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A Tradition of Free and Odious Utterance: Free Speech & Sacred Noise in Steve Waters’s Temple

**This post is co-authored by Gabriel Solomon Mindel and Alexander J. Ullman

On February 2, 2017, thousands of protesters took to the University of California Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza to protest and ultimately shut down a planned talk by the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Captured in real time, its dark and blurry image projected to screens across the world, this gathering dumped fuel on a fire that had been burning slowly for many years. Conservative and predominantly “white-male” resentment against the mainstreaming of “politically correct” speech had become the basis for an inchoate community via the internet and was now emerging as a socially acceptable sentiment in the era of Trump. For those protesting at Berkeley, the silencing of Yiannopoulos was not intended simply to condemn the content of his speech, but to intervene preemptively in the culture-wide “fascist creep” disguising itself as humour and taboo breaking. It called into question the actual meaning of both speech and freedom in a place that had become synonymous with the struggle for both.

Viewed by some as a riot, the militant protest tactics evoked scorn, distress, and confusion from a wide spectrum of respondents. Conservative audiences were horrified by the self-evident violence of the Left, even while enjoying a laugh with Milo at the various fails of “SJW’s” and “snowflakes”. Meanwhile Liberals couldn’t seem to fathom the expressions of anger and nihilism evinced by the black-clad mass celebrating in front of the shattered windows of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, who set a fire at the very steps upon which the Free Speech Movement of 1964 had been birthed. The cancellation of Yiannopoulos’s talk has since set off a chain of rhetorical and physical confrontations resulting in the cancellation of Conservative speeches on campus and multiple “free speech” rallies which have devolved into street battles between a motley cohort of alt-right groups and various counter-protesters surrounding a park that was also named after MLK.

Sproul Plaza Protests, UC Berkeley, September 24, 2017, Image by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Coincident with the events that same spring, Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre staged Temple by British playwright Steve Waters, a revisiting of 2011’s Occupy London protests whose encampments surrounded the area of St. Paul’s Cathedral. First performed in London in 2015, the play speculates that the swirling circumstances of the ten-day period leading up to the dean’s resignation (including the cathedral’s closing on October 21; the Canon Chancellor’s abrupt resignation on the morning of October 28; and the reopening of the cathedral later that day, effectively evicting the protesters) had something to do with the church’s own struggle to reconcile its responsibility to serve both God and his people in the face of ethical contradictions.

Seeing Temple on Aurora Street, barely two weeks and two blocks from the “Patriot’s Day” melee on April 15, provoked us to consider what resonances seemed to be emerging between places and times evoked in the play and humming in the streets. Thinking comparatively between Berkeley in 2017 and Temple yields historical and political synchronicities, between protest movements and the institutions which arbitrate public space and public speech. Temple offers a critique of how the discourse of “free speech” is naturalized, even weaponized, by historical actors; yet it also imagines speech as sonic form never separate from its ethical content. The play exposes how “free speech” often serves as an empty signifier mobilized for political purposes, how it always risks being separated from its material and ethical consequences. Against this, the play pits the noise of protest as a powerful riposte to these abstractions.

“Preaching at. St. Paul’s Church”–Folkmoot

Temple’s story centers around the personal conflict of the Dean, who vacillates between support for the protests surrounding the church and for the city eager to evict them, dramatizing how London’s Occupy movement, displaced from its original encampment outside the London Stock Exchange, took refuge in the courtyards surrounding St. Paul’s Cathedral, replacing one symbolic institution of power with another. As the Dean reminds us, this debating throng gathered on the church’s doorstep is an echo of the folkmoot at St. Paul’s Cross from nearly 800 years before: “In the Reformation era firebrands would preach against usury, against merchants in the very presence of the Mayor…doubtless a riotous affair…” Thus Temple situates Occupy as not an impediment to the functioning of the Church, but a revival of “a tradition of free, even odious utterance… of untrammelled public speech” (41-42).

