I am standing in the mouth of the female dungeon. I hesitate to breathe for fear the hole will swallow me. It is competing with a rising tide of anguish that also threatens to eat me alive. The hole is dark, dank and noisome yet oddly comforting. After all, this is why I, and others, come to this site of torture—to fill in the gaps of our history, to make better sense of our lives, to find some comfort. But how does one find home in throbbing loss? Why must one dig for answers—that, ultimately, produce new questions—within the locus of pain? I run my fingers across the length of the thick, cavernous rock. It is brown like my skin…I can’t tell where it ends or begins.
In a 2010 interview with FADER Magazine, poet Gil Scott-Heron declared, “The spirit should be material. It’s your blood. Inside your bloodstream is your parents and their parents and their parents and their parents and they want you to make it, because when you do what you do and you’re successful, then they’re happy you made it. You’re the link with immortality” (88). What Scott-Heron articulates here is an ontological claim to spirit as inherently material and always already an eternal force over life’s struggles. The answers to the puzzle are embedded underneath the skin in an internal dialogue between spirit, mind, blood, bone and mass. This same ideological force is what pulls so many African American tourists back to Elmina and Cape Coast Castles in Ghana, in search of what Anne Bailey calls “lingering whispers” in African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade (3). We spin back the wheel of time to re-trace its deep grooves and recover the loss/lost in dungeons, burial sites, Donkor Nsuo (The Slave River), and the Atlantic Ocean.
Perhaps one’s DNA is a recording that is not only biological and racial but cultural and cosmological. Carolyn Cooper, in Noises In the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture discusses “noises in the blood and reverberating echoes in the bone” as genealogical discourses of race. Can one’s DNA be an embedded and embodied soundtrack that charts particular and interconnecting nodes of history? Are those memories, experiences, dreams and longings then “recorded on my body,” as Nancy Frey suggests in “Stories of the Return: Pilgrimage and Its Aftermaths” (101) ? If we broke down the strands into coherent codes, or notes, or rearranged them into other combinations, what would they sound like? Would it produce a series of mixtapes, like hip hop records that sample older Black music—blues, R&B, funk, soul and jazz—and re-articulate them with new and emerging sounds? Perhaps it’s like Nathaniel Mackey muses in Bedouin Hornbook, “The last thing I remember is coming to the realization that what I was playing already existed on a record” (5). The slave forts become the ontological point of racial and cultural identity because, according to Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, “the dungeon was a womb in which the slave was born” and where, by the performance of walking through the “Door of Return” one’s social life can be recovered, revitalized or remade (111).
I strain to hear any forms of life. As Slavoj Žižek suggests in “‘I Hear You With My Eyes’; or, The Invisible Master,” “ultimately we hear things because we cannot see everything” (90 and 92). According to tour guides at Elmina and Cape Coast Castles, the brick slave pens reverberate with the loss/lost of life, particularly at night, where bodiless moans, sobbing, screams and litanies can be heard rocking through the forts. But I can only detect distant sounds of activity beyond the back of the castle doors and “The Door of No Return.” The predominant noise is the Atlantic Ocean, crashing against the seashore. I hear the fishermen speak in rapid, hushed tones as their bodies struggle against the tiny canoes, their oars pulse against the waves as nets are thrown in with great precision. At the entrance of the castle, teenaged boys patronize African American tourists with “Sister! Brother!,” “Akwaaba”(Welcome), or “Welcome Home” as they pass folded letters with requests for contact information, money, or school donations, colorfully braided bracelets or other trinkets for sale. Market women pierce the air with unique calls for customers to try their products of bagged ice water, oranges, sugarcane, pineapple, and groundnuts. Cab drivers compete for tourists’ attention with loud, intermittent honks, verbal petitions or hisses.
The shops in the courtyard just beyond the reception area are now filled with traditional instruments—drums, guitars, piano boxes, and rattles—beads, cloth, masks, paintings, rugs and postcards. It is no longer a market in Black flesh but of “African” objects, or cultural artifacts that amplify the racial identity of diasporic visitors, and make them more “real” once they return home. Shop owners busy themselves making crafts, passing the day chatting with one another and potential customers.
This cell in which I stand is one of many at the Twin Castles, the gargantuan fortresses that after five hundred years continue to hold fast to the southern coast of Ghana. The intersecting trails of fine cracks rupture the once-pristine white paint on the walls. . .possibly one for every person stolen out of the dungeons. The hull is transfixing, the hold captivating. For some reason, I am suddenly reminded of Rev. James Cleveland’s gospel song, “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” where he proclaims, “Something hit me/Up over my head/And run right to my feet.”
Cleveland is talking about the power of the Holy Ghost to re-fashion his troubled life through spiritual re-birth. He sings of transformation from a life of misery to a brand new liberation that is manifested like a shock through his entire being and body. This new shock counters the crisis he regularly experiences “in the world.” This new bodily sensation permeates his entire being and acts as a shield against daily strife. Similarly, Etta James’ secular version, “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” attests, “My heart feels heavy/my feet feel light/I shake all over/ but I feel alright.”
