“People’s lives are at stake”: A conversation about Law, Listening, and Sound between James Parker and Lawrence English
Lawrence English is composer, media artist and curator based in Australia. Working across an eclectic array of aesthetic investigations, English’s work prompts questions of field, perception and memory. He investigates the politics of perception, through live performance and installation, to create works that ponder subtle transformations of space and ask audiences to become aware of that which exists at the edge of perception.
James Parker is a senior lecturer at Melbourne Law School, where he is also Director of the research program ‘Law, Sound and the International’ at the Institute for International Law and the Humanities. James’ research addresses the many relations between law, sound and listening, with a particular focus at the moment on sound’s weaponisation. His monograph Acoustic Jurisprudence: Listening to the Trial of Simon Bikindi (OUP 2015) explores the trial of Simon Bikindi, who was accused by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda of inciting genocide with his songs (30% discount available with the code ALAUTHC4). James is also a music critic and radio broadcaster. He will be co-curating an exhibition and parallel public program on Eavesdropping at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne between July and October 2018.
Lawrence English: James, thanks for taking the time to correspond with me. I was interested in having this conversation with you as we’re both interested in sound, but perhaps approaching its potential applications and implications in somewhat different ways. And yet we have a good deal of potential cross over in our sonic interests too. Particularly in the way that meaning is sought and extracted from our engagements with sound. How that meaning is constructed and what is extracted and amplified from those possible, meaningful readings of sound in time and place. I read with great interest your work on acoustic jurisprudence, specifically how you almost build a case for an ontological position that’s relational between sound and the law. I wondered if you could perhaps start with a summary of this framework you’re pushing towards? I am interested to know how it is you have approached this potentiality in the meaning of sound and the challenges that lie in working around an area that is still so diffuse, at least in a legal setting.
James Parker: Let me begin by saying a sincere thank you for the invitation. As a long-time fan of your work, it’s a pleasure. It’s also symptomatic in a way, because – so far at least – the art world has been much more interested in my research than the legal academy. When I’m in a law faculty and I say that my work is about law’s relationship(s) with sound, people are mostly surprised, sometimes they’re interested, but they rarely care very much. I don’t mean this as a slight. It’s just that their first instinct is always that I’m doing something esoteric: that my work doesn’t really ‘apply’ to them as someone interested in refugee law, contract, torts, evidence, genocide, or whatever the case may be. As you point out though, that’s not the way I see it at all. One of the things I’ve tried to show in my work is just how deeply law, sound and listening are bound up with each other. This is true in all sorts of different ways, whether or not the relationship is properly ‘ontological’.
At the most obvious level, the soundscape (both our sonic environment and how we relate to it) is always also a lawscape. Our smartphones, loudspeakers, radios and headsets are all proprietary, as is the music we listen to on them and the audio-formats on which that music is encoded. Law regulates and fails to regulate the volume and acoustic character of our streets, skies, workplaces, bedrooms and battlefields. Courts and legislatures claim to govern the kinds of vocalizations we make – what we can say or sing, where and when – and who gets to listen. As yet another music venue, airport, housing development or logging venture receives approval, new sounds enter the world, others leave it and things are subtly reconstituted as a result.
What’s striking when you look at the legal scholarship, however, is that how sound is conceived for such purposes gets very little attention. There are exceptions: in the fields of copyright and anti-noise regulation particularly. But for the most part, legal thought and practice is content to work with ‘common sense’ assumptions which would be immediately discredited by anyone who spends their time thinking hard about what sound is and does. So as legal academics, legislators, judges, and so on, we need to be much better at attending to law’s ‘sonic imagination’. When an asylum seeker is denied entry to the UK because of the way he pronounces the Arabic word for ‘tomato’ (which actually happened…the artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan has done some fantastic work on this), what set of relations between voice, accent and citizenship is at stake? When a person is accused of inciting genocide with their songs (in this instance a Rwandan musician called Simon Bikindi), what theory or theories of music manifest themselves in the decision-making body’s discourse and in the application of its doctrine? These are really important questions, it seems to me. To put it bluntly: people’s lives are at stake.
Another way of thinking about the law-sound relation would be to think about the role played by sound in legal practice: in courtrooms, legislatures etc. For a singer to be tried for genocide, for instance, his songs must be heard. Audio and audio- video recordings must be entered as evidence and played aloud to the court; a witness or two may sing. How? When? Why? The judicial soundscape is surprisingly diverse, it turns out. Gavels knock (at least in some jurisdictions), oaths are sworn, judgment is pronounced; and all of this increasingly into microphones, through headsets, and transmitted via audio-video link to prisons and elsewhere. This stuff matters. It warrants thinking about.
Outside the courtroom, sound is often the medium of law’s articulation: what materialises it, gives it reality, shape, force and effect. Think of the police car’s siren, for instance, or a device like the LRAD, which I know you’re also interested in. Or in non-secular jurisdictions, we could think equally of the church bells in Christianity, the call to prayer in Islam or the songlines of Aboriginal Australia. The idea that law today is an overwhelmingly textual and visual enterprise is pretty commonplace. But it’s an overstatement. Sound remains a key feature of law’s conduct, transmission and embodiment.
And to bring me back to where I started, I feel like artists and musicians are generally better tuned in to this than us lawyers.
English: Given the fact that the voice, and I suppose I mean both literally and metaphorically, reigns so heavily in the development and execution of the law it’s surprising that the discourses around sound aren’t a little more engaged. That being said, it’s not that surprising really, as I’d argue that until recently the broader conversations around sound and listening have been rather sparse. It’s only really in the past three decades have we started to see a swell of critical writings around these topics. The past decade particularly has produced a wealth of thought that addresses sound.
I suppose though that really this situation you describe in the law is tied back into the questions that surround the recognition of sound and the complexities of audition more generally. I can’t help but feel that sound has suffered historically from a lack of theoretical investigation. Partly this is due to the late development of tools that provided the opportunity for sound to linger beyond its moment of utterance. That recognition of the subjectivity of audition, revealed in those first recordings of the phonograph must have been a powerful moment. In that second, suddenly, it was apparent that how we listen, and what it is we extract from a moment to moment encounter with sound is entirely rooted in our agency and intent as a listener. The phonograph’s capturing of audio, by contrast, is without this socio-cultural agency. It’s a receptacle that’s technologically bound in the absolute.
I wonder if part of the anxiety, if that’s the word that could be used, around the way that sound is framed in a legal sense is down to its impermanence. That until quite recently we had to accept the experience of sound, as entirely tethered to that momentary encounter. I sense that the law is slow to adapt to new forms and structures. Where do you perceive the emergence of sound as a concern for law? At what point did the law, start to listen?
Parker: Wow, there’s so much in this question. In relation to your point about voice, of course lawyers do ‘get it’ on some level. If you speak to a practitioner, they’re sure to have an anecdote or two about the sonorous courtroom and the (dark) arts of legal eloquence. You may even get an academic to recognise that a theory of voice is somehow implicit in contemporary languages of democracy, citizenship and participatory politics: this familiar idea that (each of us a little sovereign) together we manifest the collective ‘voice’ of the people. But you’ll be hard pushed to find anyone in the legal academy actually studying any of this (outside the legal academy, I can thoroughly recommend Mladen Dolar’s incredible A Voice and Nothing More, which is excellent – if brief – on the voice’s legal and political dimensions). One explanation, as you say, might be that it’s only relatively recently that a discourse has begun to emerge around sound across the academy: in which case law’s deafness would be symptomatic of a more general inattention to sound and listening. That’s part of the story, I think. But it’s also true that the contemporary legal academy has developed such an obsession with doctrine and the promise of law reform that really any inquiry into law’s material or metaphysical aspects is considered out of the ordinary. In this sense, voice is just one area of neglect amongst many.