Despite this sympathetic gesture, the Dean struggles against the unremitting noise of the current protestors outside his window. He frequently sits on the window ledge, holding his head as he peers out toward the loud chanting in what otherwise would be moments of silence: “This drumming, the music, the occasional shout…every night this fitful rhythm of noise, shouts, cries” (34). The polyphonic mass is yet another ethically demanding voice fighting for the dean’s attention. So too the other church leaders, the city lawyer arguing for the camp’s eviction, and the Canon Chancellor’s resort to Twitter where the realm of appearances seems to dictate political decisions because “like the whispering gallery …everything we do is broadcast …amplified …reverberating around the world” (42). Should the dean re-open the church and have the protest camp removed? Should he resign? What would Jesus do?

Still from Aurora Theater’s production of Temple, Berkeley, CA, Image courtesy of authors

This interior struggle is formalized in the clash between the sound of protesters and the ritualized sounds of the church. The play compresses the drama of a three hour period into an hour and a half, and every quarter hour the bells at St. Paul’s ring, marking the ritualized time structure of the church and its domination over the city’s soundscape. R. Murray Schafer points out in The Soundscape that “time is always running out in the Christian system,” (i.e. its inevitable destiny in the apocalypse) “and the clock bell punctuates this fact” (56). The bells mark time, but they also mark power, for they are the “Sacred Noise” that Schafer claims societies “deliberately invoked as a break from the tedium of tranquility” – the silent world of the profane (51). The Church’s ability to determine time and disturb the peace is the (sound)mark of its power, yet the sound of the London protest encampment frequently disrupts its claim to sovereignty. The sonic agon of the play allegorized the one in the street: as Occupy’s cacophony challenged St. Paul’s exclusive right to make noise without censure, so too can the free speech protests be heard as a kind of sonic riposte to the institutionalized soundscape of the university, a sparse scholarly murmur punctuated by the bells of Berkeley’s Sather Tower.

Sonic ritual and sacred noise bookend Temple: the sound of a church choir opening it and the bells in closing. However, the play’s critique of such ritual occurs through constant sonic disruption and the unremitting attack on silence in the final stage direction (“the noise builds”). Therefore, as the Dean’s decision to reopen the cathedral suggests that the church’s rituals have won out, Temple insinuates that Occupy’s struggle was as much about the power to disrupt the peace with speech as it was to preserve its camp. This disruptive quality of ‘noise’ in the play calls attention to protest’s spatial  capacities: the ability for sounding to extend beyond the limits of the body, to challenge the very architectures of power. We never see the protesters in the play, yet their acousmatic noise is manifest as if a distinct body were sharing space within the rectory. . Yet what are the limits of this ghostly aurality? Does the noise of the crowd simply become metaphor? We might ask the same thing of the protests at Berkeley, their proximity to the halls of power – university buildings, city hall, police stations – not compensating for their simultaneous containment in public space and exclusion from power’s internal deliberation. How does this risk metaphorizing the very material presence of these protests, the people who were using their actions and bodies to protest against the right’s usurpation of the term “free speech”?

Image of Dean Knowles courtesy of authors

The contest between the pew and the street in Temple exposed how the term “free speech” is metaphorically mobilized for political and ethical convenience. In a way, Temple is a critique of the Dean Graeme Knowles’s actual homily given on October 28th, 2011, just before the church reopened and just after the diegetic time of the play closes. In this homily, Knowles appropriates the language of testimony while at the same time appealing to a more abstract notion of “free speech”:

We are called out to be witnesses, to speak out, to testify…like Simon and Jude, many of us will be anonymous, but like them, our voices need to be heard. Because of their testimony, we are here today. Without their voice, the good news of the gospel would not have reached us.

While the church’s reopening (and the concomitant removal of Occupy) may actually appear like a restriction on free speech, the dean reassures congregants that the church is itself a testament to it. “World leaders have spoken under this throne,” he says, at once emphasizing the church’s personal importance to Christians who feel silenced by the church’s closing and the political importance of an otherwise “neutral” institution.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England, Image courtesy of authors

Waters’s play attempts to resolve the church/streets binary by filling hollow calls to testimony with multiple voices across a political spectrum, offering a polyvocality that helps to unpack this contradiction of the church standing up for free speech while simultaneously denying it. Through the clash of sounds and the characters voices, Temple exposes how Knowles’s homily is actually covering up a historical contradiction between numerous relations: between various iterations of what “free speech” means; between who controls the soundscape; between various iterations of free speech movements throughout history.  It is here that the link to what is happening in Berkeley in 2017 is most poignant, in the resonance between the church’s past and its conflicted present on the one hand, and the dissonance between the historic memory of the UC Berkeley-based Free Speech Movement (FSM) of the fall of 1964 and how the “New Free Speech Movement” of the “alt-right” has effortlessly yet inaccurately usurped its language and moral ground.