James’ something is more possessive of her person; it is the overwhelming yoke of romantic love that seeps into her pores and won’t let up. This occupation of James’ senses is so startlingly pleasurable that she longs for and needs it. Similarly, The Miracles’, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” pronounces, “Don’t want to leave you/don’t want to stay here/don’t want to spend another day here/oh, oh, oh, I wanna sit now/I just can quit now.”
Robinson expresses the ambivalence of love and longing—frustration, disappointment, ecstasy and desire—that crowds the senses with the sheer torture of being powerless over this structure of feeling. The protagonist is unable to shake hold of the beloved object, which makes him question his own capacity.
The “hold” becomes embodied and acts out in ways the mind cannot comprehend or prevent. It is the same hold the castles have on many African American visitors—an enigmatic narrative of love, loss and longing that the progeny of slaves refuse to relinquish and attempt to retell by inserting their bodies into slave histories. African Americans tour the castles as a way of tracing what Ralph Ellison calls “the grooves of history” in Invisible Man (443). Like a phonograph record, grooves are meant to be linear and progressive, but diasporic African history is awkward, uneven and full of odd ruptures, gaps and distortions. As James Clifford insists in “Diasporas,” “Diaspora discourse articulates, or bends together, both roots and routes” (251). These grooves consist of a series of complex and overlapping relationships that are multi-directional and non-linear. Like an album record, the records of history indicate particular events of static (crisis), interludes (junctures), and rhythms (discourse).
“The music is mysteriously ‘in’ these physical recesses, pressed into the vinyl,” Steven Feld argues in Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues, “and listeners may imagine journeying there to merge right ‘into the groove’” (111). Grooves are doubly intentioned as: 1) the tracing of deep historical roots through specific routes of migration and 2) a physical and/or psychic space where utopic possibilities are imagined, alternative choices can be sought out, and past and future events are persistently contextualized within the present moment. To be “in a groove” is to be in tune with multiple realities simultaneously, to compress or stretch out time and space and one’s capacity in extraordinary ways.
Strangely, this cell is absent of all sound, even the static, white noise of silence. But it refuses to sound for me and tell me its history. I hear nothingness in the emptied hole. All that remains is a heavy vastness of what once was. As Mackey so profoundly articulates, “I wept for the notion of kin, as though the very idea were an occasion for tears, a pitiful claim to connection, a bleeding socket whose eye’d been plucked out” (21).
Over time, the cold stone has absorbed the blood, sweat, feces and bones of its inhabitants. It is the only material trace that proves the enslaved were once there.
Sionne R. Neely received her Ph.D. in August 2010 in American Studies & Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. Her dissertation examines how music artists in Ghana create transnational work alliances in response to shifting political regimes under independence, from Kwame Nkrumah’s administration to the present. Since 2005, Dr. Neely has recorded and archived more than 150 interviews with creative artists and industry professionals based in Ghana. In 2010, Dr. Neely co-founded ACCRA [dot] ALT, a cultural organization that promotes the alternative work of emerging Ghanaian artists through innovative programming and international exchange with artists worldwide. In 2011, she co-produced the Accra homecoming concert and documentary film for hip hop artist Blitz the Ambassador and Afro-Pean soul duo, Les Nubians. She is co-producer of Gbaa Mi Sané (Talk To Me), a short documentary film that explores the creative process of young visionary artists in Ghana (to be released in Summer 2013). Dr. Neely will also publish an article on hip hop practices in Ghana in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion Series (Fall 2013).
I recently got my hands on a complete set of Marvel Comics’ Dazzler, a comic from the early to mid-80s that featured Alison Blaire, a mutant with the power to transform sound into light. She was the result of an attempted collaboration between Marvel and Casablanca Records. The idea was that rather than publish a comic based on a pre-existing musical act (as they had in 1977 with KISS), Marvel would create a character and Casablanca would, in the words of one of the co-creators, “create someone to take on the persona,” with the potential for a movie tie-in. Casablanca dropped the project before the first issue of the comic, but Marvel re-tooled the character and went ahead with the Dazzler—a talented, yet struggling singer stuck playing at cheesy discos and small clubs while dreaming of wider success.
The last time I wrote about sound in comics, I mentioned how despite (or because of) sound’s transparency, it is an unobstrusive tool in providing the cues needed by readers to provide the closure through which comic literacy functions. The Dazzler series is not a great comic, it is often schmaltzy, repetitive and rife with errors, and just when it started to fulfill a bit of its promise, its creative team and the comic’s direction were changed and it was canceled soon after, but despite this, it is the perfect subject for looking at the representation of sound in comics. Dazzler’s power literally shines a light on how pervasive imagined sound is in this visual/textual form. It also makes room for even more sounds to be woven into the title’s narrative. Since Alison Blaire is an aspiring singer the most prevalent sound present in this title—less common in other popular super heroes titles—is music. Dan Fingeroth and Jacob Springer (who wrote the majority of Dazzler’s brief run) had many opportunities to depict a visual representation of singing.
