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DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past

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Sound and TechThis is article 3.0  in Sounding Out!‘s April  Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ll be hearing new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veteranos Aaron Trammell and Primus Luta along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall.  These fast-forward folks will share their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to techie manifestos. Today, Salvati asks if DIY podcasts are allowing ordinary people to remix the historical record. Let’s subscribe and press play.  –JS, Editor-in-Chief

 

Was Alexander the Great as bad a person as Adolph Hitler? Will our modern civilization ever fall like civilizations from past eras?

According to Dan Carlin’s website, these are the kind of speculative “outside-the-box” perspectives one might expect from his long-running Hardcore History podcast. In Carlin’s hands, the podcast is a vehicle for presenting dramatic accounts of human history that are clearly meant to entertain, and are quite distinct from what we might recognize as academic history. Carlin, a radio commentator and former journalist, would likely agree with this assessment. As he frequently emphasizes, he is a “fan” of history and not a professional. But while there are particularities of training, perspective, and resources that may distinguish professional and popular historians, an oppositional binary between these kinds of historymakers risks overlooking the plurality of historical interpretation. Instead, we might notice how history podcasters like Carlin utilize this new sonic medium to continue a tradition of oral storytelling that in the West goes back to Herodotus, and has since been the primary means of marginalized and oppressed groups to preserve cultural memory. As a way for hobbyists and amateurs to create and share their own do-it-yourself (DIY) histories, I argue that audio podcasting suggests a democratization of historical inquiry that greatly expands the possibilities for everyone, as Carl Becker once said, to become his or her own historian.

"Modified Podcast Logo with My Headphones Photoshopped On" by Flickr user Colleen AF Venable, CC BY-SA 2.0

“Modified Podcast Logo with My Headphones Photoshopped On” by Flickr user Colleen AF Venable, CC BY-SA 2.0

Frequently listed among iTunes’ top society and culture podcasts, and cited by several history podcasters as the inspiration for their own creations, the popularity of Hardcore History stems from Carlin’s unconventional and dramatic recounting of notable (but sometimes obscure) historical topics, in which he will often elaborate historical-structural changes through contemporizing metaphors. Connecting the distant past to more immediate analogies of present life is the core of Carlin’s explanatory method. This form of explanation is quite distinct from the output of academic historians, who assiduously avoid this sort of “presentism.” But as the late Roy Rosenzweig (2000) has suggested, it is precisely this kind of conscious and practical engagement with the past – and not the litany of facts in dry-as-dust textbooks – that appeals to non-historians. Rosenzweig and David Thelen claim have found that most Americans perceive a close connection with the past, especially as it relates to the present, through their personal and family life. Using the medium of podcasting to talk about the past is a new way of making the past vital to the present needs and interests of most people. This is how podcasters make sense of history in their own terms. It is DIY insofar as it is distinct from professional discourse, and less encompassing (and expensive) than video methods.

Podcasts can present an alternative model for making sense of the past – one that underscores the historymaker’s interpretive imprints, and which cultivates a sense of liveness and interactivity. Admittedly, Dan Carlin’s own style can be rambling and melodramatic. But to the extent that he practices history as a kind of storytelling, and acknowledges his own interpretive interventions, Hardcore History, like other independently produced history podcasts (I am thinking about a few of my favorites – Revolutions, The History Chicks, and The British History Podcast) give their listeners the sense that history is not necessarily something that is “out there,” or distant from us in the present, but part of a living conversation in the present. Podcasters construct a dialogue about history which, when combined with the interactivity offered by website forums, draws the listener into a participatory engagement. Rosenzweig and Thelen’s explain, Americans interested in popular history are skeptical of “historical presentations that did not give them credit for their critical abilities – commercialized histories on television or textbook-driven high school classes.” Such analytic skills are precisely what we as historians and teachers aim to develop in our students. Podcasting, when it constructs a collaborative dialogue in which audience and producer explore history together, can both be a valuable supplement to traditional historiography, and a way for people to connect with the past that overcomes the abstraction of textbooks and video.

"The histomap - four thousand years of world history" by Flickr user 图表汇, CC BY-SA 2.0

“The histomap – four thousand years of world history” by Flickr user 图表汇, CC BY-SA 2.0

But is the podcast as intellectually freeing as it might seem? Jonathan Sterne (et. al., 2008) notes that podcasting encompasses a range of technologies and practices that do not necessarily determine the liberation of content production from the dominance of established institutions and economies of scale. Indeed, there are many professional historians and media producers who have utilized audio (and sometimes video) podcasting to reach a wider audience. While the History Channel has not (yet) entered the field, one can surely imagine the implications of corporate-produced history content that homogenizes local and cultural particularities, or which present globalized capitalism as a natural or inevitable historical trajectory.

The kind of podcasts I am concerned with, however, are created by independent producers taking a DIY approach to content production and historical inquiry. While their resources and motivations may differ, podcasts produced on personal computers in the podcaster’s spare time have an intimate, handcrafted feel that I find to be more appealing than, say, a podcasted lecture. Ideally, what results is an intimate and episodic performance in which podcasters can, to use Andreas Duus Pape’s phrasing from an earlier Sounding Out! post, “whisper in the ears” of listeners. This intimacy is heightened by the means of access – when I download a particular podcast, transfer it to my iPhone, and listen on my commute, I am inviting the podcaster into my personal sonic space.

