Tag Archive | Listening

Tomahawk Chopped and Screwed: The Indeterminacy of Listening

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The Wobble Frequency2I’m happy to introduce the final post in Guest Editor Justin Burton‘s three part series for SO!, “The Wobble Continuum.” I’ll leave Justin to recap the series and reflect on it a little in his article below, but first I want to express our appreciation to him for his thoughtful curation of this exciting series, the first in the new Thursday stream at Sounding Out!. Thanks for getting the ball rolling!

Next month be sure to watch this space for a preview of sound at the upcoming Society for Cinema & Media Studies meeting in Seattle, and a new four part series on radio in Latin America by Guest Editor Tom McEnaney.

– Neil Verma, Special Editor for ASA/SCMS

I’m standing at a bus stop outside the Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis, whistling. The tune, “Braves,” is robust, a deep, oscillating comeuppance of the “Tomahawk Chop” melody familiar from my youth (the Braves were always on TBS). There’s a wobbly synthesizer down in the bass, a hi hat cymbal line pecking away at the Tomahawk Chop. This whistled remix of mine really sticks it to the original tune and the sports teams who capitalize on racist appropriations of indigenous cultures. All in all, it’s a sublime bit of musicality I’m bestowing upon the cold Indianapolis streets.

Until I become aware of the other person waiting for the bus. As I glance over at him, I can now hear my tune for what it is. The synthesizer and hi hat are all in my head, the bass nowhere to be heard. This isn’t the mix I intended, A Tribe Called Red’s attempt at defanging the Tomahawk Chop, at re-appropriating stereotypical sounds and spitting them back out on their own terms. Nope, this is just a guy on the street whistling those very stereotypes: it’s the Tomahawk Chop. I suddenly don’t feel like whistling anymore.

*****

As we conclude our Wobble Continuum guest series here at Sounding Out!, I want to think about the connective tissues binding together the previous posts from Mike D’Errico and Christina Giacona, joining A Tribe Called Red and the colonialist culture into which they release their music, and linking me to the guy at the bus stop who is not privy to the virtuosic sonic accompaniment in my head. In each case, I’ll pay attention to sound as material conjoining producers and consumers, and I’ll play with Karen Barad’s notion of performativity to hear the way these elements interact [Jason Stanyek and Ben Piekut also explore exciting possibilities from Barad in “Deadness” (TDR 54:1, 2010)].

"Sound Waves: Loud Volume" by Flickr user Tess Watson, CC BY 2.0

“Sound Waves: Loud Volume” by Flickr user Tess Watson, CC BY 2.0

Drawing from physicist Niels Bohr, Barad begins with the fact that matter is fundamentally indeterminate. This is formally laid out in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which notes that the more precisely we can determine (for instance) the position of a particle, the less we can say with certainty about its momentum (and vice versa). Barad points out that “‘position’ only has meaning when a rigid apparatus with fixed parts is used (eg, a ruler is nailed to a fixed table in the laboratory, thereby establishing a fixed frame of reference for establishing ‘position’)” (2003, 814).

This kind of indeterminacy is characteristic of sound, which vibrates along a cultural continuum, and which, in sliding back and forth along that continuum, allows us to tune into some information even as other information distorts or disappears. This can feel very limiting, but it can also be exhilarating, as what we are measuring are a variety of possibilities prepared to unfold before us as matter and sound become increasingly unpredictable and slippery. We can observe this continuum in the tissue connecting the previous posts in this series. In the first, Mike D’Errico tunes into the problematic hypermasculinity of brostep, pinpointing the ways music software interfaces can rehash tropes of control and dominance (Robin James has responded with productive expansions of these ideas), dropping some areas of music production right back into systems of patriarchy. In the second post, Giacona, in highlighting the anti-racist and anti-colonial work of A Tribe Called Red, speaks of the “impotence” visited upon the Tomahawk Chop by ATCR’s sonic interventions. Here, hypermasculinity is employed as a means of colonial reprimand for a hypermasculine, patriarchal culture. In sliding from one post to the other, we’ve tuned into different frequencies along a continuum, hearing the possibilities (both terrorizing and ameliorative) of patriarchal production methods unfolding before us.

"Skrillex at Forum, Copenhagen" by Flickr user Jacob Wang, CC-BY-SA-2.0

“Skrillex at Forum, Copenhagen” by Flickr user Jacob Wang, CC-BY-SA-2.0

Barad locates the performative upshot of this kind of indeterminacy in the fact that the scientist, the particle, and the ruler nailed to the table in the lab are all three bound together as part of a single phenomenon—they become one entity. To observe something is to become entangled with it, so that all of the unfolding possibilities of that particle become entwined with the unfolding possibilities of the scientist and the ruler, too. The entire phenomenon becomes indeterminate as the boundaries separating each entity bleed together, and these entities only detangle by performing—by acting out—boundaries among themselves.

