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Sound Off!// Comment Klatsch #15: Urban Sounds

Sounding Off2klatsch \KLAHCH\ , noun: A casual gathering of people, esp. for refreshments and informal conversation  [German Klatsch, from klatschento gossip, make a sharp noiseof imitative origin.] (Dictionary.com)

Dear SO! Community:  Our SOCK this month comes to us from Managing Editor Liana Silva-Ford, who co-edited last month’s forum, Sounds of the City.

Who or what determines a city’s soundscape?

Comment Klatsch logo courtesy of The Infatuated on Flickr.

À qui la rue?: On Mégaphone and Montreal’s Noisy Public Sphere

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Sounds of the City forumEditor’s Note:  This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. The Sounds of the City series will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?

We kicked things off three weeks ago with my critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Two weeks ago, guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe took readers on a soundwalk of Smithfield Square in Dublin, Ireland and specifically of the Smithfield Horse Fair, in order to illustrate how urban renewal disrupts city soundscapes and how sound reclaims those spaces. Last week, regular SO! writer Regina Bradley discussed the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet) and hip hop.

Today’s post comes from CFP winner Lilian Radovac, who shares with us a critical photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal.–Managing Editor Liana M. Silva-Ford

Updated with edits as of 12:28 pm EST

***

October, 2013. I’m waiting for the 80. It’s already dark and bitterly cold for fall, and the bus is predictably late. As the line of people waiting lengthens, traffic rushes past on President-Kennedy and north along Jeanne-Mance, punctuating the larger roar of rush hour in Montreal.

Suddenly, a woman’s voice lifts up out of the din. It’s hard to make out what she’s saying at first, but then a single phrase escapes from the thrum of traffic: “…freedom and democracy…” I look around, trying to place the sound. It’s gone. Several minutes later, the voice rises again: “Tell us again about freedom and democracy!” This time, my ears get a lock on the words and I leave my place in the line to follow them to their source.

"Promenade des artistes"

“Promenade des artistes”

"Light up the city with your idea"

“Light up the city with your idea”

The amphitheater

The amphitheater

My feet bring me to the Promenade des artistes, a slim triangle of concrete that separates President Kennedy Avenue from De Maisonneuve Boulevard, and the sounds of Mégaphone. The promenade is the temporary home of the audiovisual installation produced by the multimedia studio Moment Factory, co-sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada and the Quartier des spectacles partnership. The installation is composed of three zones: to the west, a small outdoor amphitheater arranged around a large red megaphone; across the street, the University of Quebec at Montreal’s science pavilion, which doubles as a projection screen; and to the east, housed in a series of “event vitrines,” an audio exhibition of recordings by notable Quebec speakers who have “shaped public space in Montreal with their words.”

According to the accompanying press kit, Mégaphone is inspired by London’s Speaker’s Corner and Montreal’s interwar tradition of popular assemblies. Its stated goal is to “bring the art of public speaking back into the city.” It’s designed as an interactive experience, which encourages visitors to take to the stage during designated open mic periods and, by speaking into the megaphone, to “light up the city” with their ideas. Their speeches are first acoustically amplified, then processed by voice recognition software and projected onto the façade of the science building, which becomes a canvas for randomly generated keywords. Mégaphone is also timed to coincide with the run-up to Montreal’s November 4th municipal election, and features a program of scheduled speakers that includes an appearance by the city’s mayoral candidates.

Quartier des spectacles

Map

Office tower

As I wander through the empty amphitheater, I find myself thinking that it’s a strange place for a sound installation. The Promenade des artistes is sandwiched between UQAM’s science campus and the northern border of Place des Arts, a Lincoln Center-style performing arts complex that occupies several city blocks. Jane Jacobs would have called this a “dead place,” lost as it is between a set of bicycle lanes and the science building’s indoor food court, which draws pedestrian traffic away from the open space of the street. On the day of my visit, I’m the only person there. Beyond the Promenade des artistes lies the larger Quartier des spectacles, an ongoing culture-led regeneration project which, in an effort to cement the city’s “brand” as a creative city, has concentrated Montreal’s outdoor cultural activities into a single, sprawling site. Traces of the working-class neighborhood it displaced peek out from behind construction fences, quietly attesting to the area’s industrial past.