As a singer, Dazzler is a maker of sounds in addition to a user of the sound already present throughout the medium. As a result, in addition to the visual representation of sound through Dazzler’s glowing light show, the writers were in a position of having to use text to describe the quality of sound more often than usual for their genre. As Tom DeFalco (a co-creator and sometimes writer on the series) said in a 1980 interview with Comics Feature, “I have to put in a lot of sounds in the captions and that I hope that kids who very rarely read captions will read these so they’ll know where the sound is coming from. But the good thing about sound is that you are always surrounded by sound.” DeFalco’s answer illustrates the contradiction at the heart of comic sound—it may be ever-present, but because of this is taken for granted to such a degree that he worries that its source will not be self-evident on the comics page. He adds that one way around this, because of Dazzler‘s focus on music, is through descriptions of the audience’s reactions to it—how it makes them feel is a way to clue the readers into the source and quality of sound present in the panels.
It is the affective relationship to sound that marks Dazzler as very different from other superhero comics. All the super-villain battles and fear of the revelation of her mutant powers are merely the narrative obstacles to her primary goal and obsession—singing. In order for that work, the emotions that emerge from her performance (both for Alison and those listening) needs to be evoked (something that the comics unevenly succeeds at). The colorful lights that are often part of a stage show are, in her case, a direct result of her relationship to not only hearing/absorbing sound, but making sound. She repeatedly explains that rhythmic nature of popular music makes her powers easier to use, because she can feel its pulse. For Alison Blaire, hearing, making and using sounds are conflated by means of the visual and textual, allowing the reader to see what he cannot hear or feel. In other words, Dazzler’s conceit is most successful when it evokes an empathic connection between the reader and the imagined sounds.
The feeling around sound can also be evoked through its absence. A common practice in mainstream superhero comics is the guest appearance by a popular hero in a new or poorly-selling comic in order to boost sales, and Dazzler seemed to have cameo by some better known character almost every issue. This practice allowed for writers and artists to depict what had for decades been undepictable. When Dazzler teams up with Black Bolt, King of the Inhumans (a Fantastic Four character from back in the Kirby days) he is finally allowed an opportunity to use his greatest and most feared power, his voice. Black Bolt is forever silent. His voice is so powerful a weapon that even his whisper can inadvertently kill all those around him. Thus, despite being an iconic Silver Age character, the voice of Black Bolt is one that can never be “heard” by comic readers. His silence is part of his identity and grants him a tragic and noble-bearing. As such, when he is teamed up with Dazzler, her power becomes the perfect vehicle for representing the unrepresentable sound—Dazzler absorbs the sound of his voice to emit the energy needed to defeat the super-villain. In having the characters work together, the writer was able to use one character’s power to finally represent the other’s. In this moment there is a sense of relief and emotional release, along with a sense of peril that bound to Black Bolt’s voice gives the unheard sound resonance.
As the title continued (and after its cancellation, when Dazzler became a member of the X-Men), Alison Blaire’s powers developed in different ways, the most fascinating was the development of her hearing. While early in the character’s career she was dependent on passive hearing, often carrying a portable radio with her in order to insure she had sufficient sound with which to use her light powers, later she developed acute active listening skills. As this aspect of her power developed, it became clear that it was not necessarily the force of sounds themselves that determined the extent of her power (though clearly loud sounds could be more easily transformed into more powerful forms of light, like ultra-focused lasers), but her attentive listening. The more attention she could pay to sounds and could discern even faint sounds, the more she could absorb and transform—later she is even able to use the sounds of digging insects and worms to save herself when she is accidentally buried alive.
By the end of her original series, Dazzler‘s new writing team had her mostly abandon her musical ambitions and take the more common (and dare I say, more boring) comic book route of getting a costume and joining a team of liked-minded super-beings. Because of this, the character’s special relationship to sound is lost in the shuffle of convoluted continuities and cosmic crises present in the various X-titles. There is less time and attention paid to song and sound as power and its emotional weight. The abandonment of her career goals also abandons the opportunity to explore a unique representation of sound and identity in a medium where identity is writ large. However, if there is a take-away from the strange, mostly failed, collaborative experiment between comics company and records company, it is that like Alison Blaire, if the comics reader “listens” carefully to the sounds present in the text and pictures there is a potential for a lot more depth and appreciation of how sound’s depiction is crucial to comics’ formal success.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.
