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On “The Dream Life of Voice:” A Rerecording of Bernadette Mayer Reading from The Ethics of Sleep

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Voices CarryWelcome 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.

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“Bernadette Mayer’s 1971 performance piece, Memory, for which she shot a roll of 35 mm film and composed a journal entry every day for a month, addresses issues of time, narrative, nostalgia, narcissism, and documentation, along with the possibilities of art and poetry in relation to perception and remembrance.” – Marcella Durand, Hyperallergic

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.

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“Unsmoothed” by Flickr user Felix Morgner, CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

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Featured Image: “Scream” by Flickr user Josh Otis CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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 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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Listening to the Beautiful Game: The Sounds of the 2018 World Cup

I heard them before I saw them. Walking to my apartment in Moscow’s Tverskoy District, I noticed a pulsating mass of sound in the distance. Turning the corner, I found a huge swath of light blue and white and—no longer separated by tall Stalinist architecture—was able to clearly make out the sounds of Spanish. Flanked by the Izvestiia building (the former mouthpiece for the Soviet government), Argentinian soccer fans had taken over nearly an entire city block with their revelry. The police, who have thus far during the tournament been noticeably lax in enforcing traffic and pedestrian laws, formed a boundary to keep fans from spilling out into the street. Policing the urban space, the bodies of officers were able to contain the bodies of reveling fans, but the sounds and voices spread freely throughout the neighborhood.

Moscow is one of eleven host cities throughout Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which runs from June 14 to July 15. Over one million foreign fans are expected to enter the country over the course of the tournament, and it is an important moment in Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reassert Russia’s power on the global stage. Already, it has been called “the most political tournament ever,” and discussions of hooliganism, safety concerns, and corruption have occupied many foreign journalists in the months leading up to the start. So gloomy have these preambles been that writers are now releasing opinion pieces expressing their surprise at Moscow’s jubilant and exciting atmosphere. Indeed, it seems as though the whole world is not only watching the games, but also listening attentively to try to discern Russia’s place in the world.

Police officers during World Cup 2018 in Russia, Image by Flickr User Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0)

Thus it comes as no surprise that the politics of sound surrounding the tournament have the potential to highlight the successes, pitfalls, and contradictions of the “beautiful game.” Be it vuvuzelas or corporate advertising, sound and music has shaped the lived experience of the World Cup in recent years. And this tournament is no exception: after their team’s 2-1 win over Tunisia on June 18, three England fans were filmed singing anti-semitic songs and making Nazi salutes in a bar in Volgograd. That their racist celebrations took place in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad and the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, added historical insult and even more political significance. The incident has shaped reception of England fans and their sounds across the country. As journalist Alec Luhn recently tweeted, police cordoned off singing England supporters in Nizhny Novgorod after their victory over Panama, ostensibly keeping the risk of hooliganism at bay. The incident stands in stark contrast with the police barrier around the Argentina fans, who were being protected not from supporters of other nationalities, but rather from oncoming traffic.

More than anything, however, sound has facilitated cultural exchange between fans and spectators. In recent years, historians and musicologists have paid more attention to the multivalent ways musical exchanges produce meaningful political and social understandings. Be it through festivals, diplomatic programs, or compositional techniques, music plays a powerful role in the soft power of nations and can cultivate relationships between individuals around the globe. More broadly, sound—be it organized or not—shapes our identity and is one of the ways by which we make meaning in the world. Sound, then, has the potential to vividly structure the experience of the World Cup—a moment at which sound, bodies, individuals, and symbolic nations collide.

At the epicenter of all of this has been Red Square, Moscow’s—and perhaps Russia’s—most iconic urban space. The site of many fan celebrations throughout the World Cup, Red Square’s soundscape brings together a wide variety of national identities, socio-economic considerations, and historical moments. To walk through Red Square in June 2018 is to walk through over five-hundred years of Russian history, emblematized by the ringing bells and rust-colored walls of the Kremlin; through nearly eighty years of Soviet rule, with the bustle and chatter of curious tourists waiting to enter Lenin’s tomb; and through Russia’s (at times precarious) global present, where fans from Poland join with those from Mexico in chants of “olé” and Moroccan supporters dance and sing with their South Korean counterparts. The past, present, and an uncertain future merge on Red Square, and the sonic community formed in this public space becomes a site for the negotiation of all three.

