When riding the New York subway I'm captivated by reflections of people in the dusty window glass. Suggestions of the human form against a speeding backdrop appear ghostlike and spectral, reminding me of an apparition caught between life and death, or between music and noise. But more often, while in transit, my focus is on the arrival rather than the incremental, crowded, and perhaps boring commute. I'm largely unaware of the music that surrounds me as I count down the stops to my destination.
Yet the train can fulfill many compositional spaces. The percussion of wheels on track is cardiovascular—a runner increasing their stride to end the race—and, on a good day, it even swings. At the same time, pitches surge in velocity and many of us, I'm sure, imagine an ascent toward some unknown place. The squeak of these wheels on metal illuminates the overtone series of this machine while sonic pillars of air, steel beams, and wood vibrate. As this lumbering contraption rolls along, I'm confronted with a choice in how to identify its sound. Is this noise or music?
It's easy to limit ourselves to this duality and forget that sound can exist concurrently as noise and music. In physics, the simultaneous existence of two states of being is an aspect of quantum entanglement. When this idea is applied to sound it opens a pathway for creative thought. In writing this piece—"Ghosts"—I wanted to explore the saxophone phrases and subway noises as an entangled sound. Throughout the process I searched for ways to blend the timbre of the saxophone with the field recordings. This inquiry led me to investigate their similarities. I realized they are both metal technologies; both used for physical and cognitive journeys; and both make sound using wood, air, and metal. The challenge was to find a unique path for my improvisations within the field recording without defaulting to imitation or explicit contrast. I worked to orchestrate a dialog between the saxophone, percussion, and train sounds to create an ethereal collage. This process has actually fine-tuned my experience of this city. Now when the subway arrives or departs I hear a compositional vocabulary among the noises. As the hum of the track evaporates, I wonder about other perspectives hidden within earshot.
Aakash Mittal is a performing artist and composer who employs colorful dissonance, meditative silence, and angular rhythm to express environments ranging from the American West to the streets of Kolkata. His primary ensemble, the award-winning Aakash Mittal Quartet, has released four critically acclaimed recordings and tours internationally.