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The Hysterical Alphabet

hysterical alphabet

Hysterical Sound3To conclude our Hysterical Sound series, we are pleased to present an excerpt from John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis and Danny Thompsons performance of The Hysterical Alphabet.

Through this series we have explored a history of fetishizing women’s hysterical vocalizations with Gordon Sullivans post on Clayton Cubitt’s video work, and my post on Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film Hysteria and it’s relation to the “silence” of hysteria in medical history.

Today, Kapsalis gives us a piece in which “the ABCs are seized in a convulsive fit,” each letter of the alphabet serving to introduce some episode of the history of hysteria. Accompanied by the sound design of Corbett and Thompson’s visual collage, this performance of The Hysterical Alphabet offers a multi-sensory engagement with the past to “disprove the theory that time heals all wombs.”

SO! is grateful to the artists for sharing their work with us.

— Guest Editor Karly-Lynne Scott

Inspired by primary medical writings and actual case histories, “The Hysterical Alphabet” tracks the 4,000 year history of hysteria starting with A in ancient Egypt. First published as a book with text by Terri Kapsalis and drawings by Gina Litherland, it subsequently assumed a different form as a performance featuring video and live soundtrack. Terri Kapsalis (voice), John Corbett (sound), and Danny Thompson (video) performed the feature length piece from 2007-2012 in many different venues, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Emory University, RISD, Bates College, Clark University, and the University of Chicago. The video documentation included here excerpts the letters S, T, U, and V, which focus on the 19th century, moving into the 20th century, and were drawn from the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, S. Weir Mitchell, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Sigmund Freud, among others.

 

John Corbett (sound) is a writer, sound-artist, and curator. He is the co-director of the art gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey. In 2002, Corbett served as Artistic Director of JazzFest Berlin, and he co-curated the Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz & Improvised Music for nine years. He is the producer of the Unheard Music Series, an archival program dedicated to creative music issues and re- issues, and he is the author of Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein and Microgroove: Forays into Other Music. Corbett can be heard on a number of CDs including I’m Sick About My Hat and has brought his sound skills to two previous Theater Oobleck productions.

Terri Kapsalis’ (text/sound) writings have appeared in such publications as Short Fiction, The Baffler, Denver Quarterly, new formations, Public, and Lusitania. She is the author of Jane Addams’ Travel Medicine Kit, Hysterical Alphabet, and Public Privates: Performing Gynecology from Both Ends of the Speculum. Kapsalis is a founding member of Theater Oobleck, works as a health educator at Chicago Women’s Health Center, and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Danny Thompson (video) is a founding member of Theater Oobleck, for which he has written (and performed in) 20 plays and solo performances, including Necessity, Big Tooth High-Tech Megatron vs. the Sockpuppet of Procrastination, and The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (Partially Burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled “Never to be Performed. Never. Ever. Ever. Or I’ll Sue! I’ll Sue from the Grave!!! The latter was given the “Comedy Excellence Award” at the 2000 New York Fringe Festival, “Top Ten of the Fest” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and extensively toured the U.K. and Ireland.

 

SANDRA BLAND: #SayHerName Loud or Not at All

"Sandra Bland is Her Name" by Flickr user 
Light Brigading, CC BY-NC 2.0

It is customary that whenever I go to my Nana’s house I turn the car speakers as low as possible. She has super hearing. Sometimes I forget, and the following conversation takes place:

“What’s up Nana Boo?”

“I heard you before you got the house, girl. I told you about playing your music too loud.”

“It wasn’t too loud.”

“I heard you before I saw you.”

“Yes ma’am. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t bring attention to yourself.”

 

Don’t bring attention to yourself.

 

Picture from The Feminist Wire.

Picture from The Feminist Wire.

Physically this is impossible. I am a black woman over six feet tall. My laugh sounds like an exploding mouse. I squeak loudly and speak quickly when I get excited. I like knock in my trunk and bass in my music. Don’t bring attention to yourself. I frequently heard this warning as a girl and well into my adult life. I rarely take it as a slight on my grandmother’s account – though she is the master of throwing parasol shade. She spoke to me with a quiet urgency in her warning. In the wake of the murders of Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, and other black lives that vigilantes and mainstream media deemed irrelevant, I understand her warning better from the perspective of sound.

