I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity

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Sonic Beyoncé5This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny.   Last Thursday, you heard our Beyoncé roundtable podcast featuring our first two writers, Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon)  and Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers)–as well as Courtney Marshall (English, University of New Hampshire) and Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!).  In the remaining weeks of the series, we will hear from Liana  and Madison Moore (Research Associate in the Department of English at King’s College, University of London and author of How to Be Beyoncé).  Today, Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture) introduces us to the sonic ratchetness of Baddie Bey.–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever    

My husband is low key in love with Beyoncé. While he has yet to admit to any type of commitment to Mrs. Knowles-Carter – I’ve interrogated him thoroughly after each “I can appreciate her craft, babe” commentary – he holds her latest album hostage in his car. Beyoncé played in my car only once, but I enjoyed our brief encounter. I listened to the album as a testament of Beyoncé on her grown woman shit: a smorgasbord of vulnerability, independence, and [good] sex.  “***Flawless” is my favorite track, a testament to the complexities of performing (black) womanhood in popular spaces.

tumblr_mjtpo8Kg9m1rqgjz2o1_1280However, I’m more so interested in the sampled track that didn’t make the final cut, “Bow Down.” “Bow Down/I Been On.,” released in March 2013, shows Beyoncé’s responses to idealistic black womanhood (i.e. quiet lady-hood that is not assertive), deeply rooted in her southern upbringing. The sonic tensions between Beyoncé’s ‘normal’ performance voice and the introduction of performance identities such as BaddieBey point to Beyoncé’s increasing unwillingness to cater to a type of sonic respectability that parallels the conservatism of the black middle class. As I write in a previous essay, BaddieBey is a sonic invocation of ratchetness – a performance of black women’s contemporary (dis)respectability politics – in which Beyoncé distances herself via sound from the established ideas of womanhood that she visually satisfies.

Thus, in “Bow Down/I Been On” Beyoncé builds a layered sonic narrative to destabilize the concrete sexual politics she grapples with in her music. While “***Flawless” shows Beyoncé’s evolution of self-consciousness and ultimately women’s empowerment, in “Bow Down” I hear her conduct the grittier and more controversial work of questioning gender norms in popular culture. “Bow Down/I Been On” presents and blurs useful tensions of gender and consciousness in an ever-present conversation of what and who dictates respectable womanhood in popular culture.

“Bow Down/I Been On” features the production work of hip hop producers Hit Boy and Timbaland. The first half of the track, titled “Bow Down” and produced by Hit Boy, sounds like a bass heavy Nintendo video game. The aggressiveness of the track – hard-hitting snare drums and synthesizers in addition to the video game sonic aesthetic – complements a high-pitched, autotuned voice introducing Beyoncé. Beyoncé introduces BaddieBey as her hip hop masculine bravado persona on the second half of the song “I Been On” produced by Timbaland. (Beyoncé’s “BaddieBey” persona stems from a YouTube video by Atlanta, Georgia Girl group The OMGirlz talking about why Beyoncé is bad.) The second half is a stark departure from the first half: a slower tempo that accompanies a deeper voice. Unlike Sasha Fierce, a visual characterization of the hypersexual and hyperindependent aspect of Beyoncé’s performances, BaddieBey is unequivocally southern, sonic, and ratchet.

The auto tune in the first half distorts immediately recognizable touchstones of Beyoncé’s femininity. The voice’s ambiguity points to Beyoncé’s nickname of “King Bey,” an intentional collapse of gender performance as the foundation of her influence and power as an entertainer. The “Bow Down” announcer doubly signifies the arrival of Beyoncé’s verse on the track and the destabilization of available cues of respectability. It is from this perspective that I ground Beyoncé’s emphatic use of bitch in her demand for those around her to “bow down bitches!” Rather than remaining attached to the definition of bitch as directed at women, Beyoncé uses the sonic tropes at play to decentralize gender norms.

