"Ambient Night at Roots Lounge" (from Sonata for Jukebox) -- Geoffrey O'Brien

There is a moment during the fadeout of "Mr. Pitiful" when Otis Redding sings:

And I want to tell you right now
Everything that's going through my mind.
Through yet one more rehearing the phrase still shocks, because by the time that moment comes around you are so full of everything that's going through your mind (everything prompted by the still miraculously gratifying interplay between what Otis is singing and what Booker T. and the MGs are playing, and by the buried personal associations that the record inevitably stirs into fitful life) that once again you have forgotten that it's music. You thought it was the world that you were caught up in, instead of a record. You can't believe that it's happened again, that it happens every time, and that you never learn.

At such moments you are thinking and listening at the same time; except that listening shuts out thought, and thought shuts out listening. Or, listening shuts out one thought to clear the way for another thought to emerge: only once it emerges it tends to shut out the listening that gave birth to it in the first place. Really to listen would be to stop thinking altogether. So it goes in like fashion with all the oppositions: the listener tries to melt and resists melting, looks for history and tries to erase history, summons up images while systematically distorting them or replacing them with fresh fancies nudged into being by a chord or a quaver, and then wonders how fresh they really are. Hasn't this happened before, as in one of those recurring dreams? Doesn't it perhaps happen exactly like this, every single time you submit yourself to music?

In that space between listening and not-listening a story is invented but only obliquely perceived, the visible obverse of the sounds. You don't know if the story is created by the music or partially blotted out by it. You tell yourself, "I'm doing something: I'm listening to a record." Or else: "I'm not doing anything, I'm listening to a record." So you don't know what you want, to start listening or to stop listening.

Maybe you have to stop before you can start. Because you are always listening, even (or especially) when you don't want to. The program doesn't let up. Keep your dial tuned to Inner Radio and the stuff pours through the static. You can lie awake in the dark and let someone else (a late-night voice at home with itself and with nothing else) take care of changing the records, completing the thoughts, keeping track of what time it is or isn't.

A man who exists only as a voice on the radio has no body, no history: only a recognizable drawl, an impatience with silences, a quick brutal laugh as punctuation between his anecdotes and his announcements. Even the bad jokes are good. He will walk you through the history of music as if it were the history of the world, and as if both were nothing more than the history of this particular evening, the story of how you will somehow reach dawn.

"We've got a non-stop lineup of volunteers for your ears, the Sultans of Soundtrack, the Pashas of Playback, from the fall of night to dawn's early light, from morning musk to purple dusk, this here is yours truly DJ Rerun... And coming right up is the rest of the line-up of stars... We got DJ Revamp, DJ Exit Ramp, DJ Modulator, DJ Byproduct, Dj Fossil Fuel, DJ Aftertaste... They'll tell you how to put more slither in your zither... More stalk in your walk...

"Ahoy there... DJ Rerun on the dial... With a sidecar full of meltdown music for that very special clambake... Or merely for grooving in the solitude of your hammock... While toreadors of the stratosphere skate on the thin ice of the outlying satellites... We're going to be up all night so let's get started... Up all year if need be... And it may take that long because I've got a stack of mysteriously twisted sides here that insist on being played... That's right, they put a gun to my head... It happened while you were waiting around to be rescued from the jungle of time where your plane crashed... Only five can go back to civilization... The rest of you are going to be stuck there forever with whatever tapes you brought with you... Good thing you chose the cuts wisely... You did, didn't you? Never mind, DJ Rerun is here to pick up the slack...

"We got all kinds of music, we got bar songs, we got praise songs, we got Greek gangsters and people from outer space, harmonica solos and funny songs about food, greatest hits of Mexican surf bands, Russian soldiers singing Chinese folk ballads, Alabama gospel records from before recording was invented, voodoo rites with strings, Mantovani without strings (that one is really wild), the lost Frank Sinatra-Ravi Shankar tapes, Tangerine Dream Unplugged, all kinds of novelty items... You never heard anything like it... Except maybe in the soundtrack of your own nightmares, heh heh heh... (slips into Viennese psychiatrist voice) Let's face it, my friend, you vould haff to be pretty sick to be listening to zis program in ze first place!... (preacher voice) This is the music of perdition, my friends... What you call 'a good beat' is nothing but the sound of Satan's footsteps as he sneaks up behind you... (ayatollah voice) All the corrupt western imperialist good-time music must go... If you can hum it, we burn it!... (noise of automatic weapon fire) Don't worry, the Navy SEALS dropped us some Walkmans!... First off we'll be listening to the 80s classic 'Voodoo Economics' by The Rent..."

Think of it as the musical unconscious, the sound of auditory residue, this radio station that will not permit itself to be turned off. It is landfill that constantly shifts and reassembles, built up from what sticks to the ears. It proliferates in the gap between deliberate listening and involuntary overhearing. The scrap-heap heaves and grinds, and its movement is like the slow shrug of tectonic plates. Bits of songs are threshed in the shifting--you probably got the lyrics wrong-and mingle promiscuously with advertising jingles and ancient snatches of operetta and hurdy-gurdy repertoire, well-worn scat phrases and doo-wop hooks. Under it are the mindless chants that surge up from your own head, the tiny repetitive almost mad songs that you and everybody else serenade yourselves with on bus or at desk or while doing the dishes, grateful that no trickster can embarass you by cranking up the volume on what's playing in your head.

