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Caterpillars and Concrete Roses in a Mad City: Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man” Interview with Tupac Shakur

"Shot by Drew: Kendrick Lamar" by Flickr user The Come Up Show, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve been hesitant to write about Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) because there are layers to the shit. Sonic, cultural, and political layers that need time to breathe and manifest. Some of those layers are pedagogical. For example, Brian Mooney brilliantly paired the album with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to help students work through themes of Black consciousness and self-love. Mooney’s lesson plan garnered Lamar’s attention and a recent visit with Mooney students. Lamar’s open grappling with art and blackness throw him into heavy debates about his worth as a cultural and even literary icon. Yet Lamar’s formula of introspective angst – the use of battling his own demons to shed light on broader American society – pulls me to think about how Lamar and TPAB fit into a long standing trajectory of Black folks’ self-examination in art as a frame for larger critiques of racial politics in American society.

Screenshot of album cover

Screenshot of album cover

I’m drawn to TPAB’s outro of the final track of the album “Mortal Man.” “Mortal Man” sonically invokes Lamar’s struggle to assume a position as a gatekeeper of a branch of hip hop that focuses on Black community and self-actualization. The track includes a sample from a 1994 Tupac Shakur interview with Swedish music journalist Mats Nileskär. Lamar positions himself as the interviewer, asking a different set of questions that engages Shakur about walking the fault lines of fame, fortune, and Black consciousness in this current cycle of hip hop. The construction and execution of the interview revisits the lines between hip hop’s collective and generational responsibilities via Lamar and Shakur’s interaction. Their conversation moves from creative (and creating) political protest to larger philosophical questions within hip hop: self-consciousness, mortality, and death. Lamar parallels his angst with Tupac using his voice, with Tupac himself heralded as hip hop’s martyred t.h.u.g. with a conscience. In this contemporary moment where Black men’s mortality and worth is attached to being a thug and a problem, Lamar poses Shakur in “Mortal Man” as a keystone for connecting popular scripts with cultural expectations of Black masculinity and agency in the United States.

The song “Mortal Man” launches the interview. The track can be considered a double sample – it uses Houston Person’s cover of Fela Kuti’s song “I No Get Eye for Back.” Lamar’s voice is clear but the background track soft and subdued, forcing the listener to pay full attention to Lamar’s voice, which interrogates what it takes for one to be loyal or respected in mainstream America. Percussion (bass kicks, acoustic drums, soft piano chords) and bass guitar chords annotate Lamar’s solemn lyrical delivery. A horn and woodwind medley – lead by Houston’s tenor sax playing – punctuate Lamar’s chorus:

When the shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?

When the shit his the fan, is you still a fan?

Want you to look to your left and right, make sure you ask your friends

The instrumental accompaniment is soft and steady, suggesting Lamar’s question is a continuous negotiation or checklist for one’s proclamation of loyalty and respect. Lamar’s repetition of “when the shit hit the fan is you still a fan” addresses his fanbase and the followers of other notable Black cultural and creative leaders. They, like Lamar, are usefully flawed – whether by accusation or self-proclamation – and use their flaws to further their cause. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Moses, Malcolm X, and Michael Jackson all exhibited social-cultural and political agency for (Black) folks. Yet they also suffered scrutiny and disregard because of their personal lives or less-than-respectable experiences.

Malcolm X at Queens Court. Source=Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c11166 Author=Herman Hiller, World Telegram staff photographer

Malcolm X at Queens Court. Source=Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c11166 Author=Herman Hiller, World Telegram staff photographer

I am especially intrigued by Lamar’s reference to Malcolm X as “Detroit Red,” a nickname X had as a young hellraiser before his conversion to Islam. Lamar’s reference to X in his youth here speaks to larger questions of respectability, Black youth, and protest. Detroit Red is young, flawed but influential, similar to Lamar and other young Black folks leading protests in this contemporary moment. Lamar’s roll call suggests a struggle with the question of authority, both as a creator of Black culture and how his music implies a larger struggle of contemporary Black agency and angst. Interviewing Tupac brings Lamar’s struggle to a head, evoking Shakur’s voice as a culturally recognizable authority of hip hop’s commercial progress and cultural process. The trope of a flawed nature as a departure point for creative expression and agency is a theme that runs throughout TPAB and the rest of Lamar’s musical catalogue.

The musical accompaniment to the “Mortal Man” song fades out and against a backdrop of silence Lamar begins to recite what he states is an unfinished piece. He begins, “I remember when you was conflicted,” which implies he is talking to himself or talking to someone else. The background silence that leads to Lamar and Shakur’s conversation is as telling as the conversation itself, sonically alluding both to Lamar’s ‘quiet’ struggles of self-affirmation and the possibility that someone other than the audience is listening. The quiet is Lamar’s moment of clarity; the listeners are with him at his most vulnerable moment. He uses the silence to focus attention on himself and without the ‘outside noise’ of others’ beliefs and impressions of his music and purpose.