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BaddieBey also forces the (mis)understanding of what it means to think about Beyoncé as “sounding like a good girl.” Her vocalization, reminiscent of Houston’s chopped and screwed production style – the extreme slowing down of a track and the resulting slurring and distortion of voice – dismounts Beyoncé from international recognition and makes room to (re)claim space to experiment with the boundaries of her womanhood and its recognizable aspects. The deepness of her voice does not fit within the more recognizable and established feminine context of Beyoncé as an R&B diva. Criticism of the track denounced her use of the word “bitch” and those unfamiliar with chopped and screwed denounced it and in the most extreme comments called it “demonic.” The (hyper)masculinization of Beyoncé’s voice in this track signifies her attempt to situate herself not only in hip hop’s masculine discourse but southern hip hop and its renderings of the south as a similarly masculine space.

BaddieBey gestures towards what I suggest is a type of sonic drag – using sound to bend markers of gender performance in order to blur characteristics of black masculinity and womanhood. The sonic intonations of chopped and screwed give Beyoncé a pass to dabble in ‘ratchet-speak,’ sonically alluding to images of “gold fangs” and “smacking tricks.” In the track she sonically blends hip hop bravado and misogynistic representations of black womanhood, and in that way stretches what is considered respectable. In other words, BaddieBey signifies Beyoncé’s awareness of hip hop as a space of (exaggerated) gender performance.

This awareness is also rooted in a specific place: her hometown of Houston, Texas. As I previously stated, BaddieBey centralizes Houston as a departure point for Beyoncé’s hip hop sensibility and as a space for excavating the complexity of her gendered identity. Conceptualizing place as an element of southern black women’s respectability helps situate it as a cultural aesthetic. In this instance, respectability as a tangible discourse is situated within [southern] hip hop. Beyoncé’s remembrance of Houston’s “cultural essentials” – i.e. Frenchy’s Restaurant, Boudin sausages, dookie braids, and “candy paint” – signify a simultaneous existence with her usual declaration of finer, higher classed possessions like high priced labels, global jet setting, and jewelry.

From Wildfox Couture, Beyonce in a "Property of Texas" v-neck tee

From Wildfox Couture, Beyonce in a “Property of Texas” v-neck tee

Beyoncé’s declaration of returning to “H-town” and its cultural “essentials” within a sonic space re-situate her within not only Houston but a larger southern hip hop narrative that overlaps with her higher-classed — and therefore more respectable – celebrity status. Thus, “Bow Down/I Been On” becomes a sonic space that enables the listener to become aware of Beyoncé’s complicated performance narrative in ways simple lyricism does not allow. Building upon Guthrie Ramsey’s observation of music as a working space where the ‘invisible function’ of ethnic performance is panned out, “Bow Down/I Been On” challenges the listener to reconsider how Beyoncé’s (sonic) identity politics and performances intersect with racial performance. Hip hop, especially in its commodified form, speaks best to these tensions between gender performance and lived experience.

In the tension between gender performance and lived experience lies BaddieBey. Her alter ego is a kind of sonic female masculinity. With Kai Azania Small’s “genderqueer” reading of Beyoncé in mind, BaddieBey is a possible extension of Small’s hypothetical question of if Beyoncé had a penis. (Small presented a paper entitled “The Specter of Sasha Fierce and the Scopic: Freighting of Beyoncé’s Trans/Genderqueer Body” at the 2012 Queerness of Hip Hop Conference at Harvard University.) Because sound is capable of working as a gray performative space, Beyoncé ruptures conservative gender roles that are frequently treaded in popular spaces like hip hop by establishing her (dis)respectability.

BaddieBey manifests within the interstitial spaces of sexual performance and gender norms seen in hip hop. She is the sonic manifestation of Beyoncé’s hip hop sensibility that allows her to permeate if not penetrate hip hop as a hypermasculine space. BaddieBey is most demonstrative of Beyoncé’s ability to navigate “Bow Down” as her rendition of a hip hop ‘diss track,’ dismissing her haters and those overly criticizing her position as a pop singer. Beyoncé’s performance of hip hop female masculinity allots her room to present herself not as a braggart but as a dominant force.

