Sound and music play important roles in shaping our experiences of sports. Every sport has its own characteristic sounds and soundscape; some are very silent while others can be dangerously noisy. Barry Truax, in his engagement with R. Murray Schafer’s concept of soundscape in the book Acoustic Communication, states that the listener is always present in a soundscape, not solely as a listener but also as a producer of sound (10). Both Truax and Schafer use the term hi-fi to describe environments where sounds may be heard clearly, while lo-fi, often urban, environments, have more overlapping sounds. When an audio environment is well balanced (hi-fi), there is a high degree of information exchange between sound, listeners and the environment, and the listener is involved in an interactive relationship with the other two components (Truax 57). Truax’s understanding of the concepts of hi-fi and lo-fi enable a better understanding of the power relations between the key sonic elements of sports: players, the audience and the organizer (usually a game DJ), an increasingly prominent role in today’s team sports events due to permeation of recorded music. Using examples from Finnish soccer, pesäpallo (“Finnish baseball”), and ice hockey, I track how a particular game’s sonic balance can be altered to shape the atmosphere of the event and, even influence the game’s outcome.
In Europe, soccer is overwhelmingly associated with crowd chants, as noted by Les Back in his article “Sounds in the Crowd.” Without the sounds from the audience, the soccer soundscape would be more hi-fi, revealing the keynote sounds of the sport clearly: for example, the thuds from kicking the football, individual shouts from both the players and the spectators. The clear hi-fi signal articulation may be desirable at other times, but from a home team perspective, it does not provide a good soccer atmosphere. However, while playing recorded music to engage the crowd preceding free kicks or corner situations is not prohibited, it breaks the unwritten rules of the game. This means that creating a good atmosphere becomes the crowd’s responsibility; thus, the infamous songs and chants.
The culture of avoiding electronically reproduced music reveals the potential vulnerability of soccer’s soundscape to silence as much as chants, if not more so. Silence often becomes a way of effecting change at the level of soundscape. A silent, passive, crowd can mirror, for example, the team’s performance on the field or reflect a general lack of interest. Organized supporter groups can also demonstrate their dissatisfaction with something by refusing to sing.
This sound clip demonstrates how keynote sounds of soccer are exposed while approximately 1200 people in the audience seem to be “just watching” a very important home game at the end of the Veikkausliiga season 2012. In the end of the clip the home team, FF Jaro, equalizes and eventually went on to avoid relegation by just 1 point.
In contradiction to soccer, an important part of the pesäpallo experience (Finnish baseball, the national sport of Finland) is actually listening to the continuous communication of the teams. The key to pesäpallo, and the most important difference between pesäpallo and American baseball, is the vertical pitching. Hitting the ball, as well as controlling the power and direction, is much easier. This gives the offensive game much more variety, speed and tactical dimensions than in baseball. The fielding team is forced to counter the batter’s choices with defensive schemes and the game becomes a mental challenge. The continuous communication by the batting team standing in a half circle around the dueling batter and pitcher influences the pesäpallo soundscape. For a better appreciation of the sport, spectators must carefully tune in to the teams’s communiqués.
The male pesäpallo team Vimpelin Veto from the small village of Vimpeli in rural Finland has a very active crowd, with a high know-how of the sport. The village has only a little over 3200 inhabitants but had an average of 2087 spectators/game during the 2012 season. In a local newspaper article Veto’s player Mikko Rantalahti reveals that when the crowd is making lots of noise the visiting players’ tactical “wrong”-shouts (“väärä” in finnish), like when a pitched ball is too low, can’t be heard by the fielding players of the visiting team. The audiences’ collective shouting makes the soundscape more lo-fi and the visiting team’s communication difficult.
This tradition of strategic noisemaking has, before the use of headsets, also been heard in American football, when crowds make noise to make the vocal communication difficult for the visiting team. According to Matthew Mihalka’s PhD dissertation “From the Hammond Organ to ‘Sweet Caroline’: The Historical Evolution of Baseball’s Sonic Environment,” crowd noise in baseball is viewed as less influential since directions are sent via hand signals (44). Even though the pesäpallo manager leads the offensive play with a multicolored fan and other visual signals much of the communication is verbal.
(starting point ~16:30)
In this video clip from the 2011 Superpesis final between Vimpelin Veto and Sotkamon Jymy, the audience tries not only to disturb the focus of the hitter, but also the communication of the visiting team standing in the half circle around the batter. Even the commentators are struck by the crowd noise and note its influence.