“2Pac” By Flickr user
Tupac Amaru Shakur, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although the interview takes place over 20 years earlier, Tupac’s answers are clear and ‘live.’ Shakur’s initial voice is pensive and calculating – he sounds like he is thinking through his responses as he speaks – but later sounds more relaxed, laughing and talking louder and faster. The decreasing formality of Shakur’s answers suggests his increasing comfort with the interviewer as well as confidence in his own answers (and ultimately in sharing his beliefs). Lamar’s use of Shakur’s voice serves as the ultimate form of crate digging, using an obscure (or rare) radio interview sample to create his own voice in hip hop. Lamar’s engagement with Shakur serves memory as a cultural archive and as a cultural production. He not only preserves Shakur’s legacy in his own words but uses Shakur as a departure point for how to blur acts of listening for hip hop fans in a digital age.

The act of listening takes center stage for the interview. The interview is presented as an informal sitdown, reminiscent of what takes place during studio sessions: artists share new material and garner advice from veteran artists. Both rookies and veteran artist listen for new perspectives and listening for suggestions to approach a topic or track. Listening here shows Lamar’s awe and respect of Shakur’s perspective and artistry but also hints at how his conversation with Shakur is ultimately a conversation with himself. Lamar starts the conversation with an unfinished piece about his angsts regarding commercial success and how it conflicts with his creative process. He then moves on to asking Shakur about how he grapples with his creative and political consciousness. The listening work taking place here is critical and archival: without Lamar’s (and Lamar’s audience) interest in Shakur’s creative process his voice loses authority and ultimately its power.

Image From NY Daily News

Image From NY Daily News

Tupac’s sonic ‘resurrection’ signifies his lasting effect in hip hop while serving as a springboard for Lamar’s own pondering about the purpose of his music and the burden of its success. Unlike the visual representation of Shakur via hologram at the 2012 Coachella Music Festival, Lamar’s use of Tupac’s sonic likeness offers an alternative entry point for engaging Tupac’s work outside of his rapping. For example, much of Shakur’s social-political work takes place in his poetry i.e. his collection of poetry The Rose that Grew from Concrete. Further, the ‘thingness’ of the hologram, a physical and technological manifestation of hip hop fans’ and artists’ revering of Tupac’s image and death, makes me think about the type of work the hologram was expected to perform as compared to the sonic ‘ghostliness’ of Tupac’s voice on Lamar’s track. If, as John Jennings suggests, the hologram manifested Tupac as a “ghost in the machine,” how does Tupac’s voice work as a ghost in the machine? On a visceral level hearing Tupac’s voice in conversation with Kendrick Lamar stirs feelings about whether or not he is dead or alive and his immortality as a hip hop icon.

Where the Coachella hologram visualized Tupac Shakur spirit, “Mortal Man” sonically evokes his spirit and the connection between his (im)mortality and storytelling. Lamar says: “Sometimes I be like. . .get behind a mic and I don’t what type of energy I’ma push out or where it comes from.” Shakur responds “because the spirits, we ain’t really even rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.” Listening to Shakur’s use of “we” out of historical context – the interview took place in 1994, 21 years before “Mortal Man” – suggests that Tupac himself is among the dead. He is a “dead homie” and telling a story that Lamar himself is trying to relay to his audience and himself. Yet the lingering possibility of Tupac’s mortality – most embodied in Tupac’s silence after Lamar’s discussion of the significance of a caterpillar to the album – is a powerful moment of protest. Shakur’s quiet and Lamar’s attempt to “call him back,” signifies a period in the conversation. Lamar is left to fend for himself, fighting a “fight he can’t win.” There is also the possibility that his exchange with Shakur is “just some shit he wrote,” an unfinished idea and story that he is still figuring out. Lamar’s rendering of Tupac’s voice makes me think about the DJ Spooky statement “the voice you speak with may not be your own.” Tupac’s ghostly voice and Lamar’s search for his own voice blend to present Tupac as a mouthpiece for not only himself but Lamar.

At surface level Lamar resurrects and interviews Tupac Shakur because of regional ties to West Coast hip hop and a nearly standard declaration in rap of Shakur’s influence and fandom. He is arguably the most celebrated and iconic figure in hip hop. Shakur’s untimely death and open struggles with seeking balance between fame and personal responsibility mold him as hip hop’s shining prince. Shakur’s family ties with the Black Panther Party – a member of the Panthers once called him an “eternal cub” – positioned him to use hip hop as a mouthpiece for contemporary Black protest. But Shakur’s branding of protest and hip hop was messy, in part because of a working understanding and maneuvering of his image as controversial and commercially successful.