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In this context then, the use of “bitch” in the chorus and later “trick” is doubly bound by hip hop’s gender specific misogynistic outlook on women of color and the gender-neutral use of bitch as an adjective to describe lack of talent or weakness (i.e. “bitch made”). BaddieBey forcefully treads the line of respectability through those words. For example, she sonically parallels her pimping of “the game” to the pimping of women heard in Texas rap. This occurs in her rendition of lines from Texas rap duo UGK’s track “Something Good.” BaddieBey raps: “Didn’t do your girl but your sister was alright, damn/In ya homeboy’s Caddy last night man, ha ha/Hold up, Texas trill.” The UGK version, much more explicit, is toned down in BaddieBey’s rendition. Still, in quoting UGK BaddieBey establishes herself as an entity separate from Beyoncé and even Sasha Fierce. She is an Othered representation of Beyoncé’s otherwise conservative sexuality. Yet the “tone down” of the lyrics can be read as Beyoncé’s awareness of (hip hop) masculinity as a misogynistic performance of black sexuality. BaddieBey’s laugh at the end of the verse marks the blurring of performance and reality.

Beyonce-I-Been-On“Bow Down/I Been On” provides insight into the clever ways Beyoncé uses instrumentation and sound production to fragment her persona limited by investments in her visual image. It blurs clean-cut negotiations of black women’s identity and respectability as literal discourse by introducing the concept of sound as an agitator of black women’s expression and its analysis. The fluidity of sounding gender makes room to confront the static and heteronormative discourses through which the performances of these aesthetics manifest. Reliance on sonic narratives complements visuality in ways that usefully problematize how we negotiate contemporary race and gender politics in hip hop and ultimately popular culture.

Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:

Thrills, Chills, and Safe Sexuality: The Sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” – Osvaldo Oyola

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice – Yvon Bonefant

“Fade to Black, Old Sport: How Hip-Hop Amplifies Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby –Regina Bradley

Sounding Out! Podcast #35: Sonic Beyoncé Roundtable

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This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny.   In addition to the great posts we have scheduled every Monday the month of September, please join us for today’s podcast as Sounding Out!‘s Managing Editor Liana Silva-Ford ( Editor, Women in Higher Educationhosts a roundtable discussion with series guest writers Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon) and Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers) and special guest Courtney Marshall (English, University of New Hampshire).

Aside from fanning themselves over Queen Bey’s style, the five of them talk about what drew them to Bey’s work, Beyoncé’s feminism, her status as a pop icon, the interplay between the visual and aural aspects of her work,how students react when they know Beyoncé’s on the syllabus, and more (yes, you will find out what their favorite Bey tracks are)!

Driver, roll up the partition please, today we’re having an intimate discussion about all things Sonic Beyoncé!

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Managing Editor Liana Silva-Ford is a editor, writer, and independent scholar located in Houston, Texas. She is also the editor of the newsletter Women in Higher Education. She obtained her PhD from the English department at SUNY Binghamton. Her dissertation, Acts of Home-making, is a study of how African-Americans and Puerto Ricans represent New York City as a home. She is also a regular contributor for the Inside Higher Ed blog University of Venus.  In the past she worked as a Graduate Writing Specialist at the University of Kansas Writing Center and as a graduate writing instructor at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center. Liana is currently working on a book about postcards, stemming from her geeky obsession with quirky postcards. When she’s not talking about writing, tweeting, and thinking deep thoughts, she is busy defending pop culture on an intellectual level, recording her daughter’s latest babbles on her iPhone, listening to baseball on the radio, and asking people where “home” is. You can find out more about what Liana is up to at her website www.lianamsilvaford.com or on Twitter: @lianamsilvaford

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Sounding Out! Podcast #32: The World Listening Update – 2014 Edition – Eric Leonardson

Sounding Out! Podcast #24: The Raitt Street Chronicles: A Survivor’s History – Manny Escamilla, Sharon Sekhon

Sounding Out! Podcast #1: Peter DiCola at River Read Books – Peter DiCola

Resounding Silence and Soundless Surveillance, From TMZ Elevator to Beyoncé and Back Again

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Sonic Beyoncé5This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny.   Last Monday, you heard from Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers) who read Beyoncé’s track “No Angel” against the New York Times’ reference to Michael Brown as #noangel. You will also hear from Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!), Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture), and Madison Moore (Research Associate in the Department of English at King’s College, University of London and author of How to Be Beyoncé).  Today, Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon) gives us full Beyoncé realness, from TMZ Elevator to Beyoncé and Back Again,–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever    

Less than six months after Beyoncé released Beyoncé, she was momentarily silenced on the small screen when the gossip site TMZ released silent elevator security footage of a fight between her famous husband and sister. Doubly framed by the black and white of a surveillance video screen surreptitiously captured on a security guard’s camera-phone, the video’s silence left plenty of room for speculation. But the footage also revealed a woman conscious that her life is on record: Beyoncé’s body seemed to elude the camera’s full view and she emerged from the elevator with a camera-ready smile.