If the Church and the University are spaces of exception, institutions that are both public and private, their responsibility to democratized speech is premised on ethical and legal principles that are not the same as the constitution-bound worlds around them. It is this being of the world and not that incites the agonism around who can speak and what they can say: according to Jesus in John 15:19 “… because you do not belong to the world…therefore the world hates you.”

The Free Speech Movement of 1964 advocated for the ability to offer persuasive speech with social consequences–rather than mere talk–carried forth by an uneasy alliance of liberal and conservative students brought together by the simultaneity of the Civil Rights Movement and Republican Party election campaigns. Campus administrators and the economic and political elite of the day claimed that students were being persuaded to perform illegal activities off campus, while it was the FSM leadership’s assertion that civil disobedience and direct action of the type being developed in civil rights and labor struggles was in fact defensible “free expression.” 50 years ago tactics such as sit-ins, occupations, blocking an arrest, and transforming a police car into a stage were seen by moderate and conservative commentators as coercive and violent forms of rebellion, but for activists they paled in comparison to the everyday racist violence affecting Black people in America, the imperial violence of the Vietnam War, or the total annihilation promised by a potential nuclear war. Similarly today, Antifa accept pre-emptive and coercive violence as necessitated by the potential violence summoned by the “alt-right,” whether in the form of lone individuals inspired by their white supremacist ideology or the spectre of a large scale fascist transformation of American society.

Though protest songs provided the background music to the FSM of the 60’s, the current debate and protests over “free speech” call attention to another constitutive relationship between sound and protest, between noise and power. Behind the liberal plea to “lower the voices” and heighten the reason in political discourse is a reminder that sound has an ability to interact with consciousness in non-rational, even hypnotic ways. We see a kind of hypnosis in the very language of “free speech” today, a term invoked by the alt-right and the university to protect certain political agendas similar to the way that the term “objectivity” was deployed mid-century. Stanley Fish made a similar argument in the 1990’s amidst that moment’s culture wars, arguing that because all speech is socially constructed and ideologically asserted “there’s no such thing as Free Speech.”

Free speech, for Fish, only exists as an ideal construct outside of history in which voices are pure “noise,” separated from consequences and assertions. But his notion of “noise” and “free speech” again are too metaphorical, separated from the uneven histories of protected speech and the materiality of noisy protests. As Jonathan Sterne writes, out of the perceived noise and meaninglessness of protests there emerge rhythms and grooves that can be heard farther than they can be seen, that invite participation and resistance. In the context of Temple and the UC Berkeley protests, the “noise” created within and against the term “free speech” should not simply be dialed down or declared a realm of meaningless utterance, but unpacked as an important opening in to how power is both employed and resisted by institutions like the university and the church.

Berkeley Free Speech Protests of 1964, Image courtesy of author

The Chancellors of UC Berkeley have never been averse to using violence to correct and regulate speech on its campuses, whether it be Chancellor Strong’s eviction of the FSM’s occupation of Sproul Hall in 1964, or the brutalization of student protesters by campus police under the watchful eye of Chancellor Birgeneau in 2009. The Dean of St. Paul’s agony could give us insight into what went into Chancellor Christ’s ambivalent public letter that assures us that “free speech” and “safety” will come at a cost. In ‘64 the discourse of “free speech” became a platform for political dialogue and social transformation, not for usurping the language of testimony and personal experience while abstracting real societal power. What the “alt-right” frames as a common struggle for a moral and legal principle only disguises the balances of power that determine who can speak without the consequence of violence: white people or people of color; governments or protestors; bankers or the poor.

