Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment in our month-long exploration of listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18, 2012. For the full introduction to the series click here. To peep the previous post, click here. Otherwise, whip out your most oversized sunglasses, kick back, and listen to Bridget Hoida’s California. –JSA
Do not read along with me “in your book.”
Resist the temptation to follow along with your eyes.
Click play. Listen.
If I had things my way, I would whisper these stories to you as we sat in mesh folding chairs on the poured concrete porch of my Central Valley childhood home. If I had things my way, I would refill your glass with lemons and gin, and we would breathe in the sweet, summer smell of rotting blackberry brambles. If I had things my way, we would wait until the sun set against a Tokay harvest, taking with it the harsh triple digit temperature and leaving us nothing but the quiet of a delta breeze and moonlight. If I had it my way, I would ask you to lean in close as I whisper with canonical voices:
“This is a story about love and death in the golden land, …”
“I remember that moment exactly, those exact words registering in my mind like the notes of a solo…”
“Bobby Gene was a tattletale he told everything he heard…”
“You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you…”
“My history is murky, and I wanted it [ …] that way so I could be free to tell whatever I wanted. “
“I’ll tell you what I suppose from your silences and few words and you can tell me if I’m mistaken. You’ll have to speak up with the real stories if I’ve got you wrong…”
“And so they talked and told tales of their region, and I listened. Long into the night I listened until I dropped off to sleep and my father would pick me up onto his lap as he continued to talk about the Revolution…. And every camp was different, none existing for more than six or seven weeks, then off we would go to the next harvest, where new people would gather and there would be new tales to be told and heard. I knew when I was six years old that the one thing I most wanted from life was to be a storyteller.
The storied sound of California
Linger with me on the drawn-out drawl of the stories I was raised on. Of the stories I was raised upon. For this is the sound of the California story: A myriad of voices sounding out narratives onto the page. Conflicting, concurring, spoken-over and rewrote…no one lasts longer than the next harvest, the next filmic “Action!” This is the sound of the storied terrain of interwoven melodies spoken upon the California soil that I call home.
In or around 1995, I fell madly in love with Joan Didion. It’s not so much Didion the woman but rather the sound of Didion’s words that have me so hung up. My obsession began in the stacks of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. I was assistant to the assistant librarian there and during my lunch hour I would take the dumb waiter up to the roof, eat a Kaiser roll with apricot jam, and read dime store copies of classic novels. I chose the roof because I like to read aloud, and in libraries at the time, reading aloud, especially to yourself, was expressly forbidden.
So there I was on the roof of Bancroft, with my roll, my jam, and my dime store copy of Play It As It Lays. I opened the page and read something about snakes and Iago. A mother died, the town of Silver Wells was won, and then lost, in much the same way a marriage slips into divorce. And then it happened. I stumbled across a line that changed the way I thought about words. Page 7, the first full sentence of the top paragraph, on the right: I might as well lay it on the line, I have trouble with as it was.
And after that line a whole lot of white space.
Beautiful, brilliant, blank white space.
As though in the silence of the rooftop, of the view, Didion was screaming to the reader, to me, something louder than words. In that white space there was sound and it was deafening.
Later, when I decided to get a Ph.D. in creative writing, and although I couldn’t say as much on paper, examine, among other things, the commonality of language in California writers and the sonic devices of oral storytelling, I came across a quote from Didion, in interview, that said:
I had the technical intention to write a novel so elliptical and fast […] it would scarcely exist on the page at all…white space. Empty space. […] A white book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams…
And although I adore everything about her I almost wished she hadn’t said it. Or that I hadn’t read it, because the thing about Didion is that statement… the part about the blank space… and the nightmare… it was already there. On the roof of the Bancroft library with my Kaiser roll and apricot jam, when the air tasted like September, I brought my own bad dreams because in that brilliant bit of white space I heard the scream.
I like the white page. I prefer stories to plots. Plot for me is how the narrative moves from one space in time (from one line on the page) to the next. Story is how the narrative sounds. Story is voice. Plots are where girls meet boys and girls lose boys and girls get boys back. Stories are the shuffle and stop of scuffed shoes walking railroad levees, old men clearing phlegm, the surprise of an elastic bikini band as it snaps against the freshly burnt back of a burgeoning starlet. And the sounds of words as they smack unbridled against the page.
When I read Didion we are on my porch and I hear her voice. When we think of writing, when we imagine reading, we think of quiet moments that exist alone with fixed type on a printed page. But as a reader, and more importantly as a writer, I have never felt this way.
Voice, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, is the “slant” you bring to your version of “the truth.” Plots are recyclable. Hell, you can buy one on eBay, to be sure. But a writer’s voice is different. I don’t read a book to figure out what happens next. I read to hear the whisper of the author’s voice. If they whisper well, I turn the page.