As for your points about audio-recording, it’s certainly true that access to recordings makes research on sound easier in some respects. There’s no way I could have written my book on the trial of Simon Bikindi, for instance, without access to the audio-archive of all the hearings. Having said that, I’m pretty suspicious of this idea that the phonograph, or for that matter any recording/reproductive technology could be ‘without agency’ as you put it. It strikes me that the agency of the machine/medium is precisely one of the things we should be attending to.
English: I may have been a little flippant. I agree there’s nothing pure about any technology and we should be suspicious of any claims towards that. It seems daily we’re reminded that our technologies and their relationships with each other pose a certain threat, whether that be privacy through covert recording or potential profiling as suggested by the development of behavioral recognition software with CCTV cameras.
Parker: Not just that. CCTV cameras are being kitted out with listening devices now too. There was a minor controversy about their legality and politics earlier this year in Brisbane in fact.
English: Thinking about sound technologies, at the most basic level, the pattern of the microphone, cardioid, omni and the like, determines a kind of possibility for the articulation of voice, and its surrounds. I think the microphone conveys a very strong political position in that its design lends itself so strongly to the power of singular voice. That has manifest itself in everything from media conferences and our political institutions, through to the inane power plays of ‘lead singers’ in 1980s hard rock. The microphone encourages, both in its physical and acoustic design, a certain singular focus. It’s this singularity that some artists, say those working with field recording, are working against. This has been the case in some of the field recordings I have undertaken over the years. It has been a struggle to address my audition and contrast it with that of the microphone. How is it these two rather distinct fields of audition might be brought into relief? I imagine these implications extend into the courtroom.
Parker: Absolutely. Microphones have been installed in courtrooms for quite a while now, though not necessarily (or at least not exclusively) for the purposes of amplification. Most courts are relatively small, so when mics do appear it’s typically for archival purposes, and especially to assist in the production of trial transcripts. This job used to be done by stenographers, of course, but increasingly it’s automated.
So no, in court, microphones don’t tend to be so solipsistic. In fact, in some instances they can help facilitate really interesting collective speaking and listening practices. At institutions like the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, or for the Former Yugoslavia, for instance, trials are conducted in multiple languages at once, thanks to what’s called ‘simultaneous interpretation’. Perhaps you’re familiar with how this works from the occasional snippets you see of big multi-national conferences on the news, but the technique was first developed at the Nuremberg Trials at the end of WWII.
What happens is that when someone speaks into a microphone – whether it’s a witness, a lawyer or a judge – what they’re saying gets relayed to an interpreter watching and listening on from a soundproof booth. After a second or two’s delay, the interpreter starts translating what they’re saying into the target language. And then everyone else in the courtroom just chooses what language they want to listen to on the receiver connected to their headset. Nuremberg operated in four languages, the ICTR in three. And of course, this system massively affects the nature of courtroom eloquence. Because of the lag between the original and interpreted speech, proceedings move painfully slowly.
Courtroom speech develops this odd rhythm whereby everyone is constantly pausing mid-sentence and waiting for the interpretation to come through. And the intonation of interpreted speech is obviously totally different from the original too. Not only is a certain amount of expression or emotion necessarily lost along the way, the interpreter will have an accent, they’ll have to interpret speech from both genders, and then – because the interpreter is performing their translation on the fly (this is extraordinarily difficult to do by the way… it takes years of training) – inevitably they end up placing emphasis on odd words, which can make what they say really difficult to follow. As a listener, you have to concentrate extremely hard: learn to listen past the pauses, force yourself to make sense of the stumbling cadence, strange emphasis and lack of emotion.
On one level, this is a shame of course: there’s clearly a ‘loss’ here compared with a trial operating in a single language. But if it weren’t for simultaneous interpretation, these Tribunals couldn’t function at all. You could say the same about the UN as a whole actually.
English: I agree. Though for what it’s worth it does seem as though we’re on a pathway to taking the political and legal dimensions of sound more seriously. Your research is early proof of that, as are cases such as Karen Piper’s suit against the city of Pittsburgh in relation to police use of an LRAD. As far as the LRAD is concerned, along with other emerging technologies like the Hypershield and the Mosquito, it’s as though sound’s capacity for physical violence, and the way this is being harnessed by police and military around the world somehow brings these questions more readily into focus.
Parker: I think that’s right. There’s definitely been a surge of interest in sound’s ‘weaponisation’ recently. In terms of law suits, in addition to the case brought by Karen Piper against the City of Pittsburgh, LRAD use has been litigated in both New York and Toronto, and there was a successful action a couple of years back in relation to a Mosquito installed in a mall in Brisbane.
On the more scholarly end of things, Steve Goodman’s work on ‘sonic warfare’ has quickly become canonical, of course. But I’d also really recommend J. Martin Daughtry’s new book on the role of sound and listening in the most recent Iraq war. Whereas Goodman focuses on the more physiological end of things – sound’s capacity both to cause physical harm (deafness, hearing loss, miscarriages etc) and to produce more subtle autonomic or affective responses (fear, desire and so on) – Daughtry is also concerned with questions of psychology and the ways in which our experience even of weaponised sound is necessarily mediated by our histories as listeners. For Daughtry, the problem of acoustic violence always entails a spectrum between listening and raw exposure.
These scholarly interventions are really important, I think (even though neither Goodman nor Daughtry are interested in drawing out the legal dimensions of their work). Because although it’s true that sound’s capacity to wound provides a certain urgency to the debate around the political and legal dimensions of the contemporary soundscape, it’s important not to allow this to become the only framework for the discussion. And that certainly seems to have happened with the LRAD.
Of course, the LRAD’s capacity to do irreparable physiological harm matters. Karen Piper now has permanent hearing loss, and I’m sure she’s not the only one. But that shouldn’t be where the conversation around this and other similar devices begins and ends. The police and the military have always been able to hurt people. It’s the LRAD’s capacity to coerce and manage the location and movements of bodies by means of sheer acoustic force – and specifically, by exploiting the peculiar sensitivity of the human ear to mid-to-high pitch frequencies at loud volumes – that’s new. To me, the LRAD is at its most politically troubling precisely to the extent that it falls just short of causing injury. Whether or not lasting injury results, those in its way will have been subjected to the ‘sonic dominance’ of the state.
So we should be extremely wary of the discourse of ‘non-lethality’ that is being mobilised by to justify these kinds of technologies: to convince us that they are somehow more humane than the alternatives: the lesser of two evils, more palatable than bullets and batons. The LRAD renders everyone before it mute biology. It erases subjectivity to work directly on the vulnerable ear. And that strikes me as something worthy of our political and legal attention.