Editor’s Note: This is Liana, Managing Editor for Sounding Out!, introducing you to this special fall installment of our series “Tune Into the Past,” penned by our very own Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman. We at SO! have been waiting for months for Jennifer to share with us a brand-spanking new blog post! She’s back in action this month with a post that asks readers to listen to the cultural landscape that foregrounded Norman Corwin’s success as a radio writer and producer, inspired by her research on her book manuscript on the sonic color-line. In particular, Jennifer addresses the notion of colorblindness and its very real repercussions on radio artists and producers of color in the 1940s. Want to catch up on our series on Norman Corwin? Check out this summer’s posts by radio scholars Neil Verma, Shawn VanCour, and Alex Russo. If you’re all caught up, open your ears and your eyes then (to paraphrase Kurt Cobain). –LMS
Almost every day, I hear someone on the radio hailing America as the home of democracy. Yet almost every network is guilty of discrimination against the Negro performer. There are a few isolated cases of Negroes in broadcasting, but the lily-white policy is seldom violated.—Lena Horne, Chicago Defender 1940
The fine pieces in the “Tune in to the Past” series have thoughtfully considered the audible legacies of Norman Corwin: the “kaleidosonic” aesthetics that Neil Verma called the “Corwinesque,” the virtually seamless melding of artistic and commercial concerns that Shawn VanCour analyzed, and the echoes of Corwin remixed into WNYC’s Radiolab that Alexander Russo amplified. But the research I performed for my book manuscript, The Sonic Color-line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening, about the fraught relationship between race and 1940s radio, left me pondering the gaps and silences of Corwin’s soundscape. Radio’s “Golden Age” was also its most racially segregated: was the philosophy of “colorblindness” that Norman Corwin publicly espoused key to keeping it that way?
It’s not my goal to undermine Corwin’s work, but rather to enhance our understanding of it by embedding his broadcasts in the wider political, historical and sonic fields in which he was enmeshed. Just as Corwin’s sounded legacy left long-lasting traces in our media, so too have the silences and omissions fostered by the media executives, casting directors, union bosses, radio critics, and sonic auteurs of the “Golden Age.” If Corwin’s work is difficult to access save for far-flung archives and spotty collector’s catalogues, the exclusions of African-American producers, performers, and listeners are even harder to hear, in part because of his very insistence that radio’s microphones were colorblind. As the epigraph from Lena Horne testifies, the discourse of democracy is not mutually exclusive with segregation. In what follows, I discuss the intensely segregated history of the “Golden Age of Radio,” arguing that one of Corwin’s most far-reaching legacies may not have been set in motion by his virtuostic broadcasting, but rather by the World War II-era liberalism that shaped it.
The apex of Corwin’s radio career coincided with a profound shift in America’s dominant racial formation, the beginnings of “colorblindness.” By colorblindness, I mean the belief that if individuals and institutions ignored skin color as a signifier and eliminating race as an official category of identity—particularly within governmental institutions—it would cease to matter in American life and all groups would have equitable access to the privileges, opportunities, and freedoms afforded by citizenship. The shift toward colorblindness—what Michele Hilmes calls America’s “wartime racial realignment” in Radio Voices—was predicated on creating a sense of unity that would inspire men across the color-line to sign up to fight what was dubbed a war to end racism and fascism, even as it raged on in their segregated hometowns. The Pittsburgh Courier’s Double V Campaign—Victory against fascism abroad and Victory against racism at home—addressed these ironies. Barbara Dianne Savage’s Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race details the suppression of many black newspapers on military bases due to the Double V Campaign, as well as the pressure it put on government radio programs to address race. However, she notes:
if black people had been forced to rely on radio as their primary means of communication about the failings of the federal government, they would have been on an impossible mission, since they were admitted to radio only as entertainers or as briefly invited guests expected to be on their best behavior (94).
Despite high-profile protests in the black press, mainstream broadcasters constructed radio as an unmediated purveyor of equality and truth with increasing frequency during World War II—its “lofty aerials, symbols of freedom” according to New York Times radio critic Orrin Dunlap. In the case of Norman Corwin, he wrote a symptomatic (and nervy) editorial for Negro Digest in 1945 that depicted U.S. radio as a direct material and technological representation of colorblindness itself.
In “A Microphone. . . is. . . Color Blind”–what revealing ellipses!–Corwin assures black readers that “my feeling about Negroes in radio is that they belong as surely as the microphone.” This strange opening gambit compares black participation in radio to the mute technological presence of the microphone that, while absolutely central to broadcasting, is an object with no inherent agency. Unlike the proprietary, agenda-setting presence of whites in radio, a microphone amplifies the voices of others, while speaking not a word of its own. From his privileged vantage point, Corwin doesn’t quite realize how colorblindness enables him to use black people as tools.
And, while Corwin’s title insists on the microphone’s colorblindness, his article suggests otherwise. Much of his description of what America is missing without black people’s radio presence has to do with aural racial difference: “I have found the same thing that makes Negroes supremely great artists in song makes them great in speech. The color and warmth conveyed in the performance of a Negro artist is directly communicable by air. The microphone is a faithful reporter and says exactly what it hears.” In addition to perpetuating the old stereotype of black people as natural performers, Corwin’s realist depiction of the microphone as a “faithful reporter” that “says exactly what it hears” covers up exactly how much black voices were sculpted for white consumption during this period in radio; as actor Johnny Lee (“Algonquin C. Calhoun” on Amos ‘n’ Andy) told UCLA graduate student researcher Estelle Edmerson in 1954: “I had to learn how to talk as white people believed Negroes talked. Most of the directors take it for granted that if you’re a Negro actor, you’ll do the part of a Negro automatically.”