Still following the voice, I walk towards the line of event vitrines, where seven audio exhibits map the aural contours of an imagined community made real. The speeches on display tell a story of Quebec’s emergence from its colonial past, when the province’s French-speaking majority was dominated by the Catholic church and a minority Anglophone elite. Each voice, in its way, speaks to a period of enormous social transformation fuelled by the dream of Quebec’s independence: Irving Layton delivers a lecture from an amplified podium; Gilles Vigneault sings “Gen du pays” from a stage at Parc Mont-Royal; Pierre Bourgault gives a firebrand speech at the Third Congress of the Parti Québécois. Only the seventeenth century Wendat Chief Kondiaronk remains eerily mute, his voice buried in the memoirs of his colonial French counterparts.

Irving Layton exhibit

Irving Layton exhibit

Gilles Vigneault exhibit

Gilles Vigneault exhibit

Kondiaronk exhibit, with graffiti

Kondiaronk exhibit, with graffiti

Poet Michèle Lalonde’s voice, however, dominates the space of the exhibit. It’s noticeably higher in pitch than the drone of traffic, and when it rises to meet the words “freedom and democracy” it pierces the low rumble of passing buses and trucks, filling the husk of the surrounding streets. The poem she reads is well known in Quebec, and the version on display here is central to the province’s history and identity as a nation. Recorded at La nuit de la poésie in 1970, the poem was first read at a 1968 benefit performance to support imprisoned members of the Front de libération du Québec, one of whom was Pierre Vallières, the author of Nègres blancs d’Amérique.

Inspired by Vallières’ memoir, “Speak White” is a double appropriation: of the English admonition to Francophones to abandon their mother tongue and, simultaneously, of the revolutionary potential of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, with which the most militant factions of the Quebec independence movement aligned themselves. It is, as Sean Mills has observed, an uncomfortable alliance in a province that struggles to recognize its own racism and status as a settler colony, but in the poetic space of Lalonde’s recitation the words still shudder with subaltern rage.

[Read English translation]

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The term “megaphone” is something of a misnomer. The voices of participating speakers are amplified using a hand-held microphone that is connected to a stationary loudspeaker, which actually makes the megaphone more of a rudimentary public address system. It’s an important distinction, since the aural uses of the megaphone are shaped above all by its portability. Megaphones are a mobile audio technology and therefore a nomadic one; like boomboxes and iPods, they’re designed to be easy to carry and to be used while moving from place to place. The public address system, by contrast, is rooted in space: the speaking subject is anchored to the microphone and to the apparatus of amplification, which is composed not only of cables and loudspeakers but also the architectural elements (podium, stage, seating) of the auditorium.

More importantly, the portable megaphone is intended to be used outdoors and in crowds. Thomas Edison’s acoustic megaphone, which he patented in 1878, was soon used at sporting events and to magnify the voices of political leaders at outdoor public events. By 1900, street hawkers began selling makeshift megaphones to the politicians’ audiences, and their wares contributed to a new and noisy public sphere. When the megaphone was married to the transistor and to battery power in the 1950s, the technology was seized by social movements around the world, which used it to appropriate and disperse the power of the individual public speaker. Among them were the student and labor unions that flourished in the wake of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which had opened up a space for the province’s democratization.

Strike graffiti

Strike graffiti

May Day poster

May Day poster

The year before Mégaphone opened, the promenades of the Quartiers des spectacles were crossed by hundreds and sometimes thousands of bodies that spilled out of Parc Émilie-Gamelin, where students and their supporters gathered for the nighttime demonstrations that became a hallmark of the Quebec student strike, or printemps érable. Each night at about 8:30 pm, we set off on marches that had no planned route and no final destination, walking for hours along streets that we claimed with nothing but our voices and the feet that carried them along. If you arrived late you could find the #manifencours on Twitter, or you could listen for the sounds of the crowd’s chants and the police helicopters that hovered constantly overhead, keeping large swaths of the downtown core awake until the early morning hours.

When the Liberal government attempted to break the strike with the reviled Bill 78, which required protest organizers to submit itineraries to the authorities in advance, the night marches dovetailed with a sudden explosion of casserole protests, which coalesced around autonomous popular assemblies organized at the neighborhood level. Within days, demonstrators fanned out across the city as roving bands of casserolières set off from Villeray, Mile End, Hochelaga, St-Henri and even staid, sleepy Outremont, erupting into cacophonous clangs and cheers as we found each other at the borders of our quartiers and merged into ever larger assemblages. If a city can light up with sound, then that is what happened here in Montreal.