English: I couldn’t agree more. These conversations need to push further outward into the blurry unknown edges if we’re to realise any significant development in how the nature of sound is theorised and analysed moving forward into the 21st century. Recently I have been researching the shifting role of the siren, from civil defence to civil assault. I’ve been documenting the civil defence sirens in Los Angeles county and using them as a starting point from which to trace this shift towards a weaponisation of sound. The jolt out of the cold war into the more spectre-like conflicts of this century has been like a rupture and the siren is one of a number of sonic devices that I feel speak to this redirection of how sound’s potential is considered and applied in the everyday.
Featured Image: San Francisco 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Jury Box, Image by Flickr User Thomas Hawk, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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Currently on the faculty and the associate technical director of California Institute of the Arts Sharon Lund Disney School of Dance, Allison Smartt worked for several years in Hampshire’s dance program as intern-turned-program assistant. A sound engineer, designer, producer, and educator for theater and dance, she has created designs seen and heard at La MaMa, The Yard, Arts In Odd Places Festival, Barrington Stage Company, the Five College Consortium, and other venues.
She is also the owner of Smartt Productions, a production company that develops and tours innovative performances about social justice. Its repertory includes the nationally acclaimed solo-show about reproductive rights, MOM BABY GOD, and the empowering, new hip-hop theatre performance, Mixed-Race Mixtape. Her productions have toured 17 U.S. cities and counting.
Ariel Taub is currently interning at Sounding Out! responsible for assisting with layout, scoping out talent and in the process uncovering articles that may relate to or reflect work being done in the field of Sound Studies. She is a Junior pursuing a degree in English and Sociology from Binghamton University.
Recently turned on to several of the projects Allison Smartt has been involved in, I became especially fascinated with MOM BABY GOD 3.0, of which Smartt was sound designer and producer. The crew of MOM BABY GOD 3.o sets the stage for what to expect in a performance with the following introduction:
Take a cupcake, put on a name tag, and prepare to be thrown into the world of the Christian Right, where sexual purity workshops and anti-abortion rallies are sandwiched between karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties. An immersive dark comedy about American girl culture in the right-wing, written and performed by Madeline Burrows. One is thrown into the world of the Christian Right, where sexual purity workshops and anti-abortion rallies are sandwiched between karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties.
It’s 2018 and the anti-abortion movement has a new sense of urgency. Teens 4 Life is video-blogging live from the Students for Life of America Conference, and right-wing teenagers are vying for popularity while preparing for political battle. Our tour guide is fourteen-year-old Destinee Grace Ramsey, ascending to prominence as the new It-Girl of the Christian Right while struggling to contain her crush on John Paul, a flirtatious Christian boy with blossoming Youtube stardom and a purity ring.
MOM BABY GOD toured nationally to sold-out houses from 2013-2015 and was the subject of a national right-wing smear campaign. In a newly expanded and updated version premiering at Forum Theatre and Single Carrot Theatre in March 2017, MOM BABY GOD takes us inside the right-wing’s youth training ground at a more urgent time than ever.
I reached out to Smartt about these endeavors with some sound-specific questions. What follows is our April 2017 email exchange [edited for length].
Ariel Taub (AT): What do you think of the voices Madeline Burrows [the writer and solo actor of MOM BABY GOD] uses in the piece? How important is the role of sound in creating the characters?
Allison Smartt (AS): I want to accurately represent Burrows’s use of voice in the show. For those who haven’t seen it, she’s not an impersonator or impressionist conjuring up voices for solely comedy’s sake. Since she is a woman portraying a wide range of ages and genders on stage and voice is a tool in a toolbox she uses to indicate a character shift. Madeline has a great sense of people’s natural speaking rhythms and an ability to incorporate bits of others’ unique vocal elements into the characters she portrays. Physicality is another tool. Sound cues are yet another…lighting, costume, staging, and so on.
I do think there’s something subversive about a queer woman voicing ideology and portraying people that inherently aim to repress her existence/identity/reproductive rights.
Many times, when actors are learning accents they have a cue line that helps them jump into that accent. Something that they can’t help but say in a southern, or Irish, or Canadian accent. In MOM BABY GOD, I think of my sound design in a similar way. The “I’m a Pro-Life Teen” theme is the most obvious example. It’s short and sweet, with a homemade flair and most importantly: it’s catchy. The audience learns to immediately associate that riff with Destinee (the host of “I’m a Pro-Life Teen”), so much so that I stop playing the full theme almost immediately, yet it still commands the laugh and upbeat response from the audience.
AT: Does [the impersonation and transformation of people on the opposite side of a controversial issues into] characters [mark them as] inherently mockable? (I asked Smartt about this specifically because of the reaction the show elicited from some people in the Pro-Life group.)
AS: Definitely not. I think the context and intention of the show really humanizes the people and movement that Madeline portrays. The show isn’t cruel or demeaning towards the people or movement – if anything, our audience has a lot of fun. But it is essential that Madeline portray the type of leaders in the movement (in any movement really) in a realistic, yet theatrical way. It’s a difficult needle to thread and think she does it really well. A preacher has a certain cadence – it’s mesmerizing, it’s uplifting. A certain type of teen girl is bubbly, dynamic. How does a gruff (some may say manly), galvanizing leader speak? It’s important the audience feel the unique draw of each character – and their voices are a large part of that draw.
AT: What sounds [and sound production] were used to help carry the performance [of MOM BABY GOD]? What role does sound have in making plays [and any performance] cohesive?
AS: Sound designing for theatre is a mix of many elements, from pre-show music, sound effects and original music to reinforcement, writing cues, and sound system design. For a lot of projects, I’m also my own sound engineer so I also implement the system designs and make sure everything functions and sounds tip top.
Each design process is a little different. If it’s a new work in development, like MOM BABY GOD and Mixed-Race Mixtape, I am involved in a different way than if I’m designing for a completed work (and designing for dance is a whole other thing). There are constants, however. I’m always asking myself, “Are my ideas supporting the work and its intentions?” I always try to be cognizant of self-indulgence. I may make something really, really cool but that ultimately, after hearing it in context and conversations with the other artistic team members, is obviously doing too much more than supporting the work. A music journalism professor I had used to say, “You have to shoot that puppy.” Meaning, cut the cue you really love for the benefit of the overall piece.
I like to set myself limitations to work within when starting a design. I find that narrowing my focus to say…music only performed on harmonica or sound effects generated only from modes of transportation, help get my creative juices flowing (Sidenote: why is that a phrase? It give me the creeps)[. . .]I may relinquish these limitations later after they’ve helped me launch into creating a sonic character that feels complex, interesting, and fun.
AT: The show is described as being comprised of, “karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties,” each of these has its own distinct associations, how do “sing alongs” and “raves” and our connotations with those things add to the pieces?
AS: Since sound is subjective, the associations that you make with karaoke sing-alongs are probably slightly different from what I associated with karaoke sing-alongs. You may think karaoke sing-along = a group of drunk BFFs belting Mariah Carey after a long day of work. I may think karaoke sing-alongs = middle aged men and women shoulder to shoulder in a dive bar singing “Friends In Low Places” while clinking their glasses of whiskey and draft beer. The similarity in those two scenarios is people singing along to something, but the character and feeling of each image is very different. You bring that context with you as you read the description of the show and given the challenging themes of the show, this is a real draw for people usually resistant to solo and/or political theatre. The way the description is written and what it highlights intentionally invites the audience to feel invited, excited, and maybe strangely upbeat about going to see a show about reproductive rights.
