14 February 2023
Writer's Award winner Philip Clark on the Sounds of New York City: Part II
In this second installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer's Award winner.1 The Writer's Award offers £20,000, a year's residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.
For a few months at the end of last year, I communed daily with Dutch colonials of the mid-1600s. In various roles, taking various responsibilities, the likes of Peter Stuyvesant, Adriaen van der Donck, Peter Minuit, Willem Kieft and Cryn Fredericks established the city of New Amsterdam which, by 1664, had become the English colonial city of New York.
Having already taken the deepest of dives into 1920s New York, through the work of the composer Edgard Varèse and the novelist John Dos Passos, I decided that my book Sound and the City – my history of the sound of New York City – needed to flip the chronology on its head. The 1930s will follow, but later, and in the meantime I engineered a flashback to the beginnings of recordable time itself, and to the Ice Age. In the span of this history, the appearance of Dutch colonials a mere three-and-a-half centuries ago feels relatively contemporary. When they turn up, their interactions with the Indigenous People, who had populated that coast for centuries, pivots the story into something more like countable time, a reassuringly familiar turnaround of years, decades and centuries again after thinking about time in units of hundreds of thousands of years.
My subject is sound. Music-writers are often called upon to speculate about where music might be heading next, although writing this section of my book made me realise that second-guessing the root sounds of the deep past is no easy matter either. How do you ‘hear’ sounds of which no recorded example exists? Listening in to the modern-day city is normally a good starting point, and one afternoon last summer I took an ‘A’ train from Penn Station in midtown Manhattan to where the line terminates at Inwood 207th Street.
A fifteen-minute walk later, I found myself in deserted woodland, the trilling of sirens cutting through from downtown the only clue I was still in New York City. I’d come to Inwood Hill Park because this park, perched on the far northern tip of Manhattan, has preserved something of its prehistory. This is where you come to look at New York’s oldest rock formations; to trace how the imperceptible tread of glaciers scooped out what would become the landmass of New York. Inwood was the place Native Americans gravitated towards over centuries, its caves and bountiful ecosystem providing shelter and sustenance aplenty.
Although probably a wishful-thinking myth, Inwood Hill Park is also purportedly where, in 1626, Native Americans sold the island of Manhattan to the Dutch colonial governor Peter Minuit for 60 guilders. More likely, this meeting actually took place farther downtown, where Peter Minuit Plaza stands today, near Battery Park. But numerous mythologies all converge around the inlet of the park where the meeting was said to take place. This was where the British explorer Henry Hudson supposedly dropped anchor in September 1609, having made landfall a couple of weeks earlier at Sandy Hook. A tulip tree started growing there a century later and, as a commemorative plaque makes clear, the tree, 280 years old when it died in 1932, represented the last living link with the Native Americans who had lived here. In a city that became celebrated for high-rise structures, the tulip tree was a pioneer. Towering over the park, its height reportedly equivalent to a seventeen-storey building, it resonated as a marker of a past that had moved beyond collective memory – a potent symbol in a city that was otherwise engaged in relentlessly inventing its future.
Almost as soon as I arrived in the park, though, a shock. The 4G on my iPhone fizzled out, then Google maps froze, and I was rudderless. In an area of the park now called ‘The Cove’, the slug-like progression of glacial erosion spooned out the innards of the earth and the glacial potholes that resulted – some 50,000 years old – look bracingly abstract to me, like sculptures by Henry Moore or Seymour Lipton thwacked into the earth. They also look unmistakably like disembowelled speakers, I thought, with their cones ripped out, but still receptible to sound. My awareness that darkness was about to fall kept me moving, pushing through the woods, using paths trampled into the ground over centuries, with a covering of tulip trees above my head. I followed the reassuring rumble of cars and, more through good luck than canny navigation, found myself staring at the Henry Hudson Bridge, which crosses the river into the Bronx. At that precise moment my iPhone pinged back to life and I located my position. I was looking across at Spuyten Duvvil Creek – where the Hudson River meets the Harlem River Ship Canal – and the rock formations I could see, which I discovered subsequently are called Fordham Gneiss, are a billion years old.
A few weeks later, back in the relative safety of the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library, I searched for sources that might help explain my afternoon in Inwood Hill Park. This has been the rhythm of writing this book so far; intense field trips followed by equally intense research binges at the Library. Unpicking the mythologies surrounding the tulip tree took hours of poring over old newspapers and contemporary reports. Mythology should never be dismissed lightly. What mythologies tell us about a city’s sense of its own history is intriguing in itself. But chipping away the layers of folklore to reveal what actually happened was important too.
Something else that needed to be chipped away at: those ancient rock formations scattered around Inwood Hill Park. One great pleasure of British Library research is the ease with which you can slip outside your own area of expertise, and, in Rare Books and Music, I began a fingertip search through geological and flora-&-fauna reports relating to the park. My examination of New York’s oldest rock formations was about determining how nature created this giant resonating chamber later called New York City, where all sorts of sounds would happen. Slipstreams of sound ricocheting around the city is central to my obsession, and examining how geological activity established this field of play gave my book its roots.
The moment the colonials arrive, primary sources bounce into life. Adriaen van der Donck’s A Description of the New Netherlands (1641), Daniel Denton’s A Brief Description of New-York: Formerly Called New-Netherlands (1670) and Jaspar Dankers and Peter Sluyter’s Journal of a Voyage to New York (1679-1680) are all fantastically vibrant accounts of the emerging city of New Amsterdam and the surrounding wilderness. Colonial fascination with the possibilities of this new world against the reality of what had been there before, the presence of Indigenous people in particular, leaves a bitter aftertaste. Dutch colonialism was ultimately responsible for – through landgrab and brutal repression – the decline of Indigenous Peoples. One needs to be aware of this wider historical context using this material and read with caution, but there were little clues in each journal – a sound here, a sound there – that allowed me to build a soundscape.
A few basics became crystallised; the distinction between the ‘downtown’ of the New Amsterdam, the huburb around the fort, and the streets that fanned out around it, against the bucolic peace of the bouwerie farms beyond the city walls, where the East Village and Chinatown sit now. Jaspar Dankers and Peter Sluyter – a pair of visiting priests – took the same trip to Inwood Hill Park I did nearly 350 years later. Fortified by supplies of peaches from the local orchard, they tackled the churning “eddies and whirpools” of Spuyten Duvvil Creek in a hired canoe (which they complained was over-priced). My discovery, sitting in a reading room on Euston Road, that they saw the same rock formations which had filled me with awe: “two ridges of very high rocks, with a considerable space between them, displaying themselves majestically, and inviting all men to acknowledge in them the majesty, grandeur, power and glory of their creator”, sent shivers down my spine. Shaking hands across history with fellow travellers. Who, I note, had no need for 4G.
1. Philip Clark's first Writer's Award blog may be found here.