So listening has always in a way meant unlistening. You need ears cleared of that rattling debris to receive new signals. Blow the tunes out, avoid classifying, distrust the old information, the old responses. Make as if your instructor, Bruce Lee, had whacked you on the head because you said something about "thinking." "Don't think, feel!" Sabotage your own expectations. Abandon the shapes and rhythms you keep expecting the music to fall into. Having destroyed your thoughts destroy your feelings too, destroy every impulse to classify a random cluster of sounds as "cheerful," "mournful," "defiant," "wistfully bewildered," "laid-back," "seductive," "transcendent." Move into the country where feelings are as unreadable as mountains in a stretch of country unknown to you. Become hollow. Make room. Learn to despise your own internal protests at what bores or irritates you with its unfamiliarity. Be shaped by strangeness. Love what abrades. The future can come into being only by stripping away what was formerly locked in place.

You keep telling yourself you have to smash history, no matter how much you loved the old episodes. But you keep building more history, making it up out of the imagined connections between pieces of music. Nothing but stories, and all the stories are about origins. The future is back there, only a few thousand years on the other side of what you were listening to a moment ago. Behind Monteverdi's Orfeo you find Dufay's motets, and behind the motets a medieval dance music revealed in turn as a remnant of lost Greco-Arabic melody. The 13th-century English lament "Brid on a Breyre" might have been adapted from an Algerian shepherd's hillside solo, a repetitive high-pitched wail that traveled the circuitous overland routes that allowed an ancient pastoral jazz to permeate-ever so slowly--each gulf and hilltop enclave. Music is the voluptuous traveler. It goes away and leaves itself behind at the same time.

You find a different kind of history book in Henry Cowell's Folkways compilation Folk Music of the Mediterranean, itself a remnant of sorts, a 1953 project drawing on earlier field recordings that Cowell had strung together into a narrative about the secret sonic transactions connecting Libya and Greece and Albania and Provence and Morocco. Merely by listening you feel you are tracing the permutations of a pan-Mediterranean music branching off into subsidiary Serbian and Syrian and Egyptian and Italian variations, an embedded language signaling its presence through "yodelling glottal trills" and "long melismas" and "tiny slides of pitch." Go back far enough and you would be listening to the beginning of the world, the first tune, the first responsive beat.

These are so many invitations to lose yourself, or more properly to empty yourself of yourself. Once you succeed in clearing that personal baggage out of the way, you can wander freely through the sounds the world gives you as if wandering through the world itself, to discover at last whether you would recognize yourself once you got there. But nowhere is there any freedom from memories, stories, histories. In the very act of listening you weave a fantasy about what listening is, a fantasy whose very groundlessness is what draws you to listening in the first place. In the oscillating drone of Egyptian mizmar players whose circular breathing lets them sustain their tones to unbearable length you are suddenly caught up short by a recollection of the moment in Satyajit Ray's Bengali film Pather Panchali when the father's unbearable cry of grief at the death of his child is transmuted (dubbing as ultimate act of mercy) into a flute's wail.

In the same way the ancient drone of the Japanese gagaku orchestra--music for imperial sanctifications and exorcisms, the oldest orchestral music surviving in intact arrangements--takes up the otherwise unspeakable burden of loss at the end of Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff, as the camera lifts farther and farther above the figures of son and blind mother embracing on a rocky deserted beach after years of separation, the only remaining members of a doomed family. Is that what music has been doing all this time, making the extremities of human feeling tolerable, bringing them into line? Tone and cadence mark the limits of what can be supported. By following the note to the end of its journey you could even learn to disappear and love it. The truly exotic, the music that doesn't remind you of music you've already heard, seems to make possible a glimpse of the kind of creature you have been all along. This is the sound that is made when you confront the only home anyone can finally claim, the edge where flat sea meets black rock.

And what can that sound be except an imitation of the non-human? What other library of samples has ever been available? Music is where you drop the bundle. Through this gate the human passes to encounter what is outside itself--birds, thunder, the crackling of fire, surf noise--and to learn to perceive its own innermost cry as audible echo, song amplified by cliff-hollow. Like Robinson Crusoe in the Valley of Echoes, the first musician stands astonished as he confronts his own voice as part of the landscape. It is a distant music beyond and perhaps more substantial than himself. His voice's echo is a thunder no less terrifying than the thunder that will send him soon enough back to his cave. Caught in the middle of those sounds he's nothing more than resonator, thin and tremulous as a drumskin.

To the city-dweller haunted by it in his brick tree-house, the seamless primeval hocketing of the Ba-Benzélé chorales from the heart of the Congo rain forest--liquid as the intersection of bird-voices in a thicket--seems not so much singing as listening made audible. They sing like that because they hear what you will never hear, what you will only imagine through the art they have made of it. The more ancient and simple the music, the more intricately complex, something like how a spiderweb would sound. It is the music of what was destroyed in you a long time ago, a notation of jettisoned or bypassed neural possibility.

