Editor’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!.
“Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil”-Leonardo Cardoso
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Interview with Aram Sinnreich, “The Piracy Crusade”
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In this podcast Aaron Trammell interviews Aram Sinnreich about his new book, The Piracy Crusade. Here, Aram elaborates on the corporate construction of the term “piracy,” reviews the economics of the past twenty years of the music industry, and explains the legislation of piracy along the way. At the heart of this discussion is the relationship between music and creativity, and, the question of how listening is regulated.
Dr. Aram Sinnreich is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information, in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies. Sinnreich’s work focuses on the intersection of culture, law and technology, with an emphasis on subjects such as emerging media and music. He is the author of two books, “Mashed Up” (2010), and “The Piracy Crusade” (2013), and has written for publications including the New York Times, Billboard and Wired. Prior to coming to Rutgers, Sinnreich served as Director at media innovation lab OMD Ignition Factory, Managing Partner of media/tech consultancy Radar Research, Visiting Professor at NYU Steinhardt, and Senior Analyst at Jupiter Research. He is also a bassist and composer, and has played with groups and artists including NYC soul band Brave New Girl, LA dub-and-bass collective Dubistry, and Ari-Up, lead singer of the Slits. Sinnreich holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Southern California, and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
What We Talk About When We Talk About Girl Talk– Peter DiCola
Remixing Girl Talk: The Poetics and Aesthetics of Mash Ups– Aram Sinnreich
Our ongoing series on the radio work of Orson Welles, From Mercury to Mars, continues this week on our partner blog Antenna with a post that explores the lack of innovation in American radio and its connection to public radio as an institution.
University of Wisconsin professor and senior radio historian Michele Hilmes explains these connections…
“Yet what happened to this legacy of innovation in American radio drama that Welles’
career so emphatically marks? We can trace the tradition of creative radio drama forward through the suspense serials of the 1940s and 50s, jump to the 1970s with Himan Brown’s CBS Mystery Theater – and then virtually nothing, certainly not on a regular basis, until we get to the present radio revival …”
[Reblogged from Antenna]
To catch up on our M2M series here are some links.
- Here is “Hello Americans,” Tom McEnaney‘s post on Welles and Latin America
- Here is Eleanor Patterson‘s post on editions of WOTW as “Residual Radio”
- Here is “Sound Bites,” Debra Rae Cohen‘s post on Welles’s “Dracula”
- Here is Cynthia B. Meyers on the pleasures and challenges of teaching WOTW in the classroom
- Here is Kathleen Battles on parodies of Welles by Fred Allen
- Here is Shawn VanCour on the second act of War of the Worlds
- Here is the navigator page for our #WOTW75 collective listening project
- Here is Josh Shepperd’s post, “War of the Worlds and the Invasion of Media Studies”
- Here is Aaron Trammell‘s remarkable mix of the thoughts of more than a dozen radio scholars on War of the Worlds
- Here is our podcast of Monteith McCollum‘s amazing WOTW remix
- Here is “Devil’s Symphony,” Jacob Smith‘s study of the “eco-sonic” Welles
Still to come in our series are works by A. Brad Schwartz, Murray Pomerance, Jennifer Hyland Wang, and Bill Kirkpatrick.
When I got to São Paulo in January, 2012, I had only a slight idea of how my fieldwork would unfold. Even though I had planned to investigate the relationship between everyday sounds and ways of using public spaces in São Paulo, Brazil, I was certain that that I wanted to observe São Paulo’s Anti-noise Agency (known as PSIU), responsible for supervising noise emission from bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and other commercial establishments. My original idea was to consider noise from an anthropological perspective – as a point of entry to discussions regarding social problems in the city. To meet this end, I began to focus on ‘controversial’ sounds. ‘Controversial’ sounds are interesting to study because they make audible the question of spatial rights and the intersections of private, public, and civil spheres in the constant (re)construction of a city.
More than 11 million people live in São Paulo; on average 110,ooo in each of the city’s 96 districts, a population higher than that of 95% of Brazilian cities. São Paulo is known for being Brazil’s economic hub. It boasts the highest rate of migrants from other countries and from other Brazilian cities (including many from the northeast of Brazil, which is a notably impoverished region). There is a striking economic disparity: 1.3 million people live in slums spread throughout the city. While the richest district holds 300 thousand jobs, in the poorest there are only 136. While some can afford to pay R$ 500 (roughly 245 US dollars) just to get into a nightclub, others will spend that amount over the course of a year, going to unlicensed bars in peripheral districts. São Paulo has more helicopters per capita than any other city in the world; and one third of its residents spend more than 1 hour commuting to work, usually in overcrowded busses and trains. There are two very different cities here – one which is impoverished, and the other wealthy.
Within the context of a broader discussion of citizenship, controversial sounds need to be studied across social sectors. These sectors work in tandem to form the democratic society of São Paulo. For this reason, I have focused my research on four interrelated social branches.
As I said, first I went to PSIU, the executive branch of São Paulo. At PSIU I learned how certain sounds are regulated and how those responsible for making loud sounds are punished. I accompanied the agency’s engineer to a routine weekly inspection, and learned that people do not know much about legislation (sound limits allowed, zoning law, etc.), and that they know even less about what they need to do to achieve the sound pressure limits established by law.