Complimenting this sense of intimacy is a DIY approach to history practiced by podcasters who are neither professional historians nor professional media producers. Relatively cheap and easy to produce (assuming the necessary equipment and leisure time), podcasting presents a low barrier of entry for history fans inspired to use new media technologies to share their passion with other history fans and the general public. Though a few podcasters acknowledge that they have had some university training in history, they are usually proud of their amateur status. The History Chicks, for example, “don’t claim to know it all,” and that any pretense toward a comprehensive history “would be kinda boring.” Podcasting and historical inquiry are hobbies, and their DIY history projects allow the relative freedom to have fun exploring and talking about their favorite subject matter – without having to conform to fussy disciplinary constraints. For Jamie Jeffers, creator of the British History podcast, most people are alienated by the way history gets taught in school. However, “almost everyone loves stories,” he says, and podcasting “allows us to reconnect to that ancient tradition of oral histories.” Others justify the hobby in more bluntly. For the History Chicks, women in history is “a perfect topic to sit down and chat about.” Talking about history, arguing about it, is something that history fans (and I include myself here) enjoy. Podcasting can broaden this conversation.

Despite my optimistic tone in this post, however, I do not want to suggest uncritically that the democratizing, DIY aspects that I have noted (among just a handful of podcasts) comprises the entire potential of the format. Nuancing a common opposition between the bottom-up potential of podcasting with the prevalent top-down (commercial) model of broadcasting for example, Sterne and others have asserted that rather than constituting a disruptive technology – as Richard Berry has suggested – podcasting realizes “an alternate cultural model of broadcasting.” Referring to earlier models of broadcasting – such as those Susan Douglas (1992) described in her classic study of early amateur radio – Sterne and company assert that analyses of podcasting should focus not on the technology itself, but on practice; not on the challenge podcasting poses to corporate dominance in broadcasting, but rather how it might offer a pluralistic model that permits both commercial/elite and DIY/amateur productions.

"Podcast in Retro" by Flickr user David Shortle, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Podcast in Retro” by Flickr user David Shortle, CC BY-NC 2.0

Adapting these recommendations, I argue that podcasting can help us conceptualize an alternate cultural model of history – one that invites reconsideration of what counts as historical knowledge and interpretation, and about who is empowered to construct and access historical discourse. Rather that privileging the empirical or objective histories of academic/professional historians, such an expanded model would recognize the cultural legitimacy of diverse forms of historiographical expression. In other words, that history is never “just” history, or “just” facts, but is always a contingent and situated form of knowledge, and that, as Keith Jenkins writes, “interpretations at (say) the ‘centre’ of our culture are not there because they are true or methodologically correct … but because they are aligned to the dominant discursive practices: again power/knowledge” (1991/2003, p. 79). But to reiterate Sterne’s (et. al.) caution however, such an alternative model would not necessarily determine a role-reversal between professional and DIY histories. Rather through podcasting, we might discover alternative ways of performing history as a new oral tradition – of becoming each of us our own historian.

Andrew J. Salvati is a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. His interests include the history of television and media technologies, theory and philosophy of history, and representations of history in media contexts. Additional interests include play, authenticity, the sublime, and the absurd. Andrew has co-authored a book chapter with colleague Jonathan Bullinger titled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” in the recent edited volume Playing With the Past (2013), and has written a recent blog post for Play the Past titled The Play of History.”

Featured image: “Podcasts anywhere anytime” by Flickr user Francois, CC BY 2.0

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“Music is not Bread: A Comment on the Economics of Podcasting”-Andreas Duus Pape

“Pushing Record: Labors of Love, and the iTunes Playlist”-Aaron Trammell

“Only the Sound Itself?: Early Radio, Education, and Archives of ‘No-Sound’”-Amanda Keeler

A Tribe Called Red Remixes Sonic Stereotypes

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The Wobble Frequency2

Welcome back to “The Wobble Continuum,” a three part series here on Sounding Out!. When we last left you, Mike D’Errico had brought us to the intersection of patriarchal cultural norms, music production practices and aesthetics, and the Military Entertainment Complex. His particular focus was on the sounds and practices of brostep (be sure to check out D’Errico’s  SO! Comment Klatsch from last week on gendered sounds, too), and some of those sounds leak through to today’s post from Christina Giacona. Giacona turns her ear to the group A Tribe Called Red in order to hear how they reappropriate and redress the sounds of colonization and racism.

As the series’ title suggests, her essay entails another journey to the low end, where things will once again get wobbly.

Guest Editor Justin D. Burton

Since first contact, Native Americans have consistently needed to combat the European stereotypes that portray them as inferior and uncivilized. Barraged with echoes of the same handful of Native tropes since Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows, contemporary American society often treats the stereotypical Native American princess, chief, and savage as historical truths, represented recently in Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. But it is not just the visual image of the Native American that has been stereotyped, so has their sonic sensibility. As documented in the film Reel Injun, Native languages and musics have consistently been “faked” by Hollywood with tricks like backwards English, pig-Latin, and Westernized imaginings of a ubiquitous Native music based on a pan-Indian society that never actually existed. Hollywood often uses Native American music to show a “primitive” society where music’s sole function is to prepare for war. However, the “Indian” drumbeat that accents the first beat of a group of four cannot be found in any traditional Native American or Aboriginal music.