From John Steinbeck to Gertrude Stein, John Fante to Susan Straight, Larry Levis and Mary Hunter Austin to William Saroyan and Shawna Yang Ryan, there is commonality of sound and language that I’m willing to claim composes an aural palimpsest of sorts. A voicing over, both literally and figuratively of native daughters and native sons held up on the tongue of the golden state.
The cadence, the rhythm, the obsession with things past. The aching nostalgic longing. The reflection. The fear. The reclamation. The imagination. The witness of an agrarian undoing. Sleepy Hollow moments reborn—again and again on western soil. The feeling of home. The feeling of home slipping away. The feeling of self, self-made in the image of home, slipping away alongside it. There’s a certain Californianess to it.
What if we found a way to consider the sound these “fixed texts” emote? What if we broke with conventional narrative structure and embraced a written technique that more adeptly mirrored the sound and cadence of spoken story telling? Then might it be possible that the very aurality that is “written over” on the read palimpsest is in fact the sound that also remains?
As a writer, a writer who believes in voice, who rejoices in sounds as the strike-like syllables against a now forgotten Olivetti key, my pursuit in writing not only a novel, but in writing a novel about California was how I could possibly enter into this conversation. How I might be able to raise my voice loud enough to embrace the crowd of such a respectable page. How I could construct my text in such a way that it would not only read, but also sound Californian.
In my struggle to voice not only my novel, So L.A., but also my protagonist Magdalena de la Cruz, I relied heavily on the patterns, soundscapes and literary devices of the collective California canon comprised of authors such as the ones I spoke of above. In So L.A. I was looking for a way to tell the story out loud while still operating within the conventional structure of a “type and text” book.
My novel opens with Magdalena falling off a boat and then moves both forward and backward in time. This is how most people tell stories orally. They begin in the middle and then jump around, forgetting, amending, and calling attention to the most important parts, while the listener rarely ever exclusively listens but instead interjects and provides his or her own connections, observations and experiences. Eliminating quotations allowed me to access some of this interplay. It allowed me to question the reliability of spoken language. Spoken utterance does NOT always translate to precise hearing of the said words uttered. There is always interference—be it emotional (memory-sound triggers), psychological (felt meaning as opposed to said meaning), physical (honking cars, loud birds, eye rolls and sneezing) or linguistic (signifiers and unspoken gestures). Just because words are utter does not mean they are the same words that are heard. And not only did I want this, but I needed it on my page. Although I considered the docunovel (in the vein of Raymond Barrio), autho-interview collage (like Anna Deavere Smith) and autofictive exploration (ala Salvador Plascencia) I ultimately decided to abandon quotation marks.
This (“) says open. It says start.
This (”) says closed. It says stop.
But (“) and (”) also sound.
For me they sound like a particularly rough clearing of the throat. They sound like standing on a library rooftop, trying to confess your love with the passion of a librarian “with hiccups.”
“They” interrupt the eye. “They” provide visual cues for accessing character and I didn’t want Magdalena “to be seen.” I wanted her to sound.
Her voice required a fluidity and unreliability not attainable “in quotes.” Without conventional quotes I was free to wander inside the head and voice of my protagonist as I pushed the blur between what she was saying, what the listener perceived she was saying, and what other characters were voicing without visual interruption.
Also important in my authorial access to sound (and the absence of sound) on the fixed and written page was the use of filmic microchapters (some only as long as a single sentence). A sentence that reads as a chapter, surrounded by all that stark and lovely white space, not only looks different from a classical bookish chapter, but it also sounds different. Read out loud, or quietly inside the reader’s head, it sounds out a particular meaning and resonated differently within the mind’s eye and ear.
With so much of the present world turning virtual, author and storyteller Barry Sanders concludes, “We demand less from the historical accuracy of our stories. We even demand less of a truth. We are content with images and feelings. If it feels closer to the truth then it might as well be.” However I’d like to extend Sander’s assessment beyond image and feeling to include sound. In this newly constructed world of virtual storytelling we are again experiencing a shift (not unlike the shift from oral to written storytelling) that is also sound dependent and sonically informed. From the staccato sounds of Twitter as compared to the unconstricted and leisurely expanse of Tumblr, it is important to acknowledge that the twenty-second sound bite can be (and historically has been) used (and utilized) in fiction to make noise and call attention to lasting moments of profound revelation. Although Didion’s Maria may “have trouble with how it was” I find a certain sense of comfort in how it is provided we are all able to lean in close and listen. Listen past the interference of type, text and YouTube to the sound of words both on and upon the page as,
“These are tales told in darkness in the quiet at the end of the day’s heat…”
Opening Image Credit: “L.A. Sky at Sunset” by Flickr User David Vienna
Audio note: Voices used, with the exception of Bridget Hoida, are not the actual voices of the authors listed, nor are they meant to be representative of said authors.
