Aug '08 - Jun '10
For me, Memorial Day has never been much more than an excuse to have a barbeque, an extra day to enjoy some sunshine. It marks the coming of summer. Flipping burgers and throwing back a beer: it's the American thing to do.
I put myself in Washington D.C. this year for the express purpose of examining this redundant holiday. What meaning does it carry in the temporal architecture of a year--as a ritual, how is it constructed as a break from our daily routine? I spent the weekend between the Mall, the Pentagon, and the Arlington cemetery to try and find out.
As the crowds were flaunting flags in dizzying numbers, it is clear that we are still a nation obsessed with symbols. (I made sure to buy a USA t-shirt with the stars and stripes so as to camouflage in). But there is another, non-visual way to explore the ritual of Memorial Day. What does Memorial Day sound like? The sound enables me to probe into the experience of the ritual without focusing on symbols. Instead of symbols, in sound we have the question of signals. The signal v. noise ratio is a measure of sound clarity. I witnessed two events which differ tremendously in their signal to noise ratios.
Rolling Thunder, a motorcycle parade in its 22nd year, roars across the Memorial Bridge to make a circuit of the Mall before terminating at the Vietnam Memorial. Vietnam vets ( Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom vets as well) ride their hawgs to bring attention to POW's and MIA's, and veterans' rights in general.
I walked the entire route, beginning at the Pentagon's North parking lot, where a single B-52 flyover kicks off the noise of thousands of motorcycles. And it gets loud really fast. Harleys dominate the pack, but you get all kinds of custom jobs. One guy had missile launchers on his handle bars. Unfortunately I did not see any tank-motorcycles.
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The walk took a couple hours. Curiously though, the noise becomes part of the background. I found a way to tune out the rumbling. The occasional rip of a revving engine breaks out of the background sound profile. Otherwise the sound which seeks a temporary occupation of the space of the Mall just sounds like loud, annoying traffic. The occupation happens physically in the barriers erected by the police to allow Rolling Thunder to pass through.
I am left wondering what the noise is saying. Listen:
The laying of the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is pervaded by a sonorous trumpet. I've heard it a million times in movies, but to pick up the resonance, the subtle variation in the tapering off of each note in the live performance is powerful. I feel directed to observe, obey, and to be humble. Needless to say the trumpet call has a high signal to noise ratio.
The Tomb is an axial memorial, looking out over the Potomac. It induces an axial movement, the epitome of military precision. It functions to obliterate the visual and audible noise of the landscape and hone your attention on its grandeur.
Arlington itself is a militarized landscape, gravestones like white pixels coding a neutral green landscape.
The hills once belonged to Robert E. Lee. It is that note that I think is most interesting. Before this was a cemetery, it was a majestic house and estate. To prevent Lee from returning to the estate, the first graves were dug in Mrs. Lee's rose garden. It became an occupation by cadavers.
I walked among the rows and encountered a solemn sound. Bagpipes for me evoke more than anything the open landscape. It is the sound of air itself. It has just enough noise to allow it to absorb into the atmosphere. The trumpet, on the other hand, demands obedience to its signal. Listen: