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This week’s podcast is a companion piece to our prior podcast Animal Transcriptions, Listening to the Lab of Ornithology. In this series of excerpts from Skinner’s three hour seminar at the Rutgers University Center for Cultural Analysis, Skinner discusses the importance of sound studies scholarship to his work. Ecopoetics, soundscapes, animal communication, and the post-human are all discussed in this lively roundtable! Listen in as Skinner explains the practice of sound poetry, and the importance of Sound Studies to his methodology.
Special thanks to The Center of Cultural Analysis and its wonderful fellows and attendees for lending such insightful discussion to this work. As explained on their site: “The Center for Cultural Analysis [is] Rutgers University’s hub for interdisciplinary research in the humanities and humanistically-oriented social sciences. Each year we run a biweekly seminar that draws faculty, advanced graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and various affiliated scholars into a sustained conversation on a topic of importance. In 2012-13 our seminar topic is “Formalisms.” What do we talk about when we talk about form, particularly across disciplines? Is form simply a residue or remainder after everything else, from motive to content, is taken away or accounted for? Or is it rather the ultimate and most important outcome?”
Jonathan Skinner founded and edits the journal ecopoetics, which features creative-critical intersections between writing and ecology. Skinner also writes ecocriticism on contemporary poetry and poetics: he has published essays on Charles Olson, Ronald Johnson, Lorine Niedecker, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Bernadette Mayer, Cecilia Vicuña, translations of French poetry and garden theory, essays on bird song from the perspective of ethnopoetics, and essays on horizontal concepts such as the Third Landscape and on Documentary Poetry. Currently, he is writing a book of investigative poems on the urban landscapes of Frederick Law Olmsted, and a book on Animal Transcriptions in contemporary poetry. He teaches poetry and poetics in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick.
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Peter DiCola at River Read Books– Peter DiCola
Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds– Jonathan Skinner
Animal Transcriptions, Listening to the Lab of Ornithology– Jonathan Skinner
This is the second post in Sounding Out!’s July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2013. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. To read last week’s post by Regina Bradley (and to read more about World Listening Day) click here.
When I travel to somewhere I’m unfamiliar with to create a work, I’ve become in the habit of bringing my VLF receiver, hydrophones, and underwater camera in order to explore. Whether what comes out ultimately becomes part of the work or not, my interest in these particular tools stems from a fascination with obscure events around me, real and happening, that I cannot perceive. But it also marks my wonder at events and elements in our world that have been, while changing, continuous in a time line extending much further than my own. Similar to the sense one may get when experiencing a desert, or an ocean, with time and patience, what might at first seem bleak, barren, or monotonous, begins to give hint to a rich world hidden from our day to day.
Two autumns ago, finding myself with a day off from a project I was working on near Penzance in Cornwall, I decided to take the day to hike the lesser known British arm of the Santiago Pilgrim Route: the St. Michael’s Way. Dating back tens of thousands of years, St. Michael’s Way enabled pilgrims and missionaries traveling from Ireland or Wales to choose to abandon their ships and walk across the peninsula, rather than navigating the treacherous waters around Land’s End. In the days of such pilgrimmages, the way was fraught with all sorts of dangers, and the path itself splits a few times, veering off towards a church near the harbor where they would get the boat to cross them. There they would meet a guide who would offer safe passage from the many thieves and pirates along the way. Still marked with the iconic scallop shell symbol of the pilgrim route, the path was nevertheless neglected, and overrun with all sorts of modern obstacles such as busy roads and farm irrigation systems.
As I got lost time and time again making my way towards Saint Ives, I found myself marveling at all sorts of new and heretofore unknown sensations. My ears tuned from the project I was there working on, I was especially taken by the sound. Toward the middle of the path–located at the top of the hills inland of the peninsula –the wind from both sides carried over pieces of the day to day from the villages; a tractor, grazing animals, bits of conversation in Cornish, and church bells wisping by as quickly as they came, like ghosts. It is fitting that St Michael, after whom the route was named, is the patron saint of high places.
