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Listening to the City of Light: An interview with Sound Recordist Des Coulam

How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinaire, the background noise, the habitual?

I’m meeting with the British sound recordist Des Coulam at the brasserie La Coupole on the Boulevard de Montparnasse in Paris. “Just imagine…this place opened in 1927. If you installed a microphone in the middle of this room in 1927 and if it was still there today, how many interesting things could you have recorded in this place? It just begs belief, doesn’t it? François Mitterrand, Picasso, Ford Maddox Ford, Beauvoir, Man Ray, they were all here. They all echo in these walls.”

la-coupole

Early photo of La Coupole, date unknown

The sound inside La Coupole by Des Coulam

Des Coulam has been capturing the urban soundscape of Paris for almost ten years. Paris is a city full of mirrors, replicating itself through various mediums. A great archive of the city and its streets, boulevards, arcades and cafés has been written, painted, filmed and photographed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. However, its aural history is less documented.

“All the archival sounds you find of Paris are adjunct to pictures, so you’ve got television pictures, you’ve got film, you’ve got very few actual recordings of Paris, and I wanted to capture the contemporary soundscape of the city and archive it for future generations to explore, study and enjoy,” explains Coulam. “It’s only on the last few seconds on our historical clock that we’ve been able to capture and archive sounds, so most of our sonic heritage is passed by completely unrecorded. We can get an idea of what nineteenth, eighteenth, and seventeenth century sounds were like from literature and from art in some cases. But the fact is we can’t actually listen to them. All the sounds we hear came from somebody’s imagination.”

Des Coulam, Image courtesy of interviewee.

Des Coulam, Image courtesy of interviewee.

Coulam’s methodical approach and commitment to the task of recording the sounds of Paris, almost on a daily basis, is helping to create the first comprehensive sound archive of the city. These sounds constitute the Paris Soundscapes Collection and are being archived in the British Library of London.

“Memorable recordings are not limited by your equipment, only by your imagination”

Porte 6, Saint Surplice

Porte 6, Saint Surplice, Courtesy of Interviewer

“And people forget that,” laments Coulam. “I mean, listening is an art and it’s an art that must be learned. You have to practice, practice, practice to listen. But once you master the art it opens up an all-new world. Because for me, if you give sounds the opportunity to breathe and to speak, they all have a story to tell. We walk along the street and hear a sound and you think: what is that? And you can create a story the sound is telling you. You might hear one of these big Parisian doors bang. What’s behind that door? How many interesting people have walked through that door? And you start to see or experience the place differently.”

Sounds inside l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais (w/creaking wooden door) by Des Coulam

Des Coulam is of the opinion that the ability to tune into sounds with an inquisitive and imaginative mind can provide better recordings than the most expensive equipment.  It’s a skill that he has been developing for over 50 years. “I can tell you the exact day. It was the 25th of December, 1958 when I woke up on Christmas morning and found a tape recorder. And if you had asked me to write a list of 100 things I wanted for Christmas, the tape recorder would not have featured in it. But there it was and I fell in love with it instantly and stayed in love with it ever since. It turned something on in my head that stayed with me all my life. I was 10 years old and now I’m almost 70 years old…I don’t know what I would do without it. I would probably just curl up and die or something…Because now it consumes all of my life. I work seven days a week, but it never feels like work. It’s just fun.”

An aural flâneur in a changing city

13

Image from Louis Huart, Physiologie du flâneur (1841)

“Some of my best recordings have come serendipitously when they are not planned.” Most of the time Coulam doesn’t adhere to a strict pathway through the streets of Paris. He follows the background city sounds as someone who follows a river stream. He describes himself as an aural flâneur. The term flâneur (stroller, idler, walker) dates back to the 16th century and was made popular by Walter Benjamin in his 1935 essay “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” in The Arcades Project. “I’m doing exactly what the 19th century flâneurs did. Observing, that’s all I do. But I observe through sound rather than visually,” says Coulam. “The one thing the flâneur had was time. They had the time to stroll around the streets and observe the everyday life. But in my case I observe listening.” According to Aimée Boutin, the author of City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris, it is in the writings of Balzac, Louis Huart and Victor Fournel that the flâneur emerges as an attentive listener, an eavesdropper and collector of stories who views the city as a musical score and as a cacophonous/harmonious concert.

19th century  images of the flâneur predominately evoke a white male figure of means and privilege who observes and listens to the city from a position of detachment towards the crowd. He is invested in his own anonymity and imagines himself cultivating a sense of neutrality and “objectivity.” Coulam’s active listening practices depart from this perspective by challenging his perspectives and owning the subjectivity of the recording and archiving process. “The way you hear sound changes depending on the circumstances and also the way you interpret sound is different. You and I could walk down the same street and hear it differently. I can walk down the same street twice and hear it differently. There are lots of sounds that I will hear and there are lots of sounds that I won’t hear.” In a recent blog entry Coulam writes that while being “aware that sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, I am always thinking about the social, cultural and historical context of the sounds I find and that has taught me how to explore and appreciate the rich history, complexity and diversity that is Paris.”

Besides his own recordings of the Parisian soundscapes, Coulam has been adding new aural narratives of the city in the series “Paris – A Personal View” inviting guests who live in Paris to visit a place in the city that has a special meaning for them. In this series, Coulam often features the city of the contemporary flâneuse, a radically different form of flâneurie through the steps of the walking woman. In the audio bellow, Monique Wells, an expert on African Diaspora in Paris and  founder of the non-profit association Les Amis de Beauford Delaney, explores her favorite place in the city – the Jardin du Luxembourg.

Des Coulam and Dr. Monique Wells, image courtesy of interviewee

Des Coulam and Dr. Monique Wells, image courtesy of interviewee

Monique Wells, Jardin du Luxembourg, “Paris – A Personal View” Series by Des Coulam

This is a particular time to be listening to the city as a new plan to expand the metropolis of Paris is on its way. “Paris is on the cusp of a huge change. If we look at the history of Paris, it is a history of circles. So you get start with the Romans who invaded and camped out on the Île de la Cité. What did they do? They built a wall around it. And over the years as Paris expanded more walls have been built around the city until today. Now, you’ve got this wall of traffic – the périphérique – and everything within that is Paris and everything without is the suburbs. Nicolas Sarkozy decided, when he was president, that he was going to demolish this invisible wall between Paris and the suburbs. So he gave birth to the Greater Paris Project which is now going ahead. So over the next 10, 20 or 30 years the visual landscape of the city will change and also its sound landscape. And this is a perfect time to capture that change. I won’t live long enough to see it all but I’m already seeing some of it. And what you have right now is that some sounds of Paris are actually disappearing, some are about to disappear, some have stayed remarkably the same and new sounds have appeared.”

Sounds around the Pont National (near Boulevard Périphérique) by Des Coulam

Pont National by Des Coulam

Pont National by Des Coulam

The Vanishing Sounds of Paris

The changes in the visual landscape of Paris and the modernization of its infrastructures will cause a significant change in its soundscape. For instance, Coulam dedicates a lot of his time to recording the changes of the subterranean and aerial soundscape of the Parisian metro lines. “The sounds of the Metro are changing dramatically. If you imagine the sounds of the Paris Metro, you immediately get this picture of the sort of 1950s black and white film, you can hear the sounds of the train rattling over the lines. It’s gone, it’s all completely gone. The last of those trains disappeared in 2012. And I knew this was happening so I recorded a lot of metro line 5 where the old trains were. So I’ve got a stack of recordings of those because nobody else was doing it.”

