Queer Timbres, Queered Elegy: Diamanda Galás’s The Plague Mass and the First Wave of the AIDS Crisis
Welcome to the final week of our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,” a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013. The “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th. For an encore of weeks one through four of the forum, click here. And now, while we regret to inform you that Art Jones’s dispatch from Pakistan must be re-booked at a later date, the show must go on . . .and I am thrilled that writer and Ph.D. student Airek Beauchamp is stepping in as our closing act. Make no mistake, he brings the pain! Once again, Sounding Out! gives you something you can feel. –JSA, Editor-in-Chief
At dinner a few days later in the Village Jarrod tells me that he cries whenever anyone says that they really ‘get’ his work. Because his work is so horrifying. It hurts him to know that he has inflicted it upon someone, someone able to understand it.–A.W. Strouse, in reference to the recent performance of Jarrod Kentrell at Ps1‘s “The Meeting”
I first heard Diamanda Galás’s The Plague Mass (1991) around 1994, when I would have been about 20 years old. Equal parts mass and babble, The Plague Mass is an elegiac tribute to Galás’s brother and other victims of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a sonic rage against the silence surrounding the disease that redefines “the elegy” in the process. I suppose that I should make a confession here and say that contracting HIV was one of my biggest fears at the time. I was fresh out of the closet and ready to experiment, yet the media coverage of the crisis had pretty much told me that, as a gay man, an active sex life was a death sentence, a message I had been receiving since I was in fourth grade. There was something in Galás’s record to which I automatically, deeply connected. Although this brand of desire was new to me, there was also something deeply familiar about it–ancient even–and this feeling was produced by the horror of her work, not in spite of it.
Recorded live in 1990 at Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, The Plague Mass was conceived as a performance piece, enabling Galás to use sound to move in a messy, unstructured, and often terrifying way across multi-dimensional space. Her sonic trajectories seemed to take my global, abstract fears and make them intimate and concrete. In “Diamanda Galás: Defining the Space In-between,” Julia Meier describes Galás’s soundscape as composed of “chants, shrieks, gurgles, hisses often at extreme volumes, frequently distorted electronically and accompanied by a torrent of words” which defy description (2). In the space created by this cacophony, Galás mourns her brother, responding to the silence surrounding AIDS by making use of what composer and sound theorist Yvon Bonenfant refers to as “queer timbres” in “Queer Listening to Queer Vocal Timbres,” the unique, dynamic sounds of desire and self in the voice that also operate as a kind of touch, a reaching out to other desired and desiring bodies. In homage to Antonin Artaud’s theory of the theater of cruelty–in which audiences are exposed through multisensory domains to truths they often do not wish to see–Galás uses queer timbres to form an outsized means of aural communication in The Plague Mass that fills more affective space than standard musical productions or theater productions. The shrieks and howls suggest Galas as depicted on the album’s cover: flayed, raw, and radically open to the passage of every vibration. By erasing semantic and syntactical codes, these sounds deeply engage the entire body in the process of making sound.
Queering the traditional theater, Artaud argued for new intersensuality that would occupy space in a three-dimensional manner. In The Theater and Its Double, Artaud describes how the “intensities of colors, lights, or sounds, which utilize vibration, tremors, repetition, whether of a musical rhythm or a spoken phrase, special tones or a general diffusion of light, can obtain their full effect only by dissonances. But instead of limiting these dissonances to a single sense, we shall cause them to overlap from one sense to the other” (125). Texturing sound, or working with dissonance and disruption to create a more forceful product, offered Artaud a unique play between the senses, allowing it a more direct and apparent physical impact upon the bodies of both performers and the audience.
The plague and how it inhabits and destroys bodies is a central metaphor for sound and language in the work of both Artaud and Galás. Artaud focused much of his theory on the plague as an example not only of an affective space but also as a transformative event in human history and in individual lives. Artaud’s writing on the plague, however, also garnered him harsh criticism. By suggesting a theater in which language became subordinate to the shriek, the grunt or other non-semantic orality, he decried all of traditional French theater and its lofty legacy. Nonetheless, he was invited to speak about his essay “The Theater and the Plague” at the Sorbonne. Deciding to actually incorporate his ideas about ‘liquefying boundaries,” he began speaking in a standard oratorical mode but slowly devolved into a theatrical performance of the plague, eventually ending in shrieks of physical pain. In Watchfiends & Rack Screams, Clayton Eshleman describes how, by the end of his speech, the only people left in the lecture hall were a minor contingent of his close friends, including Anais Nin, who recounted the tale (12). The shrieks, the howls are all a further way to engage the whole body in the process of making sound, while also erasing semantic and syntactical code. In Gilles Deleuze’s estimation of Artaud’s work in The Logic of Sense, it reached the depths of language: “The word no longer expresses an attribute of the state of affairs; its fragments merge with unbearable sonorous qualities, invade the body where they form a mixture and a new state of affairs… In this passion, a pure language-affect is substituted for the effect of language” (89).