Bridget Hoida is the author of So L.A. (2012). In a past life she was a librarian, a DJ, a high school teacher, and a barista. In this life she experiments with words and has taught writing at UC Irvine, the University of Southern California and is currently a professor at Saddleback College. Hoida is the recipient of an Anna Bing Arnold Fellowship and the Edward Moses prize for fiction. She was a finalist in the Joseph Henry Jackson/San Francisco Intersection for the Arts Award for a first novel and the William Faulkner Pirate’s Alley first novel contest. Her short stories have appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review, Mary, and Faultline Journal, among others, and she was a finalist in the Iowa Review Fiction Prize and the Glimmer Train New Writer’s Short Story Contest. Her poetry has been recognized as an Academy of American Poets Prize finalist and she was a Future Professoriate Scholar at USC.
She has a BA from UC Berkeley, a MA in fiction from San Francisco State University, and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. So L.A. is her first novel.
On a recent episode of Law and Order: SVU Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson takes her new paramour, David Haden (played by Harry Connick Jr.) to see Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. When Benson asks him what he thought of the film, he replies with notable disdain: “I think maybe there’s a reason they don’t make silent films anymore.” When Benson responds nervously to his subsequent display of affection, presumably fearing that someone from work might see them, Haden pronounces, “Don’t worry. Nobody we work with could sit through two hours of black-and-white, no talking.”
Haden’s response might seem surprising given the box-office and critical success of the film, with The Artist grossing more than $120 million worldwide and receiving five of the Academy’s most coveted Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Direction, and Best Actor in a Leading Role. In fact, with both The Artist and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo walking away with a preponderance of Academy Awards, many critics, including the editors of Cineaste, began to wonder if we were finally seeing a long-overdue challenge to “long-entrenched cultural prejudices against silent cinema.” There seems to be a renewed optimism that, with The Artist’s critical and commercial success, the popular stereotypes about silent film—heavy-handed acting, artless cinematography, mundane plots—may finally begin to break down.
As a film studies professor who specializes in the pre-sound era and frequently asks even my freshman students to engage with at least one silent film, I am both buoyed and dubious about this supposed sea change in public attitudes toward silent cinema. While some of my students sound a lot like David Haden after I ask them to watch even the most accessible silent slapstick comedies, many of my upper-level students now count works like F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise among their favorite films. And I’ve discussed the merits of The Artist with many of those same students, who easily recognized the film’s many references to other silent-era works, and appreciated its ability to mimic a very particular brand of silent film. I honestly believe there is some truth to the claim that films like The Artist and Hugo have encouraged spectators to engage with other silent films, including the recently restored color version of Trip to the Moon that is showcased in Scorsese’s film. In fact, in recent weeks there has been considerable buzz about skyrocketing demand for silent films via streaming services and even Cinemark’s XD-equipped theaters will be screening the 1927 film Wings as part of its “Reel Classics” series in late May. Rumor has it that Broadway will soon be hawking a production about Charlie Chaplin’s life and 2012 will see the life of silent film star Rudolph Valentino represented in Silent Life.
Michel Hazanavicius explains in the production notes to The Artist that his desire to make a silent film had been brewing for years: “From the beginning of my career, I fantasized about making a silent film.” But he also viewed the dream as far-fetched, one that would be unlikely to draw support in contemporary film production circles: “I call it a fantasy because whenever I mentioned it, I’d only get an amused reaction—no one took this seriously.” Despite this resistance, Hazanavicius refused to let go of the idea and continued to imagine how he might capitalize on the unique artistic potential of the silent medium: “As a director, a silent film makes you face your responsibilities. . . .Everything is in the image, in the organization of the signals you’re sending to the audience. And it’s an emotional cinema, it’s sensorial; the fact that there is no text brings you back to a basic way of telling a story that only works on the feelings you have created. I thought it would be a magnificent challenge and that if I could manage it, it would be very rewarding.”
Despite the initial skepticism Hazanavicius faced, The Artist’s unexpected international success has revealed consumers’ (perhaps temporary) appetite for silent film. Parody trailers of upcoming Hollywood blockbusters like The Avengers have aped silent film form and The Artistifier allows users to transform any Youtube video into a silent film.