At Vetos games, the audience creates the sonic atmosphere just as in soccer. When the home team is batting, the audience engages in rhythmic hand clapping, deliberately uncoordinated with the organizers’ music. In 2012, I interviewed the managing director J-P Kujala, who is responsible for the music at Vetos games, and he stated that the atmosphere at Veto’s home games is so good that “there is no need for musical reinforcements.” He also doubted that the audience would react positively to music played to activate the audience. At the stadium, music is only heard before the game, during warm-up and intermissions. Kujala refrains from playing music when the visiting team is batting since that can be considered as “disturbing. . .we don’t do that here.” From the organizers’ perspective, the teams are sonically treated equally, but if the home audience creates a sound wall that drains out the visiting teams’ tactical shouts—making the soundscape more “lo-fi”—it is considered as home court advantage. In this context, lo-fi is not related to the use of technology and playing music, but instead to the audience’s sounds.
However, in contrast to the Vetos’ home court sound culture, more teams are beginning to play music inside the actual game, not only when the home team is batting (2:19) but also when the visiting team is batting. DJs often use songs to create funny remarks at the visiting team’s expense. Whatever the implied interpretation of the music might be, the strategy of playing music in this core situation also modifies something very authentic about the pesäpallo experience. In this sound clip from Koskenkorvan Urheilijat’s home game one can hear the visiting team Pattijoen Urheilijat communicating underneath the Finnish hit song Älä tyri nyt (“Don’t mess up now”). Notice that the home crowd, unlike at Vetos games, is not actively making noise—hence the use of music.
As this clip shows, the increasing use of music in pesäpallo calls attention to the need to develop up-to-date rules for the use of recorded music rather than relying on custom or practice.
When discussing the soundscape of ice hockey, the most popular sport in Finland, the question is no longer about whether or not to play music but which music suits certain situations best. As in soccer, the most active fans often get cheaper tickets to fill in their own fan sections and sing from the curve behind the goals. Apart from singing along to iconic goal songs or team anthems, the fans very seldom interact with the other music played by the DJ. Moving toward a more mediated sport experience, the ice hockey soundscape is also becoming more lo-fi and the balance of sound making has shifted towards the organizers, with lots of sound events using recoded sound (music, videos, commercials etc.) to entertain the crowd during breaks of play. This shift from hi-fi to lo-fi can, according to Truax, encourage the feeling of being cut off from the environment and may begin to dramatically shift the audience’s experience of the sport (20).
There is no doubt that supporter groups have an important role as creators of meaningful sounds and good atmosphere in Finnish ice halls. In that sense it is a paradox that much of the music played “from record” overlaps their activity. John Bale has written that “fully modernized sport will alter the nature of the soundscape of stadiums and arenas […] and that electronically amplified sound will also increase and hence reduce the spontaneity of the crowd’s songs and chants” (141). The hockey example above with its planned rituals confirms this statement. Discussing and choosing the right songs for the right moment in an attempt to not only entertain but also coordinate the crowd is of course a way to deal with this schizophonic clash of sounds. A more and more common way to integrate the fans in the formation of the soundscape is the possibility of interacting with the DJ through for example Twitter. This is also a way to recognize the power relations in the soundscape.
The ice hockey team HC TPS, together with a long time sponsor, recently came up with the idea of “buying silence” and donating the spot to fans. The sponsor also provided the organizers and fans with radiotelephones. That way they could, when prompted by a text on the video screens in the hall, communicate when the spot is being played and make the best out of the situation. This innovative action alters the balance of the soundscape allowing other sounds to be produced and heard more clearly. It makes the ice hockey soundscape hi-fi again; the fans’ interaction with the environment improves and showcases how the balance in the soundscape of hockey is now entangled with the use of technology for sound reproduction.
As highlighted by the examples above, sounds play an important role for experiencing sports. For the audience, making sounds is a way to participate and interact with the event. When the use of music, at least in finnish sports, seems to increase there is also a need to identify the underlying necessity to the play music; it becomes a race to not only find suitable sport music but identify why music is played and which effects it might have on the soundscape as a whole. In soundscape research there has been a certain romanticization for hi-fi soundscapes, but in the cases I have studied there are no clear dichotomies where the one stands for something negative (lo-fi) and the other for something to strive for (hi-fi). Both hi-fi and lo-fi environments reveal power relations in how they connect to the audience’s motivation and ability to contribute with sounds, in addition to the use of technology.
Featured image: “Finland vs. Belarus” by Flickr user s. yume, CC-BY-2.0
Kaj Ahlsved is a PhD student in musicology at Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland. His research focus is on the ubiquitous music of our everyday life and especially how recorded music is used during sport events. He does ethnographic field work in team sports, mainly focusing on Finnish male teams in ice hockey, soccer, pesäpallo (“finnish baseball”), volleyball, floorball and basket. His research is funded by PhD Program in Popular Culture Studies and he is a member of the Nordic Research Network for Sound Studies (Norsound). He holds a master’s degree in musicology and bachelor’s degree in music pedagogy (classical guitar). Kaj is a Finnish-swede living with his wife and three children in the bilingual town of Jakobstad/Pietarsaari. He is, of course, a proud fan of the local soccer team FF Jaro.
