Jessica Helfand | The Self-Reliance Project


A motor ambulance denoted by the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, Grand Lodge of England, for service on the Western Front during World War One.

The German film director, Michael Roemer, who taught for years at Yale, always began his class with the same assignment, in which students were told to go out and shoot movement of any kind, but without sound. “Sound lies,” Roemer famously maintained. “If the dramatic action is there, you shouldn’t need to rely upon sound to tell your story.”

He was right, of course. But the opposite is also true. Sound cuts right through you and tells its own story—whether you like it or not.

Consider the siren. In Greek mythology, sirens were nymphs who lured mariners to death on the rocks. Because his 1819 invention could produce sound under water, the French engineer Baron Charles Cagniard de la Tour claimed a connection to those water nymphs—and took their name. (An early tech evangelist, he also invented a blowing machine, and studied yeast.)

Today, in cities across the globe, where human activity has all but come to a standstill, the sirens keep blaring, their echoes heard across miles of empty streets. If there is a soundtrack to Covid-19, the siren might be it.

And perhaps that is as it should be, awakening us from our isolated stupor, piercing the stillness of so much self-imposed exile. It’s no wonder that the incorporation of the horn, in orchestral music, is used as a theatrical accelerant for such purposes—to make us listen, to make us feel something visceral, vital, and human. Consider the classic melody of Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata, a paean to finality. And then listen to the fourth movement of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata, Number 1, in F Minor—Scriabin’s personal cry against God—and try not to weep.

Today, to hear a siren is to become profoundly aware of someone else’s irrevocable march, at once distant and anonymous, plaintive—and familiar. These are the voices which we hear in solitude, Emerson wrote, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Now that the world has closed down in so many ways, might we listen more closely, to our sirens, to our solitude, to our selves? Sound may lie, but it also can not help but tell the truth—whether you like it or not.

Jobs | June 13