Streetcars named for saints
La version française de ce texte se trouve ici
a sound installation in Chicago in 2002, and a
St. Charles streetcar in New Orleans, 2012.
“I love the sounds of streetcars. I miss them in Chicago. It’s nice to visit Toronto and see and hear them again. Kenosha is the closest thing to that these days. New Orleans’ St. Charles line makes the best music, though.”
So wrote a listener in Chicago, as part of the Re-Synthesis show in 2001-2 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in response to a soundwalk recording of my neighbourhood street in Toronto, including the sound of the St. Clair streetcar. It made me wonder what the St. Charles streetcar in New Orleans sounds like?
Finally in the fall of 2012, over a decade later, a music conference at Tulane University provides an opportunity to find out. At this point, with the streetcar lines under construction downtown near the hotels, passengers take a bus out to meet the streetcar where the line begins.
“Does this bus meet up with the streetcar to Tulane?” I ask the driver. At the next stop, a lady gets on who works at the University and offers to help me find the conference site, the first of many examples of warm New Orleans hospitality during that visit.
The streetcar standing at the end of the line is a beautifully maintained 1920s vintage car, with varnished hardwood seats and a driver who stands at the front. The car pulses rhythmically. I can’t tell how that sound is produced, but it is deep, direct, constantly throbbing; then a gear is engaged and the car thrums forward into movement, accompanied by a bell. Each action: bell ringing, gear changing, stopping, starting, is the result of a physical movement by a standing, leaning, pushing driver. It is beautiful music, I agree with that earlier listener.
And I want to bring that sound into conversation with the initial Toronto St. Clair streetcar recording made as I walked away up the street, as well as with a harmonized sequence produced by slowing down a closeup recording of the St. Clair streetcar turning sharply (a piercing, shrieking sound). Slowed down by octaves and juxtaposed, it reveals complex harmonics that form an eerie melody in slower time, and creates a shifting sparkling field of metallic scintillations. This seems a lively counterpoint to the throbbing rhythms, clackings and surges of the St. Charles car, and a musical way to respond to the comment of that listener back in 2002 (a kind of gleaning, as in the responsive documentary of Agnes Varda (2001), who is an inspiration about creative ways to respond to audiences).
The St. Charles line in New Orleans is the longest continuously-running streetcar line in North America, beginning as a horse-drawn line, then motorized and electrified. The cars used now were built in 1923-25. It only stopped for Hurricane Katrina, but the vintage cars survived that storm better than replicas did, and are now back on track. The model of streetcar that I recorded in Toronto in 1999 was slated to be taken out of service a few years later.
McCartney, Andra. Homing Ears (Soundwalk to home). For CD, headphones, book and armchair. Re-Synthesis. Betty Rymer Gallery, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Dec. 2001- Jan. 2002.
Varda, Agnès. The Gleaners and I; and The Gleaners and I, Two years later. Zeitgeist DVD. 2001.