Stir It Up: From Polyphony to Multivocality in A Brief History of Seven Killings
For many, the audiobook is a source of pleasure and distraction, a way to get through the To Read Pile while washing dishes or commuting. Audiobooks have a stealthy way of rendering invisible the labor of creating this aural experience: the writer, the narrator, the producer, the technology…here at Sounding Out! we want to render that labor visible and, moreover, think of the sound as a focus of analysis in itself.
Over the next few weeks, we will host several authors who will make all of us think differently about the audiobook selections on our phone, in our car, and in our radios. Last week we listened to a book that listens to Dublin, in a post by Shantam Goyal. Today we have seven narrators telling us the story of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley. What will the audiobook whisper to us that the book cannot speak?
—Managing Editor Liana Silva
Reviews of A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James’ 686-page rendering of the echoes of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley, almost invariably invoke the concept of polyphony to name its adroit use of multiple narrators. In The New York Times, Zachary Lazar maintained that the “polyphony and scope” of the 2014 novel made it much more than a saga of drug and gang violence stretching from 1970s Kingston to 1990s New York. And the Booker Prize, which James was the first Jamaican to win, similarly praised it as a “rich, polyphonic study,” with chief judge Michael Wood calling attention to the impressive “range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation.” It was thus not only the sheer number of voices in a preliminary three-page “Cast of Characters” that critics so unanimously admired but also the variety and nuance evident within them. Norwegian publisher Mime Books even took these polyphonic features a step further by hiring not one but twelve translators in a casting process that auditioned prominent novelists, playwrights, and performers.
James recalls realizing early on that this novel would be one “driven only by voice” (687), which might make such enthusiastic responses to its plurality of perspectives seem unsurprising. But what happens when such polyphony leaves the page behind and actual material voices drive its delivery? If the audiobook is a format of the novel (and here I follow Jonathan Sterne’s definition of format in MP3: The Meaning of a Format as “a whole range of decisions that affect the look, feel, experience, and workings of a medium” ), what lessons can listeners learn that print cannot provide? As I argue, the 26-hour-long audiobook version of A Brief History, which Highbridge Audio produced with seven actors (Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Johnathan McClain, Robert Younis, Thom Rivera), allows us to engage with multivocality rather than polyphony, which is to say the multiple vocal performances of a single individual rather than the presence of many narrators within a print work. And just as this novel’s polyphonic structure destabilizes any attempt at a definitive account of the events it portrays, the multifaceted performances of its audio format work to untrain ears that have been conditioned to hear necessary ties between voices and bodies.
Of course, this effect is not one that most listeners consciously seek, as reviews of the audiobook articulating various reasons for turning to this format as well as diverging responses to it readily attest. Gayle, on Audible, began with the print version: “but as soon as I got to the first chapter that was written in Jamaican patois I knew that I was not able to do that in my head and I was going to miss a lot.” Sound here conveys sense more swiftly than the page, the ear apparently better suited than the eye to encounter difference. (Woodsy, another reviewer, even felt emboldened to ventriloquize in text that sonically distinctive speech: “I found that listening to the Audible version was helpful. Now all me need do is stop thinking in Jamaican.”) Yet it was Andre who offered by far the most memorable characterization of the audiobook and its affordances. As he explained, in James’ novel “the language is a thick, tropical forest of words. Audiobook is the machete that slices through this forest of words so I can enjoy the treasures inside.” The violence of this metaphor matches that of the novel’s most disturbing scenes, yet what is most striking is the way it reiterates once more how reviewers found it easier to access the work aurally rather than visually.
These reviews, and other similarly favorable appraisals, rarely consider the audiobook on its own terms, insisting instead on comparisons with the text. Negative ones, however, often note distinctively sonic features, with some reviewers echoing one of the Booker judges—who reportedly consulted a Jamaican poet about the accuracy of James’ ear for dialogue—by questioning the veracity of the Jamaican accents in a novel that also features American, Colombian, and Cuban ones. Tending to readily identify themselves as Jamaican, these writers and listeners rarely acknowledge that at least some of the actors were born on the island when asserting that the accents are off. In any case, such efforts to link sound and authenticity, as Liana Silva has argued with respect to the audiobook, wrongly suggest that those who belong to a group must conform to a single sound. James, too, distrusts discourses of the authentic, as characters repeatedly cast suspicion and scorn on anyone uttering the phrase “real Jamaica.”