Sounds of Line 5 at Quai de la Rapée by Des Coulam

“That lovely rattle, these clanking rattling sounds. Just what you imagine it to be!” The old trains on line 5 are now being replaced by modern models with a quieter sound. Also, the trams that covered the city in the 1930s were later substituted by motorized buses. “There are no trams in the center of the city but you’ve got them on the periphery now. There are 8 tram lines. On a lot of the routes they actually go through lot of pains to reduce the amount of noise the tram makes by putting grass down between the tram lines to absorb the sound.  So that’s a completely different soundscape than you would have had in this case in the 1930s.”

Tram by Des Coulam

Tram by Des Coulam

Inside a tram on Line T2 from the station Henri Farman to Porte de Versailles by Des Coulam

Coulam has been recording the sounds of the Gare du Nord, one of the six main railway stations in Paris, that is going through some transformations right now. A sign outside the station in the construction zone promises “a brighter and more practically designed hall for enlightened travelling”. The distinctive soundscape of the Gare will certainly change. A new type of pavement is enough to alter the echoing sounds made by footsteps and rolling suitcases.

Inside the Gare du Nord; October 2016

“But on a more human level,” says Coulam, “the street criers, the vagabond man, the knife grinders, people like that who used to come around shouting in the street are completing gone. The only thing you find now are the market traders in the market stores, but you don’t find any of these tradesmen in the streets of Paris.”

Gare du Nord by Des Coulam

Gare du Nord by Des Coulam

 “An attempt to exhaust a place in Paris” in sound

“The only time you really notice the urban soundscape is when isn’t there,” remarks Coulam. On the day we meet, Montparnasse is eerily quiet. There is little traffic and only a few pedestrians are strolling along the Boulevard. “The soundscape you hear is not the normal Montparnasse because this is August and everybody is away on holiday, so you are immediately struck by the relative quiet around here.” It might be difficult to find places of quiet in a city like Paris during the other eleven months of the year.

But even the noise, the chatter and the rumble are important parts of the urban soundscape. “The biggest challenge I face recording the soundscape of Paris is the sound of traffic, and I long ago decided that you couldn’t ignore it. And in a sense, why should you? Because it’s an integral part of the soundscape, so to ignore it is a sort of cheating, really. So, I decided to embrace it and I started to deliberately record traffic and it was absolutely fascinating!”

Place Saint Surplice

Place Saint Sulpice, courtesy of Wikicommons

The author and filmmaker George Perec once sat down for three days in Saint-Sulpice Square to write down all the non-events around him. “What happens, when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds?” asked Perec. In the same vein, Coulam continues recording the sounds that constitute the backdrop to everyday life and through attentive listening, he weaves the sound tapestry of the city of Paris.  “You sit on a Parisian green bench in a busy narrow pavé street and just let the street walk past you. You will hear fabulous sounds.”

“An attempt to exhaust a place in Paris” in sound (Café de la Mairie, Place Saint-Sulpice) by Des Coulam

Pont National from the Pont de Tolbiac, Des Coulam

Pont National from the Pont de Tolbiac by Des Coulam

You can hear Des Coulam’s collection of Parisian soundscapes at Soundlandscape or follow him on twitter.

Featured Image: Line 5 at Quai de la Rapacca, Image by Des Coulam

Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio artist and producer of the show Zepelim. His radio work began as a member of the Portuguese freeform station Radio Universidade de Coimbra (RUC). In his pieces, he aims to explore the diverse possibilities of radiophonic space through the medium of sound collage. He has participated in projects like Basic.fm, Radio Boredcast, and his work has been featured in several international sound festivals and has also been commissioned by Radio Arts (UK). He is currently working on a radio show for the Portuguese national public radio station RTP. In addition to his work in radio, he has a master’s in clinical psychology

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Scenes of Subjection: Women’s Voices Narrating Black Death

This past summer 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Warsaw and delivered an unplanned statement on the brutal police shooting deaths of two black men that had just occurred within one day of each other, Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. Obama was speaking from afar on the structural relationship between two events that should trouble “all of us Americans.” Obama spoke pointedly to the fact of “racial disparity” in police shootings and in the justice system more broadly.

Since November 2016, it has felt as though a space of sanctioned public discourse—still in the making since Reconstruction—has once again become smaller and, in a manner of speaking, unhearing. Quite simply, Obama’s statement meant that identification could not compass the ground of an imagined community. A white listener could not say, as with gun violence in general, “he speaks of someone who could have been me, therefore I am troubled.”  Again, identification with white experience asserts itself as the ground of “we.”

The death of Sterling had been captured on cellphone video that showed the police holding him down before shooting him. The video was taken by a store owner who was friendly with Sterling. The ground of a white viewer’s identification is here easily acceded.  That viewer might say to him or herself, “I too could know someone who I don’t believe is violent or dangerous; I too might wish to protest or prevent his or her unjust murder.”

still from cell phone video of the police shooting of Alton Sterling, cropping/blurring by JS, SO!

still from cell phone video of the police shooting of Alton Sterling, cropping/blurring by JS, SO!

The shooting of Castile by police officer Jeronimo Yanez was not captured on video; there is no visual evidence of the event made by a bystander. Instead, Castile’s dying moments were captured on live video stream by his girlfriend, a black woman, Diamond Reynolds, who orally narrated the immediate aftermath of the event while it was happening.  There was no rescue that could have been attempted by Reynolds. Even though Castile was alive and Reynolds’s daughter sat in the back seat, the effort immediately—and of necessity—turned to testimony. The camera—but also narration, putting into words the event that was still unfolding—afforded Reynolds and her daughter some measure of protection against the officer’s gun still aimed in the car. Reynolds no doubt imagined the recording would be used as evidence in a court of law. If she herself did not survive the event, the recording would have already been seen by a public and archived by live stream; her voice would still testify within it.

What does it mean, on an ethical level, for a black woman to narrate the spectacle of a black death? What does it mean for me, a white woman, to listen to that narrative or read a transcription, knowing that I will never be called upon to narrate the death of my loved one while it is happening, and then to write of it, to narrate it to you?

To feel emotionally impacted by an image of another person, Kaja Silverman argues, is to imaginatively project oneself into the visual field. This identification for Silverman can be fractured, multiplied and redirected in ways that richly expand the parameters of ethical life; but at base, one must be able to project oneself into the image.

still image from Diamond Reynold's live video feed of Jeronimo Yanez's shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile , Cropping by JS, SO!

still image from Diamond Reynold’s live video feed of Jeronimo Yanez’s shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, Cropping/blurring by JS, SO!

In contrast, testimony is to assert that some juridical order has been perverted for an individual and to seek adjudication.  But it is also to critique the boundaries of public life: it is to insist that to listen to or receive a narrative is to recognize an another who is not—and could never be—you. To recognize another is to affirm the singularity of the other’s life, a life that has been or can be lost or brutalized. Identification cannot be the sole ground of political action around unjust death: one must be able to say to oneself, “that was not me; that could not have been me; someone singular has been lost; I am troubled nonetheless.”

