Points North: The Music of Sound

By James Fife

In the three years plus I’ve been putting down my impressions about the differences and similarities we have observed as we transition from our life in California to our life in Victoria, I surprise myself about the number of topics that have presented themselves. I think that must mean there is a lot of small, barely perceptible ways that life and living acquire slight nuances between the two locales. I was struck recently by one that I think is probably among the more subtle or subconscious of them: sounds.

Some of the different soundscapes are just obvious or predictable. The main one deals with sounds of neighbours. In San Diego, we live in a detached house, so the effects of noisy neighbors is somewhat reduced. They have to be especially loud to transcend the distance from house to house. Those instances are fortunately unusual, limited to the occasional celebration, party, or extensive reno work on a nearby home.

In James Bay, we live in a tower block, with neighbours cheek-by-jowl on all sides. That’s great for lowering our winter heating bills, but it increases the noise transmitted from all directions. Fortunately, here too, our northern neighbours are not raucous sorts. We get renovations whose work-day noise can penetrate to our suite, even when taking place several floors away. Or the occasional plumbing whoosh. Then there’s that very mysterious, augur-like sound that sometimes appears out of nowhere. For all the world it sounds like someone left an industrial-strength, electric toothbrush vibrating on the kitchen floor. Luckily, it never lasts long. Otherwise, we are never bothered by constant sound annoyances, like loud TVs or music. But I have to admit we did have an incident where a wi-fi device in our apartment somehow had its volume turned way up when we were in California, maybe due to being connected to a program down south. Because of that unexpected downside of technology, we wound up unintentionally being the first offenders in the noisy neighbour category.

Apart from those prosaic sorts of differences, the real point of sound similarity is in its absence: the pleasant level of silence in both homes, despite their urban locations. In La Mesa, we live a block from a major thoroughfare with a good deal of traffic. But despite that, we were pleased to find that the noise rarely reached us and at night, it could be profoundly quiet. Except for occasional sirens or incessantly barking dogs. Victoria, a pretty compact city, serves up sirens as well, more than I expected, but fewer upset canines. Otherwise, the same surprising silence settles over Home North at times. I’m always amazed when, if the wind is right, I can hear the Netherlands carillon chiming all the way from Government Street. It always makes me grateful we are not inundated by urban racket.

Although in La Mesa we sometimes find ourselves under the flight path of a jet liner landing at Lindbergh Field or have a police helicopter hover overhead, barking indecipherable announcements, in James Bay the aerial assaults are scheduled: we hear the arrival and departure of every floatplane to and from the Inner Harbour. In fact, I can tell the time by when I hear the first one of the morning. But I find this far from annoying—the seaplane traffic strikes me as something unique and even quaint about Home North. Likewise, we note the blare of horns announcing the comings and goings of the Coho as a picturesque event, not an auditory annoyance.

Regarding sounds of the natural world, I give Home South the prize in part, at least for variety of bird-based sounds. I can lie in bed on quiet mornings and catch the ever-changing melodies of mockingbirds, the grating squawks of crows or jays, or the breathy cooing of mourning doves. In Victoria, that is all replaced by the contentious, endless banter of seagulls. On the other hand, when it comes to the wind, I have to hand it to Home North. I previously described the boreal symphony in James Bay as “a choir of sounds we never hear down south: the tenor sounds of wind howling through empty branches on Beacon Hill, the baritone murmur of the wires strung between stanchions on the Breakwater, and the shrill, soprano whistles from the shrouds of the boats moored in the Laurel Point marina.”

Probably the uniquely Victoria sound I am most fond of is now a thing of the past. It is the sound of the Johnson Street Bridge. I know one doesn’t usually think of a bridge as having a sound. But when the old Blue Bridge still stood, in the wee hours of the morning, when everything else was still, I could hear the occasional, brief rumble of cars rolling over the grating that covered part of the roadway. Lying snug in bed, it was a soothing and familiar sound, wafting hauntingly from across the Harbour.

That sound is gone, along with the blue girders. But I can continue to savour the other sounds of James Bay, those that are so different, and yet have now become so familiar. That is, at least until I’m startled from sleep by a band of gulls loudly fighting over a piece of fish along the Harbour Path. At that point, I may miss the doves.

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100 Years: Amistice Signed on 11 November 1918

100 Years: Amistice Signed on 11 November 1918