All Ears: Music That Maps A Personal History Of Place

The meaning of a place can change based on tiny shifts in perspective, by returning to a location after time away or by digging into the dirt underfoot. Can music bring these layers together?
Source: Angela Hsieh for NPR

It's a Friday night in London, but the cityscape is far from sight. On a small stage, the silhouettes of two dancers undulate in double time, then half-time, their limbs slicing through the red-lit fog that blurs their outline. A digitally frayed, hummed refrain keeps the pace in and out of which they keep moving, as the rise and fall of composer and sound artist Klein's amplified breath signals her impending arrival through the crowd. To present her second album, Lifetime, in the form of a multimedia play, Klein has chosen an intriguingly in-between place: a wall-less structure within the grounds of the Serpentine Gallery in the middle of Hyde Park. Green space is a necessary respite from the city's treadmill; the park's boundaries both physical and temporal. To get here, I took the tube and then strolled through the park as dusk began to gather, passing on my way a poised grey heron and half a dozen young families soaking up a moment of peace. A mere half-mile away, rush-hour commuters were digesting the latest bullet-point in the never-ending Brexit story. In the park, however, the ivy continued to creep imperceptibly as the trees rippled in the breeze.

I've been listening to a lot these past few weeks, in places I inhabited for just a few days and in places I've known nearly all my life. I say "in," but I mean "through," because is a walking album. Over-the-ear headphones sealed me into its world onweaves meaningful moments from Klein's life into a transportive sonic tapestry. Some of the sounds on the album include the crackle of a fire, birdsong, somber piano chords, an ominously wielded violin, a phone call with Klein's aunt in Nigeria, Klein's own voice in a variety of squiggly tones and four minutes of harmonica playing. Through 's multilayered lens, I noticed more about my own physical surroundings — the patchwork of fallen leaves, cigarette butts and chewing gum stains that characterize so many of the U.K.'s streets — and fleshed out some connections between place and intimacy that I'd only half-made before.

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