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On the Poetics of Balloon Music (Part One): Sounding Air, Body, and Latex

I see them in the streets and in the subway, at dollar stores, hospital rooms, and parties. I see them silently dangling from electrical cables and tethered to branches of trees. Balloons are ghost-like entities floating through the cracks of places and memories. They are part of our rituals of loss, celebration and apology. Yet, they are also part of larger systems, weather sciences, warfare and surveillance technologies, colonialist forces and the casual UFO conspiracy theory. For a child, the ephemeral life of the balloon contrasts with the joy of its bright colors and squeaky sounds. Psychologists encourage the use of the balloon as an analogy for death, while astronomers use it as a representation for the cosmological inflation of the universe. In between metaphors of beginning and end, the balloon enables dialogues about air, breath, levity, and vibration.

The philosopher Luce Irigaray argues that Western thought has forgotten air despite being founded on it. “Air does not show itself. As such, it escapes appearing as (a) being. It allows itself to be forgotten,” writes Irigaray. Air is confused with absence because it “never takes place in the mode of an ‘entry into presence.'” Gaston Bachelard, in Air and Dreams, calls for a philosophy of poetic imagination that grows out of air’s movement and fluidity. For Bachelard, an aerial imagination brings forth a sense of the sonorous, of transparency and mobility. In this article, I propose exploring the balloon as a sonic device that turns our attention to the element of air and opens space for musical practices outside classical traditions. Here, the balloon is defined broadly as an envelope for air, breath, and lighter-than-air gases, including toy balloons, weather balloons, hydrogen and hot-air balloons.

PLACE /

Vertical Dimension: Early Experiments in Ballooning, Sounding, and Silence

On September 1939, Jean-Paul Sartre was assigned to serve the French military in a meteorological station in Alsace behind the frontline. His duties consisted of launching weather balloons, monitoring them every two hours and radioing the meteorological observations to another station. Faced with the dread of war and an immediate geography that he compared to a “madmen’s delusion,” Sartre took his gaze upwards to the weather balloon and its surrounding atmosphere to find refuge. In Notebooks from a Phony War, Sartre describes the sky as my vertical dimension, a vertical prolongation of myself, and also abode beyond my reach.” The balloon becomes a vessel for an affective relationship with the atmosphere that is mediated by the sounding of meteorological data. While gazing into the upper air, Sartre experiences a tension between the withdrawn”frozen blackness” of the atmosphere and the pull for feelings of oneness with it.

Falling Stars as Observed From the Balloon, Travels in Air by James Glaisher, 1871

The first balloonists to explore the atmosphere felt similar sensations of belonging by moving along masses of air, and at the same time, experiencing a deep sense of otherworldliness. Despite the dangerous enterprise, early balloon travelers repeatedly recounted expressions of the sublime associated with the acoustic qualities of the upper air. Late 18th and 19th-century balloon literature features countless textual soundscapes of balloon ascents that reveal how the experience of sound and silence helped frame early narratives of “being in air/being one with air.”

Ballooning developed in France and England among the emergent noise of industrialized urban life. The balloon prospect, as the author Jesse Taylor put it, spoke to “the Victorian fantasy of rising above the obscurity of urban experience.”  Floating over the city, the English aeronaut Henry Coxwell describes hearing “the roar of London as one unceasing rich and deep sound.” In the same spirit, the balloonist James Glaisher compares the “deep sound of London” to theroar of the sea,” whose “murmuring noise” is heard at great elevations. Ascending to higher altitudes, Coxwell hears the sounds from the earth become “fainter and fainter, until we were lost in the clouds when a solemn silence reigned.”

L’exploration de l’air, In Histoire des ballons et des aÇronauts cÇläbres, 1887

The balloon not only allowed access to a panoramic and surveilling gaze in the midst of boundless space but also a privileged access to a place of quietude and silence. In the memoir Aeronautica (1838), Thomas Monck Mason speaks to this point when he writes, “no human sound vibrated (…) a universal Silence reigned! An empyrean Calm! Unknown to Mortals upon ‘Earth.” According to Mason, when the balloonist goes “undisturbed by interferences of ordinary impressions,” like the sounds from terrestrial life, “his mind more readily admits the influence of those sublime ideas of extension and space.”

The experience of silence in the upper air brought forward in the Victorian white elite the longing for freedom, individuality, and assertion of social identity. Balloon flights provided a form of escapism from the confines of city walls reverberating with the aural manifestations of the Other. In Victorian Soundscapes, John Picker examines the struggles of London’s upper class of creatives (academics, doctors, artists and clergy) in finding spaces of silence away from the bustling noise of the urban environment. During the mid-19th century, the influx of immigration and the rise of commercial trade and street musicians altered the soundscape of the city. As Picker documents, the English elites rallied against this emergent aurality through racialized listening made evident by the use of sonic descriptors like invasion and containment that underlined anxieties related to the dilution of national identity, culture, class division and territory. For the elite, to physically ascend above the noise of the Other into the silent regions of the atmosphere via balloon, an instrument that dramatizes scientific prowess, validated an auditory construction of whiteness organized around ideals of order, rationality and harmony.