In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman shows how 19th century white abolitionist sentiment was first organized by the spectacle of the black body in pain. White abolitionists often recounted the feeling of “what if that were me?” or “what if that were my family?” Hartman shows how the black body in American life takes on what she calls “fungible” form. If as a commodity, that body must be exchanged, then as spectacle, that body must also be a projective screen for identification where the white viewer emplaces him or herself in order to feel sympathy or outrage. Such sentiment, Hartman insists, is merely feeling for oneself.

Much of the recent discourse surrounding viral videos of black death has concerned looking or “not looking,” or what Alexandra Juhasz calls in a recent essay on her decision not to watch Reynolds’s video, “surfeit images.” But these are not simply images—they are narratives and testimonies. Later in this post, I return to what it means to speak of a “voices” in this context—some of them written and some of them mediated by retelling.

***

Diamond Reynolds narrating after her camera falls, instagram screen capture by author

Diamond Reynolds narrating after her camera falls, Instagram screen capture by author

A long history of black women’s acts of testimony is occluded in the emphasis on the newness of the new media event and the “convergence” it affords. As Juhasz notes, new media scholar Henry Jenkins describes convergence as the spreading of media events across mediums and formats. Juhasz felt “compelled to join the fray of discourse that surrounds, reproduces and amplifies the video I have not yet seen.” She describes the sense of “knowing” the video without watching because of its convergence across platforms as well as its historical repetition. But convergence is, in the term long afforded by literary discourse, a narrative.  Reynolds told the story in real time; one person may have watched the video, in full or in fragments, and told the story of the event in a status update, in conversation, or in a text message. The convergence relates Reynolds’s live stream to a long history of testimony, testifyin’(g), and unofficial or counter-history that has long been held by both oral and print culture across the black diaspora. It is how one “knows” in advance that Castile’s death is “like” so many others before him.

But this advance sense of “knowing” overleaps the singular voice that mediated the video of a singular death. To feel oneself to know in advance is to have internalized, but then occluded, the other. I say this because convergence is premised upon fungibility. Reynolds’s narrating voice is “like” many voices before hers; she occupies a place in a long historical field. At the same time, the singular always interrupts fungibility as an untenable ground of ethical life.  Quite simply, the choice is as follows: you can avert your gaze and still participate in public outrage, but you’re missing something important if you don’t listen or attend to narrative, if you don’t amplify its particular domain.

When Reynolds narrated what was happening in the car at that moment—when that narrative is again repeated by people who watched or read of it, as I am now—an alternate and urgent relation is demanded by the narrating voice: neither projection nor identification, but recognition. In this post, I want to explore how this is the case. I will bring to the discussion my understanding of what has long been a concern in American literary studies, one that corresponds to the entry of black women into American literature and public discourse: testimony. Under what conditions have black women been called upon to testify and how does this kind of testimony get mediated?

Image by Flickr User Johnny Silvercloud, Taken 15 November 2015, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image by Flickr User Johnny Silvercloud, Taken 15 November 2015, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

***

On September 24, 2016, the New York Times released a cellphone video of the death of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. Police shot Lamont outside of his car. The police claimed–and continue to claim–that he was holding a gun. Several videos from different vantage points have emerged since Lamont’s death.  The presentation of videos mainly confirms a contemporary epistemic and ethical relationship to the visual, a new twist on an old sensory formation that continues to organize American social and political life. Repeatedly, people express a hope, or the belief, that some angle or some vantage correctly adjoined to another angle alone will answer the questions of “what happened?”

President Obama has called for more body cams for police, the underlying logic being that, if recorded, police brutality will become more preventable as it becomes more officially visible. However, the issue remains that the relationship to visual evidence always-already concerns the racist optic that organizes the black male body for a white gaze in advance as “threat.” Judith Butler, writing in 1993 of the Rodney King trial in the essay “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia” in the Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising anthology, reminds us that “The visual field is not neutral to the question of race; it is itself a racial formation, an episteme” (17).

This post does not focus on the urgent question of how white supremacy has historically marshaled the black male body within the racialized regime of the visible. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jackie Wang are among those who have provided recent and pivotal accounts that orient me as I write.

Instead, I want to shift our contemporary conversation about white supremacy, racist policing, and black life and death by addressing the ethical place of black women’s voices as they narrate the spectacle of black death. The question is not, can black death be seen within a white optic? I think the answer is no, it cannot. Time and again, the amassment of images insists that no amount of video footage can or will change the optic. Race is no doubt a visible artifact.

Can hearing differently augment and change its regime?

Jennifer Stoever has recently asked after “the sonic color line” as a rejoinder to W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 insistence in The Souls of Black Folk that the “problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” (3).  The problem of a line or threshold suggests the possibility of crossing and, with it, amalgamation. For Du Bois, the need and demand for crossing moves in one direction: the white consciousness should experience, not what it is to live as a black consciousness, but that her own consciousness, indeed very life, is inextricably bound to the other it repudiates.  For Du Bois, this transformation–even in the act of writing—was intimately linked to song and narrative. Stoever reminds us that, though writing, he implored his reader to “hear” him.

As I sifted through the news in the weeks following Scott’s death, I kept returning to this question: what does it mean for the voices of black women to become politically audible and intelligible as narrators in a society that still insists on identification as the only ground for ethical life? At the same time, what does it mean for a black woman to become a voice for another, to survive a death and tell the story where another cannot?

NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson. Mo, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism.

NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson. Mo, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism. Image by Flickr User The All Nite Images, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The majority of the police brutality that has received widespread public scrutiny is the visible violence against black males. As the #sayhername hashtag was meant to illustrate, black women are more invisible as subjects of racist violence. When Castile was bleeding out in silence, Reynolds took the camera and became his voice for him. The ground was suddenly shifted away from the visibility, toward audibility. I include within its matrix the significance of Sandra Bland who, using her phone’s video camera, orally narrated her own arrest in her own voice.

In the U.S., white supremacy has attempted to make black voices historically inaudible as historical agents: slaves (not being citizens) were not originally allowed to testify in court, and even after Emancipation, black litigants could not testify against whites in some states. The demand for extra-juridical testimony has remained constant since slavery and Emancipation and it was the first point of entry for black writers into American literature. But the task of testimony—and making it “heard” in a manner of speaking—has long fallen disproportionally on black women, but this task brings to black women, as I will describe, an important power and ethical charge.

Ida B. Wells, 1893, Courtesy of the US National Portrait Gallery

Ida B. Wells, 1893, Courtesy of the US National Portrait Gallery

In 1895, Ida B. Wells wrote A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. The pamphlet provides statistics (the number of lynchings listed under year and purported crimes), but also narratives of specific events. In the Preface by Frederick Douglass, he writes, “I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison. You give us what you know and testify from actual knowledge.” She tells one story of a lynch mob coming to a house where a black man accused of a crime was being held while still with his family. As you read, I want to ask “where” Wells is as a speaker is and by what authority:

…that night, about 8 o’clock, a party of perhaps twelve or fifteen men, a number of whom were known to the guards, came to the house and told the Negro guards they would take care of the prisoners now, and for them to leave; as they did not obey at once they were persuaded to leave with words that did not admit of delay.

