Multidisciplinary composer and media alchemist Navid Navab and his team at the Topological Media Lab based at Concordia University (Montreal) presented Aquaphoneia, a sound installation which transmutes voice into water and water into air at Biennale Nemo in Paris in December 2017 (and will run until March 2018). I conducted this interview in the context of the first presentation of Aquaphoneia originally conceptualized for Ars Electronica 2016: RADICAL ATOMS and the alchemists of our time. This version of the piece looked at technology through the lens of the living materiality. As Prof. Hiroshi Ishii, of the MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group, stated, artists “suggest completely new ways of looking at the role of science in our society and the interplay of technology and nature.”
EB [Esther Bourdages]: The theme of the 2016 Ars Electronica Festival, RADICAL ATOMS – and the alchemists of our time, is very close to the Topological Media Lab’s mission: transmutation and alchemy on the philosophical and phenomenological level. For Aquaphoneia, can you expand on alchemy and specifically on how this art piece stands out from your past work? How did alchemical thought process and production techniques come up in the process of the piece?
NN [Navid Navad]: When the 2016 theme for Ars Electronica Festival was announced I was happily surprised and thought: finally, things are coming to light at a much larger scale. Yes, please can we reverse the still prominent European Modernism’s separations—between the conceptual and the material, the precise and the messy, the sciences and the arts—and go back to the holistic richness of alchemical matter? This transition that we are currently experiencing calls for a shift away from representational technologies: from interfaces to stuff, from objects to fields of matter-in-process, from fixed concepts to processes that enact concepts. For over a decade, we as alchemists have been engaging with “bodies and materials that are always suffused with ethical, vital and material power.”
The Topological Media Lab [TML] is occupied by people who are living to fuse and confuse, ready to unlearn the apparent practicality of isolated disciplines, while playfully improvising new pathways to understanding potential futures. The TML hosts an array of projects for thinking-feeling through poetry-infused-matter and breathing life into static forms—which to me is an effortlessly artistic process, and all the while inseparable from a rigorously philosophical or scientific one. Even though it might take decades for the kinds of computational-materials that we are envisioning today to be engineered from ground up at an atomic level, with what is possible today, we explore how the messy stuff of the world could become computationally charged with the potential for play: sounding, dancing, and co-performing new ways of living with or without us.
Aquaphoneia comes out of this rich ecology of experiments. In Aquaphoneia, voice and water become irreversibly fused. The installation listens to the visitors, and transmutes their utterances into aqueous voice, which then is further enriched and purified through alchemical processes.
To fully realize this liquid dream, we went to great lengths in order to fuse the messy behaviour of matter flowing throughout the installation with meticulously correlated and localized sonic behaviour. For example, the temporal texture of boiling liquid in one chamber is perceptually inseparable from the spectral entropy of simmering voices which then evaporate into a cloud of spectral mist. All of this dynamic activity is finely localized: the sounds acoustically emit exactly from where the action occurs, rather than spatially schizophying loudspeakers elsewhere.
On another hand, our material-computational-centric approach lead to a tough yet rewarding meditation on control and process. As a composer, I had to let go of all desires for immediate control over sounds and surrender important rhythmical and compositional decisions to messy material processes. In Alchemical Mercury (2009), Karen Pinkus quotes Marcel Duchamp: “alchemy is a kind of philosophy: a kind of thinking that leads to a way of understanding” (159). For us, in the process of creating Aquaphoneia, essentially what had to be understood and then given up was our attachment to our far-too-human notions of time and tempo. Instead we embraced and worked within the infinitely rich and pluri-textural tempi of matter. Technically and compositionally this meant that most of our focus had to be placed on merging the continuous richness of material processes with our computational processes through an array of techniques: temporal pattern following, audio-mosaicing, continuous tracking of fields of activity using computer vision and acoustic sensing techniques in order to synthesize highly correlated sonic morphologies, careful integration of structure-born-sound, etc. We were able to co-articulate compositions by constraining material processes sculpturally, and then letting the liquid voice and the laws of thermodynamics do their thing.
[EB]: One of the first elements that we notice in the installation is the brass horn connected to an old Edison sound recording machine, that now turns into liquid instead of wax cylinders. In fact, it came from an Edison talking machine. You repurpose an authentic artifact, but you do not fall into the trap of nostalgia, and neither into the role of collector, but you embrace innovation with a dynamic approach which excavates past media technologies in order to understand or surpass contemporary audio technologies. Where does the use of the Edison horn come from and how does it speak to your relationship with the superposition of history?
[NN]: The history of sound reproduction involves transforming audible pressure patterns or sound energy into solid matter and vice versa. The historic Edison recording machines gathered sound energy to etch pressure patterns onto tinfoil wrapped around a cylindrical drum. Sound waves, focussed at the narrow end of the horn, caused a small diaphragm to vibrate, which in turn caused a miniature steel-blade stylus to move and emboss grooves in the cylinder. The tin foil would later on be replaced by wax cylinders, vinyl disks and eventually digital encoding.
Aquaphoneia engages the intimately recursive relationship between sounding technologies and material transmutations. Our digital audio workstations are an in fact an inclusive part of this history, this endless chain of analog transmutation between energy and matter. Under the fiction of the digital there is always the murmur of electrons and of matter-energy fields in physical transmutation. As J. Fargier writes on an early book on Nam June Paik (1989) “The digital is the analog correspondence of the alchemists’ formula for gold” (translation by NN). Well, yes. The digital revolution has allowed us to shape, compute, purify, and sculpt sounds like never before… but then often at the hefty cost of a disembodying process, with interfaces that are linked to sounds only through layers upon layers of representation, far detached from resonating bodies and the sexy flux of sounding matter.