These echoes of the printemp érable form the acoustic backdrop of Mégaphone, and the sounds of the installation are designed to bleed into listeners’ memories of the strike. But Mégaphone is as much about the management of acoustic space as a celebration of its potential. Walking through the Promenade des artistes, I’m struck by a palpable but unintended theme: containment. The voices on display, already tethered to their microphones, are further limited by a series of overlapping spatial and temporal boundaries. The stage is accessible only on certain days and during designated hours, and then only when not reserved for previously scheduled speakers. Like the Quartier des spectacles that surrounds it, the installation is segregated from the lived spaces of the city, out of earshot of most residents and removed from the rhythms of their everyday. As if to belabor the point, speakers are bound by the Mégaphone “code of ethics,” which permits “no tolerance for aggressive, obscene or hateful speech, or for any behavior that is not consistent with respect for public order [emphasis mine].” Presumably, the code does not apply to the Quebeckers whose commitment to radical politics earned them a place in Mégaphone’s pantheon of speakers.

Code of Ethics

Code of Ethics

With its endlessly wandering marches and casseroles, the printemps érables was willfully inconsistent with respect for public order and its tactics reflected the anti-authoritarian impulses of the Quebec student movement. Simply by walking together, noisily and spontaneously, we recreated our city as a utopian space in which citizens, not governments, would chart their own course. By contrast, Mégaphone constrains the mobility of political speech, fencing it off in time and space and stripping it of its collective character. In doing so, it subjects the auditory space of the public sphere to what Don Mitchell terms a process of liberalization, drawing it away from the field of autonomous action and back under the stewardship of the state.

Philosophy professor Julien Villeneuve (better known as Anarchopanda) made this connection explicit when he and a group of fellow activists took to the Mégaphone stage to denounce municipal bylaw P-6, which, like Bill 78, requires protesters to inform the police of their activities under threat of arrest and massive fines. While Bill 78 (later Law 12) was repealed after a national outcry, P-6 remains in effect and its enforcement is in large part responsible for ending the strike and for the continuing suppression of public protest in Montreal.

As I walk back towards the bus stop, my fingers numb inside my mittens, I consider how much Mégaphone feels like a memorial to the city’s noisy public sphere, which, for the moment at least, is safely confined to the past.

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Acknowledgements:

Sincere thanks to Jonathan Sterne, Erika Biddle, Magdalena Olszanowski, Ted Rutland, Liz Miller and the Tapas Gals for the conversations that contributed to this post.

Featured image: by Lilian Radovac

Lilian Radovac is a writer, organizer and doctoral candidate in communication studies at McGill University. She is currently finishing her dissertation on the cultural history of noise control in New York City, a chapter of which, “The ‘War on Noise’: Sound and Space in La Guardia’s New York,” was published in Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies (John Hopkins, 2012). Her work has also appeared in Times Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, and Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies.

Fermé

Fermé

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(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin

"Smithfield Horse Fair, Dublin" by Flickr user Admanchester, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sounds of the City forumEditor’s Note:  This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. The Sounds of the City series will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?

We kicked things off last week with my critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Regular writer Regina Bradley will discuss the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet, respectively),  and CFP winner Lilian Radovac will share with us a photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal.  Today, guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe takes readers on a soundwalk of Smithfield Square in Dublin, Ireland and specifically of the Smithfield Horse Fair, in order to illustrate how urban renewal disrupts city soundscapes and how sound reclaims those spaces.–Managing Editor Liana M. Silva-Ford

Since 2010, as part of my PhD research, I have conducted over two dozen sound walks through the Smithfield Square and its environs, in Dublin’s North Inner city; with teenagers, by myself and through organising deep listening group walks as part of World Listening Day. These walks were designed to encourage the participating walkers to listen intently to this space and compare it to other spaces on the north side of Dublin city. The walks were also designed to examine the changing use and design of the Smithfield space over the past four years. This essay is drawn from the findings of this research, which explored the co-production of space and soundscapes with 84 teenagers (43 girls and 41 boys) from Dublin, Ireland. I include some of their observations of Smithfield Square here.

The Smithfield Square’s redesign began in 1996 as part of an urban regeneration project, and was completed in May of 2013. Smithfield is a traditional working class area, historically connected to wholesale markets, and in recent years it has gone through many iterations. In a push towards gentrification, the Smithfield Square space was ripped up, rebuilt, re-imagined and ripped up again because each iteration of its design proved unattractive to potential visitors/users of this space. According to the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (1991), Dublin City Council considered these users were tourists and new middle class urbanites, not the locals.