Whereas radio listeners were able to hear a wide range of white voices in a spectrum of roles—major and minor, comedic, dramatic, musical, informational—the sound and the content of black speech was circumscribed by the sonic color-line that marked it as “automatic,” essential, comedic, and potentially dangerous. Corwin’s use of the word “communicable” rather than “communicated,” for example, is a revealing flourish giving black sound a tinge of contagion and infectiousness. While ostensibly celebrating black voices, this passage simultaneously assures white listeners that they will still be able to unequivocally identify the race of any speaker over the “colorblind” airwaves and that this experience will be a pleasurable one for them. While the microphone may be color blind, it clearly is not color deaf.
That Corwin assumes a white audience becomes more obvious with his assertion a few lines later that “I have found too few Negroes who have taken an interest in radio. I suspect it’s because they don’t know about it.” This statement is fairly incredible, considering that the Research Company of America published a study in the radio industry magazine Sponsor that placed African American radio ownership at 87%, just shy of the national figure of 90% (October 1949, 25). Sponsor dubbed black audiences “The Forgotten 15,000,000.”
In addition to being inaccurate, Corwin’s suggestion that African Americans had limited knowledge of radio performs one of the signature moves of colorblindness; it makes institutional barriers to access—lack of training, networks, and mentorship, as well as straight up discriminatory hiring practices—invisible by asserting that black people only need to work harder to succeed in the American media industry. Under colorblindness, the failure to achieve success equitable to white citizens falls squarely on the shoulders of those oppressed. It also willfully mutes the protest of many black actors—such as Butterfly McQueen—who refused to participate in the segregated industry and the agency of all the black listeners who turned the dial on shows distasteful to them, allowing the fantasy of a unified (white) America to remain a powerful referent.
By and large, Corwin’s article paints colorblindness as already achieved. In his estimation, it is up to black people themselves to take advantages of the opportunities he suggests already await them via the colorblind microphone: “My attitude is not unique among radio directors—at least not in the main centers of radio[. . . ],“Corwin insists, “there is less prejudice in this field than in any other. It exists unfortunately, but you can get a hearing.” For someone whose bread and butter was rhetorical flourish, Corwin’s use of passive sentence construction to discuss racial prejudice is significant—he naturalizes it as something that merely “exists,” tooling along without any specific historical agent performing the discriminatory and oppressive actions. Such omission lets the white gatekeepers of the 1940s radio industry off the hook for both the institutional and individual forms of discrimination that kept the industry largely, as Lena Horne phrased it, “lily-white.”
Radio’s profound whiteness was aural as well as visual. In Corwin’s colorblind America, a radio “hearing” comes at a heavy price for African Americans. Without commenting on educational segregation, Corwin proclaimed: “Negro schools should have in their curriculum courses in public speaking, radio, theater. There is no reason why there should not be Negro announcers. It is important to study diction so that distinction in speech cannot be noted.” While Corwin begins “A Microphone. . . is. . .Color blind” by arguing that black voices should continue to retain the racial markings that are legible (and pleasurable) to white listeners, he then suggests they must also simultaneously sound enough like the white voices surrounding them in order to be heard and accepted as fellow American citizens. Radio didn’t just passively reflect the sounds of American citizenship during this period–it actively constructed them on a foundation of exclusion and silencing.
There remains, then, a profound disconnect between the full exercise of American citizenship, the idealized discourse of colorblind equality forwarded by government officials, media critics, and prominent broadcasters exemplified here by Corwin, and the actual representation of African Americans as radio producers, performers, and listeners during and after this period. At the same time as state-sponsored colorblind ideology rose to prominence during the war years, the U.S.’s airwaves became almost exclusively white. There were no black writers regularly employed by any national radio station during the 1940s and there was not a single black member of the Los Angeles Writer’s Guild. While black authors Langston Hughes and Carlton Moss wrote occasional scripts on one-shot contracts, they were about topics deemed of black interest by the networks. Black radio critic Joe Bostic—who would later become one of the nation’s first black radio sportscasters—described the limited openings for black radio performers:
publication last week of the most authoritative and comprehensive of the radio polls showed not a single Negro entertainer placing in the first ten of any branch of radio entertainment. Such a compilation outlines, in bold relief the disturbing fact that the Negro, long a leader in every phase of entertainment, is being excluded in this newest and most lucrative branch (People’s Voice, 1942).
Regular on-site broadcasts from nightspots that featured black performers all but vanished after 1940, meaning that the vast majority of black musical performances broadcast over the American radio networks were conditioned and mediated by white announcers and sponsors as well as the sounds of white-oriented programming that introduced and followed them.