As a loud, squeaky black woman I am especially attuned to how my sonic footprint plays into how I live and if I should die. As a black woman, the bulk of my threat is associated with my loudness. My blackness sonically and culturally codes me as threatening due to the volume of my voice. This is amplified, as a southern black woman. I exist and dare to thrive in a country that historically and socially tries to deflate my agency and urgency. The clarity of my sentiments, the establishment of my frustration, and the worth of my social and cultural interventions are connected to how others hear my voice. It is not what I say but how I say it.

A woman waits at the Fulton Street subway stop in New York City on February 20, 2010.

A woman waits at the Fulton Street subway stop in New York City on February 20, 2010.

Black women navigate multiple codes of sonic respectability on a daily basis. Their sonic presence is seldom recognized as acceptable by society. Classrooms, homesites, corporate spaces, kitchen tables, and social media require a different tone and volume level in order to gain access and establish one’s credibility. Like other facets of their existence, the way(s) black women are expected to sound in public and private spaces is blurry. What connects these spaces together is a patriarchal and racially condescending paradigm of black women’s believed inferiority. A black women’s successful assimilation into American society is grounded in her ability to master varying degrees of quiet and silence. For black women, any type of disruptive pushback against cultural norms is largely sonic in nature. A grunt, shout, sigh, or sucking teeth instigates some type of resistance. Toning these sonic forms of pushback—basically, silencing themselves—is seen as the way to assimilate into mainstream American society.

In what follows I look at the tape of Sandra Bland’s arrest from this past summer to consider what happens when black women speak up and speak out, when they dare to be heard. As the #SayherName movement attests, black women cannot express sonically major and minor touchstones of black womanhood – joy, pleasure, anger, grief – without being deemed threatening. These sonic expressions force awareness of the complexity of black women’s experiences. In the case of Sandra Bland, I posit that the video of her arrest is not a video of her disrespecting authority but rather shows her sonic response to officer Brian Encinia’s inferred authority as a police officer. I read her loud and open interrogation of Encinia’s actions as an example of what I deem sonic disrespectability: the use of sound and volume to contest oppression in the shape of dictating how black women should or should not act.

The sonic altercation in the video (see full-length version here) sets the stage for Encinia’s physical reprimand of Bland, a college graduate from Prairie View A&M who hailed from Chicago. Bland is not physically threatening—i.e. she emphatically states she’s wearing a maxi dress—but her escalating voice startles and even intimidates Encinia. Bland is angry and frustrated at Encinia’s refusal and to answer her questions about why she was pulled over. Encinia’s responses to Bland’s sonic hostility are telling of his inability to recognize and cope with her anger. In fact, he refuses to answer her questions, and she repeats them over and over again while he barks orders. Encinia states later in the dashboard camera that Bland kicks him and thus forces him to physically restrain her. However, Bland’s vocal assertion of her agency is more jarring than her physical response to Encinia’s misuse of power.

The dashboard camera footage is indicative of their vocal sparring match. Encinia’s voice starts calm and even. He explains to Bland he pulled her over for failure to indicate a lane change. Bland’s responses are initially low and nearly inaudible. However, after Encinia asks Bland if she is “okay,” her responses are much louder.  She does not just follow orders but expresses her displeasure in sonic ways, while she stays in the car. His tone shifts when Bland refuses to extinguish her cigarette. Encinia then threatens to pull her out of the car for disobedience. He begins to yell at her. Bland then voices her pleasure in taking Encinia and his complaint to court. “Let’s take this to court. . .I can’t wait! Ooooh I can’t wait!” Bland’s pleasure in taking Encinia to court is an expression of her belief in her own agency. The act of voicing that pleasure is particularly striking because it challenges an understanding of courts and the justice system as hyperwhite and incapable of recognizing her need for justice. Her voice is clear, loud, and recognizably angry.

Picture from The New York Times

Picture from The New York Times

Her voice crescendos throughout the video, signifying her growing anxiety, tension at the situation, and anger for being under arrest. However, Bland’s voice begins to crack. Her sighs and grunts signify upon her disapproval of Encinia’s treatment of her physical body and rights. Once handcuffed, Bland’s voice is very high-pitched and pained, a sonic signifier of submission and Encinia’s re-affirmation of authority. She then is quiet and a conversation between Encinia and another officer is heard across the footage.