Welcome back to our continuing series on Orson Welles and his career in radio, prompted by the upcoming 75th anniversary of his 1938 Invasion from Mars episode and the Mercury Theater series that produced it. To help us hear Welles’s rich radio plays in new and more complicated ways, our series brings recent sound studies thought to bear on the puzzle of Mercury‘s audiocraft.
From Mercury to Mars is a joint venture with the Antenna media blog at the University of Wisconsin, and will continue into the new year. If you missed them, check out the first installment on SO! (Tom McEnaney on Welles and Latin America) and the second on Antenna (Nora Patterson on “War of the Worlds” as residual radio).
This week, Sounding Out! sinks its teeth into Orson Welles’s “Dracula,” the first in the Mercury series, and perhaps the play that solicits more “close listening” than any other—back in 1938, Variety yawned at Welles’s attempt at “Art with a capital A” and dismissed his “Dracula” as “a confused and confusing jumble of frequently inaudible and unintelligible voices and a welter of sound effects.” Here’s the full play, listen for yourself:
It’s a good thing that our guide is University of South Carolina Associate Professor and SO! newcomer Debra Rae Cohen. Cohen is a former rock critic, an editor of the essential text on radio modernism, and has also recently written a fascinating essay on the BBC publication The Listener, among other distinguished critical works on modernism. Below you’ll find the most detailed close reading of Welles’s “Dracula” (and of Welles as himself a kind of Dracula) ever done.
Didn’t even know Welles ever played Count Dracula? That’s just the first of many surprises you’ll discover thanks to Debra Rae’s keen listening.
So (to borrow a phrase), enter freely and of your own will, dear reader, and leave something of the happiness you bring. - nv
It’s one of the best-known anecdotes of the Mercury Theater: Orson Welles bursts into the apartment where producer John Houseman is holed up cut-and-pasting a script for Treasure Island, the planned debut production, and announces, only a week before airing, that Dracula will take its place. At a time when Lilith’s blood-drenched handmaidens on the current season of True Blood serve as an analogue for our own cultural oversaturation with vampires, it’s worth recalling why, in 1938, this substitution might have been more than merely the indulgence of Welles’s penchant for what Paul Heyer calls “gnomic unpredictability” (The Medium and the Magician, 52).
In fact, 1938 was a good year for vampire ballyhoo; Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula film had been rereleased only a month before to a new flurry of Bela Lugosi press. Welles’s last-minute switch was a savvy one, allowing him to capitalize on the publicity generated by the continuing popularity of the film (and the popular Hamilton Deane and John Balderston stage adaptation from which it largely drew), while publicly disdaining its vulgarity in favor of what he seemed peculiarly to consider the high-culture status of Stoker’s original novel. Here he is defending the book:
But more importantly, Welles’s production reclaimed and exploited the novel’s own media-consciousness, a feature occluded in the play and film versions, and one to which the adaptation into radio adds, as it were, additional bite. Dracula introduced several of the radio innovations we’ve come to associate with the Mercury Theater (and The War of the Worlds in particular)—first-person retrospective narration, temporal coding, the strategic use of media reflexivity—but Stoker’s novel may have made such innovations both alluring and inevitable.
Stoker’s Dracula is made up of a patchwork of documents—shorthand diaries, transcribed dictation cylinders, newspaper clippings—that do not simply serve as a legitimizing frame, as in Frankenstein. Instead, they are deeply self-referential, obsessively chronicling the very processes of inscription and translation between media by which the novel is built. Confronted with the terrible threat of Dracula free to prey on London’s “teeming millions,” Mina Harker vows thus: “There may be a solemn duty, and if it come we must not shrink from it. …I shall get my typewriter this very hour and begin transcribing.” Processes of ordering information serve, as critics since Friedrich Kittler have noted (see for example here, here, and especially here), as the way to combat the symbolic threat of vampirism that, as Jennifer Wicke argues, stands in for “the uncanny procedures of modern life,” and a threat that may have already colonized intimate spaces of the text itself (“Vampiric Typewriting,” 473).
That threat, in the novel, sounds oddly like . . . radio. Seeping intangibly through the cracks of door frames, invading domestic spaces, riding through the ether “as elemental dust,” materializing abruptly in intimate settings, communicating across land and sea while rendering his receiver passively malleable, Stoker’s Dracula is terrifying by virtue of his insidious ubiquity, a kind of broadcast technology avant la lettre.
In adapting Dracula for radio, then, Welles could play on the deep division in the novel between the ordered forces of inscription and the Count’s occult, uncanny transmissive force in order to exploit the anxieties connected with the medium itself. Even the double role Welles plays in the production—both Dracula and the doctor Arthur Seward—functions in this regard as more than bravura.
