There were at least six drums at Occupy Chicago, and as many different beats: a group of teenagers pounding on upside-down trash bins in front of the Federal Reserve; a man sitting cross-legged with a bongo, hands fluttering; a woman with her eyes closed, shaking a tambourine. There was a teenage girl with a ukulele, playing Little Boxes, and two old men singing behind her. Across the street, a Marine in uniform, plucking Carol of the Bells on an electric guitar. When he saw me watching, he blushed. “It’s all I can play,” he said. A few minutes later a cop walked by, humming.
My partner, a drummer, has tried to teach me about polyrhythms. He is always tapping: quick with one hand, slow with the other, then switching. “Can you hear it?” he asks me sometimes, at the sound of distant music. A simple rhythm isn’t enough—he looks for patterns, he says, weaving over each other. “A richness of texture,” he calls it. “Interdependent beats. It’s something that can’t be made any other way.”
I don’t know about music, but I know a thing about volume. When I worked as a dogsled guide, I was used to a special kind of quiet, a still cold night, the only sounds dripping snow and clinking collar tags. But once in a while, suddenly, something would happen. A dog would tilt back his throat, yip softly, then again, little puffs of air rising through him. In an instant the whole kennel would be alert, the dogs all watching. The puppies—it was always the puppies who caught on first, who raised their tails and joined in, standing on their houses, their howls squeaky, uncertain. Then an old dog or two, voices like cellos, and soon the whole thing swelled, every dog leaping, every howl different, the sound of it all full and overwhelming, and the air itself—the night itself—changed. And it shook me—really, it shook me. I would listen, sure that there was nothing more in the world than this, and that I’d never hear anything like it again.
Back in Chicago, the woman with her eyes closed handed me an extra tambourine. I was listening to the guitarists, trying to find a song I could play along to. I’d find one, catch the beat for a while, and then lose it. The woman smiled at me. She put her hand over mine, so we were shaking the tambourine together. She said, “Do you hear it?” I said I did. “Go ahead and play loudly,” she told me. “That’s the whole point.”