Perhaps you did hear something like it, around the time you first began to grow ears. Some kind of music was coming at you even before birth. The primal culture clash might be between the aesthetics of womb sonar (the dolphin music of internal pings and amplified gurgles that was the radio of the unborn) and the aesthetics of whatever car commercial or heavy metal pick-of-the-week the newly thrust-out ears were first accosted by. The infant emerged from the watery microtones of his original darkness begins to discover what he has gotten himself into only when it's too late. How long does it take him to measure in imagination the four thousand years of civilization and its abrasions that it has taken to turn spiderweb music into "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" or "Blitzkrieg Bop" or the network TV theme music from the Gulf War? In the same way, he will discover, the swirling convolutions of jungle mythology (chanted from dusk to dawn to nose-flute accompaniment) have been refined into the soundbite plot summaries of made-for-television thrillers (pumped up at each shift of clue or twist of hip to hot-button synth grooves). It takes a long time to evolve from the delicate and indefinitely prolonged into the quick and vibrantly crude.

Once there was history. There were families. Signals were sent from one settlement to another. Marks were left on trees to indicate the point where the colony vanished. Now the stories are adrift. A small-town police chief investigates the spillage of lethal chemicals from an army truck. To avenge the death of their mother, two brothers plan to destroy their stepfather with the help of a beautiful and seductive woman. An FBI agent probing an industrialist's kidnapping falls for the victim's wife--the prime suspect in the case. A postal inspector tries to prevent a big mail robbery. A detective seeks a scroll that holds the key to treasure, and encounters murder. A man falls apart when he learns that his wife has tried to murder him. An evil woman uses a retired secret agent to seize control of a submarine. A battered wife is accused of arranging her husband's murder. An oceanographer tries to prove that a colleague was murdered. A brave man, with no help from anyone, confronts murderous intruders seeking to steal gold from a mining complex. A detective uncovers a vicious plot to steal a secret industrial formula. A stripper fighting for custody of her son is charged with murder after her ex-husband is killed. A detective assumes the identity of his underworld lookalike in order to infiltrate a gold-smuggling ring. A cop's widow becomes involved with the drug dealer responsible for her husband's death. Jewel smugglers search for a legendary 200-carat diamond. A biology student searches for a legendary five-ring cobra. An undercover cop infiltrates a stolen-credit-card ring. A lawyer races against time to save an innocent man from execution. A CIA agent targets gun smugglers in Central America. Ruthless people search for a lost mine in Arizona.

All the stories happen at the same time. Nothing else ever happened. The stories come into being only so that the background music will have a reason to exist, in a world that without it would be silent. Or is the noise of the shows designed to drown out the noise that would otherwise make itself heard from under the silence? People turn on the TV in empty houses so as not to hear the creaks and gusts that sound too much like ghosts or burglars. You never know when they are going to steal up on you. At some point in your trajectory, some unexpected past is going to walk unannounced out of the least likely portal. The voice of Mississippi John Hurt will issue from the inner precincts of a Buddhist temple on the island of Shikoku, to guide the meditations or beguile the lunch hour of an unseen priest. From the organ invisible in its loft in the cathedral at Albi, the one the Catholics built after they wiped out the rebellious heretics, awe and terror will emanate in the form of music that sounds like what it is: a state-of-the-art technological thrill demanding respect for an army of occupation. From a jukebox in Santa Monica at the tail end of the twentieth century Johnny Horton will intrude, singing in 1959 about the War of 1812. Johnny seems to be suggesting that history is what you can't escape from, even when it's disconnected from everything else, even when nobody on the pier remembers the War of 1812, even when it's centuries after the surrender and it isn't even clear what was surrendered:

They ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn't go.

In a back street of Tokyo, in one of the cramped zones of irregularity surviving in the interstices of the rapidly modernizing grid, a vendor of fried sweet potatoes not so long ago wove archaic variations on the phrase "Yaki imo! Yaki imo! Imo, imo, imo." The cry was so penetrating that you could hear it in an office many blocks away, and so satisfying in its slightly varied repetitions that you would have kept listening forever. A decade passes and it is no longer there to be heard. The very tones and textures the vendor found within himself have started to become inaccessible to citizens with ears full of the Spice Girls and the Chemical Brothers. In this way the street itself lost its voice. Perhaps a field recording, if anyone had bothered to make one, might find its way into the Museum of the Ancestors.

As the vendors begin to stop singing, one by one all over the planet, the cries enter the category of folkloric material, something for George Gershwin to draw on for "Here Come De Honey Man" in Porgy and Bess, and for Miles Davis and Gil Evans to transmute into their even more ethereal version lasting barely over a minute, the quintessence of afterecho. By 1958, when a trio of vendors walks down Elvis Presley's New Orleans block in King Creole, their calls--"'Tatoes... Berries... Gumbo"--metamorphose with alarming rapidity into a brief but heavily arranged Hollywood number, a touristic fantasia for drive-ins.