Returning to Giacona’s discussion of “Braves,” it’s possible to mix and remix our components to perform them—to act them out—in more than one way. Giacona arranges it so that ATCR is the scientist, observing a particle that is a colonizing culture drunk on its own stereotypes. Here, “Braves” is the ruler that allows listeners to measure something about that culture. Is that something location? Direction? Even if we can hear clearly what Giacona leads us to—an uncovering of stereotypes so pernicious as to pervade, unchallenged, everyday activities—there’s an optimism available in indeterminacy. As we slide along the continuum to the present position of this colonialist culture, the certainty with which we can say anything about its trajectory lessens, opening the very possibility that motivates ATCR, namely the hope of something better.

"ATCR 1" by Flickr user MadameChoCho, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“ATCR 1″ by Flickr user MadameChoCho, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But listening and sounding are tricky things. As I think about my whistling of “Braves” in Indianapolis, it occurs to me that Giacona’s account is easily subverted. It could be that ATCR is the particle, members of a group of many different nations reduced to a single voice in a colonial present populated by scientists (continuing the analogy) who believe in Manifest Destiny and Johnny Depp. Now the ruler is not “Braves” but the Tomahawk Chop melody ATCR attempts to critique, and the group is measured by the same lousy standard colonizers always use. In this scenario, people attend ATCR shows in redface and headdresses, and I stand on the street whistling a war chant. We came to the right place, but we heard—or in my case, re-sounded—the wrong thing.

"Knob Twiddler" by Flickr user Jes, CC BY-SA 2.0

“Knob Twiddler” by Flickr user Jes, CC BY-SA 2.0

Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s “listening ear” is instructive here. Cultures as steeped in indigenous stereotypes as the United States and Canada have conditioned their ears to hear ATCR through whiteness, through colonialism, making it difficult to perceive the subversive nature of “Braves.” ATCR plays a dangerous game in which they are vulnerable to being heard as a war chant rather than a critique; their material must be handled with care. There’s a simple enough lesson for me and my whistling: some sounds should stay in my head. But Barad offers something more fundamental to what we do as listeners. By recognizing that 1). there are connective tissues deeply entangling the materiality of our selves, musicians, and music and 2). listening is a continuum revealing only some knowledge at any given moment, we can begin to imagine and perform the many possibilities that open up to us in the indeterminacy of listening.

If everything sounds certain to us when we listen, we’re doing it wrong. Instead, for music to function productively, we as listeners must find our places in a wobbly continuum whose tissues connect us to the varied appendages of music and culture. Once so entangled, we’ll ride those synth waves down to the low end as hi hats all the while tap out the infinite possibilities opening in front of us. 

Featured image: “a tribe called red_hall4_mozpics (2)_GF” by Flickr user Trans Musicales, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Justin Burton is a musicologist specializing in US popular music and culture. He is especially interested in hip hop and the ways it is sounded across regions, locating itself in specific places even as it expresses transnational and diasporic ideas.He is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, where he teaches in the school’s Popular Music and Culture program. He helped design the degree, which launched in the fall of 2012, and he is proud to be able to work in such a unique program.  His book-length project - Posthuman Pop - blends his interests in hip hop and technology by engaging contemporary popular music through the lens of posthuman theory.  Recent and forthcoming publications include an exploration of the Mozart myth as it is presented in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and then parodied in an episode of The Simpsons (Journal of Popular Culture 46:3, 2013), an examination of the earliest iPod silhouette commercials and the notions of freedom they are meant to convey (Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies), and a long comparative review of Kanye and Jay Z’s Watch the Throne and the Roots’ Undun (Journal for the Society of American Music). He is also co-editing with Ali Colleen Neff a special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Sounding Global Southernness.”  He currently serves on the executive committee of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-US Branch and is working on an oral history project of the organization. From June 2011 through May 2013, he served as Editor of the IASPM-US website, expanding the site’s offerings with the cutting edge work of popular music scholars from around the world.  You can contact him at justindburton [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Musical Encounters and Acts of Audiencing: Listening Cultures in the American Antebellum-Daniel Cavicchi