To be clear, I don’t blame Corwin individually for the ideology of colorblindness and the world it has wrought, but I do think it is important to consider his role as a cultural producer in the “Golden Age” of segregated radio, and as a power broker who helped shape the media landscape with which we now contend. While we commemorate his labors as a sonic artist with high journalistic standards who undoubtedly worked to “glorify the ‘common man,’” we also have to consider the institutionalized privilege that enabled him to claim this role as his own, as well as the many people silenced by him doing so, inadvertently or not. Tuning in to the past demands a vigilant ear attentive to the profound silences of exclusion: the traces of words muted, mangled, disciplined and unsaid, as well as the subterranean reverberations ghosting the triumphant tones of the “Golden Age,” a shadow broadcast, on the lower frequencies, of all the sounds that might have been.
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder, Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor for Sounding Out! She is also Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University and a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012).
Editor’s Note: Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s World Listening Day Extravaganza! Enjoy this special bonus “soundtracked” post by multimedia artist (and new Sounding Out! regular) Maile Colbert –full of field interviews with artists and acoustic ecologists such as Marc Behrens, Andrea Polli, Bernie Krause, and Peter Cusack–as well as a podcast produced by Eric Leonardson, Director of the World Listening Project. (Click HERE to go to the podcast). For the full introduction to the World Listening Month! series click here. To peep the previous posts, click here. And remember, here at Sounding Out! every day is for listening. . .so meet us here for the 364 days between WLDs for more aural treasures and sonic thought.–JSA
Even the surrounding hills were hushed, as if brought low by language. –from Grendel by John Gardner
Under good weather conditions in 2007, six artists, two curators, and two guides set out towards the Brenndalsbreen glacier in Vestlandet, Norway. An arm of the largest glacier in continental Europe, the Brenndalsbreen is maintained by high snowfall rates rather than cold temperatures, so the glacier has high melting rates. Since 2000, Brenndalsbreen has retreated 276 meters (820 feet). The group was the first to venture there that spring, the winter being too dangerous. Marc Behrens, one of the artists present, received permission to follow a guide down a crevice in a tongue of the glacier. There, surrounded by walls of ice, he began to record the melting drops that feed the glacial river flowing underneath. It was in this moment that Marc heard a change in the sound that signaled to him he may be in life-threatening danger, but due to the focus of the equipment he was using, he had no way to perceive how dangerous that threat may be.
A question to Marc Behrens: “Can you describe your process of perception between thought and hearing within your personal story of disaster?”
When the crashing ice announced itself by the little crunch, I assumed it was merely a modulation in the noises the glacier made anyway – I was very calm listening to the beautifully trickling melt water drops – basically a stream of the same minuscule sounds over a long period of time. I appreciated this and it did not occur to me that it could have been the start of a more dramatic and quick development.
Then, as a surprise I heard that loud crash, which, as I had (bad) headphones on and listened to the microphone input which was directional, I could not relate the spatialization in the headphones to the physical surrounding. In the recording it seems smaller than it was – but it seemed as if the whole glacier just came down on me – sonically. I could not localize the sound, so I could not escape in any direction as I did not know where to. So I decided to stay where I was and just raise my hands/arms to protect my head as much as possible. I perceived a rush of adrenalin but remained lucid, especially as there was nothing else to do, and hence no possibility to fail. I mean: I could just wait and hope I would not be injured. And so, I waited for a moment more after the crash, then stopped the recorder and went out from the protruding ice to signal the others that I was okay.
In 2011, the disastrous 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan. Within its horrific footprint, a number of nuclear accidents affected hundreds of thousands of residents with radiation levels up to eight times what are considered normal. Many other radioactive hot spots were also found outside the evacuated radius, including within Tokyo. All over social networks, people posted photos, videos, and sound clips of their Geiger counters reading the radioactivity in their homes and neighborhoods. The process a Geiger counter uses is called sonification, a form of auditory display that uses non-speech audio to convey information. As I played a sound file from a friend of the above-normal readings in his kitchen in Tokyo, I was unnerved by the ominous, staticky click, like the chirping of some robotic insect.
In fact, the entire event was sonically terrifying. Some of the most chilling recordings I heard from the underwater earthquake and the birth of the tsunami were picked up by the hydrophones of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s VENTS Program. The Tohoku earthquake was the largest sound they had ever picked up.
Using the seismic data from this same quake, audio programmer and artist Micah Frank used his creation Tectonic, a real-time seismic analysis and sound synthesis system, to sonify the sounds of the earth shifting and opening that fateful day. With Tectonic, sound is created in real-time by seismic activities as they occur across the globe. Using magnitude, elevation, time of day, and geographical coordinates, the data is mapped to synthetic spectrums and processed by granular, aggregate and subtractive synthesis.