“KENDRICK LAMAR” by Flickr user
Pemberton Music Festival (Credit: Andy Holmes), CC BY-NC 2.0)

The “Mortal Man” interview signifies sound’s ability to usefully bridge past and present social, cultural, and political moments. Lamar’s sonic evoking of Tupac Shakur demonstrates hip hop as a space of Black youth political protest. Lamar uses sound to render hip hop temporality and re-emphasize Black popular culture as a departure point for recognizing contemporary Black angst. The shrinking mediums of spaces available to indicate why and how #BlackLivesMatter position the sonic as a work bench for engaging race relations in a deemed post-racial era. The “Mortal Man” interview serves as a blueprint for connecting hip hop to longstanding conversations about Black protest as a (messy) cultural product.

Featured image: “Shot by Drew: Kendrick Lamar” by Flickr user The Come Up Show, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

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I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity — Regina Bradley

Saving Sound, Sounding Black, Voicing America: John Lomax and the Creation of the “American Voice”— Toniesha Taylor

Como Now? Marketing “Authentic” Black Music— Jennifer Stoever

Sonic Connections: Listening for Indigenous Landscapes in Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles

"chavez ravine"

In April 2015, ten American Indian extras walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s new film The Ridiculous Six, a spoof on the classic Magnificent Seven (1960), in protest over the gross misrepresentation of Native cultures in general, and in particular over its insults to women and elders. Allison Young, a Navajo actress who participated in walking off, stated, “Nothing has changed. We are still just Hollywood Indians.” Young is referencing a long history of the film industries’ construction of stereotypical American Indians by non-natives created to entertain non-natives.

Still from the movie. From http://www.arthousecowboy.com

Still from the movie. From http://www.arthousecowboy.com

Within this long history exists a rare film, Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 The Exiles, re-restored and re-released in 2008 by Milestone Films. The Exiles is one of the few 20th century films that feature urban American Indians; it follows three main Native narrators from dusk to dawn as they experience the joys and struggles of urban life. Without an official score, this black and white docudrama places sound against haunting 35 millimeter black-and-white images of a downtown Los Angeles landscape. This mis-en-scène creates what Mackenzie (the white screenwriter, director and producer) asserts is “the authentic account of 12 hours.” The voiceovers of Homer Nish, a Hualipai from Valentine, Arizona who recently moved to Los Angeles after fighting in the Korean War; Yvonne Walker, originally from the White River Apache reservation in San Carlos, Arizona who first moved to the city to work as a domestic; and Tommy Reynolds, who is identified only as Mexican-Indian and is portrayed as a comedic playboy and the life of the party; narrate the intimate, day-to-day lives of urban American Indians.

In this post, I consider what we can hear if we pay close attention to how the director incorporates the narrators in a kind of Indigenous soundscape. Mackenzie’s soundscape bring together voices as well as music. The collage of sounds traces the journeys of American Indians to and from Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century. The sonic connections in The Exiles provide a cacophony of histories of forced movement, transit, and re-making spaces as Indigenous at the same time that it perpetuates important historical silences. I borrow Chickasaw scholar Jodi A. Byrd’s term from The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (2011), cacophony—or “discordant and competing representations” and experiences— and apply it to the sounds that inform the indigenous space represented through the film.

"Bunker Hill 1968" by Flickr user Laurie Avocado (CC BY 2.0)

“Bunker Hill 1968″ by Flickr user Laurie Avocado (CC BY 2.0)

The narrators are part of a large population of American Indians who moved from rural reservations to urban centers after WWII. Due to the federal government’s mismanagement of Native tribes’ land and resources, and the genocidal abandonment of treaties made with tribes, the late 1950s and 1960s were times of dire economic and social conditions on reservations. The influx of Native Americans to cities also came because of assimilation campaigns in boarding schools, military service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ “Termination Era” policies (1940s –1960s) that intended to terminate the state’s bureaucratic relationships with Native tribes. Relocating Native populations from reservations into cities where work was available year-round was a key aspect of the Termination Era policies. According to Norman Klein (The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory), areas near downtown Los Angeles, including Bunker Hill where the film is primarily shot, were multi-racial neighborhoods in economic decline and therefore became relocation sites for American Indians. Importantly, both Klein and Mackenzie are silent about the prior forced removal of Tongva on that very same location that began in the 1840s.

The audio track of The Exiles contradicts the stereotypical American Indian sounds featured in Hollywood movies. The film’s contemporary mainstream Hollywood releases included sounds such as the whooping sounds of “hostile Indians” in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), the broken English spoken by the “Apache” in Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), and stereotypes played out in John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven (1960). In the soft Southwestern Native lilt of Yvonne’s voice, the way that Homer and others add “you know?” to the end of almost every sentence they utter, alongside the rhythm of the casual banter and tenor of the men’s laughter, I hear a potential sonic archive of American Indians that talks back. For example, in a short clip when Tommy and his friends enter Café Ritz, an Indian bar, Thomas calls out over the loud rock and roll music as he passes people at the bar. Tommy shifts easily between English (“What’s happening there, man?”), Spanish (“Gracias amigo, ¿cómo estas?”), and Dine (“Yá’át’ééh. E la na tte?”). Careful attention to the cinematic soundscape provides access to voices of discontent and resiliency, practices of building and maintaining multilingual multi-tribal Indian spaces, and the flow of American Indians between reservations and multiple cities.

