Last week, Carlo Patrão published “On the Poetics of Balloon Music: Sounding Air, Body, and Latex (Part One),” which examined the history of the association between balloon travel and experimentation and the idea of silence, along with a round up of conceptual artists who have used balloons in their work. Today’s post continues this exploration with an in-depth conversation between the author, producer Marina Koslock and sound artist Judy Dunaway.
We look at alien grace,
by any determined form,
and we say: balloon, flower,
heart, condom, opera,
lampshade, parasol, ballet.
Hear how the mouth,
of longing for the world,
changes its shape?
Excerpt from Difference, by Mark Doty
Against Levity: Experimental Music and the Latex Balloon
The term balloon music gained some virality in 2011 after Finn, the protagonist of the animated series Adventure Time, rubbed a toy balloon and improvised a rap over its squeaky sounds. “Balloon music is the future,” says the character. This few second-long scene became an instant meme, inspiring many to share their own versions of the “futuristic sound of balloon music.”
Balloons themselves are viral objects. Designed to infect our moods, they are part of social rituals ranging from the deeply personal to collective (political) euphoria. They are cheap, amusing and awe-inducing. As resonant chambers, balloon membranes are sonically responsive to touch while, at the same time, highly tuned to the vibrations of the environment. To start playing a balloon, no prior experience is required. In this sense, the balloon is a democratic instrument whose sonic textures circumvent expensive music equipment.
The Jazz composer Anthony Braxton was once asked why he used balloons in his Composition 25 (1972). Braxton replied: “I didn’t have enough money for the electronic equipment that could make those kinds of sounds. I’m interested in the expanded reality of sound opened up by the post-Webern continuum, but I’m restricted to using cheap materials. So, you know, I was walking down the street one night and I thought, Hey! I gotta have balloons!”
Anthony Braxton, B-Xo/N-0-1-47a or Composition 6G, w/ Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith and Steve McCall, with balloon sounds, 1969
“For me, that piece (Composition 25) really best demonstrates the full symbolic meaning of the balloon in the early avant-garde,” says balloon music composer Judy Dunaway. “I’ve discussed this with Braxton himself – the balloon replicated electronic equipment that he couldn’t afford at the time, but he also saw it as a way to open up the minds of the performers to get them to think differently about how they were improvising and how they were interacting in the piece.” Braxton’s Composition 25 is scored for 250 balloons and musicians are required to produce sound by squeezing, rubbing and popping balloons. “I like the idea that he breaks down the hierarchy,” adds Dunaway, “black musicians were discriminated against and they didn’t have the financial means that the white musicians had… and he was using this as a way to get beyond that and say: Here, I’m going to do electronic sounds without any electronics, I don’t need to go buy a Buchla or be associated with an academic institution that can give me access to equipment, right?”
Producer Marina Koslock and I met Judy Dunaway at MassArt in Boston to talk about her balloon-based sculptural sonic performances and the ready-made latex balloon as a sound producing instrument. For the past 25 years, Dunaway has been developing a singular specialization in the balloon as a medium for sound and music. You can keep just broadening out and do more things with a concept; or you can work in a particular parameter as an artist and keep digging deeper and deeper and deeper, and that for me as been more interesting, is to pursue that line”, explains Dunaway.
As a consequence, her balloon work has spanned out through several records (e.g. Balloon Music and Mother of Balloon Music), scores, sound sculptures, solo performances, ensembles, and numerous installations. The poetics of the latex balloon as a sound producing instrument contrast with the atmospheric balloon explored in part one of this article. The balloon, no longer buoyant, stays in close proximity to the body of the performer. The surface of the balloon is vibrated through rubbing, stroking, squeezing, pulling, popping and through the control of air releases. These sonic tactile acts bring forth dialogues between the performer’s body and the latex body of the balloon. “I limited my playing techniques to the balloons and my body,” says Judy Dunaway, “it was essential to be able to feel everything that was happening with the balloon in order to be able to fully explore all the sonic possibilities.”