Seward’s primary role in the drama as compère, or advocate, threads together Dracula’s multiple documentary “narration,” through what became the familiar Mercury device of retrospect-turned-enactment. As Seward, Welles performs an argumentative and editorial function that’s nowhere in Stoker’s novel, where the various documents make up a file that is explicitly uncommunicated, because unbelievable, for a case no longer necessary to make. Shuffling the various documents that make up the “case,” Seward stands outside of definite place, but also outside of time, animating “the extraordinary events of the year 1891” by directly addressing an audience of a medium that does not yet exist. Here is part of Seward’s address:
Seward is our first “First Person Singular,” and yet his persona is unsettlingly thin. Though his voice at the outset is strong and urgent, it feels bland compared with the dense goulash of “Transylvanian” effects that competes for our attention through the first ten minutes of the production—hoofbeats, thunder, wolf howls, whinnies, the sound of a coach seemingly about to clatter to bits, the singsong of prayers muttered, perhaps, in some exotic foreign tongue. The “documents” on which Seward’s claim to the trust of the audience rides are overwhelmed by the sound that saturates them. Here is the scene:
It’s not until nearly 20 minutes into the production that Seward reveals his own connection with the story—as the lover of Lucy Westenra—and from this moment forward Welles allows Seward’s authority in the “present” to be eroded by his bland inefficacy in the scenes of the “past.” By Act II, he has ceded authority by telegraph to Dr. Van Helsing (Martin Gabel, in a brilliantly crafted performance):
Without the didactic authority of Van Helsing and with small claim on audience sympathy, Seward becomes, through the second half of the production, a strangely insecure advocate, whose claim on authentic first person experience often disrupts, rather than augments, his role as presenter.
The listener does not consistently “follow” Seward either narratively or sonically—indeed, he is often displaced to the sonic periphery by Dr. Van Helsing. In the final confrontation with Dracula, Seward is explicitly shooed to the outer margins of the soundscape to pray.
Here the technical exigencies of Welles’s double role support a subtext that his unmistakable voice has already suggested: that Seward is here the “other” to Dracula (as, later, his Kurtz would be to his Marlow), waning as he waxes. As Lucy is weakened through Dracula’s occult ministrations, so too is Seward sapped of vitality, his romantic passages voiced as strangely bloodless, while Dracula’s wring from Lucy an orgasmic sonic response. Penetrating the intimate chamber Seward ineffectively desires to protect, Dracula replaces him as the production’s central sonic presence—who even when silent, possesses the sonic space.
Contrast Seward’s feeble voice during his night-time vigil here,
to Dracula’s seductive visit here,
Welles needed to distinguish his Dracula from Lugosi’s, employing, rather than an accent, a kind of sonorous unplaced otherness. But his performance shares the ponderous spacing of syllables that, in Lugosi’s case, derived from phonetic memorization of his English script; in other words, Welles is “recognizable” as Dracula without “playing” him. As an analogue to Lugosi’s glacial movement, Dracula’s voice is here surrounded by depths of silence in an otherwise effect-busy soundscape.
From the beginning, Dracula is also sonically on top of the listener, uncomfortably intimate, as in this scene of a close shave:
And although Dracula’s voice is not heard for a full thirteen minutes after Lucy’s death, it nevertheless seems to inhabit all available silences, until he quietly seeps through the door frame of Mina Harker’s bedroom:
The closely-miked phrase “blood of my blood” is reprised throughout the second half of the production—it is repeated seven times, by both Dracula and Mina (Agnes Moorhead), though it occurs only once in the novel—underscoring the ineffable aurality of Dracula’s “transmission.” The line doesn’t present as meaning, but as a tidal echo, the pulse of a carrier wave. While it signals an action unrepresentable to the ear—Dracula’s literal bite or its resonances of memory and desire—it also functions as a “signal” in the sense that Verma describes, as a repetitive element that compels listenership like an incantation (Theater of the Mind, 106). This is the power against which the “documents” are marshaled, the power of “pure” radio—ironically the very power that allows them to be shared. And the hypnotic thrum of radio rips them to shreds.
Indeed, the closing minutes of the drama present the vampire hunters, the novel’s forces of inscription, as an array of anxious noises marshaled against this lurking silence. The frenzied pacing of the final chase back to Transylvania—an element of Stoker’s novel that both plays and film sacrificed—gathers momentum through ever-shorter “diary entries” delivered, breathlessly, over the sound effects of transport:
Welles exploits the familiarity of his audience with a mechanism that Kathleen Battles calls a “radio dragnet”; the forces of order deploy the ubiquity of radio itself to shore up social cohesion, enlisting the audience within their ranks (Calling all Cars, 149). But here that very process is, simultaneously, unsettled and undermined by the identification of Dracula himself with invisible transmission. As Van Helsing repeatedly hypnotizes Mina to tap in on her communion with Dracula—radio, in a sense, deploying radio—the listener is aware of being both eavesdropper and the sharer of rapport, a position that implicates her in Mina’s enthrallment. Here is part of the sequence:
This identification intensifies in the climactic sequence, completely original to Welles’s adaptation, in which Dracula, at bay before his enemies, weakened by sunlight, calls upon the elements of his undead network:
This tour-de-force moment for Welles is also the point when radio shatters the documentary frame and undermines its logic. Though Mina hears Dracula, the others do not, and as Van Helsing’s “testimony” attests, even she does not remember it. This communication can’t, then, be part of Seward’s “evidence.” Rather, it is the radio listener—Dracula’s real prey—who who has received Dracula’s transmission, who has heard across time and space what no one else present can hear: “You must speak for me, you must speak with my heart.”