Understanding the sounds and the silences of The Exiles as a cacophony offers a way to appreciate how the film both perpetuates stereotypes but also provides insights into the urban American Indian experience. Mackenzie’s construction of Homer Nish and American Indian men continues a myth that it is individualized behavior that keeps Indians from the American Dream. (In his 1964 masters thesis, “A Description and Examination of the Production of The Exiles: A Film of the Actual Lives of a Group of Young American Indians” Mackenzie states outright that he believes they are responsible for the mess they created). The Exiles portrays American Indian men reading comic books, listening to rock and roll, hanging out at bars instead of working, and taking rent money away from their suffering women and children to gamble. These formulaic images of Native Americans are informed by a long history of visual, literary and legal representations of American Indians that compose Indian men as either savage, infantile and emasculated. But if we listen to the banter and laughter in the bar scenes and at home, we also hear the caring intimacy of camaradrie. The cacophony of sound provides a counterbalance to the visual representations.

 

The Voiceover and Realism

Mackenzie uses dialogue to direct the visual and sonic narrative of the docudrama’s soundscape. Ironically, this collaborative low budget project that stretched on for three and a half years has minimal original dialogue. They could not afford sound techs on site, so the most obvious sonic evocation of realism Mackenzie explores is asynchronous sound performed in a studio months later. In Mackenzie’s master’s thesis he writes that, to construct dialogues (they often voiced their lines with a group of people around), “people would joke around a lot” while “everybody was drinking beer” (76). The filmmaker did not find that dialogue on larger budget feature films at the time were “lifelike” and believable. He writes that people

seldom spoke of important matters directly; they seldom spoke clearly or coherently when they did speak and their everyday language was full of overlaps interruption and communications through looks, gestures and shrugs. Many sentences made the end understood. …What a person said seemed less important than how he said it. (73)

Here, it becomes clear that the “realism” Mackenzie pursues is more about a style of filmmaking rather than about an authentic rendering of Native American everyday life. If he found the actors performing lines too dramatically Mackenzie states he “would blow the scene apart by asking for more casual and apparently pointless lines” (73). He created a specially mediated recording of the people, downtown Los Angeles and the time period. In other words, he pursued realism: he did not seek to fully capture real experiences.

Tommy Reynolds and Homer Nish in Kent Mackenzie's THE EXILES (1961).

Tommy Reynolds and Homer Nish in Kent Mackenzie’s THE EXILES (1961).

Through interviews he guides the actors to talk about their everyday lives, their problems and their thoughts about life. Mackenzie used “improvised tracks” out of individual interviews in an attempt “to help preserve their point of view in the film.” He interviewed Homer, Tommy and Yvonne for several hours apiece, questioning and re-questioning them – not necessarily to document the subjects’ truths but “for emotional quality and general attitudes and feelings” (78). Despite his intentions, the voiceovers provide some context of the trials of everyday life and how the leads negotiated their belonging in a space far from home. Mackenzie’s realism builds a collage of soundscapes—voiceovers, background noise, music—to orchestrate a scene rather than simply document part of a 12-hour period of life.

 

Rock and Roll and Urban Indian Sounds

Mainstream “Hollywood Indians” are associated with a limited soundscape of drums and whoops, but Mackenzie’s use of contemporary rock and roll illustrates the complexity of the indigenous soundscape. Even though the film opens with the slow repetitive beating of the buckskin drums and a contextual opening monologue, after the drums stop it is the early surf music of Anthony Hilder and his five-piece band, The Revels, that drive many of the scenes. The music renders audible the many ways people tried to belong in new locations and within new cultures, juxtaposing the fast blast of the trumpet and guitar riffs of the Revels with the steady beat of the drum and shake of a turtle rattle.

Mackenzie continues this juxtaposition later in the film. Homer, alone on the street in front of a liquor store, opens a letter a bartender handed to him earlier in the evening. At the top of the letter is written “Peach Springs, Arizona” and tucked within the letter is a picture of an older man and woman. The camera focuses on the picture that dissolves and reemerges as a rural desert scene. The man from the picture sits beneath a tree with a girl and the woman, and rhythmically chants and shakes a rattle. There is no voice-over or dialogue; ceremonial singer Jacinto Valenzuela’s repeats a song multiple times without an English translation. The steady rattle of the dry seeds in the gourd are a sharp contrast to the pace of the Revels’ songs that saturates Homer’s earlier scenes.

