The Stealthy Sounds of Cocktail Parties

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Tuning of the World

A month or so ago, at a dinner party, my ears locked into a conversation between two men from a reasonable distance away. Drinks and hors d'oeuvres were still being served; glasses clinked in cheering, and the chinaware made all sorts of bright, transient sounds as they were picked up, put down, or met with cutlery. There was soft, unobtrusive music serving as a unifying background, festooned ever so often by exclamations, polite laughter, and other speech. On occasion a chair would be moved— possibly the only abrasive sound to this genteel soundscape. Ice cubes were dropped gingerly into my drink, not enough though for to not make the slightest of sounds (or did I imagine that?). As snatches of sentences reached me from various sources, I was able to telescopically isolate the conversation that I had quite unintentionally, unwittingly, chosen to eavesdrop upon. They spoke of a fairly prominent public figure and his current whereabouts. Perhaps it was his name that had drawn my attention. His libertine ways, peccadilloes so to speak, were the topic of conversation; in particular, there was mention of some frolicking in a bathtub filled with champagne that had apparently made quite a, well, splash. Some boisterous laughter ensued, filling the room with its force. And just like that, the sonic space had changed, and as I gathered my wits, my ears shifted focus seamlessly to a friend who sat down next to me. “Cheers!” she exclaimed and we clinked glasses. It seems now to me a sensory rupture of sorts—my eavesdropping was barely a minute, and yet, it seemed oddly long. That it was a relatively ‘hi-fi' party—marked by a more favourable signal to noise ratio—helped matters for it was easier to pick out individual, pellucid sounds that may have otherwise been masked in a different setting, In hindsight though, it all seems now a trick of the mind, a temporal illusion experienced by a disembodied double and flagged by auditory cues. Much like cinema.

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