The cry hovers forever on the edge of the drama, determined but unable to help or change anything, a voice beyond narrative. It is part of a chorus that encompasses Mongo Santamaria's watermelon man, or Johnnie Taylor's tightened-up Stax-Volt version of him, or Miriam Makeba's berry man singing "strawberries, ohh, strawberries," or the Trinidadian soap peddler given calypso immortality by The Lion in "The Vendor's Song" of 1938. "The Vendor's Song" seems to have to do with everyone in Port of Spain being driven slightly crazy by the repeated cry of "Gold Band soap, penny for the cake": "When we heard the tune, well it really cause a mess." There is no escape from advertising--"it was even crooned by the man in the moon"--so that The Lion has no recourse but abandon language altogether (since language is apparently good only for selling soap) and take flight into choruses of scatting.

These take their place as part of the secret history where we also find Orlando Gibbons' "The Cries of London," a documentary of Elizabethan street life, where hawkers and town criers intersect in an ordered cacophony, the random calls arranged and harmonized-

Have you any work for a tinker?
New mackerel, new.
Broom, broom, broom, old boots, old shoes,
Pouch rings for brooms.
Will ye buy a mat for a bed?
Have you any kitchen stuff, maids?
--just as Proust's narrator would convert the cry of the snail vendor below his Parisian window into "one of those mournful cadences in which the composer of Pelléas shows his kinship with Rameau," and just as Walter Scharf in his score for King Creole would turn the sounds of a New Orleans street into the musical equivalent of VistaVision.

The vendors, back in the lost world, came closest to making human voices seem of a piece with the rest of creation. Perhaps it was because they sang of sustenance itself, hanging from a pole or floating in a barrel. They carried life in the most literal sense from place to place. To that music of hunger could be joined the call-and-response music of desire that Renaissance composers like Clément Janequin constructed out of the cries of birds. The practice would be echoed, with more austere intent, centuries later--not too long after Wagner's Siegfried gained access to the meaning of bird song by sipping on dragon blood--by Olivier Messiaen, with his thick Catalogue of the Birds converting the song of nineteen species-blue rock thrush, short-toed lark, curlew, buzzard, and the rest--into distinct compositions for solo piano, each piece incorporating its "soloist... in its habitat, surrounded by its landscape and by the songs of other birds (seventy-seven in all) from the region." Eric Dolphy sat in his room listening to the birds at his window, finding ways to play along with them, to recreate that orchestra lost since mythic times in which humans and non-humans found ways to jam.

One way or another it has been going on forever, this attempt to ride human music back to its origin, like Orpheus soloing his way into the country of the dead. Did anyone ever figure out a better way to charm demons? By the time the twentieth century was coming to an end it felt for many like a good moment to hook up to the source again, renew the primordial compact. Forget literature. Pick up Orpheus's fiddle and play. As you walk from the subway you hear the reiterated phrase a block away, through giant speakers: "Music is the universal language. Music is the universal language." This is no esoteric philosopher or soapbox evangelist. It's the MC for a dance band entertaining tourists in front of the World Trade Center, preparing to see the new century in.

Civilization turned out to be only a roundabout way of getting back to basics. Dawn of the throat-singers! Ululation and internal echo as final hardware triumph! No machine but the body itself! The dream of a technology rooted in the body finds its only possible expression in music, a technology whose only product is air-currents shaped into figures. Pry the veil between worlds half an inch apart through devious serpentine inflections of flute music, as if the reality machine itself could be seduced--like the guardians of hell by Orpheus--into momentary inattention to let what it conceals peep through. Sound is a wedge to knock the portals loose with shakuhachi voicings, so that flakes of sky can scatter down through wrenched silences. It's raining light.

What more could humans hope to produce than a noise loud and deep enough to blow a hole into the nexus where space and time lock into each other? Tibetan deep-voice chanting--in which the impossibly low note resonates at the precise frequency that generates a simultaneous higher note, allowing the singer to harmonize with himself to the accompaniment of jingling hand-bells and crashing cymbals--destroys the universe without leaving any visible damage. There was never, in fact, anything there to destroy, only "cyclonic winds of karma" through which the enlightened can hear the sounds on the other side of the divide: "They hear them all the time... Only in meditation are the methods of chanting and instrumental playing revealed." This is the music criticism of lamas: "Music has nothing to do with man at all, it is for the gods alone."

By the last year of the century, the music of the gods--or perhaps, to be on the safe side, a digital imitation of it supplemented by some pumped-up bass--is underscoring a car commercial, as a Chevy Tahoe effects its mystic journey across a panoramic stretch of American wilderness. OM: it is a computer-generated cowboy movie with no story other than blind smooth luxurious forward movement. A music not made for listening, but only for stimulating transcendent experience in those who practice it, has thus been transformed into one more metaphor for ultimate power effortlessly attained. The exhaustion of earlier modes of power music--John Philip Sousa or Max Steiner or Iron Butterfly-has left the field open to the wrathful aspect of Mahakala "throbbing like churning cloud" under the Western desert in oscillating pulses of Dharma.