Many critiques of Bland center around her ‘distasteful’ use of language. One critic in particular described the altercation as “an African American woman had too much mouth with the wrong person and at the wrong time.” The assumption in those critiques is that she was not properly angry. Instead of a blind obedience of Enicnia’s inferred authority (read: superiority), she questions him and his inability to justify his actions. Sandra Bland’s sonic dis-respectability (dare I say, ratchet), is a direct pushback against the cultural and social norms of not only rural Southern society but the mainstream American (inferred) belief of southern black folks’ blind respectability of white authority and law enforcement.

Although Bland was a graduate of a southern HBCU, I do not want to assume that Bland possessed the social sensibilities that upheld this unstated social practice of blindly obeying white authority. Her death runs parallel to those of Emmett Till and Mary Turner. The circumstances of Till’s death swirled around his alleged whistling at a white woman – read as a sonic signifier of Till’s black masculine sexuality instead of boyhood – and disregard for white femininity, a protected asset of white men’s authority. Till, from Illinois like Bland, allegedly ignored his cousins’ warnings about the ‘proper protocol’ of interacting with white folks. Mary Turner, a black woman from Valdosta, Georgia, spoke out publicly against the lynching of her husband in 1918. She and her unborn child were also lynched in response to her sonic audacity. Before her death, members of the mob cut open her belly and her unborn baby fell on the ground; it was stomped to death after it gave out a cry. Turner’s voice disrupted white supremacy. Her baby’s lone cry re-emphasized it. Sound grounds much of the racial and gendered violence in the South.

"Sandra Bland mural" by Flickr user Robert Fairchild, CC BY-NC 2.0.

“Sandra Bland mural” by Flickr user Robert Fairchild, CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Southern U.S. emphasizes listening practices as part of social norms and cultural traditions. Listening was an act of survival more so than vocalizing the challenges facing black folks. (Jennifer Stoever’s upcoming book on the sonic color line addresses how advertisements for runaway slaves, for example, mentioned whether they were good listeners, as a way to codify whether they were compliant slaves.). Consider my grandmother’s warning about not bringing attention to myself. In her eyes, by not bringing attention to myself I’m able to remain invisible enough to successfully navigate society’s expectations of my blackness and my womanhood. Silence and listening are tools of survival. Contrarily, Bland’s loud disapproval and emphatic use of curse words registered her blackness and womanhood as threatening. She was coded as less feminine and therefore threatening because of her direct verbal confrontation with Encinia. She was not quiet or polite, especially in the south where quiet is the ultimate and sole form of women’s politeness and respectability. The combination of these multiple representations of black women’s anger invoked Encinia’s hyper-authoritative response to regain control of the situation.

Black folks are increasingly pushing back against “being in their place.” Sandra Bland’s death is rooted in an unnecessarily escalated fear of black women literally speaking their truth to power. In a moment where black women are speaking on multiple wavelengths and levels of volume, it is imperative to single out instances and then implode outdated cultural and social practices of listening.

Featured image:”Sandra Bland is Her Name” by Flickr user Light Brigading, CC BY-NC 2.0

Regina Bradley  is a writer, scholar, and researcher of African American Life and Culture. She is a recipient of the Nasir Jones HipHop Fellowship at Harvard University (Spring 2016) and an Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Armstrong State University. Dr. Bradley’s expertise and research interests include hip hop culture, race and the contemporary U.S. South, and sound studies. Dr. Bradley’s current book project, Chronicling Stankonia: Recognizing America’s Hip Hop South (under contract, UNC Press), explores how hip hop (with emphasis on the southern hip hop duo Outkast) and popular culture update conversations about the American South to include the post-Civil Rights era. Also known as Red Clay Scholar, a nod to her Georgia upbringing, Regina maintains a critically acclaimed blog and personal website – http://www.redclayscholar.com. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

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I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity — Regina Bradley

“President Obama: All Over But the Shouting?” Jennifer Stoever

Óyeme Voz: U.S. Latin@ & Immigrant Communities Re-Sound Citizenship and Belonging-Nancy Morales

Resounding Silence: Learning to Hear the Hysteric’s Voice

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Hysterical Sound3

This week we are pleased to welcome Guest Editor Karly-Lynne Scott kick off the last Thursday Series that Sounding Out! is running in 2015. Over the last ten months, this stream has reconsidered historical figures from radio preacher Elder Michaux to folklorist Alan Lomax, found new ways to tune in the weird voices in literature from Joseph Conrad to H.P. Lovecraft, and featured unsettled soundscapes from Vancouver to Havana.