I began to wonder what this path may have sounded like back in the time of thieves and pirates, back when the occasion to use it was a shared occasion celebrated with the voices of people, priests, prayers, and the markets and fairs along the way to fuel all this activity. As I continued walking, I began to wonder how it may have sounded even before then, before the hills were blanketed with crops and cattle, before the many battles that must have been waged, and villages built and grazed. . .were there more birds then? Were there more trees? Were there more boar and foxes? What about even before these hills were hills, could there be a way to sonify these hills forming? I started to dream of a “wayback machine” for sound. What if as you walked this path, you could listen to time spinning back, listen to how it might have sounded, listen to its history? And what could you take from that experience? Could something be taken from this? In the two years since that happenstance, this idea has since stuck with me. Beginning tentative research and practice to apply these thoughts, I continue to unearth more questions than answers, so I began to seek others experimenting in a similar vein. While acoustic ecology is a growing field, I still have not found many researchers working with sound in/as time.
One person who has come close to this idea is acoustic ecologist, musician, and sound recordist Bernie Krause, whom last year I interviewed in an article on the sound of disaster about disappearing sounds as a signal of impending crises. The prelude of Krause’s book The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, is the beautifully written, “Echoes of the Past,” which takes a meandering listen to how the world might have sounded sixteen thousand years ago. With that trip in mind, perhaps something could come from working with people in various fields of statistical analysis to see what sounds are projected to go extinct from a soundscape with time, and what this could mean in terms of how the sound line will be extended into the future. In the section “First Notes,” Krause describes working with a graduate student, Kristin Junette, who reasoned that based on fossil records and the known sounds of insect species today, we might be able to re-create the insect ambience of about sixty-five million years ago. Then, based on acoustic physiology of the skull of a Hadrosaur, a dinosaur of the time, Krause and Junette were able to re-create a representative vocalization of its call to place in this early soundscape (for the Discovery Channel’s vision of how the hadrosaur might have sounded click here).
I was also excited to learn of the research of Miriam Kolar, who has been working with various techniques and with people in various disciplines on a team studying and “recreating” the acoustic architecture of the Chavín de Huántar, a 3,000 year old ceremonial center, predating the Inca in the Peruvian Andes. Chavín de Huántar is a complex underground maze of rooms and twisting corridors connected by air-ducts. When they were being excavated, archeologists noticed the rooms played strange acoustic tricks on them. “This environment is not only a physical maze, but it’s a sound maze,” says Kolar. For one example, some rooms have interconnected spaces that multiply echoes and bounce them back to the ear so rapidly that the sounds appear to emanate from all directions at once, while other areas seem designed for absorption. The team has been using 3-D computer modeling and specialized recording equipment to try and recreate the auditory effect. “If you have archaeology and no acoustics, you’re deaf,” says archaeoacoustician David Lubman. “And if you have acoustics and not the other, you’re blind. You need both” to understand ancient places like Chavín.
Inspired in part by the research of Krause and Kolar, “Passageira em Casa/The Traveller at Home,” one of my projects from the two years since my walk in Cornwall, begins to explore the notion of the wayback machine with sound in geography. Passageira em Casa is an intermedia and interdisciplinary performance inspired by the journey to define the concept of home. The narrative is a partially fictionalized and personalized account of the Maritime history of Portugal, enacted by a dancer, vocal performer, live video, and live electronic sound composition that creates a geography through the narrative and space of the project. From a dawn chorus in Lisbon to underwater earthquakes in the Pacific, field recordings along a maritime navigation route flow throughout the performance, giving a soundscape to the narrative’s location.
The recent Australian version “Passageira australis” begings to explore sound in time. Recently developed at the iAir residency at RMIT, holds a focus on the debate behind whether the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Australia, based on the 16th century Dieppe maps of Jave la Grande and the myth/history of the Mahogany Ship. The soundtrack reveals a soundline based on the impact on flora, fauna, and overall soundscape on both countries.