Jaap Blonk performs Artaud’s “To Have Done with the Judgement of God”
Reflecting and refracting Artaud, Galás uses the space of The Plague Mass to re-consider and re-theorize the ailing body. In her work the body represents not just Galás herself, but also the bodies of all the afflicted, the bodies issuing negation of suffering, and finally, the collective body of the spectacle of the AIDS crisis. Like Artaud, Galás sees the plague of AIDS as transformative, but without the safe buffer provided by the critical space of history. This plague is instead an immediate issue made all the more volatile due to the refusal to help the victims by the conservative Reagan administration as well as the rigidity of the Catholic Church’s encoded dogma that characterizes homosexuality as sinful depravity and refuses to acknowledge the need for AIDS education and condom distribution. Galás evidences this in the opening track “There Are No More Tickets to the Funeral” which incorporates traditional Christian hymns, liturgical representations of condemnation, and the voices of the afflicted.
These appropriated sounds circulate in constant tension, queering the ominous, authoritative patriarchal drones by contrasting them to the timbres of desire and pain embodied by the shrieks. In “Confessional (Give Me Sodomy or Give Me Death),” the narrator’s voice bleeds into the frantic voice of the defiant dying, blending in with the conjured voices of angels of death that hover over the bed. This commentary places the listener in a very immediate and uncomfortable multidimensional space encompassing several terrifying aspects of death. Here Galás exemplefies Bonenfant’s queer timbres through the tactile effect of layered sound that is felt with the skin, in the bones, as well as with the ears, communicating a palpable experience that lies beyond the barely-nuanced music it is seductively easy to grow accustomed to.
It is Galás’s use of sound’s affective properties that makes The Plague Mass most effective as queered communication. In “This is the Law of the Plague” she incorporates elements of glossolalia, colloquially known in religious communities as “speaking in tongues,” a speech act that embodies voice by implying a physical loss of control of the body as well as the casting off of concrete linguistic structure. Galás’s use of glossolalia deliberately blurs the border between spiritual possession and the madness inherent to AIDS as the virus passed through the blood/brain barrier of its human host.
Aided by electronics, Galás’s vocals begin as the chant of orator. Punctuated by a throbbing, sparse single drum-beat, her sickened, keening crawl of words enumerates in detail what it is that defines a person as unclean. The language is precisely enunciated, each word sharply edged and cornered—a practice that would no doubt double Artaud over in pain, given his struggle with schizophrenia that left him vulnerable to crisp sounds. Slowly, Galás’s voice rises to the shriek of a pious, avenging angel, a shrill, wail shimmering with vibrato communicating the sound of a raptured body, rent in chaotic ecstasy. Eventually her ululations are submerged in a bath of primordial babble, a place where language moves in every direction through a body somehow more permeable, a sonic space that Deleuze would describe as topographic, that is, possessing heights and depths. Enacting and inviting the babble of the mad and the afflicted maintains a red line on the tolerance of the listener’s psyche before returning, without ceremony, to the sparse and cold incantations of the church. Here queer(ed) timbres push the audience to limits well past the reaches of patriarchal or accepted sound; Galas plays along the edge of tolerance before dropping the audience abruptly back into the decidedly colder and less humane sonic tropes of an unforgiving religion.
Galás’s sonic practices encourage in me a listening that reaches out into space to connect with these sounds, whose physicality communicates fears and apprehensions that are old enough to feel genetically encoded in my psyche. Bonenfant describes this reaching as “queer listening,” an extrinsic process based on desire in which “we listen ‘out’ for (reaching towards) voices that we think will gratify us” (77). Bonenfant queers the body in the process of sound; it becomes abstracted, absorbed into a process and functioning on many layers that include—but also subsume—the subjective Cartesian body of agency we are comfortable with. The body becomes bodies, and it becomes present in spaces that go beyond the immediate space it occupies in space/time. Galas traverses time and space in The Plague Mass, from the ancient litanies of hymns and spirituals to the anguish of those afflicted with AIDS, and layers voice on voice until they are inextricable, a huge din telling more than just a story, or The Story but the stories of many.
