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Today’s podcast is an archival recording of “Radio Frequencies, Radio Forms LIVE,” a special program on WHRW, Binghamton University’s free-format radio station, broadcast on December 15, 2014 from 6:00-7:30. Part original radio art broadcast and part “Behind the Artists’ Studio” conversation, “Radio Frequencies” represents the culmination of a semester-long experimental collaboration between Professor Jennifer Stoever (BU English) and Filmmaker, Sound Artist and Professor Monteith McCollum (BU Cinema) and the students of their advanced transdisciplinary seminar “Resonant Frequencies: Exploring Radio Forms.”
Over the course of the Fall 2014 semester, students learned the fundamentals of recording and editing while discussing radio history, sound production, sound art history, and theories of sound and listening to copious (and diverse) radio pieces ranging from Aimee Temple McPherson sermons to Norman Corwin’s We Hold These Truths, the Suspense episode “Sorry, Wrong Number” to Delia Derbyshire’s “The Dreams.” McCollum and Stoever’s students were creative, interested, driven and exceptionally talented; two from the course, Tara Jackson and Aleks Rikterman, went on to have some of their semester’s work featured in the 2014 Mix for Wavefarm’s annual 60 X 60 competition, the only two students alongside seasoned arts professionals, professors, radio producers, and Prix Italia Winners.
The WHRW broadcast features well-crafted recordings of the course’s capstone project—4 collaboratively developed original 8-10 minute radio pieces—alongside fascinating live discussions between Monteith, Jennifer, and their students about radio as medium, broadcast vs. performance aesthetics, the process of recording, manipulating, and editing sounds, the students’ radio influences, the role of the listener, the value of radio’s past and their forecasts about its future. This podcast is a must listen for anyone interested in radio production and history, creative pedagogy, conversations about sound art, or just interesting and unexpected listening!
- “Amarilli,” a suspenseful radio drama scripted, performed, recorded, edited, and mixed by Maggie Leung, Hyucksang Sun, and Daniel Hong.
- “The Parlor City,” interwoven radio-verite stories about Binghamton, NY conceived, recorded, edited, and mixed by Yang Gao, Daniel Santos, and Ashley Verbert.
- “Untranslatable” an artistic sono-montage piece about language conceived, recorded, performed, edited, and mixed by Tara Jackson, Anna Li, and Michael Ederer.
- “Pura Vida: Solo Travel” a documentary interview montage conceived, recorded, scored, edited, and mixed by Aleksandr Rikterman and Garrett Bean.
Hosts and Executive Producers: Monteith McCollum and Jennifer Stoever
Opening Interview: Daniel Santos
WHRW Engineer: Tara Jackson
WHRW Program Manager: Daniel Kadyrov
McCollum and Stoever’s course was made possible by a generous transdisciplinary team-teaching grant from the Provost’s Office at Binghamton University, with thanks to Provost Don Neiman and Don Loewen, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education
Monteith McCollum, Assistant Professor of Cinema at Binghamton University, is an inter-media artist working in film, sound, and sculpture. His films have screened at Festivals and Museums including The Museum of Modern Art, Hirshhorn, Wexner Center for the Arts and Festivals including SXSW, Slamdance, Hot Docs, Amsterdam & Osnabruck European Media Arts Festival. His films have garnered dozens of festival awards including an IFP Truer than Fiction Spirit Award. You can learn more about his work at monteithmcollum.com.
Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out! She is also Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University and a recipient of the 2014 SUNY Chancellor’s Award in Teaching.
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Sounding Out! Podcast #10: Interview with Theremin Master Eric Ross – Aaron Trammell
Welcome to the second part of Radio Art Reflections, a series on radio art that brings together the thoughts of three practitioners who have been researching the field from Canada, Australia and the UK.