The Balloon Music, DF#, by Tina Touli, 2013-2015
The balloon functions as an external sensory organ, like a skin, that vibrates when sound passes through. In Deaf culture, balloons have a long history of being used as resonating chambers that amplify vibration and facilitate hearing. Deaf people use them at concerts, musicals, clubs and raves to hear the music through the vibration of the balloon’s membrane. David Toop writes about Alexander Bell in the 1870s encouraging students from a Boston school for deaf children to hold balloons in their hands while walking on the street as a safety measure in order to hear the vibrations from the cobblestones as fast horse-drawn wagons passed by. Vibrational information is processed in the same way as sound information. As the scholar Steph Ceraso proposes, the common definition of listening needs to be expanded to include the sensory, contextual, and material aspects of a sonic event. Dunaway’s sound installation Manual Eardrums invites participants to a different mode of listening through the vibration of the balloon. “You are given earplugs at the door and an inflated balloon, and you hold it between your hands as you walk around the space. There’s a low tone playing that sweeps between 100Hz and 150Hz and it causes different vibrational patterns in the room that you can feel and map them out,” explains Dunaway. “Your eardrum is the balloon that you’re holding.”
Judy Dunaway started to play balloon music in the late 1980s, first as a preparation for guitar string and soon after as a solo instrument. It was in the midst of the AIDS Crisis and Dunaway was part of the downtown improv scene in NYC. “Many of my friends were dying,” she recalls. “Everybody was saying what caused this? Nobody knew how the disease was being spread,” adds Dunaway. “Then, of course, there was this discovery that it was sexually transmitted and you could prevent transmission with latex condoms. Suddenly, they had this power,” she says, “latex had this power to save people’s lives, and I say that that is when balloons really began to speak to me. They were something beyond a mere mechanism to make sound.” Within the envelope of the balloon Dunaway found space for memory, life, and sensuality.
From the beginning, her balloon work has articulated tensions between explicit and implicit meaning around issues relating to social activism, environmentalism, and feminism. “In an era, which continues to be that a woman’s control of her own body is restricted or attempts are being made to restrict our bodies, I coupled myself to this instrument that expresses sensuality, sexuality, and humanity,” says Dunaway. The balloon, as a resonating chamber, bypasses western musical traditions that mechanize the body and gender stereotype musical expression. For Dunaway, the balloon generates a “non-judgmental somatic relationship.”
“Seeing my connection to the body of the balloon, that to me served as an unspoken rebellion against the patriarchy, against the power structures that have oppressed women and, ultimately, all humankind by severing the psyche and the body,” says Dunaway. Following the scholar Robin James, the patriarchy is not just a “relation among people” but is also a “relation among sounds” that are coded in a gender system of masculine absolute/feminine other. “The way I approach the balloon is not nailed or fixed or part of this history,” clarifies Dunaway. The balloon as an instrument has allowed Dunaway to develop a musical lexicon outside of a male-dominated classical heritage.
Judy Dunaway performing Piece for Tenor Balloon, written notation with improvisational passages, 2002
For example, this is her description of the round balloon as a sounding instrument:
Imagine a string, a string on a violin or guitar, and this string is held taut on either end by a the tuning pegs and the bridge now imagine that string suddenly melted and spun out into an orb and it’s all held tight by a column of air. . .this is the palette that I have to access when I play the Tenor Balloon, I have all these harmonics on this curved shape, and I control it partially with my knees.
The Tenor Balloon is placed between both knees and Dunaway applies and releases pressure on the balloon producing microtonal changes on its surface. “And I also use water,” she adds, “copious amounts of water, warm water on the balloon and on my hands because that’s the way I get this stick and slip mechanism to work.” The hands gliding on the balloon’s surface act similar to a bow on a string reaching different nodes and moving through harmonic series.
Judy Dunaway performing “Hommage à Kenneth Noland”, for amplified giant balloon, vibrators, synthesized tones, and projected video, with Max/MSP/Jitter interface, 2017
Each balloon requires its own specific touch or sounding technique. On the piece Amplified Giant Balloon, vibrators are used to resonate the surface of a giant balloon creating a low drone sound. “It’s like vibrating a giant bass string”, says Dunaway, ”I tune my vibrators, I go to the sex shop and I listen to vibrators, and I tune the vibrators to each other so there’s a little beating pattern between them that I can control.”
Around 2015, Dunaway added a new balloon to her solo performances, the Amplified Twister Balloon. The twister balloon is equivalent to the long balloons used to make balloon-animals. Due to its string-like shape, the sounds produced through rubbing or gliding differ from the sounds of a round balloon. “The harmonic series isn’t so predictable,” she continues, “the tension is highest close to the navel of the balloon and that makes it microtonal different from one end to the other like an out-of-tune bugle.” Visually, the Amplified Twister Balloon performance delivers a feminist affirming statement. Defying the tradition of the male guitarist stroking the female form of the guitar, Dunaway finds musical material in a phallic-shaped balloon. “I sort of invert this”, she says, “now I have the penis form that I’m stroking and caressing and I’m taking this phallic power for myself in the Amplified Twister Balloon.”