In a personal e-mail exchange, Bonenfant clarified his relation to both Artaud and Galás. When asked if he was influenced by Artaud he explained:
Not directly, but certainly indirectly, and his ideas affect extended voice practice generally. I think the idea of the ‘theatre of cruelty’ is often deeply misunderstood and it was a product of its time. I understand Artaud to have been crying out for an anti-bourgeois theatre that actually stirred people up. But stirring people up is only part of the story. What stirs some, attracts others. Now, my argument is more that: these voices we might call ‘queer’ stir SOME people up but actually they ATTRACT others – others who might be seeking queered bodies to contact.
Bonenfant went on to explain that artists such as Galás can thus make contact with people who desire the kind of disruption or ‘stirring’ that they provide. He went on to relate a story that Galás shared in an interview, in which she described a performance in which she looked out at the audience and noticed a very young boy listening to her perform. For the rest of the concert, Galás said she felt guilty for the damage she was undoubtedly inflicting on the young boy’s ears and psyche. However, after the concert the boy approached her and thanked her profusely. It turns out that he had suffered from a terminal and painful illness and felt unable to express the physical and emotional distress that he lived with. Here, though, was an artist onstage articulating it, broadcasting it to him and others, for him and others. This is what Bonenfant refers to as “an affective, somatic bond” created through shared sonic experience, and this is what Galas constructs. By standard definitions The Plague Mass is almost unlistenable, but yet it has connected audiences remote in space and time (a nod here to Karen Tongson’s “remote intimacy”). A sonic reaching out attracting listeners similarly reaching, its indelicate music draws the suffering near, providing a form of collective comfort by exploring and embodying the suffering, grief, and rage located beyond the permeable membrane of conscious thought and feeling.
It is this kind of connection through a tonal richness that is uncoded but yet full of information that is radically important. Galás’s groans, growls, and chants create an intersubjective circuit of communication that moves active listening outside of the body and draws visceral connections in a three-dimensional psychic space. This is what Galás immediately stirred in me back in 1994, and what I have been determined to recover and communicate since that first listening cut me to the quick. Queer listening does not just entail an affirmation of the soundtracks of queer lives–a kind of perpetual disco, 12” remix project–but rather it also demands a critical–and visceral–vulnerability to the jarring, violent world arranged against queer agency. Galas’s work hijacks the elegy and queers it, extending it to us as an offering against the true horror: the official silence in the face of so much death.
Featured Image of Diamanda Galás courtesy of Flickr user digital_freak
A Taurus who enjoys the ocean, Airek Beauchamp is currently at SUNY Binghamton pursuing his PhD in Creative Writing. He also studies composition pedagogy and queer theory, although he is becoming more and more seduced by sound studies. He can rock a disco all night or just stay in and maybe catch up on some 30 Rock. Some call him fancy, some call him a bitch, but really he is both. He is a multiplicity of multiplicities, all in one mortal shell.
I recently got my hands on a complete set of Marvel Comics’ Dazzler, a comic from the early to mid-80s that featured Alison Blaire, a mutant with the power to transform sound into light. She was the result of an attempted collaboration between Marvel and Casablanca Records. The idea was that rather than publish a comic based on a pre-existing musical act (as they had in 1977 with KISS), Marvel would create a character and Casablanca would, in the words of one of the co-creators, “create someone to take on the persona,” with the potential for a movie tie-in. Casablanca dropped the project before the first issue of the comic, but Marvel re-tooled the character and went ahead with the Dazzler—a talented, yet struggling singer stuck playing at cheesy discos and small clubs while dreaming of wider success.
The last time I wrote about sound in comics, I mentioned how despite (or because of) sound’s transparency, it is an unobstrusive tool in providing the cues needed by readers to provide the closure through which comic literacy functions. The Dazzler series is not a great comic, it is often schmaltzy, repetitive and rife with errors, and just when it started to fulfill a bit of its promise, its creative team and the comic’s direction were changed and it was canceled soon after, but despite this, it is the perfect subject for looking at the representation of sound in comics. Dazzler’s power literally shines a light on how pervasive imagined sound is in this visual/textual form. It also makes room for even more sounds to be woven into the title’s narrative. Since Alison Blaire is an aspiring singer the most prevalent sound present in this title—less common in other popular super heroes titles—is music. Dan Fingeroth and Jacob Springer (who wrote the majority of Dazzler’s brief run) had many opportunities to depict a visual representation of singing.