Large-scale apartment complexes with business premises on the ground floor, tourist facilities, and an art house cinema were situated alongside smaller, older social housing, flat complexes and wholesale markets within the area. This reshaping of architecture impacts the diffusion of sound in space. It changes what Brandon LaBelle (2010) calls the acoustic territories that demarcate space where sound is no longer attributable to specific spaces or communities. Additionally, since the early 1990s, sounds within Smithfield began to change with the removal or downsizing of certain productive practices, such as the fish and fruit markets. This reduced the kind of traffic, both pedestrian and commercial, which would have moved and sounded through the area. The Smithfield Horse Fair disrupts the area’s soundscape and opens up the possibilities of the space of Smithfield Square for the broader community.

The design of the square, its restaurants, boutique shops and cafes, suggest that the soundscape designed for this space was meant to be a quiet and calm, recreating in the square what Karin Bijsterveld has defined in Mechanical Sound (2008) as the quiet of the middle classes. The sounds produced by the fair are then seen as counter to the types of sensory experiences that, Monica Montserrat Degen argues in her book Sensing Cities: Regenerating Public Life in Barcelona and Manchester (2008), are acceptable to the middle classes, who purchase a type of sensory/sonic experience. However, the soundwalks I describe contest what “quiet” means in the context of the square.

Listening to the Square

The Smithfield square in 2009. All pictures in this post come courtesy of the author, who holds the rights.

The Smithfield square in 2009. All pictures in this post come courtesy of the author, who holds the rights.

The Smithfield Square in 2009

The Smithfield Square in 2009

In 2009 the Smithfield Square, which is laid with thousands of cobblestones, had placed around one side twelve 26.5 metre gas lighting masts, at one end of the square two lines of trees were planted with seating placed among them, and at the other end some large concrete plant pots. The seating located within the trees, attracted groups of homeless people and addicts. As a result, the dominant soundscape during the day was the sounds of men and women shouting obscenities at each other, with the susurration of trees rarely heard over this dominant sound. One of my teenage participants noted, “you always hear people screaming in the background” (Participant 2).

The Smithfield square in 2009

The Smithfield square in 2009

Aside from the shouting voices and loud reflections from singular sound sources within the Square such as the clatter of suitcase wheels across the cobblestones, seagulls screeching overhead, the beeping of trucks reversing and even the sounds of people talking at a distance, the teenagers who participated in the soundwalks defined the space as silent. Their use of the word silent did not mean the absence of sound, but rather an absence of activities, life, general sounds of community, consumption and production.

One sound that dominates the soundscape of Smithfield and its surroundings is the sound of the Luas tramline. The Luas line sits at one end of the Square and the sounds produced are distinctive: there is the whoosh as it passes, the ding a ling of its bells and the sounds of the doors opening and closing. The sound of the Luas echoes around the area from 6 in the morning till midnight. The sounds have become synonymous with that part of the city. The teenage participants defined these sounds as rhythmic, musical, “like a ballet.” For the teenager participants, the sounds of the Luas has been the only constant sound within Smithfield.


Public housing areas surrounding Smithfield

Public housing areas surrounding Smithfield

The sounds of children and teenagers were absent, even with the vast housing areas that surround Smithfield Square—some dating back to the 1940s. Within five minutes of the square are two primary schools and one all-boy’s secondary school. During the day, I would hear the children playing in the school grounds, and in flat complexes close to the Smithfield Square. Each of these spaces were gated and enclosed. Most of the teenage participants lived within such housing areas, and would often refer to the level of noise made by the children within their immediate housing areas. Yet, none of the teenagers, and no young children, used the Smithfield Square for “hanging out” or playing.

A primary school in Smithfield. The play area is on the school roof

A primary school in Smithfield. The play area is on the school roof

The teenagers argued that the Smithfield Square had no point; it was too wide open and too quiet.

Group 11b: Although, there probably was sound for somebody who listened to it but because we were all coming down from the city, the space seemed to be nothing… it just seemed real quiet, empty.

Because of that, the teenagers felt they could not group together to chat. For them, it would be like situating themselves in the middle of a stage. Their sounds were amplified or reverberated, ironically creating a feeling of being surveilled. They felt more comfortable and safer in confined areas, such as street corners, laneways, and the archways of large buildings. Within these smaller spaces, the sounds produced have closer reflections. Teenagers often surround themselves with sounds by shouting, playing music, etc., creating what Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter in Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? (2009) call a sonic bubble. These “territorial bubbles appear as if by magic around a group of individuals if they begin to interact, and the group quickly acquires rights to the arena” (2009:34) thus creating a temporal space. They did not feel they could do so in such an open area.