If the polyphony in James’ novel prevents any one perspective from becoming either representative or definitive, the audiobook pushes this process even further by demonstrating how a single performer’s voice can possess such range that it seems to contain multiple ones. Each performer is responsible for all the voices within the sections narrated by their primary characters, which means that the same character can occasionally be voiced by different actors. In one section, a performer does the voices of a tough-talking Chicago-born hitman and the jittery Colombians he speaks with in Miami; in others, that same performer is both a white Rolling Stone journalist from Minnesota who’s attuned to racial difference and the black Jamaicans he converses with in Kingston. Continuity or strict one-to-one correspondences between performer and character ultimately matter less than the displays of vocal difference that allow the audiobook to contest essentialized notions of voice.
As a result, the audiobook articulates just how constructed vocal divisions based on race, gender, and class are by having its performers constantly cross them. It amplifies the very arbitrariness of such divisions and thereby reveals how, if the page is the space of polyphony, then what the audiobook stages is multivocality. Although they might seem like synonyms, these two terms can actually help us appreciate crucial differences and, in doing so, highlight the specificity of the audio format. On the one hand, –phony or phōnē, as Shane Butler reminds us in The Ancient Phonograph, ambiguously refers to both voice and the human capacity for speech (36), whereas –vocality centers the voice. On the other, the shift from the Greek poly- to the Latin multi- signals a contrast in what gets counted: while polyphony names the quantity of perspectives contributing to a narrative (when introducing it in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Mikhail Bakhtin emphasized that polyphony consisted of “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses” ), multivocality instead specifies how the number of voices can exceed the number of performers. In this way, the concept of multivocality outlined here with respect to the audiobook resonates with its use in another context by Katherine Meizel, who mobilizes it with reference to singing and the borders of identity. In both cases, voice names a multiplicity of practices rather than an immutable or inevitable expression, which in turn aligns with Nina Sun Eidsheim’s argument in The Race of Sound about the voice being not singular but collective and not innate but cultural (9).
We can therefore say that where print-based polyphony works on the eye by placing various perspectives on a page without necessarily challenging visual perceptions of difference, multivocality in the audiobook can retrain an ear’s culturally ingrained ideas about voice. James himself has experience with these seemingly inescapable meanings assigned to vocal sounds. In a moving essay for The New York Times Magazine, he recounts how, even at the age of 28, “I was so convinced that my voice outed me as a fag that I had stopped speaking to people I didn’t know.” That was already long after high school, when, as he remembered in a New Yorker profile, he had begun “tape-recording his efforts to sound masculine, repeating words like ‘bredren’ and ‘boss.’” He was well aware of the links that listeners created between voice and identity and that could, as he suggests, prove risky in a place with overt homophobia like Jamaica. Writing, however, offered him a space to take on any voice and, at the same time, not be concerned with the sound of his own.
Yet if the page allowed James to effortlessly shift among narrative voices, the audiobook format exhibits voices that ostensibly shift without any effort. Perhaps the most compelling example emerges in the work of Cherise Boothe, whose performance of the novel’s sole female primary character presents the voices of other figures as well. Toward the end of the novel, this character, Dorcas Palmer, is a caretaker for a much older and wealthier white man with amnesia in New York. Boothe not only captures the changes as Palmer often eliminates her Jamaican accent and occasionally lets it loose but also registers the man’s moments of lucidity and confusion. Even if, as listeners, we understand that Boothe is the voice behind both of these characters, the two vocal performances are so distinct that they effectively erode the basis for any beliefs about how a certain body should sound.