Like Kevin Allred in his powerful reading of “No Angel,” I could not help but rethink Beyoncé in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder. I already read Beyoncé as a sophisticated response to the visual and aural policing of black female bodies, but the closed-circuit images of Beyoncé on TMZ (and in Beyoncé) made me reconsider silence as a damning convention of video surveillance; like Aaron Trammell in “Video Gaming and the Sonic Feedback of Surveillance,” I questioned (the lack of) sound as a technique of control. When the camera-phone recording of Kajieme Powell’s murder, photographed and narrated by a community member in real-time, was released with silent surveillance footage of the alleged theft, my appreciation of Beyoncé—as a response to those silent damnations—took a new turn.

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“Resounding Silence and Surveillance” argues that Beyoncé returns the media’s visual-aural gaze. Because of its pop package, the album’s artistic composition and socio-cultural merit are often underestimated. Like the silence of surveillance footage, omitting any one sensory element from Beyoncé distorts the holistic meaning. To untangle this critically complex interplay of audio and video, I analyze the visualized song “Haunted” and briefly address the single “***Flawless” to show how the artist’s triple consciousness anchors Beyoncé. She is on to us: Beyoncé is the culmination of an artist who has spent her career watching us watch her. Temporarily silenced by footage that she could not control, Beyoncé resounds that “elevator incident”—and our sonic/optic perceptions of her feminism—with a flawless remix.

“I see music. It’s more than just what I hear,” declares Beyoncé. Her voiceover runs over the black screen that opens the promotional video “Self-Titled.” Released the same day Beyoncé premiered on iTunes, “Self-Titled” directs audiences to “see the whole vision of the album.” By design, Beyoncé is an immersive experience—like watching Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as a television event on MTV.

Because Beyoncé was born the same year the cable music channel MTV premiered, she has never known a world without the ability to “see music.” In many ways, her visual album reinvigorates the early spirit of MTV: after Beyoncé, we will “never look at music the same way again.” Though music videos exacerbate the pop single obsession that Beyoncé explicitly resists with Beyoncé, they also produce a unique kinetic connection with the listener-viewer, whose experience of sound is visually registered by the body as it processes shots and edits. This is especially true when strong imagery, rhythmic editing, and dance movements are expertly employed, as in Beyoncé.

Beyoncé deftly critiques the beauty and music/media industries that have been central to her pop success. If taken piecemeal, these critiques can be easily dismissed: the sustained gloss of her image works all too well. There is much to say on a video-by-video basis, but I focus here on the specific aural elements of “Haunted” that articulate Beyoncé’s refusal of the music industry’s status quo. This visualized rejection reveals the layers of racism and sexism that nonwhite female artists (even Beyoncé, even today) must negotiate.

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Because of my personal and professional interest in music videos, I consumed Beyoncé as she intended: a sequence of MPEG-4 videos rather than AAC audio files. But it was not until I solely listened to the album that I could discern Beyoncé’s maturation as a black female multimedia pop/culture artist. One refrain from “Haunted” was especially effective:

I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you/ Onto you, you must be on to me

The song’s ethereal quality is amplified by Boots (Jordy Asher), one of Beyoncé’s (then-unknown) collaborators with whom she shares “Haunted”’s writing and producing credit. The track builds slowly, supporting Beyoncé’s “stream of consciousness” delivery with layers of reverberation and waves of synth sounds like “Soundtrack” or the Roland TR-808 kick drum. Punches of bass accelerate the beat until Beyoncé riffs her explicit desire to create something more than a product:

Soul not for sale
Probably won’t make no money off this, oh well
Reap what you sow
Perfection is so, mmm

The music winds to a halt, but the song is not over. Breathy, reverberating vocals transition the track and a piano is delicately introduced:

