There’s only supposed to be one body in the fur. There isn’t always, as when I waved my hand through my dog’s coat: there was him but there were others, minute black specks that moved as sure as he or I did. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” the pin-top swivelheads of each flea said. “Eww, eww, eww,” I said.
“To choose to live with a dog,” Mark Doty writes at the beginning of Dog Years, “is to agree to participate in a long process of interpretation—a mutual agreement, though the human being holds most of the cards.” The issue of translation is a literal one, for sure: we’re working with the same architectural plans—ears, vocal cords—but wildly different materials. The gap in understanding runs longer than just the space between dog bark and human talks: we are struggling to understand the world the same way differently, he and I.
Consequently, I am never more anxious over my compulsion to make meaning from the world around me than when I am with my dog. Often, the meaning is opaque, obscured by the sense that listening alone isn’t enough to get it. A breeze moves across tall grass and he cocks his head and I see anxious confusion and quiet wonder. When we are not yet on a walk, I hear him wooHOOF and I feel the shorthand intimacy of love and the impatient vice of agitation. For every moment of profound clarity is an equally undisclosable moment that can only be scrutinized. The possibilities are known and unknowable, which is how I know it is love, whatever else it is.
I am never more aware of the damp wood weight of future grief than when I consider my dog dying. I suspect this sensation is also due to the gap in our communication: How could I tell him I’ll miss him? I can, I think. I do: I squeeze a paw, he rorks and winds, we discern the same robin’s flight the same way and then we eat dinner. But how can I know I told him, and know that he knows?
“We always look for meaning,” Félicia Atkinson says. “If you deconstruct, deconstruct, deconstruct, after a while you forgot why you were deconstructing things. You need to at one point rebuild a little narrative, and then you can deconstruct again.”
Here are a few narratives:
It is April 2018 and I am listening to Félicia Atkinson’s Coyotes, an EP of ambient music. “Ambient music” is a formal designation, a context that locates Coyotes in a tradition and allows its songs to digress from, warp, and return to that tradition. “Ambient music” has existed definitionally since Brian Eno said it existed, writing in the liner notes of Music For Airports (1978) that “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
Practically speaking, as with lots of movements, ambient music is harder to pinpoint, temporally and definitionally. Aboriginal Australians have experimented with continuous drone via didgeridoo for the last thousand years. John Cage wrote “4’33” in 1952, but had been experimenting with silence and ambience in composition for years before then. Raymond Scott released Soothing Sounds For Baby Vol. 1 in 1962, an electronic lullaby album made with the Electronium and the Clavivox (both invented by Scott) that burbles and pings like prescient bedroom pop. And bioacoustician Roger Payne made Songs of the Humpback Whale in 1970—part field recording, part experimental collab that nudges ambient music to its sometimes invisible, grander question: What if the sounds are there already?
Eno elucidates: “An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint.” This dictum distinguishes ambient music as an intentional, compositional process—whether by excision, creation, or discovery—rather than ambience itself, a preexisting concept used to gesture towards a space’s character, mood, feel. Music demands our attention, blessedly; music seeks to become our character, mood, feel. Ambient music’s wrinkle is to impose its meaning on us while also asking us to indulge abscesses: it makes us make meaning, of “us,” of “etc.,” of meaninglessness itself. It gives us the liberation of presence and absence in the same sounding. It is an agreement to participate in a long process of interpretation that coaxes sounds from atmospheres observable or imaginable, or barely so.
Coyotes is a compact affair composed of two long tracks, “Lighter Than Aluminum” and “Abiquiu.” It features some of Atkinson’s familiar sounds in its plunked pianos and buzzing, a crystal glass ringing, her voice close to the microphone, speaking in French and English: “Find the coyote, find the coyote.” The EP works to translate the ambience of the New Mexican desert, a terrain Atkinson was moving through when she composed the pieces. Coyotes moves through Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin, through feeling isolated and wind-struck and, somehow simultaneously, at rest. The EP feels like a constantly morphing sentence, moving laterally across a landscape like a mind across a desert, but seeing the strata in different languages as it moves. Here, flangey pings; there, gongs in the distance, the distance collapsed so close you can hear the voice’s grain.