Without guidance from a narrator, the scene is left to audience interpretation. The scene and its sounds could represent Homer’s sense of being displaced between times, or a homesick romanticized remembrance of family life: the moment quickly dissipates and Homer once again stands alone on a corner bathed in the streetlight. However, the music here could be a sonic connection that provides an alternative geography of indigenous space and place. Mackenzie’s collage of sound echoes the circuitous path of indigenous bodies and ideas of indigenous life in diasporas described in Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska scholar Renya Ramirez’s work in Native Hubs: Culture, Community, and Belonging in Silicon Valley and Beyond. The rattle and drum can instead signal a belonging to a community and people in a present that Homer carries within him. Through sound, Mackenzie connects Homer with his communities, traditions, and a sense of belonging regardless of spatial distance.

Mackenzie deepens this connection when he imbeds Homer in a place and community through the dancing and drumming on Hill X in the penultimate scene of the film sounds. When Homer talks about Hill X (formerly Chavez Ravine, then a site of the forced displacement of Mexican residents in Los Angeles in 1950-1952, now the site of Dodger Stadium) we hear his strategy for his own and his tribe’s collective survival. The shaking of the gourd in the desert and the dancing, singing and drumming of the 49 —lead by Mescalero singers Eddie Sunrise Gallerito and his twin cousins Frankie Red Elk and Chris Surefoot—shows a reclaiming of Los Angeles as indigenous land. Thus practices of sound and movement function as what Tonawanda Seneca scholar Mishuanna Goeman identifies as “remapping” of Indian space. Taken together with the beat of the drum, the bells and rock and roll compose the content of a Los Angeles indigenous soundscape.

exiles_poster1_lgThe Exiles registers contemporary American Indians in motion. Homer and his comrades reclaim Hill X as Indian land with song and dance over a century after the City of Los Angeles displaced the Tongva out of that same location. At the time of the filming, American Indians were also forced to move within Los Angeles- their homes on Bunker Hill soon demolished and replaced by high rises. Paying attention and critically re-listening to the sounds of The Exiles offers an alternative soundscape of Indigenous life.

 

Featured image: “chavez ravine” by Flickr user Paul Narvaez, CC BY-NC 2.0

Laura Sachiko Fugikawa holds a doctoral degree in American Studies and Ethnicity with a certificate in Gender Studies from the University of Southern California. Currently she is working on her book, Displacements: The Cultural Politics of Relocation, and teaches Asian American Studies at Northwestern University.

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Sounding Out! Podcast #40: Linguicide, Indigenous Community and the Search for Lost Sounds–Marcella Ernst
The “Tribal Drum” of Radio: Gathering Together the Archive of American Indian Radio–Josh Garrett Davis
Vocal Gender and the Gendered Soundscape: At the Intersection of Gender Studies and Sound Studies–Christine Ehrick

Sounding Out! Podcast #42: Listening in on Noisy Ghost ‘Our Madonnas Our Nobodies’

Domiriel CC BY-NC

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOADListening in on Noisy Ghost ‘Our Madonnas Our Nobodies’

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This week, Sounding Out! is happy to share a podcast on nostalgia, performance, and sound. Please join host, Eleanor Russell (Northwestern University), as she guides us through through the popular sounds of the 1980s and compares her sonically-mediated memories to the lived perspectives of her co-hosts André Callot (Independent Artist) and Eric Wenzel (Roosevelt University). How do we remember urban space through sonic media, and is their a potential to queer our memories of the decade by revisiting our shared media ouvré? No matter where you stand on the issue, we recommend that if you enjoyed this week’s podcast you listen in on Eleanor’s other work exploring performance and sound at Noisy Ghost.

Podcast host Eleanor Russell is a Ph.D student at Northwestern University in the Interdisciplinary Program in Theatre and Drama. Her research interests include sound studies, women’s stand-up and performance art, and feminist epistemologies and phenomenologies. She is affiliated with the Critical Theory Cluster at Northwestern. MA in Theatre History and Criticism from Brooklyn College, BA Religious Studies from Grinnell College.

Featured image by Domriel @Flickr CC BY-NC.

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Podcast #34: Sonia Li’s “Whale” – Sonia Li

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Learning to Listen: The Velvet Underground’s “Once Lost” LPs – Tim J. Anderson

SO! Reads: Daniela Cascella’s F.M.R.L. (Finding Materials for Remembering and Listening)

"The Meaning of It All" by Flickr user Nick Webb, CC BY 2.0

SO! Reads3

***

Before I read F.M.R.L., I didn’t know Daniela Cascella or her work. I hadn’t read her first book or her blog or her Tweets; I hadn’t seen any exhibits she had curated or attended a reading. Instead, the words in her book introduced us.

Here’s how she was introduced, here in this exploration of how sound and writing intertwine:

  • A wanderer, traveling the globe to meet friends, attend conferences, read books (and more books, and more books)
  • An archivist, saving physical and digital boxes of sounds and words and quotes, all blended with her own notes and ideas
  • A listener, noticing the sounds of words as much as their meanings
  • A cave-explorer, digging ever deeper through layers of earth to find echoes of what has been buried—which is another way to say a wanderer, an archivist, a listener

How odd to meet someone through words alone, not knowing what she sounds like, what she would say if we met.

