SSA

THE STRADIVARIUS LISTENING TEST

Margot Douaihy

I hide technology for a living. I’m not an electrician or anything like that. I’m an audio integrator. If you don’t know what that term means, fine. No one does. But if you need to install speakers in a lecture hall or mic a stage for a performance, call me. For the past ten years, I’ve been the best (and only female) audio integrator for New York City’s rich and questionably famous. I’m the best because technology doesn’t scare me. Quite the opposite. I control it. Give me technology over people any day of the week. Why?

(1) Technology can shock a human heart into beating again but it cannot nor does it need to decode the intricacies of the heart. If that’s not the definition of efficient, I don’t know what is.
(2) A machine can crush a guy at chess without knowing anything about the guy. No human insight required. Leave therapists to untangle “feelings.”
(3) If a technological device short-circuited as much as people do, no one would buy it. Conversely, technology can be easily broken if you don’t know what you’re doing. I know what I’m doing, so no worries there.
(4) Unlike a person, a technological system is built for a specific reason and it serves a clear purpose.
(5) Technology is my preferred stand-in for human interaction, but it cannot and it need not try to replicate humanness. When idiots attempt to make technology more people-like—AI, for example—it is creepy as hell and terrifically unsettling.

I was in complete control of the audio systems I installed, but my client list was a different matter. I worked for anyone who paid me. Rather, anyone who paid me on time. Topping that list was Jules Taylor, my most horrid and most reliable client in New York. Jules and her father owned the Taylor Gallery on the corner of Bond Street and Broadway, seven blocks from my studio in the East Village, the only neighborhood in Manhattan that hadn’t been completely compromised by Wall Street scumbags and their insatiable appetite for Starbucks. Not only did Jules hire me to handle the sound system (and an occasional surveillance camera) for every exhibition she hosted, she paid me double what other clients paid. Sucker.

The Taylor Gallery was located on the ground floor of a building that was, at the turn of the century, the largest pencil factory in North America. It ate up the block. The factory renovation—a hatchet job that broke every compliance code—resulted in raw commercial space on the ground level and a finished loft on the second. The building was so arbitrarily carved, and even with the sad excuse for blueprints the Taylors provided, I couldn’t tell which wall was loadbearing, what was filigree, and what—if anything—was behind each soffit. I imagined small cities nested inside the false walls, a fractal of dark passages where factory employees walked, gossiped, stashed gin during prohibition, maybe even fucked. Jules had hired me steadily during the past two years to set up mics for artist lectures and audio components for her ridiculous exhibitions.  Last year, for THE HEAT IS ON, her exhibition about climate change, she spent $210,000 to have a Canadian artist “violate the arctic circle” by packing a chunk of it in dry-ice and flying it to New York City. Jules hired me to connect seven white, floor-standing speakers that would play a looped recording of a First Nation family screaming. $23,500 was spent on installing a drain in the main gallery’s concrete floor because the exhibition’s goal was forcing attendees to watch each other do nothing as Artic ice melts. After the ice melted and the water evaporated, the exhibit concluded. Another $27,000 was paid to have the drain removed because Jules found it unsightly.

Jules’s latest request: install an invisible surround sound system for an exhibition of an original Stradivarius violin and artifacts owned by the one and only Antonio Stradivari, the most brilliant luthier of all time and probably the only person on earth I would waste my time getting to know. Most people, when you first meet them, sell you on the idea of who they are or who they want to be. They pound you with their exceptionally clever perspectives, their ironic distance. It takes time to break down carefully constructed walls and see the real person hiding behind. Stradivari was such a genius, his instruments representing the precise merger of science and art, that he must have been more balanced, more real than most.

STRADIVARIUS: LOST OR FOUND was the title Jules came up with for the show, and I choked on my coffee the first time she told me. I thought she was kidding, not that she was a kidder, but come on. Eddie, Jules’s lithe personal assistant in a smart grey suit (most likely paid for by Jules), fiddled with his earpiece. He shifted his weight from his right to left foot as he nervously tracked my facial expressions, worrying I would set Jules off. Most of the time I placated her. We all had to play along with her bullshit. Laugh at her predictable jokes. Like her billion selfies. Stroke her fragile ego. But every now and again my disgust poked through the seams. Eddie caught it once. It was the only thing that yoked us together, me and Eddie, Jules’s servants, our desire to avoid a nuclear Jules meltdown.

One point to clarify: my business card read “audio integrator,” but what people really paid me for was making technology vanish. Rich retirees and law firms paid me to hide speakers in the architecture (in ceilings, behind drywall, even in plaster). The Wealthy hired me to build home concert halls in their Gramercy co-ops with invisible pendant mics. I ran cables under floorboards. I concealed speaker wires inside hand-painted raceways. Once, my mom asked me if the great work of my life was making stuff invisible. “My reverse-Midas-touch girl,” she said in the Scottish accent she had not shed despite three decades of living in Maine. “Everythin’ you touch disappears. How can you appreciate it if ye don’t know where the hell it even is?”

Mom and her absence of tact. That’s how she saw my career, but I preferred to think of my job as a conductor, calibrating speakers to create a soundstage that enveloped you. Immersive, invisible, believable audio. That’s the key. No matter the details about the space or client or project, sound has to be true. When sound comes together, it is the most satisfying feeling in the world. And, believe it or not, this is work that no one wants to do. Interior designers are too stupid. Electricians are too busy. That leaves me. And clients like Jules, whom I hated.

Whatever speaker needed fixing I fixed. For ten years, sound was my life. Sound was all that mattered, even though audio has no mass.   

There’s one more thing about sound—a secret I’ll share with you. If you love someone, record them. Tell them to call you immediately and leave a rambling voicemail. Record your person talking, singing, cursing at traffic, sharing their first memory. It doesn’t matter. The soul—whatever it is—lives in the voice. When you capture someone’s voice, you can keep a piece of them with you. It’s more than a photo. More than their smell trapped in an old shirt. For everything I know about sound—all the speakers I’ve built, all the systems I’ve studied—how could I have missed this? I’ve been chasing this one truth my whole life, and I almost caught it, but I was too late.  

Margot Douaihy is the author of Scranton Lace and Girls Like You, both published by Clemson University Press. As a process-based creative writer working across genres—poetry, literary fiction, hardboiled crime fiction, true-crime verse—Margot allows the identity of a project to locate the final form. Her work has been featured in the PBS NewsHour, North American Review, Madison Review, The Tahoma Review, and South Carolina Review. She is the editor of the Northern New England Review.