While Native American-directed motion pictures such as Smoke Signals, Powwow Highway, and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner finally gave agency to Natives in film, it was the all-Native DJ collective A Tribe Called Red’s self-released album and popularization of the Electric Powwow that directly challenges the perception of Native American music in modern society. In this post, I analyze the sonic composition of ATCR’s song “Braves,” exploring how A Tribe Called Red challenges North American stereotypes of Native Americans through the cultural re-appropriation of racist sounds.

“A Tribe Called Red – Hall 4 (1)” by Flickr user Trans Musicales, CC BY-NC 2.0

“A Tribe Called Red – Hall 4 (1)” by Flickr user Trans Musicales, CC BY-NC 2.0

After World War I, intertribal powwow gatherings served as a place to celebrate newfound unity among Native Nations returning home from the war. By the 1950s intertribal powwows had spread throughout North America. With the continued strength and importance of the powwow in contemporary Native society, urban Natives in locations like New York City and Ottawa, Canada, have begun to search for ways to create the same sense of unity in urban venues. In 2008, DJs NDN and Bear Witness formed the DJ collective “A Tribe Called Red” and began curating performances in Ottawa the second Saturday of every month called the Electric Powwow: a “wild party” focused on showcasing native talent and aboriginal culture. ATCR’s website describe the music as “ the soundtrack to the contemporary evolution of the powwow.“ Bear elaborates in an interview with NOW magazine, “[the Electric Powwow] was also about creating a space for our community within the club environment.” Hip-hop DJ and turntable champ DJ Shub was invited to join the group in 2010, and the trio spent the next two years evolving the sound of the Electric Powwow into a mash-up of powwow and First Nations music with contemporary club sounds including hip-hop, dubstep, and dance hall.

“Tribe Called Red” by Flickr user Dav Yaginuma, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Tribe Called Red” by Flickr user Dav Yaginuma, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Much like Fela Kuti’s popularization of Afrobeat in the 1970s, made up of a combination of traditional Nigerian Yoruba polyrhythms with a blend of Western jazz and funk, and Reggaeton’s fusion of Caribbean rhythms with the aesthetics of American hip-hop in the 1990s, the Electric Powwow merges a historically traditional and non-syncretic music with popular and cosmopolitan music in a way that both honors cultural heritage and makes it relevant to a new generation. As NDN points out on Noisey, even their name follows this trend, simultaneously referencing the introduction of Nations at powwows and famous Afrocentric hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. The Electric Powwow events are not just about the creation of a new genre of music, but they also serve as a site for ATCR to speak publicly about aboriginal issues and represent themselves as a contemporary face for the urban Native youth renaissance. ATCR’s music videos and live-show projections extensively sample racist imagery from movies and cartoons including old westerns, Back to the Future III, Bugs Bunny, and Disney’s Peter Pan. As a result of their audio-visual activism, the group has become the unofficial soundtrack for the Idle No More movement, which is attempting to reassert Indigenous sovereignty rights and previously signed treaties in Canada.

By taking both visual and sonic symbols that depict racist stereotypes out of their cultural contexts, ATCR draws attention to both the specific racism of each individual image and the ubiquity of racist stereotypes. In their track “Braves,” A Tribe Called Red takes on the U.S. baseball team the Atlanta Braves by remixing the baseball organization’s Tomahawk Chop anthem, itself adopted from Florida State University.

ATCR’s version transforms the innocuous-sounding chant by showcasing its core as a Hollywood-esque stereotype of Native American song. By re-contextualizing the anthem, “Braves” prompts listeners to reinterpret this facet of American sports culture as a racist pageantry of “savage violence.”

The association of the “war chant,” the motion of the Tomahawk Chop, and the fact that these actions call for one team to attack all make it clear that American sports culture appropriates Native Culture as an example of “savagery” and “uncivilized” behavior. The Tomahawk Chop also forgoes the use of a language-based text entirely and instead chooses to use vocables that cannot be attributed to any particular Native nation, ceremony, or meaning. Like Hollywood’s use of backwards English and the war drumbeat to represent “Indians,” the Tomahawk Chop bears no resemblance to any real Native Nation’s music, acting as yet another imagined primitive stereotype that marginalizes actual Native American music.

On A Tribe Called Red’s SoundCloud page, “Braves”’s description reads, “We wanted to make a song for all the racist and culturally inappropriate sports teams that are still used today!” The group accomplishes this by creating dissonance between contemporary electronic drumbeats and the “traditional” paramilitary marching band arrangement of the “Tomahawk Chop.” “Braves” utilizes a standard dubstep song structure in 4/4 at 140 beats per minute that includes an intro, two main sections that include melodic materials, a breakdown/buildup section, a vocal “drop” which announces and is followed by the climax of the piece, and an outro that brings the track to a close. However, “Braves” does differ from other dubstep songs in the marked separation and interaction between the Tomahawk Chop samples performed by voices and marching band and the composed elements of the song performed as the Wub—a deep, wobbly synthesized sound—and accompanied by a HiHat cymbal pecking away at syncopated rhythms. Even though all the melodic content of “Braves” is based on variations of the Tomahawk Chop melody, ATCR never fully integrates actual samples of the Tomahawk Chop into the composition. The marching band and chant samples are treated as an unwanted and unexpected visitor to a party; they seem important at the entrance, but they are given an increasingly diminished role until they finally exit with a whimper.