As a singer, Dazzler is a maker of sounds in addition to a user of the sound already present throughout the medium. As a result, in addition to the visual representation of sound through Dazzler’s glowing light show, the writers were in a position of having to use text to describe the quality of sound more often than usual for their genre. As Tom DeFalco (a co-creator and sometimes writer on the series) said in a 1980 interview with Comics Feature, “I have to put in a lot of sounds in the captions and that I hope that kids who very rarely read captions will read these so they’ll know where the sound is coming from. But the good thing about sound is that you are always surrounded by sound.” DeFalco’s answer illustrates the contradiction at the heart of comic sound—it may be ever-present, but because of this is taken for granted to such a degree that he worries that its source will not be self-evident on the comics page. He adds that one way around this, because of Dazzler‘s focus on music, is through descriptions of the audience’s reactions to it—how it makes them feel is a way to clue the readers into the source and quality of sound present in the panels.
It is the affective relationship to sound that marks Dazzler as very different from other superhero comics. All the super-villain battles and fear of the revelation of her mutant powers are merely the narrative obstacles to her primary goal and obsession—singing. In order for that work, the emotions that emerge from her performance (both for Alison and those listening) needs to be evoked (something that the comics unevenly succeeds at). The colorful lights that are often part of a stage show are, in her case, a direct result of her relationship to not only hearing/absorbing sound, but making sound. She repeatedly explains that rhythmic nature of popular music makes her powers easier to use, because she can feel its pulse. For Alison Blaire, hearing, making and using sounds are conflated by means of the visual and textual, allowing the reader to see what he cannot hear or feel. In other words, Dazzler’s conceit is most successful when it evokes an empathic connection between the reader and the imagined sounds.
The feeling around sound can also be evoked through its absence. A common practice in mainstream superhero comics is the guest appearance by a popular hero in a new or poorly-selling comic in order to boost sales, and Dazzler seemed to have cameo by some better known character almost every issue. This practice allowed for writers and artists to depict what had for decades been undepictable. When Dazzler teams up with Black Bolt, King of the Inhumans (a Fantastic Four character from back in the Kirby days) he is finally allowed an opportunity to use his greatest and most feared power, his voice. Black Bolt is forever silent. His voice is so powerful a weapon that even his whisper can inadvertently kill all those around him. Thus, despite being an iconic Silver Age character, the voice of Black Bolt is one that can never be “heard” by comic readers. His silence is part of his identity and grants him a tragic and noble-bearing. As such, when he is teamed up with Dazzler, her power becomes the perfect vehicle for representing the unrepresentable sound—Dazzler absorbs the sound of his voice to emit the energy needed to defeat the super-villain. In having the characters work together, the writer was able to use one character’s power to finally represent the other’s. In this moment there is a sense of relief and emotional release, along with a sense of peril that bound to Black Bolt’s voice gives the unheard sound resonance.
As the title continued (and after its cancellation, when Dazzler became a member of the X-Men), Alison Blaire’s powers developed in different ways, the most fascinating was the development of her hearing. While early in the character’s career she was dependent on passive hearing, often carrying a portable radio with her in order to insure she had sufficient sound with which to use her light powers, later she developed acute active listening skills. As this aspect of her power developed, it became clear that it was not necessarily the force of sounds themselves that determined the extent of her power (though clearly loud sounds could be more easily transformed into more powerful forms of light, like ultra-focused lasers), but her attentive listening. The more attention she could pay to sounds and could discern even faint sounds, the more she could absorb and transform—later she is even able to use the sounds of digging insects and worms to save herself when she is accidentally buried alive.
By the end of her original series, Dazzler‘s new writing team had her mostly abandon her musical ambitions and take the more common (and dare I say, more boring) comic book route of getting a costume and joining a team of liked-minded super-beings. Because of this, the character’s special relationship to sound is lost in the shuffle of convoluted continuities and cosmic crises present in the various X-titles. There is less time and attention paid to song and sound as power and its emotional weight. The abandonment of her career goals also abandons the opportunity to explore a unique representation of sound and identity in a medium where identity is writ large. However, if there is a take-away from the strange, mostly failed, collaborative experiment between comics company and records company, it is that like Alison Blaire, if the comics reader “listens” carefully to the sounds present in the text and pictures there is a potential for a lot more depth and appreciation of how sound’s depiction is crucial to comics’ formal success.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.