***

“you know you’re a Mac user when…” by Flickr user Nick Normal, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve never told anyone this: I sometimes imagine descendants and friends sifting through my digital archives after I die, meeting me through my words and my collections.

“Collections” is too organized of a word, really. I save files, sometimes in clearly named folders, but just as often not: pdfs, docs, txts, sometimes containing my own words and sometimes others’. On 3.5” floppies, CDs, DVDs, in the cloud. Poems, essays, quotations, scans—I don’t even know what these people from the future might find, how these archives would introduce me to them.

Once, my first year in college, a girl I liked called me to complain about her boyfriend, and her words were so layered with meaning that I opened up a window of Word and started typing her words, verbatim. She was going fast, though, so when I got behind, I just hit enter and kept going. She must have heard the keyboard clicking, but she never said anything.

I haven’t read that file for years, but it must be somewhere in the cave of my collections.

***

png;base6445b4d03606ce2862A colleague sees Cascella’s F.M.R.L. on my desk. His face scrunches as he tries to make sense of the letters on the cover.

“It’s a book I’m reviewing,” I offer.

“No, it’s just. . . .” He reads the subtitle. “I thought it was a play on the phrase FML or something.”

I know how he feels. Every time I see the book sitting there, new words and letters come to mind. I eventually heard it as ephemeral, but always after others:

Formerly. Fame, really. Female roll. F my real life. FM Radio, Live!

Here’s what it actually says on the cover: Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound. When my colleague sees that subtitle, he experiences the tiny pleasure of “getting it,” of seeing what the letters “really” stand for, of feeling like these words now make sense in the way they were supposed to.

But inside the book, you quickly learn that in 1926, Louis Aragon also re-voiced ephemeral as F.M.R.L., but the letters stood for something different to him: frenzy, madness, reverie, love.

Cascella takes it further: the next page lists the other things that F.M.R.L. could stand for: footnotes, false starts, frenzy, and so on, each list of words ending in delightful ellipses, which seem to say, “And what does this F mean to you?”

“The Letter F for Flickr and Friends” by Flickr user Denise Womack-Avila, CC BY-NC 2.0

***

From Cascella’s blog: “The title is ‘F.M.R.L.': not ‘Ephemeral’. I chose this title because of its ambiguity and because it calls to be sounded. I chose it to draw the attention toward language as material; to stay away from any literal understanding of sound as ephemeral, as if unworthy of attention; and to prompt other departures from and into words and letters.”

***

A note I wrote in the margin: “So much of this book is an explanation of this book.”

Consider:

“I have a habit with listening. It makes me write even when I don’t now [sic?] what to say. . .” (9). Do you hear? she seems to say. I’m writing, and you’re listening in, but I’m not sure what it will mean to you, or to me. That’s how sound works.

“Each cluster of words is not created anew but cast from words that were before, recalled from archival layers. I don’t want to explain them, but rearrange them and hand them over to you before they expire” (118). Do you hear? she continues. Will you listen? Can’t you make meanings without my explanations?

“SOUND: You should not have called me Sound, but told me of the sounds in s-s, addressed me with incoherent stories and undecipherable acoustic traces, signifiers whose sense is uncertain and that yet mean” (2).

That last is from the dialogue that opens the book: SOUND and WRITER are “walking in a circle, anticlockwise and diametrically opposite” as they try to figure each other out. Or, really, as Writer tries to figure out Sound, trying to grasp and understand and explain. Sound seems ok living in the moment, singing.

As I read the rest of the book, I kept remembering that tension between writing and sound. It’s infused in the pages of the book like strong tea.

And I kept thinking of myself, as a writer and teacher of writing who is also a listener and a maker of sounds. I’m dedicated to writing and sounds, both. Maybe Cascella’s solution is the best: to love words, to read and memorize and archive them, but to never stop at what they signify, to always attend to the sounds they suggest as well, the puns of meaning hidden throughout all languages.

***

By writing about this book, I feel I’m writing against some of its core ideas.

Writing about is so descriptive, explaining, clarifying, cleaning up, setting the table for dinner because something important is going to happen soon, so wash your hands. When I write about, I take notes in the margins, but not the kind of notes where I exclaim in wonder or shock, or record my emotional reactions. Instead, when I’m in writing about mode, I jot marginal notes that summarize, explain, organize, keep track of everything.

An example: here’s a list of the page numbers where I noticed Cascella using the word ephemeral:

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Ah, now I have some ownership over this book. Ah, now I am on my way to understanding it.

This is how I feel when reading/annotating poetry: a little embarrassed when I annotate only to explain and clarify, but pleasantly engaged when I annotate my gut reactions, often written in exclamation points or question marks or stars, doubled or tripled when I really mean it.

***

This is a book that asks to be read all in one sitting, even though that’s impossible.