“My work doesn’t come out of a void,” states Dunaway. In the article My Beautiful Balloon, Dunaway maps out a detailed history of the balloon in experimental and avant-garde music. Many Fluxus artists used the balloon in events, concerts and instructional scores. The sounds of the balloon embodied Fluxus’ humorous/satirical attitude towards art and the collapse of hierarchies of experience by reframing everyday life objects. Balloons are used by DIY artists that re-invent, hack and create new music instruments (Jean Francois Laporte, Thierry Madiot, Aaron Wendell, Tom Nunn, Javier Bustos). Balloon sounds are explored by many artists with backgrounds ranging from improvised music, rock, electronic or electro-acoustic and sound installation (Ricardo Arias, David Bedford, Mauricio Kagel, Alvin Lucier, Terry Day, Tod Dockstader, Christine Sun Kim, Davide Tidoni, Sharon Gal, Eugene Chadbourne, Matmos, EVOL, Alan Nakagawa, to name a few).
To develop a practice around the accessibility of latex is to engage with politics of mass-production and exploitation of resources and labor. Dunaway mentions the connection between the air and breath that fills the balloon and the mass-extraction of latex from the lungs of the Earth. “[Balloons] are literally the blood from a tree in the Amazon,” says Dunaway, “and there’s a whole history of how the indigenous people there were and still are persecuted. Now, they are mostly farmed in Malaysia,” she adds.
Between 1890 and 1920, a rubber fever led to a boom of extraction and exploitation of rubber-bearing plants in the Amazonian countries and to the forced displacement, slavery and mass killing of its indigenous people. The same happened in many African countries. As John Tully writes in his book The Devil’s Milk, “it is still true that where there is rubber there is often human suffering.” Ricardo Arias, a Columbian composer working with balloons (balloon kit) since 1987, has acknowledged this suffering through his balloon work. In Musica Global, Arias composed a series of 20 short balloon pieces called Caouchu: The Weeping Tree/El Árbol Que Llora in memory of the native Americans tortured and killed by the North American and European hunger for natural rubber latex.
These ontological relations between the balloon’s materiality and the environment inform Dunaway’s work. “I’m writing a piece for a large 30 to 35 person balloon ensemble. This piece is called Wind Ensemble and is all about the air going out of the balloon, and the sound of the mouthpiece being vibrated as the air comes out.” Dunaway shares a video recording of this work and the room is filled with high pitched sounds changing at different speeds. The experience is immersive; a meditation on air and vibration. “It’s rather minimal in the concept because I really want you to notice the small changes and nuances over time.” The performative element of the piece has balloon players squeezing the balloon’s mouthpiece and bending over large balloons to make them vibrate until the balloon’s last breath. “Ideally, I would like 60 balloon players, that would be great!” she exclaims. The embodied relationship that Dunaway has developed with the balloon over the past decades resulted in an artistic practice extremely tuned to the sonic proprieties of every inch of the latex balloon.
The poetics of balloon music bring forth alternative narratives that challenge dominant hierarchies of music production, bypassing expensive technology and expectations of gendered musical expression. The balloon as an object of childhood and of playfulness is charged with emotional resonance and invites the construction of meaning while offering an opportunity to build upon subversive themes. In this two-part article, the balloon was analyzed as an object that is able to generate a vertical dimension of self and the construction of a sense of Place within the silence of the upper air regions that informed the “listening ear” to perceive difference. As a Probe, the balloon navigates the irreversibly altered constitution of the airspace, sonifying masses of air and weather data. Filled with breath or air, in Play, the latex balloon is an extra ear attached to our bodies that vibrate in sympathy with the terrestrial agitations of the Earth. Maybe Finn from Adventure Time is on to something. “Balloon music is the future.”
Thanks to Judy Dunaway for the interview and records; Marina Koslock for co-producing the interview with Judy Dunaway; and Jennifer Stoever for your help and excellent editing.
Featured Image: Judy Dunaway, photo by Alice Bellati
Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio producer and independent researcher based in New York city.