The critically acclaimed WNYC program Radiolab found itself embroiled in a controversy for its recent broadcast segment “Yellow Rain.” Released on September 24, 2012 as part of the episode entitled “The Fact of the Matter,” the 20 minute segment “Yellow Rain” recounted the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of the Hmong by the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao after the United States left Vietnam and the subsequent debates surrounding the chemical weapon called “yellow rain. The episode pitted the witnessing of Eng Yang, a survivor and documenter of the genocide—whom producer Pat Walters describes as the “Hmong guy” at one point—and his niece, award-winning writer Kao Kalia Yang—referred to only as “Kalia” by hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad—against the research of university scientists and the relentless questioning of Krulwich.
Following the episode’s broadcast, many listeners and critics argued that Radiolab’s treatment of their the Yangs was Orientalist and unethical. Jea, writing on Radiolab’s “Yellow Rain” comment page suggested “Ms. Yang and her uncle were dismissed and even reduced to pawns in the larger scheme of RadioLab’s agenda.” Others, such as Bob Collins, writing for Minnesota Public Radio worried that “the story appeared […]to invalidate the Hmong loss and suffering in Laos.” Aaron, a commentor on Current Magazine’s coverage of the controversy called Radiolab’s coverage “inexcusable science, nothing close to journalism, and if only ‘a story,’ one that cements erroneous ideas in the minds of its listeners.” Kirti Kamboj, writing for Hyphen, a magazine dedicated to Asian American arts, culture, and politics, described the episode as “heartbreaking,” “utterly infuriating,” and an exemplar of “Orientalist, ethnocentric framing” designed to privilege Western knowledge.
From my perspective as a scholar of rhetoric, communication, and debate, to call Radiolab’s game rigged would be an understatement. The interview was not conducted on an even playing field and it smacks of a white Western privilege that the writers and producers failed to fully acknowledge even in their on-air discussion following the interview. Radiolab determined the questions, edited the exchange, and retained the capacity to both frame and amend the discussion (there is a debate concerning whether or not the Yangs knew the questions prior to the interview—this discussion can be found here, Radiolab’s response here , and answer to Radiolab’s claims here.).
In addition to the whether or not Radiolab misrepresented the Yangs and downplayed the mass murder of the Hmong in their pursuit of “truth,” I find that this episode is important for the insights it contains into argumentative invention, journalism, and new media ethics, all sparked by the grain of Kalia Yang’s voice in response to Krulwich’s questions. I argue that Kalia’s sounded distress functioned as what I call a “sonorous objection,” instigating the critique of Radiolab’s tactics. Borrowing from argumentation theory, an objection describes an argument that draws the context of an argumentative exchange into view. Research on objections has most often examined the use of visual images, such as the controversy sparked by the photographs coming from of Abu Ghraib. In this short piece, I will wed prior research on objections with theories about sound to argue that Kalia used the grain of her voice to call out—and call into question—the opaque assumptions that governed the interview and its reception.
“Yellow Rain” recalls the Hmong genocide following the Vietnam War. The Hmong were recruited by the CIA to help disrupt supply lines to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon). After American troops withdrew, the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao persecuted the Hmong for aiding the US. The communists attacked the Hmong, eradicating villages and blanketing populations with a sticky, yellow substance. Attempting to escape systemic annihilation, the Hmong receded into the jungle, where many still reside today. Some of the Hmong that were able to escape brought with them leaves covered in the yellow stuff, which they gave to local aid workers. These workers then shipped the samples back to the United States where labs diagnosed it as a chemical agent known as “yellow rain.” A concerned Reagan administration reasoned that only the Soviet Union had the technical capacity to produce such a weapon. As a result, Reagan restarted the Unites States’ then-dormant Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) program. Radiolab’s hosts, Abumrad and Krulwich take issue with this narrative; troubling the assertion that yellow rain was in fact a chemical weapon and insinuating that Reagan used the Hmong incident as an excuse to start producing CBWs.
“Yellow Rain” progressed like many other segments of Radiolab. Abumrad and Krulwich began by recounting the story of the Hmong from the perspective of retired CIA agent Merle Prebbenow and the Yangs. Next, they interview Harvard professor Matthew Meselson and Cornell professor Thomas Seeley, using their testimony to suggest that “yellow rain” was actually bees releasing their bowels en masse after hibernation. Then Abumrad and Krulwich brought this provocative hypothesis to the Yangs. Here, the show intensifies, the music fades, and Krulwich begins to question the Yangs, “as if he were a cross-examining attorney” according to Bob Collins, blogger for Minnesota Public Radio. As the interview goes on, Krulwich’s tone increasingly stiffens as he repeats a similar line of questioning: “But, as far as I can tell,” Krulwich asserts, “your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall, your uncle didn’t see a plane, all of this is hearsay.”