All year, our Thursday authors have been challenging sonic archives and remaking historical and contemporary problems. That trend continues with Scott’s exciting work and that of her authors in Hysterical Sound.

— Special Editor Neil Verma.

Hysteria, the infamous and now-discredited psychological disorder that was a common diagnosis for women during the 19th century, has important sonic dimensions that have often been overlooked. Indeed, sound holds a prominent place in both the symptoms and treatment of hysteria: from the silence of hysterical aphonia to the hysteric’s vocal ejaculations, from fits triggered by sound to auditory hallucinations, from the hysteric giving up speech to the implementation of the talking cure.

Our four part series Hysterical Sound brings together writers and artists to explore hysteria’s sonic dimensions, as well as its continued legacy and importance for sound studies. In the coming weeks, Gordon Sullivan will consider the video art series Hysterical Literature in relation to a long history of women’s vocalizations serving as aural fetishes of female sexuality for the pleasure of male listeners. Veronica Fitzpatrick will explore the hysterical quality of the horror film soundtrack in its rejection of verbocentrism—the privileging of language and meaning. Finally, John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis and Danny Thompson share an excerpt from their performance art project The Hysterical Alphabet.

Today, I kick off this series with a discussion of what it means to listen to the silence of the hysteric. Looking at Sam Taylor-Johnson’s silent film Hysteria I argue that the hysteric is not mute, rather her vocalizations go unheard because we have tuned them out.

— Guest Editor Karly-Lynne Scott

The silence of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s eight-minute film Hysteria announces itself loudly. As the film holds in close-up the face of a woman as she cries and laughs indiscriminately, and with abandon, it is difficult to ignore that the woman’s voice is missing.

Today, Taylor-Johnson is famous for directing feature films like Nowhere Boy (2009) and Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), but she first rose to prominence in 1990s as a fine art photographer, film and video artist creating works like Hysteria. In the film, the image and absent soundtrack function together to conflate the two sonic extremes symptomatic of hysteria: the loss of voice (including dysphonia, aphonia and aphasia), and the sound of hysterical fits, irrepressible yet inarticulate vocal ejaculations—moans, cries, murmurs and screams— that we might call hysterical vocalizations. The resulting silent scream recalls Jean-Martin Charcot’s Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière, in particular Plate XV “Onset of the Attack—Scream.”

In this post, I want to consider these two works together, asking not only how they figure the silent hysteric each in its own way, but also how we can ‘learn to listen’ to this silence in both cases.

Plate XV “Début de L’attaque—Cri” (Onset of the Attack—Scream) from Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière, public domain

Plate XV “Début de L’attaque—Cri” (Onset of the Attack—Scream) from Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière, public domain

Jean-Martin Charcot was a celebrated nineteenth century French neurologist and professor of pathological anatomy, best known today for his work with hysteria at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Describing himself as a visuel, or a “man who sees,” Charcot demonstrated little concern for the sounds of hysteria (11). “You see how hysterics shout,” Charcot said, “Much ado about nothing” (53). Focusing on the visual dimensions of hysteric’s symptoms at the expense of her voice, Charcot photographed the physical symptoms of hysteria, creating an archive of still, silent women. Martha Noel Evans tells that Charcot “would have the patients brought into his office and stripped naked; he would observe them, ask them to perform certain movements, stare, meditate, and then have them led out. … he rarely exchanged words with the patients” (20).

As Janet Beizer explains in Ventriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in Nineteenth Century France, because the hysteric’s vocalizations were nonverbal they were considered meaningless in themselves. It was deemed necessary for someone to speak for her in order to make sense of her incoherence, to interpret and translate her nonverbal communication into meaningful speech. Medical professionals exhibited a verbocentrism—a bias privileging language and meaning over other types of vocalizations—that not only caused the voice of the hysteric to go unheard, but also led to her being ventriloquized by others, particularly male doctors.

To rectify this history Beizer asserts, “I cannot hope to reintegrate the nineteenth-century hysterical body with its voice; I can only mouth the voicelessness and strive to expose the discourse that spoke in its place” (12). This is precisely the approach taken by Taylor-Johnson’s film. It does not attempt to reintegrate the hysterical body with its voice, a gesture that might function only to further ventriloquize the hysteric. Instead, in removing the soundtrack, it mouths the hysteric’s voicelessness, emphasizing it to the point that it can be heard.