“Free Speech” is the domain of a particular sacred noise, one that has the power to disrupt what Martin Luther King Jr. himself described as the “appalling silence and indifference of good people who sit around saying ‘wait on time’.” In this recently discovered speech, given in London just after he spoke at St. Paul’s in December 1964, MLK goes on to say that “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability,” retroactively giving moral weight to Mario Savio’s demand that “you’ve got to put your bodies […] upon the wheels.” We can see this spirit of rebellion in the counter-rhythms of London’s anti-austerity occupations, rising up to meet the bells of St. Paul’s, and as well in the “rough music” of outraged students rising up to meet the Sather Tower Carillon as it insistently keeps time.

Featured Image: Still from video of Berkeley Protests, February 2017

Gabriel Salomon Mindel is an interdisciplinary artist and scholar whose research considers ways that people produce and struggle for space using sound to extend beyond the limits of their bodies, particularly in formal and informal modes of protest. He received an MFA in Visual Arts from Simon Fraser University where his work focused on the production of visual artworks from time-based phenomena such as sound composition, dance, social practices and protest. He has also spent nearly two decades exhibiting artwork, performing improvised music and composing for dance and film. Images, writings and recordings can be found at https://diademdiscos.com/gms/.

Alexander J. Ullman is a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s Department of English where he researches Nineteenth, Twentieth, and Twenty-first Century Literatures. 

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El Caracol: A Stroll through Space and Time in Mexico City

A sound art multimedia piece by Anthony William Rasmussen

Funded by the UC MEXUS Dissertation Research Grant

Map graphics by Julie K. Wesp

Additional Footage by Oswaldo Mejía

The megalopolis of Mexico City is experienced by many who live there as a network of “known” places, laden with both personal memory and collective meaning. Sounds provide inhabitants with a powerful means of navigation: the unique calls of street vendors, song fragments, speech, and protest chants echolocate the listener within a vast spatiotemporal grid. The title of this piece (“the snail/the shell”) refers to the prolific spiral motif in Mesoamerican cosmology and alludes to a nonlinear vision of time and space.

El Caracol, Sounding Board Installation, 2015, Image by Leo Cardoso

The piece consists of four journeys, each beginning at the outskirts of the city and ending in or near the Zócalo—Mexico City’s central plaza and the symbolic heart of the nation. The video element consists of footage captured while walking through various sites in Mexico City and represents the phenomenological present. The audio element provides a counterpoint to the visual: sounds meander and drift from the visual field; occasional ruptures of historical sound expose layers of this audible palimpsest.

Sounding Out! is thrilled to host a virtual installation of “El Caracol” right here, right now:

Featured Image: Screen Capture from El Caracol

Anthony W. Rasmussen is a musician, educator, and postdoctoral fellow at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Currently, he is investigating the transformation of whistles from a rural system of long-distance communication to an aesthetic/symbolic practice in Mexico City. In 2017, he completed a PhD in ethnomusicology from UC Riverside with a dissertation on sound culture and urban conflict, “Resistance Resounds: Hearing Power in Mexico City.” His work can be found in Ethnomusicology ForumAnthony also holds an MFA from UC Irvine where he studied Persian classical music, music composition, and interactive arts technology. He has composed for film, a range of traditional and experimental ensembles, and is singer/songwriter for the pop group, The Fantastic Toes.

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SO! Podcast EPISODE 24: The Raitt Street Chronicles: A Survivor’s History–Sharon Sekhon

Voices at Work: Listening to and for Elsewhere at Public Gatherings in Toronto, Canada (at So-called 150)–Gabriela Jimenez

detritus 1 & 2 and V.F(i)n_1&2 : The Sounds and Images of Postnational Violence in Mexico–Luz María Sánchez

 

In Search of Politics Itself, or What We Mean When We Say Music (and Music Writing) is “Too Political”

Music has become too political—this is what some observers said about the recent Grammy Awards. Following the broadcast last week, some argued that musicians and celebrities used the event as a platform for their own purposes, detracting from the occasion: celebration of music itself.  Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted:

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that the daily grind of a U.N. ambassador is filled with routine realities we refer to as “politics”: bureaucracy, budget planning, hectic meetings, and all kinds of disagreements. It makes some sense to me, then, that Haley would demand a realm of life that is untouched by politics—but why music in particular?