But is this more artistic and emotive approach effective in conveying the disaster, if that is even the point? Most comments on his Soundcloud track range from “cool sounds” to “I’ll send you the remix when it’s done.” When compared to the hydrophonic recordings from the VENTS program, perhaps the use of data to sonify is too abstracted from the event itself.
Digital media artist Andrea Polli takes a different approach to sonification. During the 2007/2008 season Polli was on site in Antarctica conducting work through the National Science Foundation residency, working with scientists gathering weather and climate data. Here she created the project 90 Degrees South, which “aims to communicate both the aesthetic beauty and the scientific importance of Antarctica to global climate.” This project gave birth to the audio album, Sonic Antarctica, which uses field recordings, sonifications, and audifications of the collected data.
To Andrea Polli: “How can sonification help us understand climate change?”
One thing that comes to mind is that sound and music can provoke an emotional (or at least affective) response that is not always possible through graphs and images. For example I have used low, almost sub-aural sounds in data sonifications to promote a visceral response in the listener to various atmospheric events. . .
I have worked with weather and air quality data in real time, both using on-site data or remote data. To become attuned to the remote data takes some time and quiet listening, to me it is like being in two places at once, for example in a gallery or on-line and at a remote site near the North Pole.
Often we associate catastrophes with massive and sudden sounds. We give animalistic descriptions to the sounds made by what we call natural disasters, such as growling tornado, roaring avalanche, shrieking cyclone, groaning earth. This practice speaks to our complex relationship with nature, connecting us to it and taking us out of it at the same time. But what of the slow silencing that happens to our soundscapes when certain species die out? Such quiet disasters affect everything, sadly in ways we don’t (and won’t) notice until too late.
In The Great Animal Orchestra, author, musician, soundscape recordist, bio-acoustician and naturalist Bernie Krause coins the term, biophony, to help ecologists, biologists, acoustic scientists, and others to understand the long-term impact of disasters, particularly silent ones. Biophony refers to the collective sound vocal non-human animals create in each given environment. We face many compounding problems with the silencing of certain species and the quieting of a whole biophony, not the least of which is our connection with the world.
Krause provides some powerful examples of silenced biophonies in his book, such as the story of the Wy-am tribe in the Northwestern United States, whose history has been intertwined with the Celilo Falls, a waterfall just west of the Columbia River’s midway point, for thousands of years. Wy-am means “the echo of falling water.” Krause writes: “so central were the falls to the tribe that the Celilo was considered a sacred voice through which divine messages were conveyed.” It was also their yearly source for fish. In 1957, when the Dalles Dam gates were ordered shut by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the waterfall and fishing site were completely submerged, sending the Wy-am into a state of mourning that continued to subsequent generations.
Krause cites several similar “silencings” in his book using spectrographs. Similar to sonification, Krause’s spectrograms give form and shape to “silent” disasters. A particularly sad example for me, coming as I do from a family from the Hawaiian Islands, is the recorded comparisons of the coral reef in Vanua Levu, Fiji, that has been devastated by warming waters, shifts in pH, and pollution.
Krause also recorded twice at the Lincoln Meadow “forest management area” in the Sierra Nevadas, once before mass logging went into effect, and once after, a year later on the same date, time, and same weather conditions. While visually it seemed that little had changed, Aurally it was a different story:
To Bernie Krause: “We have a tendency to attribute ‘loud’ to the perspective of a disastrous event. Can you discuss the relationship of silence to disaster?”
In the natural world there are so many events that, to the “rational” human mind, appear to be contradictions. For instance, after the 11 September 01 disaster, which resulted in cancellation of all domestic and private aircraft flights and a reduction of automobile traffic around our house in the far western United States, the natural soundscape (biophony) returned in a way that we had never heard it before…even in September…late summer when almost all of the birds have fledged and gone elsewhere. And then there’s the reference in the book to the return of the biophony around Chernobyl, recorded by Peter Cusack from the UK. On the other hand, after some types of disasters, the immediate silence appears to happen because all of the vocal creatures have to reassess their acoustic territory, and, depending on the biome, takes anywhere from minutes to years, to recover a stable biophonic expression.
UK artist Peter Cusack’s Sounds from Dangerous Places, sought recordings from disaster sites like the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the Ukraine, the Caspian oil fields in Azerbaijan, the Chernobyl-fallout affected farmlands of Northern Wales, and the rivers of Eastern Turkey with their extensive, local climate altering dams. What is surprising and moving about these works is the strong human element, especially the lack of human presence and the evolving relationship of humans to these post-disaster soundscapes.
Listening to some of Cusack’s recordings from Chernobyl, one might feel surprised to hear that iconic name attached to such rich and pastoral soundscapes. When we consider the massive industrial accident that killed thousands and created an exclusion zone of 30 kilometers (19 miles), some of us are compelled to imagine a wasteland…not a living creature in sight. But those like Cusack who have visited the area are met with quite a different experience, one we can share when listening to the recordings. Cusack says Chernobyl held the richest dawn bird choruses he has ever recorded; haunting full choruses of frogs and nightingales sound throughout the night. And again we hear that iconic sound of the Geiger counter increasing its metallic chirp as Cusack walks toward an infamous radioactive hotspot, at one point it makes an eerie duet with a calling cuckoo.