As a sound designer and theatre artist, one of my favorite moments is when the audience collectively readjusts their idea of a karaoke sing-along to the experience we create for them in the show. I feel everyone silently say, “Oh, this is not what I expected, but I love it,” or “This is exactly what I imagined!” or “I am so uncomfortable but I’m going with it.” I think the marketing of the show does a great job creating excited curiosity, and the show itself harnesses that and morphs it into confused excitement and surprise (reviewers articulate this phenomenon much better that I could).
AT: In this video the intentionally black screen feels like deep space. What sounds [and techniques] are being used? Are we on a train, a space ship, in a Church? What can you [tell us] about this piece?
AS: There are so many different elements in this cue…it’s one of my favorites. This cue is lead in and background to Destinee’s first experience with sexual pleasure. Not to give too much away: She falls asleep and has a sex dream about Justin Bieber. I compiled a bunch of sounds that are anticipatory: a rocket launch, a train pulling into a station, a remix/slowed down version of a Bieber track. These lead into sounds that feel more harsh: alarm clocks, crumpling paper…I also wanted to translate the feeling of being woken up abruptly from a really pleasant dream…like you were being ripped out of heaven or something. It was important to reassociate for Destinee and the audience, sounds that had previously brought joy with this very confusing and painful moment, so it ends with heartbeats and church bells.
I shoved the entire arc of the show into this one sound cue. And Madeline and Kathleen let me and I love them for that.
AT: What do individuals bring of themselves when they listen to music? How is music a way of entering conversations otherwise avoided?
AS: The answer to this question is deeper than I can articulate but I’ll try.
Talking about bias, race, class, even in MOM BABY GOD introducing a pro-life video blog – broaching these topics are made easier and more interesting through music. Why? I think it’s because you are giving the listener multiple threads from which to sew their own tapestry…their own understanding of the thing. The changing emotions in a score, multiplicity of lyrical meaning, tempo, stage presence, on and on. If you were to just present a lecture on any one of those topics, the messages feel too stark, too heavy to be absorbed (especially to be absorbed by people who don’t already agree with the lecture or are approaching that idea for the first time). Put them to music and suddenly you open up people’s hearts.
As a sound designer, I have to be conscious of what people bring to their listening experience, but can’t let this rule my every decision. The most obvious example is when faced with the request to use popular music. Take maybe one of the most overused classics of the 20th century, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. If you felt an urge just now to stop reading this interview because you really love that song and how dare I naysay “Hallelujah” – my point has been made. Songs can evoke strong reactions. If you heard “Hallelujah” for the first time while seeing the Northern Lights (which would arguably be pretty epic), then you associate that memory and those emotions with that song. When a designer uses popular music in their design, this is a reality you have to think hard about.
It’s similar with sound effects. For Mixed-Race Mixtape, Fig wanted to start the show with the sound of a cassette tape being loaded into a deck and played. While I understood why he wanted that sound cue, I had to disagree. Our target demographic are of an age where they may have never seen or used a cassette tape before – and using this sound effect wouldn’t elicit the nostalgic reaction he was hoping for.
Regarding how deeply the show moves people, I give all the credit to Fig’s lyrics and the entire casts’ performance, as well as the construction of the songs by the musicians and composers. As well as to Jorrell, our director, who has focused the intention of all these elements to coalesce very effectively. The cast puts a lot of emotion and energy into their performances and when people are genuine and earnest on stage, audiences can sense that and are deeply engaged.
I do a lot of work in the dance world and have come to understand how essential music and movement are to the human experience. We’ve always made music and moved our bodies and there is something deeply grounding and joining about collective listening and movement – even if it’s just tapping your fingers and toes.
AT: How did you and the other artists involved come up with the name/ idea for Mixed-Race Mixtape? How did the Mixed-Race Mixtape come about?
AS: Mixed-Race Mixtape is the brainchild of writer/performer Andrew “Fig” Figueroa. I’ll let him tell the story.
A mixtape is a collection of music from various artists and genres on one tape, CD or playlist. In Hip-Hop, a mixtape is a rapper’s first attempt to show the world there skills and who they are, more often than not, performing original lyrics over sampled/borrowed instrumentals that compliment their style and vision. The show is about “mixed” identity and I mean, I’m a rapper so thank God “Mixed-Race” rhymed with “Mixtape.”
The show grew from my desire to tell my story/help myself make sense of growing up in a confusing, ambiguous, and colorful culture. I began writing a series of raps and monologues about my family, community and youth and slowly it formed into something cohesive.
AT: I love the quote, “the conversation about race in America is one sided and missing discussions of how class and race are connected and how multiple identities can exist in one person,” how does Mixed-Race Mixtape fill in these gaps?
AS: Mixed-Race Mixtape is an alternative narrative that is complex, personal, and authentic. In America, our ideas about race largely oscillate between White and Black. MRMT is alternative because it tells the story of someone who sits in the grey area of Americans’ concept of race and dispels the racist subtext that middle class America belongs to White people. Because these grey areas are illuminated, I believe a wide variety of people are able to find connections with the story.
AT: In this video people discuss the connection they [felt to the music and performance] even if they weren’t expecting to. What do you think is responsible for sound connecting and moving people from different backgrounds? Why are there the assumptions about the event that there are, that they wouldn’t connect to the Hip Hop or that there would be “good vibes.”
AS: Some people do feel uncertain that they’d be able to connect with the show because it’s a “hip-hop” show. When they see it though, it’s obvious that it extends beyond the bounds of what they imagine a hip-hop show to be. And while I’ve never had someone say they were disappointed or unmoved by the show, I have had people say they couldn’t understand the words. And a lot of times they want to blame that on the reinforcement.
I’d argue that the people who don’t understand the lyrics of MRMT are often the same ones who were trepidatious to begin with, because I think hip-hop is not a genre they have practice listening to. I had to practice really actively listening to rap to train my brain to process words, word play, metaphor, etc. as fast as rap can transmit them. Fig, an experienced hip-hop listener and artist amazes me with how fast he can understand lyrics on the first listen. I’m still learning. And the fact is, it’s not a one and done thing. You have to listen to rap more than once to get all the nuances the artists wrote in. And this extends to hip-hop music, sans lyrics. I miss so many really clever, artful remixes, samples, and references on the first listen. This is one of the reasons we released an EP of some of the songs from the show (and are in the process of recording a full album).
The theatre experience obviously provides a tremendously moving experience for the audience, but there’s more to be extracted from the music and lyrics than can be transmitted in one live performance.
AT: What future plans do you have for projects? You mentioned utilizing sounds from protests? How is sound important in protest? What stands out to you about what you recorded?
AS: I have only the vaguest idea of a future project. I participate in a lot of rallies and marches for causes across the spectrum of human rights. At a really basic level, it feels really good to get together with like minded people and shout your frustrations, hopes, and fears into the world for others to hear. I’m interested in translating this catharsis to people who are wary of protests/hate them/don’t understand them. So I’ve started with my iPhone. I record clever chants I’ve never heard, or try to capture the inevitable moment in a large crowd when the front changes the chant and it works its way to the back.
I record marching through different spaces…how does it sound when we’re in a tunnel versus in a park or inside a building? I’m not sure where these recordings will lead me, but I felt it was important to take them.