Aquaphoneia playfully juxtaposes material-computational histories of talking machines within an imaginary assemblage: sounds are fully materialized and messed with tangibly within an immediate medium very much like clay or water or perhaps more like a yet to be realized alchemico-sonic-matter. This odd assemblage orchestrates liquid sounds leveraging intuitive worldly notions—such as freezing, melting, dripping, swishing, boiling, splashing, whirling, vaporizing—and in the process borrows alchemical tactics expanding across material sciences, applied phenomenology, metaphysics, expanded materiology, and the arts. Aquaphoneia’s alchemical chambers set these materials, metaphors, and forces into play against one another. After the initial ritual of offering one’s voice to the assemblage, the aqueous voice starts performing for and with itself, and human visitors have the opportunity to watch and participate as they would when encountering the unpredictable order of an enchanted forest river.
It is also noteworthy that the horn resembles a black hole. The edge of the horn acts like an event horizon, separating sounds from their source-context. Sounds, once having passed the acousmatic event horizon, cannot return to the world that they once knew. Voices leaving the body of their human or non-human speaker, fall into the narrow depths of the horn, and are squeezed into spatio-temporal infinity. Disembodied voices, are immediately reborn again with a new liquid body that flows though alchemical chambers for sonic and metaphysical purification.
Much of my work deals with the poetics of schizophonia (separation of sound from their sources). Sound reproduction (technologies), from Edison’s talking machines to our current systems, transcode back and forth between the concrete and acousmatic, situated and abstract, materialized and dematerialized, analogue and digital. Often sounds are encoded into a stiff medium which then may be processed with an interface, eventually decoded, and re-manifested again as sound. Aquaphoneia ends this nervous cycle of separation anxiety and re-attachment by synthesizing a sounding medium capable of contemporary computational powers such as memory, and adaptive spectro-temporal modulation and morphing. To adapt Marshall McLuhan, instead of encoding and decoding a presumed message with representational technologies, it enchants the medium.
[EB]: There is the tendency to think that artwork from Media Labs are stable and high tech. Aquaphoneia uses analog and digital technologies with a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) touch in the aesthetic. Since your lab is multidisciplinary oriented and influenced by diverse fields of knowledge, can you develop on the DIY dimension in Aquaphoneia under the gaze of Clint Enns—cinematographer in the experimental field of cinema—: “Adopting a DIY methodology means choosing freedom over convenience”?
[NN]: Aquaphoneia is a truly eclectic assemblage lost in time. Aquaphoneia’s mixed form reflects its extremely fluid, collaborative and playful creative process. Instead of coming up with a definitive design and executing it industrially, Aquaphoneia’s realization involved a much more playful process, where every little aspect of the installation—materials, sounds, software, electronics, etc.—was playfully investigated and messed with. Every little detail matters and every process, undulating back and forth between conception to execution, is an artistic process. The research-creation process leading to the works that come out of our lab are as critical to us as the final and fully produced art works. This was also true for the alchemists who, through their process, were seeking to develop new approaches for understanding the world, relating to matter, and surpassing nature.
Our research-creation activities concern experimenting with ethico-aesthetics of collective thinking-making: humans, non-humans, machines, and materials enacting and co-articulating the ever-changing material-social networks of relations which shape them. This DIY art-all-the-way approach, while providing a healthy dose of aesthetic freedom, is also an ethical one: we live with and within our designs and grow with them. That being said, we are not attached to a DIY process in the same way that some maker cultures might be. Sometimes we blindly find and repurpose something that does something cool, complicated, and mysterious and that is fantastic, sort of like philosophy of media meets cyber dumpster diving meets DIY hacker space meets cutting edge tech research meets miniMax (minimum engineering with maximum impact) meets speculative whatever…
For example, at some point we decided to gather sonic vapour in a glass dome and condense it back into drops, which were then guided to fall into the bottom of the installation. The purified drop of voice—sonic “lapis philosophorum”—was to fall into the depths of the earth beneath and shine upward like sonic gold, connecting heaven and earth. We had to execute this opus magnum inside a very small hole in the base of the installation. The water drop needed to be immediately sensed and sonified, leading to sounds coming out of the same hole, along with synchronized light. You can imagine that if we were relying on “black-boxed” technologies and ready-made techniques then this task would have seemed like a nightmare to design and fabricate. The water drop was to fall all the way to the bottom of the hole where it would be acoustically sensed by a small apparatus that had to be acoustically isolated from everything else. Then the result of the sonification had to be pushed through the very same hole with a high degree of intelligibility and in a way that it would be seamlessly localized. Meanwhile, light had to shine through this hole in sync with the sounds but the source of light had to remain hidden.
The solution to this technical puzzle came to us effortlessly when playing around with random stuff. We found a hipster product—a little plastic horn—that was made for turning your iPod into a gramophone. Then a speaker was mounted inside of this plastic horn in order to focus sounds towards the end tip of the horn. The back of the speaker was fully covered with foam and duct tape to stop any sound from escaping anywhere except for where we wanted it to appear. A small hole was drilled into the brass pipe in the base of the installation. Our advanced hipster horn-tip-sound-laser-thing was then inserted, allowing crisp sounds to enter the brass hole and emit from it without any visible clues for the perceiver as to where the speaker was hidden. Meanwhile, a similar lighting solution was created so that in a very small footprint we can focus, direct, and bounce enough directional light in the brass pipe without ever getting in the way of the water drops.
We had to engage with this sort of detailed fabrication/composition process throughout the whole installation in order to come up with solutions to sense the behaviour of the materials and liquids locally and to manifest them sonically and visually so that there would be no separation from local material behaviours and their computational enchantment. In trying to do so we discovered that more often than not, there was no ready-made solution or technique to rely on, and at the same time we didn’t have months ahead of us to engage in an abstract design and fabrication process. We had limited hours of collective play time to leverage and to come up with innovative techniques that we didn’t even know could exist and that was really fun.
