In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, jazz musician Charles Mingus recounts his hatred of being ignored during his bass solos. When it was finally his turn to enter the foreground, suddenly musicians and audience members alike found drinks, food, conversations, and everything else more important. However, this small, and somewhat ironic, anecdote of Mingus’s relationship with the jazz community has now become a foreshadowing of his current status in sound studies–but no longer! This series re/hears, re/sounds and re/mixes the contributions of Mingus for his ingenious approach to jazz performance and composition as well as his far-reaching theorizations of sound in relation to liberation and social equality, all in honor of the 60th anniversary of Mingus’s sublimely idiosyncratic album Mingus Ah Um this month. In the third piece of this series, Jessica Teague grapples with Mingus’s 1957 Atlantic recording of “The Clown.” Her analysis reveals one of Mingus’s most critical questions: Is the only way to escape exploitation to exploit another, or worse yet, yourself? You can catch up with the full series by clicking here. –Guest Editor Earl Brooks
When jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus first set out to write his memoirs in the mid-1950s he told his wife Judy that he “wanted a chance to write about the true jazz scene that has made our masters millions and taken the most famed to their penniless graves as the only escape from the invisible chains on black jazz as an art” (Santoro 175). By the time Beneath the Underdog saw publication nearly two decades later in 1971, it was considerably slimmed down from the 800+ page manuscript Mingus had produced. Financially strained and evicted from his downtown loft, Mingus hoped that the book would be a best seller and offer economic freedom from the music industry.
But as many have noted, Beneath the Underdog is not your typical jazz autobiography (see Krin Gabbard, Nichole Rustin-Paschal, Gene Santoro, and Daniel Stein). Here, Mingus rejects standard notions of the self declaring in the first sentence of his book: “In other words, I am three.” By writing in a mode that wavers between the lurid world of popular pulp-heroes and psychological high-modernism, Mingus’s autobiography (like his music) treads a slender line between clowning and critique.
In one of the most infamous scenes from Beneath the Underdog, Mingus hyperbolically describes having intercourse with twenty-three prostitutes over the course of one night in Tijuana, Mexico. The incident follows the breakup of his marriage with his first wife Barbara and his affair with Nesa Morgan, the wife of a club owner. Recounting his superhuman exploits in the language of the comic book, Mingus turns what might have been a display of his sexual prowess into a clowning circus act, complete with zany sound effects and an off-kilter sense of rhythm. It’s a scene that simultaneously reinforces the stereotype of the African American male’s hypersexuality and deflates it with comedy:
“No! Me, sir!”
“You like fooke?”
“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty!”
“Two dollars, sir!”
(Beneath the Underdog 176-177)
There is a certain ambiguity to the poolside scene. Mingus the narrator is notably absent and the action proceeds without any visual clues—he gives the reader only fragments of dialogue that alternate between the prostitutes selling their wares and the side conversation between Mingus and his friend Hickey, who comments upon his sexual performance. What is more, the onomatopoetic sound effects employed are demonstrably silly and absurd. There are no moans or sighs of ecstasy here—each act is punctuated by a “BLAM! BLAM!” (178). Sex is transactional and performative for Mingus, but not pleasurable.
The pulpy, comic book quality of the Tijuana scene makes Mingus a superhuman like a character from The Fantastic Four, but it also makes him into a two-dimensional cartoon. This undercutting of the self and the performative body characterizes Mingus’s concept of the fractured self of the black jazz musician—a theme he takes up in his music as well as his writing (e.g. “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” from Mingus Ah Um). Interestingly, Mingus’s affinity for comics would surface again and in 1966 he collaborated with African American illustrator Gene Bilbrew to create a comic strip-style advertisement for the Charles Mingus Record Club that appeared in the Village Voice.
Biographers have argued that Mingus included these likely fictionalized sex scenes as a way to sell more books and evade the exploitative economics of the music industry. However, the comic book sound effects that render Mingus’s sexuality humorously exaggerated comes at the expense of Latinx women. Despite having grown up in a multi-ethnic community in Los Angeles, his representation of the voices of the Mexican prostitutes flattens their identities and plays upon ethnic stereotypes. With each “Sí señor,” the women are presented as both sexually promiscuous and submissive. Mingus’s relationships with women were fraught, and his anxieties about his own sexuality were inevitably tied up with race. His tendency to treat women as sex-objects is similarly on display in the comic strip above, in which a suggestively-attired white female hipster acts as a narc, exposing a bootleg record dealer. “Uh, you got anything by Charlie Mingus? Uh-h, y’know, like uh… under the counter?” she asks, dripping innuendo.