In Iconographie, the stillness of the photographs allows their silence to be easily ignored, not only because we are accustomed to still photography’s absence of sound, but because silence, stillness, and death go hand-in-hand. The living body, however, is never truly silent. For that reason, the uncanniness of the silent, moving body in Taylor-Johnson’s film draws attention to not only the film’s absence of sound, but the silencing of the hysteric.

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Although Hysteria is without a soundtrack, to say that it is silent misses something crucial. As Michel Chion asserts in The Voice in Cinema what we call silent cinema, films without soundtracks, might be better termed “deaf cinema” (7). “It’s not that the film’s characters were mute,” Chion explains, “but rather that the film was deaf to them” (8). As he explains, spectators watching a film without a soundtrack know that the characters are speaking, even in the absence of sound, because they see them speak. We not only see the woman of Hysteria shout and laugh, scream and cry, but close-ups of her mouth agape make visible the movement of her tongue and pharynx. Thus, although we cannot hear the noise she is making, we see that she is making it. Chion quotes filmmaker Robert Bresson, who speaking to this idea said, “For the characters did in fact talk, only they spoke in a vacuum, no one could hear what they were saying’” (8). It is not that the hysterical woman is silent, but that we, like Charcot, have tuned her out.

Reframing the hysteric’s silence this way, it is no longer she that is deficient for being unable to speak in a meaningful way. Rather, it is we who lack the ability, or willingness, to listen. She screams and shouts, moans and laughs, but her vocalizations are lost on us. What Hysteria makes perceptible through its image-track is that the hysteric is speaking—we cannot hear her because she has been stripped of her voice, as the film has been stripped of its soundtrack, but she is not silent. The film encourages us to learn to perceive vocalizations that have been silenced with our other senses, to recognize and acknowledge their existence even when we cannot hear them. In bringing our attention to the hysteric’s silence Hysteria helps us learn to listen her and, in doing so, reveals that this silence in fact speaks volumes.

Karly-Lynne Scott is a Ph.D. candidate in Screen Cultures at Northwestern University. Her dissertation considers pornography in relation to philosophical conceptualizations of the body and the history of sexology. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Porn StudiesIn Media Res, and World Picture, where she is an assistant editor.

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Vocal Gender and the Gendered Soundscape: At the Intersection of Gender Studies and Sound Studies — Christine Ehrick

Quiet on the Set?: The Artist and the Sound of a Silent Resurgence — April Miller

Eye Candy: The Absence of the Female Voice in Sports Talk Radio — Liana M. Silva

The Sweet Sounds of Havana: Space, Listening, and the Making of Sonic Citizenship

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Unsettling the World SS ProjectWelcome to the third and final installment of Unsettling the World Soundscape Project, a series in which we critically investigate the output of early acoustic ecology and assess its continuing value for today’s sound studies. In our first post, Mitchell Akiyama addressed the WSP’s ten-hour Soundscapes of Canada radio series from 1974 to situate the broadcast’s innovative work historically and explore how it attempted to represent a diverse nation by way of sound. In my follow-up post, I focused on the WSP’s Vancouver research, their only output since returning from Europe in 1975, assessing shifts in the ideologies and practices over its two official releases and arguing for the best path that future iterations of the project might follow.

In this final entry, Vincent Andrisani puts the “world” back into the World Soundscape Project by carrying his experience as the recordist for the WSP’s last archiving mission in Vancouver out into his solo doctoral research in Havana, Cuba. Andrisani lends an unsettled ear to one of the city’s most beloved sounds, the tune of the ice cream vendor, unpacking its social and historical significance to make an argument about the role that sound plays in local self-definitions of citizenship. Inspired by the WSP’s continuing quest to discover how people’s relationship to places can be defined through sound, Andrisani’s work offers an example of what contemporary soundscape research can be while demonstrating how to deal with many of the concerns raised about the WSP’s output over the course of this series.

It has been a great pleasure acting as editor for this series over the past few weeks and it is our hope that these posts will provide further fuel for celebrating, expanding, critiquing and rethinking the work of acoustic ecology in the broader context of contemporary sonic research.

