“Good fences make good neighbours.” But there are some nuisances – and neighbours – that fences cannot contain.
My musician friend “X » moved to a handsome 19th-century cottage on the outskirts of a big city a couple of years ago, and almost immediately things started to go wrong. The neighbours to one side live in a big, swanky house with huge grounds and to begin with relations were amicable. Until construction work began on a small lodge within the palatial residence’s grounds. One morning, X opened his garage door to find his passage blocked by an enormous truck belonging to the construction workers. He asked them to move it, and they said “10 minutes”. He waited an hour for action, by which time he had missed his appointment in town. From this moment on, things degenerated. The workers became increasingly supercilious, deliberately obstructing the street – not only for X, but for everyone else living there – and the only prospect of relief was the neighbour’s assurance that the work would be over in “three months”. However, a year later, it was still under way, the principal nuisance being the constant noise. When X remonstrated with the neighbour’s husband, he replied “Well, here ‘three months’ means ‘a year’” and agreed to an ex gratia payment to avoid legal action over the nuisance caused by the regularly obstructed thoroughfare.
Other “castle and cottage” incidents followed. Repeatedly, a woman who visited the neighbour’s parked her car on X’s property, and one day he confronted her. “Why don’t you park in your friend’s driveway? It’s huge. There’s plenty of room.” The visitor replied, “Well I have to be honest – I have an oil leak, you see. I don’t want to soil their gravel.”
When at last construction of the lodge was completed, peace and quiet were set to return to this semi-rural backwater of the big city. But it was not to be. Spring had come, and the neighbours’ garden – all three hectares of it – needed attention. They promptly employed a live-in gardener, with wife and child in tow, to trim the boxwood hedges, mow the lawn, and man the strimmer, apparently aiming for an effect comparable to the gardens of the Chateau de Versailles. The gardener was employed to work eight hours a day, five days a week and from the outset it was clear that no mere garden shears were good enough for him. He liked machines, the bigger and noisier the better. Furthermore, his passion for his work extended into the weekend, because he had nothing better to do than add another eight hours to his workload on Saturdays. At this point, negotiations with the wealthy neighbour faltered, sighed and collapsed: « He has to work! » growled the neighbour, « But I have to play piano, » pleaded X. The police shrugged: people can do what they like in their own gardens. Without a doubt, the time for personal initiative had come.
As a classical musician, it was clear from the word ‘go’ that music would be his ally in what was likely to become a long-drawn-out war of attrition. He borrowed a pair of powerful loudspeakers from a friend and searched through his extensive collection of recordings for the one opus that would do the trick. Mere techno or rap was pointless, the constant beat giving it a hypnotic quasi-acceptability. What was required was sheer cacophony, a jarring, strident, raucous, grating, rasping triumph of unignorable pandemonium. And at last he found it, the Holy Grail of acoustic retaliation.
Amériques, by Edgard Varèse, was composed between 1918 and 1921, a huge orchestral representation of New York, complete with clanging construction work and wailing sirens, requiring a total of 155 musicians. It is some 25 minutes of sheer urban ferocity, an explosion of praise for the new machine age, out-Stravinskying Stravinsky. Now, whenever the hedge-trimmers and mowers and chain saws cough into action, Varèse’s Amériques ripostes – again and again, onward and ever upward, until the blood beats in the brow and the hand reaches tremulously for the ear-plugs. The neighbour screams over the hedge, “You’ll see! I know the Prime Minister!” to which X shouts back, “And I know the Second Minister, and the Third Minister, and the Fourth Minister!” or even “I know the Queen!” When X leaves his house, the music still blaring in the garden, the gardener poses like a statue in front of the next-door palace and points a basilisk stare at him, and every day the prospect of that chainsaw being imaginatively repurposed becomes a real possibility.
Thus music may have charms to soothe the savage breast, but it can also be pressed into action to quite the opposite effect. Though the outcome of this war of nerves remains to be decided, Edgard Varèse may be congratulated on the unintended usefulness of his oeuvre, with possible secondary inspiration from Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. Having spent the best part of a weekend listening to Amériques again and again and again, I can testify to its maddening potency. If any enterprising record producer decides to create a “Neighbours from Hell” revenge album, it should be right up there at the top of the playlist.
Pass the Xanax, dear…