Circular View From the Balloon in Airopaidia by Thomas Baldwin, 1786

The descriptions of balloon ascents featured in James Glaisher’s book Travels in the Air (1871) are a vivid manifestation of these ideals. Experiences of floating at high altitudes were often met with poetic reports on the “sublime harmony of colors, light and silence,” the “perfect stillness,” and the “absolute silence” reigning “supreme in all its sad majesty.” The nineteenth century’s constructs of “harmony” and “quietude,” argues Jennifer Stoever, were markers of whiteness used to segregate and de-humanize those who embodied an alternative way of sounding. The Victorian balloon memoir echoes the construction of this sonic identity rooted in the white privilege of being lighter-than-air and claiming atmospheric silence. The balloonist Camille Flammarion, upon hearing “various noises” from the “dark earthbelow, questions what prompts “the listening ear” to be sensitive to difference. “Is it the universal silence which causes our ears to be more attentive?” asks the aeronaut.

Balloon Prospect, In Airopaidia, Thomas Baldwin, 1786

Balloonist’s encounters with silence in the upper air and the sigh of “boundless planes” andinfinite expanse of sky” were accompanied by feelings of safeness and overwhelming serenity. Elaine Freedgood argues that the balloon with its silk folds and wicker baskets were a perfect container for states of regression and the suspension of the boundaries of the self into an oceanic feeling of at-oneness with the atmosphere. According to the author, the self and sublime become momentarily entangled originating a sense of heroic masculinity, power, and the rehearse of imperial and colonial ventures. This emotional state justified an unprecedented mobility and the sense of losing oneself to the whims of the wind with no preoccupations of where to land. However, in an image that contrasts the privileges of mobility, Frederick Douglass uses the metaphor of the balloon as the terrifying anxiety of uncertain landing – either in freedom or slavery. The novel Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyan, deals with similar issues by fictionalizing the balloon ascent and traveling of a young slave, whose hearing is tuned to the “ghostly sound of human suffering coming from beneath.

By late 1780s, thousands of people witnessed the European wave of balloon flights, but only a small fraction had access to them. Mi Gyung Kim, author of The Imagined Empire, draws attention to the silence imposed on the figure of the “balloon spectator” whose dissident voices were erased by the dominant colonial narrative of aerial empire. Mostly, the balloon spectator is featured in Victorian texts within a soundscape of affects characterized by “vociferations of joy, shrieks of fearandexpressions of applausethat advanced the dominant colonial narrative.

Ascent of a Balloon in the Presence of the Court of Charles IV by Antonio Carnicero, 1783

Although explorations in sound were one of the many goals to legitimize the balloon as an instrument in modern natural philosophy, the scientific utility of the balloon succumbed to spectacle and entertainment. Early aeronauts tried to use their voices and speaking trumpets to sound the atmosphere and experiment with echo as a measurement of distance. Derek McCornack in his book Atmospheric Things, says that these balloonists were most of all “generating a sonorous affective-aesthetic experiencewith the atmosphere. Along with scientific tools, balloonists often ascended with musical instruments and, in other instances, the balloon itself became the stage for operatic performances. More than a century before modern composers had transformative encounters with silence in anechoic chambers, aeronauts had already described its subjective qualities and effects in detail. In 1886, the photographer John Doughty and reluctant balloon traveler, while floating in a silent ocean of air, recalls hearing only two bodily sounds: “the blood is plainly heard as it pulses through the brain; while in moments of extra excitement the beating of the heart sounds so loud as almost to constitute an interruption to our thoughts.”

Travels in the Air, James Glaisher, 1871

PROBE /

I feel like a balloon going up into the atmosphere, looking, gathering information, and relaying it back. Rachel Rosenthal, 1985

The first untethered balloon ascents happened between 1783 and 1784. In current literature, this period is most cited for the patent of the steam engine, the beginning of the carbonification of the atmosphere by the burning of coal, and the start of the Anthropocene. In the industrialized society, the balloon floats through irreversibly modified atmospheres. “We are still rooted in air,” writes Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos. However, this air is partitioned and engineered to facilitate consumerism, war, terror and pollution.

Contemporary art practices using the balloon address some of these concerns. The balloon functions as an atmospheric probe that reveals “invisible topographies” andpolitics of air” such as human interference, air quality, air ownership, borders, surveillance and the privileges of buoyancy. As a playful, non-threatening object, the balloon can elicit practices of inclusivity (e.g. balloon mapping) and affect. The transmission and reception of sound and music through the balloon help manifest air’s qualities and warrants artistic and social encounters with weather systems.

“Travels in the Air” by James Glaisher, 1871

During the 6th Annual Avant-Garde Festival parade going up Central Park West in 1968, the body of the cellist Charlotte Moorman rose a few feet above the floor attached to a bouquet of helium-filled balloons. This led the police to chase her and demand an FCC license for flying, to which Moorman replied: “I’m not flying – I’m floating.” Moorman was performing a piece called Sky Kiss, conceived by the visual artist Jim McWilliams that involved cello playing suspended by balloons.

In an interview for the book Topless Cellist by Joan Rothfuss, McWilliams explains that the original concept of Sky Kiss was to sever the connection between the cello’s endpin and the floor and expand the idea of kiss to an aerial experience. According to Rothfuss, McWilliams intended this piece to be an expression of the ethereal. But Moorman preferred the playfulness and the communal experience of the airspace. Instead of avant-garde music, she played popular tunes like “Up up and away” and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Dressed with a super-heroin satin cape, Moorman infused Sky Kiss with humor and visual spectacle, posing a challenge to the restrictive access to buoyancy.

Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik, Sky Kiss by Jim McWilliams, above the Sydney Opera House Forecourt, 1976, Kaldor Public Art Project 5, Photo by Karry Dundas

Furthermore, Charlotte Moorman collaborated with sky artist Otto Piene to establish the right quantities of lighter-than-air gas to reach higher altitudes. Otto Piene, was a figure of the postwar movement Zero and coined the term Sky Art to describe his flying sculptures, multimedia balloon operas, and kinetic installations. For Piene, a child growing up during World War II, “the blue sky had been a symbol of terror in the aerial war.” The balloon collaboration between Charlotte Moorman and Otto Piene was a form of acknowledging aerial space in a musical and peaceful way. In his manifesto Paths to Paradise (1961), Piene questions: why do we have no exhibitions in the sky?(…) up to now we have left it to war to dream up a naive light ballet for the night skies, we have left it up to war to light up the sky.

Phil Dadson’s work Breath of Wind (2008) lifts an entire brass band of 24 musicians into the sky with 17 hot-air balloons. Brass instruments, usually associated with moments of revelation in religious texts, serve here as a calling for an aesthetic experience of wind and air currents. Since 1970s, Dadson’s environmental activism has brought forward sonic tensions between the human subject and Aeolian forces, as in Hoop flags (1970), Flutter (2003) or Aerial Farm (2004).

Similarly, the artist Luke Jerram displaces the experience of a concert hall to the sky. His project Sky Orchestra comprises of seven hot-air balloons floating across a city with speakers playing a soundscapes design to induce peaceful dreams. The hot-air balloon orchestra ascends at dawn or dusk so the airborne music can reach people’s homes during sleep or while in states of semi-consciousness. The sound-targeting of residential areas during periods of dimmed awareness exposes the entangling capacities of airspace, and the vulnerability of the private space.

Artist and architect Usman Haquem utilizes a cloud of helium balloons as a platform to identify and sonify changes in the electromagnetic spectrum. This project, Sky Ear (2004), reveals our meddling with the urban Hertzian culture via mobile phones and other electronic devices. Andrea Polli’s environmental work features sonifications of data sets captured by weather balloons. These sonifications provide audiences an emotional window to frame complex climate data. In Sound Ship (descender 1) by Joyce Hinterding and David Haines, an Aelion harp is attached to a weather balloon that ascends into the edges of space. The result is a musical trace of the vertical volume of our atmosphere and the sonification of masses of air as the balloon journeys upwards.

Haines and Hinterding, Sound Ship (decender1), 4-min extract, 2016

Yoko Ono and John Lennon created similar exercise in sounding in the film Apotheosis (1970). A boom microphone and camera attached to a hydrogen balloon ascends over a small English town documenting a sonic geography of the upper air. The artists stay in the ground as the balloon rises. In a period of great media spectacle, the couple choses to stay with trouble while balloon records Earth’s utterances slowly fading into atmospheric silence.

It is important to note that these musical and sound based works that expose the physicality of air movements and assemble affective meanings with atmosphere and weather systems are not particular to contemporary practices. The scholar Jane Randerson draws attention to indigenous modes of knowing and sensing air and the weather that incorporate sounding instruments. In Weather as Medium, Randerson writes: “in Indigenous cosmologies, the sense of interconnectedness “discovered” in late modern meteorological science merely described what many cultures already sensed and encoded in social and environmental lore.”

The balloon has a lighter than air object mediates our relationship with the airspace and offers opportunities to expand our aerial imagination. By sensing changes in the atmosphere, the balloon is a platform that generates knowledge and can help us experiment with new forms of being-in-air some inclusive and empowering, others much more invested in exclusivity sounded through the rare air of silence and the silencing power dynamics fostered via the view from above.

I would like to express my immense gratitude to Jennifer Stoever for editing this paper and for sharing her scholarship and input on this article. Thank you to Phil Dadson for sharing his video.

 

Featured Image: Scientific Balloon of James Glaisher, 1862, Georges Naudet Collection, Creative Commons

Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio producer and independent researcher based in New York city. 

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SO! Amplifies: Phantom Power

 
SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Phantom Power is an aural exploration of the sonic arts and humanities, that launched in March 2018 with Episode 1: Dead Air (John Biguenet and Rodrigo Toscano) Hosted by poet + media artist cris cheek and sound + media scholar Mack Hagood, this podcast explores the sounds and ideas of artists, technologists, producers, composers, ethnographers, historians, cultural scholars, philosophers, and others working in sound.  Because Phantom Power is about to kick off its second season on February 1, 2019, we thought we’d dig a little deeper into who they are and who they’d like to reach with their good vibrations.

Funded through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and The National Endowment for the Humanities, Phantom Power was created with the goal of bringing together three important streams of conversation in the humanities

(1) diverse and interdisciplinary scholarly pursuits, taking place under the umbrella of “sound studies,” that analyze and critique the sonic entanglements and practices of human beings;

(2) experimental aesthetic practices that use sound as a medium and inspiration to expand the boundaries of art, music, and poetry;

and (3) the nascent use of podcasting as a mode of scholarship, intra-/interdisciplinary communication, and public outreach.

The public-facing podcast draws on the extensive radio experience of co-host cris cheek, creator of Music of Madagascar, made for BBC Radio 3 in 1994, which won the SONY GOLD AWARD, Specialist Music Program of the Year. In 1998 he made crowding, a three and a half hour live-streamed webcast of largely improvised speech and sound events, commissioned as part of Torkradio from by Junction Multimedia in Cambridge. In 2004, cheek was part of the BBC series Between the Ears, on the subject of speaking in tongues, in conversation with the artist and film-director Steve McQueen, exploring the boundaries of vocal expression with actress Billie Whitelaw, and linguistics professor William Samarin. cheek appears in the first episode talking about the many contradictory experiences of “dead air” in an age of changing media technologies.

