Echo Location

A Tumblr featuring music heard as if “from another room” offers an escape from the pressure to curate your own taste

In the course of a recent evening scroll through Tumblr, sprawled in the gold light of my California bedroom with one window cracked and the cool rustle of wind in the leaves, I came across a nondescript audio post captioned “I’ll Be Seeing You playing from another room.” Billie Holiday crackled to life through my laptop speakers, but her gravelly timbre and the bright brass tones of the song were edited to sound muffled, as though emanating not from the computer resting in my lap but somewhere further off. I spontaneously recalled the dim lamplight upstairs in my grandparents’ house in Laurel, Maryland, in what we called the yellow room, where two twin beds done up in identical mustard chiffon bedspreads gathered dust under the shadowy egg-yolk eaves, their yellow gingham pillows edged in white eyelet, waiting, scratchy and sad, until we arrived for the holidays. Often, as Thanksgiving dinners or Passover Seders simmered in the kitchen, my family sang along to music played in my grandfather’s study — the swing classics of my grandparents’ 1940s youth sounding warm and lovely on a hi-fi system, which had been state of the art sometime in the late ’70s. When I snuck away from slicing apples or stirring soups, I’d scurry up to the yellow room and daydream, half-listening, as music floated up from the floor below.

Back in my Berkeley bedroom, absent were the clink of table-setting and my grandmother’s Brooklyn accent sharp enough to carry up the stairs. Still, the sound of the song, disembodied not only from the studio where Billie sang it but even from the recording itself, became a soundscape: I was there again, in the yellow room of a house sold to strangers years ago, only a flight of stairs away from a former life.

To date, that particular edit of “I’ll Be Seeing You” has more than four and a half thousand notes. The blog that posted it, From Another Room, was deleted in July 2017 by Tumblr staff for copyright violation, but in the few months during which it was active it amassed more than 60,000 followers; it has since been revived with limited posts. A cursory search for the phrase “from another room” reveals dozens of similar “remixes,” some with note counts approaching 100,000. Scrolling through the tag felt like slipping back through time: “Mr Brightside” from another room and I’m running through the rain toward the dark thumping promise of my first high-school dance; “Clair de Lune” from another room and my mother’s playing piano downstairs in a house that’s since been locked and shuttered to me forever; “Somebody That I Used To Know” from another room and I’m forced to remember the upstairs neighbors I had in 2011 who occasionally blasted this short-lived hit so loud it rattled my mirror in its frame.

Distance in music From Another Room doesn’t mean the heights of concert-hall ceilings, but instead the more commonplace corridors, bathrooms, and alleyways that encircle those perfect acoustical conditions

Comments on From Another Room’s posts offer other vivid scenarios ranging from the romantic (on Toto’s “Africa”: “I feel like I bumped into my ’80s jock soulmate in the kitchen and our eyes lock in slow-mo while the high school party in the basement rages on, showing no sign of ending badly”) to the goofily banal (on John Williams’ “Imperial March”: “when darth vader is strutting through the flight hangar and you’re an imperial accountant two decks below”). Many listeners seem more inclined to interpret the edits as strange echoes from the post apocalypse than cozy dispatches from days long gone; but the more closely you scrutinize the line distinguishing benevolent from malicious haunting, the thinner it grows. On Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” from another room, one user’s “hallway at a lindy exchange” is another user’s “Tower of Terror at Disney World.” A notable remix sub-genre is modeled after the “dead mall effect” or “ghost town,” built for enthusiasts of creeping horror. Upbeat songs seem spookiest once altered with the same effects, like emissions from a dystopian radio spinning oldies into an empty and inhospitable wasteland. Listening at a slight remove creates the opportunity to reframe every song’s emotional attitude: a joyful pop anthem throws alienation into sharp relief; a mournful oldie glows with the warmth of loved ones gathered together. Next-door neighbors, the people at a party you’re aching to leave behind, or to leave with, can be key players in the fantasies or memories summoned. But there’s nobody on the other side of the wall. The wall, in fact, does not exist.

What gives an artifact the quality of a memory? “Lossiness,” a word coined in the 1940s to describe the ways methods of data compression disappeared bits of information, may reflect what we’ve learned about the human brain; a 2012 study by a team of neuroscience researchers at Northwestern found that in the act of remembering the brain smudges out detail, making personal recollections of lived experience nearly always faulty. Witness testimonies, notoriously unreliable, are subject to increasing distortion each time they are repeated, warping the truth of the lived event like the cognitive equivalent of running your thumb over a photograph so many times that the image fades and flakes away at the creases.

Like personal memories, other-room songs have lost their perfect edges, the huge too-muchness of detail that our minds can’t carry along (without aid) forever. There need not be an actual memory attached to the song — indeed, although my grandparents played Billie Holiday often and crooned duets along with the stereo sound system, I have no distinct recollection of ever actually having heard “I’ll Be Seeing You” in their home. Hazy-edged and tinged with loss, memory and fantasy blur together.

Cultural critic and academic Svetlana Boym, in “Nostalgia and its Discontents,” an essay excerpted from her book The Future of Nostalgia, notes that “technology and nostalgia have become co-dependent: new technology and advanced marketing stimulate ersatz nostalgia — for the things you never thought you had lost — and anticipatory nostalgia — for the present that flees with the speed of a click.” What does it mean to experience something you’ve never had for the first time through the dreamy lens of remembrance? Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 hit single “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” works tremendously well as an other-room edit in dialogue with its status as unofficial theme to Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” episode, a futuristic fairy tale in which a method of ultra-immersion therapy transports hospice patients’ consciousness into a dream-world reflecting a historical era of their choosing. The song, a dated artifact unmoored from time and space, embodies in its message and incorporeality what Boym calls the “longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.” Like the virtual reality of San Junipero, other-room edits offer a one-size-fits-most nostalgic glow that allows listeners to sink into carefully crafted illusions of place that allude to specific rooms, specific memories, specific fantasies, regardless of whether or not any such connections — or places — ever existed.