Smithfield Square by the summer of 2010

Smithfield Square by the summer of 2010

The Smithfield Square in 2011

The Smithfield Square in 2011

Because of the poor planning and design of the Smithfield area, there are vast empty spaces surrounded by fencing or construction hoarding, numerous derelict buildings, and closed-down shops and restaurants. The Smithfield Square is no different, with numerous buildings left empty as a result of foreclosures or bankruptcy. The silence in this space is indicative of the loss of the social and economic processes. The vast square then takes on another level of silence, the loss of productive meaning, the presence of poverty, homelessness and unemployment.

On one walk with the teenagers I noted that they would group together in the square, even when they were told to walk around and record sounds within the space independently. Later, they said there were no sounds to record, so they just walked towards the closest sound source, a small shopping market in the square. I had noted numerous individual sounds, but they would have required standing in the middle of the square to record them.  During focus group sessions after the soundwalks, the teenagers defined positive soundscapes as places with numerous loud sounds, the voices of hundreds within busy shopping streets, music coming from stores and traffic in the distance. These sounds defined a city, and made the teenagers feel safe and enclosed. Smithfield contained none of these kinds of sounds.

Soundwalking the Smithfield Horse Fair

Displaying horse carriages

Displaying horse carriages

There are a few events held regularly within the square since it re-opened in 2013. Some of these events are part of the Dublin City Council’s efforts to invigorate the space, such as food and art markets, as well as fairs for various seasons and holidays. One of the few public events that take place in Smithfield Square is the Smithfield Horse Fair, which happens on the first Sunday of every month. Having walked through this space repeatedly over a period of 3 years, it was only when I attended the horse fair that the space came alive, it had a purpose.

The horse fair has been a contentious event for both locals and city managers for the past two decades, with the horse dealers arguing that there is either a historical precedence for the horse fair or with the Dublin city councillors arguing that the land was historically used for the selling of cattle for market. The appearance within the Smithfield Square once a month of the horse fair brings with it a vast and lively, and sometimes, as defined by the media and Dublin City Council, a threatening soundscape/environment.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijaMkkjGNag

Some sounds defined as threatening are the loud whinnying of horses as they are jostled around the fair. The media has also reported, on several occasions, large-scale fights, which have broken out during the fair, leading to the presence of riot police. This eventually led to the gating of the fair and an extreme police presence as if these measures might reduce such sounds through the threat of arrest. For those living in the new apartment complexes, the sounds produced at the fair are amplified because of the design of the space, and possibly sound more threatening as a result.

During one walk of the Smithfield horse fair that I did in April 2013, some of the audible sounds were horses neighing and whinnying in panic, horse shoes on the cobblestones, traders shouting out their wares of horse paraphernalia, seats, stirrups etc., the voices of old men, which was the dominant background sound, and the sounds of traditional Irish music.


Outside of the gated fair were the sounds of large groups of teenagers, shouting and calling to each other. The space was alive with sound; the voices of teenagers merged with, or were lost within, the chaos of other sounds, becoming part of a larger soundscape. Because the space was busy with people, activities, music and even security there was a reason to use the square, even if you were not actively taking part in the event. The fair created a space for teenagers to engage with, and perhaps feel safe within the boundaries of its soundscape. Suddenly the square was as busy and as loud as the city centre.

Security at the horse fair

Security at the horse fair

Smith hammering horse shoes at the horse fair

Smith hammering horse shoes at the horse fair

While walking through this soundscape, I encountered different kinds of soundmarks. For example, the banging of horseshoes was quite distinctive because it is, as Schafer would define, an archetypal sound, one that no longer belongs in the city. It felt like hearing a sound from the past. Yet this kind of sound creates a kind of historic continuity with the past (Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication, 2000). When discussing the cobblestones within Smithfield Square, most of the young female participants stated that it was not so much the look of the cobblestones that gave the space a sense of history but rather the sounds made when something moved over them. The lack of people and activities within the square meant that these sounds were rarely activated. The soundscape of the fair on those days transformed Smithfield, lifting it out of its everyday silences, which seemed to invite young people to participate. It was reactivated with life.

What was noticeable about the two fairs I visited was that by the second event in 2013, there were far fewer horses than at previous fairs. There were about 8 or 10 horses being paraded around the space by what looked like homeless people or addicts. There seemed to be no real horse-trading; the soundscape lacked the sounds of horses. Instead, the space had become a gathering space, with groups of tourists wandering around taking pictures of anything and everything.