The woman began to cry and said, “You intend to kill us to get our money.” They told her to hush (she was heavy with child and had a child at her breast) as they intended to give her a nice present. The guards heard no more, but hastened to a Negro church near by and urged the preacher to go up and stop the mob. A few minutes after, the shooting began, perhaps about forty shots being fired. The white men then left rapidly and the Negroes went to the house. Hamp Biscoe and his wife were killed, the baby had a slight wound across the upper lip; the boy was still alive and lived until after midnight, talking rationally and telling who did the shooting.

He said when they came in and shot his father, he attempted to run out of doors and a young man shot him in the bowels and that he fell. He saw another man shoot his mother and a taller young man, whom he did not know, shoot his father. After they had killed them, the young man who had shot his mother pulled off her stockings and took $220 in currency that she had hid there. The men then came to the door where the boy was lying and one of them turned him over and put his pistol to his breast and shot him again. This is the story the dying boy told as near as I can get it.

Here, testimony is not to tell what happened to Wells herself, but to tell the story where the young boy cannot.

Is this narrative’s ethical stance premised upon identification and fungibility? No, I think not. But it is premised upon self-absencing. Using the strategies of direct discourse and shifts in narrative voice (or the subject of the verb’s mode of action), she absents herself as an “I” or first-person to mediate the story—until the very end: “This is the story the dying boy told as near as I can get to it.” Her written tactics are vivid, and a reader perhaps imagines a scene. But the culmination of the image insistently returns to a voice: the dying boy’s. It is only at the end of the synthetic narrative that she attributes the narrative to him as its witness. She writes in the third-person of an event she did not witness: she has allowed her voice to move around in space – from the site where the warrant was made, to the threshold of the family’s cabin door, on the other side of the door, to the anonymous spaces of rumor, then away from the scene to the church, and back.

I’m reminded of a recently audio performance, The Numbers Station [Red Record], where sound artists Mendi + Keith Obadike sonifed Wells’s statistics, using them as numbers to generate audio frequencies (some of the numbers being below 20 hz, the lowest threshold of human hearing).

In a measured and restrained, yet breathy and resonant tone of voice, Mendi Obadike reads the statistics as Keith Obadike generates and oscillates corresponding tones. It is a study in repetition, as is Wells’s pamphlet (racist crime, Douglass writes, “has power to reproduce itself”). And yet, both the pamphlet and the Obadikes’ performance are a study in the singular: one female voice carries each of the numbers in their signification.

Numbers Station is depleted or exhausted narrative space that asks that no images be conjured. The vocal style is impersonal, to be sure—the performer does not passionately react to the numbers. And yet, it is style that moves the voice into that region of the throat where Roland Barthes found the “grain,” where timbre most resonates. It burrows in the human capacity for timbre as the singularity of every voice that says, “here I am.”

When Roland Barthes asked the famous question, “who speaks?” in “The Death of the Author,” he delighted in the impersonal domain of the literary, wherein writing becomes “an oblique space” no longer tied to the physical voice of the body writing. We can say that a physical guarantee of white life, its freedom of continuation underwrites the death of the author.  In other words, one can die into text, relinquish the tie that binds the first-person to the body writing, and survive those deaths. It was not important for Barthes to ask, “who may die?,” as in who might have the freedom of impersonality, and “who hears?”, as in who has the right to determine the meaning of the utterances. I want to address these questions.

***

Video technology means that one can record sound and image simultaneously–video having built in mics–yet cell technology makes video, as sound and image, even more accessible and disseminable. Often, the voices of those holding the cell phone at a distance are also captured, remarking upon what they are witnessing or trying to cognize, or they are simply breathing; these voices become a part of the narrative scene. Cell phone technology enables a new mode of witnessing, one connected to older antecedent technologies: the written word as a form of “voice” for black writers. Yet, there is something even more importantly material that gets lost when one focuses on the image of brutality rather than the narrative agency that can be harnessed by the act of recording. In the case of Reynolds’s video, this narrating is explicit. She puts into words what she is seeing. But this narrating can also be more implicit.

Rakeyia Scott and Keith Lamont Scott

Facebook picture of Rakeyia Scott and Keith Lamont Scott

The video released by the New York Times of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott included the subtitle, as an introductory slide, that “It was recorded by his wife, Rakeyia Scott.” I pressed pause and, like Juhasz, felt myself unable to watch, stopped in my tracks by this matter-of-fact annotation. Scott had had to videotape the murder of her husband. It took some time before I could return to the video itself, but immediately my thoughts return to Reynolds—again, a black woman had been thrust into the position of narrating black death at the hands of a white police officer, while it was unfolding. But I want to insist that the fungible quality is ethically augmented by narrating itself.

In what follows, New York Times reporters Richard Fausset and Yamiche Alcindor transcribe Scott’s audio and summarize the visuals of the video rather than calling upon readers to view or re-view the video itself. I am choosing to provide the summary report—a narrative—in order to underscore the types of social and sensory positions that get taken up when one tells a story (in this case, it is a narrative of a narrative, since Rakeyia Scott is already positioned in the video as its participant-narrator). This account is not “what happened”—it is a narrative that tries to synthesize audio-visual information into a narrative form. If I also choose to repeat the narrative, rather than the video, it is in alignment with Hartman’s ethical insistence that to repeat the spectacle of death is to reify it, as when she choose not to quote Douglass’ narrative of witnessing the beating of his Aunt Hester in the introduction to Scenes of Subjection. Fred Moten, in In the Break, rightly suggests in response that to turn away from an image is still to be caught up in its imaginary reproduction.

I want the reader to focus on how the Times’s narrative conjures the scene while also involving certain decisions about what sensory data to include as internal to the logical order of events, harnessing adjectives, adverbs, and certain sensorial details. It is one platform of convergence:

Immediately, Ms. Scott said, “Don’t shoot him,” and began walking closer to the officers and Mr. Scott’s vehicle. “Don’t shoot him. He has no weapon. He has no weapon. Don’t shoot him.”

An officer can then be heard yelling: “Gun. Gun. Drop the gun.” A police S.U.V. with lights flashing arrived, partly obscuring Ms. Scott’s view, and a uniformed officer got out. From that point, there are five officers, most of whom appeared to be wearing body armor over plain clothes, around Mr. Scott.

“Don’t shoot him, don’t shoot him,” Ms. Scott pleaded, her voice becoming louder and more anxious. “He didn’t do anything.”

Officers continued to yell “drop the gun” or some variation of it — at least 12 times in 38 seconds.

“He doesn’t have a gun,” Ms. Scott said. “He has a T.B.I.” — an abbreviation for a traumatic brain injury the lawyers said Mr. Scott sustained in a motorcycle accident in November. “He’s not going to do anything to you guys. He just took his medicine.”

“Drop the gun,” an officer screamed again as Ms. Scott tried to explain her husband’s condition. The officer then said he needed to get a baton.

“Keith don’t let them break the windows. Come on out the car,” Ms. Scott said, as the video showed an officer approaching Mr. Scott’s vehicle.

“Drop the gun,” an officer shouted again.

Ms. Scott yelled several times for her husband to “get out the car,” but on the video, he cannot be seen through the window of the S.U.V.

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still image from Rakeyia Scott’s video of the police shooting of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott. Cropping/blurring by JS, SO!