Musical Objects, Variability and Live Electronic Performance-Primus Luta

Further Experiments in Agent-based Musical Composition”-Andreas Duus Pape

(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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Sound in the 19th3Editor’s Note: Sound Studies is often accused of being a presentist enterprise, too fascinated with digital technologies and altogether too wed to the history of sound recording. Sounding Out!‘s last forum of 2013, “Sound in the Nineteenth Century,” addresses this critique by showcasing the cutting edge work of three scholars whose diverse, interdisciplinary research is located soundly in the era just before the advent of sound recording: Mary Caton Lingold (Duke), Caitlin Marshall (Berkeley), and Daniel Cavicchi (Rhode Island School of Design). In examining nineteenth century America’s musical practices, listening habits, and auditory desires through SO!‘s digital platform, Lingold, Marshall, and Cavicchi perform the rare task of showcasing how history’s sonics had a striking resonance long past their contemporary vibrations while performing the power of the digital medium as a tool through which to, as Early Modern scholar Bruce R. Smith dubs it, “unair” past auditory phenomena –all the while sharing unique methodologies that neither rely on recording nor bemoan their lack. The series began with Mary Caton Lingold‘s exploration of the materialities of Solomon Northup’s fiddling as self-represented in 12 Years a SlaveLast week, Caitlin Marshall treated us to a fascinating new take on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s listening practice and dubious rhetorical remixing of black sonic resistance with white conceptions of revolutionary independence.  Daniel Cavicchi closes out “Sound in the Nineteenth Century” and 2013 with an excellent meditation on listening as vibrant and shifting historical entity.  Enjoy! –Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

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“To listen” is straightforward enough verb, signifying a kind of hearing that is directed or attentive. Add an “er” suffix, however, and “listen” moves into a whole new realm: it is no longer something one does, an attentive response to stimuli, but rather something one is, a sustained role or occupation, even an identity. Everybody listens from time to time, but only some people adopt the distinct social category of “listener.”

And yet listeners have emerged in diverse historical and social contexts. Arnold Hunt, in his recent book The Art of Hearing, for example, points to the congregants of the Church of England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, whose sermon-gadding and intense repetitive listening to preachers became a form of popular culture. Shane White and Graham White, in The Sounds of Slavery, argue that early nineteenth-century black slaves adopted listening, or “acting soundly,” as a way of being that gave everyday sounds—conversation, cries of exertion, hymns—multiple layers of meaning and a power unknown to white overseers. Jonathan Sterne, in The Audible Past, describes the post-Civil War culture of sound telegraphy, in which young working class men trained themselves to employ “audile technique” for bureaucratic purposes, rendering their hearing objective, standardized, and networked.

Physical manifestations of the growing standardization of listening, Dodge's Institute of Telegraphy, circa 1910 - Valparaiso, Indiana, Image by Flickr User Mr. Shook

Physical manifestations of the growing standardization of listening, Dodge’s Institute of Telegraphy, circa 1910 – Valparaiso, Indiana, Image by Flickr User Mr. Shook

We might add our own contemporary iPod era to these examples. We live in a time, after all, when it entirely acceptable to appear alone in public, ears connected to an iPod, head bobbing to the grooves of a vast archive of recorded music. Sampling, playlists, streaming–thanks to playback technologies, the U.S. has become a nation of obsessive listeners, and the power to “capture” a sound and re-hear it, something that began with the phonograph, remains a time-bending drama that can awaken people to their own aurality. Technologized listening, in fact, has spawned many of the icons of music discourse in the past 100 years: Edison’s tone testers in 1910s, record-collecting jitterbugs in the 1930s, audiophiles of the Hi-Fidelity era in the 1950s, Beatles fans with their bedroom record players in the 1960s, the “chair guy” in Memorex’s famous ad campaign of 1980, dancing listeners silhouetted in iPod posters since 2003.

But I think also that phonograph-centric narratives have obscured earlier, equally powerful cultures of listeners. The focus of my recent research, for example, has been the world of antebellum concert audiences. Between 1830 and 1860, the United States developed concentrated population centers filled with boosters and recent migrants eager to embrace a life based on new kinds of economic opportunity. Shaping much of the urban experience was a growing commercialization of culture that generated new and multiple means of musical performance, including parades, museum exhibitions, pleasure gardens, band performances, and concerts. Together, these performances significantly enhanced the act of listening: for people used to having to make music for themselves in order to hear it, a condition common to most Americans before 1830, access to public performances by others provided an opportunity for working and middle-class whites (women, African Americans, and the poor were another matter) to stop worrying about making music and, with the purchase of a ticket, to solely, and at length, assume an audience role.

A young George Templeton Strong, Image from CUNY Baruch

A young George Templeton Strong, Image from CUNY Baruch

The odd circumstance of purchasing the experience of listening provided class-striving urbanites with new possibilities for self-transformation. For many young, rural, white men, for example, arriving to the city for the first time to take clerking jobs in burgeoning merchant houses, being able to hear diverse performances of music was associated with a cosmopolitanism that brimmed with social possibility. Thus, for instance, Nathan Beekley, a young clerk, recently arrived in Philadelphia in 1849, found himself attending multiple performances of music several nights a week, including more and more appearances at the opera as a way to avoid “rowdies.” In New York City during the 1840s, George Templeton Strong, a young lawyer in Manhattan, derided his own musical abilities and instead attended every public musical event he could find, carefully chronicling his listening experiences and analyzing his reactions in a multi-volume journal. Walt Whitman, a young man on the make in Brooklyn and New York between 1838 and 1853, regularly attended every sound amusement he could, including the Bowery Theatre, dime museums, temperance lectures, political rallies, and opera, writing in Leaves of Grass, “I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen/And accrue what I hear into myself.”