Teenage boys outside the gates of the horse fair 2013

Teenage boys outside the gates of the horse fair 2013

Teenage girls at the fair

Teenage girls at the fair

Conclusion

This fair does not fit within the cultural ethos of regenerated urban spaces like Smithfield, where culture is defined as a consumerist process or part of the arts. However, the space takes on new potentialities as a result of the presence of people, sounds and activities, allowing the teenagers to view the possibilities of spatial use. Sounds can distinguish a space, as identified during the Smithfield horse fair. These sounds also remove focus from teenagers’ voices audible within the space, and transfer it to other sounds. The space was no longer a large fishbowl viewable from any angle; instead it had become a busy vibrant immersive soundscape.

Featured Image: “Smithfield Horse Fair, Dublin” by Flickr user Admanchester, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Linda O Keeffe is secretary to the Irish Sound Science and Technology Association and editor of the Interference Journal. Her practice is concerned with an exploration, both academic and creative, of the ways in which sound alters our experience of different spaces. Her art training was within the sculpture department of IADT under the tutelage of Finola Jones. She completed a Masters in Virtual Reality in NCAD with Kevin Atherton, and just finished a PhD in sociology in NUIM. Her research examined the urban of Dublin city soundscape as socially and technologically co-constructed. She has composed for dance, theatre, quartets, and new instrument performers, installed sound installations for commissions in Ireland, China and Holland, and has had radio works performed both nationally and internationally. In 2008 she was mentored under Eric Leonardson in Chicago, a sound artist and performer. More recently, she was commissioned by Resonance FM to create a work for radio for the 2013 Derry city of culture event. Current projects include a solo exhibition in November 2014 for the Limerick Sculpture Centre, which will be a creative realization of her PhD research. You can find her at www.lindaokeeffe.com.

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Or Does it Explode?: Sounding Out the U.S. Metropolis in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun

""VCRasin__DSC7414_Panorama" by Flickr user kabelphoto, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sounds of the City forumEditor’s Note: Cars. Trains. Festivals. Music. Noise. Sound. The concept of the city is inherently aural. Cities are always thought of in opposition to quiet, to stillness. However, representing cities as noisy is not without its problems; in fact, one thing we have tried to do here at Sounding Out! is question what ideas of quiet and noise carry with them. They are social constructions, like race and gender. We cannot talk about urban sounds in a vacuum.

Cities are an essential part of the scholarly work I do; cities are also an intrinsic part of who I am. So when I started thinking about what I wanted February Forum #3 to be about, I felt it was time to edit a series on city sounds. This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. Regular writer Regina Bradley will discuss the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet, respectively), guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe  will take readers on a soundwalk of the Smithfield Horse Fair in Dublin, and CFP winner Lilian Radovac will share with us a photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal. The forum will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?

I’ll be kicking things off in the forum with a critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Take your headphones off and listen up because you might miss your train…—Liana M. Silva-Ford, Managing Editor

Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun starts with the Younger family waking up and getting ready for work. Ruth Younger wakes her son, Travis Younger, to get ready for school. Her husband, Walter Lee Younger, is as reluctant to get up as his son does. After a brief tense exchange with his wife, Walter Lee turns to the paper:

WALTER (…vaguely reads the front page) Set off another bomb yesterday.

RUTH (Maximum indifference) Did they? (Hansberry 26)

With those two lines, seemingly thrown in amid a marital spat, Hansberry evokes the last line of Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem”: the aural image, in italics, Or does it explode? Inserting this poem as an epilogue, together with these lines in Act I, Scene 1, foreshadow the race riots of the 50s and 60s. However, these lines could easily fall out of earshot of the audience, or get swallowed up in the tension between Ruth and Walter Lee. In fact, the power of Hansberry’s play lies not just in her focus on the complexities of African Americans’ lives in then-contemporary Chicago, but that much of the action happens off stage, outside of the apartment. The audience must pay close attention to actually hear the story of urban racial violence. Sonic cues become an alternative to talking directly about the racialization of space.