Music and sound cannot exist outside of the spaces in which they reverberate, but ever since the advent of the Walkman, sound has been designed more for the space of our own dense chambers and ear canals. The modern pop song has a kind of architecture all its own beyond the carefully calibrated acoustics of the recording studio. Often — almost always –– the recording process is more one of construction than documentation, as producers and musicians sculpt and layer multiple tracks to achieve the desired effects post performance. Meanwhile, self-described audiophiles seek out ever-higher fidelity, total sonic purity, music that emanates from a dreamspace directly into their ears via noise-cancelling headphones, unsullied by the quirks of the spaces the listeners may occupy. In playback, atmospheric touches manifest in the murmured count-in or the noisy finish that crunches into echoing laughs or the foot-tapping of a front man that rhymes with the leather boots on his album cover; each signifying a particular flavor of authenticity on equipment fine-tuned for flawlessness.

What seems more rare are songs built with attention to less deliberately ideal listening conditions. Think of the delight and novelty with which the New York Times revealed, in their April 2017 feature on Lorde and her new album Melodrama, that she “took lots of subway rides, auditioning rough mixes of songs on cheap earbuds, which helped give her a sense of how the music would sound in daily life.” The same publication, three and a half decades ago, wrote a short piece about how, “to bridge the acoustic gap between hall and home, audio designers have recently tried to simulate large acoustic spaces by means of so-called ambience devices that may either be added to a stereo system or incorporated in it.” These “ambience simulators,” modeled upon the acoustics of the grandest European concert halls, were designed to improve upon already-impeccable stereo recordings; to press them into the realm of the hyperreal.

Listening to “another room” is an active experience that replicates a passive one, cushions the listener, creates enough emotional space to envision a different room, past or imagined

From Another Room remixers do the opposite, taking carefully faked insinuations of extraordinary space and sanding them down, blunting them. A tutorial by the owner of the blog on how to achieve the “other room” effect begins: “Taking down those high frequencies eliminates the “fine details” of the song, and is the starting point for any sort of effect that requires distance and limitation.” Distance, here, seems not to mean the awe-inspiring heights of concert-hall ceilings, but instead the more commonplace corridors, bathrooms, and alleyways that encircle those perfect acoustical conditions. It’s hard to say whether these songs would garner the same emotional response if their captions simply read “bass boosted and intensified reverb” instead of “from another room.” What titillates a sound-engineering enthusiast may not delight the layperson; many of us need the suggestions of space the waves bounce off rather than a description of their changed qualities.

Nowadays, searching for “ambience simulators” online results in a display of sound mixers that catalogue noises replicating specific physical environments, soundscapes like “The Relaxing Sound of Rain” or “Primeval Forest.” Ambient-sound enthusiasts, myself included, can listen to these noises alone, content with the pure simulation of babbling water or birdcalls. Other-room remixes may be less literal than these mocked-up soundscapes, but their effect is the same — an immaterial shift in the space around the listener, an aural transformation to different seasons, biomes, dimensions. But instead of broadening and diversifying the range of physical spaces evoked, as ambience simulators do, other-room edits seem to traffic in emotional ones — near-imperceptible variations on the same muted echo quality producing terror, longing, hilarity or unease, sometime in the span of a single song.

What feels most unsettling about these remixes isn’t that they convincingly create the same emotional effect of actually listening to a song from another room; it’s that there’s nobody on the other side pressing play. No club DJ, no frisky neighbors, no relatives lingering over the holiday table. The beauties and frustrations of other lives brushing up against yours: gone. The element of randomness: gone. What are we left with? Ghosts, ideas, mirrors.

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” The remixes on From Another Room are a recreation of “aura” with their invocation of physical space and sensory experience of distance. Listening to a song “from another room” does not immerse the listener in the drama of the song but rather in a new drama, a private one, partially removed, creating a voyeuristic disconnect, the same velvety thrill of eavesdropping. It is an active experience that replicates a passive one, cushions the listener, creates enough emotional space to envision a different room, a different life, past or imagined.

One of the consistent criticisms of the current younger generation is that we live at a remove from the real, in self-contained worlds, obsessively curated and self-reflective terrariums where our own tastes flourish and we are screened from that which we find unpleasant, ugly, not the brand or not the mood. It is more possible now to seek out media as reinforcement for fleeting moods or as a tool in the limitless work of concretizing a unique identity. These songs offer a stealthy workaround for the exhausting pressure to constantly curate and direct the affirmation of your own taste –– by pretending someone else has chosen them. You press play and immediately begin to trick yourself into a world where you haven’t done so — where, instead, you’ve stumbled upon something, an unexplored landscape or an old familiar room, a brief haunting moment of solitude; a different place, one where you are absolved of the role of active listener, occupying instead the more alluring position of eavesdropper. Anyone, any set of circumstances could be responsible for the music you hear — possibilities unfurl gorgeously in every direction. But it’s just you, listening.

Corbin Dewitt lives and writes in Berkeley, California. Most recently her work has appeared on One Week // One Band, where she wrote on Suzanne Vega. She tweets at @corbin_dewitt and Instagrams flowers at @corbindewitt.