The above summary reproduces on the page how Scott’s speaking voice suddenly thrust her into a position of addressing several auditors. In listening to the video, I can hear that she modifies her tone of voice to communicate to each addressee, speaking alternately in an imitate imploring tone to her husband and with sharper emphasis to the police. The tone of voice is also linguistic—the diction changes as the addressee changes (“Come on out the car” is so intimate and familiar to my ear somehow, a private grammar and tone suddenly thrown into the public space). She calls the police, “you guys,” which strikes me as an attempt to tone them down, as it were, to bring them back into a human sphere from which they’d removed themselves.  “Ms. Scott tried to explain her husband’s condition”—I add this emphasis, because I think the journalist is channeling here the ways in which Rakeyia Scott is not being heard.

In narrating the scene of her husband’s death, Rakeyia Scott becomes the absolute tie between that past of the image and the present of watching; I use the present tense, because it happens again, with each telling.  Scott speaks, more silently and spectrally, to the audiences that will later watch and listen to the video she is recording, or read the transcript as synthesized by journalists or other viewers. In holding the camera, she imputes to herself a third voice as narrator, as did Wells in narrating the scene in A Red Record. This third voice, I am suggesting, is inaudible. It hovers next to her words with new force because, in the act of recording itself, she is testifying, offering a synthetic view as to reality.  She creates a hearing space even though it is being foreclosed around her.

She is the only party in the scene who speaks to all addressees at once: her husband, the police, and “us.” The police do not respond to her directly, as if she not there. Indeed, she is standing somewhere outside of the scene as would a narrator. Because Rakeyia Scott holds a camera–outside of the frame–while also speaking, something of testimony gets activated. She has one foot outside of the event in the future after the video.  She courageously separates herself from what is unfolding in order to constitute a narrative of the event; she mediates the scene. She not only puts into words facts that are not visible to the police, she issues pleas, commands, and words that carry the explanatory force of narrative, but also testimonial force because she holds the recording device.

still from the NYT's publication of Rakeyia Scott's video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

still from the NYT‘s publication of Rakeyia Scott’s video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

By holding a camera, Scott directs her words not only to police, but toward a yet-to-be constituted audience. The recording device also activates the presence of a juridical gaze. She anticipates having to bring this event, not yet fully unfolded, before a court of law. But at the same time, her use of the recording device reveals the juridical sensorium as white. The device’s presence indicates that, were Scott to remember and tell the story later in a court of law, her words on their own would not be enough to guarantee their explanatory power. The spectacle of black death cannot, on its own, announce its own truth within a racist optic. She says what the police (and a spectral jurist) refuse to see. She is forced to narrate because her voice is negated by the police, but also for those unknown viewers who will see this later.

still from the NYT's publication of Rakeyia Scott's video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

still from the NYT’s publication of Rakeyia Scott’s video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

There is hope, no doubt, that sometime after this scene has come to end, the video will find a place in the civic as a force of enacting law and justice, and above all, change.

At the turn of the last century, Du Bois wrote of “double consciousness” in The  Souls of Black Folk, or the split incumbent upon black American consciousness to see oneself and then, to see oneself as the other sees you, “measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” However, in narrating her husband’s death at the hands of American police in 2016, Rakeyia Scott was split in ways that are not fully compassed by double consciousness. This split into three (or more) not only marks the mediating place of black women in the spectacle of black death, but marks another ethical horizon where at issue is not only seeing differently, but hearing differently. As I’ve tried to describe, these ways of hearing are not an identification with (like me), but a recognition of (you are singular).

This is not yet to speak to the collapse of Scott’s voice after her husband’s murder. Continually occupying this position of testifying, Scott bravely maintains her hold on the camera, even when it means capturing her own screams when Charlotte police begin to shoot. She is both forms. Even then, in screaming, her voice retains its narrative power. Horrifyingly, she cannot change the sequence of events. But her voice continues to exist in belated relation to the scene and to the political afterlife of the murder as image.

With the digital, it becomes possible to reduce the space and time of testimony.  With Reynolds, many watched on Facebook Live an event they were powerless to change in its unfolding. With Scott, the police gun shots had not yet taken place. I think the question is, were Rakeyia Scott white, would her words have been pro-active testimony of a not-yet determined event? Her words would have been lent a different power, a power to change events in their unfolding. In America, white testimony and black testimony bear fundamentally different ontological weight.

still from NYT publication of Rakeyia Scott's video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

still from the NYT‘s publication of Rakeyia Scott’s video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

In repeatedly trying to answer the question whose recurrence haunts me–What does it mean for Scott to have narrated the murder and death of her loved one as it was taking place?–I am thrust up against the sense that we are in a new ethical moment and relation to history when it becomes possible—and necessary—for black women to narrate death to an unknown public as it is unfolding. This includes the moments before their own deaths, such as Korryn Gaines, who was killed by the Baltimore County Police Department in August 2016, in her own apartment while holding her five year old son, who watched and himself suffered a gunshot wound.  Like Reynolds, she broadcast her recordings via Facebook live.

Testimony is usually reserved for some time after the scene, and its hallmark is that it is belated. It must reconstitute a scene we can no longer see. The burden is on the narrating voice to conjure, with persuasion and conviction, the truth of the missing image, so that the story can in fact stand in place of the scene, merging with it on an ontological level.  The live streamed video fundamentally reduces that distance in time, where the narrative now overlays the image, not from outside of it, but within it. They refuse the false juridical narratives that will, in the future, attempt to reframe the image in the name of “fact.”

In the differentiation of the senses, there is the order of the visible and the order of narrating voice that accompanies the image to give it sense, to retell its meaning somehow after. Scott insists on being there to narrate. That is not to suggest that somehow, because Scott speaks, she is more “present.” While the video is meant as future evidence, it also lends a voice of recognition in this ethical sense I have been trying to describe. Scott’s voice is split by the camera. Even if she herself were not to have survived the event, in narrating and taping, she becomes the medium for history (the persistent and unchanging fact of unjust black death). And yet, she is the vehicle for this death that matters in its singularity. She speaks as both, as history and particularity.

In watching and listening, I finally understand something of Hannah Arendt’s argument in The Human Condition that speech and action form a fundamental unit. For Arendt, great deeds cannot happen in silence: they must be narrated and accompanied by speech. And yet the scenes Arendt describes couldn’t be more different. This raises the issue of the conditions of narration: it is one thing to be speaking to your fellow citizens in a sanctioned forum. It is another to hold a camera as an officer holds a gun that might very well shoot you too.

Alicia Garza, one of the three co-founders of the national #blacklivesmatter movement in 2013, along with Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors.

Alicia Garza, one of the three co-founders of the national #blacklivesmatter movement in 2013, along with Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors.

What I’d like to preserve about Arendt’s analytic is the union of speech and action. It is related to the role of the right to speak in the ancient polis, where one had to take responsibility for the possibility that one’s speech might lead to the deeds of the community. But speech, for Arendt, is the function of action that makes it for others, that commits that action to the memories of others who can narrate it. In Arendt’s view, the story does not end there. The fact is, one might not survive one’s greatest deed. If one does survive, it would be in highly transformed terms. It is for others to tell the story.