Although Mina refuses this rapport by staking Dracula at the last possible second—or does she refuse it? Is this not perhaps the Count’s secret wish?—the effect of the uncanny communion persists beyond Seward’s summation, beyond Van Helsing’s subsequent account of Dracula’s end. It renders almost unnecessary Welles’s famous playful post-credits epilogue, in which he abruptly adopts Dracula’s tones to tell us that, “There are wolves. There are vampires”:
But with the hypnotic reach of radio at your disposal, who needs them?
Debra Rae Cohen is an Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. She spent several years as a rock & roll critic before returning to academe. Her current scholarship, including her co-edited volume Broadcasting Modernism (University Press of Florida, 2009, paperback 2013) focuses on the relations between radio and modernist print cultures; she’s now working on a book entitled “Sonic Citizenship: Intermedial Poetics and the BBC.”
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“Radio’s ‘Oblong Blur’: Notes on the Corwinesque“– Neil Verma
Since the drug war began, the lives of approximately 95,000 people have been claimed, with an estimated total of 26,000 disappearances (“Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border” June 2013 Report). At the University of Texas, Pan American – an institution located 25 miles north of Reynosa, Mexico (a Mexican city that has been hard hit by drug violence in recent years) – I teach students who have been dramatically impacted by drug war violence. Many have close relatives affected or hear horrific stories of those who have been kidnapped by the cartels; many fear traveling to Mexico to visit loved ones as a result and, in some cases, they report having relatives involved in the drug cartel business. Dinorah Guerra, psychotherapist and head of the Red Cross in Reynosa, describes the devastating psychological and physical toll: “There is a huge risk for people’s self esteem. They cannot speak about what they have seen or what they have heard. [They] lose [themselves] and lose [their] identity” (qtd. in Pehhaul 2010).
I name the space of the drug war and its resulting terror in the U.S.-Mexico border the “soundscape of narco silence.” This soundscape includes death and intimidation, from the brutal killings of news reporters by cartel members to the decapitation of citizen-activists who use online media to alert communities of narco checkpoints. It also consists of those powerful acts that call attention to silence as a tactic of terror. The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, for instance, brought together tens of thousands of people in Mexico to speak out against drug violence through silent marches. Cultural productions, such as narcocorridos, or contemporary drug ballads that document the cross-border drug economy, also become part of the soundscape. The narcocorridos function as a powerful critical response to silence and fear because they enable those in Mexican society, as Jorge Castañeda, author of El Narco: La Guerra Falllida, explains, “to come to terms with the world around them, and drug violence is a big part of that world. The songs are born out of a traditional Mexican cynicism: This is our reality, we’ve gotten used to it” (Qtd. in Josh Kun 2010).
In this blog post, I focus on the role of U.S. Latina/o theater produced in the South Texas border region as it responds to the soundscape of narco silence. Building on David W. Samuels, Louis Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa, and Thomas Porcello’s definition of “soundscapes” in “Soundscapes: Towards a Sounded Anthropology” as “the material spaces of performance and ceremony that are used or constructed for the purpose of propagating sound” (330), I suggest that soundscapes of silence in theater function as material spaces of performance that focus the public’s attention on silence – with the intent of intervening in acts that propagate silence and fear. Soundscapes of narco silence are characterized not only by violence and terror, but by cultural productions that function as forms of critical resistance – those works that focus the publics’ attention on the economy of silence and fear that fuels the drug war, and in the process, enable communities to cope with narco violence.
To closely listen to the soundscape of narco silence, I engage with the play script and production of Tanya Saracho’s play El Nogalar at South Texas College Theatre (STC) under the direction of Joel Jason Rodriguez in McAllen, Texas in June 2013. The play was first produced at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in April 2011, with a West Coast premiere at the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles in January 2012. I critically analyze the STC Theatre production’s incorporation of a multi-genre soundtrack that included narcocorridos, rancheras, and nortec (norteño + techno). I argue that this soundtrack focused audiences’ attention not only on the devastating effects of silence, but also the function of silence as a form of capital for those most excluded in society. I also offer a brief critical listening of the script’s rendering of silence through character dialogue and stage directions.
