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Spaces of Sounds: The Peoples of the African Diaspora and Protest in the United States

The slaves who were ourselves had known terror intimately, confused sunrise with pain, & accepted indifference as kindness. – Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo

Sanford. Baltimore. Chicago. Staten Island. Charlotte. Cleveland. Oakland. Austin. Los Angeles. The Bronx.

Despair in the United States is nothing new. It is neither an emotion confined to the neatly-drawn borders of this land nor is it experienced more acutely by any one group of people. The vast discrepancy between the results of the popular vote and the electoral college’s selection of Donald Trump as forty-fifth president of the United States amply reveals despair to be an sentiment viscerally experienced by a wide swath of people in this country, irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, class, or sexuality.

Such despair has been ignored, however, by those who have caused and who continue causing the suffering of peoples of both indigenous and, later, African descent.  We are taught that men from what we now recognize as Europe arrived in this hemisphere in the late fifteenth century, settling initially on a strip of earth in the Caribbean Sea that would become the first site of massacre and genocide, acts which unleashed, if one lends credence to the narrator of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the fukú, the “Curse and the Doom of the New World.” The narrating voice himself characterizes the curse not in the actions of death, but in the “screams of the enslaved, [..] the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began […]” (1). The fukú resonated through the sounds that these human beings made.

Image of the People’s History of Telegraph Avenue mural, designed by Osha Neumann, painted in 1976, restored and enlarged in 1999, at the corner of Haste and Telegraph in Berkeley. Image by Flickr user nursenicole329. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Image of the People’s History of Telegraph Avenue mural, designed by Osha Neumann, painted in 1976, restored and enlarged in 1999, at the corner of Haste and Telegraph in Berkeley. Image by Flickr user nursenicole329 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. – Toni Morrison, Beloved

The State’s unwillingness to hold George Zimmerman responsible for the murder of Trayvon Martin–and its subsequent refusal to hold any police officer accountable for the hundreds of deaths they have caused–has galvanized the United States in the last four years. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children alike have taken to the streets, as #BlackLivesMatter, a true and succinct sentence, has roused ghosts of the past who have never left us, who have always been present, accompanying us on this journey.

This post is not a reflection of the music that has served as a soundtrack to these protests, though there are articles that have done so, such as this one, this one, and this one. These pieces do not include the extensive list of articles that address perhaps the most widely-viewed piece of protest music thus far, Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, a scarce offering of which can be found here, here, and here. Instead, it is an essay inspired by the sounds of the protesters themselves, the noises made by the minds, bodies, and spirits of the men, women and children who have taken to public spaces and sometimes commercial zones in order to confront and object to the protections applied to those who kill men, women, and children, often of African descent.

Listen to Los Angeles in 2013. . .

. . .to Houston in 2014. . .

. . .to New York City in 2014. . .

. . .and to Charleston in 2015. . .

. . .

roachIn his pivotal Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996), Joseph Roach characterized New Orleans and London as urban centers marked by two simultaneous, consistent acts:  appropriation by white people and white power structures of the cultures of the peoples they have violently marginalized, and then, at the same time, a clear distancing from those very cultures and peoples. Although now in its twentieth year of publication, Roach’s theorization of the circum-Atlantic world remains vastly underutilized in scholarly circles—particularly in sound studies, where it should have special resonance– and has become increasingly critical to our understanding of this historical moment, as it “insists on the centrality of the diasporic and genocidal histories of Africa and the Americas, North and South, in the creation of the culture of modernity” (4). With this configuration, Roach accomplishes two feats simultaneously: first, he decentralizes the United States as the focal point of studies about the so-called New World, instead, placing on equal footing all of the histories and cultures of the Americas. For this scholar of the literatures of the Americas, particularly those written by men and women of African descent, Roach’s is a critical gesture that facilitates comparative work across national boundaries.

Second, and most importantly, Roach emphasizes the role of murder, rape and the destruction of whole cultures indigenous to the American and African continents in the foundation of the nations of this hemisphere. Ta-Nehisi Coates is perhaps the most recent writer to remind us that the most potent legacy of such modernity, racism, “is a visceral experience, that is dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth” (Between the World and Me, 10). That which we know as “modernity,” itself a deeply flawed construct that remains in need of serious revision, was born of broken backs, mutilated limbs, hushed middle-of-the-night tears of indigenous and African peoples. Moans and sighs, whispers and wails, cries and screams, they are the musical score of this hemisphere’s American experiment.