In the first part Canadian sound and radio artist Anna Friz discussed how transmission art has shaped her practice and how it has become an important current within the expanded territory of radio art. Following this, musician and sound artist Colin Black reflects on the particularities of Australia’s radio art history, analyzing the effects of ongoing cutbacks at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Black fears a distinctive Australian soundscape-based radio art is in danger of being lost, while identifying a current renaissance in narrative based radio features which currently shape ABC radio output, and considers the potential of ABC’s new Creative Audio Unit.
– Guest Editor Magz Hall
As an artist growing up in rural Australia, I was hugely influenced by how state-owned radio engaged with sound-based practitioners. For decades, radio not only gave voice to some of the more exploratory artists and their works, it allowed artists and audiences from all over this vast continent to find a space in which experimental works could, with financial support, gestate, be realized and propelled onto a world stage, often receiving international acclaim for their distinctive perspective.
In recent years I have come back to those works as a PhD researcher, interviewing thirty five international practitioners, theorists and producers on Australian radio art thereby gaining a new appreciation of its particular aesthetic practices and approaches. This article draws on some of these interviews to highlight national and international perceptions about where Australian radio art has been, while also demonstrating its potential to influence a new generation of artists to explore beyond mainstream media formats.
THE LISTENING ROOM
While there are a few early examples of Australian radio art, consistant programming and commissioning of radio art effectively commenced in the 1980s with the formation of the ABC Arts Unit during 1984-85 and the acoustic arts programme The Listening Room, which aired from 1988 to 2003. Although long-decommissioned, The Listening Room was still one of a very few signposts that my interviewees cited when trying to understand the properties of Australian radio art. The Listening Room’s founding executive producer Andrew McLennan, who expanded the boundaries of ABC radio from 1976 onwards, had a clear take on the aesthetic framework of the show, stating in one internal ABC report (c1990) that the programme was a:
… venue for the exploration, the cross-pollination of radio forms. … you can hear new radio plays, audio essays, acoustic features, sound documentaries, new music, sound-scapes and sculptures, audio installations, acoustic art forms …
This approach was broader than that of other international radio art programs. Here is a quote from the formative executive producer of Deutschlandradio Kultur, Götz Naleppa, who took a much more “aesthetic” approach for his well-known Klangkunst programmes in Germany:
The difference to other radio-art-forms like radio-play is simple: sound-composition [a term Naleppa prefers to radio art] shares with them the same elements: sound, text (voice) and music. But in radio-play text (dialogue) is in the foreground and the other elements SERVE it (often in an illustrative way). And in (radio)sound-composition we have the same elements – but they are EQUAL, they are simply MATERIAL in the hands of the composer [Götz Naleppa, e-mail message to author July 28, 2005].
Of the two, The Listening Room clearly had a wider scope. Thus a number of ABC works, like On the Raft, All at Sea (by Robyn Ravlich and Russell Stapleton), placed the text in the foreground as the narrative is primarily driven by the use of spoken dialogue and the other elements are used to serve the text in a chiefly illustrative fashion. By definition Naleppa would call this a “radio-play” and not necessarily neues hörspiel or radio art, and definitely not a radio “sound-composition.”
Extract from On the Raft, All at Sea (2002) by Robyn Ravlich and Russell Stapleton (courtesy Robyn Ravlich and ABC Radio)
“AUSTRALIAN” RADIO ART
Alongside this inclusiveness of a wide scope of work, my research uncovered a range of other ideas about the identifiable properties of Australian radio art. Austrian Elisabeth Zimmerman claims that with Australian work there is “a certain tradition” that favours the “use of environmental sounds … but in a very composed way.” Andrew McLennan supports Zimmerman’s viewpoint and states: “it’s always hard to say and it is probably a bit of a cliché … [however he] often think[s] of it as quite environmentally driven.” Douglas Kahn, an American, is more skeptical, observing that “The Australian stuff was much broader range … I don’t think you can say that there was an Australian aesthetic because there were so many different artists that were brought in to do things.” Although later Kahn does state that a common thread heard in Australian work was its “really high quality production values … really nice complex mixes … people playing the mixing board like it was a piano in a really sophisticated way.” Kaye Mortley from her Australian French background describes Australian work as “radiophonic art, of various sorts, more experimental in nature, some produced by composers.” While not a composer, Australian Virginia Madsen supports Mortley’s viewpoint when she describes her own work as “experimental … it combines music, theatre performance, and documentary really.” The common theme that emerges from my research is the openness and commitment to experimentation that exists alongside a highly professional approach to the art form within Australian radio art culture.
