A Conversation Article in Chat with Irene Lusztig, Director of The Motherhood Archives and Sound Designer Maile Colbert
In 2011 filmmaker Irene Lusztig contacted me about designing sound and composing for her film project, The Motherhood Archives.
Irene had spent several years buying discarded educational films on eBay and working in historical archives to amass an unusual and fascinating collection of archival films aimed at teaching women how to be pregnant, give birth, and look after babies. The Motherhood Archives uses this extraordinary archival treasure trove to form a lyrical essay film excavating hidden histories of childbirth in the twentieth century, illuminating our changing narratives of maternal success and failure, and raising questions about our social and historical constructions of motherhood.
I was immediately intrigued by her concept and construction process as well as her desire to work with sound design in a very collaborative manner at an earlier stage in the project than most filmmakers would. Geographically distant, Irene and I mostly worked by “satellite,” using email, chat, Skype, phone, and file sharing software to communicate and send files. We did manage to have a few production weeks in New York and Santa Cruz, but the majority of the work was woven back and forth across an ocean and continent…California to Lisbon, Portugal, West Coast to West Coast. Rather than hindering, this method lent itself to an exquisite corpse nature to the work. In the creation of this article we followed much the same process, using an initial Gmail chat.
Maile Colbert (MC): So, I’m both shy and excited about asking this… why me, Irene?
Irene Lusztig (IL): I had heard your work in both Adele Horne’s film [The Tailenders, 2005] and Rebecca Baron’s [How Little We Know of Our Neighbors, 2005], both films with beautiful sound.
The sound in How Little We Know of Our Neighbors in particular does something with natural / unnatural that I was really interested in – field recordings that somehow become other kinds of things as they are layered, transformed, and processed. I think of myself as a documentary maker / artist who is invested in actuality, but not very invested in traditional documentary form, and I think your sound has similar investments and disinvestments. It begins with the sounds of the real world but takes those sounds to very unexpected places that are often quite far from their original context.
MC: I love that you brought up the “natural/unnatural.” It not only really describes well my work and approach in general, but also the experience we get in your film with mediated motherhood. We would often talk about certain sections being very science fiction…then you think, wow, this really happened, this is part of a history that led up to our experience now, and one I’m currently having, having recently become pregnant for the first time!
IL: I think there is a lot to say about science fiction and sound! First, there is a great tradition of feminist science fiction that I feel like our work is very connected to: Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, and even stuff like Shulamith Firestone’s futuristic vision of external uteruses. A lot of that work has in common a willingness to “make strange” or denaturalize aspects of female reproduction and mothering in ways that feel radical.
MC: I’m not sure if I was able to contain my excitement when you first mentioned a section felt sci-fi to you. This is something that I think has a root back in my childhood. My father was and is an obsessive science fiction film watcher: I grew up with a soundtrack of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Lost in Space. These soundscapes that “weren’t” became such a part of what I wanted to listen to.
IL: I always thought I had no interest in science fiction when I was younger, but I think growing a human inside my own body probably shifted my relationship to that!
I think science fiction is almost always expressing our anxieties about the future, about our technologies, about things that we struggle to control. And of course questions and anxieties about trying and failing to control things are completely at the heart of our experiences with pregnancy, birth, and learning to be new mothers in the 21st century. As are questions around technological mediations that we feel ambivalent about, whether it’s fertility technologies, medicalized birth technologies, or things like baby monitors or worrying about whether the iPad is rewiring your baby’s brain. So science fiction feels like a sonic space that totally makes sense for negotiating these maternal anxieties.
MC: One of our biggest struggles was trying to make sure things weren’t too dark for the audience.
IL: People often respond with anxiety to the film and its sound design. I’ve never before made a film where the sound comes up so often in post-screening discussions, and generally the question is something like “why is the sound so dark / scary / anxiety-provoking?” It seems very specific to the subject of The Motherhood Archives – how anxious we are societally about the whole topic, and also how uncomfortable we are being open about these anxieties.