"RaisinInTheSun" by Wikipedia user GrahamHardy, fair use under copyright law

“RaisinInTheSun” by Wikipedia user GrahamHardy, fair use under copyright law

Broadway audiences will soon get the chance to relive those opening lines when A Raisin in the Sun comes back to theaters later this year, starring Denzel Washington and Diahann Caroll. Contemporary audiences will encounter the Younger family’s struggles in the Southside of Chicago. In the play, Lena (Mama) Younger receives a life insurance check after the death of her husband, which lays bare the aspirations and desires of the characters: Lena wants a new home for the family, Beneatha wants to become a doctor, and Walter Lee wants to open up a business. Lena decides to use the money for a down payment of a home in a working-class neighborhood called Clybourne Park. (This neighborhood later inspired the 2010 Bruce Norris play Clybourne Park.) The only problem is that the neighborhood houses only whites. However, Broadway (and Hollywood for that matter) frequently stages revivals; why is A Raisin in the Sun still relevant?

Robert Nemiroff, in the Introduction to the 1994 Vintage Books edition of the play, recognizes that part of the allure of Raisin is that race relations are just as strained as they were in the mid-twentieth century. However, according to Nemiroff the play also holds sway because it holds a mirror up to very human emotions that go beyond race (13-14). James Baldwin, on the other hand, believes its staying power lies in how it showcased the raw fear African Americans felt (and still feel) in a racist society. He mentions in his Introduction to Hansberry’s autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black titled “Sweet Lorraine“,

In Raisin, black people recognized that house and all the people in it—the mother, the son, the daughter, and the daughter-in-law, and supplied the play with an interpretative element which could not be present in the minds of white people: a kind of claustrophobic terror, created not only by their knowledge of the house but by their knowledge of the streets. (xii)

Baldwin values the context that African American theatergoers brought to the play. For them, the play would already have a soundtrack of terror to go along with it, a soundtrack that African Americans knew by heart. White audiences, on the other hand, would not; they more than likely had to rely on what was on stage. Instead of staging the racial violence on Chicago’s streets, Hansberry renders audible the contours of racialized urban spaces through the people who become the focus of that violence.

"Chicago community areas map" by Wikimedia user Peterfitzgerald, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Chicago community areas map” by Wikimedia user Peterfitzgerald, CC BY-SA 3.0

Hansberry’s play was inspired by her family’s own situation in moving to Woodlawn in Chicago, which was for the most part white and middle class until the 1950s when racially restrictive zoning ordinances were struck done. In this neighborhood they faced violence and anger from their white neighbors, and were ultimately mandated to vacate the area. Carl Hansberry, father of the playwright, would take this case to the Supreme Court, which later overruled the injunction. George Lipsitz discusses the sociohistorical context surrounding A Raisin in the Sun in his book How Racism Takes Place (2011). He focuses on racialized spaces, and Chicago in Hansberry’s play is a prime example of that. Lipsitz points out, “[m]ore than any other single work of expressive culture, it called (and still calls) public attention to the indignities and oppressions of racialized space in the United States at mid-century” (Loc. 2747). For Lipsitz, A Raisin in the Sun didn’t just represent how race operated in urban spaces but took a stand against it. He states, “Hansberry’s play staged a symbolic rebuke of the white spatial imaginary” (Loc. 2883). In my reading of the textual references to talking, coupled with Hansberry’s choice to stage the play inside the apartment at all times, they call audiences to not just look but listen to how spatialized racism affected African Americans.

It is important to point out the sounds that theater-going audiences in the 1950s, many white and middle/upper-class, would not have heard in the play. A Raisin in the Sun evokes bombings (as seen in the quotation that started this piece), protests, and racial slurs. Although these sounds would be evocative and almost expected in a play about race and urban space in the 1950s, Hansberry stays away from those sounds. The only sounds Hansberry inserts in the stage directions are the sounds of music, children playing on the street, doorbells, and an alarm. In fact, the alarm clock opens the screenplay: “An alarm clock sounds from within the bedroom at right, and presently RUTH enters from that room and closes the door behind her” (24). The presence of alarms, in addition to the ring of the doorbell, is indicative of the busy city life: apartment buildings need bells to announce the arrival of someone downstairs, and alarms coax workers to get up. However, they are the only sonic indicators that Hansberry points out in her play. These sounds makes the apartment seem common, homely; they do not give way to what is happening in Southside Chicago—or in the United States, for that matter—at the moment.

