act of recording with no clear agenda, just sending a dispatch from a moment in my day, maybe describing where I am and what I’m doing and the sights and sounds around me, voicing things that have been on my mind, asking questions or reflecting on what Sara shared––it’s so…integrating, containing. It’s like making a podcast for one person and receiving one in return. It's transporting and grounding at once.

Sara lives in Massachusetts and the shapes of our days are so different. We both imagine we wouldn’t have connected so deeply if we’d tried to build a friendship the “regular way”. Or it would have taken years to learn how, as Sara says, each other’s minds move. We’ve both seen this process inspire our creative work and lead to moments of deep reflection, lots of laughing and sharing silly voices and made up songs and sometimes tears. Here’s a little montage of moments to give you a sense of what it feels like.

With what we’ve all been/are going through, finding connection in whatever ways we can is essential. Even if you generally like to be left alone.

So, pull out your smartphone and hit record. Just capture anything from your day. Talk, record the ambience, describe where you are. Maybe send it to a close friend or someone you’d like to know better. Ask on social media if anyone is interested in this kind of exchange. Who knows who’s voice will enter your life. To be in this intimate brain space and to share it with another human is magic. (Trust me––I'm a proffessional).

5. The world around you.

A couple months ago I decided I absolutely had to get out of the house for obvious reasons. So I rented a small office space at The Secret Alley, where also lives. I was desperate to be in a different neighborhood, to encounter other humans I know and like, to find a new routine. I missed that uniquely creative space and the people in it.

Because so many everyday experiences have became novel––and in some ways we've gone through a sort of sensory deprivation––I was suddenly struck by the multitude of sounds involved in the few minutes between opening the gate, walking down the hall, going up to the third floor, and entering my office. So a few weeks ago I hit record in that handy voice memo app. These sounds represent a certain kind of home-coming, a settling, an arrival.

So my final recommendation to you is this: listen. Pay attention to the way sound shows up in your world. The clicks of the keyboard, the low rumbling of a distant truck, the hum of electronics, or squawking of a crow (seriously, crows are loud af). There’s so much content competing for our attention all the time. Take a moment to be with the symphony you might normally ignore or drown out. Notice how different frequencies layer upon each other or how attending to one sound in the environment makes all the others seemingly quiet down. See if you can shift your attention by just deciding to. Our brains are constantly adjusting the mix. Notice how your thoughts and feelings follow. Record it if you’d like. You could even send it to a voice memo pal or to me (seriously, find me on Twitter and send me your sounds).

Thank you for being curious and for listening. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, I hope you're doing OK. Let's see what sounds 2022 bring to our tired, tender, hungry ears.