It’s what you do, it’s what you see
I know if I’m haunting you, you must be haunting me
It’s where we go, it’s where we’ll be
I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you
Onto you, you must be on to me

ghostAt this point, the song “Haunted” is split into two videos: “Ghost” (directed by Pierre Debusschere) and “Haunted” (directed by Jonas Åkerlund). The videos’ visual differences exemplify the various points of view—from active subject to object of desire and back again—employed across Beyoncé. “Ghost”’s hypnotic visuals underscore the song’s sentiments: close-ups of Beyoncé’s immaculately lit visage soberly mouthing lyrics are intercut with medium shots of her still body swathed in floating fabric and wide shots of her athletic movements against sparse backgrounds. The ar/rhythmic cuts of “Ghost” enunciate an artistic dissatisfaction with the industry: visuals build against/with the synthetic beat, mixing Beyoncé’s kinetically intense movements with her deadpan delivery.

Haunted GifThe fiery agency of “Ghost” sets up the chill of “Haunted,” a voyeuristic tour in which Beyoncé watches and is watched. The “knowing-ness” of her breathy refrain (“I know if I’m haunting you”) is heightened when the tempo accelerates in the song’s second half. There is much to say about “Haunted”—from the interracial family of atomic bomb mannequins to Beyoncé’s writhing boudoir choreography. Most significantly, she is the video’s voyeur and object of surveillance: her face appears on multiple television screens and her voyeur-character is regularly captured on closed-circuit footage. The “Haunted” video soundtrack features the foley and stinger sounds of a horror film, but these surveillance shots feature the low whirr of a film projector rather than silence. The silence of a moving image is so jarring that it compels us to watch differently, so much so that “silent” film scenes utilize a recorded sound of “nothing” (“room tone”) to focus the audience.

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When Beyoncé finally resounded the silence of the “elevator incident,” she chose to do it through “***Flawless,” her explicit response to anti-feminist accusations. While the multifaceted anthem gained attention because of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s audio, the song is uniquely infused with a kind of docu-visuality thanks to Ed McMahon’s well-known voice and the Star Search jingle. These bookends cite a young Beyoncé losing to an all-male rock band, the kind heavily programmed during MTV’s early days. The clips reinforce the album’s critique of racial and gender hierarchies while questioning the double-edged “work ethic” required to surpass them. Of course, Beyoncé pre-emptively frames this discussion for us in “Self-Titled,” a necessary step that helps audiences appreciate the many moving parts of her tour de force, including her creative business mind.So when Beyoncé swapped the audio of Adichie and McMahon for Nicki Minaj, it was no less of a feminist move. Instead, Beyoncé silences TMZ gawkers:

Of course sometimes shit go down/
When it’s a billion dollars on an elevator

She then offers herself as a medium of empowerment. Beyoncé may be part of a billion-dollar empire, but she willingly shares that pleasure with us:

I wake up looking this good
And I wouldn’t change it if I could
(If I could, if I, if I, could)

And you can say what you want, I’m the shit
(What you want I’m the shit, I’m the shit)
(I’m the shit, I’m the shit, I’m the shit)

I want everyone to feel like this tonight
God damn, God damn, God damn!

Beyoncé’s last word is an image. She and her creative team remixed the visuals of the “elevator incident”: the remix single website features black and white photos of Beyoncé and Minaj, simultaneously evoking surveillance footage and the photo booth images of a girls’ night out. Beyoncé is the work of an artist who has spent her career watching us watch her: this minor moment exemplifies Beyoncé’s multimedia resonance as an artist whose power is visible and audible across iTunes and TMZ screens alike.

Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj mugging for the camera

Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj mugging for the camera

 


 

Thanks to Elizabeth Peterson, Charise Cheney, Loren Kajikawa, André Sirois and Jennifer Stoever for providing research and intellectual support for this essay

Priscilla Peña Ovalle is the Associate Director of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Oregon. After studying film and interactive media production at Emerson College, she received her PhD from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television while collaborating with the Labyrinth Project at the Annenberg Center for Communication. She has written on MTV, Jennifer Lopez, and Beyoncé. Her book, Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom (Rutgers University Press, 2011), addresses the symbolic connection between dance and the racialized sexuality of Latinas in popular culture. Her next research project explores the historical, industrial, and cultural function of hair in mainstream film and television. You can find her work in American Quarterly, Theatre Journal, and Women & Performance.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:

Aurally Other: Rita Moreno and the Articulation of “Latina-ness”-Priscilla Peña Ovalle

Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson

Karaoke and Ventriloquism: Echoes and Divergences–Sarah Kessler and Karen Tongson

 

Catastrophic Listening

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Hearing the Unheard IIWelcome back to Hearing the UnHeard, Sounding Out‘s series on how the unheard world affects us, which started out with my post on the hearing ranges of animals, and now continues with this exciting piece by China Blue.