To Peter Cusack: “How has the sound of dangerous places surprised you?”
Dangerous places can be both sonically and visually compelling, even beautiful and atmospheric. There is, often, an extreme dichotomy between an aesthetic response and knowledge of the ‘danger,’ whether it is pollution, social injustice, military or geopolitical.
In the context of the Sounds from Dangerous Places project ‘dangerous places’ are mostly areas of major environmental damage, but also include nuclear sites or the edges of military zones. The danger is not usually to short-term visitors, but to local people who have no option but to stay or more widely through the location’s role in global power politics.
Many aspects of dangerous places are a surprise, mostly because ones expectations are often wide of the mark, especially in the smaller details. However different places surprise one very differently. For example the name ‘Chernobyl exclusion zone’ implies no one is there. Not so. Thousands still work at the site, some live there and some commute in every day (by rail, so trains are part of the soundscape). That many people also require restaurants, bars, administration and all the infrastructure of a small town. So people and work sounds of all kinds are still to be heard around Chernobyl town and the nuclear sites. Some of the villagers, originally evacuated out, have returned bringing their sounds too – horses, chickens, carts, hand farming, traditional songs, modern day TV. The zone is also now a wildlife haven and the sounds of the dawn and evening chorus of spring are intense. The vibrant recordings of wildlife show that many species, at least, are doing fine in the exclusion zone. . .
In other places, though, sounds gives no indication of the danger. In the borough of Uttlesford, also just outside London, one hears church bell, over flying aircraft, cats mewing, cars passing, lawn mowing and common birds singing. It’s exactly as expected for one of the wealthiest areas in South East England. It also produces the greatest amount of domestic greenhouse gas of anywhere in the country.
I want to leave you with the example of the elephant seal, not as a “success story” but as an example of the great responsibility that humans have to know and be aware of our impact on a whole biophony, a whole ecosystem, a whole planet. When we think to such scales, there can be the tendency to look at the dying out of a single species as not so catastrophic. But we forget the interconnectivity of things, and how one species affects another, as well as its surroundings and its future. Sound can herald disaster, but it can also signal the potential for renewal, too.
The northern elephant seals once boasted colonies of hundreds of thousands in the Pacific Ocean. By 1892 only 50 to 100 individual seals were left, until in 1922 the Mexican government gave protective status, pressuring the U.S. government into following suit, and today their numbers are up to approximately 160,000. Known for their distinct vocalization, especially in the males, the large proboscis of the elephant seal is used to emit a loud roaring sound. From chortles to growls to screams to melodic sighs, their frequency range and detailed expression is amazing to listen to.
With growing numbers, the seals started populating Año Nuevo in California in 1955, now dominating the biophony against the waves with various sea birds, sea lions from an offshore island, frogs, and the occasional bark towards the evening and night hours from coyotes and foxes. It is one of the most vibrant and unique soundscapes I have ever experienced, weighted with the thought of how close it came to me never hearing their calls in the wild.
There is a moment upon hiking into the park where you can hear the seals’ voices being carried on the ocean wind, but only sand dunes lay in front of your eyes. Skin pricks up at such a strange sound; my companion admitted excitement and a little fear upon hearing it. The look on her child’s face, however, was priceless wonder. Thousands of tourists come every year to see these magnificent beast, but mostly to listen to these calls, that were, once upon a time not too long ago, almost silenced forever.
This post is dedicated to Dr. Donald Allen Colbert, who sparked wonder in the world beyond what I could see…
Featured Image Credit: Air Raid Siren by Flickr User Wader
Maile Colbert is an intermedia artist with a concentration in sound and video, living and working between New York and Portugal. She is an associated artist at Binaural/Nodar and director of Cross the Pond, an organization based on arts exchange between the U.S. and Portugal. She holds a BFA in Studio for Integrated Media at Massart, and a MFA in Integrated Media/Film and Video from Calarts. She has had multiple screenings, exhibits, and shows, including The New York Film Festival, Ear to Earth Festival, LACE, MOMA, LACMA, the REDCAT Theater in Los Angeles, The PDX Film Festival, Future Places Festival Oporto, HOERENSEHEN 2.0 Berlin, Störung Festival Barcelona, Teatra Municipal in Guarda, Observitori Festival Valencia, and has performed and screened widely in Japan, Europe, Mexico, and North America, and co-composed for a featured installation at the 2009 UN Climate Conference. She was a visiting lecturer teaching at UCSD and Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema, and guest artist and lecturer at NYU, MassArt, Calarts, SUNY Buffalo, SUNY Binghamton, Muhlenburg College, and Universidade Nova de Lisboa. She is currently in production on an interdisciplinary experimental opera based on Portuguese Maritime history, and will release two albums this year. You can find her at www.mailecolbert.com.