Aquaphoneia is a rich sound art piece – a manifesto by itself about innovation and inventiveness. The sound installation demonstrates that the main crafters Navid Navad and his partner Michael Montanaro, in collaboration with other members of the Topological Media Lab, swim easily into the multidisciplinary art. They are are not afraid to experiment and engage with the material, which results in an interlacing of forms, a mixture of historic references, and an interesting fusion of “low” and “high” technology. I was able to catch some of the build up of the art piece, and it was fantastic to witness the lab as a playful messy artistic field with a little team of scholars fusing their different backgrounds in convergence on the marriage of art and science.
Aquaphoneia, a sound installation which transmutes voice into water and water into air at Biennale Nemo in Paris runs until March 2018.
- NAVID NAVAB art direction, sound/installation concept and design, audiovisual composition, programming, behaviour design
- MICHAEL MONTANARO art direction, visual/installation concept, design and fabrication
- PETER VAN HAAFTEN electronics, sound, programming
- consulting assistants: Nima Navab (embedded lighting design) Joseph Thibodeau (electronics)
- research collaboration: Topological Media Lab
Featured Image: Aquaphoneia, Paris, Biennale Némo, 17 October 2017 – 18 March 2018, Credit: Navid Navad, 2017
Esther Bourdages works in the visual arts and technology art field as a writer, independent curator and scholar. Her curatorial research explores art forms such as site-specific art, installation and sculpture, often in conjunction with sound. She has authored many articles and critical commentaries on contemporary art. As a musician, she performs under the name of Esther B – she plays turntables, handles vinyl records, and records soundscapes. She works and lives in Montreal.
Navid Navab is a Montreal based media alchemist, multidisciplinary composer, audiovisual sculptor, phono-menologist, and gestureBender. Interested in the poetics of gesture, materiality, and embodiment, his work investigates the transmutation of matter and the enrichment of its inherent performative quali- ties. Navid uses gestures, rhythms and vibration from everyday life as basis for realtime compositions, resulting in augmented acoustical poetry and painterly light that enchants improvisational and pedestrian movements.
Navad currently co-directs the Topological Media Lab, where he leverages phenomenological studies to inform the the creation of computationally-augmented performance environments. His works, which which take on the form of gestural sound compositions, responsive architecture, site specific interven- tions, theatrical interactive installations, kinetic sound sculptures and multimodal comprovisational per- formances, have been presented internationally at diverse venues such as Canadian Center for Architec- ture, Festival du Nouveau Cinema, Ars Electronica Festival Linz, HKW Berlin, WesternFront Vancouver, McCord Museum, Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Inter- national Digital Arts Biennial, Musiikin Aika Finland, and Festival International Montréal/Nouvelles Mu- siques, among others. www.navidnavab.net
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For your January reading pleasure, here are the Top Ten Posts of 2017 (according to views as of 12/28/17). Visit this brilliance today–and often!–and know more fire is coming in 2018!
On May 18th, 2017, Solange Knowles took viewers on an expedition as she glided, danced and “agonized” in a “joyful praise break” on the floor of New York City’s Guggenheim museum. Drawing from the museum’s narrative of introspection and multi-sensory connection, Solange’s performance of “An Ode To. . .” prompted viewers to relearn and reorient the melodies of A Seat at the Table (2016). Solange’s performance in this setting hearkened listeners to new concepts and emotions in the record they didn’t catch before as they consumed it. This begs the question– what other sonic elements have we neglected to identify in A Seat at the Table? And why?
A Seat at the Table integrates topics like race, depression, and empowerment. Although the younger sister of powerhouse Beyoncé Knowles, Solange has managed to carve out her own legion of dedicated listeners from her infusion of Minnie Ripperton-esque vocals, hip-hop production and Gil Scott-Heron storytelling. Thematically, the album incorporates issues of Black Lives Matter and cultural self-preservation. However, Solange weaves personal elements such as vulnerability, futurism and paternity throughout the record as well, which buoy the album to praise but are hardly discussed in the album’s many reviews. Instead, writers and listeners have largely focused on resistance, anger and reactionary concepts. [. . .Click here to read more!]
My voice melds with the sound of the water pouring from the hose, as I gently massage the waste, blood, and tears from the body of the deceased. In the act of washing the dead, water is simultaneously sound, spirit, and sensory experience for the deceased and for the washer herself.
Washing the deceased in groups of three, our individual solo voices punctuate space at our own paces and intensities. Our sound soothes and cleanses the deceased as much as our washing. The melodic recitations we provide when gently holding the deceased are the most important components of ritual cleansing before one is buried. We repeatedly sound “Forgiveness, o Teacher [e.g., God]” while exhaling and inhaling. Often we recite the Tekbir—which articulates God’s greatness—adding a melodic architecture to our textured calls for forgiveness. [. . .Click here to read more!]
Yessica Garcia Hernandez
I am a self-identified Paisa, a Paisa Girl from Playa Larga – my home – in the Eastside of Long Beach, California. The term paisa/s is slang for paisanos (homies) and it references someone who takes pride in listening, dancing, and attending nightclubs where Banda music, corridos, and norteños are performed. I am part of a generation that has been referenced as the Chalinillos; youth with an urban gangsta aesthetic that was influenced by Chalino Sanchez, The Riveras, Saul Viera, Adan Sanchez, Los Dos Grandes, Tigrillo Palma, Los Amos; later came the Alterado, Progressivo (DEL) and now people like El Fantasma, Lenin Ramirez, Alta Consigna, Grupo Codiciado, Jesus Mendoza, and Los Perdidos de Sinaloa.
As they say, “Fierro Parriente!” “Andamos al Millon,” “Pa que vayan y digan” and “Puro Pa Delante!”