In part, the ethical bond means our lives are in each other’s hands, that the other is responsible for narrating where you cannot. We are always-already ethically bound as “witnesses and participants,” as Frederick Douglass once described himself in his 1851 Narrative. He remembers himself as a six year old child not only watching, but listening to the scene of brutality against his Aunt Hester that he later recalls and transmutes into a narrative.

My hope is that this power of narrative is in the midst of opening another political horizon. It refutes identification as the untenable ground of ethics and action. We must act—or hold on to a sense of acting, even if its meaning and parameters remain unclear.   As I reach the end of this essay, I can’t shake the sense that that it is not enough to have provided an analytic for understanding these videos and their voices in their long resonance with history.  Nor does it feel right to say that these videos “do” something for us– they, and their narrators, demand that we do something for them.  This mode of action begins in the attitude of hearing. Hearing testimony, Jill Stauffer describes in Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Being Heard, means allowing the unchangeable past to resound in the present. Only then can one “author conditions where repair is possible” (4).

It might be, then, that hearing itself is a mode of action, even if that action be much delayed. Hearing becomes action when formal power structures have denied its event as a source of repair. As listeners to the present and the past, we are neither projecting ourselves in the images nor imagining ourselves uninvolved in their scenes of subjection.  We were all already there.  And yet, to be “there” means to allow oneself to be exposed to another’s singular experience, rather than favor a collectively conditioned idea of what is known in advance. Who and where will we be afterward, is what remains.  These videos and their not-yet determined afterlives become louder than the optic, if not in the word than in the sounds.

I’d like to thank Jennifer Stoever, Erica Levin, Jay Bernstein, and Ben Williams for their thoughtful voices and contributions that resound throughout this essay.

Julie Beth Napolin is Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at The New School, a musician, and radio producer. She received a PhD in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work participates in the fields of sound studies, literary modernism and aesthetic philosophy, asking what practices and philosophies of listening can tell us about the novel as form. She served as Associate Editor of Digital Yoknapatawpha and is writing a book manuscript on listening, race, and memory in the works of Conrad, Du Bois, and Faulkner titled The Fact of Resonance. Her work has appeared in qui parle, Fifty Years After Faulkner (ed. Jay Watson and Ann Abadie), and Vibratory Modernism (ed. Shelley Trower and Anthony Enns).

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Spaces of Sounds: The Peoples of the African Diaspora and Protest in the United States–Vanessa K. Valdés

 

 

 

 

 

SO! Reads: Roshanak Khesti’s Modernity’s Ear

SO! Reads3“I drifted to another place and time,” reminisces drummer and musicologist Mickey Hart in his 2003 book about salvaging indigenous musical traditions, Songcatchers: In Search of the World’s Music. He continues, “Every day I rushed home, put on the sounds of the Pygmies [on the old RCA Victrola], and melted into their very being.” For the Grateful Dead drummer and world music producer, this experience of disorientation would eventually shape his transformation into a “songcatcher,” or one who seeks to preserve the intangible cultural heritage of indigenous music. In Modernity’s Ear: Race and Gender in World Music, author Roshanak Kheshti interrogates the “origin myth” presented by Hart, along with other collective fantasies and historical narratives that urge listening to world music. She argues that we must look beyond the political and economic exploitation of actual musicians to consider the economy of desire in which the conditions of possibility for such exploitation are formed. In contrast to a critical discourse on musical appropriation and exploitation among ethnomusicologists, one that Martin Stokes acknowledges is “marked by an anxious awareness of complexity and complicity” with world music (835), Kheshti deftly tunes into racialized and gendered yearnings for the recorded sounds of others.

khesti-book-cover

Sounds in bodies

Crucial to Kheshti’s argument is her radical proposition for what occurs as, to briefly return to Hart’s aural memories, the sounds of others “melt” into our “very being.” In a crucial maneuver that focuses on how what is being heard is shaped by the embodied experience of listening, Kheshti proposes that “the object [of listening] becomes a part of the self by being taken into the body” (41). Thus when “sound, the listener’s body, escape, and affect fold into one another” (54-56) in the act of listening (a Derrida-derived encounter that Kheshti dubs “invagination”), selfhood is performatively constituted through the aural other. Moreover, the pleasure of imagining the other through listening, writes Kheshti, is not only the hegemonic form of listening within the world music industry but an experience of desire that Western media markets have historically capitalized upon.

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“Whispers” by Flickr user Nicola Colella, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Given the ways in which listening embodies an economy of desire, Kheshti tells the history of this libidinal economy through a narrative in which modern selfhood is constructed through the racialized and gendered aural other. The Godzilla in this narrative is the World Music Culture Industry (WMCI), an entity conjured by Kheshti in reference to the historical juncture of comparative musicologists in the early twentieth century with the popular music recording industry, a coupling that she argues spawned the globalized product of modern media known as world music. As a set of hybrid musical practices designed by and large for Western media markets, world music is the key object of her inquiry (in contrast to the diversity of musical practices worldwide).

 

The imagined listener

songcatcher-coverThough the book does not proceed chronologically, the first chapter seeks to interweave memory with history by opening with the early twentieth century. Stressing the pioneering role of white female sound archivists, this chapter is crucial for setting up the historical significance of the feminization of listening, a process familiar to readers of Jonathan Sterne, Louise Michele Newman, and William Howland Kenney. Kheshti puts Songcatcher (2000), a feature film about a fictional comparative musicologist who dives into Appalachian country and “discovers” Scottish and Irish ballads thought to have gone extinct, into conversation with the iconic images of Frances Densmore, an ethnologist affiliated with the Bureau of American Ethnology in the 1910s, who famously staged phonographic recordings of the Blackfoot chief, Mountain Chief (Nin-Na-Stoko). The point of convergence between these materials is the gendered and racialized politics of who was sent where to record whose sounds: white female sound archivists, spurned by their male colleagues and sent to the periphery of their respective fields to practice their craft. Once in the field, these comparative musicologists, one fictional and one real, committed acts of racial appropriation and erasure. The song catcher deracinates Appalachia by stripping the region of its Native American and African-American histories in favor of the ‘collective origin fantasy’ that links European and American genealogies, while Densmore, among others, domesticates indigenous sounds in her work for the Bureau.

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Frances Densmore recording Mountain Chief. Picture by Harris & Ewing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The very presence of these upwardly mobile women in the sonic-social worlds that they listen to leaves a trace on their phonographic recordings. These aural traces, Kheshti contends, mark the processes of settler colonialism and salvage ethnography by which indigenous bodies are subjected and made subject through phonographic recording techniques (what she calls ‘phonographic subjectivity’), and in particularly gendered and racialized ways. Kheshti traces the performative effects of these aural traces on contemporary world music in her fieldwork with a Bay area world music label in the early 2000s. In particular, she reveals that the target listener for contemporary world music is white and female, and, that this fact is an apparent truism among music executives, or at least the executive who she worked for. This revelation is the cornerstone for Kheshti’s unfolding of the aurality of this figure, the white female listener of contemporary world music.