MC: I’m still shocked at how shocked I am when I realize how some people react to this film, how uncomfortable they are. U.S. society seems just as afraid of birth as death in this manner! We speak of each in such a similar way and we’re not allowed the complexity of, for example, being simultaneously anxious about how this will affect our careers and identity, and how in love we are when we hear that heartbeat!
IL: Do you think of yourself as a feminist artist? I ask because becoming a mother (and making art about motherhood) has made me much more aware of myself as a feminist artist.
MC: I absolutely consider myself a feminist– it’s woven into every part of my life and my work. I’m also beginning to feel this in a new way with the pregnancy: I recently lost a gig I was really looking forward to because there was an assumption that I couldn’t do it somehow because I was pregnant. A recent interviewer asked me about how I navigate motherhood and my work, and I couldn’t help consider that this question would never come up with a male artist.
My recent recordings of my future daughter growing and moving have been wonderful to listen to: watery and subdued, you still feel like you’re only getting a little of her sonic world, so mysterious. But it reminds me of when I was a child – in any body of water I loved to dive down to the bottom, let go of my breath and just rest there as long as I could…it was an ultimate peace. I loved the visual perspective of the world above me, but most loved the deep gentle filter of everything aural coming through this watery world. Some might argue that peace refers to our first soundscape experienced…and listening to my own active womb, it doesn’t seem far-fetched.
IL: There are a lot of watery sounds in the film! My friend Irene Gustafson made this great connection between all the water in the soundtrack and the voiceover passage in the twilight sleep section about how the “soothing sound of running water muffles newborn cries to prevent the formation of what are called islands of memory.” That description of water literally being used to erase memory allows all the water sounds throughout the film to become a metaphor for the erasure of historical memory… the fact that we no longer remember the historical moment where feminists were advocates for anesthetic drugs and medicalized childbirth, for instance…the many ways that the histories in the film are now forgotten.
MC: I think sounds are like cells in a way…they carry a memory, even though abstracted.
That’s why I love working with natural sources initially, something comes through from that palette, a shadow is carried from its initial source. As animals, we use sound for information, much processing and translation happens that we aren’t even aware of. So I do feel like when a sound is removed by processing, it still carries its source information with it, and we pick up on some of that.
IL: Talking about cellular memory makes me think about the section of the film that a friend described as “crispy cells:” the image is from a very early 20th century educational film about reproduction – sheep cells that are dividing and reproducing – and the sound is the sound of the magnetosphere, which I love!
MC: I find listening to the magnetosphere sort of grounds me. I use a VLF recorder very often when I travel. If there are lightening storms or space weather, like solar storms, you get these very beautiful and strange soundscapes. I often use the recordings in my work, but your film is the first that seemed to demand them as a sound source! That section just called out for them, in their “pure” form. When you placed them there and sent it to me, I was blown away…it seemed like that was the sound of the video itself somehow.
I’ve been collecting and working on my sound library for over a decade now, and I’ve never been in a situation where a client or collaborator was interested in it in such a hands-on way. It seemed so right to share it with you and build upon it together for this project. For each sound – some of them going way back – I still remember the source, recording conditions, what was surrounding it (or rather what it was surrounding usually!). They become symbols, but also memory triggers. Now some of them have changed and were saved with this project, so there are generations as well. And the historic archival sounds you added to it…they come with their own history and memory; your film and their use is then added to that.