Even hipster clothiers, Shabby Apple, have taped into silent film’s newfound cultural cache by launching a “Silent Era” collection of swimsuits with names like the “Bara swim mini” and the “Karloff swim top.” Despite this recent upsurge in references to and imitations of the silent film medium, advertisers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians have expressed a nostalgic reverence for silent film for decades. Between 2007 and 2010, Janelle Monáe released her Metropolis and ArchAndroid Suites, which refashioned Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film, Metropolis.
Mimicking both the film’s visual style and political message, Monáe also refashioned herself as Metropolis’s iconic android and adopted her trademark tuxedo attire after seeing photos of Marlene Dietrich, the silent and sound film star who helped mainstreamed this androgynous look in the 1920s (and also as a tribute to the working class uniforms of her parents). From AFLAC’s 2006 satirizing of the medium’s stereotyped damsel in distress, to IBM’s 1986 series of ads featuring Charlie Chaplin, marketers have frequently banked on silent films’ ability to attract the public eye.
What do we make of this renewed interest in silence? We must first remember that, as I tell my students, silent films were never designed for silent viewing at all given that most were screened with musical accompaniment that ranged from a single organist to a 40-piece orchestra. Even the composition of The Artist reveals the lie behind silent film “silence,” with composer Ludivic Bource employing 80 musicians from the Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra in developing the score for the film. Despite the fact that live orchestral accompaniments of silent film have become staples of film festivals around the world, most of today’s viewers’ experiences with silent film are limited to watching DVD transfers of varying quality, with canned music that is sometimes recycled from one DVD release to another, regardless of film title or subject matter. Few viewers, including those who have attended screenings of The Artist, have truly experienced the “silent” medium as it was intended, with sound and image working in tandem via a combination of “live” music and projected celluloid. Two years ago, I saw the transformative effect of recreating a more authentic silent film viewing experience when I arranged a screening of Sunrise at the University of Northern Colorado with the Mont Alto Chamber Orchestra providing live musical accompaniment. Many of my students still speak of that experience with tremendous reverence, explaining that they finally understood what it meant to truly experience a “silent film.”
While popular audiences tend to neglect how integral sound was to silent film, Rick Altman has argued in Silent Film Sound that sound has thus far failed to establish its own “autonomous measure of worth,” with scholars arguing that because film’s historical roots are bound up in silence “cinema is thus essentially a visual art” (6). Yet, this bias seems to be belied by the reaction to The Artist, with even the Oscars ceremony choosing to use the film’s only synchronized sound scene when introducing it as a the Best Picture nomination. It seems that even an acclaimed twenty-first century silent film must flaunt its, albeit brief, reliance on synchronized sound. Certainly, the many viewers who demanded refunds from their local cineplexes reflect the prevailing opinion that film must include sound if it hopes to maintain their interest and earn their cinema-going dollars.
So, what is the appeal then of these “silent” films in which, though accompanied by music and sound effects, dialogue is not spoken but read via soundless lips or intertitles? For me, the attraction comes from both understanding the aesthetic and technological roots of an art form that I admire and the fact that they require the development of character and narrative in purely visual terms. I am also attracted to its higher degree of abstraction, its ability to create a kind of poetry while also defying the very essence of language itself. And I see in the absence of sound a refreshing denunciation of contemporary demands for ever-increasing realism. Silent film is the antithesis of today’s fetishizing of 3-D.
While I acknowledge this statement may seem naïve given that Scorsese’s aforementioned film manages to combine that “new” technology with a tremendous reverence for silent film’s seemingly “primitive” techniques, I firmly believe that the aesthetics of “silence” have an important resonance for contemporary viewers raised on Dolby. After hearing my frequent complaints about the current impetus toward 3-D, one of my students has taken to calling me Charlie Chaplin, seeing in my resistance a mirroring of the great comedian and director’s opposition to sound technology. Like Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times who cannot keep up with the machine-age and its insistence on productivity, I often find myself longing for something simpler from film, something more retrained and abstracted, less motivated by the demand for “progress” and, at least on the surface, The Artist’s return to silence seems to fulfill that admittedly nostalgic desire. While it is an imperfect, and perhaps misleading, example of the silent medium, even the modernized form of silent cinema that we see in The Artist demands that viewers consider the relationship between history and memory, between film’s relatively youthful heritage and its contingent representations of the past, between sound and silence.
April Miller is an Assistant Professor and Director of Film Studies at the University of Northern Colorado. Her research focuses primarily on the intersections between literature, film and socio-scientific concerns such as criminality and mental illness. She is currently completing a book manuscript, Offending Women: Modernism, Crime, and Creative Production, which investigates the female criminal and her often-overlapping sites of representation in literature, journalism, and silent film.
