The auditory landscape of a city is essential to its modality, Gary Devilles argued in June, before a small group of PhD students at Ateneo de Manila University. “An understanding of this sensorial dimension of the city is…crucial in not only establishing the identity of a place but more so in understanding how one makes sense of one’s place,” he asserted. He drew here a broad stroke aural picture that weaved through the familiar sites of a concrete Manila—of shopping malls, public transport, palengkes, and karaoke pubs—to the imagined, constructed Manilas of screens and scores—the lilting, sunny crooning of 1970s Manila Sound and the sacramental confession as a narrative feature in the patterns of Filipino cinema.
The project to paint the sensorial contours of a city seems at times impossible from within, from the interior of a city riven by class and circumstance. Gary mentioned that in a tactile description of the city, if you dislike or avoid being in close proximity with others, you are keeping the city at arm’s length, for the steamy interiors of the MRT and the lap-to-lap intimacies of the jeepney provide the physical intersection for so many people’s city lives. Having grown up in a family of claustrophobics, I felt sharply, at his words, the shame of class and of leisure that affords me such anxieties, and was reminded again of the myriad, sundry Manilas that exist within and apart from the others. Yet there is, too, a fluttering, flattening, and mutually enveloping aural reality that knits some kind of objective experience across even such divisions. Don’t the electronic stirrings of our cellphones, the background chimes, tones, and tap-tap-tapping, now envelop our shared urbanity as unseen crickets stitch together fabrics of night?
Perhaps for reasons of internal division and endless qualifications of “Manila”—is mine the same as his? How can I call mine by the same name when they so differ?—I’ve long wished to see Manila from without, in the pens and cameras of artists not our own, and until not too long ago I thought I lived in one of those cities “you’ll never see on-screen.” For which reason as a teenager I was so glad for Alexander Garland’s The Tesseract. Garland is a British author who famously wrote The Beach, in which his protagonist declares that his favorite beach in the world is Boracay—or Boracay as it was before, untouched by electricity. I was so riveted to see this mention from a foreign mouth. Garland’s other novel, The Tesseract, meanwhile, is set entirely in the Philippines, and though it was not my favorite, I thrilled to see our city in foreign hands.
Perhaps it feels safer to identify with the city from without, one can be broader and less qualified, less attentive to positionality and division. And then suddenly one’s own slice of existence feels less isolated, less specific. Albert Camus writes in “Summer in Algiers” of the paralyzing excess of nature’s bounty in Algeria, the immediacy and legibility of its pleasures, and in this I think immediately of the verdant Philippine jungles and peaks, tropical flora so rich in color as to be fulsome, even cloying in their death in the wilted heat.“This country has no lessons to teach. It neither promises nor affords glimpses. It satisfied to give, but in abundance,” Camus writes of a place that could easily be substituted for the Philippines in its tropical extremes—thunderclaps and the skies cracked open to rivers of rain, an excess of sunshine, and seeming cycles of mere repetitions, both human and natural, in history and in season.