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Dr. Marie Thompson is currently a Lecturer at the Lincoln School of Film and Media, University of Lincoln. Her new book Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism has just been published by Bloomsbury. We’ve been following each other on Twitter for a while(@DrMarieThompson and @AbstractTruth) and I have become very interested in her ideas on noise. I’m David Menestres, double bassist, writer, radio host, and leader of the Polyorchard ensemble (“a vital and wonderfully vexing force of the area’s sonic fringes”) currently living in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
In her new book, Dr. Thompson covers a wide variety of ideas from Spinoza to Michel Serres’s cybernetic theory, acoustic ecology and the politics of silence to the transgressiveness of noise music, and many other concepts to show how we are affected by noise. Thompson is also the co-editor of Sound, Music, Affect: Theorizing Sonic Experience (Bloomsbury, 2013). Here is a conversation we had over email in February 2017 about Beyond Unwanted Sound.
David Menestres (DM): Why now? Why did you feel compelled to write this book? What do you hope this book will accomplish?
Marie Thompson (MT): I think my ‘academic’ interest in noise began as an undergraduate music student – I was interested in thinking ‘beyond’ distinctions of avant-gardism and popular culture and noise, as something that traverses such separations became an evermore appealing concept. So I’ve been circling some of these ideas for quite a while.
I felt compelled to write the book partly due to what I perceived as a gap between some of my ‘everyday’ experiences of noise and how noise was represented in discourse – particularly noise’s representation as an essentially negative phenomenon; or as a shocking, sublime, radical, overwhelming, transgressive force. Noise seems to be one of those topics that makes ordinarily quite progressive thinkers revert to quite uncritical and reactionary tropes – there’s something about it that ‘touches a nerve’. Consequently, much of the discourse around noise is underlined by an often-unacknowledged conservatism. I’ve always found the grandiose rhetoric of noise comparatively quite seductive but at the same time, more often than not, noise is quotidian and banal rather than overwhelming or sublime (which isn’t to say it can’t also be those things). Likewise, I felt like this grandiose rhetoric resulted in an amplification of certain sonic arts practices, while silencing others. I guess I was compelled by a desire to expand the (material and discursive) universe of noise while also trying to maintain some consistency in definition.
Quite simply, I hope the book will contribute something helpful to the recent discussions around noise in media theory, acoustic ecology and music.
DM: What is the difference between a subjective-oriented definition of noise vs. an object-oriented definition and how do both lead to the ethico-affective approach that you champion in the book?
MT: When I refer to subject- and object-oriented definitions I’m referring, quite simply, to noise being defined either in relation to the ear of the beholder, or in relation to the sound-itself. [MT also defines her “ethico-affective approach” as a perspective that “recognises the entanglement of the ethical and the affective: affective relations are also ethical relations.” –ed.]
What I think is useful about a subject-oriented definition is that it remains open to what noise might be, what form it might take – it might be your neighbour hoovering, it might be a fellow travelers mobile phone, or it might be a buzzing wasp. However, subject-oriented definitions of noise are typically wedded to liberal notions of subjectivity and the politics that carries. Noise becomes an issue of personal taste – one person’s music is another’s noise etc. Subject-oriented definitions also struggle to account for noise that isn’t ‘unwanted’, ‘bad’, ‘negative’, and so on; and for noise that might not be perceptible, or noticeable.
Object-oriented definitions which treat noise as a type of sound are helpful insofar as there is a consistency of definition and it does not assume noise to be a solely negative phenomenon; however, to my mind, they risk losing sight of context: a particular sound is noise irrespective of how it is heard, what it does.
The ethico-affective approach I develop can be understood to maintain aspects of both these definitional approaches. It maintains the separation created by an object-oriented definition of noise between noise and negativity, so that noise’s ‘unwantedness’ becomes secondary and contingent. It also maintains the contextual focus of a subject-oriented definition, so that noise is not tethered to particular types of sound or sound sources.
DM: I’ve been very interested in the idea of noise as a weapon: the use of sound cannons to silence and sicken protestors, the use of the “Mosquito” device (which produces high frequency pitches thought to be audible only to teenagers in order to keep them from loitering), or the use of classical music to annoy young people.
You talk in one section about the noise of neighbors and the “policed silence of the suburbs.” I am also interested in the use of noise as protest. At the Women’s March in Raleigh on January 21, there were so many fascinating sounds: the sounds of thousands of voices bouncing off tall buildings, drummers, people leading chants with the crowd shouting back, the singing of classic protest songs (“A Change is Gonna Come,” “This Land Is Your Land,” etc.).
What do you think the role of noise will be in our current political climate? I can definitely see noise being used as a weapon by both sides: the government trying to use it as a weapon against the people and the people using noise to amplify their voice against the government. But there is a stark difference between these two sides: the use of sound weapons is clearly for their intended negative affect on people (both the physical effects of sound weapons and the psychological effects of the endless noise that comes from Trump’s press conferences and general bullshit), but I see the protestors intending to use sound in a positive way, to amplify their message, to make sure those in charge hear their voices, to ensure the message arrives intact.
MT: As a concept, noise seems evocative of much about our current political climate: be it the ‘noise’ of ‘fake news’, and ‘alternative facts’ (how does one determine ‘signal’ from ‘noise’, and who gets to determine that distinction); be it the ‘white noise’ of the Trump campaign administration (I recently saw a performance lecture with Barby Asante which effectively performed the ‘tuning out’ the noise of recently-bolstered white supremacy); or be it the collective noise of protest against the brutality of borders, white supremacy and police-state violence.
That noise can be both a force of domination and resistance is revealing of its ambiguity more generally – what I refer to as the ‘both-and’ of noise. Of course, that is not to conflate these uses of sonic force. One of the ways in which I’ve thought about this ethico-political difference in sonic forces is through the Spinozist distinction of power-over/power-to. The ethico-political entangles ethical questions (good-bad) with political questions (power over/power to).
So, when sound is weaponized to exert authority, to bring people into line, by diminishing their capacity to act and do, then this can be thought of as an exertion of power-over. Likewise, when sound becomes a means of collective resistance, or of connectivity (I’m thinking partly here of various ‘noise-protests’ at prisons and detentions centres, where sound is used to traverse walls and borders) then it might be understood as an expression of ‘power-to’ – a (collectivized) body’s capacity to act, to be, to do.
DM: You talk in the book of the “conservative politics of silence.” How does this conservativism affect both how people perceive sound and how we relate to it? Is there something at the other end of the scale, a “liberal politics of silence” so to speak?
MT: To my mind, the conservative politics of silence informs a number of assumptions that are frequently made about what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sonic environments; it relates to a preference for the simple over the complex, sameness over difference, past over present, predictability over unpredictability, the ‘synthetic’ over the ‘natural’ (whatever that might mean) and, ultimately, quietude over noise. This ideological framework underlines much ‘common sense’ about auditory experience, however it frequently remains unacknowledged.