A two channel composition, different then stereo, one speaker represents Europe, the other Australia. As the dancer, our sailor, moves from one end of the space to the other, the sound in each channel is changed based on her approximate location to each “country”. With this experience, my hope is the audience comes away thinking about interconnectivity of the world, and how we impact the places we touch. Although I will continue to research when I return to Australia, already the project had me working with a map historian at the Victoria State Library, as well as consulting the thesis of geologist Andrew Pickering on using GIS technology to search for the location and story behind the presumed mythological Mahogany Ship.
Based on hearing, listening (from an anthropological point of view) is the very sense of space and of time. . .By her noises, Nature shudders with meaning: at least this is how, according to Hegel, the ancient Greeks listened to her. The oaks of Dodona, by the murmur of their boughs, uttered prophecies, and in other civilizations as well. . .noises have been the immediate raw materials of a divination, cledonomancy: to listen is, in an institutional manner, to try to find out what is happening. –Roland Bathes, “Listening”
Sound has a special importance to emotion, instinct, and memory, both individual and historical.. Hitting the oldest part of our brain, sound provides immediate information telling us where we are, whether it is safe, and how we should feel about it. The wayback machine would function as a sonic database that would not only help us to remember and learn about the past, but also to create new experiences within the complexity of changing soundscapes over a period that usually defies our human comprehension. I see this tool being helpful to researchers in many disciplines as a new kind of living archive, but also having a place in libraries, museums, centers, and perhaps “in the field” along paths such as the Santiago’s Way, where one could download an audio file from the map online, then listen with wonder and unique sensation as they walk back through history.
Featured Image photo credit: Vahid Sadjadi, Joshua Tree State Park, California
Author’s Note: A version of this post was presented at Musique et Écologies du Son/ Music and Ecologies of Sound: Theoretical and Practical Projects for the Listening of the World, Universitê Paris 8, May 2013. I slightly changed the original title of the paper to: “Sound through time, space, AND place.” Frank Vanclay said quite nicely in “Place Matters.” “‘Place” is generally conceived as being ‘space’ imbued with meaning. Thus, it refers more to the meanings that are invested in a location than to the physicality of the locality.” He goes on to state sometimes it’s the biophysical characteristics that make the foundation for those personal meanings.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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“Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds”--Jonathan Skinner
Aaaaaaaaaaaaand NOW. . .in SO!‘s corner. . .writing for this month’s “Sound and Sport,” we have the scholar. . .the poet . . .the “Wordsmith of the Web” Taaaaaaaaaara Betts! In today’s post, she shares how listening influences her creative process AND knocks us out with an analysis of the importance of Muhammad Ali’s voice to his sports career and historical legacy. For an instant replay of last month’s post, click Melissa Helquist‘s “Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship.” Next month’s rematch will feature Josh Ottum‘s research on sound and skateparks. But now, let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuummmbbble! –J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
Plap of glove against glove
Shush of scuffle and slide.
Rebuildin’, repeatin’, rebuildin’
All this repeatin’, getting’ up again & again
Discipline, routine and I keep
doing new things to prepare
my mind, my body, so my pretty
mouth keeps up with all my rhymes.
–Tara Betts, from “Repeatin’” (scene 8, The GREATEST!)
The recent Peggy Choy Dance Company production of “The GREATEST!: A Hip Dance Homage to Muhammad Ali” in April 2013 gave me cause to rethink the key events in Muhammad Ali’s life, particularly his burgeoning political awareness in the 1960s. As I wrote the libretto for the performance—which combined athletic dance performance with images, poems, and quotes from Ali—I kept thinking about how Ali had one of the most recognized, quoted, and distinct voices ever heard in the boxing world.