Phantom Power also alchemizes the scholarship of co-host Mack Hagood (see Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control forthcoming in March 2019 from Duke University Press and his 2012 SO! post Listening to Tinnitus: Roles of Media When Hearing Breaks Down”) as well as his audio production background as a musician, producer, and radio DJ—skills he has long incorporated into his scholarship and teaching. At Indiana University, for example, he and his  students and won the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists’ 2012 Best Radio Use of Sound award for our documentary series “I-69: Sounds and Stories in the Path of a Superhighway.”  The first episode even featured music by Hagood and by Graeme Gibson, who was touring on drums with Michael Nau and the Mighty Thread at the time. Additional sound is by Cl0v3n.

“We spend a lot of time on the production aspects of this podcast,” says Hagood, “because we want it to be a sonic and affective experience, not just an intellectual one. Many of us in sound studies have complained that we always find ourselves writing about sound. Phantom Power is our attempt to treat sound not only as an object of study, but also a means of understanding and feeling sound scholarship. This makes our show very different from most academic podcasts, which are usually lo-fi discussions between scholars about recent books. We love that kind of podcast but we build upon it by using narrative, sound design, and music to tell a compelling story that we hope will appeal to the public and sound specialists alike.”

In addition to their exploration of “dead air,” Phantom Power’s inaugural season included longform interviews with urban scholar Shannon Mattern (Episode 2, “City of Voices”), sound artist Brian House (Episode 3, “Dirty Rat”), Australia-based sound composer, media artist and curator Lawrence English (Episode 4, “On Listening In” ), and with scholar and SO! ed Jennifer Stoever (Episode 5, “Ears Racing”).  The final two episodes explored what “the future will sound like” on World Listening Day (July 18th) [Episode 6: Data Streams (Leah Barclay and Teresa Barrozo) and featured Houston’s SLAB car culture [Episode 7: Screwed & Chopped (Langston Collin Wilkins)].

 “I’m super excited about Season Two,” says Hagood. “Our opener stars one of my favorite sound scholars, NYU’s Mara Mills. It also uses one of my favorite formats that cris and I have developed, where one of us brings in some crazy sounds for the other to listen and react to, then we gradually develop the backstory to the sounds through our guest’s words, eventually landing on the sonic and cultural implications of it all. It’s like a fun mystery, where one co-host acts as guide and the other gets to stand in for the listener—reacting, laughing, and questioning.”

When Phantom Power returns next month, other new entries will feature cheek’s interviews with Charles Hayward of legendary experimental rock band This Heat and poet Caroline Bergvall, whose work has been commissioned by such institutions as MoMA and the Tate Modern. “I interview amazing sound scholars, but I’m a bit star struck by some of the musicians, sound artists, and poets cris interviews!” says Hagood.

You can access Phantom Power and subscribe on a plethora of outlets: itunes, android, stitcher, google podcasts, and/or by email.

 

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My Time in the Bush of Drones: or, 24 Hours at Basilica Hudson

Ed. Note: We wanted to run this piece in advance of the Basilica Hudson’s SoundScape event taking place this Friday, September 14 – Sunday, September 16, 2018.  Our Amplifying Du Bois at 150 forum will return next week.

“But why?”

Three weeks into a new semester and I am packing for another weekend of irresponsible travel. Irresponsible financially (because air travel on a graduate stipend is a decadence rarely rewarded) and irresponsibly professionally (because missing an annual department event, grading in a car, and sleeping on the ground for two days is a string of realities that stand sternly opposed to anything like good sense). I am doing all this in order to attend Basilica Hudson’s Soundscape: a wide and ranging line up of musicians and artists whose aesthetic commitments fall, shall we say, considerably aslant from the pop-cultural median. I am doing all this because of something that happened last year at this place, something I am still trying to work out. And this means, amongst concerned colleagues and family and friends, I’m again hearing that familiar, stuttering articulation of disbelief. Phrased, with equal parts confusion and concern, they rejoin:

Why?

This question first started popping up late last March. It came repeatedly, unblinkingly, and, I should add, not-unreasonably. What’s more, this was, in a very real way, my fault. For I had failed to develop a pithy ready-to-hand account of precisely why I was to travel from Chicago to New York City and New York City to Hudson, only to sleep on a thin mat on the concrete floor of a converted foundry while listening to loud, sustained bursts of noise (with varying degrees of harmonic familiarity) for an unbroken period of 24 hours.

Instead, I had only an intuition that failed to pass even the slightest of critical muster: Basillica Hudson’s 24-HOUR DRONE festival seemed weird and extreme and like something might happen there. On this basis, it seemed like a good thing to do.

I can now state with some clarity (though still lacking anything like critical poise) that something did in fact happen there, and it was indeed a good thing to do. Though what that “something” was remains frustratingly elusive.

24-Hour Drone, Image by Alt

This piece thus began as a review, but ended necessarily quite differently. The conventions of a review call for evaluation and normative judgement; they require statements regarding the quality of an event or object. I can offer very little in this vein. I’m still trying to wrest from memory something stubbornly mute and fleeting — still trying to figure out what it was, precisely, that happened there.

The drive up remains clear enough in memory. The usual crackle of reunited conversation between dear friends long-separated by geography; a decision not to listen to the then-new Grouper album (we would have enough heart-dragging ambient texture in the coming hours, we concluded); the sounds of Brooklyn passing into that hushed early-Spring upstate on Route 84. We at one point, for reasons that need not become articulate, listened to the Gin Blossoms. But as we pulled into the graveled parking lot a sense of anticipation and confusion returned. What was this thing?