IL: Speaking of archival sound, one of the most amazing (to me) moments in our collaboration was really close to the end when you sent me the end credit sound. We’ve actually never talked about this because as soon as you sent it I totally intuitively and immediately knew that it was perfect. The sound is a backwards transformation of the wax cylinder Chopin Waltz recording that is used earlier in the film during the pregnant ballet sequence. There’s something so brilliant about your instinct to bring back that very polite, restrained music at the end, but have it reversed – both because it turns something familiar and half-remembered on its head, but also because I think it says something about history that is so attuned to the way the film works. The film thinks about histories of childbirth, but the chronological structure is circular, not linear – which I think of as a kind of challenge to the conventional forward-marching progress narrative. History is always haunting the present, and history is always circular. It makes amazing and beautiful sense that this music that we’ve heard before returns at the end in this uncanny backwards form.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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Sound and music play important roles in shaping our experiences of sports. Every sport has its own characteristic sounds and soundscape; some are very silent while others can be dangerously noisy. Barry Truax, in his engagement with R. Murray Schafer’s concept of soundscape in the book Acoustic Communication, states that the listener is always present in a soundscape, not solely as a listener but also as a producer of sound (10). Both Truax and Schafer use the term hi-fi to describe environments where sounds may be heard clearly, while lo-fi, often urban, environments, have more overlapping sounds. When an audio environment is well balanced (hi-fi), there is a high degree of information exchange between sound, listeners and the environment, and the listener is involved in an interactive relationship with the other two components (Truax 57). Truax’s understanding of the concepts of hi-fi and lo-fi enable a better understanding of the power relations between the key sonic elements of sports: players, the audience and the organizer (usually a game DJ), an increasingly prominent role in today’s team sports events due to permeation of recorded music. Using examples from Finnish soccer, pesäpallo (“Finnish baseball”), and ice hockey, I track how a particular game’s sonic balance can be altered to shape the atmosphere of the event and, even influence the game’s outcome.
In Europe, soccer is overwhelmingly associated with crowd chants, as noted by Les Back in his article “Sounds in the Crowd.” Without the sounds from the audience, the soccer soundscape would be more hi-fi, revealing the keynote sounds of the sport clearly: for example, the thuds from kicking the football, individual shouts from both the players and the spectators. The clear hi-fi signal articulation may be desirable at other times, but from a home team perspective, it does not provide a good soccer atmosphere. However, while playing recorded music to engage the crowd preceding free kicks or corner situations is not prohibited, it breaks the unwritten rules of the game. This means that creating a good atmosphere becomes the crowd’s responsibility; thus, the infamous songs and chants.
The culture of avoiding electronically reproduced music reveals the potential vulnerability of soccer’s soundscape to silence as much as chants, if not more so. Silence often becomes a way of effecting change at the level of soundscape. A silent, passive, crowd can mirror, for example, the team’s performance on the field or reflect a general lack of interest. Organized supporter groups can also demonstrate their dissatisfaction with something by refusing to sing.
This sound clip demonstrates how keynote sounds of soccer are exposed while approximately 1200 people in the audience seem to be “just watching” a very important home game at the end of the Veikkausliiga season 2012. In the end of the clip the home team, FF Jaro, equalizes and eventually went on to avoid relegation by just 1 point.
In contradiction to soccer, an important part of the pesäpallo experience (Finnish baseball, the national sport of Finland) is actually listening to the continuous communication of the teams. The key to pesäpallo, and the most important difference between pesäpallo and American baseball, is the vertical pitching. Hitting the ball, as well as controlling the power and direction, is much easier. This gives the offensive game much more variety, speed and tactical dimensions than in baseball. The fielding team is forced to counter the batter’s choices with defensive schemes and the game becomes a mental challenge. The continuous communication by the batting team standing in a half circle around the dueling batter and pitcher influences the pesäpallo soundscape. For a better appreciation of the sport, spectators must carefully tune in to the teams’s communiqués.
The male pesäpallo team Vimpelin Veto from the small village of Vimpeli in rural Finland has a very active crowd, with a high know-how of the sport. The village has only a little over 3200 inhabitants but had an average of 2087 spectators/game during the 2012 season. In a local newspaper article Veto’s player Mikko Rantalahti reveals that when the crowd is making lots of noise the visiting players’ tactical “wrong”-shouts (“väärä” in finnish), like when a pitched ball is too low, can’t be heard by the fielding players of the visiting team. The audiences’ collective shouting makes the soundscape more lo-fi and the visiting team’s communication difficult.