My interviews also indicated that radio art plays a role in the perceived amorphous and multi-faceted notion of national identity, while confirming Kahn and Nicholas Zurbrugg’s earlier observations that radio art has critically contributed to the overall arts ecology in Australia. As a practitioner, I would also describe my own work as having an experimental approach that is influenced by the high quality production levels of programs like The Listening Room. While much of my work is environmentally driven, my artistic focus is to create multi-faceted, intimate aural geographies in which human imprint is present.
Extract from Alien In The Landscape (2007) by Colin Black (courtesy DeutschlandRadio Kultur). This extract features synchronous field recordings made by a Rodes NT4, X-Y configured stereo microphone and Fender Stratocaster with additional strings attached as pictured below.
THE CREATIVE AUDIO UNIT AND AUSTRALIAN RADIO TODAY
When The Listening Room was decommissioned in 2003, explorative radio was forced in two directions: ABC Radio National programmed some word-based works, while ABC Classic FM aired another set of works that Kate Dundas (Director of ABC Radio) has called “Shorter-form pieces, maybe perhaps down the sound-based acoustic end or radiophonic end of the spectrum.”Budgets were dramatically reduced and diverted, resulting in the effective abandonment of regular commissions and airtime for long-form sound-based works. In 2012 ABC management decommissioned book readings and Creative Instinct (a “feature program that reflects and explores the creative world”) and The Night Air (described as “aural equivalents of the avant-garde cut-up: a montage of interviews, location sound, music and found audio”). Moreover management oversaw the dismantling of the Airplay programme, which included “hour-long dramatic fictions [sic] experiment with form” effectively ending an 80-year tradition of Australian radio drama. In replacing these programmes, the Creative Audio Unit (CAU) was planned and American-style low budget radio production techniques for dramatic short stories (as championed at the 2012 ABC run Radio Beyond Radio conference) were put on the table as the future of radio.
In 2013 the ABC recruited a whole new team (who collectively had very little direct engagement with prior radio drama and The Listening Room production budgets and procedures), to setup, oversee and run the CAU. This transition was so atypical of past ABC changes that it raises questions as to whether this was an orchestrated act of cultural amnesia. It is perhaps not surprising that one of the major challenges this new team faces is the lack of resources, which impedes the magnitude of new works commissioned. This also raises questions as to how the previous budgets from Airplay, The Night Air and Creative Instinct have been reassigned. Another challenge is this unit’s extremely wide area of responsibility (that was previously spread across a number of ABC Units) ranging from radio drama and essays on the Radiotonic programme (effectively replacing the entire radio drama department) to what it claims to be a “portal into radio art, performance, soundscapes and composed audio features” on its Soundproof programme.
While Soundproof makes gestures to re-stimulate radio art activities in Australia, in sampling its first twenty episodes it becomes apparent that a very large percentage of airtime is heavily driven by the spoken dialogue narrative, more in line with radio drama or documentary. Furthermore, the episodes that contain the more interesting sound works seem to be frequently interrupted by extended contextual dialogue and therefore, for the most part, present only extracts or shorter form radio art works. Therefore, as a practitioner who runs the risk of being excluded from future CAU activities, I would nevertheless argue that for the most part, the CAU is doubling up on its focus on radio drama and documentary style productions and has not to date reached its goal of fully exploring and presenting sound rich radio art features, as it claims (please see Soundproof episode mp3 downloads dated between 11 May to 21 September 2014). Moreover, Soundproof is much more constrained, even backward-looking, when compared to its predecessors and is therefore aiming to attract a much less adventurous radio audience. More glaringly, the first twenty episodes lack a strong presence for new Australian works when compared to The Listening Room that broadcast sixty-four Australian works with a total duration of fifty hours in its first year of operation. As an inquisitive listener it seems that, to date, Soundproof has forgotten its own lineage without offering anything new or innovative and in doing so, has also forgotten audience members like myself in Australia and throughout the world.