El Nogalar tells the story of an upper-class Mexican family comprised of three generations of women (Maité, Valeria, and Anita) whose land and home in the fictionalized estate of Los Nogales in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and its adjacent nogalar (pecan orchard), are under threat by the maña (drug cartels) moving into the region. The play focuses on the women’s responses to the drug war economy as a result of their different relationships to home (both their estate and the space of Mexico). It also centers the experiences of Dunia, their maid, and López, a former field worker who now works for the maña.
Cecilia Ballí, in her article “Calderón’s War: The Gruesome Legacy of Mexico’s Antidrug Campaign,” explains the particular circumstances of marginalized men in this society: “The worst casualties of this ‘civil war’ were the estimated 7 million young men to whom society had closed all doors, leaving them the options of joining a drug gang or of enlisting in the military, both of which assured imprisonment of death” (January 2012, 48). With the characters López and Dunia, the play asks audiences then to listen to the impact of the drug war on the most vulnerable populations in Mexico and the US-Mexico border region.
The play script conveys how “narco silence” can be used by those who either seek to preserve traditional class hierarchies (the story of the matriarch Maité) or to survive and profit in the new drug economy (the story of López). “Narco silence,” a term coined by reporter Jonathan Gibler in his book To Die in Mexico, refers to “not the mere absence of talking, but rather the practice of not saying anything. You may talk as much as you like, as long as you avoid the facts. Newspaper headlines announce the daily death toll, but the articles will not tell you anything about who the dead were, who might have killed them or why. No detailed descriptions based on witness testimony. No investigation” (2011, 23). In an early exchange between López and Dunia, López defends “narco silence” as a strategy of survival:
DUNIA: Why are you the only one they leave alone, Memo?
DUNIA: All the men your age. Killed. Why Memo? (Beat).
LÓPEZ: Because I know when to keep my mouth shut which is not something I can say for you….
DUNIA: So that’s all it takes to be best of friends with the Maña? That doesn’t seem so hard to do? (American Theatre Magazine July/August 2011, 74).
Later in the play, Dunia, heeding López’s advice, offers a powerful observation of how “narco silence” enables her community to cope with death: “We all just walk around like we’re a movie on mute. You can see people’s mouths moving but all you hear is the static (my italics)” (American Theatre Magazine July/August 2011, 73-74).
The STC Theatre production enhanced the script’s soundscape of narco silence through its sound design, with a soundtrack that included rancheras, narcocorridos, norteño and nortec. This music provided audiences with a connection to the world of Los Nogales and captured each character’s process of coping with narco violence. For example, Maité’s soundtrack consists of several rancheras, such as Lola Beltran singing “Los Laureles” and Chavela Vargas’s powerful rendition of “Que te vaya Bonito.” Beltran’s “Los Laureles” – a cancion ranchera that includes Beltran’s powerful female vocals and mariachi orchestra instrumentation – invites audiences to hear Maité’s nostalgia and desire for an idealized Mexican society and her wish to preserve traditional class hierarchies.
Vargas’s powerful rendition of “Que te vaya Bonito” captures Maite’s pain and suffering as she loses her home to the cartels. In Vargas’s version of “Que te Vaya Bonito” – a song about love and abandonment – audiences hear Vargas’s choking and sobbing voice, accompanied by a single guitar.
Vargas’s voice conveys, what Lorena Alvarado powerfully argues, is “the body’s dilemma between the hysteria of sobbing and the intelligibility of words, between resignation and retribution” (2010, 4). Vargas’s powerful singing also conveys, as Alvarado further describes, “un nudo en la garganta,” a common expression in Spanish that describes “the knot in the throat, when one cannot speak because words will not come out, but the desperate, or quiet, breath of tears” (Alvarado 2010, 5).
To sonically register the drug cartel economy and lifestyle underlying the “new” Los Nogales, the soundtrack also included narcocorridos. The first sounds we hear in the play are from the narcocorrido “El Carril Número Tres” – which includes two acoustic guitars and an electric bass – by Los Cuates de Sinaloa.
“El Carril Número Tres” – tells the story of a secret “lane number three” that allows a Mexican drug lord to freely go back and forth between the US and Mexico because he makes a deal with the CIA and DEA. With this focus on the US government’s involvement in the drug trade, the song centers how silences north of the US-Mexico border have perpetuated drug violence.
The music also included nortec, with songs by the Mexican Institute of Sound, particularly the track “Mexico,” which is a critique of the Mexican government’s complicity with the narcos.
With “Mexico,” audiences hear a fusion of norteño, electronic, and hip-hop with lyrics that use the symbols of Mexican national identity and culture to focus the public’s attention on violence and terror. With the lyrics “green like weed, white like cocaine, red your blood” (referencing the Mexican flag) and “at the sound of the roar of the cannon” (alluding to the national anthem), the song powerfully invokes the visual and sonic soundscape of violence that terrorize Mexican residents. With this charged critique of government corruption, “Mexico” momentarily interrupts the soundscape of narco silence rendered in the play script and rest of the soundtrack.