I knew Whitney Houston’s voice before I knew her face. She was a constant record on deck in my house, setting off a family get together or a typical Saturday night at home where I begged to stay up a little bit longer to listen to records—for-real records, vinyl—like the grown folks. Houston’s voice represented ‘grown folks talking’ but had enough effervescence that I could relate to as girlish charm. Houston’s vocal range relayed feelings and representations of sugary sweet to straight, no chaser. She could sing about loving a married man—definitely grown folks’ business—but still maintain the innocence of a school girl crush. My mom and I would dance around our great room lip synching her songs, her asking me who I loved, me declaring my name was not Susan. It was Gina and Whitney Houston’s voice was magic. Alongside Michael Jackson, she was the playlist of my childhood.
Sadly, it was my mom and me again as we listened to Houston’s funeral on the radio. We were stuck in traffic. It had to be fate, me listening to Houston one last time in the same way we were introduced: through the radio. Listening to the funeral instead of watching it on television or as it streamed across the internet triggered a nostalgic ache for Houston in the pit of my stomach, returning me to the same place as a five-year-old child who fell in love with the pretty voice from those Saturday nights.
For me, listening to Houston’s records and funeral on the radio resituated Houston as a vocalist. Detached from Houston’s well-documented shortcomings, listening to her funeral removed the static of her life that filtered her mastery of song and sound. In the last years of her life, Houston’s image was far removed from her stellar singing career. Houston’s personal conflicts and battles situated her as a fallen celebrity, quickly associating her with ill fitting jokes of drug abuse and caricatures of her former glory. Removing Houston from her sonic legacy strips her of the complexities of her persona that she highlighted and acknowledged using her voice, or as Dr. Guthrie Ramsey points out, her “instrument.” It is important to note Houston attempted to make her way back to music, slowly creeping back into public spotlight as a vocalist instead of a wayside star. Celebrity overpowered Houston’s humanity and it is unfortunate that her funeral reclaimed it. Thus, sound provides a space for rehabilitating Houston’s bruised reputation, providing an alternative, nonparodic reading of her life.
While listening to Houston’s funeral, I realized the significance of her sonic legacy, a reaffirmation of Houston’s mastery of song and voice through unending playlists and funeral performances. The radio provided a sonic space of reconciliation between Houston and her fans, uninterrupted by the visual whirl and the busyness of pomp and circumstance of a televised celebrity funeral. By listening to Houston’s funeral, the radio became a discursive space of performance, simultaneously retaining and (re)shaping Houston’s iconicity using sound as favorable space of reflection. Strictly listening to the funeral situated the listener in a position to recontextualize Houston’s legacy within sonic discourse and think about her against a musical backdrop which she constructed.
In considering Houston as not only a music but cultural icon, one must understand the significance of her prominence as a singer. Her career maps the trajectory of a post-Civil Rights black (women’s) experience, framing struggles of seeking out and validating new black identity markers within situating herself as a ‘black voice.’ Her catalog blends the secular with the sacred, effortlessly moving between gospel and pop music, frequently collapsing and creating a complex humanity within sonic soundscapes often restricted by industry and consumers alike. It is around these hybrid sonic-scapes that Houston’s funeral revolved.
Also, Houston’s funeral negotiated reconsiderations of the black church in the current popular cultural imagination, personifying grief and healing through sound. In a word, Houston’s funeral “took folks to church.” On display were prominent tropes of black cultural and musical tradition, parlaying call and response between speakers and attendees and improvisation of performers. In particular, Kim Burrell’s redressing of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” caters on numerous levels to intersection of Houston’s narrative and the role of spirituality in her life. Burrell used her voice and spirituality as a reflection of Houston’s spirituality while dictating how Houston’s life and image are redirected through song. Burrell’s retelling of Houston’s life pivots off Cooke’s original song as an acknowledged site of struggle and redemption. She improvises Cooke’s song to align with Houston’s literal birth (“She was born in New Jersey”) and the understanding of spiritual rebirth and death (“a change gonna come”).
In similar fashion to a church revival, Burrell performs her rendition of “A Change Gonna Come” as a testimony, pulling from her audience’s familiarity with the intonations, vocal runs, and whines of Sam Cooke’s performance. Burrell’s ‘remixing’ of Cooke’s song is, to an extent, an innovative form of sampling. By borrowing the familiarity of Cooke’s sound, Burrell is able to create a new sonic accompaniment. Overarching tropes of faith and redemption hinged upon the black oral tradition are intensified through using them to aurally frame Houston’s funeral. By strictly hearing Houston’s funeral, the listener becomes privy to not only the intersections of the black church and oral traditions but the unique interventions of sound and identity frequently understated in visual culture and discourse.