Adopting different voices is certainly not unique to the audiobook, but it does provide one of the few forms of extended exposure to this practice. Yet it is worth noting that A Brief History markedly differs from the model of a more extensive cast like the one comprised of 166 voices that recorded George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. By assigning a performer to every character, such productions ultimately emphasize vocal uniqueness in roughly the same way that Adriana Cavarero conceives it, namely as an index of individuality. But there the voice remains something singular or somehow essential, for there is no opportunity to perform the plurality that appears across A Brief History. At the same time, the use of seven actors also offers a contrast with the opposite extreme: a single performer responsible for all the roles, which demonstrates multivocality but does so on such a small scale that it feels exceptional instead of ordinary. The middle ground, which is to say the model found in A Brief History, allows us to hear multiple instances of how the voice is entrained rather than essential, possibility rather than inevitability.
When briefly addressing audiobooks in an interview, James remarked that this format possesses a distinct advantage: “even something that is not necessarily plain can be translated because of tone and symbol and voice.” In other words, a voice can register its changing surroundings; conveying these subtle transformations on the page, however, is often far more difficult. This shortcoming is one that Edward Kamau Brathwaithe once memorably described when explaining why he insisted on using a tape recorder in a lecture on language in the Caribbean: “I want you to get the sound of it, rather than the sight of it.” The idiomatic familiarity of the first half, which clashes so sharply with the awkwardness of the second, suggests that the multivocality of an audiobook can open ears by accentuating how the voice is not fixed but in constant formation.
Featured Image: “Audiobook” by Flickr user ActuaLitte, CC-BY-SA-2.0
Sam Carter is a PhD Candidate in Romance Studies at Cornell University. His work on literature and sound in the Southern Cone has appeared in Latin American Textualities: History, Materiality, and Digital Media and is forthcoming in the Revista Hispánica Moderna.
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Sonic Contact Zones: An Interview with DJs MALT and Eat Paint in Koreatown, Los Angeles
On Sunday, February 21, Atlanta-based hip-hop photographer Gunner Stahl will be DJing at a raw space being built at 4317 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Koreatown as part of the Red Bull Music Festival. Red Bull suggests that many of the photographer’s artistic subjects, such as Tyler the Creator, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Gucci Mane, and/or The Weeknd might make guest appearances during his set. This star-studded stage with financial backing from the drink that gives you wings will stand across the street from Vilma’s Thrift Store, DolEx Dollar Express, Gina’s Beauty Salon, and Botanica Y Joyeria El Milagro. Tickets are a modest $15. At first glance, the location choice might seem odd; why not the legendary Wiltern Theater just down the street on Western? Or why not set up a stage inside MacArthur Park? Those are definitely options, and many performers do grace the stage of The Wiltern for fans in Koreatown and the greater Los Angeles area. However, for those who know Los Angeles’ Koreatown gets down, discounted snacks and pedicures a stone skip away from millionaires sounds just about right.
Figuring out these connections between sound, capital, culture, ethnicity, and art in LA’s Koreatown has been a popular pursuit in recent years. The year was 2014. The place was The Park Plaza Hotel on the outskirts of Los Angeles’ Koreatown. The people performing were TOKiMONSTA (Jennifer Lee), Far East Movement (Kevin Nishimura, James Roh, Jae Choung, and Virman Coquia), Dumbfoundead (Jonathan Park), and others. The reporter was Erik Kristman for Vice Media’s Thump. In the article titled “SPAM N EGGS Festival Was a Window to LA’s Multiculturalist Underground Movement,” Kristman proclaims: “Koreatown’s spectrum of sound, a culture hidden beneath its mid-Wilshire scenery, is no doubt one of the few remaining jewels of the LA underground.”
In Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (1996), Sarah Thornton writes that DJs “play a key role in the enculturation of records for dancing, sometimes as an artist but always as a representative and respondent to the crowd. By orchestrating the event and anchoring the music in a particular place, the DJ became a guarantor of subcultural authenticity” (60). Asian American DJs performed in Koreatown, so the electronic music and hip hop they mixed was enculturated not only with a Los Angeles neighborhood flair but also with an ethnic twist.