Ultimately, the production’s combination of rancheras, narcocorridos, and nortec captured the class tensions in Mexican society and emphasized the play’s critique of class structures that have enabled drug war violence to persist. With this range of music, the director explains he wanted to “maneuver between the [various] aspects of [the story]: the nostalgia, the corridos, the narcocorridos, and also this fusion of saying ‘we want something more,’ and so that was the whole aspect of it; the blending of the old, the new, and what the present is” (Interview with author July 2013).
The production also deliberately incorporated the sound of silence, particularly in the final scene. By the end, López buys the Los Nogales estate, thereby increasing his class status and social power. Saracho’s stage directions in this final moment indicate “an interpretive sound of trees falling. Now don’t go cueing chainsaws because it’s not literal. Just make me feel trees are falling. Along with the upper class” (87). The play’s reference to the staging of “an interpretive sound of trees falling” brings to mind the philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We might then interpret the final sounds of El Nogalar as inviting audiences to listen attentively to the soundscape of narco silence, implicating audiences as social actors in the politics of the drug war that continue to devastate Mexican society.
Featured Image: Journalists Protest against rising violence during march in Mexico, Courtesy of the Knight Foundation
Marci R. McMahon received her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California with affiliations in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity. She is an assistant professor at the University of Texas, Pan American, where she teaches Chicana/o literature and cultural studies, gender studies, and theater and performance in the Departments of English and Mexican American Studies. She is the author of Domestic Negotiations: Gender, Nation, and Self-Fashioning in US Mexicana and Chicana Literature and Art published by Rutgers University Press’ Series Latinidad: Transnational Cultures in the United States (May 2013). Her essays on Chicana literature and cultural studies have been published in Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies; Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of MALCS; and Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies. Her second book project, Sounding Latina/o Studies: Staging Listening in US Latina/o Theater explores how contemporary Latina/o drama uses vocal bodies and sound to engage audiences with recurring debates about nationhood, immigration, and gender.
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The first thing I noticed about 4-block was the silence. It was so quiet that every time I sat on my bunk I fell asleep. The Reformatory was always one continuous roar, musicfrom radios and televisions, noise from guys shouting to one another up and down the block, it seemed to never end. But in Jackson it was very, very different. The daytime hours you could hear typewriters and the closing of cell doors, the phone at the guards desk ringing but that was it. And after 9:00 PM you heard absolutely nothing …” –“Chet” (qtd. in Music Behind Bars: Liberatory Musicology in Two Michigan Prisons, 66-67)
Film and television usually portray prison as the loudest place on earth, filled with nonstop clanking and shouting and slamming, the noise reverberating sharply off its hard, flat surfaces. Actually, prison is much more likely to be a binary soundscape: either too loud or, at times, inhumanly quiet.
In fact, the manipulation of the sonic environment behind bars is part of the punishment mechanism itself, imposing or withholding different kinds of sound from different kinds of prisoners. There is a long history of prison music and prison radio, often within the context of education and activities aimed at recreation and rehabilitation, but here I’m talking about the mundane sounds of closing gates, locking doors, intrusive PA announcements, whirring fans, banging buckets, clattering garbage cans, and of course the human voice at any and all hours and volume levels: the inescapable sounds of quotidian prison life. The denial of the inmates’ ability to control that soundscape for themselves—or the compulsion that they do—thus becomes an issue not just of penal policy, but, interestingly, of media policy as well.
Indeed, the most fascinating questions in media policy these days are arising not at the FCC or OFCOM, but in places where policy scholars don’t usually look: schools, cinemas, and prisons. The state may have a lock on binding legislation, spectrum allocation, and international trade agreements, but it is the everyday policymakers on the school board or in the guard tower who directly affect more lives. With their pronouncements on which media forms may be used by whom, in what ways, and for what purposes, such accidental policymakers seek to regulate behavior through culture. Therefore, it is crucial to consider: which behaviors? which culture? and with which understandings of the relationship between the two?
One such instance of vernacular policymaking came last year when the Bureau of Prisons began testing the use of mp3 players in federal prisons, a technological update on rules that already allowed radios, televisions, and portable cassette or CD players. The move opens up new vistas of choice and control for the prisoners, who are no longer limited to the 20-30 cassette tapes or CDs for their Walkmen that cell space allows, nor dependent on the spotty radio reception in the rural areas where many prisons are located (a spatial impact which itself is an effect of multiple layers of ideology, policy, and control). Unsurprisingly, the players have become many prisoners’ most prized commodity, though the control they may exercise is far from absolute. The song selection is vetted by authorities (no “Cop Killer” in the Penitential Jukebox, don’t you know) and a remote kill switch allows the warden to brick the player should an inmate’s privileges be revoked, or in the case of theft or barter (trading goods and services is almost always a no-no in prison, a prohibition only slightly more effective, one guesses, than the ban on masturbation).