To begin, we might reasonably call it an event.

Basilica Hudson — an upstate New York-based non-profit for the arts that puts on the event annually — admirably describes it thus:

An immersive event and all-encompassing experience, 24-HOUR DRONE is a roving, international series presented by Basilica Hudson and Le Guess Who?, featuring musicians and sound artists experimenting within the spectrum of drone to create 24 hours of unbroken, uninterrupted sound.

Through this expanded programming, 24-HOUR DRONE strives to break down barriers across borders, offering an opportunity to connect diverse musical communities and traditions, offering a localized snapshot of DRONE within the larger context of an imagined universal sound.

The language here should scan as familiar to anyone accustomed to reading music and arts press. Roving, experimental, barrier-breaking, border-crossing: these terms all call up a restless energy, the excitement of the wholly new, the different, the thoroughly non-normative. As it turns out, all these attributes turn out to be more-or-less (if uninterestingly) true.

24-Hour Drone, Image by Alt

Over the course of the day and night, I heard the ethereal saxophone of PAUL, the whipping clangor of Pharmakon, and — I want to emphasize this — the absolutely breathless New Castrati, January Hunt’s exceptional and mournful work living up to her billing elsewhere as “synth, drones, and the annihilation of man.” A sentence above, though, still merits pause: “a localized snapshot of DRONE within the larger context of universal sound.” Roving energy and shattering experiment here take shape as a snapshot, the whirring and calamitous universal stalling for a moment in a discrete particular. 24-HOUR DRONE attempts to lends form to what was too diffuse to be seen.

So, modestly, in lieu of aesthetic judgement, a proposition: the value of Basilica Hudson’s 24-HOUR DRONE is to offer space to sound.

Indeed, for an event so centrally concerned with sound, 24-HOUR DRONE is as much about the Basilica — a converted nineteenth-century cathedral-esque foundry — as it is about sound. And for good reason: the Basilica has been beautifully repurposed — gutted of its original use and re-asserted as an malleable and improbably elegant arts space. Hundred-plus foot ceilings dwarf individual bodies, it’s begrimed upper windows modulate the midday sun into a speckled and hazy sepia, and the elaborate truss-work grids the scene in an industrial domework. The Basilica is a work of architecture meant to imagine and hold, however briefly, those fleeting shards and fragments of something yearning toward a “universal sound.”

24-Hour Drone, Image by Alt

Though even as stunning a work of architecture as the Basilica can only ever confer a loose limit. These fragments are always clamoring for a more robust scene, always threatening to join the broader universal that awaits. Sound passes through walls, vibrates along concrete, penetrates skin and mingles among bodies. Spaces focalize sound’s capacities for the social and ethereal, by preserving and witnessing its constitutive ephemerality. Different spaces draw our attention to sound’s actually-existing materiality: a materiality that doesn’t quit, one that loosens our grip on our more ready-to-hand material worlds.

Grasping this materiality is not easy; it is maybe impossible. What possible cognitive torque will allows us to grasp at this overtopping universal? One option, it seems, is sheer brute force.

The term “endurance” rightly comes up repeatedly in press-documents and FAQs. For the event is knot of time and space (24 hours at the Basilica) which commands an attention to sound as a given, but sounding too as demanding an economy of attention wholly strange–a fidelity to sound that is without end. Limning out these ambitious parameters, to reign sound in, if for only a moment, requires something added.

Space, then.

Sonic spaces have a familiar, if knotty, history. Cathedrals invoke a beatific space, trussed by elaborate ornament and a spiritualized verticality. Music festivals inscribe traditions of sound and histories of capital — crowds and power, in Gina Arnold’s felicitous adaptation of Elias Canetti. Dwellings and offices, cafes and bars. Spaces arrange us in sound, and sound among us.

24-Hour Drone, Image by Alt

DRONE, then, is a provocation to think about sound — to think it over time, and to do so in a necessarily rarified space. This provocation worked; but I felt it only at an extreme limit.

At the twentieth hour (8 AM) I needed coffee. I had slept (kind of) through the night, rose to a bell ceremony, and walked immediately, groggily outside. As I passed through the door frame into the dewy and drizzly upstate morning, the sound — as if from a vacuum — muted and was voided of weight. I walked through the mostly empty streets.

These empty streets were, as it turned out, raucously loud. Distant cars motoring across country byways, the buzzing of a streetlight long past its prime; my tinnitus — a steadily pitched pulse acquired in those irresponsible salad days standing too-close to a crash cymbal — reminding me of all I may one day not hear. These sounds were, quite suddenly, clamoring for my attention, demanding my thought, straining for distinction. The espresso machine, the door hinges, the bathroom sink. Floorboards and rain and leaves and the Hudson and, and, and.

I walked back, not a little unsettled.

I had breakfast outside the venue among gravel-scraping shoes and overheard conversation.

Finally, I went back inside for what turned out to be the final act: Dronechoir Syllaba. The scene remains hauntingly clear.

A grouping of women entered, dressed entirely in white, each with one earbud in-ear, the other hanging loose. Some, if not all, had a length of yarn tied around their waist and dragging along the ground behind them a screw, nail, metal implement, which, as they walked produced a fragile, slender tone. They congregated in the center of the room and produced a careful and lush chord, its density piling up toward the far reaches of the ceiling. Slowly, the chord broke apart.

Dronechoir Syllaba, Basilica Hudson, 2018, Image by #noamplification

But, then, that’s not true.