The Park Plaza Hotel, now The MacArthur, has its own important history as a venue as well. Built in the 1920s by prominent Los Angeles-based architect Claud Beelman, the building has hosted the racially exclusive Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, night clubs such as Power Tools with attendees such as Andy Warhol, and has been a site of numerous films and music videos such as Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” (2017). It survived the demolishing of similar Art Deco buildings during the 1980s. It survived the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of four police officers who beat Rodney King and the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, the Korean-born convenience store owner of Empire Liquor on 91st Street and Figueroa Avenue. It survived, if not flourished, in the subsequent gentrification of the Wilshire Center area with eager real estate agents and endowed buyers who are made nostalgic by the building’s Art Deco façade. The right DJs playing in a prime spot such as The MacArthur could definitely guarantee a level of Los Angeles subcultural authenticity for attendees. But what kind of authentic? And was that something anyone was trying to go for?
Kristman’s caricaturization of Koreatown certainly reveals how this visage of authenticity affected him. In his words, Koreatown is a diamond waiting to be mined. Koreatown is hidden. Koreatown’s “spectrum of sound” takes the singular verb “is,” meaning it functions as a unified, indistinguishable whole. Kristman has “no doubt” about his analysis of his authentic trip to Koreatown.
The openers of Spam N Eggs that night were two techno DJs and producers named MALT (Andrew Seo) and Eat Paint (Vince Fierro). Together, they run the Los Angeles-based Leisure Sports Records. We met at the Seoul-based coffeehouse Caffé Bene in Los Angeles to share misugaru lattes and talk about Kristman’s statement.
“I definitely wouldn’t call ‘Koreatown’ very underground,” says Vince. “It’s certainly become a new social center to LA’s night life, and there was a time when there was a feeling of great potential for a solid underground movement. But sadly, there have not been any significantly artistic home-grown breakthroughs coming from K-Town.”
Vince continues: “Rather, it serves as a new landing pad for the very commercialized Korean hip-hop and EDM cultures in Los Angeles. These genres dominate the K-Town club landscape. Unfortunately [pause] to me, anyway [pause] it’s success not won with any kind of daring artistry or underground legitimacy but rather with familiar aesthetics and neon lights.”
“[Los Angeles] helps them, too,” adds Andrew. “They’ll close off streets and bring in vendors because it gets people out spending money. A lot of the Korean stars come out for these events, but the thing is [pause] what kinds of people are these events attracting? Obviously, Koreans, or people that are fans of Korean music. I think Korean people here have a lot of pride, and they see that there is a rise in the culture and the area’s popularity and they’re jumping on that. They’re trying to make it bigger and better. If you walk around Koreatown, you’ll see gentrification happening everywhere.” He references the Wilshire Grand Center, the Hanjin Group-owned skyscraper that stands taller than any other west of the Mississippi, and its surroundings as evidence.
Urban studies carried out by Kyonghwan Park and Youngmin Lee, Kyeyoung Park and Jessica Kim, and others on Koreatown’s fraught relationship with surges of capital have made similar acknowledgments in wonderful detail. These surges are not evenly distributed among clubs; there are many more “secret” dimly-lit rave spots that pop up throughout the district than there are widely advertised above-ground clubs in Koreatown. Even relatively established clubs such as Union at 4067 West Pico Boulevard or Feria at 682 Irolo Street were not glamorous (and both have closed since the time this recent interview was conducted); they are surrounded by predatory lending offices and abandoned shops. Andrew gave me the address of an upcoming rave spot in Koreatown; it was basically under an apartment complex.
“I think they just want to bring what they build in Korea over here because that’s how they do it over there,” adds Andrew. “They just have apartments and then clubs and restaurants underneath or underground. It’s kind of like how Tokyo is.”
If this “hidden, underground” Koreatown culture does exist, as Kristman suggests, then finding it requires ignoring the flashing lights of Spam N Eggs and seeking out the darker warehouse raves. It also requires a level of suspended disbelief that Koreatown is untouched by hipster gentrification and instead an embracing of a subcultural essence that goes beyond city architecture and real estate. The physical space of sections of Koreatown might not be as important as the potential for the production of space in terms of creating sonic contact zones.