At least it’s impossible for me. Cascella’s soundings (which seems like a better word than writings) are thick with images and quotations and sudden jumps, which seems to suggest a slow attitude, like reading a poem or two a day instead of powering through an entire book as if it were a long sandwich.

But the echoes (and this is very much a book about echoes, and caverns, and geological layers) threaten to disappear from memory if you wait too long to read the next chapter. My longer reading sessions were always rewarded with subtle connections: a circle, an incantation that I’m sure she mentioned just a few pages back, hold on while I find it.

So maybe the best solution is to read it once quickly, attending to the echoes, and then again slowly, attending to the layers. It’s like watching Twin Peaks, like exploring a museum.

“The Lion Man” by Flickr user storebukkebruse, CC BY 2.0

An example: in the final section of the book, she describes The Lion Man, a 40,000-year old sculpture. “I cannot even figure the meaning of 40,000 years ago,” she writes (113). I pause, look up, and bite the end of my pen. I’ve heard these lines before, I realize. Did I read ahead, when I first got the book in the mail? Or did I read about The Lion Man online somewhere, maybe when Thomas Rickert is discussing the Lascaux paintings in his book Ambient Rhetoric? Was I thinking about it when singing R.E.M.’s “Texarkana” the other day in the shower, how the numbers in that song grow from 20,000 to 30,000 to 40,000?

But then, later, I skim through my marginalia and realize I was wrong: Cascella herself told this story, back on page 14, using the same words.

I’m tempted to explain to you the effect of this verbal echo, from sculpture to exhibit to Cascella’s archival notes to Cascella’s book, written in two different places. But right now, I have page 15 open, held down under my arms as I type, and there’s a sentence there that I double-starred, and to me, double-stars are rare and important. I starred: “Perhaps their [ancient art objects’] final appeal is for us to cease to aim at being clear and distinct” (15).

So I’ll hold off my explaining, my desire to clarify. But I’ll add another echo from Cascella: toward the end of the book, she writes the same sentence—”Perhaps their final appeal is for us to cease to aim at being clear and distinct” (120)—but this time, the pronoun their is describing sounds, bottled up and kept in the room of an enchanted child. On this page, I once again double-starred the line, even though I had forgotten that I had read those words before in this book. They affected me the way sounds affect me, with the slam and the flood of standing in the ocean, which then pulls back before repeating the same slam and the same flood.

***

“Lascaux II – Hall of the Bulls” by Flickr user Adibu456, CC BY-NC 2.0

“[W]e can compare the designed use of Lascaux as afforded by its spatial, acoustic, and material properties to musicians’ attempts to get a certain sound by recording in a specific environment.” —Thomas Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being

***

I recently taught Lauren Slater’s memoir Lying in a creative nonfiction class. I reread it on a plane ride to Florida and decided to write about my experience on the plane ride home. But when I opened my laptop, I found myself writing like Slater in little ways: invented scenes mixed into my nonfiction, insistent addresses to the reader (like “you have to believe me on this point”), sentences that drifted on, connected only by comma splices, there’s one there, they’re lovely sometimes, they were everywhere in my sentences.

What’s more, this echoing didn’t feel like a choice. Slater’s writing had become part of my internal archive, bubbling up unbidden.

***

Scholar of writing Peter Elbow emphasizes the importance of teaching students to trust their mouth and ears when making punctuation decisions. He admits that comma splices often feel right when you’re trusting the sound of your words, that there’s a connectedness you want with a comma that you don’t get with a pesky semicolon or period or even a lively dash.

“But,” he reminds us—and I hear some sad music in the background as I write this—”many teachers and readers who know the rules are unforgiving about run-ons.”

Do you see how Cascella is in my brain, connecting my mental archives with synthesizer cables? I can’t stop thinking about the rules of writing and the rules of sound, and how they might sound together if I just try plugging this here. . . .

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“Modular Synthesizer Desktop HDR” by Flickr user Peter Georges, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

***

In one of Cascella’s most fascinating chapters, she describes an experiment she performed on herself: “I learned by heart every week a paragraph from a new text that mentioned sounds, re-wrote it from memory the following week, and interpolated the missing parts with other words heard beside myself—an experiment in layered memory, as it corrodes and actualises my physical and emotional archives while I search for more voices: an echo cast into shape, to fold my enchantment with words round, and back dissolving, and again” (69).

She shares three examples, three “casts,” of these rewritings from memory. And I’ll be honest: when I first read this part of the book, I was excited at the idea of looking up the originals, of trying to catch exactly how much she did and didn’t remember—of reinscribing the authority of an ur-text, instead of allowing the echoes of the her-text envelope me.

So I looked one up. (I mean, Google Books.) And I compared. And I saw similarities and differences. Yep, there they were.

And out of nowhere, I felt ashamed. I felt like I was trying to break her experiment, her art, her practice. So I’ll leave it up to you: read her rewritings from memory—it’s chapter 11, I’ll wait while you find it—and decide for yourself if you want to know how much she changed or didn’t change from the “originals.” Decide for yourself how right/write or wrong it is to play with someone else’s texts. Decide for yourself if this is really how we do everything everyday anyway.