I sometimes wonder what the conclusions from my research study would be if it were only focused on current practice. Would today’s Australian radio art still play a role in the perceived multi-faceted notion of Australian national identity? Would it still be perceived to have an experimental approach with high quality production levels that favour the use of environmental sounds? Is it still a critical contributor to the overall arts ecology in Australia? Audience members who have little prior knowledge of Australian radio art, may think so or may not conceive of its potential to do so. However, given sustained support, the space for experimentation and a clear inventive vision for the future, building on the legacy of past achievements, Australian radio art clearly has the potential to regain its status on a world stage.
Featured Image: Beastman mural on Brisbane Radio by Flickr User JAM Project
Dr Colin Black is an internationally acclaimed composer/sound artist having won the 2003 Prix Italia Award and achieving the final round selection in the 2010 and 2011 Prix Phonurgia Nova for his creative feature length works. As a result of this acclaim, Black has received multiple national and international commissions to create innovative long-form works for broadcast across major Australian and European networks. Black’s curator credits include, international festival/showcases of award winning Australian acoustic art and radio art at London’s Resonance104.4fm, Kunstradio (ÖRF, Austria) and Toronto’s New Adventures In Sound Art. In 2013 he also curated the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sound Fix: Your Weekly Dose of Transmitted Audible Art series. He is a PhD graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where he was a recipient of the University of Sydney Postgraduate Awards Scholarship. More recently Black has been engaged as an academic lecturing at the University Technology, Sydney; moreover he has authored a number of conference papers and peer reviewed journal articles including “An Overview of Spatialised Broadcasting Experiments With a Focus on Radio Art Practices” in Organised Sound. Black is also the founding member of The International Radio Art (and Creative Audio for Trans-media) Research Group. For more information see: www.colinblack.com.au
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Unsettled Listening — Randolph Jordan
Radio Ambulante: A Radio that Listens — Carolina Guerrero
Everything Sounds Podcast — Craig Shank
Welcome back to Sculpting the Film Soundtrack, SO!‘s new series on changing notions about how sound works in recent film and in recent film theory, edited by Katherine Spring.
Two weeks ago, Benjamin Wright started things off with a fascinating study of Hans Zimmer, a highly influential composer whose film scoring borders on engineering — or whose engineering borders on music — in many major Hollywood releases. This week we turn to the opposite end of the spectrum to a seemingly smaller film, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), which has made quite a few waves among sound studies scholars and fans of sound design, even earning a Special Jury Prize for sound at Sundance.
To unpack the many mysteries of the film and explore its place in the field of contemporary filmmaking, we are happy to welcome musicologist and film scholar Danijela Kulezic-Wilson of University College Cork. Listen to Upstream Color through her ears (it’s currently available to stream on Netflix) and perhaps you’ll get a sense of why you’ll have to listen to it two or three more times. At least.
When Shane Carruth’s film Upstream Color was released in 2013, critics described it in various ways—as a body horror film, a sci-fi thriller, a love story, and an art-house head-scratcher—but they all agreed that it was a film “not quite like any other”. And while the film’s cryptic imagery and non-linear editing account for most of the “what the hell?” reactions (see here for example), I argue that the reason for its distinctively hypnotic effect is Carruth’s musical approach to the film’s form: he organizes the images and sounds according to principles of music, including the use of repetition, rhythmic structuring, and antiphony.