In the mid 2000s, besides partying hard in the paisa nightclub music scene, I also partied with several paisa party crews in Long Beach. The songs, “Las Malandrinas,” “Parrandera,” “Rebelde, y Atrevida,” and “Mi Vida Loca” by Jenni Rivera were my anthems. These songs described the music scene we were a part of, and how we situated ourselves within a male-dominated subculture. “La Malandrinas” for instance says that we make a lot of noise, we drink, ask for corridos at clubs (a masculine tradition) and do not care about what people say about us. [. . .Click here for more!]
Mexican cultural theorist Carlos Monsiváis looked at various aspects of Mexican youth subcultures in the early 80s and revealed how youth relied on “caos” or chaos as a way to attain pleasure within disruption, spontaneity, and noise (68-79). How does the scream emerge through caos as a instrument of resistance? Alongside scholars like Fred Moten, I argue that the scream ruptures caos and allows us to glimpse the pleasure of resistance. In Alice Bag’s scream we find this medley of pleasure, interruption, and spontaneity. Bag explains, “once the Bags hit the stage and the music started, ego checked out and id took over, channeling my libido, my inner rage, whatever… I was free to be myself with no holds barred. It was the ultimate freedom” (221). These elements epitomize what I consider a queer Chicana feminist exorcism of tonality.
As explained in Bag’s memoir, particular to punk, there is a general reliance on informal/community-based ear training where musicians teach each other (183). European traditions of musical analysis both negate the horizontal learning central to punk while also normalizing the historical colonial presence within the Borderlands. In order to reveal how Bag’s scream exorcises these Eurocentric traditions, I consider her performance of “Violence Girl” at the Whiskey (1978), footage of “Gluttony” from The Decline of Western Civilization Part 1 (1981), and a brief clip of The Bags’ “Survive” in What We Do is Secret (2007). Because of how the scream disrupts formal analysis, there is an urgency to understand how it works against the grain. [. . .Click here for more!]
Mala Muñoz and Diosa Femme aka Locatora Radio
This podcast focuses on the sonic landscapes of unwelcome which women and femmes of color step into when we walk down the street, take the bus, and navigate public and professional spaces. Women of color must navigate harassment, violent, and sexually abusive language and noise in public space. While walking to the market or bus, a man or many might yell at us, blow us an unwanted kiss, comment on our bodies, describe explicit sexual acts, or call us “bitch.” The way that women and femmes do or do not respond to such unwelcome language can result in retaliation and escalated violence. A type of harm reduction, women often wear headphones and listen to music while in public for the specific purpose of cancelling out the hostile sonic landscape into which we are walking. The way that women and femmes make use of technology and music as a tool of survival in hostile sonic landscapes is a form of femme tech as well as femme defense. What sort of psychological and emotional effect does constant and repeated exposure to abusive noise have on the minds and bodies of women of color? [. . .Click here to listen to the podcast!]
Sara Hinojos and Inés Casillas
The Cinco de Mayo season showcases troubling instances of Spanish being mocked. Corporate ‘merica profits from Drinko de Mayo when menus advertise “el happy hour”; words like “fiesta” and “amigo” are overused; and Spanish hyperanglicized for laughs (one of the worst: “COM-PREN-DAY”). These acts of linguistic privilege, according to Jane Hill, elevate whiteness in public spaces. What is heard as playful for the dominant ear is simply an acoustic representation of the racist appropriation of mustaches, sombreros, and sarapes.
CinKO de Mayo(naise)
Fiesta like there’s no mañana
Said no Juan ever
That said, bilennials have struck back.
Last year, the Latino digital platform, we are mitú, published a list that resonated with its young, bicultural readers, those long accustomed to hearing Spanish Accented English (SAE) as part of their everyday speech: 17 Popular Brand Logos If They Looked The Way Your Parents Pronounce Them. This humorous phonetic play in the face of complaints about foreign accents being unintelligible or moral indignation over immigrants who do not learn Englishwith native-like proficiency re-directs our attention to digital, engaged Spanish-English bilingual communities. Like Chicana/o listening practices, these digital memes, gifs, and lists embrace how these accents invoke sounds of survival, solidarity and place making. [. . .Click here for more!]
The US presidential campaigns in 2016 were escorted by a number of songs regarding the person who was recently inaugurated as president. These songs served mostly as a kind of dystopic, fear-indulging, angsty “comedy music”—to reference Frank Zappa’s 1971 “Dental Hygiene Dilemma”—with a perverted thrill, or functioned in the retro manner of balladesque storytelling in songform. Performance art band Pussy Riot’s rather blunt “Make America Great Again” falls in the former category, while many examples from the brave and radiating 30 Days, 30 Songs project fall in the latter, summoning indie-rock icons as Death Cab For Cutie, R.E.M., Bob Mould, EL VY, Jimmy Eat World and Franz Ferdinand.
Lesser known tracks like “Trump,” produced by German DJ and producer WestBam, used a collage with sampled footage organized on a 4/4-beat to uncover Trump’s lies and remodel them into articulations of the vocal intentions of this subject: “We need drugs. We need crime.” However, as horrific and uncanny as this video seems, this subject as head of government then figured only in an unthinkable, impossible world. [. . .Click here for more!]
David Menestres and Marie Thompson
Dr. Marie Thompson is currently a Lecturer at the Lincoln School of Film and Media, University of Lincoln. Her new book Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism has just been published by Bloomsbury. We’ve been following each other on Twitter for a while(@DrMarieThompsonand @AbstractTruth) and I have become very interested in her ideas on noise. I’m David Menestres, double bassist, writer, radio host, and leader of the Polyorchard ensemble (“a vital and wonderfully vexing force of the area’s sonic fringes”) currently living in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
In her new book, Dr. Thompson covers a wide variety of ideas from Spinoza to Michel Serres’s cybernetic theory, acoustic ecology and the politics of silence to the transgressiveness of noise music, and many other concepts to show how we are affected by noise. Thompson is also the co-editor of Sound, Music, Affect: Theorizing Sonic Experience(Bloomsbury, 2013). Here is a conversation we had over email in February 2017 about Beyond Unwanted Sound.