The introduction of mp3 players reveals not just the power and problems of local policymaking but the ways in which sound functions within a carceral system. For authorities, sound is “noise” when it interferes with security and a disciplinary tool when it doesn’t. As Robert Powitz’s article, “A Simple Primer on Jail Noise Control” reminds readers of American Jails, the trade publication for the prison industry, “Good security practices dictate that we want to hear certain sounds, particularly those associated with malfunctioning mechanical systems such as ventilation and plumbing, and more importantly, we need to hear a correctional officer’s call for help, an inmate in distress, and even seditious conversation” (Sep./Oct. 2007, 104). While it is surprisingly nice that Powitz threw “an inmate in distress” in the article, he otherwise presents an exclusively top-down rationale for separating sound from noise; Michel Foucault’s emphasis on the visual panopticon notwithstanding, which several scholars have critiqued, aural surveillance is equally important to the well functioning disciplinary institution and the production of docile bodies.
Sound that American Jails would not classify as “noise”— i.e. sound that doesn’t interfere with security operations—is not merely incidental ambience, however, as the well-regulated soundscape produces its own disciplinary effects. The tortuous sensory deprivation of solitary confinement commonly includes the removal of sonic stimulation: silence as punishment. Already in the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville critiqued the cruel silence imposed on prisoners in the U.S., and contemporary research repeatedly confirms the mentally destabilizing effects of sonic deprivation (see e.g. here and here). Total sonic deprivation is merely an extreme, however; there is an array of situations involving sound management. For example, conversations with visitors often occur through soundproof glass; obviously the surveillance function of this setup is paramount, but the distanciating filtration of the telephone adds further punishment through physical denial of the unmediated sound of a loved one’s voice. The raucous cacophony of the daytime cell block, meanwhile, acts efficiently as population control of another kind: as an incentive to self-regulate so as to enjoy the perks that enable one to escape the noise. The routines of prison policy intersect with the technologies of media policy to turn the chaotic soundscape into good behavior, through the mechanism of a prisoner’s desire for a pair of earbuds and some familiar tunes. (Media policies also turn that soundscape into a profit center: tracks on the prison’s version of iTunes cost between $1.29 and $1.99, obviously more than the going rate on the outside.)
Via the regulation of the aural environment, the authorities’ “sound”—the elements of the sonic environment that they impose or, at least, see no need to reduce or eliminate—thus becomes the prisoners’ “noise,” while prisoners’ “sound” can be either provided or withheld as part of the disciplinary and economic logic of the carceral system as a whole. As one prisoner, “Marcos,” summarized the system:
They pacify us with these so-called liberties, such as personal TVs, personal radios, personal guitars, tapes, cable TV, a complete store like the free world. And plenty of sports! Why–they call this our rights. In actuality it’s a break down in our system” (qtd. in Elsila, 56).
Such are the effects of so-called “personal” media for such an impersonal environment, for individuals who have been turned into social non-persons: media policy disguised as personal liberty rather than mass prisoner control. This disguise often fools the “throw away the key” law-and-order types who object to coddling criminals with the current Kenny Chesney track; for them, it is worth mentioning that the computers where prisoners download songs for their mp3 players are appropriately called—no joke—“Music Wardens.”
Foucault’s great metaphor for the disciplinary society—the prison as a template of surveillance and control that has been adapted to all spheres of modern life—becomes punishingly literal behind bars, but that is merely where it is most visible or, often, audible. As I explain to my students, media policymakers claim merely to regulate gadgets, physics, and economic relations, but in fact they are always and inevitably also regulating bodies and ideas. The production of the prison soundscape reveals the relation of policy to conduct, a relation that in everyday life often remains cloaked behind scientific and legal discourses.
A final point: equally punishingly literal is the notion of media effects held by those policymakers in the prisons. Inveterate behaviorists, they imagine–and then attempt to manipulate–a direct causal relationship between media consumption and action, between sound and deeds. Those manipulations, however, are a broken media policy for a broken system. As Marcos put it, speaking of the many entertainment options available to the docile inmate: “Even before I ever could imagine I was going to end up in prison, never in my wild imagination could I expect it to be this easy. Yes I said easy. We have no serious form of rehabilitation. . .Why does the state spend more on activities than education?”
Thanks to Genevieve Spinner for invaluable research assistance on this project.
Bill Kirkpatrick is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Communication Department at Denison University. His ongoing research and teaching interests include media history and cultural policy; impacts of popular culture on American public life; theories, practices, and future of citizen-produced media; and media and disability. He is also co-producer of Aca-Media, a monthly podcast that presents an academic perspective on media. You can find out more at www.billkirkpatrick.net.
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Prison Music: Containment, Escape, and the Sound of America–Jeb Middlebrook
SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format–Aaron Trammell