I should say: slowly, the women moved apart, the chord remained, stretched and pitched against new and different coordinates, inhabiting the Basilica’s elastic space in a new configuration. Notes moved, their bearers slowly pacing around the exhausted and supine bodies of Droners along the floor.

A choir member approached me, holding out her free earbud. I shook my head, wearing a nervous grin. She insisted; I put it in. Playing quietly in that tinny bud was a reference tone for me to share. I looked at her as though I didn’t understand, and she smiled as if she did. Insisting. I managed a small hum, off-kilter and out of tune, before handing it back to her. Looking around, I saw the relationship I had repeated among others across the room. The chord kept mutating — dilating and contracting, swelling and receding, different tones calibrated along moving spatial coordinates. The choir returned to formation in center.

At noon, silence.

Everyone was smiling, dazed, like milkdrunk babies or punchdrunk lovers. We had slept amongst each other, passing a night in a shared space, while sound had enwrapped and enraptured us. We had borne witness to valences of sound hitherto under-noticed. We had joined a choir, if only for an offkilter moment in a space out-of-joint.

Dronechoir Syllaba, 24-Hour DRONE, Image by Andrew LaVallee via Instagram

***

We thought, my traveling companion and I, we thought the car ride back to the city would be for silence. For what else could you thirst after 24 such hours in the heart of sound? But this turned out to be deafening uncomfortable, weird. We were, in our own private ways, estranged from sound. Which is really another way of saying we were in different relation to sound and to the spaces it fills. There, a foundry. Here, a car. We put on, in lieu of silence, a little slice of magic, the condensation of all groove and beat, the most organized flash of pop brilliance this side of 1980. We of course put on Thriller.

As we roiled down the road to this joyous whispered desire — wanna be startin’ somethin’, got to be startin’ somethin’ — in a vehicle not made for dancing, the force of the Drone event began to take shape.

So, again: why?

To give attention to what we all already share — space and sound, history and music. To be adrift but not asleep in it all.

As for what happened?

I’ll try to grasp that next year.

Featured Image by Alt

Robert Cashin Ryan is a PhD candidate in the department of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He has written in various places about literary form and formalism, the relationship between Herman Melville and Charles Dickens, and Christmas as an intellectual problem. He curated and introduced a gathering of essays on music, sound, and noise for Post-digital forthcoming from Bloomsbury 2019.

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This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith

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“Music More Ancient than Words”: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Theories on Africana Aurality

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online ForumSO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Kristin Moriah, Aaron Carter-Ényì, Austin Richey, Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it. To start the series from the beginning, click here.

Readers, today’s post by Aaron Carter-Ényì delineates two central strands in Du Bois’s work that have proven key to what we now call sound studies–the historical and affective meanings that sound carries as well as its ability to travel great distances through time and space.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world. – W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, p. 253)

W. E. B. Du Bois claimed to “know little of music,” yet his writings offer profound insights into aurality, foreshadowing the transdisciplinary of sound studies, by connecting language, music, sonic environments and aural communication. Du Bois published the souls of The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, less than a decade after becoming the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard in 1895. In it, he addresses the color line, reflected in the policy of “separate but equal,” forming arguments that continue in Black Reconstruction in America. He also introduces themes that reappear in his later works including The World and Africa (1947), which formed the seeds of Afropolitanism and many modes of enquiry of Sound Studies. This short essay explores two concepts in Du Bois’s writings: that melodies may last longer than lyrics as cultural retentions; and, that drummed language may travel further than spoken language as communication.

By the time Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, what he termed the “Sorrow Songs” (alternatively Slave Songs or Spirituals) had entered the popular canon of American song. As incipits (or epigraphs) for each essay in the book, he entered the songs into a new literary and scholarly canon, ultimately changing the concept of what a book could be by fusing language and music in a new way. Even in a divided society following the U.S. government’s disinvestment in Reconstruction and the sharp uptick in lynching and other forms of racial terror, the “Negro folk-song” could not help but have a profound impact “as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas” (Souls XIV), particularly due to the efforts of Fisk’s Jubilee Singers. Du Bois’s choice to include musical transcriptions without lyrics at the opening of each essay in Souls reflects a view of melodies as having a life–and a value– of their own.

Du Bois paired a quote from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage ” by Lord Byron with a musical citation from the African American spiritual “The Great Camp Meeting” to open Chapter III, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.”

Although Du Bois’s work quite clearly accounts for the development of what has usually been called the African American oral tradition, the concept of an oral tradition is credited to Harvard comparative literature scholars Milman Parry and Albert Lord, who popularized the term in American scholarship by establishing a binary theory of orality and literacy, that not only pitted the two against each other, but implied that they were hierarchical, evolutionary phases of “culture” (1960). This divide both widened and became more nuanced with Walter Ong’s recognition of “secondary orality” (1982), acknowledging that aspects of orality persist in literate societies.

But much earlier than these texts, Du Bois offers an alternate theory of how orality and literacy work, and even concepts similar to secondary orality, in the last essay of Souls, “XIV On the Sorrow Songs.” Notably, he describes his earliest experience with African music via a song that “travelled down” from his “grandfather’s grandmother”:

The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words, and in it we can trace here and there signs of development. My grandfather’s grand-mother was seized by an evil Dutch trader two centuries ago; and coming to the valleys of the Hudson and Housatonic, black, little, and lithe, she shivered and shrank in the harsh north winds, looked longingly at the hills, and often crooned a heathen melody to the child between her knees, thus:

The child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children, and so two hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to our children, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music (254).