***

Slater’s Lying, the book I read on the plane, mixes truth and lies, a fact that aggravates some readers and enchants others. The thing is, she tells you exactly what she’s doing—I mean, the book is called Lying, and her first chapter, in its totality, is “I exaggerate.” Plenty of other obvious clues remind us that fact and fiction have been put in the blender of this book.

Cascella tells us what she’s doing, too. Eventually, you start to realize that explaining this book is one of the themes of the book—but no, explaining is the wrong word. More like inviting you to enjoy it the way she wants you to enjoy it.

Sometimes that invitation is rather direct: “I seek to reclaim the intermittent incoherence in listening as it urges to move through its residual presence into a marginated writing that is not a site of clarity but edge, horizon, fugue” (24). Bam. Pretty clear.

But often, she’s more invitational, writing in the second person, just to you: “Try and listen to them, one after the other, forget about genealogies and canons, listen to those vocal intertwinements and rhythmic mosaics” (30).

Then it’s back to her again, how she “want[s] words to follow the untidy movements in listening, to be mud and magma” (48), how she’s “drawn to listening to [sounds], to reinvent, recall and divine them in words” (68).

Her, you, her, you. Me. A swing, a dance, a recursive circle between telling and inviting.

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“Blah” by Flickr user Flood G., CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

***

“The moment I begin to write, sound is no longer sound” (39).

***

One reason Cascella writes this way: she’s frustratred with work on sound that ignores the affordances of sound. At sound art conferences, in discussions about sound art—they all seem to be so filled with words and explanations that she couldn’t help but explode words onto these pages in a different mode, like she does in this book.

“[C]oming back from yet another conference on sound,” she writes, “I would feel like I no longer knew how to speak, listen or write” (23). She’s tired of artists who make complex work but then use “trite and worn-out expressions that say no more” when describing it (55), “where sound becomes an apology” (108).

So this book uses sounds, and there’s no accompanying apology. Sorry.

***

I’m sitting outside at an academic conference for scholars in rhetoric and composition. I’ve seen some boundary-breaking stuff today, but I want more.

“I mean, sometimes I don’t want to have to tell the audience everything,” I say. I’m at a table with friends. We’re in Florida, so we’re drinking obscenely bright cocktails. “I want to throw ideas and sounds at them and let them connect the dots. These are smart people, right?”

Paul nods and pauses before speaking. We just met, so I think he’s trying to give good advice in as gentle a way as he can. “Yes. They’re smart. But there’s obviously a line, too, right? If you’re creating scholarship, you have to make moves that signal that you’re part of that community, that conversation. Otherwise, you’re making. . . .”

“You’re making art. Right?”

“Right. And art is important, and I agree that we need more artistic sensibilities in our field. But it’s not scholarship.” He pauses. “You have to play the game, too.”

I nod. I think he’s right. Sometimes, in some places, I need to play the game.

But not always. And in different fields, different modes of expression beyond the scholarly, the game is different, you can see it if you peek around the corner into other rooms. And if you break down walls, it’s all one big room. Which is exciting and terrifying and I want it all, all the ideas and methods and all the sounds.

“Sound six points” by Flickr user Sarah Barker, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

***

How can I tell you anything at all, when all I know are sounds?

But still, you want the point. You want to know what this book will do for you, for your art, for your scholarship.

How can I tell you anything at all, when all I know are sounds?

But ok. You’re not here to be moved. (Are you? I hope you are.) But if you’re not: what will propel your ideas, what will inspire your work after reading Cascella, what the take-aways are:

  • “Writing away from sound” as a different way to “write about sound” (44). That is, instead of explaining, to let the nature of sound itself inspire the kinds of work you do.
  • “Writing Sound” as an “encounter,” as “transcience” (54).
  • Acknowledging our archives and inviting them to the forefront of our writing, even when those encounters are messy or confusing.
  • Considering what we’re really doing in our art/theory/writing/sounding. Cascella says she’s not “a writer, a theorist, a critic” but “a handler of words, a listener, a reader” (90). Who are you? Who am I?

But how can I tell you anything at all, when all I know are sounds?

***

“I’m cut through by voices I don’t want to explain” (72).

Kyle D. Stedman is assistant professor of English at Rockford University, where he teaches first-year composition, digital rhetoric, and creative nonfiction. His work explores rhetorics of sound and music, intellectual property, and fandom. He tweets at @kstedman and hosts the podcast Plugs, Play, Pedagogy.

Featured image: “The Meaning of It All” by Flickr user Nick Webb, CC BY 2.0

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

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“Sound Studies: A Discipline?”: Sound Signatures Winter School, Amsterdam, January 2014 — Melle Kromhout

Sounding Out Podcast #36: Anne Zeitz and David Boureau’s “Retention” — Aaron Trammell

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