We might consider a liberal politics in opposition to this conservative politics of silence, which recognises responses to sonic environments as ‘personal’ and therefore refuses overarching moral judgements about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sound. However, I’m also wary of endorsing a politics that treats the individual, autonomous subject as the primary site of the political. Indeed, the conservative politics of silence that we see in the work of figures such as R. Murray Schafer is often indebted to a liberalism that prioritises control and the freedoms and rights of the individual – I’m thinking here of Schafer’s complaint that you can rid your private property of a physical intruder but not an aural one: “A property-owner is permitted by law to restrict entry to his private garden or bedroom. What rights does he have against a sonic intruder?” (1993, 214)
DM: One of the sections I particularly liked was the “What does noise do?” section where you delved into information theory through the work of Claude Shannon to show how noise was an essential part of a communications system, how noise can be a necessary, amplifying presence, needed to successfully transmit a message (voice over phone lines, data packets over the internet, etc.), how noise can enrich a system. I found myself thinking about this section a lot, often in relation to R. Murray Schaffer’s Platonic ideal state of silence. (“a Platonic, transcendent realm of a pure and ideal sonority, which paradoxically exists as undisturbed and eternal silence”).
I was also thinking about Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, the residual signature of the Big Bang, the background noise that carried all the information that formed our universe. It seems like noise is an intrinsic part of our world, both human made and naturally occurring, and fighting against it seems like such a waste of energy.
MT: It strikes me that when Schafer and other acoustic ecologists talk about fighting noise, they’re fighting a symptom rather than a cause. In these discourses, there is much talk of noise and environmental destruction but very little on how these processes relate to capitalism and settler-colonialism. In that regard, while I don’t think fighting against noise in absolute terms is futile, I do maintain that there are still fights to be had against high levels of noise. While I am critical of liberal notions of privacy and control and the ‘right’ to silence, I do also recognise that noise can feel oppressive in some contexts. That said, more often than not high levels of noise is a symptom of bigger social and political problems – for example, of poor quality housing, and a lack of economic choice over where one lives.
DM: One of the themes explore in the book is the idea of the parasite, based on the work of Michel Serres. How does the parasite relate to your idea of noise?
MT: I take from Serres’ figure of the parasite the idea of noise as a relational, transformative and ambiguous in its necessity. In Serres’ reading, the parasite changes things, for better or for worse. Either way, the parasite does something, it adds something to the mix. In other words, it is affective. And yet, there is no ‘mix’ without it. Parasitic noise is the ‘excluded middle’ that must be included: it is the necessary ‘third term’, which pertains to the necessity of the material medium/milieu. From this perspective, there is no original state of calm, which is then broken by noise. If there is mediation there is noise, if there is the relation there is the parasite.
DM: Could you talk some about “the poetics of transgression” as you call it? How does this “transgression” relate to your ethico-affective approach?
MT: The poetics of transgression refers to the centrality of ‘line-crossing’ narratives in accounts of noise’s use in the sonic arts and art more generally. It’s predicated on what Henry Cowell calls the ‘time-honoured axiom’ that noise and music are opposites. Bringing noise into music, or music into noise relies on the crossing of boundaries, of material and discursive borders. This ‘line-crossing’ is often accompanied by a rhetoric of extremity and radicalism, shock and awe.
While different notions of transgression have certainly been influential for various noise music practitioners, I seek to decentre it as a way rather than the way of understanding noise’s use as an artistic resource. I argue that the dominance of the poetics of transgression has risked reducing noise music to its most ‘extreme’ manifestations. In light of the ethico-affective approach to noise that I develop throughout the book, which understands noise as a transformative force and necessary component of mediation, I suggest that noise music can be understood as an act of exposure, which, rather than bringing noise into music (or vice versa) exposes, extends and foregrounds the noise that is within the techno-musical system so as to generate new sonic sensations. With this approach, I hope to make more space for noise music practices that do not fit comfortably with the poetics of transgression and its aesthetics and rhetoric of extremity.
Featured Image: Noise Music
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The Noises of Finance–Nick Knouf
On January 10th, 2017, A24 + AFROPUNK + Wordless Music + Spaceland presented Moonlight at the historic Million Dollar Theater in Downtown Los Angeles with the Wordless Music orchestra as live accompaniment. The oldest and once-largest theater in LA, The Million Dollar has a capacity of around 2000 people. Reviewers Shakira Holt and Chris Chien attended separately, but were brought together on Facebook via SO! editorial magic for a discussion on the sonic valences of the film and the entire event experience.
Shakira Holt is a Southern Cali-based high school lit teacher with a doctorate in English from the University of Southern California. She’s deeply interested in the intersections of race, religion, sexuality, class, and politics. This is her second piece for SO!; Her first, “‘I Love to Praise His Name’: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure,” was published five years ago. Moonlight was on her winter break to-do list in December 2016, but the SO! call for a reviewer of the LA showing intrigued and excited her. Jenkins’s film was taking critics and general audiences by storm and already meant so much to so many people. She approached the screening with a healthy respect and desire to do it justice, walking into the Million Dollar Theatre the night of January 10th completely “fresh,” with scarcely more than trailers and the film’s sponsored social media posts as background.
Chris Chien is an American Studies and Ethnicity graduate student at the University of Southern California, and is doing research on early Asian gay and lesbian organizing in North America, and these social movements’ place within contemporary transpacific, diasporic narratives of a liberalizing Asia, particularly Hong Kong. He has previously written on Sounding Out! about the sonic materiality of diasporic feeling through the relic of the cassette tape, and has an upcoming article on righteous white violence in the music of trans-hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. He hadn’t seen Moonlight or even a trailer before this screening, but heard from many people he respects that it was magical. When SO! ed-in-chief JS reached out after seeing him post about attending on FB, he immediately embraced the idea of a conversation with Shakira.
The special screening of Moonlight in Los Angeles was an enjoyable and important, though mixed, experience. The live music, engineered to perfection, formed a seamless auditory union with the film’s other music; the live orchestra was much more of a visual cue for those attendees who could see the pit than a sonic one. However, the exclusion from live performance of non-orchestral music, especially those genres hailing from African American and Latin American creative spheres, detracted from the event, setting it somewhat amiss. Certainly, the screening paid fitting tribute to classical musicians who make those lush swells and accents happen in film. In truth, however, the screening succeeded most where it would have in a typical screening—in the story itself and in its manifold deep and broad significances.
Chris Chien: Just to start off: this was an event. It was drizzling that day, which, let’s be real, felt a little magical in Los Angeles. Seeing the lineup that snaked around the block full of stylish folks dressed in their finest, freshest outfits made it seem like postmodern opera. I had never watched a film in the presence of so many other people but I can say that a collective viewing experience of that scale contributed to the filmic magic.
Shakira Holt: Agreed. Walking through that soft Los Angeles rain up to and then through the crowds made the screening feel momentous and special.
CC: Inside, it was thrilling to soak in the collective affect: ecstatic applause that filled the cavernous space as well as sniffles, sobs, and laughter during certain scenes but looking back, I would’ve preferred a more intimate viewing experience. The attendees around us came in late, talked, and checked their social media throughout the movie (yes, actually). Director Barry Jenkins did say during the Q&A afterwards that it was the largest viewing audience in North America, so perhaps a little chaos is to be expected! Of course, the major selling point of the event for my group was the live orchestral accompaniment to the film. We were up in the nose-bleeds, though, so we struggled to notice when the orchestra kicked in. We also couldn’t see the pit from our seats, and tended to just assume they were playing when there were strings in the film score. So to us, the orchestra was a bit of a non-event.