The fantasy of a space free from politics resembles other patterns of utopian thought, which often take the form of nostalgia. “There was a time when only a handful of people seemed to write politically about music,” said Chuck Klosterman, a novelist and critic of pop culture, in an interview in June 2017. He continued:

Now everybody does, so it’s never interesting. Now, to see someone only write about the music itself is refreshing. It’s not that I don’t think music writing should have a political aspect to it, but when it just becomes a way that everyone does  something, you see a lot of people forcing ideas upon art that actually detracts [sic] from the appreciation of that art. It’s never been worse than it is now.

He closed his interview by saying: “I do wonder if in 15 years people are going to look back at the art from this specific period and almost discover it in a completely new way because they’ll actually be consuming the content as opposed to figuring out how it could be made into a political idea.” Klosterman almost said it: make criticism great again.

Reminiscing about a time when music writing was free from politics, Klosterman suggests that critics can distinguish between pure content and mere politics—which is to say, whatever is incidental to the music, rather than central to it.  He offers an example, saying, “My appreciation of [Merle Haggard’s] ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ is not really any kind of extension of my life, or my experience, or even my values. […] I can’t describe why I like this song, I just like it.” If Klosterman, an accomplished critic, tried to describe the experiences that lead him to like this particular song, he probably could—but the point is that he doesn’t make explicit the relationship between personal identity and musical taste.

Screen Capture of Merle Haggard singing “Workin’ Man Blues,” Live from Austin, Texas, 1978

The heart of Klosterman’s concern is that critics project too many of their own problems and interests onto musicians. Musician and music writer Greg Tate recently made a similar suggestion: when reviewing Jay-Z’s album 4:44, Tate focuses on how celebrities become attached to public affects. In his July 2017 review, “The Politicization of Jay-Z,” he writes:

In the rudderless free fall of this post-Obama void […] all eyes being on Bey-Z, Kendrick, and Solange makes perfect agitpop sense. All four have become our default stand-ins until the next grassroots groundswell […] Bey-Z in particular have become the ready-made meme targets of everything our online punditry considers positive or abhorrent about Blackfolk in the 21st century.

Jay and Bey perform live in 2013, by Flickr user sashimomura,(CC BY 2.0)

He suggests that critics politicize musicians, turning them into repositories of various projections about the culture-at-large. Although writing from a very different place than Klosterman, Tate shares the sense that most music criticism is not really about music at all. But whereas Klosterman implies that criticism resembles ideological propaganda too much, Tate implies that criticism is a mere “stand-in” for actual politics, written at the expense of actual political organizing. In other words, music criticism is not political enough.

In 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about this problem, the status of art as politics. In his essay “Criteria of Negro Art,” he dissects what he perceives to be the hypocrisy of any demand for pure art, abstracted from politics; he defends art that many others would dismiss as propagandistic—a dismissal revealed to be highly racialized. He writes:

Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for  any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.

Du Bois’s ideas would be engaged extensively by later authors, including Amiri Baraka. In his 1963 essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” he addresses politics in terms of “attitude.” Then-contemporary white critics misunderstood black styles, he argued, because they failed to fully apprehend the attitudes that produced them. They were busy trying, and failing, to appreciate the sound of bebop “itself,” but without considering why bebop was made in the first place.

Dizzy Gillespie, one of BeBop’s key players, in Paris, 1952, Image courtesy of Flickr User Kristen, (CC BY 2.0)

As Baraka presents it, white critics were only able to ignore black musicians’ politics and focus on the music because the white critics’ own attitudes had already been assumed to be superior, and therefore rendered irrelevant. Only because their middle-brow identities had been so thoroughly elevated in history could these middle-brow critics get away with defining the object of their appreciation as “pure” music. Interestingly, as Baraka concludes, it was their ignorance of context that ultimately served to “obfuscate what has been happening with the music itself.” It’s not that the music itself doesn’t matter; it’s that music’s context makes it matter.

