Mark Terrill

Red Planet Radio

At 5:45 a.m. I come shuffling into the kitchen to make some coffee. Uta is already seated at the kitchen table with a bowl of fruit and yoghurt and a cup of strong black tea with a splash of milk in it. In an hour she’ll leave for work. The radio on top of the refrigerator is on, tuned in for the upcoming six a.m. news. Muckel, one of our cats, is sitting on the table, perched with her two front paws at the very edge, almost as though she was listening to the radio, her way of partaking in the weekday morning ritual.

     Even before the coffee beans are ground to the right consistency—a matter of mere seconds—I’m already deep into the day’s first reverie. The subject of that reverie is the iconic nature of the kitchen radio. In how many kitchens across the world since the invention of the radio have people gone about their various daily rituals with the kitchen radio playing in the background? People frying eggs or flipping steaks or cooking rice while listening to Hank Williams or Beethoven or Fela Kuti or Michael Jackson or Umm Kulthoum, or washing dishes while listening to the news about the attack on Pearl harbor, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the assassinations of the Kennedys, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, maybe pausing for a reflexive minute to glance out the kitchen window while considering the possible existential impact or political repercussions of some major world event, then going back to taking the toast out of the toaster, sweeping the kitchen floor, seguing back into the anonymous flow of quotidian domesticity.

     I sit down at the kitchen table with my freshly brewed coffee just as the news begins. As far as any news about the pandemic is concerned I’ve reached a point of maximum saturation; it just goes in one ear and out the other with no real resonance whatsoever. Then there is something that catches my interest, about the Perseverance rover’s descent and touchdown on Mars the previous day. By way of a microphone attached to the rover it made a sixty-second recording of the ambient sounds in the Jezero Crater where it landed. I’m all ears as they play a brief excerpt. But there isn’t really much to hear; a faint high-frequency hum evidently coming from the rover itself, and the sound of much open space, briefly interrupted by the low-frequency rumbling of a Martian breeze buffeting the microphone.

     The first thing that comes to mind is 4’33”, the three-movement composition by American experimental composer John Cage, commonly perceived as “four minutes, thirty-three seconds of silence”. Originally composed in 1952, the score instructs performers not to play their instruments during the entire duration of the piece. The result is the sum total of sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is being “performed.” Cage was influenced by Zen Buddhism, as well as his friend and colleague, Robert Rauschenberg, who in 1951 painted a series of “blank” canvases, which were actually painted with white house paint.

     So there we are, Uta, Muckel, and I, sitting at the kitchen table having breakfast while listening to the ambient sounds of the Jezero Crater on Mars. One reverie invariably engenders the next and so right away I’m thinking about how what we are actually hearing is the speakers in the Sony radio on top of the refrigerator replicating the ones and zeroes of a digital recording and vibrating the air and creating sound waves which then reach our ear drums and are sent by way of neurons and synapses to the brain where they are processed into “sound,” and with the assistance of the radio announcer, that sound has been properly contextualized as the sound of the Jezero Crater on Mars and the rover that did the recording. So in a way, you could say we’re not listening to the sound of Mars at all; it’s really just a chain of physical occurrences and cerebral processes which are given their particular meaning by way of the epistemological framing supplied by the radio announcer, all happening right here in the confines of our own kitchen.

     I look over at Muckel to see how she might be reacting. She’s there at the edge of the table, her head slightly cocked to one side, her ears aimed at the radio. So what is it that Muckel is hearing? Since she can’t possibly know all that business about speakers and sound waves and neurons and synapses, and is equally unable to understand the epistemological framing supplied by the radio announcer, then by sheer default—by not knowing what I know—she is obviously in a much better position to hear the ambient sound of the wide open space of the Jezero Crater on Mars. Like Sartre said, it is what it is. The Zen Buddhists, on the other hand, say it’s all just “mind,” like that story about the two monks standing in front of the monastery arguing about a flag; the one monk says, “The flag is moving.” The other monk says, “The wind is moving.” The sixth patriarch happens to be passing by and says, “Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.”

     I take a sip of strong hot coffee and look up at the black Sony radio on top of the stainless steel refrigerator, somewhat skeptical and slightly disappointed. I look back at Muckel. She looks like she’s 3.99 million miles away on the surface of the Red Planet where a Martian breeze is gently blowing across the bleak expanse of the Jezero Crater, and there below the subtle sweep of her whiskers is what I construe as a wily smile of feline wisdom.

Mark Terrill: was born in Berkeley, California, shipped out as a merchant seaman, participated in the School of Visual Arts Writing Workshop conducted by Paul Bowles in Tangier, Morocco, and has been a resident alien in Germany since 1984. His most recent book is Great Balls of Doubt, a collection of poems and prose poems illustrated by Jon Langford (Verse Chorus Press, 2020).