This tradition of strategic noisemaking has, before the use of headsets, also been heard in American football, when crowds make noise to make the vocal communication difficult for the visiting team. According to Matthew Mihalka’s PhD dissertation “From the Hammond Organ to ‘Sweet Caroline’: The Historical Evolution of Baseball’s Sonic Environment,” crowd noise in baseball is viewed as less influential since directions are sent via hand signals (44). Even though the pesäpallo manager leads the offensive play with a multicolored fan and other visual signals much of the communication is verbal.
(starting point ~16:30)
In this video clip from the 2011 Superpesis final between Vimpelin Veto and Sotkamon Jymy, the audience tries not only to disturb the focus of the hitter, but also the communication of the visiting team standing in the half circle around the batter. Even the commentators are struck by the crowd noise and note its influence.
At Vetos games, the audience creates the sonic atmosphere just as in soccer. When the home team is batting, the audience engages in rhythmic hand clapping, deliberately uncoordinated with the organizers’ music. In 2012, I interviewed the managing director J-P Kujala, who is responsible for the music at Vetos games, and he stated that the atmosphere at Veto’s home games is so good that “there is no need for musical reinforcements.” He also doubted that the audience would react positively to music played to activate the audience. At the stadium, music is only heard before the game, during warm-up and intermissions. Kujala refrains from playing music when the visiting team is batting since that can be considered as “disturbing. . .we don’t do that here.” From the organizers’ perspective, the teams are sonically treated equally, but if the home audience creates a sound wall that drains out the visiting teams’ tactical shouts—making the soundscape more “lo-fi”—it is considered as home court advantage. In this context, lo-fi is not related to the use of technology and playing music, but instead to the audience’s sounds.
However, in contrast to the Vetos’ home court sound culture, more teams are beginning to play music inside the actual game, not only when the home team is batting (2:19) but also when the visiting team is batting. DJs often use songs to create funny remarks at the visiting team’s expense. Whatever the implied interpretation of the music might be, the strategy of playing music in this core situation also modifies something very authentic about the pesäpallo experience. In this sound clip from Koskenkorvan Urheilijat’s home game one can hear the visiting team Pattijoen Urheilijat communicating underneath the Finnish hit song Älä tyri nyt (“Don’t mess up now”). Notice that the home crowd, unlike at Vetos games, is not actively making noise—hence the use of music.
As this clip shows, the increasing use of music in pesäpallo calls attention to the need to develop up-to-date rules for the use of recorded music rather than relying on custom or practice.
When discussing the soundscape of ice hockey, the most popular sport in Finland, the question is no longer about whether or not to play music but which music suits certain situations best. As in soccer, the most active fans often get cheaper tickets to fill in their own fan sections and sing from the curve behind the goals. Apart from singing along to iconic goal songs or team anthems, the fans very seldom interact with the other music played by the DJ. Moving toward a more mediated sport experience, the ice hockey soundscape is also becoming more lo-fi and the balance of sound making has shifted towards the organizers, with lots of sound events using recoded sound (music, videos, commercials etc.) to entertain the crowd during breaks of play. This shift from hi-fi to lo-fi can, according to Truax, encourage the feeling of being cut off from the environment and may begin to dramatically shift the audience’s experience of the sport (20).
There is no doubt that supporter groups have an important role as creators of meaningful sounds and good atmosphere in Finnish ice halls. In that sense it is a paradox that much of the music played “from record” overlaps their activity. John Bale has written that “fully modernized sport will alter the nature of the soundscape of stadiums and arenas […] and that electronically amplified sound will also increase and hence reduce the spontaneity of the crowd’s songs and chants” (141). The hockey example above with its planned rituals confirms this statement. Discussing and choosing the right songs for the right moment in an attempt to not only entertain but also coordinate the crowd is of course a way to deal with this schizophonic clash of sounds. A more and more common way to integrate the fans in the formation of the soundscape is the possibility of interacting with the DJ through for example Twitter. This is also a way to recognize the power relations in the soundscape.