In response to morerecent concerns about the politicization of popular music, Robin James has analyzed the case of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She performs a close reading of two reviews, by Carl Wilson and by Kevin Fallon, both of whom expressly seek the album’s “music itself,” writing against the many critical approaches that politicize it. James suggests that these critics can appeal to “music itself” only because their own identities have been falsely universalized and made invisible. They try to divorce music from politics precisely because this approach, in her words, “lets white men pop critics have authority over black feminist music,” a quest for authority that James considers a form of epistemic violence.

That said, James goes on to conclude that the question these critics ask—“what about the music?”—can also be a helpful starting point, from which we can start to make explicit some types of knowledge that have previously remained latent. The mere presence of the desire for a space free from politics and identity, however problematic, tells us something important.

Our contemporary curiosity about identity—identity being our metonym for “politics” more broadly—extends back at least to the 1990s, when music’s political status was widely debated in terms of it. For example, in a 1991 issue of the queercore zine Outpunk, editor Matt Wobensmith describes what he perceived to be limitations of thinking about music within his scene. He laments what he calls “musical purism,” a simplistic mindset by which “you are what you listen to.” Here, he capitalizes his points of tension:

Suddenly, your taste in music equates you with working class politics and a movement of the disenfranchised. Your IDENTITY is based on how music SOUNDS. How odd that people equate musical chops with how tough or revolutionary you may be! Music is a powerful language of its own. But the music-as-identity idea is a complete fiction. It makes no sense and it defies logic. Will someone please debunk this myth?

Wobensmith suggests that a person’s “musical chops,” their technical skills, have little to do with their personal identity. Working from the intersection of Klosterman and Tate, Wobensmith imagines a scenario in which the abstract language of music transcends the identities of the people who make it. Like them, Wobensmith seems worried that musical judgments too often unfold as critiques of a musician’s personality or character, rather than their work. Critics project themselves onto music, and listeners also get defined by the music they like, which he finds unsettling.

That same year, in an interview published in the 1991 issue of the zine Bikini Kill, musicians Kathleen Hanna and Jean Smith addressed a similar binary as Wobensmith, that of content and technique. But they take a different view: in fact, they emphasize the fallacy of this dualism in the first place. “You just can’t separate it out,” said Hanna, questioning the possibility of distinguishing between content—the “music itself”—and technique on audio recordings.

Female-fronted bands of this era were sometimes criticized for their lack of technique, even as terrible male punk bands were widely admired for their cavalier disregard of musical rules. Further still, disparagement of women’s poor technique often overlooked the reasons why it suffered: many women had been systematically discouraged from musical participation in these scenes. Either way, as Tamra Lucid has argued, it is the enforcement of “specific canons of theory and technique,” inevitably along the lines of identity, that cause harm if left unexamined.

All of these thinkers show that various binaries in circulation—sound and identity, personality and technique, music and politics—are gendered in insidious ways, an observation arrived at by the same logic that led Du Bois to reveal the moniker of “propaganda” to be racialized. As Hanna puts it, too many people assumed that “male artists are gonna place more importance on technique and female artists’ll place more on content.” She insists that these two concepts can’t be separated in order to elevate aspects of experience that had been implicitly degraded as feminine: the expression of righteous anger, or recollection of awkward intimacy.

Bikini Kill at Gilman Street, Berkeley, CA, 1990s, Image by Flickr User John Eikleberry, CC BY-NC 2.0

Punk had never pretended not to be political, making it a powerful site for internal critique. Since the 1970s, punk had been a form in which grievances about systemic problems and social inequality could be openly, overtly aired. The riot grrrls, by politicizing confessional, femme, and deeply private forms of expression within punk, demonstrated that even the purest musical politics resemble art more than is sometimes thought: “politics itself” is necessarily performative, personal, and highly expressive, involving artifice.

Even the act of playing music can be considered a form of political action, regardless of how critics interpret it. In another punk zine from c. 1990, for example, an anonymous author asks:

What impact can music have? You could say that it’s always political, because a really good pop song, even when it hasn’t got political words, is always about how much human beings can do with the little bag of resources, the limited set of playing pieces and moves and words, available […] Greil Marcus calls it ‘the vanity of believing that cheap music is potent enough to take on nothingness,’ and it may be cool in some places to mock him but here he’s dead-on right.