Written as a protest against racist sports organizations to help convince them to stop using characterized ceremonies and mascots, “Braves” contains that struggle within the composition itself: dubstep, sounded as the Wub and HiHat, eventually renders the Tomahawk Chop sonically impotent. The “Tribe” drop, when ATCR marks the song by saying “tribe,” acts as the turning point in “Braves.” After this point the Wub and HiHat consistently overwhelm the sampled material. In a standard dubstep song, the tribe drop would be followed by the climax: the strongest, most complex musical section of the piece. However, the Tomahawk Chop sample that follows this drop is immediately swallowed up by a low-pass filter that rubs out the tune, starting with the highest pitched sounds, over the course of sixteen measures, heightening the lower end of the sonic spectrum. Only then does the true climax occur. The Wub and HiHat appear here for the first time without the sample band or vocalizations. After the “Tribe” drop, the samples of the Tomahawk Chop are either dominated by the Wub or swallowed up by low-pass filters and fades.

“Tomahawk” by Flickr user Lorianne DiSabato, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Tomahawk” by Flickr user Lorianne DiSabato, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In this way, “Braves” acts as a three-minute sonic story of reappropriation. The marching band arrangement and vocables represent the common stereotypes of Native American music perpetuated by Western Culture. The Wub and HiHat act as disapproving commentary on these stereotypes. “Tribe,” the only word used in the entire song, not only sounds ATCR as a group, but also marks the point in the song when ATCR begins to create their own image of Native music while simultaneously disempowering the strength of the marching band.

Just like the rebel American marching band’s reappropriation of the song Yankee Doodle in the Revolutionary War, A Tribe Called Red employs irony: in order to get the song the audience has to understand the racism, and while that sort of understanding seems to represent a steep learning curve for a culture so saturated in racist stereotypes, it is also exactly the sort of understanding a multicultural nation needs in order to thrive. Like Afrobeat, Reggaeton, and the more recent alternative hip-hop group Das Racist, ATCR is an underground voice within American popular culture that speaks with reverence for its own traditions while challenging the popular perception of race relations and breaking new ground in contemporary art. “Braves” proves that the reappropriation of sonic space is a powerful tool in the fight for cultural agency.

Featured image: “ATCR 4” by Flickr user MadameChoCho, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Christina Giacona is the Director of the Los Angeles New Music Ensemble and Instructor of Music at the University of Oklahoma. Dedicated to performing and researching the music of her generation, Christina teaches courses in Native American, World, and Popular Music. Since founding the Los Angeles New Music Ensemble in 2007, Christina has commissioned and premiered over twenty new works for the ensemble; run an international composers competition, recorded three albums, and collaborated with DJs, MCs, animators, choreographers, projectionists, and film producers. 

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“Live Electronic Performance: Theory and Practice”-Primus Luta

“Remixing Girl Talk: The Poetics and Aesthetics of Mashups”-Aram Sinnreich

Or Does it Explode?: Sounding Out the U.S. Metropolis in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun

""VCRasin__DSC7414_Panorama" by Flickr user kabelphoto, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sounds of the City forumEditor’s Note: Cars. Trains. Festivals. Music. Noise. Sound. The concept of the city is inherently aural. Cities are always thought of in opposition to quiet, to stillness. However, representing cities as noisy is not without its problems; in fact, one thing we have tried to do here at Sounding Out! is question what ideas of quiet and noise carry with them. They are social constructions, like race and gender. We cannot talk about urban sounds in a vacuum.

Cities are an essential part of the scholarly work I do; cities are also an intrinsic part of who I am. So when I started thinking about what I wanted February Forum #3 to be about, I felt it was time to edit a series on city sounds. This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. Regular writer Regina Bradley will discuss the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet, respectively), guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe  will take readers on a soundwalk of the Smithfield Horse Fair in Dublin, and CFP winner Lilian Radovac will share with us a photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal. The forum will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?

I’ll be kicking things off in the forum with a critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Take your headphones off and listen up because you might miss your train…—Liana M. Silva-Ford, Managing Editor

Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun starts with the Younger family waking up and getting ready for work. Ruth Younger wakes her son, Travis Younger, to get ready for school. Her husband, Walter Lee Younger, is as reluctant to get up as his son does. After a brief tense exchange with his wife, Walter Lee turns to the paper:

WALTER (…vaguely reads the front page) Set off another bomb yesterday.

RUTH (Maximum indifference) Did they? (Hansberry 26)

With those two lines, seemingly thrown in amid a marital spat, Hansberry evokes the last line of Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem”: the aural image, in italics, Or does it explode? Inserting this poem as an epilogue, together with these lines in Act I, Scene 1, foreshadow the race riots of the 50s and 60s. However, these lines could easily fall out of earshot of the audience, or get swallowed up in the tension between Ruth and Walter Lee. In fact, the power of Hansberry’s play lies not just in her focus on the complexities of African Americans’ lives in then-contemporary Chicago, but that much of the action happens off stage, outside of the apartment. The audience must pay close attention to actually hear the story of urban racial violence. Sonic cues become an alternative to talking directly about the racialization of space.