And yet, these cringe-inducing scenes are often complicated by Mingus’s use of pimping and prostitution as metaphors for exploitation throughout his Beneath the Underdog. At various points he portrays himself as both prostitute and pimp, both masculine and feminine. When his friend Hickey seems to question Mingus’s extreme behavior, he responds: “In this white man’s society what else have I got” (178). Even in moments that indulge in humor, such as the Tijuana scene, Beneath the Underdog darkly implies a pimp or be pimped world.
Mingus would become known for writing music with a political edge—one might think of “Fables of Faubus” from Mingus Ah Um (1959)—but perhaps the closest musical relative to the satirical Tijuana scene is Mingus’s 1957 Atlantic recording of “The Clown.” In the liner notes for the album, penned by Nat Hentoff, Mingus describes that as he wrote the tune, he realized that it had two parts, and started to imagine it as the story of the clown. He then told the story to radio celebrity Jean Shepherd and allowed Shepherd to improvise the telling of the story during the recording. As Mingus described it to Hentoff, the story was
…about a clown, who tried to please people like most jazz musicians do, but whom nobody liked until he was dead. My version of the story ended with his blowing his brains out with the people laughing and finally being pleased because they thought it was part of the act. I liked the way Jean changed the ending; leaves more up to the listener.
Like the Tijuana story, “The Clown” also incorporates sound effects, and it opens with the hollow laughter of men and women in a nightclub. As auditory phenomena, sound effects are especially interesting because of their artificiality—they are performances of sound. In a cinematic or radio context, sound effects typically amplify an action. Even when sounded, rather than written, they seem to act onomatopoetically. Thus, the addition of the laugh track on “The Clown” is both performance and commentary.
But part of the genius of Mingus’s composition is the way he incorporates the logic of the sound effect into the music itself. The vocal quality of his bass, the wah-wahs of the horns, and the rim shots on the drums are but one piece of this totalizing sonic landscape. “The Clown” borrows stylistic elements from other recognizable genres (like, circus music) to evoke the playfully comedic and absurd, but a second, more serious and ironic story of exploitation runs concurrently and undercuts the first narrative’s simplicity. On the one hand, we hear the more jaunty, carnivalesque melody of the trombone (Jimmy Knepper) and the tenor saxophone (Shafi Hadi) that lilts in 6/8, but that melody is punctuated by moments of dissonance and free playing under the narration—stretching the space between comedy and tragedy. The question he seems to ask in both the Tijuana story from Beneath the Underdog and in “The Clown” is essentially the same: Is the only way to escape exploitation to exploit another, or worse yet, yourself?
Black musicians who pushed back were often called “angry,” even as music didn’t always sound that way. One might think of the contrast between seemingly jaunty, upbeat rhythm of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and its devastating lyrics. It is the sound of political and existential crisis. Both “The Clown,” and the Tijuana scene indicate Mingus’s heightened awareness that, as much as he was known for his music, he was also known for his explosive behavior at performances—the “angry man of jazz.” As Eric Porter has pointed out, Mingus’s “irrational behavior appealed to audiences at a moment when many members of American society (of whom Beat writers were emblematic) were looking to the oppositional aspects of black culture for solutions to their dissatisfaction with consumerism, conservative politics, repressed sexuality, constrictive gender roles, and other social ills” (130-131). 1957, the year Mingus recorded The Clown, was the same year that Norman Mailer published his infamous essay “The White Negro” and Jack Kerouac published On the Road. It was also the year that Governor Faubus of Arkansas attempted to halt the integration of Central High School in Little Rock.
Subtle they may be, but the use of comic sound effects in works like Beneath the Underdog and “The Clown” highlight the absurdity of the roles black jazz musicians had come to play within American culture. In worrying the line between the comic and the tragic, the explosive and the reflective, Charles Mingus refused to concede to the identity that had been shaped by the music industry, by the press, and by institutionalized racism.
Featured Image: Charles Mingus 1976, Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons, Colorized by SO!
Jessica Teague is an Assistant Professor of English at the University Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and specializes in 20th and 21st-century American Literature and Sound Studies. The intersections between literature, sound, and technology are the focus of her research, and her book, Sound Recording Technology and American Literature: from the Phonograph to the Remix, is under contract with Cambridge University Press. Her work has been published in journals such as American Quarterly and Sound Studies, and she has also been the recipient of research fellowships from the ACLS and the Harrison Institute at the University of Virginia. (PhD, MA, Columbia University; BA, UCLA)
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SO! Amplifies: The Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club–Chelsea Adams
On Ventriloquism, Dummies, and Trump’s Voice–Sarah Kessler
Afrofuturism, Public Enemy, and Fear of a Black Planet at 25–André Carrington
Breaking down the paywalls of academia can take many forms, but lifelong learning collectives centered around a shared passion may perhaps be one of the most fun. The Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club is an international group of people connected by a love of blues and jazz culture, who read books together and tune in—free of charge—via Youtube Live to lectures and Q and As from experts and scholars from around the United States. Literature scholars such as Jessica Teague have discussed jazz poetry and August Wilson’s blues influence; dancer and scholar Dr. Fenella Kennedy has offered an online mini-workshop and discussion forum; and blues musician Tad Walters has played music and discussed the Delta Blues and its origins, among other lectures. All of these lectures are available on the Book Club’s website and on YouTube for anyone to enjoy.