Kalia’s voice beings to fray:
My uncle says for the last twenty years he didn’t know that anyone was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. What happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been uninterested for the last twenty years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard and the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken and our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him, or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game, we can, but I’m not interested, my uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people in the process. I, I think the interview is done [This is Kalia’s transcription of her statements, from Hyphen].
Kalia reflects on her experience with Radiolab in a post for Hyphen, characterizing the interview as more of an interrogation. I add an additional layer: that of the deliberative exchange. While it is certainly true that there was a great discrepancy between the interlocutors, both parties adduced reasons for their respective positions producing an argumentative encounter that challenged the norms that govern discourse and language.
In the above quotation, Kalia claims that Radiolab ambushed her and their meeting occurred under a pretense of telling the Hmong story. She then rhetorically situates her interlocutor within a broader history of silencing the Hmong. While it may be tempting to look at the Radiolab interview as an isolated event, Kalia’s arguments cast it as another iteration of the Hmong being discounted. We cannot, in other words, cleave “Yellow Rain” from a history of oppression.
Additionally, Kalia chides Radiolab’s concerns, calling them a “semantics game.” Here, both the use of semantics and game is instructive. Semantics speaks to the trivial nature of Krulwich’s questions. His focus on yellow rain and its dubious status as a chemical weapon obfuscates the fact that weapons were used against the Hmong. Or, to reformulate Kalia’s argument, Radiolab is trading purely in language and ignoring the material reality of her people. The invocation of game is also important because it suggests that Krulwich does not understand the historical gravity of his actions. And, perhaps more importantly, that Radiolab is not taking the incident seriously. These arguments coalesce to trouble the assumption that the interview –and the inclusion of the Yang’s voices–was fair, equal, and inclusive. This culminates in Kalia wresting her agency from this context by ending the interview.
However, an exclusive focus on language ignores the intersecting effects of histories–personal, interpersonal and social–sounds, cultures, moods, and affects. Indeed, the grain of Kalia’s voice operates as an affective vector. Teresa Brenna, in The Transmission of Affect, explains, vocal rhythm “is a tool in the expression of agency, just as words are. It can literally convey the tone of an utterance, and in this sense, it does unite word and affect”(70). Different vocal inflictions invoke both biographic and cultural histories, as the body attempts to discern meaning. Political theorist William Connolly, in Neuropolitics, calls this space between sound and meaning the virtual register of memory. Virtual memory describes a background below conscious recollection that discerns sensory data, like sound, and renders it intelligible (24). We often see this register at work when we watch a movie, as different scenes are stored below the level of reflection and are called up to interpret a scene. Virtual memory is recursive, folding in present experiences to help guide future encounters and using previous encounters to make sense of the present. Thus the rhythm of Kalia’s voice guides the entrainment of affect by drawing on listeners’ previous encounters with similar sounds. This process infuses listeners’ perceptions and resulted in what commentators called “painful” and “emotional.”
While Kalia’s words claim Radiolab ambushed her and her uncle, the grain of her voice draws the unequal distribution of power into sharp relief. Her vocal cracks resonated with listeners, imparting an intense, visceral experience and provoking an outcry. One listener, Mathew Salesses sums up the response: “Every time I listen to this, I start to cry. Every time. About ten times now.” It demonstrates that Kalia was through reasoning with Krulwich; his use of Western science to discredit indigenous knowledge made sincere argumentation impossible. Her cry was not only an act of resistance, but also an objection that troubled Radiolab’s claims of journalistic excellence, highlighting vexing issues with editing and story construction.
In argumentation parlance, Kalia’s voice operated as an “objection.” In “Entanglements of Consumption,” argumentation scholars Kathryn M. Olson and G. Thomas Goodnight (1994) explain how an objection functions within an argumentative encounter: “absent a common agreement as to the means of reaching consensus, debate over the ‘truth’ of an asserted claim is set aside, in whole or in part, and challenges are raised as to the acceptability of the communicative context within which the argument is offered as secured”(251). That is, when deliberation occurs within a shared context—agreed upon values, goals, rules, and facts—the argument progresses smoothly. However, when there is a disjunction between interlocutors, such as in “Yellow Rain” where both parties disagree on basic facts, hegemonic beliefs take precedence. Objections function to evidence this differential, making both parties (and often an audience) aware of this gap. As such, objections are not concerned with refuting previous claims—the way that Kalia states neither she nor her uncle are interested in having a semantic debate—but questions the very context—and the conditions–of the debate itself.