SH: I was down on the floor with the orchestra and could see the pit fairly well, but I completely get your point. Taken with a scene, I would often forget about the live music until movement in the pit would attract my eye, which was always slightly jarring in a really meaningful way. We forget about the work of folks whose labor provides the musical idiom of film we simply expect to be there. Frankly, it was always with a bit of guilt that I would be brought to remembrance of the presence of the musicians who were that critical contribution to the experience I was having.
CC: You’re so right! It’s interesting that to get the effect, there had to be a visual accompaniment, which speaks to both our ocular-centrism and how we’ve been conditioned to take (sound) labor in film for granted. I also recall Jenkins giving a shoutout to the sound engineer for rigging a custom sound system in the theater space in order for the film sound and orchestral sound to work together properly. He was really gracious in pointing out the unseen labor that you mentioned.
SH: So I’d like your thoughts on that opening scene which features extended Liberty City street dialect.
CC: KPCC’s John Horn, the host of the post-screening discussion with the cast and crew (Barry Jenkins, Nicholas Britell, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), asked a question about the “Liberty City dialect” in the opening scene of the film. His question assumed that “we” couldn’t understand the dialect of that scene, when clearly, his use of “we” assumes a lot about the audience—I’m sure there were folks in the crowd that could understand perfectly what was going on!
I wasn’t one of them, unfortunately, but I was drawn to the politics of that move. The refusal to translate, and the insistence on the authenticity of that voice, which necessarily separates a particular portion of the audience because of knowledge they don’t have, and often are comfortable having. Jenkins also talked at length about the specificity of time and place too. He insisted on representing Liberty City in all its particularities and refused the notion of Moonlight’s wide or universal intelligibility or relatability.
SH: Right. He was very clear about his determination to tell one specific story. Now, on one level, I see it, I get it, and I applaud it. However, on another level, I know that narratives are successful only to the degree that they mine a set of specifics to unearth truths that are universal. I think I’d be hard put to find anyone who would argue against the statement that even in the specificity which Jenkins rightly champions, Moonlight is deeply informed by a powerful universal quality.
CC: And both Ali and Sanders said during the discussion that they felt their embodiment of their respective characters was meant to be relatable to a wide audience. At the same time, Jenkins added that he hoped his method of narrative specificity would inspire other marginalized people to go out and do the same for their own stories, so perhaps he’s more concerned with universal methods than narrative details.
I’m only realizing now that the film just does so damn much, based on how the actors and director imagine their art reaching out to various audiences. One of the most immediate ways is through the use of diverse musical signposts. Others have commented on the gorgeous Barbara Lewis track “Hello Stranger” that Kevin plays on the diner jukebox, (and we could certainly spend all day jumping into the rabbit holes that all the disparate songs on the soundtrack take us to), but I wanted to ask if you had any thoughts on the use of the classic Mexican huapango song “Cucurrucucú Paloma.”
SH: Yes, I did. In a rather convoluted way, I connected that song to the character of Juan, so I’ll back my way into my thinking. The character of Juan is a very special character for me. I don’t think I’ve come across another like him; in fact, I see him as a new type: a trans-American father figure of the African diaspora. Juan is a Cuban native and thus functions as a reach-out to–a gesture towards, a signifier of—Cuba, of course, and, by extension, the rest of the Caribbean, which are American locations not typically identified by their Americanness. I see that Mexican track, “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” as an extension, not of Juan precisely, but of his function. This song is a reach-out to Mexico as another American location that is typically not acknowledged as American. In all truth, it is often imagined and imaged as distinctly anti-American. Through these reach-outs, both characterological and musical, this film initiates a conversation between the U.S. and other parts of the Americas which have been figuratively lopped off from their American identities simply because they fall outside of the United States, which is now almost singularly synonymous with America.
Another layer to this, of course, is that the film makes these reach-outs to different parts of the Americas in the specific context of New World blackness, which automatically invokes the slavery which once covered the Americas and produced the enduringly racist economic and social structures from which Juan, Black, and entire communities like Liberty City are largely excluded.
CC: The film is definitely able to telescope some of most intimate and specific concerns into the widest transnational frames. It’s also interesting that we took different things from Jenkins’ use of that song. I didn’t recognize it during the film, but there was a familiarity to the subdued arrangement. My friend mentioned after that it was the same version by the Brazilian composer and singer Caetano Veloso that Wong Kar-Wai uses in Happy Together (1997) (Jenkins has elsewhere talked at length about the influence of Wong), a film about the fraught relationship between two gay Hong Kong Chinese men living in Argentina.
For Wong, the song, mixed with the sound of crashing water from Iguazu Falls in Argentina, signals characters in the midst of a crumbling relationship reaching back to happier times. In Moonlight, it works in a parallel manner, as an affective and sonic cue that envelops Black and Kevin in the very moment of living a future happy memory: the act of reuniting as adults and cruising around their hometown. The sonic touchstone of “Cucurrucucú Paloma” injects a sense of cosmopolitanism in Happy Together, which opens with shots of the lovers’ passports, but does so referentially in Moonlight through its gesture to global cinema.
SH: Precisely. The reach-outs, as we’re calling them, add such depth and such complex meaning to this film in so many different directions. They are in large measure directly responsible for this film’s richness and importance and intellectual and emotional heft. The film redounds with the boundary-shattering cosmopolitanism you mention because it is obsessed with the ways in which entities and forms which don’t typically speak to one another can be placed in conversation with one another and thus enabled to reach conversance with one of another.
Cinematically, as you mention, this U.S. film, overarching in its Americanness, speaks directly to those of Wong Kar-wai musically, visually, thematically, narratively. This thread of conversation and conversance, operative in so many ways and on so many levels, cannot be overstated.
Characterologically, this happens in all of the film’s main relationships but most significantly between Black and Kevin, whose relationship is always characterized by both speech and silence, which serve as conduits for the conversance, or intimacy, they share.
CC: Yes! I love your reading of silence as a form of intimate conversance. It’s such a great way to think about how both people and cultures, putatively “worlds apart,” are in fact always talking to one another. I’ve also seen some writing on the prominent use of classical music, some of which suggested its “incongruousness” to the story, which I’m sure are based in part on problematic assumptions and associations.
SH: Right. There is a decidedly poignant conversation between this black, male, gay, urban narrative and orchestral music, which is a noteworthy choice. And yes, there are other musical genres represented in the film, but Jenkins seems especially to venerate orchestral music above the other genres. I mean, he did single it out for the live music screening, which necessarily raises its profile above the hip-hop, the R&B, the huapango.
In fact, in the wake of the special screening, those other genres, though important, might be interpreted as intervening on or interrupting the ongoing, and seemingly more important, conversation underway between the black, male, gay, urban narrative and orchestral music. In this context, we might see the prominence of the classical music as a rhetorical bid for the inclusion of this black, male, gay story in a distinctly white, Western cultural canon—not as a quest for whiteness per se but rather as a quest for the ontological normativity which whiteness has long enjoyed.
Perfectly supporting, perhaps even enabling, this conversation between this narrative and classical music is the very telling–quite political, really–application of the “chopped-and- screwed” mixing technique to the classical music in the score. That orchestral music, which is generally perceived as the music of the white elite classes–music, which, even when it is composed and produced in the US, still reads as distinctly European in origin and orientation–should be handled in the same way as the chopped-and-screwed masterpieces of people such as DJ Screw, OG Ron C, and Swishahouse, is more than just a little funny. It is deliciously subversive and, given the political moment, downright democratic and egalitarian.