Du Bois makes no mention of a spoken oral tradition throughout Souls. In fact, quite the contrary. In this passage, he implicitly argues it is not the meaning of the words, but the meaning of the music that survived the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Instead of an “oral tradition”, Du Bois identifies four steps in the development of American Sorrow Songs: (1) African; (2) “Afro-American”; (3) blending of “Negro and Caucasian” (a creolization); and (4) songs of white America influenced by the Sorrow Songs (256). The search for continuity between African and American culture has been a quest for many, including African-born scholars such as Lazarus Ekwueme. It is clear that melody (both pitch and rhythm) is the most idiosyncratic element of a piece, more so than lyrics, and is the most durable when a people and their culture experience extreme duress. As language (and certainly the meaning of the language) can fade (or be violently submerged)  in diaspora, melodies can often hold fast, and be held on to.

At an early date (1903), Du Bois already arrives at a point that is now a consensus: the Gullah-Geechee communities of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia have closely retained African practices, such as the ring shout.

Gullah-Geechee ring shout performed by McIntosh County Shouters (Carter-Ényì, Hood, Johnson, Jordan and Miller 2018)

Du Bois states that the Sea Island people are “touched and moulded less by the world about them than any others outside the Black Belt” (251­–2). The Language You Cry In (1988), traces a Gullah song passed down back to its origins in Sierra Leone. Though separated by 200 years and 5000 miles, the melody was immediately recognizable to Baindu Jabati, a woman of the village, Senehum Ngola, even the lyrics were “strikingly similar.”

Sheet Music, “Old Folks At Home,” A project of the Digital Scriptorium Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

The Gullah-Geechee are exceptional because of their linguistic retentions, documented by Lorenzo Dow Turner in his 1949 book. The preservation of linguistic features was possible because of relative isolation, but as Du Bois notes, this source of African music is fundamental to American music in steps (2), (3) and (4), of which he offers famous examples of each. It is the recognition of the crossing of the African and African-American influence across the racial divide into the music of white America, in songs such as Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” (more popularly known as “Swanee River”) that was the most controversial. Du Bois approaches this matter cautiously: “One might go further and find a fourth step in this development…” (256), but then goes full force: “a mass of music in which the novice may easily lose himself and never find the real Negro melodies” (257).

Racist musicologist George Pullen Jackson (1874-1953) fought hard against the position that white hymnody had been influenced by black spirituals for much of his career. In “White and Negro spirituals, their life span and kinship” (1944), he argued just the opposite, that black spirituals were derivative of white hymnody and conducted an early corpus study to prove it. William H. Tallmadge, in “The Black in Jackson’s White Spirituals” (1981), summarizes Jackson’s findings:

Jackson, after examining 562 white items and 892 black items, found only 116 pairs which he thought demonstrated tune similarities, and of these 116, only 70 pairs actually prove to have had a valid melodic relationship… These seventy items represent slightly less than eight percent of the 892 black spirituals (150).

Jackson could not find the empirical support for his claim to of primacy (perhaps supremacy) of white spirituals, even with some ample confirmation bias. In fact, his findings fit well into Du Bois’s account, particularly his identification of step 3 in the development of the Sorrow Songs: “blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land” (256). Essentially, it took a nearly a century for musicology to recognize what Du Bois laid out in 1903.

The aural tradition Du Bois describes, which includes various versions of songs and the steps of sorrow song development, is more sympathetic to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s concept of “orature” than the Parry/Lord dichotomy. In “Notes towards a Performance Theory of Orature” (2007), Thiong’o points out that:

What is often arrested in writing is a particular version, a particular rendering, … as performed by a particular performers at a particular moment. Nature, then, in orature manifests itself as a web of connections of mutual dependence … in active communications within themselves and with others (5).

For example, the black and white spirituals with similar tunes in Jackson’s corpus both are and are not the same, which challenges the very notion of intellectual property (IP), and the flawed IP debate over spirituals that Jackson pursued. Even in a segregated society, under which racist laws separated the performers, a mutual dependence developed between black and white spirituals. Despite the affinity of the melodies and common heritage in the aural culture (and perhaps even common sources in either Africa or Europe), divisions were articulated in writing, through different hymnbooks and different words, once again supporting the veracity of Du Bois’s claim that the “music is far more ancient than the words.”

Waves on the Ghanaian Shore, Image by Flickr User Yenkassa (CC BY 2.0)

Later in his life, Du Bois’s attention turned more and more toward Africa. In The World and Africa (1947), he confronts colonialism and Eurocentric history, foreshadowing Afrocentrism and to some extent Afropolitanism. He also, very briefly, reprises his discussion of aurality, citing German musicologist and father of organology, Erich von Hornbostel, as affirmation of the virtues of both African and African American music from the 1928 article “African Negro Music”:

The African Negroes are uncommonly gifted for music-probably, on an average, more so, than the white race. This is clear not only from the high development of African music, especially as regards polyphony and rhythm, but a very curious fact, unparalleled, perhaps, in history, makes it even more evident; namely, the fact that the negro slaves in America and their descendants, abandoning their original musical style, have adapted themselves to that of their white masters and produced a new kind of folk-music in that style. Presumably no other people would have accomplished this. (In fact the plantation songs and spirituals, and also the blues and rag-times which have launched or helped to launch our modern dance-music, are the only remarkable kinds of music brought forth in America by immigrants (60).