Despite Radiolab’s attempts to fetishize her voice to evidence the “fact of the matter” and the “complicated nature of truth,” Kalia’s voice retained her agency. Through the invocation of the sonorous objection, she eluded capture and demonstrated the unequal terrain of the interview. Her pain enveloped the listener, leaving a resonance that Radiolab listener Cecilia Yang called “painful to listen to” in her personal blog. As Olson and Goodnight remind us, objections arise in a repressive context, when people are denied a voice. For Kalia, histories of racism and colonialism infused the argumentative encounter, making it impossible for her to “reason,” a framework she exposes as a stacked game. As such, her sonorous objection functioned to evidence this disparity, while directing the listener’s attention to her cause. Just as the pictures of prisoners coming out of Abu Ghraib incited outrage about U.S. imperialism and violence, Kalia’s sonorous objection provoked a conversation about the Hmong, Radiolab, and the ethics of journalism in the new media age.
Justin Eckstein is a doctoral candidate and former director of debate at the University of Denver. His work explores the intersection of listening, affect, and argumentation. Justin’s writing has appeared in Argumentation & Advocacy,Relevant Rhetoric, and Argumentation in Context. Currently, he is writing his dissertation on the micropolitics of podcasting in the post-deliberative moment.
Editor’s Note: July 18th, 2012 has been designated as World Listening Day by the World Listening Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 “devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording.” World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. This year, Sounding Out! has decided to observe World Listening Day by planning a month-long special forum of posts exploring several different facets of listening such today’s offering by SO!‘s Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell on listening’s relationship to the body and next week’s discussion by novelist Bridget Hoida on the impact of listening on her writing process. We will also explore questions that we need to remember when we celebrate listening as a cultural, embodied act. What happens when listening is interrupted? distorted? A post on tinnitus by Mack Hagood will help us think through what happens when we take listening (and the able body) for granted as a universal, normative experience. We’ll also publish a special bonus multi-sensory post by our newest regular writer, Maile Colbert, on World Listening Day itself and we will launch our regular quarterly spring podcast for on July 12th, which will feature Eric Leonardson, director of the World Listening Project. In addition to being interesting as all hell, the podcast will suggest some ideas for how to get involved in WLD activities–or how to embark on a listening project of your own this July. Enjoy our ear-opening extravaganza and please keep those comments coming. We’d love to hear from you! –JSA, Editor-in-Chief
What happens when the body translates sound from one medium to another? How is the body both affected by a song (when listening), and affecting it’s content (when writing)? In this post, I will relate my experience transcribing the lyrics of the song “Hexbreaker!” by The Fleshtones in an effort to answer these questions.
I love to sing. Often, I feel that it is only through singing that I feel that I can adequately relate to the emotions, ideas, and narrative of the songwriter. This relational practice is called embodiment. While psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung had at one point considered this sort of emotional relationship to be a libidinal drive – either to the phallus (in Freud’s case), or a unifying mythological symbol like the mandala (in Jung’s). These feelings, or drives, in classical psychoanalytic theory are part of our interior psyches, the unconscious mind.
Contemporary physiological research has departed from the sharp dichotomy of the conscious/unconscious mind. Instead, emotions are looked at as exterior phenomena - invisible links which form between bodies. As Lisa Blackman (2010) explains in her essay Embodying Affect: Voice-hearing, Telepathy, Suggestion and Modelling the Non-conscious: “The voices can be materialized through particular technologies of inscription such as neuro- imaging scans, and can even be located within the right temporal-parietal lobe, showing the capacity of the right brain not only for psychological attunement, but also for registering the affects of others” (166). Other theorists such as Sara Ahmed (2004) have argued that emotions float between and stick to bodies. Julian Henriques (2010) has even noted the ways that sonic vibrations work to activate reciprocal affective moods in others (75), a point very much in line with Blackman’s musings on the voice’s centrality to “psychic,”right brain, linkages. To these points, it is important to consider exactly what it means for the body to work as a medium of translation. What emotions can a song activate in my body, and how do these feelings become words, stored in the mnemonic confines of paper?
Because listening is central to the transmission and construction of emotional bonds, I will now detail my experience transcribing “Hexbreaker!”.