That's a lot of car, driving off into a lot of dusk, as if without human assistance. Maybe the music is only there to keep the desert entertained. Maybe the gods themselves are at the wheel, with no need for the pitiful human who would be unworthy either of the music or the machine. It's a beginning. It's dawn on the desert. If we can go one hundred percent bionic, it won't be necessary to experience anything at all. We can let the machines do the suffering as well as the working and the thinking. Let the machines write the symphonies, for that matter. Construct software that incorporates the rules of baroque composition and generate instant ersatz Vivaldi. Meanwhile we humans--with the help of wireless electrode implants-can complete our evolution into virtual churning clouds.

You are alone on the prairie, vibrating to a music for ghosts, produced by ghost musicians. But will they not all be ghosts before long? They left their marks in the sound archives before disappearing. In a Cambodian village an orchestra of magicians drives off demons with oboe and zither and drums, working in a scale so ancient that the ceremonial music of the royal family seemed modern by comparison. Somebody working for UNESCO taped it. Probably every one of them was swept away when the Khmer Rouge came hunting down anyone who knew anything, even so much as the lyric to an old song.

In a recording studio in Kabul, the Radio Afghanistan Orchestra perfects its blend of classical style with the inflections of Indian movie music. An erotic praise song penetrates the darkness separating that recording session from the darkness of unending war that is about to fall on them, musicians and listeners alike. The song itself is swallowed up in the more agreeable darkness--to be prolonged indefinitely if possible--in which the lovers' secret meeeting is hidden:

Her eyes are so inviting,
Her trouser cuffs jingling,
Beads encircle her neck,
On her mouth lipstick,
Her face adorned with beauty marks,
Under her blouse two pomegranates,
Hurrying toward a rendezvous...
Eventually all the old recordings will become ethnographic. The inheritors will be left with a museum of sounds now beyond producing: Last of the Blue Devils, last orchestra of magicians, last royal radio orchestra, last Hollywood soundtrack composer privy to the ancient arts of Rozsa or Friedhofer. Each fragment is lodged in the samples freezer for future restructuring and digital sweetening. Think of it as a plant specimen rescued by helicopter from a burnt-out rain forest so it can be broken down into its chemical components.

Is it to provide some residual psychic comfort that pockets of the past are kept alive, if only in a form like the Three Tenors, to provide a living myth of presence and plenitude, to prove that three more or less aged, more or less corpulent bodies can still overflow with the feeling and training required to put across "Nessun dorma" or "La donna e mobile" on a global satellite transmission? Who said the ancient world had been abandoned? You can still tune in to Yanni at the Forbidden City or Yanni at the Taj Mahal. But when will we have a live concert from within the beehive tombs of Mycenae, where a mild footfall becomes an earthshaking thud, and a single flute trill would induce a madness like that of Orestes? Even the purchasers of Hooked on Panflute--devotees of the instrument that has come to assume the whole burden of the archaic and remote, the instrument that is the very voice of the unrecoverable human past, of tropical rivers hidden behind vines, submerged ruins, homelands from which everyone has been irrevocably exiled--might change their minds if they could experience such a reverberant tomb. What is wanted is a past that is beautiful rather than ghastly, the brocades of the ancestors without their destructive passions: dynasties that will not crack your headphones.

It's the perfect end to the perfect century. If it did nothing else it created a paradise of listeners. People were set free to hear anything. The idea of neighborhood, of history, of time itself collapsed. Everything became available anywhere anytime in a format of your choice. Maybe that's why the World Music releases sound increasingly the same. It hardly seems to matter whether they originated in Andalusia or Mali or Albania, once the synths have done their work. It's grist for The Body Shop, or for the changing rooms at Banana Republic. We're all one, anyway, that was the idea, wasn't it? The grittiness of actual silk roads and mountain kingdoms has been thrown into the blender. The undigestible bits--the parts that sound like maybe something bad happened once--lose themselves in a refreshing and indistinguishable tonic. It's cocktail hour on Planet Remix.

The salvaged materials become part of the Sound Bank, a filing cabinet of elements that can be drawn on for any purpose. It's like an alternate nature, or perhaps like the chemistry set from which an alternate nature will eventually be created. Circular breathing that took years of devotion to attain is yours at the twiddle of a dial. The soul of anonymous island singers is plucked out of context and reconfigured into beguiling dance melodies: nothing that is human is alien to this electronic museum. Nor anything inhuman either: who needs open air when it comes in a can? Whales and dolphins! Ambient ocean sounds! Doves in a grove! A whole hill of cicadas! Bats lost in a frenzy of echolocation! Sound of sunrise in the Blue Ridge! Turn up the ocean record to maximum volume and the city disappears. In time the whale sounds themselves-the sounds, that is, that continue to emanate from living whales--are no longer required. They've been sampled and added to the mix. You'll hear something that sounds exactly like them whenever the need arises.