"RaisinInTheSun" by Wikipedia user GrahamHardy, fair use under copyright law

“RaisinInTheSun” by Wikipedia user GrahamHardy, fair use under copyright law

Broadway audiences will soon get the chance to relive those opening lines when A Raisin in the Sun comes back to theaters later this year, starring Denzel Washington and Diahann Caroll. Contemporary audiences will encounter the Younger family’s struggles in the Southside of Chicago. In the play, Lena (Mama) Younger receives a life insurance check after the death of her husband, which lays bare the aspirations and desires of the characters: Lena wants a new home for the family, Beneatha wants to become a doctor, and Walter Lee wants to open up a business. Lena decides to use the money for a down payment of a home in a working-class neighborhood called Clybourne Park. (This neighborhood later inspired the 2010 Bruce Norris play Clybourne Park.) The only problem is that the neighborhood houses only whites. However, Broadway (and Hollywood for that matter) frequently stages revivals; why is A Raisin in the Sun still relevant?

Robert Nemiroff, in the Introduction to the 1994 Vintage Books edition of the play, recognizes that part of the allure of Raisin is that race relations are just as strained as they were in the mid-twentieth century. However, according to Nemiroff the play also holds sway because it holds a mirror up to very human emotions that go beyond race (13-14). James Baldwin, on the other hand, believes its staying power lies in how it showcased the raw fear African Americans felt (and still feel) in a racist society. He mentions in his Introduction to Hansberry’s autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black titled “Sweet Lorraine“,

In Raisin, black people recognized that house and all the people in it—the mother, the son, the daughter, and the daughter-in-law, and supplied the play with an interpretative element which could not be present in the minds of white people: a kind of claustrophobic terror, created not only by their knowledge of the house but by their knowledge of the streets. (xii)

Baldwin values the context that African American theatergoers brought to the play. For them, the play would already have a soundtrack of terror to go along with it, a soundtrack that African Americans knew by heart. White audiences, on the other hand, would not; they more than likely had to rely on what was on stage. Instead of staging the racial violence on Chicago’s streets, Hansberry renders audible the contours of racialized urban spaces through the people who become the focus of that violence.

"Chicago community areas map" by Wikimedia user Peterfitzgerald, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Chicago community areas map” by Wikimedia user Peterfitzgerald, CC BY-SA 3.0

Hansberry’s play was inspired by her family’s own situation in moving to Woodlawn in Chicago, which was for the most part white and middle class until the 1950s when racially restrictive zoning ordinances were struck done. In this neighborhood they faced violence and anger from their white neighbors, and were ultimately mandated to vacate the area. Carl Hansberry, father of the playwright, would take this case to the Supreme Court, which later overruled the injunction. George Lipsitz discusses the sociohistorical context surrounding A Raisin in the Sun in his book How Racism Takes Place (2011). He focuses on racialized spaces, and Chicago in Hansberry’s play is a prime example of that. Lipsitz points out, “[m]ore than any other single work of expressive culture, it called (and still calls) public attention to the indignities and oppressions of racialized space in the United States at mid-century” (Loc. 2747). For Lipsitz, A Raisin in the Sun didn’t just represent how race operated in urban spaces but took a stand against it. He states, “Hansberry’s play staged a symbolic rebuke of the white spatial imaginary” (Loc. 2883). In my reading of the textual references to talking, coupled with Hansberry’s choice to stage the play inside the apartment at all times, they call audiences to not just look but listen to how spatialized racism affected African Americans.

It is important to point out the sounds that theater-going audiences in the 1950s, many white and middle/upper-class, would not have heard in the play. A Raisin in the Sun evokes bombings (as seen in the quotation that started this piece), protests, and racial slurs. Although these sounds would be evocative and almost expected in a play about race and urban space in the 1950s, Hansberry stays away from those sounds. The only sounds Hansberry inserts in the stage directions are the sounds of music, children playing on the street, doorbells, and an alarm. In fact, the alarm clock opens the screenplay: “An alarm clock sounds from within the bedroom at right, and presently RUTH enters from that room and closes the door behind her” (24). The presence of alarms, in addition to the ring of the doorbell, is indicative of the busy city life: apartment buildings need bells to announce the arrival of someone downstairs, and alarms coax workers to get up. However, they are the only sonic indicators that Hansberry points out in her play. These sounds makes the apartment seem common, homely; they do not give way to what is happening in Southside Chicago—or in the United States, for that matter—at the moment.

The indications of the urban violence and racism outside of the Younger’s apartment door are in the interactions between the characters. However, it is not just in the events they describe but also in their speech. In that sense, when Hansberry inserts rhetorical cues such as “talking” and “listening,” they do not just refer to plot lines but also as a call for audience members to listen to what is being said (and what is not being said) in the play. For example, Hansberry introduces the three main characters in terms of their diction, their voices. Although this is to be expected in a playwright’s directions to the director, it is also an indication of the importance of speech in this play. Hansberry describes Walter Lee as “inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits–and always in his voice there is a quality of indictment.” Walter constantly vocalizes frustrations about being a black man in America—particularly his frustrations that his family second-guesses his aspirations. His voice carries the stern accusation against racism, but he seems unsure.