But music is never only political—that is, not in the elections-and-petitions sense of the word. And music is always an action, always something done to listeners, by musicians (singers, songwriters, producers, hissy stereo systems)—but it’s never only that, when it’s any good: no more than you, reader, are the social roles you play.

The author persuades us that music is political, even as they insist that it’s something more. Music as “pure sound,” as a “universal language” seems to have the most potential to be political, but also to transcend politics’ limitations—the trash, the propaganda. Given this potential, some listeners find themselves frustrated with music’s consistent failure to rise to their occasion, to give them what they desire: to be apolitical.

Kelly Clarkson performed at The Chelsea on July 27, 2012, image by Flickr User The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, CC BY-NC 2.0

In an interview during the recent Grammys broadcast, pop singer Kelly Clarkson said, “I’m political when I feel like I need to be.” It’s refreshing to imagine politics this way, like a light we turn on and off–and it’s a sign of political privilege to be able to do so. But politics are, unfortunately, inextricable from our lives and therefore inescapable: the places we go, the exchanges we pursue, the relationships we develop, the ways we can be in the world. Thinking with Robin James, it seems that our collective desire for a world free from all this reveals a deeper knowledge, which music helps make explicit: we wish things were different.

I wonder if those who lament the “contamination” of the Grammys with politics might be concerned that their own politics are unfounded or irrelevant, requiring revision, just as many white people who are allergic to identity politics are, in fact, aware that our own identity has been, and continues to be, unduly elevated. When Chuck Klosterman refuses to describe the reason why he likes “Workin’ Man Blues,” claiming that he “just does,” does he fear, as I sometimes do, not that there is no reason, but that this reason isn’t good enough?

Fortunately, there are many critics today who do the difficult work of examining music’s politics. Take Liz Pelly, for example, whose research about the backend of streaming playlists reminds us of music’s material basis. Or what about the astute criticism of Tim Barker, Judy Berman, Shuja Haider, Max Nelson, and others for whom musical thought and action are so thoroughly intertwined? Finally, I think of many music writers at Tiny Mix Tapes, such as Frank Falisi, Hydroyoga, C Monster, or Cookcook, for whom creation is a way of life—and whose creative practices themselves are potent enough to “take on nothingness.”

“Music is never only political,” as the anonymous ‘zine article author argues above, but it is always political, at least a little bit. As musicians and critics, our endeavor should not be to transcend this fact, but to affirm it with increasing nuance and care. During a recent lecture, Alexander Weheliye challenged us in a lecture given in January 2018 at New York University, when listening, “To really think: what does this art reflect?” Call it music or call it politics: the best of both will change somebody’s mind for real, and for the better.

Featured Image: Screen Capture from Kendrick Lamar’s video for “HUMBLE,” winner of the 2018 Grammy for “Best Music Video.”

Elizabeth Newton is a doctoral candidate in musicology. She has written for The New Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, Real Life Magazine, the Quietus, and Leonardo Music Journal. Her research interests include musico-poetics, fidelity and reproduction, and affective histories of musical media. Her dissertation, in progress, is about “affective fidelity” in audio and print culture of the 1990s.

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This is What It Sounds Like . . . . . . . . On Prince (1958-2016) and Interpretive Freedom–Ben Tausig

“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’.

Image by Flickr User Frank Hebbert, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

microphone where attorneys present arguments at the Iowa Court of Appeals, Image by Flickr User Phil Roeder,  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

“Area Man Cheers for LRAD Arrival,” Pittsburgh G-20 summit protests, 2009, Image by Flickr User Jeeves,  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

Early Dictophone, Museum of Communication, Image by Flickr User Andy Dean,  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

“Then They Put That Up There”–Shotspotter surveillance mic on top of the Dolores Mission, Image by Flickr User Ariel Dovas, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

Stenographer, Image by Flickr User Mike Gifford, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

Council of Human Rights of the United Nations investigates possible violations committed during the Israeli offensive in the band Gaza,  27 December to 18 January 2008. Image courtesy of the United Nations Geneva via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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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