The resulting musicality of Upstream Color may not be surprising given that Carruth composed most of the score, and also, as Jonathan Romney has noted in Sight & Sound, Carruth has said on many occasions that he was hoping “people would watch this film repeatedly, as they might listen to a favourite album” (52). In this sense, Carruth (whose DIY toolkit also includes writing, directing, acting, producing, cinematography, and editing) joins the ranks of filmmakers such as Darren Aronofsky and Joe Wright who recognize that, despite our culture’s obsession with the cinematic and narrative aspects of “visual” media, music governs film’s deepest foundations.
Upstream Color is a story about a woman, Kris, who is kidnapped by a drug manufacturer (referred to in the credits as Thief) and contaminated with a worm that keeps her in a trance-like state during which the Thief strips her of all her savings. Kris is subsequently dewormed by a character known as the Sampler, who transfers the parasite into a pig that maintains a physical and/or metaphorical connection to Kris. Kris later meets and falls in love with Jeff who, we eventually discover, has been a victim of the same ordeal. Although the bizarreness of the plot has encouraged numerous interpretations, the film’s unconventional audio-visual language suggests that its story of two people who share supressed memories of the same traumatic experience shouldn’t be taken at face value, but rather serves as a metaphor for existential anxiety resulting from being influenced by unknown forces.
Such an interpretation owes as much to the film’s disregard for the rules of classical storytelling as it does to a formally innovative soundtrack, one that uses musicality as an overarching organizing principle. The fact that Carruth wrote the score and script simultaneously (discussed in the video below) indicates the extent to which music was from the beginning considered an integral part of the film’s expressive language. More importantly, as the scenes discussed in this post suggest, the musical logic of the film is even more pervasive than the style, role, and placement of the actual score.
Whereas feature films traditionally assign a central role to speech, allowing music and sound effects supporting roles only, Upstream Color breaks down the conventional soundtrack hierarchy, often reversing the roles of each constitutive element. For example, hardly any information in the film that could be considered vital to understanding the story is communicated through speech. Instead, images, sound, music, and editing–for which Carruth shares the credit with fellow indie director David Lowery–are the principal elements that create the atmosphere, convey the sense of the protagonists’ brokenness, and reveal the connection between the characters. At the same time, characters’ conversations are either muted or their speech is blended with music in such a way that we’re encouraged to focus on body language or mise-en-scène rather than trying to discern every spoken word. For example, Jeff and Kris’s flirting with one another during their initial meetings (at roughly 0.44.20-0.47.00 of the film) is conveyed primarily through gestures, glances, and fragmentary editing rather than speech, which would be more typical for this sort of narrative situation.
Further undercutting the significance of speech across the film is how the film has been edited to resemble the flow of music. For example, non-linear jumps in the narrative are often arranged in such a way as to create syncopated audio-visual rhymes. This technique is particularly obvious in the montage sequence in which Kris and Jeff argue over the ownership of their memories, whose similarities suggest that they were implanted during the characters’ kidnappings. In this sequence, both the passing of time and the recurrence of the characters’ argument is conveyed through the repetition of images that become visual refrains: Kris and Jeff lying on a bed, watching birds flying above trees, touching each other. Some of these can be seen in the film’s official trailer:
The scene’s images and sounds are fragmented into a non-linear assembly of pieces of the same conversation the characters had at different times and places, like the verses and the choruses of a song. Importantly, the assemblage is also patterned, with phrases like “we should go on a trip” and “where should we go?” heard in refrain. The first time we hear Jeff say “we should go on a trip” and suggesting that they go “somewhere bright”, his words are played in sync with the image of him and Kris lying on the bed. The following few shots, accompanied only by music, symbolize the “honeymoon” phase of their relationship: the couple kiss, hold hands, and walk with their hands around each other’s waists. A shift in mood is marked by the repetition of the dialogue, with Jeff again saying “we should go on a trip” – only this time, the phrase plays asynchronously over a shot of Jeff and Kris pushing a table into the house that they have moved into together. Finally, the frustration that starts infiltrating the characters’ increasingly heated arguments is alleviated by the repetition of the sentence “They could be starlings.” As it is spoken three times by both characters in an antiphonic exchange, the phrase emphasizes the underlying strength of their connection and gives the scene a rhythmic balance. Across this sequence, the musical organization of audio-visual refrains prompts us to recognize the psychic connection between Kris and Jeff, and even to begin to guess the sinister reason for it.