— Guest Editor Randolph Jordan

To conceive of Havana in sound is to think not of the material spaces of the city, but rather, across them. From inside the home, residents participate in conversations taking place in the streets, while those in the streets often call for the attention of their friends or family indoors. Through windows, open doors, and porticoes, residents engage in interpersonal exchanges that bring neighbourhood communities to life. To listen across these spaces is to listen trans-liminally from the threshold through which sounds must pass as they animate the vibrant social life of the city. Such an act is made most apparent by the voices of vendedores ambulantes, or, mobile street vendors. “¡El buen paquete de galleta!” (“The good packs of cookies!”), “¡Se compran y se vendan libros!” (“I’m buying and selling books!”), and most famously, “¡Mani! ¡Mani!” (“Peanuts! Peanuts!”) are some of the pregones—the musical cries—heard through the streets and into the home.

But not all vendors are pregoneros. El heladero, the ice cream vendor, uses the jangly melodies of the electronic music box to make ears perk up, mouths water, and children’s shoes hit the ground running. The sound signals a respite from the sweltering Caribbean heat and is symbolic of a novelty food item for which Cubans have a strong cultural affinity. But most of all, the ice cream vendor’s melodic tunes bring people out of their homes and into the street, giving life to a moment that is as social, participatory, and convivial as it is savory.

Ice Cream Vendor in Cuba, 2008, Courtesy of Flickr User berg_chabot

Ice Cream Vendor in Cuba, 2008, Courtesy of Flickr User berg_chabot

For over a century, ice cream vendors have been heard on the streets of Havana. Throughout this time, the city’s spaces have been contested by external regimes of power that include the Spanish Crown, U.S. business interests, Cuba’s own socialist government, the Soviet Union, and since the 1990s, Cuba’s resurgent tourist economy. Yet, in spite of the exclusionary logic imposed by each of these systems of power, the sound of the ice cream vendor still remains. To listen to it is to listen to Havana according not to the agenda of outside interests, but rather, according to the collective interests of residents themselves.

Borrowing from the work of Saskia Sassen (2006) who maintains that “citizenship practices have to do with the production of ‘presence’ of those without power and a politics that claims rights to the city” (315), I regard the tacit, communicative, trans-liminal act of listening as a means through which residents assert their embodied presence amidst both the spatial and political landscapes of the city. Listening to the sound of the ice cream vendor, I argue, constitutes an act of citizenship—an act of sonic citizenship—that momentarily claims Havana’s spaces according to the aims, aspirations, and desires of those who live there.

Citizenship, in this sense, is conceived of not as an institution bound to the political-juridical architecture of the nation-state, but rather, as a place-based “practice and project” (Sassen, p281) that, over time, has the potential to condition changes in the formalized institution itself. It emerges in the everyday, rather ordinary moments during which the city’s spaces are produced and given meaning by those with unequal access to political power. Just as Jennifer Stoever (2011) and Michael Francis O’Toole (2014) have discussed elsewhere, I too contend that citizenship is articulated in sound, but in order to hear it, we must listen historically to—and through—the spaces of Havana’s built environment.

The above clip, which I captured while conducting fieldwork in Havana, represents a moment of everyday life in the municipality of Centro Habana. While speaking about it with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I came to realize that only recently had the ice cream vendor’s heralding music become part of the local soundscapes. “Where was it before that?”, I asked. “Before that,” they all said, “it was gone.” In 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed and brought Cuba’s economy along with it. Shortages of food, petrol, and material resources were so severe that satisfying basic needs took precedence over the delivery of frozen novelties. The result was the loss of the ice cream vendor—and its corresponding sound—which, for decades, was part of the ongoing, everyday life of the city.

Fittingly, the collective sentiment surrounding that loss is captured in song. “Helado Sobre Ruedas,” or “Ice Cream on Wheels” by Gema y Pavel was released in 1994, during the height of Cuba’s economic crisis. In it, the duo lament the disappearance of the ice cream vendor from the streets of Havana and reflect on what it meant not only to them, but to all residents of the city. They speak about the presence of the ice cream vendor as a ‘refreshing’ event on hot days; as a source of joy, pleasure, and happiness that offered much more than a simple respite from the heat, but as one that “made family problems disappear.” The “sweet melody” of the vendor was the cause for celebration in neighbourhoods across the city, and is a sound that the duo recalls with both warmth and affection.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, ice cream sales in Havana looked and sounded much like it did in the United States. Minnesota-based Nichols Electronics developed the technology of the electronic music box in the mid-1950s, and within a few years, its chime-y sounds were heard on the streets of Havana. The frozen novelty itself can be traced back to 1920 in Youngstown, Ohio. Harry Burt, the eventual founder of the Good Humor brand paired, first, the lollipop’s wooden stick with chocolate covered vanilla ice cream, and subsequently, ice cream sales and automobility. In Havana, brands such as Hatuey, Guarina, and El Gallito borrowed Burt’s developments, and by the time the city underwent its westward suburbanization in the 1940s and ’50s, mobile ice cream sales were booming.