A fitting close to Houston’s funeral was the recording of her popular rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Houston’s voice rang out in the perfect intonation that solidified her place in music and cultural history, situated as a fitting goodbye to fans and this world. The tenderness of Houston’s delivery personifies the somberness of her funeral, a self-eulogy that harnesses its power from not only the moment but the untimeliness of her death. Houston’s last performance of “I Will Always Love You” detaches her from the paparazzi and scandal that suffocated her life. It is through sound that Houston’s legacy is revived.
As my mother dabbed tears away from the corners of her eyes while listening to the funeral, I silently hoped she would ask me who I loved. I would tell her I wasn’t Susan. And that I loved Whitney.
R.N. Bradley is a PhD candidate in African American Literature at Florida State University. She writes about African American literature, race and pop culture, Hip Hop, and her own awesomeness. She earned her BA in English from the Unsinkable Albany State University (GA) and a MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Her dissertation project looks at negotiations of white hegemonic masculinity and race consciousness in 21st century African American literature and popular culture. You can read her work atAllHipHop, Newsone, TheLoop21, or her monthly column “The Race to Post” over atPopMatters. Scholar by day, unapologetic Down South Georgia Girl 24/7/365. Catch up with her awesomeness via twitter:@redclayscholar and her blog Red Clay Scholar (http://redclayscholar.blogspot.com).
Last week’s news was been full of alarming stories of real and threatened violence at various #Occupy sites around America. But also disturbing were the reports that complaints about the continuous drumming at the Occupy Wall Street site in Lower Manhattan were threatening to shut the entire operation down. According to stories in N + 1, slate.com, Mother Jones, and New York, the ten hour marathon drum circles at Zuccotti Park have been a focal point of mounting tensions, both between the occupiers and the drummers, and between the occupiers and the community at large. Last week, community members asked that the drummers limit their drumming to 2 hours a day, a request backed by actual OWS protesters. The drummers, loosely organized in a group called PULSE, initially resisted the restriction, claiming that such requests mimicked those of the government they were protesting against. Since then, a compromise has been worked out, but the situation gives rise to a host of questions about race, sound, drums, and protest.
Community organizers both inside and outside OWS said they were distressed by the continuous noise that these protesters are making, and certainly they had reason: as Jon Stewart put it in his episode of talking points, “it’s a public space, it’s for everyone, including people who don’t consider drum circles to be sleepy time music.”
Writer and singer Henry Rollins agrees, telling LA Weekly that he dreams of an #Occupy Music festival, because “So far [he has] heard people playing drums and other percussion instruments” but still wonders “if there will be a band or bands who will be a musical voice to this rapidly growing gathering of citizens.” Rage Against the Machine guitarist and frequent #Occupier Tom Morello also seems to concur, telling Rolling Stone, ”Normally protests of this nature are furtive things, It’ll be 12 people with a small drum circle and a couple of red flags. But this has become something that people feel part of.” Stewart, Rollins, and Morello all have a point: not everyone likes drum circles, in fact some people feel quite strongly about them, which has the potential to be divisive for a movement famously representing “the 99%.”
But over and above the questions of musical taste, the very audible presence of snare drums, cymbals, and entire drum sets at OWS—more often found in marching bands or suburban garage band practice spaces than the usual drum circle staple, the conga—raises a different set of questions, both sonic and social, around the interrelated issues of “noise,” public space, and privilege.
That a drum circle populated by a large number of bad, mostly white drummers is being touted as “the sound” of occupation isn’t that surprising, at least not for alumni of UC Berkeley.
In my day, a more conga-oriented drum circle sprouted up on Sproul Plaza every Sunday; today, a similar one occupies a green space in Golden Gate Park right across from Hippie Hill, pretty much 24/7. (I walk by it every Thursday on my way to the gourmet food trucks: happily, the delicious smell of garlic noodles and duck taco obliviates all other senses.)
These kinds of regular, yet impromptu, circles abound in California and elsewhere: indeed, the sound of drum circles à la OWS has characterized certain types of social spaces for the last forty years. But what exactly does the sound of drum circles characterize? What meaning is being made by them, and why?
In the Americas, drum circles go back hundreds of years– many indigenous peoples have drumming traditions, for example, and, in Congo Square in New Orleans, slaves of African ancestry gathered weekly to dance to the rhythms they played on the bamboula, a bamboo drum with African origins, beginning in the early 1700s. The notion of the “circle” was a fundamental part of the dancing and music making at Congo Square—according to Gary Donaldson, the circles represented the memories of African nationalities and various reunited tribes people—and was echoed in various types of “ring shouts” across the West Indies and the Southern U.S. The contemporary drum circle stand-by, the conga, also came to the Americas via the forced migration of slaves; it is of Cuban origin but with antecedents in Africa, like the bamboula. The black power movements of the 1960s drew on this history—and sound—to good effect, reigniting semi-permanent drum circles in many U.S. neighborhoods– like the formal gathering that meets in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem on Saturdays that is currently also under fire from a nearby condo association –audibly announcing their presence and enacting new community formations.