In the libretto, I tried to capture the nuances of black vernacular and the southern hallmark of Ali’s hometown, Louisville, Kentucky (he was sometimes referred to as the “Louisville Lip”), vocal sounds that signify an African American experience. Is there a southern drawl? A bass-filled bravado? There are certain words that sound fuller and cut short based on the vernacular that was spoken during the time period of Cassius Clay and well into his evolution as Muhammad Ali. While many of the materials that I visited for inspiration and historical context were books, to capture the look, feel, and speech of the 1960s and 1970s, I had to crate-dig for some vinyl.
A copy of a 1963 spoken word album I Am The Greatest!: Cassius Clay and the 1997 documentary film When We Were Kings served as two such sources. Both recordings represent an audible Ali, at once a man whose iconic voice sounded as familiar to me as people who I’ve known personally and a historical figure whose vocal grain content embodied his shifts in political consciousness. The difference between Clay’s 1964 recording and the samples woven into the When We Were Kings soundtrack is more than the changes that gradually developed over time. These recordings reveal how Ali’s confidence is constructed around creating an affirming, critical identity, rather than merely promoting his athletic prowess. At first, he merely sounds cocky; later he sounds as if he is fighting for a group of people that he wants to inform, serve, celebrate, protect, and uphold. My libretto was deeply impacted both by the sonic continuities in Ali’s voice across time and space, as well as its audible shifts.
The champ ain’t nobody but me!
Pretty, fast & loud, I’ll shake the world,
with a lion’s might.
My children will lift
their fists and fight
–Tara Betts, from “‘By Any Means necessary: If they met in Harlem’’” (transition from scene 14, The GREATEST!)
Before Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, he recorded a spoken word album on the Sony label in 1963. I Am The Greatest! was released in 1964 before Clay’s two key fights with Sonny Liston and Ali’s eventual victory for the heavyweight crown. The album included original liner notes from modernist poet Marianne Moore and New York Post sports journalist Milton Gross, but it was telling that comedy writer Gary Belkin and Cassius Clay were the co-authors of the spoken word material—which is more comedy than poetry or interviews. Belkin was a comedy writer for well-known comedians such as Carol Burnett and Sid Caesar, and the comedy show Car 54, Where Are You? So, Belkin was clearly accustomed to writing sketch comedy, but Clay was used to being humorous outside of a recording studio with a staged audience.
Overall, Clay’s delivery seems to be slower–both less fluid and more staged– than his impromptu recitations at boxing-related events outside the recording studio. Clay seems to anticipate that sound effects such as roaring crowds and clanging bells will be inserted into the tracks, so he over-enunciates and pauses. Each track begins with a bell ringing as if boxing round is about to begin, and there are eight “rounds,” probably because Clay insisted that any fight with Liston would be shorter than eight rounds. As I listened, I wondered if Ali was comfortable recording this album or if he considered it simply another way to promote and market one of the world’s best known boxers? To my ear, it lacked some of the speed and ease I associate with Clay’s speech in other settings. In the boxing world, his speeches mentally challenged his opponents and entertained crowds. The recording studio left less room for spontaneity, fluidity, and even the visual interplay of sound with his quick motion.
The eight rounds/comedic sketches lean heavily on Ali’s signature boisterous braggadocio in his loud, deliberate voice, using canned laughter and other voices setting up Clay to talk about his excellence. Otherwise, they are a grab bag of influences and sound effects. These other voices and sounds create an artificial environment that is not the same as being surrounded by boxers, trainers, and others in the athletic arena. In fact, these sounds and the sources sound quite different from Clay himself. “Round 1: I Am The Greatest” and “Round 2: I Am The Double Greatest” are accompanied by violins that sound more like a serenade than a classical composition. In “Round 4: ‘I Have Written A Drama,’ He Said Playfully,” a lute plays in the beginning that hints at a spoof of a Shakespearean-style drama about defeating dragons complete with affected British accents, including one actor speaking with the theatrical lisp. The knight “Cassius of Clay” enters with the audible clanking of armor.