Du Bois studied in Germany from 1892–94 before attending Harvard. According to Kenneth Barkin (2005), Du Bois’s “affection” for Imperial Germany has “remained a puzzle to historians” (285). Hornbostel too had a complicated relationship to Germany: though celebrated in his home country for much of his life, in 1933 he was forced into exile because his mother was Jewish; he died in 1935. The passage Du Bois cites from Hornbostel echoes some aspects of Souls XIV Sorrow Songs, particularly the centrality of the spirituals in American culture, but not all. In particular, “abandoning their original musical style … to that of their white masters” is incongruent with Du Bois’s earlier perspective. Though Hornbostel is clearly impressed with the musicality of black people(s), Hornbostel’s summary conclusions stated at the beginning of the same article do not mesh with Du Bois’s own (more insightful) work in Souls: “African and (modern) European music are constructed on entirely different principles, and therefore they cannot be fused into one, but only the one or the other can be used without compromise” (30).

Unfortunately, Du Bois does not contest Hornbostel with his narrative of continuity and “steps” of development from Souls. Du Bois recognized both the happenings and possibilities of creolization and syncretism in black culture of which Hornbostel only captures glimpses. Ultimately, despite a generally positive perspective on black music, Hornbostel’s position is one of not only continental, but racial, division, promoting segregation of musical practice as the only way. It is disconcerting that Du Bois cites this article and Hornbostel as a musical expert with its main argument when Du Bois identified the color line as the singular issue of the twentieth century.

In The World and Africa, Du Bois goal is a bit different: in the pursuit of repositioning Africa and moving towards both a corrected history and post-colonial future, there were stranger bedfellows than Hornbostel. A more pristine vision of recasting Africa and Africana aurality is found on the same page (99), in Du Bois’s mention of an astonishing form of music as communication, the talking drum: “The development of the drum language by intricate rhythms enabled the natives not only to lead in dance and ceremony, but to telegraph all over the continent with a swiftness and precision hardly rivaled by the electric telegraph” (99).

The recent intellectual current within African studies, Afropolitanism, is embodied in Du Bois’s juxtaposition of African tradition with modernity. A recent book on West African talking drums by Amanda Villepastour, Ancient Text Messages of the Yorùbá bàtá drum also draws an analogy to telecommunication. While Du Bois’s brief 1947 account is only a single sentence, Villepastour’s lengthy 2010 account confirms Du Bois conjecture was not a metaphor or empty comparison, the talking drum and telegraph share the same utility, and while we are keeping track, the talking drum came first and is a lot more efficient in terms of infrastructure.

Yorùbá talking drummers in Ọ̀yọ́, Nigeria (Carter-Ényì 2013)

For those unfamiliar with them, here are some rough calculations regarding how talking drums work. Singing or shouting is about 80 decibels (dB) at one meter. Drumming is over 100 dB at one meter. This 20 dB differential means that a speech surrogate (like a talking drum) could travel up to 10 times the distance under the same environmental conditions. With those intensities at the source, a loud voice could travel one kilometer before becoming inaudible (at around 20 dB), while a drum could reach 10 km, easily communicating with the next village.

Hausa Talking Drum, Image by African Studies Library BU (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Within a regional network of drummers that “speak” the same language—such as in the Yorùbá-speaking region of southwest Nigeria—long distance communication was possible, and much earlier than the telegraph. A recent study (2018) by Frank Seifert and his colleagues on Amazonian Bora drumming, “Reducing language to rhythm,” finds minute timing variations represent the placement of consonants suggesting there is detail in speech surrogacy, beyond the representation of lexical tone previously documented. Seifert’s findings suggest that the “precision” Du Bois described is exactly what talking drummers have (throughout the Global South). Now the “swiftness” part may have been a bit exaggerated (electric signals travel much faster than sound waves).

Du Bois’s practiced a transdisciplinary study of sound and understood Africa as Afropolitan long before most of the West. In addition to foreshadowing the interdisciplinary moves of sound studies—which also connects sound to speech to music and examines their coexistence—Du Bois’s thinking also prefigures the current intellectual (and urban-cultural) vogue of Afropolitanism, which has to some extent displaced the Pan-African movement that drew Du Bois to Ghana.In a 2016 interview, Achille Mbembe positions Afropolitanism as a way “in which Africans, or people of African origin, understand themselves as being part of the world rather than being apart.”    Much like the African cultures he first encountered in melody in the nineteenth century and then heard firsthand as a contemporary when he moved to Ghana in 1961, Du Bois heard beyond Eurocentric disciplinary divides of music and language that served to portray African cultures as somehow always already outside of modernity, yet not the right color of “ancient.”  Du Bois wholeheartedly believed music could change the narrative of Black life, history and culture, a message first crooned to him as a child between his grandmother’s knees, to which he never stopped listening.

Housatonic River, Great Barrington Massachusetts, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Home Town. Image by Flickr User Criana, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Featured Image: Brooklyn African Festival Drum, 2010, Image by Flickr User Serge de Gracia (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Aaron Carter-Ényì teaches music theory, class piano, and music appreciation in Morehouse’s Department of Music.  He holds a PhD from Ohio State University (2016), was a Fulbright Scholar to Nigeria in 2013, and is a 2017 fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Recent scholarship appears in Africa (Journal of the International African Institute)EthnomusicologyMusic Theory OnlineOxford Handbook of Singing and Tonal Aspects of Languages; or is forthcoming in Performance Research and Sounding Out! He is the director of the interdisciplinary Africana Digital Ethnography Project (ADEPt) and is currently developing the Video-EASE Toolbox and ATAVizM. During the summer, he is a STEAM instructor for federally-sponsored student enrichment programs including MSEIPand iSTEM for which he provides workshops and courses in the Morehouse Makerspace.

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