"A Raisin in the Sun 1959 3" in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“A Raisin in the Sun 1959 3″ in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Beneatha and Lena also seem wary in their tone. When Hansberry describes Beneatha, she mentions

her speech is a mixture of many things; it is different from the rest of the family’s insofar as education has permeated her sense of English—and perhaps the Midwest rather than the South has finally—at last—won out in her inflection; but not altogether, because over all of it is a soft slurring and transformed use of vowels which is the decided influence of the Southside. (35)

Beneatha’s voice shows a confluence of speech patterns, but also a struggle. The description brings to mind respectability politics, which judge others based on their appearance or their speech patterns. When it comes to Lena, Hansberry describes her as such: “Her speech, on the other hand, is as careless as her carriage is precise—she is inclined to slur everything—but her voice is perhaps not so much quiet as simply soft.” (39). As with Beneatha, Mama’s voice signals a tension: carelessness versus precision. Her softness makes way for the hard truth often in the play. The tension in their voices point to the stress of experiencing racialized urban space. Walter Lee’s experience of racialized space comes from the point of view of a chauffeur for a white businessman, Lena experiences it as a Southern migrant (also, someone who fled the racial violence of the South only to find it again in the North), and Beneatha sees it in her interactions with black men: George Hutchinson, the upper class African American and Joseph Asagai, the international student from Nigeria.

"A Raisin in the Sun 1959 4" in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“A Raisin in the Sun 1959 4″ in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The characters also reference talking in their dialogue. There always seems to be someone who does not want to listen or who feels they are not being heard. For example, when Walter Lee asks Lena about the insurance check that’s supposed to arrive, Lena chastises him: “Now don’t you start, child. It’s too early in the morning to be talking about money. It ain’t Christian” (Hansberry 41). Mama prevents Walter Lee from starting another conversation about his business ideas. In another scene, Walter Lee is annoyed that Ruth dislikes his late-night chat sessions with his buddies in their living room: “the things I want to talk about with my friends just couldn’t be important in your mind, could they?”  (27). Later in the play, after Lena finds out Ruth put a down payment for an abortion, she tells Walter, “Son—I think you ought to talk to your wife…” to which he responds, “I can talk to her later.” I read these thwarted efforts to speak and be heard, as vocal metaphors for how African Americans were being ostracized and ghettoized in cities, especially when I consider that the play is set in Chicago.

However, the most pressing example of how talking is representative of racial relations in urban spaces is the visit of Karl Lindner, the representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. Although violence had become an unsanctioned form of policing African Americans in urban space, in the play Hansberry opts instead to represent that violence through the presence—and the voice—of Karl Lindner. Initially, Lindner has the attention of Ruth and Walter Younger, and they listen to him talk about the virtues of Clybourne Parks’ neighbors. He gains their sympathy by invoking their sense of equality: “we don’t try hard enough in this world to understand the other fellow’s problem” (117). However, Lindner soon reveals his intentions: he comes bearing an offer to buy the house back from the Youngers to keep them from moving to the neighborhood. The Youngers show shock, to which Lindner replies, “I hope you’ll hear me all the way through” (118). His request is the request of the privileged though, and tries to make it seem like the Youngers are being unreasonable. In Lindner the audience hears the threat of white supremacy.

"A Raisin in the Sun 1959" in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“A Raisin in the Sun 1959″ in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry focuses on rendering the city audible through the characters. Listening brings a deeper engagement with what is happening in the lives of the characters. Talking marks the bodies of the characters as sites of struggle, as microcosms for what is happening in Chicago in the 1950s—and what would happen later, as Lipsitz discusses in his book. In depictions of the city as noisy, it is often forgotten that part of that noise comes from human bodies, from people. Hansberry breaks through that noise by toning down the hum of the city on stage and focusing on making her audience listen to people. Perhaps a revival of A Raisin in the Sun can make a different generation of Americans tune in to how urban space continues to be racialized today.


Featured image: “VCRasin__DSC7414_Panorama” by Flickr user kabelphoto, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Liana Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.

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“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry

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This post is dedicated to the memory of Amiri Baraka, who passed away on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.

I began writing this post while my wife, Sarah, was at a conference on writing curriculum for high school literature. Over the phone one night she asked how to help students better understand the language of Shakespeare, and at a loss for suggestions (not only because I don’t study early modern drama), I recalled my own adolescent struggles with Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. I recalled well-intentioned teachers who gave me recordings, telling me that they would help me get an “ear” for Shakespeare’s language—yet all I remember, maybe all I learned, while listening to the Caedmon recording of Macbeth on vinyl, was that, to my mid-1990s ear, Shakespeare (anachronistically) sounded like Star Wars (which appeared 15 years after the 1960 Caedmon album).

My high school confusion has not completely faded when it comes to the sound of recorded poetic language, even more so when the notion of the poet’s voice is thrown into the mix. As opposed to verse recited by actors (the Caedmon Macbeth featured Anthony Quayle), or the sound of the syllables when we read a poem silently to ourselves, I find it tough to parse the idea of the sound of the poem in terms of the poet’s voice because “voice” is a slippery category—a constructed one, contingent upon the given historical moment of inscription and reception. It is tough because this idea of the sound of the poem, located in the voice of the poet, gets complicated with sonic technologies where voice is subject to the shifting conditions of fidelity.