Clay reveals a shift in tone when he sings on the last two tracks. He begins with “Stand By Me”–a cover of Ben E. King’s classic song/then recent hit–with fervor. In the last song, “The Gang’s All Here,” Clay follows some of the words of Tin Pan Alley lyricist Theodora Morse set to Sullivan’s tune from Pirates of Penzance.
Clay tries to pick up the energy lost by his less-than-enthusiastic singing. “Is Memphis with me? Is Louisville with me? Is Houston with me. Ain’t I purty?” Each question is answered with a crowd enthusiastically shouting a “Yeah!” Here Ali relies on his enthusiastic, improvised rhymes, departing from the song’s traditional lyrics to include himself in a song that does not come from an African American writer or the Black experience.
The same country that refuses to let people eat
or use the bathroom in the same places
wants ME to go and get killed?
What does THAT sound like?
—-Tara Betts, from “The Same Country” (scene 15, The GREATEST!)
Almost 35 years later, there are clear sonic differences between Cassius Clay’s debut on Sony and the soundtrack to When We Were Kings, the 1997 documentary of the 1974 heavyweight championship between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. This retrospective record is decidedly more centered on black experiences and black voices that speak musically, politically, and spiritually, particularly about the Black presence in Islam. There are no comedic monologues, sketches or Greek choruses; it sonically represents Ali after his conversion to orthodox Islam, after his friendship with and separation from Malcolm X, and after his opposition to Vietnam. Every spoken part on this album affirms the multiplicities of a Black presence in blues, R&B, and songs recorded live on the African continent; the huffs and rhymes are cheered for by a live African audience. As I listened to When We Were Kings, I could hear Ali’s comfort and his freedom of movement, audibly in contrast with his other album.
When We Were Kings records his time in Kinshasa, Zaire where he trains and eventually fights George Foreman. It does not simply focus on Ali’s voice, but is sonically rich with music, interviews with people who witnessed that fight and those who knew Ali personally; the soundtrack reflects these interconnections in its continuous uninterrupted flow. The role of these sounds endeavors to document what was heard in Zaire in 1974, but it also includes Ali in the surrounding sonic environment as one person who becomes a focal point for the musicians and speakers who also articulate black identity on the record.
The first thing I heard was Ali’s voice:
I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America, black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future. I want win my title and walk down the alleys and sit on the garbage cans with the wineheads…
This opening sample of Ali sets the soundtrack’s tone, and kicks off the only hip hop song on the album, a sonic shift that signals a new generation/genre in black music in 1997, more than 30 years after Ali’s spoken word album as Cassius Clay. Ali’s quote also informs listeners that the emphasis of this album has little do with comedy, especially since the soundtrack draws from nonfiction, rather than setting Clay/Ali in fictionalized sketches. The focus is on black people and their struggles.
In the first song, emcees look back and tell the story of “The Rumble in the Jungle” but the verses also hail Ali as a hero. When The Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, and Busta Rhymes rap over a fairly standard bassline, their presence on this soundtrack is an important signal of Ali’s influence and the recurring engagement between artists and Ali during his athletic heyday such as James Brown. In Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop (2005), Afrika Bambaataa points out repeatedly how Brown became a consistent presence in hip hop when New York radio stations simply refused to play his music, particularly in the 1970s. After decades of infusing a variety of soul singers and Brown’s stylistic turns on “the one” and messages of black pride into the genre of hip hop, the presence of “The Rumble in the Jungle” on this soundtrack completely makes sense. As more than a wellspring for samples throughout the large, growing body of hip hop music, Brown was also embodying and representing black consciousness in music with a Black voice, much in the same way that Ali utilized Black speech. In some ways, Ali’s couplets predate rap lyrics and perform in a similar manner; Bambaattaa cites him as an influence, along with Malcolm X.