David Menestres (DM): Why now? Why did you feel compelled to write this book? What do you hope this book will accomplish?
Marie Thompson (MT): I think my ‘academic’ interest in noise began as an undergraduate music student – I was interested in thinking ‘beyond’ distinctions of avant-gardism and popular culture and noise, as something that traverses such separations became an evermore appealing concept. So I’ve been circling some of these ideas for quite a while.
I felt compelled to write the book partly due to what I perceived as a gap between some of my ‘everyday’ experiences of noise and how noise was represented in discourse – particularly noise’s representation as an essentially negative phenomenon; or as a shocking, sublime, radical, overwhelming, transgressive force. [. . .Click here for more!]
Sarah Mayberry Scott
A stage full of opera performers stands, silent, looking eager and exhilarated, matching their expressions to the word that appears on the iPad in front of them. As the word “excited” dissolves from the iPad screen, the next emotion, “sad” appears and the performers’ expressions shift from enthusiastic to solemn and downcast to visually represent the word on the screen. The “singers” are performing in Christine Sun Kim’s conceptual sound artistic performance entitled, Face Opera.
The singers do not use audible voices for their dramatic interpretation, as they would in a conventional opera, but rather use their faces to convey meaning and emotion keyed to the text that appears on the iPad in front of them. Challenging the traditional notions of dramatic interpretation, as well as the concepts of who is considered a singer and what it means to sing, this art performance is just one way Kim calls into question the nature of sound and our relationship to it.
Audible sound is, of course, essential to sound studies though sound itself is not audist, as it can be experienced in a multitude of ways. The contemporary multi-modal turn in sound studies enables ways to theorize how more bodies can experience sound, including audible sound, motion, vibration, and visuals. [. . .Click here for more!]
In a 2015 interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Toni Morrison recounts the time her father threw a drunken white man down the stairs because he thought the man was coming for his daughters. She concluded that it made her feel protected. Gross circuitously questions this rationale, implying that her father’s act, his black violence, must have been terrifying for Morrison and her sister to see. Morrison responds, “Well, if it was you and a black man was coming up the stairs after a little white girl and the white father threw the black man down, that wouldn’t disturb you.” Chastised, Gross adds, “I think it’s a product of being in this, like, not-very-violent, working-class, middle-class family where I didn’t see a lot of violence when I was growing up, so any violent act would probably have been very unnerving to me.” Gross’ response to Morrison’s childhood memory of black fatherly love and protection, coded to elevate her white, middle-class upbringing, left me wondering: whose violence is acceptable, and whose is not?
This question remains pressing in today’s climate. In the past year, state-sanctioned violence against indigenous, black, brown, queer and trans people, which has run like rich, nourishing marrow through the backbone of this country, is once again being openly and actively fomented throughout the public sphere by the figures at the apex of state power. In reaction, antifa anarchist groups, responsible for the much-publicized #PunchANazi meme have revived the use of black bloc tactics; along with the rise of “left-leaning” gun clubs, these responses have given renewed currency to the notion of arming up to fight back out of fear, disgust, and rage.
Olympia queer and trans hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. embodies many of these impulses, especially in their most recent (and now final) EP, Trans Day of Revenge. Through calls to direct action and explicit violence, the band rages against every oppressor that has ever crossed its path. On the whole, popular and critical reception to the EP has been positive, even celebratory, due in part to the preceding lineage of music criticism in which the violence of hardcore music is neutralized or intellectualized because of the implicit whiteness of the genre. And, in mirroring both critical and popular reactions to the work of Black Lives Matter and other black social movements, the calls to direct action in rap and hip hop are either discredited or disavowed. In other words, certain white genres of music, and the violence therein, appear to require intellectual analysis or even possess an inherent rationalization. [. . .Click here for more!]
Featured Image: “Mic: Sounding Out! Por Vida” by Shizu Saldamando, courtesy of Jennifer Stoever
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For those familiar with modern media, there are a number of short musical phrases that immediately trigger a particular emotional response. Think, for example, of the two-note theme that denotes the shark in Jaws, and see if you become just a little more tense or nervous. So too with the stabbing shriek of the violins from Psycho, or even the whirling four-note theme from The Twilight Zone. In each of these cases, the musical theme is short, memorable, and unalterably linked to one specific feeling: fear.
The first few notes of the “Dies Irae” chant, perhaps as recognizable as any of the other themes I mentioned already, are often used to provoke that same emotion.
Often, but not always. The “Dies Irae” has been associated with death since its creation in the thirteenth century, due to its use in the Requiem Mass for the dead until the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Its text describes the Last Judgment, when all humanity will be sent to heaven or hell. But from the Renaissance to today, the “Dies Irae” has also come to symbolize everything from the medieval church and Catholic ritual to the sinister, superstitious, or supernatural, even violence and battle—and any combination of the above.
Because of its unique history not only within its original liturgical context but also within later musical genres, this chant has become largely divorced from its original purposes, at least in modern popular imagination. Instead, it now holds a multiplicity of meanings; composers manipulate these meanings by utilizing this chant in a new setting, and thus in turn continue to reinforce those meanings within modern media. Since its use within the Mass, concert music, and films has already been well documented, this blog post explores its presence in an as yet unexamined medium: video games.Chant—monophonic music of the Western Christian tradition—is the largest surviving body of music from the medieval period. Although chant was not written down until the ninth century, it has been continuously sung for over two thousand years. Before the Reformation, chant permeated the musical landscape of Western Europe. But as John Haines points out, chant’s meanings changed in the sixteenth century; to Protestants, chant was a sign of superstitious, even sinister, ritual, whereas to Catholics it was a flawed but holy tradition (112). Chant became ever more confined to the Catholic liturgy; although composers continued to use chant in new compositions, by the late nineteenth century the only chant guaranteed to be recognized by a secular audience was the “Dies Irae.”
Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the text was set in Requiems for the secular stage by composers such as Mozart, Verdi, and Britten. But due to both its evocative text and its memorable melody (often just the first sixteen, eight, or even four notes), the “Dies Irae” chant soon was incorporated into secular instrumental works, where it signified the past, the supernatural, the oppressive, the demonic, and death. No work is more responsible for this than Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, where the chant symbolizes the composer’s own death and the depravity of the demons and witches who dance at his funeral.
The history of this chant, together with its use in film, has been explored by scholars such as Linda Schubert and John Haines. Because the “Dies Irae” was already a well-known symbol of the aforementioned characteristics, and because early silent film musicians borrowed musical ideas from previously composed works, the chant segued quickly into early film, where its symbolic possibilities were reinforced. Thus, even in newly composed soundtracks, composers utilized this chant as an aural shortcut to a host of emotional and psychological reactions, especially (as James Deaville and others discuss) within horror films. It appears in scenes depicting inner anguish, fear, the occult, evil, and imminent death in films from It’s a Wonderful Life, The Seventh Seal, and The Shining to Disney’s The Lion King and Star Wars, in musicals like Sweeney Todd, and in literary works such as Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, but it also symbolizes power and even heroism, such as in this Nike shoe commercial.
The “Dies Irae” appears analogously in video game soundtracks, where it communicates the same symbolic meanings that it does in film scores and concert music. Its recognizability also lends itself to parody, as it did in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet, unlike in film music, the evolution of its use in game music speaks also to the evolution of game music technology.
In the earlier years of video games, technology could not create continuous soundtracks. The first such was in Space Invaders (1978), although it consisted only of four descending notes looped indefinitely. Additionally, while voice synthesis was used in game soundtracks as early as 1982, reproduction of musical voices was limited even into the 1990s. William Gibbons describes how early systems had a limited number of channels (40); as a result, Baroque-style counterpoint worked well texturally, and reproducing music from earlier composers such as Bach was not only permissible by copyright but also demonstrated the capabilities of their systems (201–204). As such, earlier games were less interested in a monophonic chant, although several (such as Fatal Fury) did use Mozart’s setting of the “Dies Irae.”
The “Dies Irae” chant is first used in game music in the late 1980s and early 1990s, by which point most systems had five or more channels, allowing for improved timbres and sound synthesis. The opening theme song to F-19 Stealth Fighter (1988–92, DOS/PC/Amiga/Atari) subtly references the first phrase of the chant. Composer Ken Lagace sets the first eight pitches evenly in the lower voice before moving them to a higher, rhythmicized register. The chant is accompanied by a consistent percussive element and several higher, chordal voices, which splinter off into fast arpeggios before restating the opening. There is as yet no action, nor is the plot either spiritual or supernatural, so the chant here actually works in a somewhat anomalous way. It heightens the player’s tension through its aural connotations of fear and death, thus setting the stage for the battles still to come in the game itself.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992, PC) is another early instance of the “Dies Irae,” which appears at the end, when Indiana and his companion Sophia confront the malevolent Doctor. The chant again increases tension but also indicates the presence of evil. Musically, the first two phrases of the chant appear in long, low tones, accompanied by several high, sustained, dissonant pitches. New voices enter, reminiscent of the opening phrase, before the chant returns in full in all registers. The system’s capability for thicker textures allowed the composers to stack the monophonic “Dies Irae” against itself, further emphasizing the threat of imminent danger in this final encounter.
The last of the early case studies is Zombies Ate My Neighbors (1993, SNES/Genesis). These systems featured multiple channels capable of emulating a variety of acoustical settings. The game is a parody of 1950s horror films; the protagonists race through standard horror settings such as malls and castles to rescue their neighbors from demonic babies, vampires, zombies, and other stock creatures. The soundtrack also mimics the musical tropes in such films: chant itself, especially the “Dies Irae,” but also timbres such as tremolo, stingers, extreme ranges, and dissonance. The track “Curse of the Tongue,” which plays upon encountering the final boss, Dr. Tongue’s Giant Head, emulates a Gothic pipe organ. The low organ drone sustains underneath the first sixteen notes of the chant, which sound in a shrieking, vibrato-heavy register. The voices then move in parallel fifths as in medieval polyphony. The “Dies Irae” here brings to mind an entire film genre while also overtly characterizing the final battle against the otherworldly, sinister, evil Head. In this case, the chant works literally to signify the current battle and threat of death, but also parodically to indicate the absurdity of the situation.
The development of video game audio technology allowed first for voice emulation, then voice reproduction. Vocal samples were used as early as the 1980s, but were often confined to theme songs. Yet even after voices were reproduced within soundtracks, it is the “Dies Irae” melody alone that is most frequently sampled, strikingly paralleling its earlier use in film and concert music. When the “Dies Irae” text is used, it is set to newly composed music or borrowed from the Mozart or Verdi Requiems. Moreover, as in earlier media, all that is needed as an aural mnemonic is the first phrase, even just the first four notes, of the chant melody.
For example, two games released for PC in 1999—Heroes of Might & Magic III and Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned—both use just the first portion of the “Dies Irae.” In “Burying the Manuscript” from Gabriel Knight, pizzicato violins first allude to the first four or five notes of the chant (1:25); the full first phrase is then presented in parallel motion in the brass. The remainder of this theme alludes to the first few notes, making the “Dies Irae” a constant presence here and underscoring the secrecy, even the occult nature, of the manuscript in this scene.