The Fleshtones are a band that I love. Their songs find the perfect balance of Animal House cool, Swinging Medallions style garage rock, and campy B-movie flavor. They have cred too, as they were a frequent act in the late-70s CBGB punk scene who shared a rehearsal space with The Cramps (a similar, but notably more famous band). Their song “American Beat” was key in the soundtrack of Tom Hanks’ shlocky 1984 film Bachelor Party. Peter Zaremba, the group’s singer, was a host on MTV’s interview based program, I.R.S. Records Presents the Cutting Edge. And, best of all, The Fleshtones have been largely eclipsed by bands with more visible albums, members, and histories. The band is all mine, and they serve as the perfect accent to any mixtape or conversation trivia at a mixer.
The digital footprint left by The Fleshtones is surprisingly sparse. Only a handful of key songs (from movie soundtracks) come up when a search for “fleshtones lyrics,” is queried on Google. A search for guitar notation or chord charts is completely fruitless, a rare feat in today’s search ecosystem. Even their vintage releases, 1982’s Roman Gods and 1983’s Hexbreaker!, were hard to pin down until the Australian label Raven re-released them on CD in 2011. For whatever reason, this sense of scarcity does nothing but excite me. It makes me feel an increased sense of intimacy and ownership. The Fleshtones, in this sense, are a knowledge commodity that has been underappreciated. By transcribing “Hexbreaker!”, and submitting it to the lyrics archive at lyrics.com (yet to be posted), I feel that I am laying claim to a space of knowledge and expertise neglected by many others.
Transcription is generally dull. Having transcribed many interviews in the past, I admit to regarding it as a job that requires patience more than practice: Press play. Listen for ten seconds. Jot down what was said. Forget half of what I was writing. Rewind five seconds. Listen again. Not quite enough to replace when I missed. Rewind eight seconds. Finish constructing the first sentence. Repeat. Hang in there for a few hours. Slow, repetitive, and monotonous is the work of interview transcription. In lieu of my previous experiences, I was happy to learn that the work of song transcription is notably more pleasurable. Although it came with its own share of frustrating and repetitive points, the presence of melody, cadence, and rhyme schemes made the entire process much more endearing and predictable.
One of the most engaging portions of song transcription came with the puzzling-out of unintelligible lyrics. The second verse of “Hexbreaker!” begins with a line that sounded like “With ____-____ mud and a hoodlum stack, finding fire in a mangled park” on first listen. It wasn’t until I had listened to each phrase five times in a row that I was able to revise to, “Well knee-high mud, and a moon lit shack, fightin’ flies in a mangled marsh.” Still not confident with that wording, I decided to do a dictionary search for similar words. To my elation after I had typed m-a-n-g into the dictionary the first word to appear was “mangrove,” the perfect word which I would never have guessed (it’s a weed-like tree found in coastal swamps!). Next I was spirited to discover that the following line evoked images of conquistadors sailing and exploring: “Well knee-high mud, and a moon lit shack, fightin’ flies in a mangrove marsh / Sendin’ sabres across the seven seas, or any foreign shores they may wash / I need a hexbreaker!”
After I was able to get a gist of the overall narrative through transcription, I went back through the piece and was better able to make educated guesses about what the lyrics were. Although Zaremba often takes an unintelligible pitch when singing, the context of 17th century exploration helped me to piece together many of the tougher bits of the song. For instance, I revised the beginning of the chorus from “Well toss it back / [The bottles they break],” to fit the overall theme of colonial exploration, “The cause is had. / [The bodies they break].” Although, I’m not certain that these are the words to the song, I’m very confident because they match the overall theme. The practice of song-transcription has been fulfilling in the same way that figuring out a jigsaw, or tangram is exciting. It is a creative sort of problem solving, one that combines both analytic (left brain) and spatial, metaphoric (right brain) intelligence.
Emotionally, however, I did not feel the same satisfaction that I do when singing. Perhaps this has something to do with transcription alternate mode of embodiment. Transcription, and the pleasures associated – problem solving, precision, and permanence – are all of an analytical, and somewhat strategic sort. These are the pleasures of a conduit, processes associated more with the enduring construction of emotional bonds (belonging, and community), than the lucid enjoyment of them. It is my hope that one day another Fleshtones fan plumbs the depths of Google to find the lyrics of “Hexbreaker!” and that the fruit of my efforts, a completed transcript on lyrics.com, greets them and helps them to sing along and revel. Until then, it is enough to know that the work of transcription, for myself at least, is analytic and dry–definitely worlds apart from the euphoric mode of singing where my entire body vibrates in rhapsody to the melody, rhythm, and harmony of song.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and multimedia editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University.