The zones created by artists such as Malt and Eat Paint are mobile and fleeting as they pop up whenever and wherever these DJs perform. Like Josh Kun famously put forward in his book Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (2005), the music these musicians produce and mix has the ability to create audiotopias “of cultural counter that may not be physical places but nevertheless exist in their own auditory some-where” (2-3). Electronic music, and perhaps similarly this “jewel-like” spectrum of Koreatown sound, has the ability to implant identity into the buildings and surrounding neighborhoods. What once was a Mexican restaurant and is now abandoned becomes a pulsating techno club attracting those Angelenos who shy away from the more commercial scenes.
Perhaps Kristman was focusing more on the Asian American DJs themselves than the types of music they were spinning or The Park Plaza Hotel and its situation in Koreatown. As Asian Americans, these DJs represent and are representative of an authentic subculture to which Kristman bears witness. However, many artists shy away from or sometimes outright deny any racial or ethnic connections being made between their art and their identities. Andrew and Vince shared personal and well-known examples of ambivalent attitudes toward such labeling. Jason Chung, also known as Nosaj Thing, is one of the best-booked electronic performers today, flying around the world sponsored by Adidas or playing huge shows with Flying Lotus. Vince, who worked very closely with Jason just as his career was taking off, reflects on Nosaj’s rise: “Everyone here in K-Town thinks Nosaj Thing is a god. But if you ask him about his pride in being Korean, he won’t say anything.”
Andrew adds: “It’s just like how Qbert is for the Filipino community – that’s who Nosaj Thing is for Koreans today. When I went to South Korea to perform, they would ask me how I was affiliated with him, although I’m not really. South Koreans are amazed to see a Korean guy make it in the music industry in America with a sense of originality, not having to sell out.”
Both Andrew and Vince shift the conversation suddenly to Keith Ape and his debut as a trap music artist. Keith Ape’s success was due in part to spectacle (as the genre demands), to the power of hallyu promotion, but more so to simple respect from established artists such as Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame. In a Noisey documentary about his first U.S. performance at South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2015, Keith Ape is translated as saying: “You know, I’m Asian. And I heard stories of how Asians are still looked at as outsiders in the States. And I heard it’s even worse when it comes down to hip-hop.”
While his successful Atlanta trap-style set at SXSW ultimately assuaged those fears of acceptance, for many beginning and working Asian American DJs and performers, this perceived and sometimes enforced musical barrier is daunting. While Andrew seemed to have his criticisms about how Korean promoters of Korean artists seem to be strictly focused on the commercial payoff of such events, he did not condemn their tapping into the United States market. Furthermore, he never mentioned that performing in the electronic music genre was either assisted or hindered by his ethnicity. Rather, much like Nosaj Thing, Malt lets the music do its work and create an audiotopia in which race and ethnicity are not under the spotlight. Literally, most of the shows Malt performs at do not feature the performer; the DJ is often in the dark, putting the focus almost exclusively on the music.
Vince adds: “Korean American artists like Nosaj Thing and TOKiMONSTA and David Choe – all these people are doing their own thing. They’ve got these ‘don’t see me as Asian’ mottos, these ‘just think I’m dope’ vibes.”
Instead of searching for authenticity in the racial or ethnic identities of performers, Andrew is more interested in breaking stereotypes about the dangers associated with techno music, raves, and drug use. Andrew concludes: “I think first impressions are very, very important to Korean people. Looks are everything. South Korea is like the biggest plastic surgery country in the world. I went to Korea to visit my grandma, who I hadn’t seen in a long time, and all she would ask me was like, ‘Are you eating well? Look at your hair!’ Just purely about my looks. I was telling her, ‘Grandma! I run a label back in LA! I’m trying to be a musician!’ At our events, random Korean people walk by, they’ll come in for five seconds, listen to the music, and label it as ‘drug music,’ like something you listen to when you’re messed up. The same thing could be said about trap or EDM, right? But they don’t associate it with that. Hopefully, if the right timing comes, we can change that somehow.”
Featured Image: TOKiMONSTA by Twitter User Henry Faber, 2011 (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Shawn Higgins is the Academic Coordinator of the Undergraduate Bridge Program at Temple University’s Japan campus. His latest publication is “Orientalist Soundscapes, Barred Zones, and Irving Berlin’s China,” coming out in the 2018 volume of Chinese America: History and Perspectives.
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