The indications of the urban violence and racism outside of the Younger’s apartment door are in the interactions between the characters. However, it is not just in the events they describe but also in their speech. In that sense, when Hansberry inserts rhetorical cues such as “talking” and “listening,” they do not just refer to plot lines but also as a call for audience members to listen to what is being said (and what is not being said) in the play. For example, Hansberry introduces the three main characters in terms of their diction, their voices. Although this is to be expected in a playwright’s directions to the director, it is also an indication of the importance of speech in this play. Hansberry describes Walter Lee as “inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits–and always in his voice there is a quality of indictment.” Walter constantly vocalizes frustrations about being a black man in America—particularly his frustrations that his family second-guesses his aspirations. His voice carries the stern accusation against racism, but he seems unsure.

"A Raisin in the Sun 1959 3" in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“A Raisin in the Sun 1959 3″ in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Beneatha and Lena also seem wary in their tone. When Hansberry describes Beneatha, she mentions

her speech is a mixture of many things; it is different from the rest of the family’s insofar as education has permeated her sense of English—and perhaps the Midwest rather than the South has finally—at last—won out in her inflection; but not altogether, because over all of it is a soft slurring and transformed use of vowels which is the decided influence of the Southside. (35)

Beneatha’s voice shows a confluence of speech patterns, but also a struggle. The description brings to mind respectability politics, which judge others based on their appearance or their speech patterns. When it comes to Lena, Hansberry describes her as such: “Her speech, on the other hand, is as careless as her carriage is precise—she is inclined to slur everything—but her voice is perhaps not so much quiet as simply soft.” (39). As with Beneatha, Mama’s voice signals a tension: carelessness versus precision. Her softness makes way for the hard truth often in the play. The tension in their voices point to the stress of experiencing racialized urban space. Walter Lee’s experience of racialized space comes from the point of view of a chauffeur for a white businessman, Lena experiences it as a Southern migrant (also, someone who fled the racial violence of the South only to find it again in the North), and Beneatha sees it in her interactions with black men: George Hutchinson, the upper class African American and Joseph Asagai, the international student from Nigeria.

"A Raisin in the Sun 1959 4" in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“A Raisin in the Sun 1959 4″ in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The characters also reference talking in their dialogue. There always seems to be someone who does not want to listen or who feels they are not being heard. For example, when Walter Lee asks Lena about the insurance check that’s supposed to arrive, Lena chastises him: “Now don’t you start, child. It’s too early in the morning to be talking about money. It ain’t Christian” (Hansberry 41). Mama prevents Walter Lee from starting another conversation about his business ideas. In another scene, Walter Lee is annoyed that Ruth dislikes his late-night chat sessions with his buddies in their living room: “the things I want to talk about with my friends just couldn’t be important in your mind, could they?”  (27). Later in the play, after Lena finds out Ruth put a down payment for an abortion, she tells Walter, “Son—I think you ought to talk to your wife…” to which he responds, “I can talk to her later.” I read these thwarted efforts to speak and be heard, as vocal metaphors for how African Americans were being ostracized and ghettoized in cities, especially when I consider that the play is set in Chicago.

However, the most pressing example of how talking is representative of racial relations in urban spaces is the visit of Karl Lindner, the representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. Although violence had become an unsanctioned form of policing African Americans in urban space, in the play Hansberry opts instead to represent that violence through the presence—and the voice—of Karl Lindner. Initially, Lindner has the attention of Ruth and Walter Younger, and they listen to him talk about the virtues of Clybourne Parks’ neighbors. He gains their sympathy by invoking their sense of equality: “we don’t try hard enough in this world to understand the other fellow’s problem” (117). However, Lindner soon reveals his intentions: he comes bearing an offer to buy the house back from the Youngers to keep them from moving to the neighborhood. The Youngers show shock, to which Lindner replies, “I hope you’ll hear me all the way through” (118). His request is the request of the privileged though, and tries to make it seem like the Youngers are being unreasonable. In Lindner the audience hears the threat of white supremacy.

"A Raisin in the Sun 1959" in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“A Raisin in the Sun 1959″ in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry focuses on rendering the city audible through the characters. Listening brings a deeper engagement with what is happening in the lives of the characters. Talking marks the bodies of the characters as sites of struggle, as microcosms for what is happening in Chicago in the 1950s—and what would happen later, as Lipsitz discusses in his book. In depictions of the city as noisy, it is often forgotten that part of that noise comes from human bodies, from people. Hansberry breaks through that noise by toning down the hum of the city on stage and focusing on making her audience listen to people. Perhaps a revival of A Raisin in the Sun can make a different generation of Americans tune in to how urban space continues to be racialized today.


Featured image: “VCRasin__DSC7414_Panorama” by Flickr user kabelphoto, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Liana Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.

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