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Sounding Our Utopia: An Interview With Mileece–Maile Colbert
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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Welcome to Voices Carry. . . a forum meditating on the material production of human voices the social, historical, and political material freighting our voices in various contexts. What are voices? Where do they come from and how are their expressions carried? What information can voices carry? Why, how, and to what end? Today John Melillo offers us a multi-track rerecording of Bernadette Mayer reading from The Ethics of Sleep. He urges us to “value illegibility over legibility and the abstract over the figured. If we deemphasize voice, we acknowledge the ways in which voices can undo themselves in their production.” –SO! Ed. Jennifer Stoever
What separates voice from noise? At what point does a voice dissipate into the sounds that surround and, at times, threaten to overwhelm it? In “The Dream Life of Voice,” I draw special attention to the ways in which attending to voice—and its precarity—entails a heightened sensation of noise. Through my manipulation of recorded audio in this project, I argue that noise is not merely an unwanted or surprising sound: it is the material sonic trace of an unconscious listening that continues to work beneath, around, and within a conscious listening to voice.
In this audio recording, I have taken a selection from a reading by the poet Bernadette Mayer that I recorded for the Tucson-based poetry and arts organization, POG, on February 6, 2016. I used a standard SM58 microphone, a digital audio recording interface, and the software program Logic. Mayer is known as a poet who has tested the boundaries of poetic statement through poems that engage with the conscious and unconscious uses of language. In this selection, she reads a long poem from her book The Ethics of Sleep (Trembling Pillow Press, 2011) on the power of dreams and dream language. In the performance, the poem and her voice create a sense of continuous movement, with quick and unpredictable turns of phrase sutured together by a syntactic and rhythmic familiarity. In this audio project, I flatten the sonic space in this recording of Mayer in order to abstract the voice and place it within a wider frequency spectrum of noise. Just as Mayer’s words engage her book’s title, my audio project argues for the possibility of an unconscious but engaged listening to noise.
Roland Barthes famously defined listening as “a psychological act” and hearing as a mere “physiological phenomenon” (Barthes 246). In a kind of doubling of listening’s action, the work of formulating or understanding a voice involves a selecting for sounds as a significant figure—the mark of a person or persona. Yopie Prins calls the recorded, mediated voice of 19th century poetry a “voice inverse,” a prosthetic figure composed out of its imprint by mechanical means, whether those means be metrical, print-based, or phonographic (48). Of such mechanical means—in particular, audio recording—Charles Bernstein argues, “the mechanical semblance of voice has become the signal in a medium whose material base is sonic, not vocal. In such a phonic economy, noise is sound that can’t be recuperated as voice” (110). In taking up this binary phonic economy, however, I want to hear how voice and noise interweave and interpenetrate, with the sonic figuration of voice as a threshold that opens out to other sounds not ostensibly included in its composition.
Press Play to hear “The Dream Life of Voice” by John Melillo, a rerecording of Bernadette Mayer reading from The Ethics of Sleep.
In this 12’43” audio recording, I have devised an analytic and synthetic method that allows listeners to reframe and refocus their hearing toward the trace of noise in voice, as well as the voice’s trace in noise. The final recording is composed of three simultaneous tracks, each of which represents a different “noise regime” in relation to the poet’s voice.
The first, original, track contains the “straight” recording of Mayer’s voice and speech: one hears her performance of the poem loud and clear. This is the imprint of voice on the recording mechanism in a phonic economy of voice and noise, in which voice seems to counteract and silence its opposite.
The second track contains a manipulated version of the original track, in which I have removed all the audio of Mayer’s voice and constructed a “background noise” track from what remains. In this method, I simply cut out Mayer’s voice from the audio file, keeping only the “silent” moments of the reading. I then combined and looped these fragments to create an amplified track of the background sounds—sounds of the people in the room, cars outside, a train passing, and the recording medium itself (hiss). In this way, I flip the binary toward that which is explicitly unheard in the recording.
For the third track, I manipulated the original recording by applying a Fast Fourier Transform with the software program Spear. This method breaks down the sounds into a collection of sine wave frequencies that can be graphically manipulated in the software program. I then removed the loudest frequencies (present mostly as Mayer’s voice) in order to emphasize the upper partials and continuous non-vocal frequencies masked by the force of the voice. This track marks a synthesis in which voice blends with and disappears into the frequency spectrum.
I combined these three tracks and slowly adjusted the volume for each one. The track with Mayer’s voice starts off as the loudest of the three. Her comments on the noise from a train that has just passed begin the montage. This track then undergoes a long, slow diminuendo, and by the end of the piece, it is silenced. At the same time, the background noise track becomes louder and peaks in the middle, interfering with and working alongside the voice. The track of synthesized frequencies slowly crescendos so that it is loudest at the end of the piece.