From recording the top of the Eiffel Tower to the depths of the rising waters around Venice, from building fields of robotic crickets in Tokyo to lofting 3D printed ears with binaural mics in a weather balloon, China Blue is as much an acoustic explorer as a sound artist.  While she makes her works publicly accessible, shown in museums and galleries around the world, she searches for inspiration in acoustically inaccessible sources, sometimes turning sensory possibilities on their head and sonifying the visual or reformatting sounds to make the inaudible audible.

In this installment of Hearing the UnHeard, China Blue talks about cataclysmic sounds we might not survive hearing and her experiences recording simulated asteroid strikes at NASA’s Ames Vertical Gun Range.

– Guest Editor Seth Horowitz

Fundamentally speaking, sound is the result of something banging into something else. And since everything in the universe, from the slow recombination of chemicals to the hypervelocity impacts of asteroids smashing into planet surfaces, is ultimately the result of things banging into things, the entire universe has a sonic signature. But because of the huge difference in scale of these collisions, some things remain unheard without very specialized equipment. And others, you hope you never hear.

Unheard sounds can be hidden subtly beneath your feet like the microsounds of ants walking, or they can be unexpectedly harmonic like the seismic vibrations of a huge structure like the Eiffel Tower. These are sounds that we can explore safely, using audio editing tools to integrate them into new musical or artistic pieces.

Luckily, our experience with truly primal sounds, such as the explosive shock waves of asteroid impacts that shaped most of our solar system (including the Earth) is rarer. Those who have been near a small example of such an event, such as the residents of Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 were probably less interested in the sonic event and more interested in surviving the experience.

But there remains something seductive about being able to hear sounds such as the cosmic rain of fire and ice that shaped our planet billions of years ago. A few years ago, when I became fascinated with sounds “bigger” than humans normally hear, I was able to record simulations of these impacts in one of the few places on Earth where you can, at NASA Ames Vertical Gun Range.

The artist at the AVGR

The artist at the AVGR

The Vertical Gun at Ames Research Center (AVGR) was designed to conduct scientific studies of lunar impacts. It consists of a 25 foot long gun barrel with a powder chamber at one end and a target chamber, painted bright blue, that looks like the nose of an upended submarine, about 8 feet in diameter and height at the other. The walls of the chamber are of thick steel strong enough to let its interior be pumped down to vacuum levels close to that of outer space, or back-filled with various gases to simulate different planetary atmospheres. Using hydrogen and/or up to half a pound of gun powder, the AVGR can launch projectiles at astonishing speeds of 500 to 7,000 m/s (1,100 to 16,000 mph). By varying the gun’s angle of elevation, projectiles can be shot into the target so that it simulates impacts from overhead or at skimming angles.

In other words, it’s a safe way to create cataclysmic impacts, and then analyze them using million frame-per-second video cameras without leaving the security of Earth.

My husband, Dr. Seth Horowitz who is an auditory neuroscientist and another devotee of sound, is close friends with one of the principal investigators of the Ames Vertical Gun, Professor Peter Schultz. Schultz is well known for his 2005 project to blow a hole in the comet Tempel 1 to analyze its composition, and for his involvement in the LCROSS mission that smashed into the south pole of the moon to look for evidence of water. During one conversation discussing the various analytical techniques they use to understand impacts, I asked, “I wonder what it sounds like.” As sound is the propagation of energy by matter banging into other matter, this seemed like the ultimate opportunity to record a “Big Bang” that wouldn’t actually get you killed by flying meteorite shards. Thankfully, my husband and I were invited to come to Ames to find out.