Though the book tends to favor intensive re-readings of critical and psychoanalytic theory (from Adorno and Benjamin to Freud and Lacan) over thick ethnographic description, Kheshti touches upon key encounters in this culture industry to explain how listening to world music engenders modernity’s ear. For instance, she transcribes segments from a radio show in Northern California in which the host, a middle-aged white female, discusses what constitutes “African rhythms” with a record label executive. The two banter about this misnomered subject for some length. The host interprets what she is hearing as “African rhythms coming through.” Her visitor, an expert in world music, affirms and clarifies this attribution: “Yeah, absolutely. The rhythm on this particular song… is from a style of music called Afro-beat… that rhythm you’re hearing is definitely African, so, you don’t know nothing, you’re learning” (52). Kheshti interprets this banter as an example of how world music listeners “cherish” the experience of listening to sonic difference as a moment to live out “fantasy and imaginative play” (54), in other words, that the pleasures experienced through aurality have become definitive of twentieth-century modernity.

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“world music 2” by Flickr user wayne marshall, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In other chapters, she details how record labels fulfill this fantasy through the production of hybrid sound media. The orchestration of these sounds in the studio not only enables the listener to feel “lost” and transcend the contingencies of the listening event, they also “pronounce and suppress presences and absences of all sorts of bodies and grains” (77). Drawing on phenomenological descriptions of her own listening experiences as well as liner notes and other commercial media, she describes how non-Western sounds are encoded as feminine, whereas the synthetic production and digital manipulation of sounds are rendered techno-logically modern and masculine.  Racialized and feminized bodies are put to work in constituting the modern cosmopolitan listener. Furthermore, Kheshti argues that market mobility and aesthetic mobility are gendered male and alterity is gendered female in ways that link, for her, to miscegenation. The listening self reproduces dominant forms of heteronormativity in the consumption of modern sound media.

The listening self reproduces dominant forms of heteronormativity in the consumption of modern sound media.

Kheshti offers a radical alternative to these normative listening practices by turning to field recordings taken by Zora Neale Hurston between 1933 and 1939. Trained by Franz Boas in the traditions of nascent cultural anthropology, Hurston is kin to Densmore and those who worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology a few decades earlier. Like them, she goes to record America’s aural others, or “black folk.” But unlike her white foremothers, Hurston does not attempt to splice out the “noise” of the recordings. She “refuses fidelity” (126). Instead of staging field recordings, she made studio recordings of herself performing songs and discussing rituals. When recording her interlocutors, she interrupts, interjects, and poses directorial cues that Kheshti reads as an attempt to resist the desire to faithfully (re)produce an archive of phonographic subjects.

Zora Neale Hurston with Musicians

ca. June 1935, Eatonville, Florida, USA — Author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston sitting on a porch in Eatonville, Florida with two musicians, Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown. — Image from Stuff Mom Never Told You

Recommended for advanced graduate students and faculty, this virtuosic and tightly rehearsed tour through critical and psychoanalytic theory offers an ambitious and groundbreaking retake on an industry that we thought we understood, perhaps too intimately. Kheshti asks her readers to hold themselves accountable to their own forms of aural pleasure. In so doing, she offers a fresh perspective on the role of embodiment in relation to knowledge production. Rather than embracing somatic methods of inquiry as a welcome challenge to inductive reasoning, she argues that taking pleasure in listening enables the commodification of desire that sustains the world music culture industry.

Kheshti shifts the discussion of world music qua music (aesthetics, history, representation) towards issues of alterity and sound. As such, this book contributes to sound studies by holding the field accountable for difference, and, by inscribing this accountability within the history of the field itself. Indeed, Modernity’s Ear is about how the forces of desire that constitute the modern listening self are enveloped in the aural other as phonographic subject.

Featured image: “ear” by Flickr user Leo Reynolds, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Shayna Silverstein is an assistant professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. Her research generally examines the performative processes of politics, culture, and society in relation to sound and movement in the contemporary Middle East. Her current book project examines the performance tradition of Syrian dabke as a means for the strategic contestation of social class, postcolonial difference, and gender dynamics in contemporary Syria. She has contributed to peer-reviewed journals and several anthologies including The Arab Avant-Garde: Music, Politics, and Modernity, Islam and Popular Culture, the Sublime Frequencies Companion, and Syria: From Reform to Revolt. Previously a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Penn Humanities Forum, Shayna received her PhD in Ethnomusicology from the University of Chicago and her BA in History from Yale University.

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Saving Sound, Sounding Black, Voicing America: John Lomax and the Creation of the “American Voice” — Toniesha L. Taylor

Sounding Out! Podcast #57: The Reykjavik Sound Walk

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Standing in front of our rented apartment in Túngata, a residential street just a few blocks from central Reykjavík, I am struck by the stillness of the city that surrounds me. Having lived most of my life in the densely-populated suburbs of northern New Jersey, my experience of urban soundscapes has typically been frenetic and noisy. Here, even the busiest parts of town seem subdued. It’s a pleasant contrast. At 8AM on a weekday, the quietness is eerily enveloping, broken only occasionally by a gust of arctic wind, a passing car, or a neighbor closing her door and setting off for work.

Quiet tranquility and natural beauty have attracted a growing number of tourists to Iceland in recent years, my wife and I included. With only 330,000 people inhabiting an area roughly the size of Kentucky (and two-thirds of those settled in and around Reykjavík), one needn’t venture far out into Iceland’s otherworldly landscape to feel far removed from civilization – like exploring a distant planet. While the island may be still now, the belated realization that Iceland’s bizarre terrain, its vast lava fields, meandering fissures, and Dr. Seuss rock formations are the result of earth-shattering eruptions – like Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, Bárðarbunga in 2014-15, or the more recent rumblings around Katla – can be a little unnerving. Travelling through the Icelandic countryside, one imagines the thundering cracks, seething magma, and the infernal growl of the awesome geophysical forces that churned up these vast panoramas.

Reykjavik Soundwalk Map

To a certain extent, the absence of sound here heightens a sense of the sublimity of the world around us; that from certain perspectives, nature is fundamentally ineffable – incapable of being fully represented by language, data, or art. Sound, I think, can complicate this experience. On the one hand, the extraordinary sounds of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, of great storms, or the roiling of heavy seas, contribute to the overwhelming experience of the grand and fantastic. On the other, these sounds, like perhaps the everyday noise of a busy street corner, may also break the spell by yielding up the audibly familiar. Wandering around Reykjavík at this early hour, a settlement that has clung defiantly to a desolate rock in the North Atlantic for over 1000 years, I become acutely aware of each new sound to disrupt the ethereal silence. Each of these, even the most mundane and urban, seems to take on larger significance and intention as audible signs of the ways in which human beings have forged order and meaning from a wild and indifferent world.

But for now, all remains quiet, and the island’s primordial silence seems to reach even into the capital itself. Of course, Reykjavík is a vibrant international city resonating with the familiar sounds of urban life. But at certain times the quietness that seems to subsume everything else – a subtle reminder of the relatively small scale and frailty of the human compared to the geological.

Soon enough however, as I walk up Túngata there’s a siren in the distance, and the neighborhood begins to echo with the sounds of children playing in the yard at Landakotsskóli, one of Iceland’s oldest schools. I follow the street as it arcs towards the city center, passing several foreign embassies and the imposing gothic edifice of Dómkirkja Krists Konungs. A few other cars motor past and there’s a brief gust of cold wind, but these are momentary disruptions. Soon enough the world returns to the now-familiar stillness.

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Grafitti in Reykjavik. Image by Rog01 @Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA.