By distributing the volumes in this chiasmatic way, I want to call attention to the layered listenings happening within the situation of Mayer’s reading. Just as the figure of voice arises out of the ground of noise, it also contains frequencies that are not so easily differentiated from their background. A voice is an acoustic entity figured by a body and a performance. However habitual and repetitive the action is, it takes effort to suture vocal sounds to the body, place, and apparatus that they emanate from. In this track I want to find a way to hear a drifting, unconscious meandering within that focused effort. I want to materialize listening’s paratactic wavering of attention to one thing after another.
In the production of this movement toward noise, I value illegibility over legibility and the abstract over the figured. If we deemphasize voice, we acknowledge the ways in which voices can undo themselves in their production—which is the ethics of dream life that Mayer argues for and illuminates within her poem. The outside within the voice is a frequency scatter that connects the dissipation of an emitted sound in space with all the other sounds that interfere or resonate with that sound. The strange whisper music that ends my audio project “flattens” the sonic space idealized by the division of figure and ground. By abstracting Bernadette Mayer’s performance, I seek a synthesis that brings the noisy dream life of voice into relief.
Featured Image: “Scream” by Flickr user Josh Otis CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
John Melillo is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Arizona. His book project, Outside In: The Poetics of Noise from Dada to Punk, examines the ways in which poetry and performance make noise during the twentieth century. He has written and presented work on empathy in sound poetry, folk-song utopianism, the post-punk band DNA, and tape noise in Charles Olson. John performs music and sound art as Algae & Tentacles.
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The Theremin’s Voice: Amplifying the Inaudibility of Whiteness through an Early Interracial Electronic Music Collaboration
On an October evening in 1934, Clara Rockmore made her debut performance with the theremin, a then-new electronic instrument played without touch, in New York City’s historic Town Hall. Attended by critics from every major newspaper in the city, the performance not only marked the beginning of Rockmore’s illustrious career as a thereminist, it also featured the first known interracial collaboration in electronic music history. A sextet of Black male vocalists from the famous Hall Johnson choir performed a group of spirituals arranged by Johnson with Rockmore, whom the press—apparently unaware of her Jewish heritage—considered white. The collaboration was an anomaly: no other record exists of Black musicians performing with Rockmore (she toured with Paul Robeson in the 1940s, but no evidence has surfaced showing the two ever on stage together).
Though the Johnson Sextet’s performance with Rockmore is of intense interest to me as a historian, at the time the white press mostly ignored the collaboration. This is surprising given Johnson’s fame: his choir and work were critically acclaimed in productions including the 1930 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play The Green Pastures and the 1933 musical Run Little Chillun’. The Sextet’s spirituals were prominently featured in Rockmore’s debut, with four songs closing the program (“Stan’ Still Jordan,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Water Boy,” and “O Lord Have Mercy On Me”) and “Old Man River” likely serving as an encore. Yet only two writers—one Black, one white—discussed the spirituals in any detail. Though brief, these two reviews can help us understand why most critics ignored the spirituals at Rockmore’s debut, and illuminate the role that race played in the reception of Rockmore’s career, the theremin, and electronic musical sound.
One of these reviews was by an anonymous critic writing for the New York Amsterdam News, the city’s highly influential weekly African-American newspaper. Though unidentified, the author was likely Black, given the source. The critic described Rockmore and the Sextet’s rendition of the song “Water Boy” as “particularly effective,” ascribing the theremin’s expressive power to its sonority: “the deep ’cello tone of the instrument was more than faintly reminiscent of the throaty humming of a Negro singer.” The white critic who wrote about the collaboration—Paul Harrison, in his syndicated column, “In New York,” that ran in several newspapers across New York State—seemed to corroborate the Amsterdam reviewer’s hearing, writing that the theremin had been “improved so that it now can be made to sound like the choral humming of a hundred Negro voices.” Remarkably, Harrison made the comparison without so much as mentioning the presence of the Johnson Sextet or the spirituals, erasing the very real presence of Black musicians in the performance.
