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     Volume 7 Issue 30 | July 25, 2008 |

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A Roman Column

The Music of Summer

Neeman Sobhan

I should specify: Italian Summer. Nowhere else does July sound quite like the grandly humming aural feast that unfolds every summer in my garden in a suburb of Rome not far from the centre. I love Dhaka in July too, when the rains wash the greenery slick, and the air carries the song of deep forests and rivers now lost and fading from urban Bengali memories. I always carry this music of heat and wetness playing their flute in my remembering heart.

But the sun bronzed days of an Italian summer is a work of Baroque art. Its music is panoramic as if it were composed to sweep over a cinema screen or an opera stage. Each morning as soon as I wake up and walk to my terrace, some invisible conductor from behind orange trees and jasmine hedges strikes up his wand, and instantly summer lavishes its opening aria with wave upon wave of individual sounds washing over me as a unified melody. Even if I had my eyes shut, I would know I stood in the middle of an Italian summer, in the pit of its majestic orchestra.

First there is the layer of crickets, sawing the air with their serrated z-sounds. Then the wind chimes pouring their metallic notes like silver liquid over crystals of ice. The sound cools me as much as the breeze, blowing in from the pine shadows, which inspires the chimes to sing. From the lace work of shade and light on the lawn cast by trees, bushes and branches, the rustling of insects, the flash of butterflies, and the call of the wood doves animate the grassy silence.

Suddenly, a shutter bangs somewhere, a passerby walks past my house chatting on her cell phone and the quiet music of the day is animated. The rhythm of sounds increases. A car blows its horn, a dog barks at its passing, his owner screams, "Stai Zitto!" but instead of shutting up, the dog and his friends in the neighbourhood join in a cacophony. I miss my dog's part in this chorus. Then, before a lull starts to build up and the wind chimes start to smooth the ruffled sunlit edges of peace, a motor cycle roars by ripping to shreds the morning quiet.

Then for a half hour or so, all is still and innocent as if no pebble had been cast earlier, and the pool of green and gold hush in the garden suspends itself like a swimmer floating on his back in a lake. A far away plane, a combination of birdcalls, and the even growling of the lawn mower in a next door garden create a sleepy symphony that plain silence could not have achieved.

I find it remarkable that in my neighbourhood I can hear not only the rich notes of complete silence (which is a misnomer, since there is no such thing as a total absence of noise; there is always a thin veneer of minor sounds that intensify the illusion of silence) but can hear the individual noises that add up to the tapestry of music making up summer. It's the lack of human voices and their noise pollution that helps to allow the play of atmospheric melody.

Unlike Dhaka, there are no raucous microphones, no relentless traffic of cars and rickshaws in the residential areas, no insistent hawkers, no screaming and shouting of neighbours, nor the playing of loud music. And yet the Italians are pretty noisy and lively as a people. But nothing spills over the edges of acceptable behaviour.

I hear the click of the gate and know it's only my son walking back from the piazza after a post-lunch coffee at the local bar. It could not have been a neighbour dropping by without warning, or a salesman. A small Smart car scurries by like a cockroach and three children run down to catch a bus down at the piazza. The clinking of plates and cutlery from the neighbouring houses tells me the lunch hour is an extendible one here.

The terrace to my right spills out with piano music. Ah! The perfect accompaniment to an Italian summer afternoon. But wait! What is this noise taking over the street outside? An enormous garbage truck has muscled its way down our street and is collecting the refuse from the huge garbage disposals parked at the end of our street. As soon as the juggernaut leaves, the minor garden sounds, the piano music and the sound of a hammer two streets away peek from the edges as if wondering whether it is safe to come out and try to claim my attention.

I stretch my legs on my shaded porch, yawn and switching off my laptop give myself up to the wind in the pines cascading down to tickle the wind chimes near me. It's lilting tunes urge the birds and bees to join the symphony. A distant whine of a car alarm and a telephone ringing indoors somewhere come to me through layers of harmony. I drowse and slumber while I can, before the sunlight shifts and the shadows on the lawn change and the world of summer's music puts on its evening dress.

Then it will be time to seek this other music out. This is the self-conscious soundtrack of Italian summer nights: jazz in the public parks; or cinema under the stars; or an open-air concert or opera in some ruins or a crumbling arena. One year it was Qawwali on the rooftop of the Castel San Angelo, another time a ballet in Hadrian's Villa. Frankly, instrumental or vocal music at restaurants or performances in public places in the scented chiaroscuro of a summer night, however enchanting is too much frosting on my summer cake.

I think I am quite content to light some mosquito repelling citronella candles on my own terrace tonight and have a simple home cooked dinner, accompanied by the lazy conversational silence of family and friends punctuated by my pansies and geraniums nodding their heads to the breeze. The wind chimes tinkling in the blue night sky is all the music I need. My entire summer is the sound of nature and man at peace: this moment of cricket-buzzing quiet as the birds nestle down to sleep. Tomorrow will be another operatic morning.

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