Merge the accumulated heritages, blend them to a homogeneous consistency, and this is what it might sound like, a tapioca pudding with hints of a hundred different spices. In the country of permanent massage the waves slap against the pier forever. The impulse to form thoughts subsides into a slow gentle slosh. There are no more words or names, only the long drawn-out gurgles that swirl in the mind of God. They sound, at this distance, like a row of washing machines in rinse cycle down at the local laundromat. Here's a universal language for you. There is no more need ever to recognize anything again, because the mix makes anything at all sound instantly recognizable. Whatever it is, it's your oldest favorite: the thump your heart loves, the sustained flutelike note that stands for every secret inexpressible feeling. This is what the world would be like without those hairsplitting details cluttering it up. Somebody would have done it sooner if they'd known how. You love it, admit you love it. If you don't you will learn how in time.

In their virtual parade the ghost musicians go down the street blowing horns and banging drums. It's some kind of snakelike funerary procession. Went by a while ago, actually. Don't bother going to the window, they're not there any more. Fortunately, before they stopped playing, someone recorded the last bit of it. Someone else learned how to repeat the fingerings and mallet strokes and recorded their own version of the way they imagined it would have sounded if it had been properly recorded in the first place; remixed it; laid some heavy bass under it; fed it through the giant speakers into the thick of the dancers: and here it is. The archaic forest kingdom never went away. It will be here forever, or as long as we have the machines to maintain it on life support. When we don't have them anymore we too will have become ancient, and the primitives of the future will pick over our useless equipment. Of our amps they will make chairs, or treasure chests, or altars.

Imagine a planet where no one remembers how to make any of the sounds in the archive, any more than they know how to build a pyramid. This will be a few decades or centuries down the line, after the factories close and the index of specifications becomes garbled due to faulty transmission. Doesn't anyone around here know how to make the parade play again? We lost the batteries. We forgot how to fix it. The depot shut. They mislaid the flow charts. In childhood, when the new recording devices were being invented and marketed, it was awe-inducing to contemplate a technology whose arrival certified that the future had begun. You knew at the same time that, in the wake of nuclear disaster, you could never reconstruct it. In the world after the catastrophe you and your fellow survivors would stare like helpless natives at the scattered inert machines, the mute disks, not knowing how to make them go. Perhaps you would continue to trade them as sacred objects to which disjointed legends were attached, fragmentary recollections of the sounds they had emitted before they were silenced. Only then--the machines no longer operable, the instruments and lyrics and chord changes a memory of a memory--would it become necessary to invent music again.

The inheritors-we can almost envy them their tabula rasa-will imagine they hear voices coming out of the dead amps. What those voices intone will be memorialized as the music of a new tradition, the songs of kings existing only as legend.

On a hilltop in Urbino, above even the highest ramparts of the ducal palazzo, they're testing the sound system for the Communist picnic. The old Reds drink wine in the shade, under an array of Cuban flags, while the speakers rattle out a mix of revolutionary songs like "Avanti Popolo" and popular favorites like "Surfin' Safari," sung in English by what sounds like an Italian garage band.

In a bar in Colchester in 1998 the jukebox is playing a 1984 Malagasy version of the Bobby Fuller Four's 1964 hit "I Fought the Law (And the Law Won)"-which may have hit Madagascar by way of The Clash's 1979 cover version--before switching to Rita Marley covering The Lemon Pipers on "Pied Piper."

Tokyo television shuts down for the night with scenic views of Rome, always the same views, underscored by Respighi's "The Pines of Rome."

Meanwhile, in Venice where time stands still, the piano player is singing "Volare" in the lounge, and will continue singing it well into the next millennium.

Hungarian violins sweep through the palm court of the Hotel Imperial--or is it the Hotel Rex, the Hotel Metropole, the Hotel Luxor--and are they strings at all? Are they not a digitalized simulacrum overdubbed over a colorized long shot of a virtual lobby clotted with palm trees?

Music for tourists, except that now everyone is a tourist, and every home a hotel room. After so many years we are still, in imagination, the jaded sophisticates Elyot and Amanda on the balcony of a hotel in southern France in Noel Coward's Private Lives, divorced lovers (back when divorce was glamorous) who smoke cigarettes and comb for traces of residual passion while murmuring about the "extraordinary potency of cheap music." Pour another cocktail and savor "The Very Thought of You" as it steals over the railing. Duke Ellington himself loved hotel rooms best of all, their interchangeability and freedom, their indifference to the time of day. They were the perfect space in which to think up music, a space as abstract as music itself. The ballroom of the gods: a private universe where it doesn't matter what year it is. Abstraction is where you hang your hat.

You might be anywhere. Close your eyes and let the sounds construct a world. You might be heading four miles out of Fort Worth on the White Settlement Road to get to Crystal Springs--"dancing, swimming, and fishing"--to dance to the music of Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, a fiddle-and-steel-guitar-fueled medley of "The Sheik of Araby," "Cielito Lindo," "Goofus," and "Darktown Strutters' Ball." You don't even need a car, just a radio: "This broadcast is coming to you live from the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in the heart of downtown Minneapolis."

Sixty years later the broadcast is still playing. You could be hiding out with Vincent Parry in his girlfriend's apartment in David Goodis's mystery novel Dark Passage, listening to her excellent record collection to keep from thinking of what will happen if the cops catch up with him. This is the ultimate refuge, the space within which "One O'Clock Jump" plays repeatedly, as if he could take up permanent residence in the space between Walter Page's bass and Jo Jones's drums. There are no cops in the music, not the slightest remnant of governmental structures.