An open-access scholarly project founded in 2014, The Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club (BJDBC) was the brainchild of Sara Cherny, Damon Stone, Devona Cartier, Brenda Russell, and Kelly Porter (no longer a participating member). This team envisioned a free online space where people could learn about and discuss the history of blues, jazz, and African American dances, enriching both their own knowledge and the knowledge of the blues and jazz groups in which they participated. The Book Club’s current administrator, Chelsea Adams—PhD candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas with a specialty in blues and African American dances in literature—took over operations in 2016.
Since then, Adams has worked hard to create a space where all blues and jazz lovers could access new scholarship on both the music and the dances done to that music, building a website to better facilitate the growing global group. Adams even coordinates live lectures at times that work the best to connect audiences who regularly chime in or visit the BJDBC website from Australia, England, Korea, Spain, France, Canada, Brazil, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, China and Hong Kong, among other places.
A Blues and Jazz Book Club live lecture by Dr. Jessica Teague, UNLV English
Recently, the Book Club has expanded to include multiple offerings for both scholar and enthusiast. One addition is quarterly feature articles, interviews, and community spotlights on blues and jazz topics. International dance instructor Julie Brown recently wrote the article “A Landscape of Slow Drag,” cataloguing and exploring how scholars and dancers have described the partnered blues idiom dance. Also featured is a never-before-published interview with Joe McQueen, the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame inductee and Ogden, Utah’s King of Jazz.
Other feature articles have been spotlights on community engagements, literary criticism, and even a how-to on how to dive into research on blues and jazz topics. Practicioner and dance historian Damon Stone’s “A Brief Introduction to Savoy Walk,” Dr. Caryl Loney-McFarlane’s “‘Inside Nothing’: The Silent Protest March in Tony Morrison’s Jazz“ and Dr. Licia Morrow Hendricks’s “A Dog Named Blue: Song as Patrilineal Legacy in August Wilson’s Fences“ have all been popular pieces among group members and beyond. The website will soon publish an article all about Barbara Morrison‘s work in LA for the California Blues and Jazz Museum and the charity event called Signifyin’ Blues that raises money for her museum (forthcoming June 15th, 2019). And, in September 2019, Pat Taylor will be writing our third feature for the year on her work and life as a jazz dance choreographer.
The Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club’s signature offering is of course its quarterly book readings, where groups around the globe read together. Currently, we are reading Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition by Adam Gussow, which we will finish during the first week of July 2019 (access the schedule here). Should you want to join us to read in 2019, future offerings include Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formation in African-American Culture by Katrina Hazzard-Gordon (Summer 2019; start date July 21), Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman (Fall 2019; start date September 15), and a blues-inspired novel for December 2019, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (December 1). For the full 2019 reading list, click here.
Furthermore, the group’s website is a hub that also offers new reading lists and watch lists, including ones on African American history (and soon to include updated lists for blues and jazz music, and African American dance) and a discussion questions archive, where readers can find past discussion questions for previous books and films that they can access for their own thought or to read and discuss these books with others. Our Facebook page not only has regular posts about not only the Book Club, but also shares other research, news and information on blues and jazz around the United States, as does our Facebook Group.
“Open access groups like Book Club offer a friendly environment to learn how to approach academic literature,” Book Club Organizer Adams says, “while enjoying gaining more knowledge about their hobbies and interests. It’s a form of scholarly outreach that I think is vital if we truly believe in the idea that our research can make a difference outside of the academy.
Groups like this are important because they offer guided access to scholarship and literature to people who for one reason or another do not have the opportunity to learn in formal academic environments or other professional institutions. Scholarly literature is a specific and often intimidating genre to tackle alone, even if someone is interested in learning more about a topic.”
And the engagements the Book Club has are rich and multifaceted. “My favorite experience with a live lecture,” Adams remembers, “was with Dr. Kennedy, when they demonstrated dances out of Jean and Marshall Stearns’ diagrams from their book Jazz Dance. Watching the group actually learn how to dance some of these dances listed in the book was a joy.”