While speech in Upstream Color is often stripped of its traditional role as a principal source of information, sound and music are given important narrative functions, illuminating hidden connections between the characters. In one of the most memorable scenes, the Sampler is revealed to be not only a pig farmer but also a field recordist and sound artist who symbolizes the hidden source of everything that affects Kris and Jeff from afar. As we hear the sounds of the Sampler’s outdoor recordings merge with and emulate the sounds made and heard by Kris and Jeff at home and at work, the soundtrack eloquently establishes the connection between all three characters while also giving us a look “behind the scenes” of Kris’s and Jeff’s lives and suggesting how they are influenced from a distance.
In one sense, by calling attention to the very act of recording sound, the scene exposes how films are constructed, offering a reflexive glimpse into usually hidden processes of production. The implied idea here–that the visible and audible are products of not-so-obvious processes of formation–refers not only to the medium of film but also to the complexity of the inner workings of someone’s mind. Thus the Sampler’s role, his actions, and his relationship to Kris, Jeff, and other infected victims can be interpreted as a metaphor for the subconscious programming – all the familial, social and cultural influences – that all of us are exposed to from an early age. The Sampler is portrayed symbolically as the Creator, a force whose actions affect the protagonists’ lives without them knowing it. The fact that he is simultaneously represented as a sound artist establishes sound-making and musicality as the film’s primary creative principles.
Considering Carruth’s very deliberate departure from the conventions of even what David Bordwell calls “intensified” storytelling, it is fair to say that Upstream Color is a film that weakens the strong narrative role traditionally given to oral language. What is intensified here are the musical and sensuous qualities of the audio-visual material and a mode of perception that encourages absorption of the subtext (in other words, the metaphorical meaning of the film) as well as the text.
The musical organization of film form and soundtrack is no longer limited to independent projects such as Carruth’s Upstream Color. As I have shown elsewhere, musicality has become an extremely influential principle in contemporary cinema, acting as an inspiration and model for editing, camera movement, movement within a scene and sound design. Some of the most interesting results of a musical approach to film include Aronofsky’s “hip hop montage” in Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), Jim Jarmusch’s rhythmically structured film poems (The Limits of Control, 2009; Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013), the interchangeable use of musique concrète and environmental sound in Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy and films by Peter Strickland (Katalin Varga, 2009; Berberian Sound Studio, 2012); the choreographed mise-en-scène in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012); the musicalization of language in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012); and the foregrounding of musical material over intelligible speech in Drake Doremus’s Breathe In (2013). Given the breadth of these examples, it’s no exaggeration to say that filmmakers’ growing affinity for a musical approach to film is changing the landscape of contemporary cinema.
Danijela Kulezic-Wilson teaches film music, film sound, and comparative arts at University College Cork. Her research interests include approaches to film that emphasize its inherent musical properties, the use of musique concrète and silence in film, the musicality of sound design, and musical aspects of the plays of Samuel Beckett. Danijela’s publications include essays on film rhythm, musical and film time, the musical use of silence in film, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga, Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy, Prokofiev’s music for Eisenstein’s films, and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. She has also worked as a music editor on documentaries, short films, and television.
All images taken from the film.
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Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds— Jonathan Skinner
Editor’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!.
“Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil”-Leonardo Cardoso