But if we listen further still into Havana’s past, we can discern the ways in which the ice cream vendor’s music echoes the complex history of the city. During Cuba’s struggle for independence in the late 1800s, American traditions and customs such as baseball, Protestantism, and new habits of hygiene began emerging in Havana. At once a rejection of the perceived backwardness of Spanish culture and an appeal to modernizing the island, this cultural appropriation was, as both Louis A. Pérez Jr. (1999) and Marial Iglesias-Utset (2011) have carefully observed, a way for residents to perform acts of citizenship with the intent of defining the customs of the impending nation.

It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the practice of street side ice cream vending arrived in Havana at this very moment following its proliferation in cities such as Barcelona, London, and notably New York. These vendors performed a series of decisive functions amidst the city’s political geography, the most discernible of which was that they offered an opportunity for the working class to indulge in what historically was a bourgeois delight. Of equal importance however, was that ice cream vendors were also participants in Havana’s project of cultural modernization, and their street side presence enabled locals to inhabit the acoustic spaces of the city on their own terms and not those of the Spanish Crown.

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Ice cream vendor on the streets of Havana between 1890 and 1910. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Archives.

This photograph, taken in Havana some time between 1890 and 1910, can be read not only as a silent image, but as an audiovisual text. Without any visible technology with which to herald his presence, it’s likely that this vendor relied on his own voice in the form of a pregón. We might imagine the slow rumble of the cart’s wooden wheels as they rolled over the unpaved road, glass cups jangling as the cart bounced along, and enthusiastic voices congregating in the street to buy what was known as a “penny lick.” Each of these sounds moved across the liminal spaces of the built environment, each marking a moment of savory indulgence and neighborly dialogue in the life of the city—as they do again today.

Listening to, documenting, and as historian Bruce R. Smith (2004) terms it, “un-airing” the history of Havana’s ice cream vendors offers a means through which to cultivate unexplored encounters with the city. It animates a narrative grounded not in political rupture, but in historical continuity; it locates a geography characterized not by unequivocal exclusion, but one that, quite simply, belongs to those who live there; and in so doing, it develops an account of the city not from the top-down, but rather, from the bottom-up. Such an approach renders audible the enactment of citizenship by listening for the sounds that firmly ground citizens in the very spaces that, time and again, have been destabilized by forces imposed from above.

To hear the ways in which citizens inhabit the city of Havana, we must simultaneously listen trans-liminally, across the open spaces of the built environment, and into the city’s history, which resonates through the sounds of neighbourhood communities, interpersonal dialogue, and social interaction. The heralding music of the ice cream vendor is one sound that does precisely that: for some, it offers a sense of childhood nostalgia, for others, it conjures the taste of a delicious frozen snack. But in every case, to listen to it is to enact a form of civic memory that orients residents according to both the spaces they inhabit, and the social and cultural history to which they belong. It comprises a moment, liminal as it may be, during which the city is lived, experienced, and imagined according to the interests of no one other than citizens themselves.

Acknowledgements: A sincere thanks to my extended family in Havana, to the academic community at Fundación Fernando Ortiz, and in particular, to Dr. Aurelio Francos Lauredo for his time, guidance, and for his attentive and compassionate ear.

Vincent Andrisani is a PhD Candidate and an instructor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He has written and lectured on the topics of popular music, broadcast media, and the politics of audio documentation in the context of Soundscape Studies, and has presented his research in a number of artistic and academic venues; the most recent of which was at the Pan-American Mobilities Conference in Santiago, Chile in 2014. Intersecting the areas of Sound Studies, Urban Geography, and Cuban Studies, Vincent’s doctoral research explores the relationship between sound, space, and citizenship in the city of Havana. In addition to the ice cream vendor, the sounds of water pipes, international travelers, and street musicians performing “Guantanamera” and other likely tunes form the basis of the study. http://www.vincentandrisani.com.

Featured image:Ice cream vendor in Havana, courtesy of University of Miami Libraries, Cuban Heritage Collection.

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