I had a feeling that the AVGR would produce fascinating new sounds that might provide us with different insights into impacts than the more common visual techniques. Because this was completely new research, we used a number of different microphones that were sensitive to different ranges and types of sound and vibrations to provide us with a selection of recording results. As an artist I found the research to be the dominant part of the work because the processes of capturing and analyzing the sounds were a feat unto themselves. As we prepared for the experiment, I thought about what I could do with these sounds. When I eventually create a work out of them, I anticipate using them in an installation that would trigger impact sounds when people enter the room, but I have not yet mounted this work since I suspect that this would be too frightening for most exhibition spaces to want.

Part of my love (and frustration) for sound work is figuring out how to best capture that fleeting moment in which the sound is just right, when the sound evokes a complex response from its listeners without having to even be explained. The sound of Mach 10 impacts and its effects on the environment had such possibilities. In pursuit of the “just right,” we wired up the gun and chamber with multiple calibrated acoustic and seismic microphones, then fed them into a single high speed multichannel recorder, pressed “record” and made for the “safe” room while the Big Red Button was pressed, launching the first impactor. We recorded throughout the day, changing the chamber’s conditions from vacuum to atmosphere.

Simple impact on the AVGR sand target.

Simple impact on the AVGR sand target.

When we finally got to listen that afternoon, we heard things we never imagined. Initial shots in vacuum were surprisingly dull. The seismic microphones picked up the “thump” of the projectile hitting the sand target and a few pattering sounds as secondary particles struck the surfaces. There were of course no sounds from the boundary or ultrasonic mics due to the lack of air to propagate sound waves. While they were scientifically useful–they demonstrated that we could identify specific impact events launched from the target—they weren’t very acoustically dramatic.

When a little atmosphere was added, however, we began picking up subtle sounds, such as the impact and early spray of particles from the boundary mic and the fact that there was an air leak from the pitch shifted ultrasonic mic. But when the chamber was filled with an earthlike atmosphere and the target dish filled with tiny toothpicks to simulate trees, building the scenario for a tiny Tunguska event (a 1908 explosion of an interstellar object in Russia, the largest in recorded history), the sound was stunning:

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After the initial explosion, there was a sandstorm as the particles of sand from the target flew about at Mach 5 (destroying one of the microphones in the process), and giving us a simulation of a major asteroid explosion.

Tunguskasim

66 million years ago, in a swampy area by the Yucatan Penninsula, something like this probably occurred, when a six mile wide rock burned through the atmosphere to strike the water, ending the 135 million year reign of the dinosaurs. Perhaps it sounded a little like this simulation:

 

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Any living thing that heard this – dinausaurs, birds, frogs insects – is long gone. By thinking about the event through new sounds, however, we can not only create new ways to analyze natural phenomena, but also extend the boundaries of our ability to listen across time and space and imagine what the sound of that impact might have been like, from an infrasonic rumble to a killing concussion.

It would probably terrify any listener to walk in to an art exhibition space filled with simply the sounds of simulated hypervelocity impacts, replete with loud, low frequency sounds and infrasonic vibrations. But there is something to that terror. Such sounds trigger ancient evolutionary pathways which are still with us because they were so good at helping us survive similar events by making us run, putting as much distance between us and the cataclysmic source, something that lingers even in safe reproductions, resynthesized from controlled, captured sources.

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China Blue is a two time NASA/RI Space Grant recipient and an internationally exhibiting artist who was the first person to record the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France and NASA’s Vertical Gun. Her acoustic work has led her to be selected as the US representative at OPEN XI, Venice, Italy and at the Tokyo Experimental Art Festival in Tokyo, Japan, and was the featured artist for the 2006 annual meeting of the Acoustic Society of America. Reviews of her work have been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Art in America, Art Forum, artCritical and NY Arts, to name a few. She has been an invited speaker at Harvard, Yale, MIT, Berkelee School of Music, Reed College and Brown University. She is the Founder and Executive Director of The Engine Institute www.theengineinstitute.org.

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Featured Image of a high-speed impact recorded by AVGR. Image by P. H. Schultz. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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tape reel

REWIND! If you liked this post, check out …

Cauldrons of Noise: Stadium Cheers and Boos at the 2012 London Olympics– David Hendy

Learning to Listen Beyond Our Ears– Owen Marshall

Living with Noise– Osvaldo Oyola

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