Given this history–and without erasing the presence of drummers of color at OWS--it can seem puzzling how the drum circle has come to occupy such a curiously whitened position in America’s cultural zeitgeist. Furthermore, one of the more problematic aspects of the OWS drum circle debate is the racialized implications of the instrumentation there—implications borne out by videos of OWS that show an overabundance of snares, some of the loudest drums available. According to percussionist Joe Taglieri, “no conga is louder than a fiberglass drum with a synthetic head.” If snares are louder than congas, then noise – actual decibel level — is probably not the sole issue when community groups attempt to control or oust drummers like those in Marcus Garvey Park. It does seem to be a key point of contention at OWS, however.
While there is also a history of African American marching bands, especially in the South, snare drums speak to a different set of American cultural traditions. Drum kits themselves evolved from Vaudeville, when theater space restrictions (and tight pay rolls) precluded inviting a large marching band inside. Mainstream associations with snares include but are not limited to army parades, high school marching bands, and of course hard rock music. Sometimes, like in the case of Tommy Lee, it is an unholy alliance of several of these contexts.
In other words, outside of OWS, snares are hardly the sound of social upheaval.
How the drum circle became associated with political protest in the first place is interesting. Although people sometimes associate drum circles with beatniks rather than hippies, a case could be made that they actually connect more strongly to an electrified Woodstock rather than an acoustic Bleecker Street, thanks in part to Michael Shrieve’s widely mediated turn during Santana’s performance of “Soul Sacrifice” at the 1969 festival.
It is important to note that Shrieve is playing the traps in this sequence, not the conga, which is one reason I’d like to suggest that something about that scene – the hands on the congas, the grins of the other guys, the ecstatic face of a 20-year-old as he slams his kit, and the fetishistic gaze of the camera on the sticks, the skins and the cymbals – caught the imagination of a particular segment of American society. Santana’s band – two Mexican Americans (Carlos Santana and Mike Carabello), a Nicaraguan (Chepito Areas), two whites (Shrieve and Gregg Rolie, who later plagued the world in Journey) and an African American (bassist David Brown)—was truly multi-racial, creating a “small world” visual that furthered Woodstock’s utopian rhetoric in ways that were surely not borne out by the demographics of its audience. More importantly perhaps, the Woodstock movie showed a white suburban hippie guy as an equal participant in a multi-ethnic rhythmic stew, a powerful image in the 1960s. Indeed, the Santana performance may be precisely the moment when the idea of the drum circle was lifted from the context of “black power” and moved into the hippie mainstream.
Woodstock made congas hip to the mass of America—not just in Santana’s set but also in the performances of Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix—and Woodstock helped define what the drum circle meant, in part by encapsulating certain discursive tropes that were very particular to those times. For example, drum circles epitomize the ’60s idea that political action is simultaneously self-expressive and collective. If a crowd of people sing “We Shall Overcome” or chant “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh/The NLF is going to win,” it is a a collective act. It’s collective even if the crowd is singing “Yellow Submarine” and it’s not overtly political. By contrast, drum circles are about improvisation, so each drummer can “do his own thing” while participating in the groupthink. (The “his” is implied: video of drum circles show few women participants. Apparently Janet Weiss, Meg White, and Sheila E.’s “own thing” can actually be done on their own.)
In terms of sound, drum circles also project well beyond their immediate location, compared to singing and chanting (in fact, OWS has had problems with the drum circles drowning out its “human microphone”). Plus, since the drummers can take breaks and change out, the actual drumming never stops, unlike a performing musician. Thus, drum circles are celebrations of self expression that are actively imposed on an audience that is well beyond eyesight. This summarizes a modern view of personality rooted in the 1960s: that it’s not enough to participate, you’ve also got to “be yourself.” I think these two notions account for the enduring idea of the drum circle as a supposedly political sound, even when it’s not. Drumming in a drum circle allows for a public display of self-expression that simultaneously allows the participant to belong to a group. The appeal of that is obvious, especially in our contemporary iCulture. However, the politicization of the sound of drum circles only makes sense when you add in the lingering sonic traces of black protest, modulated through a hippie lens. You can see this clearly in New York magazine’s “Bangin’: A Drum Circle Primer” (10.30.11), whose visual imagery prominently features a West African djembe drum and describes only the ”hippie-era use of traditional African instruments” rather than their actual, snare-heavy configuration at OWS. Despite the snares and in spite of the oft-commented on lack of black faces at OWS—see Greg Tate’s piece in the Village Voice—drum circles still carry enough connotations of militant blackness to annoy the bourgeoisie.