In April 2018, the Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club announced the goal to provide two yearly scholarships: a Community Learning Scholarship for blues and jazz events to bring out a scholar, musician, or practitioner to teach about blues or jazz culture and history, and another for an individual with financial need to attend an event with a blues or jazz history and culture focus or to perform research. To provide these scholarships, the Book Club relies solely on community donations. To date, they have been able to raise the money to fund one Community Learning Scholarship, which will be open for applications starting in August of 2019.
If you would like to participate in the Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club, please check out our website: bluesjazzbookclub.com. We accept abstract submissions for feature articles on a year-round basis, and have multiple volunteer positions available, from one-time positions like guest lecturer to rolling positions such as book discussion leader. If you would like to support the open-access project goals but do not have time to volunteer, we always welcome donations to the cause!
Featured Image from the Blues and Jazz Book Club, “A Landscape of Slow Drag,” 1925/Published 1961, Info Likely from Harlem, NY Dancers.
Currently a PhD candidate in English at UNLV, Chelsea Adams focuses her studies on African American literature, blues and jazz music, and African American dance. She writes about minority culture representation in literature, with a focus of representation of black musicians, dancers, and the art forms they produce. She also runs the Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club, an international online book club project, to offer the public open access information about the history of blues, jazz, and black dances. You can learn more about Chelsea and her work at cjuneadams.com.
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SO! Amplifies: Memoir Mixtapes–Kaitlyn Liu
SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory–Stuart Fowkes
“The mashup of the two things we all love to talk about: ourselves & music”
Memoir Mixtapes is a nonprofit literary magazine that is entirely volunteer-run. Created by Samantha Lampf, the idea for the magazine came about on a commute home from Santa Monica to Koreatown in 2018. At the time, Lampf’s life was rapidly changing. After marrying, moving to Los Angeles and changing her career path, she felt as if something was still missing. When “Silver Springs,” by Fleetwood Mac, came on the radio — an artist her dad used to play constantly. Lampf was immediately transported to a specific time in her childhood where she experienced insomnia and depressive thoughts, saying “the music taunted me at all hours.” Soon after, she had the thought to write an essay about this song. She then began to think that many people had their own stories about songs, and Memoir Mixtapes was officially underway.
The first call for submissions was put out that night, and Lampf was unsure if she would receive more than five pieces. However, the first volume, titled “Origin Stories,” published 34 tracks. Since then, they have published eight volumes, with topics ranging from guilty pleasures to our personal anthems. Each volume consists of creative nonfiction submissions and a song (or two) to accompany each piece. The goal of the magazine is to use music as a natural provocation of emotion and memories, using music to connect with each other while reading about some of our most personal experiences.
While Memoir Mixtapes’ primary focus is their full volume works, they also support other literature about music or memoir that might not fit into their main magazine topics. Deep Cuts, a section created for these pieces, features recordings, visual art, playlists and more. Not a writer, but still interested in the project? Consider sharing a song recommendation! All you have to do is create an account on Medium and follow the steps listed on the website for a chance to have your song featured either Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.
Memoir Mixtape’s 2019 Playlist
Memoir Mixtapes is special because it gives us a way to discuss the impact of music on our lives. Music is an integral part of birthdays, weddings, religion and many other cultural practices, yet we often understand music as a separate entity from identity — one that is universal in its message rather than individualized and personal. However, writers at Memoir Mixtapes are allowing us to listen to music as they experience and hear it, providing us with a new method of listening to songs we have our own histories with.
If music and memoir sounds appealing to you, check out the Memoir Mixtapes magazine to read, listen or submit a piece of your own — they have rolling submissions, so submit anytime! For their tenth volume, Memoir Mixtapes is ready to talk about “Ballads & Breakups,” or the whimsical, disastrous search for love. As their page states, “if you felt it in your heart, we want to read it.” Calls for submissions are open now until June 30th!
Kaitlyn Liu is a freshman at Binghamton University majoring in English Literature with a concentration in rhetoric. Kaitlyn takes interest in writing about gender and race along with other intersectional classification systems. Kaitlyn currently writes for the opinions section for the student newspaper, Pipe Dream, as well as working as a copy editor. Outside of writing, Kaitlyn enjoys reading historical fiction and singing for Binghamton University’s oldest co-ed a cappella group, the Binghamtonics.
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SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory–Stuart Fowkes
SO! Amplifies: Phantom Power–Jennifer Stoever
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.
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.
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 the “roar 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.”
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.
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 earth” below, 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.
Balloonist’s encounters with silence in the upper air and the sigh of “boundless planes” and “infinite 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 fear” and “expressions of applause” that advanced the dominant colonial narrative.
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 experience” with 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.”
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” and “politics 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.
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.
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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