But the sounds of morning traffic pick up a bit as I walk further down the hill – the rush of passing cars, the groan of a utility truck turning off a side street, and the muffled sounds of a radio floating from a car window. At its end, Túngata bends to the left at the bottom of the hill, where I see a large excursion bus stopped in front of a hotel, and a knot of tourists quietly talking nearby. It’s time for morning pickups, and the idling of these busses, and the hushed, expectant voices of day-trippers outside hotels and guesthouses around the city turn out to be common vignettes along my morning walk. They’re a reminder of the vast growth in tourism this year, which is expected to increase 29% over 2015 to 1.6 million foreign visitors.

Continuing straight onto Kirkjustrӕti, I pass the Alþingishúsið (Parliament House) on my right, and Austurvӧllur, a large public square on my left. The place is relatively quiet now. The cafes lining Vallarstrӕti and Pósthússtrӕti are closed, and there are only a handful of people walking through the square. Later on, the cafes will be buzzing with patrons enjoying the balmy (for Iceland) weather and the long hours of sunlight.

But aside from the nightlife, Austurvӧllur’s proximity to Parliament means that historically it’s been a focal point of political protest in Reykjavík. Two months before our visit, some 24,000 people crowded into this space to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who was revealed by the Panama Papers to have undisclosed connections with an offshore shell company with interest in failed Iceland banks. Walking past the square today, I can only imagine the chants, claps, whistles, shouts, barricade-banging, and yogurt-throwing of Icelanders expressing their collective frustration with corrupt officials.

Construction in Reykjavik. Image by Patrick Rasenberg @Flickr CC BY-NC.

Construction in Reykjavik. Image by Patrick Rasenberg @Flickr CC BY-NC.

This morning however, apart from the early morning sound of chirping birds and pedestrian commuters, there’s a bit of construction going on here – I can hear a few landscapers and  a pair of contractors clanking and clunking as they lay out equipment for work on a building next to the Alþingishúsið. From these men and others I pass along this stretch of road, I hear the hushed and slightly groggy speech of early morning. The talk is all in Icelandic of course, a language whose place and street names I valiantly try to pronounce when I visit. Icelandic is a notoriously difficult language for foreigners in general, and its tongue-twisting staccato and subtle consonants, not to mention its intimidating alphabet, usually leave my mouth sounding a bit too awkwardly Jersey (as you can hear for yourself in this podcast!).

Continuing on my walk, I follow Pósthússtrӕti as it threads around Dómkirkjan and out to Lӕkjargata, the main avenue in this section of town. Here, the soundscape is more typically urban. The sound of trucks and cars passing, a bus groaning into gear as it pulls out into traffic, the multi-lingual chatter of pedestrians at a crosswalk, a group of teenage volunteers chatting in Icelandic as they do groundskeeping work near the Stjórnarráðið government offices, all speak the language of a city’s morning routine.

Street art in Reykjavik. Image by Toni Syvänen @Flickr CC BY-NC-SA.

Street art in Reykjavik. Image by Toni Syvänen @Flickr CC BY-NC-SA.

Bankastrӕti, the main commercial district, is also coming to life. It’s still early, and most shops are closed, but heading east up the street, I hear a few snatches of conversations in Icelandic and American English – and there seems to be more of the latter than I remember from the last time we visited, testament to Iceland’s growing attraction for U.S. tourists. All along Bankastrӕti, the sounds of lively conversation, music, and the clinking of tableware floats out of open doors as people pop in and out of cafes and restaurants for breakfast and morning coffee. As I bear right on Skólavӧrðustigur and up the hill towards Hallgrímskirkja – the Lutheran church that dominates the city skyline like an art deco rocket ship – these sounds start to thin out again. Apart from a passing car or pedestrian, and the occasional rumbling of a tour bus or ATV, I am left in the comforting hush of a Reykjavík morning.

At the top of the hill, the large stone plaza before Hallgrímskirkja echoes with the clattering sounds of workers hammering at the roof of a nearby building, as the great green statue of Leifur Erikíksson silently watches on. I turn left on Frakkastígur and head downhill towards Faxa Bay, which looms in the middle distance. Frakkastígur turns out to be the noisiest stretch of my walk: there’s the roofers; the slapping of lanyards on the flagpoles that surround Hallgrímskirkja; the busy bakery where I buy morning croissants surrounded by Beatles music, the English and Icelandic chatter of customers, and the pounding, rolling, and cutting of dough; and finally the two large construction sites that I pass between Laugavegur and Hverfisgata streets. Here, the motoring of earthmovers, the shrieking of a circular saw, and the pounding of a massive pile driver jar the neighborhood with an intense mechanized racket.

I’ve noticed a fair amount of construction around Reykjavík this trip. The skyline bristles with cranes. It’s another marker of the booming tourism industry, and its complicated place in the Icelandic economy. Since the financial collapse of 2008, there’s been pent-up demand for residential housing. But with the local construction industry strained from the current spate of hotel building, it’s been difficult to find builders to work on residential projects. What I hear around me is a sign that Iceland’s economy has improved, but it’s also a reminder that improvement sometimes makes life more difficult for local residents.

Sculpture on the shore of Reykjavik. Image by Ainhoa Sánchez Sierra @Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA.

Sculpture on the shore of Reykjavik. Image by Ainhoa Sánchez Sierra @Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA.

The sounds of heavy construction fade as I wind my way down to the bay and cross over Sӕbraut to the promenade that lines the shore. Like any highway, at this point in the morning Sӕbraut fairly hums with commuter traffic; here, the ambient sound of suburbanites making the morning drive to work, complete with attendant sound of brakes, horns, and Icelandic drive-time radio mix with the rushing sound of wind rolling off the waterfront. Walking along the promenade now, I pass a few joggers and bicyclists as a walk over to Harpa, the newly-built glass and steel concert hall that is home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and which, every autumn, becomes a focal point of the week-long Iceland Airwaves music festival. It’s this annual event, I muse, that should be the subject of a future sound walk (for me or someone else) – five days in which Reykjavík pulsates with the sound and music of dozens of bands playing formal and informal shows at venues, cafes, bookstores, and basements around the city.

From a large dig site next to Harpa (the possible site of yet another hotel), I cross back over Sӕbraut to the clicking sounds of a crossing signal for blind pedestrians. I pass Bӕjarins Beztu Pylsur (The Best Hot Dog in Town), which is closed for the morning, and walk back into the city center, which is by now clearly awake and buzzing with locals and tourists. After stopping in a 24-hour supermarket for some morning milk, I walk east on Austurstrӕti past the Laundromat Café and other restaurants that are now busy serving the breakfast crowd.

Up through Ingólfstorg square (which appears to double as a skate park, but is right now a stopping point for a walking tour group), south on Aðalstrӕti, and around the turn by the Reykjavík Settlement Museum, I’m soon walking back up through the quiet neighborhood lining Túngata.

Featured Image by SambaClub | Camisetas com conteúdo (a t-shirt site) @Flickr CC BY.

Andrew J. Salvati is a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. His interests include the history of television and media technologies, theory and philosophy of history, and representations of history in media contexts. Additional interests include play, authenticity, the sublime, and the absurd. Andrew has co-authored a book chapter with colleague Jonathan Bullinger titled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” in the recent edited volume Playing With the Past (2013), and has written a recent blog post for Play the Past titled “The Play of History.”

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