In a piece for SO, Kemi Adeyemi discusses how the technique was created in Houston by the late DJ Screw in the latter years of the 20th century as a sonic representation of the “loosened, detached body-feeling” of the (black male) body under the influence of the substance lean. Adeyemi explains how lean, a mixture of codeine and sweet soda or juice, has become a chief coping mechanism especially of hip-hop-identified black males trapped in their unrelenting contention with aggressive racist assault that is usually directly responsible for their premature deaths via what Adeyemi identifies as the “discursive entanglements of race, labor, and drugs…in the neoliberal state.”
The “chop” part of chopping and screwing involves adding rhythmic breaks of repetition into a song, hearkening back to the turntable mixing of classic hip-hop. Playing off of Adeyemi’s analysis, I read this chopping as auditory representation of the inescapability of the pace of modern life, particularly the beat of life in a lethally racist context that will not be denied. The “screw” aspect involves the slowing of the song’s overall tempo, which transmogrifies the original track into a plea for more time just to be and for more space to be unmoored from all the dangers poised to assail the black body.
Dave Tomkins, in a piece for mtv.com, quotes composer Nicholas Britell who wonders at the seeming magic of chopping and screwing to “open up all these new harmonics and textures…[and also to] stretch and widen out” phrases and words, enabling the listener to “marinate in the words more.” Britell notes that chopping and screwing the orchestral music of Moonlight’s score produced similar effects, explaining, “The same thing happens for the music, when it goes into those lower-frequency ranges. The sound becomes a feeling.” Tomkins points out that the “feeling” is often one of dread or coming doom that is distinctly black, male and urban, which dovetails Adeyimi’s discussion of chopping and screwing’s origins and cultural context. The film, then, forces the Eurocentric elite into conversance with blackness that is also gay, urban, Southern, hip-hop-identified, and beset by a range of lethal pressures.
Moreover, the orchestral music, in its chopped-and-screwed state, becomes a critical conveyance of deep meaning of the narrative. In the January 10th post-screening discussion, Britell emphasized how chopping and screwing produced “those lower-frequency ranges” by dropping the pitches of each instrument so that each was made to sound like another, deeper, more resonant one. This sonic masking speaks directly to the film’s central issues of voice, true identity, and intimacy.
Discussion between director Barry Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell discussing “chopping and screwing” the score of Moonlight (starts at 4:10).
CC: The selection and transformation of music in Moonlight is definitely doing something to challenge all sorts of normative assumptions. And not just cultural assumptions either but our understanding of the experience of music and film altogether. Jenkins said in a separate discussion that the insertion of silence/music reflects Chiron’s consciousness, what he calls the “cogno-dissonance” of being Chiron. The idea of turning inward in the face of trauma was important to Jenkins. He and the sound crew apparently used surround sound and played with mixing to unbalance the audience’s sonic perception as a way to simulate this experience of trauma, which I think may have been less apparent in this particular theater setup. The thoughtful play on the phenomenology of sound shows us that music, at least in the Moonlight universe, is the substance of life.
SH: Yes. Music in this film is of the utmost importance, making direct and often very strong comment on every aspect of modern life, even to the point of marking trauma by speaking the unspeakable. As we’ve discussed before, various musical genres are put to the task of translating, interpreting, expressing life and its traumas.
However, there is one genre that is quite noticeably absent from this film. The absolute avoidance of the black church and its music is striking and lands a deft blow to a site within African American culture that has been stridently anti-gay despite its own embrace of rich, abundant LGBTQ artistic and cultural contribution. The reproach is so fierce, the black church is not allowed to exist in the film even on the plane of the lamest obligatory church tropes with which we are all too familiar. There is no Sunday service, no booming, looming vestmented preacher, no hymn-humming, Scripture-quoting grandma—not even a religious crisis set to a chopped-and-screwed Mahalia Jackson or Clara Ward track. The closest we get to religion is the swimming lesson as Juan, the trans-American father of the African diaspora, baptizes Little in the waters of the Middle Passage and teaches him how to survive in them. The context here is much more cultural and historical than it is religious. This thoroughgoing circumvention of the black church and gospel music in a film that traffics in reach-outs connotes nothing less than obdurate, unreprievable censure.
CC: This avoidance is especially interesting in light of the long history of gospel influence in the artistry of founding Black queer artists like Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And the exclusion of the Black church and its sonic registers interacts provocatively with the foregrounding of hip hop in Black’s arc since that genre has been characterized in some quarters as homophobic (though that critique can be reductive and itself plagued by racialized stereotyping).
SH: And in some instances, it has been homophobic, though that seems to be changing with the times and their increasing embrace of both the black secularism and the openness towards diverse black sexualities which Moonlight celebrates.
CC: So, what do you think you will remember most about this night, and this singular performance?
SH: This night is one that I think I’ll always love and remember for many reasons–the moody weather, the dinner beforehand with my old friend, Dr. Ruth Blandon, the buzzing excitement of the crowds, our spotting the amazing Mahershala Ali seated just across the aisle from us, the tour de force film, the panel discussion afterwards–but perhaps one of the greatest reasons will be that sense of overwhelming connection I felt that night. It was simply electric. I don’t know about you, but I felt deeply connected to the city itself that night, to Los Angeles–especially old, historic, LA, the LA that my grandmother moved to as a five-year old back in 1940. My grandmother will be 82 this coming September, so she’s still very much here in the flesh, but I felt especially close to her, or really, to what I imagine was her five-year old self. Thinking about her precipitated a connection to that old theatre. I wondered how many times she had been there, or knowing her penchant for mischief, how many times she had snuck in.
And then, in a more diffuse but not less important way, I felt a kinship with all the strangers in the theatre, gathered there that evening for a single purpose. So it is fitting to me that an event celebrating a film which devotes itself so thoroughly to “reach-outs,” as we’ve called them here, to these critical, radical conversations in pursuit of conversance, would have also so generously provided me an opportunity to experience my own, very personal reach-outs and connections. What about you?
CC: Absolutely agreed. I don’t have as much of a connection to this city as you, being part of the dreaded transplant-class, but it speaks to the power of events such as this that I feel it more. There’s something to our exchange, too, that speaks not only to the importance of the film, but also, in this time of threatened funding to the arts, the critical nature of collective enjoyment and, indeed, production of daring new art by queer people of color.
The film reaches out and touches folks who don’t often get that experience and there’s no better example of this than the closing sequence. The film ends with Black talking to Kevin about the absence of intimate touch in his life and then a moment of the beautiful silent conversance that you pointed out earlier. The parting shot is of the most tender contact, over which we hear the sound of crashing waves. This visual-sonic collage suggests that the act of gay black men touching is elemental, almost tectonic—at once basal but also a force of nature; at once deeply individual (the actual final image is a dive inward, of young Chiron looking back at us from a darkened beach), but also an image of ceaseless, living tenderness, like the rolling waves on the Liberty City shores. I think the two thousand people in the room that night, both of us included, however differently we may all have perceived it, felt that touch.
Featured Image: Screen capture of Alex Hibbert as Little from Moonlight Trailer by JS
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