SITE SONOLOGIES

site sonology #4 
spofford alley
chinatown
6pm 10/4/01  

I came upon this alley during my first visit to Chinatown nine years ago.  Over the years, on each of my subsequent walks along this single block it has felt as if it is at the heart of a community.  Like many locations in any city, this ‘site’ is so particularly evocative of the imagination.  Gates and doorways, partially opened, allow glimpses of interiors and stairways leading in different directions.  The windows of the upper floors are set in old brick, almost stone-shaped from all the wear, and details of domestic activities and personalities are precariously situated on the sills.  Outlines of individuals hang from clotheslines.  Through some windows candlelight makes shadows flicker and smoke carries smells of incense and cooking to the street. 

Because I am not a resident of this neighborhood and because I am not part of the Chinese community, the mysteries of Spofford Alley are heightened a little.  I cannot read the signs and I cannot take direct meaning from the conversations I overhear.  Above the large curtained shop windows along street level are rows of narrow windows, most of which are open.  Each time I have been here, I have heard frantic clattering and bristling emanate from these openings.  Additionally, like sounds resonate in the stairwells leading below street level.  If you peer through many of the gates, most of which are latched and accompanied by a buzzer, you can often see corners and edges of cardtables, wrists extending from cuffs, some fingers moving rapidly across areas of white blocks and tiny wooden rods,  shuffling and positioning them, more slowly moving among ashtrays, purses, and soda cans.  Over the years I have always enjoyed the ambience of these Ma-Jong gaming parlors, noticing how this sound provides  a unique bed for the racket of the city to lie down on.

While the ‘performance’ here was completely implied, the sound itself certainly was not.

I imagined that anyone patient enough to commute to Chinatown and look for this obscure site would immediately recognize what he/she had come for.  On the last day of this ‘scheduled’ event I did show up to make some recordings and take pictures.  At around 6:30 close to a dozen children on rollerskates appeared at one end of the alley and contributed a fabulous layer of noise to the site as they repeatedly skated from one end to the other, giggling and singing the whole time.