One key thing differentiates OWS’s drummers from the demonstrations of yore, however: in the 60s and early 70s, there was a notion that drum circles were for drummers. Santana’s band, though young, was made up of world class musicians from the San Francisco scene. But to a certain type of viewer – young, white and male—the drum circle must have seemed so doable. Compared to the singular virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix or sheer talent of Pete Townshend, Santana’s music was the sonic equivalent of socialism. No wonder the drum circle scene has had more of a half-life in the hearts and minds of would-be Woodstockians than just about any other: it is a visceral depiction of music as communal, ecstatic, and accessible. Today, thanks to the far-reaching waves of the movie Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970), the percussive noise such a circle makes creates a particular sonic backdrop that clearly—and nostalgically—says hippiesomething.
And yet, politically speaking, nostalgia is, as theorists like Antonio Gramsci, Guy Debord, Jacques Attali and Theodor Adorno have frequently reminded us, invariably associated with Fascism. From Mussolini to Hitler to Reagan to Glenn Beck, it’s a tactic that has been explicitly invoked to thwart social progress. The nostalgia conundrum seems to have escaped both mainstream news media—which uses the drum circle to signify to viewers that OWS is a radical leftist plot—as well as the drummers themselves. For the drummers are hippies, and hippies young and old really believe in drum circles. Hippies take part in them, hippies enjoy them. It’s fair to say, however, that few others do, just as no one ever really enjoyed the 45- minute drum solos on live records by Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Iron Butterfly. (I’m thinking about Ginger Baker’s “Toad,” John Bonham’s “Moby Dick,” and “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” respectively. Also about the time I went to the bathroom and bought popcorn at the LA Forum during a drum solo by some band I know forget, and still had to sit through ten more minutes.) .
However, that fact does not seem to bother those involved in drum circles, and herein lies the great problem with the whole equation drum + hippie = activism. To any members of the mainstream media who hears and records them, a drum circle instantly conjures up a chaotic, possibly even violent, scene: Chicago ‘68, Seattle 2000, Oakland 2011. But the truth is that, outside Fox News, the noun “hippie” no longer means “liberal,” or possibly even politically engaged. The curious thing about drum circles, then, is that while they sound progressive, they can actually mean conservative. A 2006 piece from NPR, for example, describes how drum circles have been adapted as teambuilding exercises for corporations like Apple, Microsoft, and McDonald’s.
The OWS situation illustrates such conservatism in different ways. In another recent article in New York Magazine, a 19 year old drummer from New Jersey is quoted as saying, “Drumming is the heartbeat of this movement. Look around: This is dead, you need a pulse to keep something alive.” This is said in the face of opposition from the movement’s own management, who fear a shutdown due to severe problems with neighborhood groups and restrictions on the General Assembly’s call-and-response “mic checks” that have been so galvanizing. His words are instructive as well as ominous, illustrating that young hippies like him believe that the sound of drums is a suitable replacement for protest or action itself.
The idea that sound alone can energize a movement is not just wrong, it also showcases a willful misunderstanding within the ranks of OWS. In Oakland last week, a small band of anarchists threw bottles at the police, whose wrath rained down in the form of tear gas canisters and a fusillade of dowels: one protester, an Iraq veteran, has been seriously injured.
The incident highlights a kind of cognitive dissonance that is hindering the ability of OWS to achieve political progress. The drumming problems at Zuccotti Park highlight the way that history can repeat itself as farce, as the distance between nostalgia and action — and between sound and meaning — disturbs the peace in more ways than one. Just as drummers in Sproul Plaza refuse to acknowledge that UC Berkeley is now mainly host to computer science and business majors, and drummers in Golden Gate Park refuse to deal with a Haight Ashbury that is gentrifying in front of their eyes, so too do the drummers at OWS refuse to acknowledge that their sound is no longer the sound of social activism. Indeed, the sound of a drum circle is reminiscent of the ring of a telephone, the scratch of a needle dropped on a record, or the clip clop of horse hoofs on hay-covered streets. No wonder it sounds out of place at OWS.
Gina Arnold recently received her Ph.D. in the program of Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University, where she is currently a post doctoral scholar. Prior to beginning graduate work, she was a rock critic. Her dissertation, which draws on historical archives, literature, and films about counter cultural rock festivals of the 1960s and 1970 as well as on her own experience covering the less counter cultural rock festivals of the 1990s, is called Rock Crowds & Power. It is about rock crowds and power.