"Record Player" by DeviantArt user SomeAreLove, CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0

“Record Player” by DeviantArt user SomeAreLove, CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0

The act of listening to recorded poetry thus poses particular analytic challenges, which become more complex when the politics of identity are brought to bear on these questions of voice and poetry. As a site for identity production, the recorded poetry performance projects a mediated voice that is a potential self. The “sound” of this poetic subjectivity is different from recording to recording, even of the same poem. In an effort to work through these complexities, this post takes up three different recordings of Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black Dada Nihilismus,” which offer variations in delivery and performance that each depend upon the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of the soundscape that each recording is embedded within.

“Black Dada Nihilismus” is an excellent opportunity to consider the overlapping challenges of voice, performance and the politics of identity in recorded poetry. Published in the early 1960s, this poem was written before Baraka’s shift in politics, which was precipitated by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, yet the poem anticipates the intersection of aesthetics and politics during the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s into the 70s. This shift can be tracked in the sonic details of the first two recordings, made in 1964 and 1965. In the third version, a 1993 remix by DJ Spooky, we can hear how this shift reverberates beyond its historical moment.

In a statement of poetics included in Donald Allen’s classic 1959 anthology The New American Poetry, Baraka (then Leroi Jones) asked: “HOW YOU SOUND??” How a poet’s poem sounded mattered most for him: “you have to start and finish there … your own voice … how you sound” (425). Primarily referencing the poem on the page, he wasn’t whistling in the dark: often thought of as a vocal performance of language, poetry has a long history with sound. One thread of this history is the Homeric tradition of an “oral poetics,” a tradition where, as Albert Lord notes in The Singer of Tales, socialized performances of poetry were simultaneously modes of composition. The feel of language in the body remained inseparable from the poetry that relayed the heroic tales of the ancient world. In The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky offers a similar account of sound and voice, suggesting that the “sound” of language, the sensuous play of speech, is the material for poetic composition. Or as Charles Bernstein has it in Close Listening, “poetry needs to be sounded” because it is a way to understand it better (7).

"Le Roi Jones" by Flickr user UIC Digital Collections, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Le Roi Jones” by Flickr user UIC Digital Collections, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poetry is often said to be difficult—but how would a poet’s “sounding” of a poem help a listener better understand it, as Bernstein suggests? How is the recorded voice resonating in air different from inert marks on a page? What is the status of that difference? Why or how would the sound recording signify differently than the poem on the silent page? In short, is listening easier than reading? My answer to the final question is a resounding “no.” For me, the challenge is how to consider the recorded poetry performance in both formal and aural terms so as to remain tuned in to the aesthetic and the poetic as well as the social and historical dimensions of a particular poet’s work. This is not easily done.

“Black Dada Nihilismus” was first published in The Dead Lecturer (1964) and later included in Transbluesency (1995). Written in two parts, it asserts a black aesthetic by critiquing the dominance of (white) light in Western art and suggesting a connection between this light, ethnic violence, and religious ideology. This is how the poem opens:

                                        .Against what light
is false what breath
sucked, for deadness.

                                        Murder, the cleansed
purpose, frail, against
God, if they bring him

                                        Bleeding, I would not
forgive, or even call him
black dada nihilismus.

The protestant love, wide windows,
color blocked to Modrian, and the
ugly silent deaths of jews […]

(Transbluesency 97)

Through critique the poem develops the connections between aesthetics and racial dominance and violence. These connections take on different inflections in each recorded version of the poem, and with each inflection another aspect of them is amplified.

The first version is a bootleg of a reading at the Asilomar Negro Writers Conference that was held in Pacific Grove, California, in early August, 1964.


Asilomar Conference Grounds, site of 1964 Negro Writers Conference

Asilomar Conference Grounds, site of 1964 Negro Writers Conference

In addition to the preamble, where Baraka explains some of the poem’s key terms such as Dada, which he describes as a movement in France (rather than Germany or Switzerland), another sonic detail that marks this as “live” is at the 2:59 minute mark when we hear the flap of a turning page, reminding us that Baraka is treating the poem as a script in these recordings. In this version, the opening lines are sharply delivered, the voice fully pausing at the linebreaks and acutely pronouncing the hard vowels (e.g. “sucked”). Against the continuous background hush of the original reel-to-reel recording, Baraka punches his words into the air, as if trying to find a rhythm between these harder vowels and the softer ones that often denote the poem’s object of critique (e.g. “light”).

The next version is off the A side of New York Art Quartet and Imamu Amiri Baraka (ESP Disk 1965), where the poem’s rhythm is immediately established by the musical accompaniment.

Between the first recording and this one a shift began in Baraka’s development as a poet. The assassination of Malcolm X pushed him to think even more about race, politics, and art. In this version the opening lines, delivered with punch and pause in the bootleg, take on a different register when juxtaposed with the smooth coolness of the quartet. Overall, though, the poem is delivered more militantly here. In the first version the opening lines are delivered forcefully, but ultimately this forcefulness subsides over the course of the reading. The opposite is the case in this studio version that slowly builds to the apex of the poem, the point of most force, this stanza:

Black scream
and chant, scream,
and dull, un
earthly
hollering.