I also observed the legislative branch. There, I was happy to discover that the technical standards most related to urban noise and acoustic quality were going through a major revision in 2012. These standards are important because most city ordinances are modeled after their criteria of measuring and evaluating sound.
The third branch is economic. In 2010, a coalition of professionals (mostly from São Paulo) specializing in ‘acoustic quality’ created ProAcustica, a non-profit organization whose mission is “to disseminate the benefits of acoustic solutions in civil construction as a primary factor for comfort and health of users at home, work, or any other urban space, and also as a element for sustainability of enterprise and of the environment.” ProAcustica’s constituents are mainly architects, acousticians, civil constructors, engineers, and building material developers.
Over the course of my fieldwork, I have attended many ProAcustica meetings and interviewed many of its members. Only in the last few years has there been an articulation of acoustics and economics that demands more effective urban planning and, most importantly, quantitative criteria that can encourage civil constructors to deliver acoustically comfortable dwellings. ProAcustica members want to relate the risks of noise pollution to the greater public in order to expand their market. ProAcustica is particularly interested in traffic noise as a critical aspect of our urban soundscapes. Still, most people seem to consider traffic noise an inevitable consequence of urban life. They either get used to it or move somewhere else. For example, I live with my cousin next to Congonhas Airport. I can see the airstrip from my window. Even though he spent a few thousand dollars installing noise-isolating windows, I still wake up everyday when the first planes landing at 6AM. Thanks to these planes, the sound in my bedroom reaches 90 dB(A) with the windows open. My cousin says that he has gotten used to it. But if we leave the windows opened it is impossible to listen to the TV.
The last social branch that I examined was civil society. What is the practice of making and listening to sounds in São Paulo? Are there localized ‘controversial’ sounds? In 2012 loud music in public spaces has been at the center of debates in the press and community meetings.
The pancadão (‘big punch’ in Portuguese) are parties that happen mostly in the peripheral neighborhoods of São Paulo, where very little leisure space is able to accommodate large numbers of people. For this reason, these parties happen on the streets and plazas, attracting thousands of youngsters that go to flirt, drink, and dance to the sound of Brazilian funk. The music comes from car speakers. Sometimes three or more cars will park a few feet from each other, blasting Brazilian funk throughout the night. Most of the lyrics contain metaphors referring to sex, but recently there has also been a wave of more extreme “ostentatious funk” (funk ostentação) coming from São Paulo. Here are two examples of popular funk ostentação songs that can be heard emanating from the pancadão, the first is MC Guime’s “Tá Patrão,” and the second, MC Rodolfinho’s “Como é Bom Ser Vida Loca.”
There has also been a link between the pancadão and drug traffic. Tellingly, there is branch of ‘forbidden’ funk that exalts drug dealers and robbery while also affronting the police. These parties persevere because everything is mobile: the music, the drinks, the drugs, and even the place for having sex – everything is supplied by the cars and can move around whenever there is a risk of conflict with the police.
Presently, I am conducting research in two peripheral regions. One is the place where most funk MCs originate, and the other is where new strategies of shutting down these parties have been implemented by the police. The Operação Pancadão is an operation that gathers military and civil police, PSIU agents, and other administration officers. This task force measures sound emissions, apprehends and punishes the responsible, then impounds the cars. Once you cut the sound, partygoers disperse – often seeking another pancadão close by. One police chief reports having mapped more than 200 places of pancadão in São Paulo.
Because of this fieldwork, I believe that the field of ‘applied sound studies’ needs to be developed further, both inside and outside of the academy. It is crucial for urban planners to develop qualitative methods to understand how residents evaluate the everyday soundscape. In Europe , for example, there is a group of scholars working on new methods for assessing and improving soundscapes based on how residents perceive the environments in which they live. I also see the potential for scholars interested in sound-related nuisance to work with conflict mediation. During the weekend 60% of all calls received by the police dispatcher (equivalent to 911 in the U.S.) are from people complaining about some nuisance, usually loud sounds. Understanding urban sounds as a phenomenon which impacts several different social sectors can empower interested parties to put forward alternatives. Ideally, these alternatives will allow marginalized youth to enjoy their music without being bullied by drug dealers or assaulted by policemen. At the micro level, conflict mediation scholars could provoke a sense of dialogue between neighbors and help them to find solutions for conflicting sonic behaviors.
Please listen to the accompanying podcast, “Listening to São Paulo, Brazil,” for the opportunity to listen to the soundscape of São Paulo, as I walk you through these spaces of sonic conflict.
Leonardo Cardoso was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where he studied music composition at UFRGS (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul). In 2005 he entered the Ethnomusicology Group at UFRGS as a research assistant. From 2005 to 2008 he participated in projects with indigenous communities in Rio Grande do Sul. In 2008 he started his Master’s in ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin under Prof. Veit Erlmann’s advising. His interest in film music led him to write his thesis on the experimental field of visual music in Los Angeles. He is working in São Paulo, where he is currently conducting fieldwork on urban noise, for his PhD. Leonardo is also a photographer, composer, and sound collector. Contact: email@example.com