Heroes III uses even less melodic material. In the Necropolis, composer Paul Romero uses the first four notes of the “Dies Irae” to underpin the entire theme. The bass plays the first four notes in a low register before seguing into newly composed material, but the contour of that phrase returns throughout the theme. The full chant phrases do not appear until the very end. The chant hints constantly at the overwhelming metaphor of death in this area, as well as to the presence of supernatural creatures such as vampires, zombies, and wraiths.
Unusual for many reasons, then, is the last case study: the game Dante’s Inferno (2010, PS3/Xbox360). It is the sole example here to use voices, but the text appears to be newly composed. As John Haines noted, the presence of Latin or pseudo-Latin is in and of itself a trope of the diabolical or demonic, which adds further nuance to this scene (129). The familiar melody is presented by a choir of mixed voices, accompanied by a roar of low brass, ambient noise, and a descant voice singing on open vowels, all signifiers of horror or the medieval. Moreover, the “Dies Irae” is not reserved for a final battle, as in previous examples, nor does it characterize supernatural creatures. Rather, it is the first theme heard in the game, reinforcing not only the medieval setting and the constant presence of death but also the ultimate trajectory of Dante, and the gamer, into Hell.
While the “Dies Irae” has been well studied as an aural signifier within film and concert music, its use in video games has, before now, been largely ignored. As in earlier musical genres, this chant brings to games a host of culturally accepted, musically mediated meanings that allow composers to immediately flesh out a character or scene. In so doing, game composers acknowledge that sound is not just sound, but rather it is (to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Randell Upton) “a complex interaction of experiences and expectations on the part of the audience.” These experiences are continuously shaped by new compositions, scores, and soundtracks, which in turn continuously shape the audience’s expectations for future works.
As such, game soundtracks, along with other kinds of media, continue to transform the “Dies Irae” out of its original context and into an ever-growing set of pop culture symbols. The chant now signifies everything from the medieval to the present day, from judgment, battle, and death to demons, witches, and the occult. Within games in particular, though, it acts as a “memento mori,” a reminder of the mortality that game characters, and thus game players, seek to avoid through play. As such, it may instill fear in a player, but also suspicion, alertness, tension, even excitement, spurring the player to react in whichever manner suits the individual game.
The iconic status of the opening phrases of the “Dies Irae” chant marks it as a particularly useful polyvalent symbol for composers. Yet the utilization of this well-known trope is not without its problems. As I discuss in a forthcoming article, this chant, and indeed all plainchant, originates in a particular sacred, liturgical tradition. When a chant such as “Dies Irae” is used as a signifier of a general sense of spirituality, or of the medieval, or even of horror, then by default those characteristics are reified, if subtly, as Christian. Moreover, linking a chant such as the “Dies Irae” to the supernatural or the occult serves to perpetuate early modern stereotypes of Catholicism as nothing more than superstitious magic; see, for example, the purported origins of the phrase “hocus pocus.” Such anachronistic uses further obfuscate chant’s continuous role within Catholic (and other) liturgy; it is both a historic and a very modern practice.
Given that the “Dies Irae” is certainly not the only musical means to the aforementioned symbolic ends, perhaps these concerns are not pressing. Still, as Anita Sarkeesian points out, we can enjoy modern media while simultaneously critiquing facets that are problematic. There is no clear-cut way, at this point, to overturn hundreds of years of accumulated symbolic meaning for a musical icon such as the “Dies Irae,” but it behooves us as participants in auditory culture to become better aware of the multiple, and occasionally challenging, meanings within what we hear.
[Other games that also use the “Dies Irae” chant include Gauntlet Legends (1999, N64/PS/Dreamcast), Final Fantasy IX (2000, PS), EverQuest II (2004, MMORPG), Heroes of Might and Magic V (2006, PC), Sam & Max: Season 2 (2007–8, Wii/PC/PS3/Xbox 360), Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (2011, PS3/Xbox 360), and Diablo 3 (2012–4, PC/PS3/Xbox/PS4). My thanks go to VGMdb and Overclocked Remix for bringing several of these games to my attention, and to Ryan Thompson and Dana Plank for comments.]
Featured Image: A mashup of the first lines of the Dies Irae and the Zombies Ate My Neighbors title screen. Remixed for purposes of critique.
Dr. Karen Cook specializes in medieval and Renaissance music theory, history, and performance. She is currently working on a monograph on the development of rhythmic notation in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. She also maintains active research interests in popular and contemporary music, especially with regard to music and identity in television, film, and video games. She frequently links her areas of specialization together through a focus on medievalism, writ broadly, in contemporary culture. As such, some of her recent and forthcoming publications include articles on fourteenth-century theoretical treatises, biographies of lesser-known late medieval theorists, and the use of plainchant in video games, a book chapter on medievalist music in Harry Potter video games, and a forthcoming co-authored Oxford Bibliography on medievalism and music.
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In the summer of 2016, optimistic about a full-time teaching position at a minority-serving institution, yet unsure about what the U.S. election would mean for immigrants’ rights, I played the Hamilton soundtrack daily. Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the Pulitzer-prize winning musical inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography on the United States’ founding father because, he believed, Alexander Hamilton’s life embodied hip hop. My repeated listenings urged me to assign the musical as homework in my courses.