In the bar in Sidi Bou Said they play James Brown all night and in the bar in Knossos they play Otis Redding all night. Someone is talking about his uncle who was arrested after the government changed, summarily stripped of his ministerial position. Worse things happened than that; they killed many people. As for him he only had to flee to Rome for a number of years until the government changed again. The distance between the airport and the bar across from the Pantheon-you know that one?-always reminds him of hearing Ray Charles singing Hank Williams on the taxi driver's radio. It became his personal theme song: "I'm So Lonesome I Could Die." In the bar where you've been talking with him the band is playing "Mustang Sally" in a near-perfect simulation of the Mussel Shoals sound.

Often the customers want to purchase the music they hear in cocktail lounges and take it home--maybe the drummer has cassettes in the trunk of his car, maybe the calypso band has some locally pressed vinyl for sale--to prove that the intangible ecstasy of hanging out was something that really happened. There is no requirement even to enter the bar. Music can equally well be a souvenir of a visit never made, of taverns without smoke, without guns or B-girls, nothing but the music going full blast as long and as often as you desire.

At this hotel you are not guest but manager and sole owner. It's The House of Sounds, The Purple Magnet, Chez Margo, The Twilight Perch, The Bamboo Palace. The sets start whenever you want and can be prolonged on demand. Tear down a wall, put the window where the sea is. Bring on the virtual dancing girls. Paint the sun green and light a fire on the roof after it sets. Jack up the amplifier another notch.

Terrestrial paradise, modern-style, begins where the authentic ritual order is blurred beyond recognition. Here's where every distinction is deliberately smeared. We feel it happening and in a sleazy way are glad. Was there ever really an alternative? It got too hard to maintain the boundaries, and by then most of the boundary-keepers were dead. The saxophone underscoring Toshiro Mifune's 19th-century swordfights in Yojimbo was already a continuation of Telemanns' 18th-century mimicry of exotic Polish dances and Puccini's Italian-Chinese music in Turandot and Bernard Herrmann's Hollywood gamelan in Anna and the King of Siam. Here is where everything begins to become infinitely malleable, infinitely recyclable, and it feels so good. Why settle for the real China when you can invent your own? Siouxsie and the Banshees invite you to "Hong Kong Garden."

Through changeless bubble worlds a resonance of hula music filters. "Chinatown, My Chinatown" brightens the back alleys of crowded, barely lit cities. If you can't have Japanese lanterns you can at least have song lyrics about Japanese lanterns. Duke Ellington presents "Maori": the heroic musical corollary to the backdrop for a lost Cotton Club floor show, a mess of fans and painted palms. Wherever you are when you hear it you partake of the sun-splashes dappling naked bathers in the silent Movietone worlds of Moana and Tabu. To beguile the hashish dreams of Smyrna for an audience of portside gangsters, Greek tango musicians sing of Waikiki and Bora Bora: "If you want to learn how to love, come to Hawaii." Everywhere on earth, small bars transform themselves into landscapes out of "Ukulele Lady" and "Under the Bamboo Tree." Somewhere way out on Long Island, cop cars cluster in the parking lot of The Grass Hut. The song on the jukebox is "Hawaii" by the Beach Boys.

In the tourism of imagined spaces, everybody is somewhere else, always. They prefer it that way. A Japanese college student, not long after the end of the American occupation, perhaps around the time Sayonara was released, puts on a record of Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite and lies back with eyes closed feeling out the spaces of a Grand Canyon he invents for himself, savoring an American expansiveness belongs to him alone. No passport or green card required. Ride any range you please, to the tune of Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid or Gene Autry's "South of the Border" or Duke Ellington's "Dusk on the Desert" or Don Redman's "Chant of the Weed" or Vaughn Monroe's "Ghost Riders in the Sky" or Elmer Bernstein's The Magnificent Seven or Jerome Moross's The Big Country. Dematerialized cowboys are free to inhabit a domain made especially for cowboys, full of air and wind and fallen boulders, its rivers clattering along snakelike bends and its canyons howling with voices, its mesas breaking off where the sky starts.

All that is needed is enough scope and depth that even those lacking a body--those ghost riders made of echo and electricity--can find enough room to gallop through it. But what could be easier to supply? If you need more it can be manufactured by the yard; it's a matter of intervals and instrumentation. There is probably already a computer program--CowboyMood or the like--that can generate it without human intervention. The desert needn't be Western: Lee Perry, in "The Return of Django," found it easy enough to transport the already transported Italian cowboy music of Ennio Morricone to the streets of Kingston, where Kool Mo-Dee found it to take it back to Harlem in "Wild Wild West."