The ice hockey team HC TPS, together with a long time sponsor, recently came up with the idea of “buying silence” and donating the spot to fans. The sponsor also provided the organizers and fans with radiotelephones. That way they could, when prompted by a text on the video screens in the hall, communicate when the spot is being played and make the best out of the situation. This innovative action alters the balance of the soundscape allowing other sounds to be produced and heard more clearly. It makes the ice hockey soundscape hi-fi again; the fans’ interaction with the environment improves and showcases how the balance in the soundscape of hockey is now entangled with the use of technology for sound reproduction.
As highlighted by the examples above, sounds play an important role for experiencing sports. For the audience, making sounds is a way to participate and interact with the event. When the use of music, at least in finnish sports, seems to increase there is also a need to identify the underlying necessity to the play music; it becomes a race to not only find suitable sport music but identify why music is played and which effects it might have on the soundscape as a whole. In soundscape research there has been a certain romanticization for hi-fi soundscapes, but in the cases I have studied there are no clear dichotomies where the one stands for something negative (lo-fi) and the other for something to strive for (hi-fi). Both hi-fi and lo-fi environments reveal power relations in how they connect to the audience’s motivation and ability to contribute with sounds, in addition to the use of technology.
Featured image: “Finland vs. Belarus” by Flickr user s. yume, CC-BY-2.0
Kaj Ahlsved is a PhD student in musicology at Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland. His research focus is on the ubiquitous music of our everyday life and especially how recorded music is used during sport events. He does ethnographic field work in team sports, mainly focusing on Finnish male teams in ice hockey, soccer, pesäpallo (“finnish baseball”), volleyball, floorball and basket. His research is funded by PhD Program in Popular Culture Studies and he is a member of the Nordic Research Network for Sound Studies (Norsound). He holds a master’s degree in musicology and bachelor’s degree in music pedagogy (classical guitar). Kaj is a Finnish-swede living with his wife and three children in the bilingual town of Jakobstad/Pietarsaari. He is, of course, a proud fan of the local soccer team FF Jaro.
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This week’s podcast is a companion piece to our prior podcast Animal Transcriptions, Listening to the Lab of Ornithology. In this series of excerpts from Skinner’s three hour seminar at the Rutgers University Center for Cultural Analysis, Skinner discusses the importance of sound studies scholarship to his work. Ecopoetics, soundscapes, animal communication, and the post-human are all discussed in this lively roundtable! Listen in as Skinner explains the practice of sound poetry, and the importance of Sound Studies to his methodology.
Special thanks to The Center of Cultural Analysis and its wonderful fellows and attendees for lending such insightful discussion to this work. As explained on their site: “The Center for Cultural Analysis [is] Rutgers University’s hub for interdisciplinary research in the humanities and humanistically-oriented social sciences. Each year we run a biweekly seminar that draws faculty, advanced graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and various affiliated scholars into a sustained conversation on a topic of importance. In 2012-13 our seminar topic is “Formalisms.” What do we talk about when we talk about form, particularly across disciplines? Is form simply a residue or remainder after everything else, from motive to content, is taken away or accounted for? Or is it rather the ultimate and most important outcome?”
Jonathan Skinner founded and edits the journal ecopoetics, which features creative-critical intersections between writing and ecology. Skinner also writes ecocriticism on contemporary poetry and poetics: he has published essays on Charles Olson, Ronald Johnson, Lorine Niedecker, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Bernadette Mayer, Cecilia Vicuña, translations of French poetry and garden theory, essays on bird song from the perspective of ethnopoetics, and essays on horizontal concepts such as the Third Landscape and on Documentary Poetry. Currently, he is writing a book of investigative poems on the urban landscapes of Frederick Law Olmsted, and a book on Animal Transcriptions in contemporary poetry. He teaches poetry and poetics in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick.
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Peter DiCola at River Read Books– Peter DiCola
Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds– Jonathan Skinner
Animal Transcriptions, Listening to the Lab of Ornithology– Jonathan Skinner