Colleagues with whom I engage on Twitter provided resources with which to begin. A public historian, Lyra Monteiro, wrote an important review for Public History,“Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” which provide one key angle of critique. Latinx Theater scholar and SO! writer Trevor Boffone created an online syllabus, #Syllabus4Ham, that provided important critiques of the musical, news coverage of its growing popularity, and initial scholarly analyses of the cultural historical significance of the musical’s popularity. Pedagogically, Miranda’s archival research in addition to his belief that Hamilton’s life embodied hip hop sparked an interest to bring the production to my gender and interdisciplinary studies classrooms. While colleagues works’ inspired ways to discuss the musical in class, post-election coverage and the release of the Hamilton Mixtape provided more material to discuss. Teaching children of hip hop whose lives embody the struggle that Miranda made the central force behind his re-writing of Hamilton’s contribution to United States’ history, I wanted to develop lessons drawing on those relations.
By the spring 2017, I had done preliminary reading on the syllabus Boffone provided and replaced the musical with the Mixtape as my car ride soundtrack. When organizing my syllabus, I assigned tracks from the mixtape against the musical’s soundtrack with the intent of assigning students excerpts in both both my introductory Gender Studies course and Interdisciplinary Research Methods courses, but with a unique twist for each class. Gender Studies engaged with the content contextualized by discussions of immigration and citizenship. I assigned my Research Methods course Monteiro’s critique of race-consciousness of the musical against the mixtape and the musical. While students were in solidarity with Montiero’s argument, I invited them to consider Miranda’s original intent, the mixtape, which may have informed the themes Miranda prioritized.
Few of them had heard of the musical before my class and less had heard of the mixtape. Their limited exposure necessitated historicizing both Miranda’s career and the evolution Hamilton’s, which begins with 2009 Miranda’s White House performance. Miranda, invited by President Obama to perform a song from his previous hit In the Heights, instead decided to introduce his new project, a mixtape based on Alexander Hamilton.
Through discussion, I proposed that the students consider that the production, in 2009 envisioned as an album, served as a strategic catalyst to bring attention to his forthcoming mixtape. That attention evolved into encouraging Miranda to produce the musical; it would take a few more years till the intended mixtape was produced. Even though produced later, I speculated that the mixtape thematically benefited from the popularity of the musical because the musical’s focus on Alexander Hamilton rewrites the context of the mixtape.
Teaching Hamilton the musical and the mixtape felt politically necessary at a minority serving institution in this historical moment of anti-immigrant, and anti-black sentiment. Having, in the past, worked with other youth to mobilize youth empowerment through hip hop, Hamilton provided an avenue in which I could discuss its political potential because of its popularity not only in spite of it. In breaking down Miranda’s cultural and political significance, I summarized the evolution of awards he and the musical’s cast had won as well as the preliminary cast’s reflections on participating in Hamilton, along with what it means to have the success of the musical produce a wider audience for the mixtape.
After more than a semester working with students who grow frustrated with the traditional research paper and because of my own work producing research-based fiction and poetry, teaching the musical and mixtape provided an important example of research-based art. Because some students approach interdisciplinary research methods not understanding the possibilities of the relationship between art and research and some students are unsure of how to connect learning outcomes to their aspiring performance careers, I find teaching Miranda’s work remains necessary. Further, Miranda provides an avenue through which I could relate to students because of our shared interest in music as well as our conflicted relationship with consuming hip hop.
Teaching a student population that is 25% Latinx and who are either directly or indirectly affected by immigration policies, my students related, often quite deeply and intimately, to the message of the song. I watched their faces as they listened, particularly to “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” and their kinesthetic responses showcased what many of us ache for our students to experience: wonder, appreciation, and the illumination of insight.
I then guided them to hone in specifically on Puerto Rican rapper Residente rapping about the Mexican immigrant struggle in Spanish, emphasizing how he sonically and rhetorically urges a Latin pan-ethnicity while using his U.S. citizenship privilege to historicize border crossing Mexicans. Residente’s lyrics create an opportunity to discuss Puerto Ricans’ cultural reality of being perceived as immigrants while being legally defined as citizens, all the while calling back to the lyrical connection to the “Battle of Yorktown” from the musical.
I highlighted Miranda’s rhetorical strategy in building a song around one line that contexts changes across either song. The “Battle of Yorktown” centers on the contributions of immigrants to gaining freedom. During the lecture, I drew connections between the lyric that would become a song and the lyric subtly referencing the lack of freedoms for black people who were enslaved in the U.S. I asked about the parallels before explaining them, using the intentionality behind creating and compelling a racially diverse cast to script a narrative about who could and who had built the United States. What does it mean to hear these voices emanating from this cast, telling this story?
Pedagogically, teaching music in either course served the intent of reimagining the purpose and potential of sound, whether from a musical or a mixtape, as a site of critical thinking. Popular musicians’ cultural authority slowly decenters the white fragility I have come to expect from difficult conversations such as the ones Hamilton and The Hamilton Mixtape allow me to have. Furthermore, the call-and-response between the mixtape and the musical work address the silence of the unrecognized, exploited, and/or enslaved labor that continues to build this country. For my students, hearing musicians they like or who perform in their favorite genre, speaking truth to power about poverty, struggle, and not being thought of as good enough shifted not only our classroom energy, but many students’ perspectives.
Teaching the Hamiltons helped my student population make sense of their “invisible” status in the U.S. and want more than what’s expected. They gained something in being able to hear their stories in the classroom—not just read them on the page—but hear them from people who look and sound like them. Hungry for more material that speaks to their disenfranchisement, my students wondered why more songs that sound the complex beauty of our resilience and struggle are not on the radio. They wanted to know how they can ask for more.
Featured Image: Screen capture from “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” remix video
Erika Gisela Abad, Ph.D, is a Queer Latina poet, born and raised in Chicago. She received her PhD in American Studies in 2012. Since completing her degree, she has worked as: a customer service associate and a scheduler at a phone interpreter call center, head counselor for a caddy program affiliated with a high school scholarship fund, field director for an education policy campaign, an oral historian and ethnographer. Since August 2016, she has been a full time assistant professor teaching gender studies. Twitter: @lionwanderer531; @prof_eabad
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