Map of Red Square

In the afternoon of June 19, I walked through Red Square to listen to the sounds of the World Cup outside the stadium. At the entrance to Red Square stands a monument to Grigory Zhukov, the Soviet General widely credited with victory over the Nazis in World War II. Mounted upon a rearing horse, Zhukov’s guise looms large over the square. In anticipation of that evening’s match between Poland and Senegal at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium, Polish fans were gathered at the base of Zhukov’s monument and tried to summon victory through chants and songs (Poland would end up losing the match 2-1.) Extolling the virtues of their star player, Robert Lewandowski, the fans played with dynamics and vocal timbres to assert their dominance. Led by a shirtless man wearing a police peaked cap, the group’s spirit juxtaposed with Zhukov’s figure reiterated the combative military symbolism of sporting events. Their performance also spoke to the highly gendered elements of World Cup spectatorship: male voices far outnumbered female, and the deeper frequencies traveled farther across space and architectural barriers. The chants and songs, especially those that were more militaristic like this one, reasserted the perception of soccer as a “man’s sport.” Their voices resonated with much broader social inequalities and organizational biases between the Women’s and Men’s World Cups.

From there, I walked through the gates onto Red Square and was greeted by a sea of colors and hundreds of bustling fans. Flanked by the tall walls of the Kremlin on one side and the imposing façade of GUM (a department store) on the other, the open square quickly became cacophonous. Traversing the crowds, however, the “white noise” of chatter ceded to pockets of organized sound and groups of fans. Making a lap of the square, I walked from the iconic onion domes of St. Basil’s cathedral past a group of chanting fans from Poland, who brought a man wearing a Brazil jersey and woman with a South Korean barrette into the fold. Unable to understand Polish, the newcomers were able to join in on the chant’s onomatopoeic chorus. Continuing on, I encountered a group of Morocco supporters who, armed with a hand drum, sang together in Arabic. Eventually, their song morphed into the quintessential cheer of “olé,” at which point the entire crowd joined in. I went from there past a group of Mexico fans, who were posing for an interview while nearby stragglers sang. The pattern continued for much of my journey, as white noise and chatter ceded to music and chants, which in turn dissipated either as I continued onward or fans became tired.

Despite their upcoming match, Senegalese fans were surprisingly absent. Compared to 2014 statistics, Poland had seen a modest growth of 1.5% in fans attending the 2018 World Cup—unsurprising, given the country’s proximity to Russia and shared (sometimes begrudgingly) history. Meanwhile, Senegal was not among the top fifty countries in spectator increases. That’s not to say, of course, that Senegalese supporters were not there; they were praised after the match for cleaning up garbage from the stands. Rather, geography and, perhaps, socio-economic barriers delimited the access fans have to attending matches live as opposed to watching them from home. With the day’s match looming large, their sounds were noticeably missing from the soundscape of Red Square.

Later that evening, I stopped to watch a trio of Mexico fans dancing to some inaudible music coming from an iPhone. Standing next to me was a man in a Poland jersey. I started chatting with him in (my admittedly not great) Polish to ask where he was from, if he was enjoying the World Cup so far, and so on. Curious, I asked what he thought of all the music and songs that fans were using in celebrations. “I don’t know,” he demurred. “They’re soccer songs. They’re good to sing together, good for the spirit.”

Nodding, I turned back toward the dancing trio.

“You are Russian, yes?” The man’s question surprised me.

“No,” I responded. “I’m from America.”

“Oh,” he paused. “You sound Russian. You don’t look Russian, but you sound Russian.”

I’d been told before that I speak Polish with a thick Russian accent, and it was not the first time I’d heard that I did not look Russian. In that moment, the visual and sonic elements of my identity, at least in the eyes and ears of this Polish man, collided with one another. At the World Cup, jerseys could be taken off and traded, sombreros and ushankas passed around, and flags draped around the shoulders of groups of people. Sounds—and voices in particular—however, seemed equal parts universal and unique. Emanating from the individual and resonating throughout the collective, voices bridged a sort of epistemological divide between truth and fiction, authenticity and cultural voyeurism. In that moment, as jubilant soccer fans and busy pedestrians mingled, sonic markers of identity fluctuated with every passerby.

I nodded a silent goodbye to my Polish acquaintance and, joining the crowd, set off into the Moscow evening.

Featured Image: “World Cup 2018” Taken by Flickr User Ded Pihto, taken on June 13, 2018.

Gabrielle Cornish is a PhD candidate in Musicology at the Eastman School of Music. Her research broadly considers music, sound, and everyday life in the Soviet Union. In particular, her dissertation traces the intersections between music, technology, and the politics of “socialist modernity” after Stalinism. Her research in Russia has been supported by the Fulbright Program, the Glenn Watkins Traveling Fellowship, and the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Other projects include Russian-to-English translation as well as a digital project that maps the sounds and music of the Space Race.

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