James Brown and many others flow seamlessly into the event and its soundtrack in a way that reflects the immediacy and proximity of these events. The “Black Woodstock” of the Zaire 1974 music festival that accompanied Ali and Foreman’s fight set the tone and soundtrack in real life, not just in the documentary. In fact, the festival itself was documented in the 2008 release Soul Power directed by Jeff Levy-Hinte. At this point, it’s clear that there is a continuum for hearing the connections between black voices across oceans and continents.
Following “Rumble in the Jungle,” the record samples Ali and Drew “Bundini” Brown (Ali’s assistant trainer and cornerman), snippets taken directly from the documentary footage. Brown is a slower, more deliberate speaker; he uses rhyme like Ali. He talks about the fruit returning to the root and Ali claiming his crown back home. For African Americans to return to Africa post-slavery, this trip and clip sonically reinforce the cultural significance of Ali’s trip. Such pilgrimages fortify the idea that black people have a homeland, a continent, and a cultural continuum, much in the same way that this soundtrack constructs.
“Ali, Bombaye!” in a sea of faces just like mine,
my brothers, my parents, my cousins.
I want to go home and tell the people
in the streets this is what we come from,
what we could be.
—-Tara Betts, from “The Hard Road to Zaire’” (scene 21, The GREATEST!)
When African girls chant to celebrate Ali’s arrival, they reassert how this is a homecoming for Ali, a welcome and a reconnection that fuels Ali’s determination. The chants seem to encourage the first sample of Ali when he issues his threat: “When I get to Africa we gon’ get it on cause we don’t get along. I’m gonna eat him up…” This sample segues into James Brown’s “The Payback” as it was performed before the fight, then another chant performed by Mobütu, named after Zaire’s controversial leader, Mobutu Sese Seko.
When Ali concludes the soundtrack, he interrupts chants of “Ali, Bombaye!” with huffs and a brief exhortation of knocking you out, “sucker.” These last words fade into a snippet of African chant. This constructs a very different narrative that looks back at Ali’s career, long after the younger Clay established part of his image with hyperbolic bravado. Ali has cultivated a Pan African, global, political awareness that includes black people in America from his hometown in Louisville, KY to across the globe.
Hearing Clay and Ali–their continuities and their differences–gave me an insight into the familiar voices of some of my older relatives (and their blues records), and it also helped me channel that voice in poems of my own. It allowed me to imagine how hyperbole helped encourage Ali to energize and cheer himself on, so much that others began rooting for him as well. It did not matter what arena he was in, Ali would use his voice, his fists, and his will to conquer it. As I wrote the libretto, I thought about how I might unearth that determination in a way that respectfully embodied his tone, cadence, vocabulary, and ebullience. One of the definitions of greatness relates to the defeat of time and distance, and in the words that I wrote about Ali, I found that listening to him, and hearing his significance grew over time, helped him transcend both.
Every mile, every turn of the rope brings
me closer to telling him he’s nothing.
I hate every minute of training,
but I say
and live your life
as a champion.
I am a myth, and a man,
of my own making.
–Tara Betts, from “The Hard Road to Zaire” (scene 21, The GREATEST!)
Tara Betts is the author of the poetry collection Arc and Hue, a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University, and a Cave Canem fellow. Tara’s poetry also appeared in Essence, Bum Rush the Page, Saul Williams’ CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape, VILLANELLES, both Spoken Word Revolution anthologies, and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Her research interests include African American literature, poetry, creative writing pedagogy, and most recently sound studies. In the 1990s, she co-founded and co-hosted WLUW 88.7FM’s “The Hip Hop Project” at Loyola University while writing for underground hip hop magazines, Black Radio Exclusive, The Source, and XXL. She is co-editor of Bop, Strut, and Dance, an anthology of Bop poems with Afaa M. Weaver. In April 2013, she published the libretto “THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali” (Winged City Press) written for the live performance directed by Peggy Choy.
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