These reviewers agreed that the theremin sounded like a Black voice during the spirituals. Yet Harrison used the comparison to disparage. His use of the word “improved” was clearly ironic, and the overall tone of his review was mocking (he described twenty-three-year-old Rockmore as “a lovely and graceful girl, but too serious about her new art”). The Amsterdam critic, meanwhile, compared the theremin’s tone to that of a Black voice to communicate the instrument’s expressivity—its beauty, emotion, and humanity. They validated their own hearing of the powerful performance by noting that the capacity crowd “hailed Miss Rockmore’s mastery of the theremin and demanded several encores.” Despite the contrasts, these pieces share something absent from nearly every contemporary theremin review: an explicit discussion of race and the theremin’s timbre. These seemingly anomalous takes, when understood in the context of the theremin’s broader contemporary reception history among (mostly white, mostly male) critics, can amplify what Jennifer Stoever identified in The Sonic Color Line as the “inaudibility of whiteness” in the history of the theremin and electronic musical sound (12).
When Rockmore performed as a soloist, critics tended to describe the theremin’s timbre in the context of western art music sonorities, making comparisons to the cello, violin, and classical voices. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers, describing its tone as warm and rich, and writing of its “vivid expressiveness” and “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone. Many attributed the instrument’s expressivity to Rockmore’s skill as a trained classical performer, praising her repertory choices, musicianship, and technique.
Alongside celebrations of the theremin’s emotionally charged sonority was an opposing rhetoric of noisiness, one that critics employed to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. Early critics often complained about the “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento employed by thereminists, most of whom, like Rockmore, were (at least perceived as) white women. There is a practical explanation for this: if you’ve ever played a theremin, you know that without the use of these techniques, it is nearly impossible to locate pitches, or create even the impression of accurate intonation. Critics turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking copious chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. They compared the theremin’s timbre variously to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano one critic dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such reviews used bodies and instruments assumed to be white and female as points of comparison: sopranos, violins, mothers (who were racially unmarked and thus by default white). To critics, the theremin was objectionable, was “other,” in a specifically white, specifically feminine way.
Critics were especially concerned with the theremin’s timbre, projecting onto it their hopes and anxieties about the potential impact of technology on their musical world. Since the theremin’s 1929 arrival in New York, critics had been assessing the instrument’s potential, treating it as a bellwether for technology’s impact on the future of music. Rockmore stoked this interest by claiming that her debut would “prove that the [theremin] may be a medium for musical expression.” Critics centered their hopes and anxieties about the promise and threat of electronic music in analyses of the theremin’s timbre, where the instrument could either be exposed as a fraud—a poor substitute for “authentic” “living” music—or celebrated as a breakthrough.
Discussions among New York’s white critics about the theremin’s musical promise unfolded specifically and exclusively with regard to the white western classical tradition. Just as Toni Morrison noted in her book Playing in the Dark that “the readers of virtually all American fiction have been positioned as white,” whiteness was the default for writers and readers of music criticism on the theremin (xii). Though most white critics at Rockmore’s debut never mentioned race, their tacit dismissal of the spirituals she performed with the Johnson Sextet reveals that race was a central organizing force in their assessments of the instrument. The brief reception history of the spirituals Johnson arranged for voice and theremin, wherein writers—listening to the instrument perform with Black voices—clearly heard the theremin’s tone as Black, is the exception that proves the rule: white critics, by and large, heard the instrument as sounding white.
Just as Morrison asked: “how is ‘literary whiteness’ and ‘literary blackness’ made, and what is the consequence of that construction,” we must explore the ramifications of the assumptions we’ve made about whiteness and electronic musical sound (xii). For it is not only critics of the 1930s who heard the theremin’s sound as white: most current histories continue to focus on and reify a predominantly white academic and avant-garde electronic music history canon. The Amsterdam critic’s hearing opens new possibilities for understanding the history of electronic musical sound. While popular perceptions often frame electronic musical sound as “lifeless” or emotionally “flat,” the Amsterdam critic’s comparison of the theremin to the voice opens our ears to alternative hearings of electronic musical sound as expressive, affective, even human. When we hear this aspect of electronic music’s sound, we can begin to account for histories that go beyond the white western cannon that dominates our understanding of electronic music history. We can populate such accountings with performers like Rockmore and composers like Johnson who worked and lived outside the boundaries we have traditionally drawn around electronic music history.
Dr. Madd Vibe (aka Angelo Moore) plays theremin in his band The Brand New Step, covering “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” Angelo Moore been playing theremin for over 20 years.
Featured Image: “Theremins are Dreamy” by Flickr User Gina Pina, (CC BY 2.0)
Kelly Hiser is co-founder and CEO of Rabble, a startup dedicated to empowering libraries to support and sustain their local creative communities. Kelly holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and embraces work at the intersections of arts, humanities, and the public good. She talks and writes regularly about music, technology, identity, and power.