It doesn't have to be American even by derivation. Russians have been happy to find their own nomadic cowboy music in Kabalevsky and Khachaturian, or go back to Borodin to join Prince Igor with his Polovtsian captors in a cheapo Khrushchev-era opera movie, the singers dubbed, the horsemen sweeping over the plain like something out of Fort Apache, and a contingent of Polovtsian harem girls looking almost like the chorus line from Siren of Baghdad. Somewhere at the fringes of the Russian imagination a primal Central Asia continues to call, backed with gongs and xylophones, to be turned into operas and ballets, symphonic odes and tone poems that can then be shipped to Yokohama and San Francisco and Sao Paulo and translated into bar songs, novelty numbers, movie themes, music for marching bands. "The Saber Dance" will finally penetrate every crevice of the planet, carrying some degraded remnant of folk tradition into every last high school band recital, or into the demented interstices of Bug Bunny cartoons.

Elsewhere, to a blast of snake charmer music, the archaic strip club goes about its timeless business. The perverse floor show is about to begin, backed by saxophones imported from dynastic Egypt. The place reeks of incense. Cosmopolites mingle with amulet dealers and fences for tomb robbers, and the most famous courtesan in Luxor discusses philosophy with a young physician in search of Truth. "Some combo, eh, Plotinus?" On the jukebox is Alex North's soundtrack for Cleopatra. The alcove is lined with pictures of Liz Taylor in full regalia. The location turns out not to be Egypt at all but a cunningly decorated whorehouse in Hamburg. Some evil fucker slipped acid in your Pilsener, and as it starts taking effect the sound system is commandeered by the music from Jess Franco's porn-trance horror movie Vampyros Lesbos, played at maximum volume, at the part where the voices go into their ambiguous chant of "we don't care, we don't care." Don't care what you do? Don't care what they do? Don't care what happens to you, never did care? You weren't quite ready, you should have paid attention back in 1978 to Wayne County's song about the legendary Manhattan barroom Max's Kansas City: "Don't forget to bring your ego trip and your masquerade mask."

It seems like a long time to be steering a path through the smoke just to get to the other side of a room so crowded now that you can longer see the walls, navigating the trail from the Reception Bar to the Amazon Lounge, drifting through the beads and the fake lianas while somebody plays Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie" on the jukebox for the third time tonight, and all the while your mind not here but at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 watching the kootch dance of Little Egypt and catching echoes of other lost music, maybe the songs you read about in the account of James Cook's Tahitian voyage of 1769: "The young girls when ever they can collect 8 or 10 together dance a very indecent dance which they call Timorodee singing most indecent songs and useing most indecent actions in the practice of which they are brought up from their earlyest Childhood."

Perhaps the foliage is real and you are advancing with Mungo Park into a clearing in the country of the Serawoolli, somewhere on the near side of the Niger, in 1795: "I found a great crowd surrounding a party who were dancing by the light of some large fires, to the music of four drums, which were beat with great exactness and uniformity. The dances, however, consisted more in wanton gestures than in muscular exertion or graceful attitudes. The ladies vied with each other in displaying the most voluptuous movements imaginable." How long has the party been going on, and when did they stop using real drums? It's all synth, just like the vines are made of plastic. Meanwhile, up in the hills, among flints and cookpots and rusted sabers, to the tune of themes adapted from Italian westerns, people are singing about the end of the world in which their song was just remixed by the owner of the record company that has a financial interest in this very bar, these very strips of plastic foliage.

Django returns from the movie in which the Comancheros buried him alive and with a scruffy-looking band of recently recruited musicians to participate in an incredibly abrasive tribute to Henry Mancini whose highlight is a very "out" improvisation on the title music from Hatari! As a beat-up video on the VCR above the bar shows John Wayne's truck speeding across the dusty African plain, the music begins to mutate into some kind of droning rumba figuration, with multiple horns playing in different keys, different pieces of Mancini's melody knocking against each other in reversed or doubled form, banged around like you might be if you were riding in that truck, while in counterpoint a wall of five-foot-high drums works its way into the cadence of some royal central African progression, as if to wake a kingdom's sleeping ruler. It takes anachronistic noise to uncover everything that the movie couldn't show, every place that neither Red Buttons nor Elsa Martinelli with her baby elephants could could even imagine entering.

Now it's time for even the last smeared images to go under. Here come the mutant headphones.

For a moment the names are on the table. Then, suddenly, like a pocket turned inside out, they are removed. Nothing refers to anything any more. The warehouse is indistinguishable space. No songs have lyrics. Or they have lyrics like blank walls. I'm alone forever. The sun is on the lagoon. Welcome to the ice palace. The names are going. They go out like stars extinguishing one by one. We find ourselves living in igloo-like domes connected by windowless corridors. The wind howls in the giant garage. The way out is the way in. There is no way out. There is a sound like shapeless flakes. If you listen carefully you can hear the minerals the flakes were made from, melted-down chunks of disused temples, mountain zithers, murder ballads, genealogical anthems. We use history for body lotion. Turn the names to the wall to keep the chill out. Under the party lights the rust looks blue. There is a sound like gel. The iceberg loses its contour. In the drunken forest the trees wobble like cartoon characters. There is a sound like helium. Hard to remember words in the wind tunnel. This tune you don't hear, you climb inside it. Welcome to Surf City. It sounds better with the lights out. It sounds more like nothing, jacked up loud enough to make your bones rattle. You open and shut like a tent-flap knocked around in a cyclone. The howl modulates. The canvas flaps back and forth in the dark.

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