In ambience, we distract ourselves from silence by letting sounds fill the emptiness. All the while, we keep the emptiness there: the pauses, the drones, the loops, the barely perceived. Even the silence isn’t truly quiet—it’s filled with the incidental and accidental, the coughs from an audience or an instrument’s feedback. Animal noises. This silence isn’t the unbearable ending of death we imagine in the absence of ambience, it’s a rehearsal that reckons with what the mortal disorder might feel like in tones we can take and measures we can live in.
In 2018, I am listening to Félicia Atkinson’s Coyotes because my dog is in pain. I am turning to the sound to be found halfway between a meaning I can’t yet realize and the feeling that every sound around me—the whines, the creaks, the pulse of blood in my ear—don’t mean anything at all. I am asking music to hold me as I hold my dog. This burden always feels like it will break the back of music. I don’t want to be sedated by Coyotes. I want its tingles to move like my environment and throb. I want proof that we are still alive, the two of us.
He had another bug, a tick this time. They gave him another pill and his joints are swollen, scorched. He can’t stand on his own. I carry him off the couch to the door and outside. He tries to go to the bathroom, wobbles. I hold him up. I carry him back inside. I can’t make Coyotes loud enough for either of us, can’t make the buzzes and whispers loud enough to cover the snaking feeling in my chest that my dog’s whines are sounds prefiguring an end. I spin out in place. I imagine the end and the cessation of sound. Ambient music translates the constant hum of constant life in various tones and real times. This beloved tract, the brambles of Atkinson’s experimental electronic ambience, isn’t working with my brain. I crave something with a body like mine, something that might distract me while mirroring me and my jittery pulse and my burgeoning irreality.
I turn on The Truman Show.
I have never seen The Truman Show before. Why am I watching The Truman Show? Truman Burbank, the hero of the film, is afraid of dogs. It’s a small detail, a minor chime in the film’s composition. Truman lives inside a movie studio the size of a town. His life is a TV show. It’s his life, too, for him; to the people who watch it, it’s a TV show. And so Truman’s fears are a carefully calibrated set of things designed to keep him where he is, in his fake town home, the perfect and inadvertent star of his TV show life.
Around the events of our lives is ambience. The premise of The Truman Show (the television program) is the translation of life’s ambience into spectacle. The Truman Show asserts that everything Truman Burbank does is event-worthy, warrants spectacular discernment. The Truman Show (the film) complicates this inherently displacing assertion by making Truman Burbank 1998 Jim Carrey, a performer capable of making every human gesture outsize. His walk feels like an event. His face is extra-face.
The Truman Show is a devastated film, a glistening wreck that splits the cloud wall. It prefigures so many of our 2023 crises, from mass surveillance to social media, but also the total alienation that corporate products and capitalist production force us to inhabit. Even more than these grim premonitions, it centers on Carrey’s face. It’s a sad architecture, handsome and prone to spurts of emoting, wild smiles that collapse into brows of sadness. The dare of The Truman Show (the film) then, is to re-find the scritch and the buzz, the wordless scrape. Let a man leave his meaning. Let him find it among the world of ambient nonevents. When Truman leaves the show, I feel an alien mix of relief and restlessness. I feel a tingling.
On the night I carried my dog around, I listened to Félicia Atkinson’s Coyotes. I watched The Truman Show. Now they live in the same container in my head. What is the word for when something reminds you of something that it isn’t? More translation.
Bad ambience turns to bad memory turns to a network of associations we call “living.” The morning after the night he couldn’t walk, my dog bounded around the backyard like a word in search of its meaning. “I didn’t warn you about the inflammation!” the veterinarian said to me a few days later. It passed. Someday it’ll be back. There are bugs and balms, long darks and spikes of sun. “How’s it going to end?” The Truman Show asks—first as an in-universe advertisement to get people to watch The Truman Show and then as an utterance of that grandest and most nagging question.
How’s it going to end? I ask myself and my dog. We haven’t found the words for it yet. We are still making the answer every day, and it comes out as the oddest assortment of sounds and atmospheres, here today and gone some other time. Good boy, happy man.