This culture of listening was, in many ways, very much unlike ours. Despite an expanded access to performance, for instance, professional concerts before the mid-1850s were often understood as part of a wider ecology of sound. Very few listened to music in ways that we might expect today–focused on a “work,” in a concert hall, without distraction. Listening, in fact, was as much a matter of local happenstance as personal selection—a passing marching band, echoes of evening choir practice at a nearby church, an impromptu singing performance at a party. Such experiences were marked by the momentary thrill of spontaneity and discovery rather than the studied appreciation of familiarity; in any moment of hearing, it was difficult to know how long the encounter might be, or even what sounds, exactly, were being heard. Cities like Boston and New York were especially rich with such surprise encounters.

Thomas Benecke's lithograph “Sleighing in New York” from 1855, which shows musicians performing on the balcony of Barnum's Museum on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street.

Thomas Benecke’s lithograph “Sleighing in New York” from 1855, which, among many other sounds, depicts musicians performing on the balcony of Barnum’s Museum on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street.

Francis Bennett, a young arrival to Boston in 1854, for example, encountered, in his first night in the city, a band concert and the “cries” from a “Negro meeting house,” and within weeks became enamored of fife and drum bands, often leaving work to follow one and then another as far as he dared. Young writer J. T. Trowbridge was more stationary but equally enthusiastic about what he heard from his New York rooming house in 1847: “The throngs of pedestrians mingled below, moving (marvelous to conceive) each to his or her ‘separate business and desire;’ the omnibuses and carriages rumbled and rattled past; while, over all, those strains of sonorous brass built their bridge of music, from the high café balcony to my still higher window ledge, spanning joy and woe, sin and sorrow, past and future….”

Music listeners were also often listeners of other forms of commercial sound, especially theater, oratory, and church services, which, together, comprised a complex sonic culture. This was especially reinforced by the physical spaces in which they shared such diverse aural experiences. In a rapidly-growing society, there often was not time or immediate resources to construct buildings dedicated to specific uses; instead, existing structures–typically a “hall” or “opera house”–served mixed uses.

Metropolitan Hall in New York City, where concert singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield debuted in 1853.

Metropolitan Hall in New York City, where concert singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield debuted in 1853. It also hosted abolitionist meetings, talks on women’s rights, and various other activities.

As historian Jean Kilde noted in When Church Became Theater, evangelists in the Second Great Awakening often rented urban theaters for services; and congregations, in turn, rented churches to drama troupes, ventriloquists, and musicians to raise money. This “mixed-use” of buildings was reinforced by hearers, who often engaged in their own “mixed-use” understandings of what they heard. They evaluated sermons as they would a theatrical performance or found church choirs thrillingly entertaining rather than piously inspirational. Conversely, they listened to symphonic concerts with a religious solemnity.

This culture of antebellum, middle-class urban listeners didn’t last long, succumbing to the class sorting by post-Civil War social reformers, who mocked the indiscriminate over-exuberance of antebellum listeners as a kind of “mania” and a form of social disorder. As Lawrence Levine explains in Highbrow Lowbrow, over the course of the nineteenth century, developing a “musical ear” became increasingly paramount, reverence for great works of art shaped audience response, and listening became a specific skill to be learned. Music became something to appreciate not simply hear. By the 1890s, a true listener was someone who, in the words of critic Henry Edward Krehbiel (in his enormously popular How to Listen to Music, from 1897), “will bring his fancy into union with that of the composer” (51).

 “Man With the Musical Ear.” Arthur’s Home Magazine (September 1853): 167.

“Man With the Musical Ear.” Arthur’s Home Magazine (September 1853): 167.

In many ways, the controlled silent listening favored by reformers directly paved the way for music technologies, like the phonograph, that similarly sought to control and manipulate listening. But it was the urban music listeners of the 1840s and 1850s who were responsible, in the first place, for identifying and accentuating the joys and possibilities of “just listening.”

Featured Image: Etching of Jenny Lind Singing at Castle Garden in New York City, 1851

Daniel Cavicchi is Dean of Liberal Arts and Professor of History, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences at Rhode Island School of Design. He is author of Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum and Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, and co-editor of My Music: Explorations of Music in Daily Life. His public work has included Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom, an inaugural exhibit for the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles; the curriculum accompanying Martin Scorcese’s The Blues film series; and other projects with the Public Broadcasting System and the National Park Service. He is currently the editor of the Music/Interview series from Wesleyan University Press and serves on the editorial boards of American Music and Participations: the Journal of Audience Research

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