City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Transient, rootless, hopeful, wistful

Written in


Piet Mondrian clearly saw, or heard, the relationship between Manhattan, modernity and music – see ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ – but Jonathan Coe’s short story 9th and 13th (Pocket Penguin #68) indicates that music could be conjured from almost any of the street corners of lower Manhattan. An excerpt:

“I live on the corner of 9th and 13th, and I promise you, it’s not a good place to be. It’s not a place where you’d want to linger. It’s the sort of place you pass through; the sort you move on from. Or at least, that’s what it is for most people. For everybody but me … this is a transient place, a place for people on the move, a place for people who are getting read to pack up and leave.”

“9th and 13th. Do you know what that sounds like? You can find out for yourself, if there’s a piano anywhere nearby. Start with … start with a C, if you like. Way down on the keyboard, two octaves below middle C. Hold it down with your little finger, and now stretch your fingers, really stretch them, more than an octave, until your thumb is on a D. Now play the two notes, and listen to the interval. You’ve got your 9th. It’s slightly rootless, already: those two bass notes that don’t quite agree with one another. There’s an audible sense of indecision. And now, with the thumb of your right hand, you play a B flat. This adds a kind of bluesy overtone, turns the ambiguous statement of those two notes into a question. It seems to ask: where are we heading? To which the next note – another D – adds nothing except emphasis. Now the question seems even more urgent, but when the F is introduced, it changes everything. All of a sudden the chord feels hopeful, aspiring. There’s the hint of an upward movement, the sense that we might be about to arrive somewhere. And then, finally, we add the A, so that we have our 13th interval at last: and listen to how plangent the sound, how wistful. This chord is aching to resolve, to settle on something: C major would be the most obvious place to go next, but it could be A minor, or F major seven, or … well, anything. It’s so open. As open as a chord can get. Brimming with potential.”

“9th and 13th. The sound of possibility.”


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