(Transbluesency 99)

In the bootleg, the turn of the page—between “earthly” and “hollering”—interrupts this stanza, and Baraka hesitates and slowly finds his way toward the poem’s close, while in the studio version, the musical accompaniment reaches a fevered pitch here, making it feel as if it is at the edge of the scream that it names. This prepares us for the closing litany of names of black figures of “black dada nihilismus,” which goes like this:

For tambo, willie best, dubois, patrice, mantan, the
bronze buckaroos.

For Jack Johnson, asbestos, tonto, buckwheat,
billie holiday.

(Ibid.)

In the final version, which is DJ Spooky’s remix of the second one, included on the CD Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip (TVT Records 1996), this litany feels more like the outro (that is meant as) against Spooky’s beats and moody reverb.

An aspect of the poem amplified in the remix is the stanzas leading up to the apex stanza of the “black scream.” In a series of tercets that open the second section, the speaker addresses the experience of racial oppression and a growing need to strike back:

The razor. Our flail against them, why
you carry knives? Or brutaled lumps of

heart? Why you stay, where they can
reach? Why you sit, or stand, or walk
in this place, a window on a dark

warehouse […]

(Transbluesency 98)

The “why” is significantly amplified in the remix, forcing us to hear the ironic indictment of the oppressive “light,” not as audible in the other two tracks, explicit in Baraka’s tercets.

“IMG_0433″ by Flickr user Beyond Baroque, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

“IMG_0433″ by Flickr user Beyond Baroque, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

The original recordings of these versions of “Black Dada Nihilismus” are each in a different format: vinyl LP, tape-to-tape reel, and CD. I have been working with digitized versions, so the way I am hearing these recordings—through a smooth digitized MP3 file or Youtube clip—is not the same as the crackle of a needle running an LP’s groove or a nearly noiseless laser tracing a CD. These variations in format mean that the different ways these versions individual signify—their respective “sounds”—are flattened out by compression. Despite this loss of material context, Baraka still sounds different in each of these tracks. Each version of Baraka’s poem offers us another iteration of his “voice,” and the poem, but listening to each of them does not necessarily provide a better understanding of it. We are, though, given different sonic experiences that depend upon the purpose of Baraka’s performance, the listener imagined during the reading, and the voice enunciated through the mediated environment.

Some of the voice details do remain consistent across these recordings. For example, the delivery of one of the poem’s most memorable phrase—“Hermes, the/the blacker art”—that occurs toward the close of the poem’s first section is steadily delivered in a lower register, in the hush of an aside, and might be taken as the motif of each of these variations.

"Stage Microphone TTV" by Flickr user Keith Bloomfield, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

“Stage Microphone TTV” by Flickr user Keith Bloomfield, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

A vast archive of recorded poetry exists. Mid-century recording projects by Caedmon and Folkways made “voices” of well-known poets, such as Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas, available for mainstream consumption. More recent anthologies and series like Poetry Speaks and The Voice of the Poet suggest that the “voice of the poet” still holds appeal. The proliferation of online sound archives such as Penn Sound and From the Fishouse further attest to an ongoing investment in recording, storing, and making available sound files of poets reading their work. And this fascination with the “sound” of poetry is not limited to mainstream cultural spheres or web-based archives. Several scholarly collections on this convergence of sound, voice, and poetry such as Bernstein’s already-mentioned Close Listening, Adelaide Morris’s Sound States, and Marjorie Perloff’s and Craig Dworkin’s The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound have appeared over the last decade.

The idea of the sound of the poem, located in the mediated voice of the poet, therefore remains relevant today. In many of these instances, however, the poet’s voice falsely takes on an authoritative “aura,” as Walter Benjamin used that word in his (recently re-translated) “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Benjamin uses “aura” to talk about authenticity in art and how that is lost when images (or sounds) can be reproduced and widely distributed, and this is not a bad thing: “technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual. To an ever-increasing degree, the work produced becomes the reproduction of work designed to be reproduced” (24). When Benjamin’s concept is applied to recorded poetry, two key points emerge. First, the “sound” of a poet’s voice is the product of technological conditions. Second, just as a book editor makes aesthetic judgments based on a perceived audience, a listener is imagined when a poetry performance is recorded. Too bad I didn’t know this in high school.

“A Poem for Speculative Hipsters by Amiri Baraka” by Flickr user Shawn Calhoun, CC-BY-NC-2.0

“A Poem for Speculative Hipsters by Amiri Baraka” by Flickr user Shawn Calhoun, CC-BY-NC-2.0

Featured image: “Paula Varjack” by Flickr user Very Quiet, CC-BY-SA-2.0

John Hyland recently completed his dissertation on sound, poetics, and the black diaspora, titled “Atlantic Reverberations: The Sonic Performances of Black Diasporic Poetries,” at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in a range of journals, such as The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, College Literature, and Borderlands. Recently, he has enjoyed performing with the Buffalo Poets Theater and co-edited a special issue of the poetry journal kadar koli on the relationship between violence and the expressive arts.  

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