The slaves who were ourselves aided Indigo’s mission, connecting soul & song, experience & unremembered rhythms –Ntozake Shange ­

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Harriet Tubman Memorial Monument, Harlem, Image by Flickr User John Mannion (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In the face of a populace accustomed to ignoring the wailing of mothers who have buried their children, who have disregarded their dignity and the weight and shape and taste of their loss, men, women, and children have mobilized. They have made manifest that which communities of peoples of African descent have spoken of and have documented since the founding of this nation. As Roach has utilized the term performance, the literal rituals of mourning by communities of African heritage not only commemorate those who have recently passed but they also invoke the spirits of those who have long borne witness to such violence. Throughout his study, Roach distinguishes between a European heritage that begins to segregate the living from the dead during the Enlightenment (50), and more traditional cultures, particularly African ones, where spirits mingle with their human counterparts. While written texts may not, and often do not, adequately commemorate the loss of lives deemed marginal to the larger society, performance itself – chants, wails, songs – serve not only to memorialize but also as gestures of restoration.

Protesters and activists are no longer satisfied with the well-established decree that we should wait for a distant moment for a more perfect realization of the United States’s many promises.  No, instead, they have identified this as the historical moment in which those oaths are to be fulfilled. They have walked, marched, and stomped through streets, on sidewalks, parks, churches, filling malls and transportation hubs with their bodies as testimony. They have repossessed and redefined spaces once thought of as simply neutral, transparent space as Katherine McKittrick refers to it in Demonic Grounds, revealing the fault-lines of difference based on class, race, gender, and sexuality in this society (xv). They have done so manipulating sound, both recycling chants used through the decades to protest injustice and, at times, simply occupying space, without a word uttered.

The silence waged in the 2014 protest in Grand Central Terminal after the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo in the murder of Eric Garner does not represent erasure, but rather a purposeful demonstration of the willful humanity of those unwilling to forget.

They quiet themselves. They replace the sounds of unfettered pain and grief with its absence, until all that you hear is the mechanized announcement of train schedules. The contrast is stark: the moment highlights what Claudia Rankine has identified as the condition of black life in Citizen, that of mourning (145), against a backdrop of technological advancement, that which has been built on the backs of and through the physical, emotional, and intellectual labor of black life. Here, the members of this community enact what has been called a “die-in”: simulating the physical positioning of bodies in caskets, they force onlookers to confront an uncomfortable truth about the history of this country and of the nations of this hemisphere.

All of us walk on land soaked in the blood of those who have made our lives easier and more convenient.  The men and women at Grand Central make manifest what Roach terms surrogation: in the chasm left by death, they offer a replacement, one that both evokes those who have died and disturbs the complacency of survivors themselves (2). The performance serves to confront those who dare say that the violence of genocide and enslavement of past generations should remain in the past; no, these men and women and the spirits they invoke respond. Time is not linear, as we have been taught. For past, present, and future are temporal constructs used to service oppression and domination; this will no longer do.

From Kara Walker's 2014 exhibit, "A Subtlety," at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn (CC BY-NC 2.0)

From Kara Walker’s 2014 exhibit, “A Subtlety,” at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Here, in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. – Toni Morrison

We bear witness to the reclamation of grief, of lives cut short at the hand of a government charged with protecting those human beings who inhabit its borders, at least theoretically. While, as Roach surmises, “memory [may be] a process that depends crucially on forgetting” (2), we hold space to those dedicated to not forget, to instead excavate the silences, breathe life into those histories, remembering that the stories we have heard, the pages we have read, were once human beings. We create “counter-memories” as challenge and testimony, as a sacred pledge to those who are no longer present physically in this realm (Roach 26). We recall the cultures and practices of those who lived before the written form was a tool of exclusion, when remembrance was a practice of community.

American culture, in the hemispheric sense, incorporates all such rituals, across generations; as Roach notes, it is performance that “works on behalf of living memory, by bringing the parties together as often as necessary” (138). No longer consigned to the past, the spirits of those killed by the state are revived, their existences in the human plain celebrated. They are not defined by how they died but instead by how they lived. While literacy of the written form can separate, sound and gesture more effectively bypass the fictions of difference based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality. Cities of the Dead amplifies how “performance can articulate what otherwise may not be properly communicated” (161).

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Image of the People’s History of Telegraph Avenue mural, designed by Osha Neumann, painted in 1976, restored and enlarged in 1999, at the corner of Haste and Telegraph in Berkeley. Image by Flickr user nursenicole329 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

It’s so magic folks feel their own ancestors coming up out of the earth to be in the realms of their descendants – Ntozake Shange

We say their names. We say their names: Eleanor Bumpers. Anthony Báez. Sean Bell. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Tyisha Miller. Oscar Grant. Rekia Boyd. Trayvon Martin. Tanisha Anderson. Renisha McBride. Eric Garner. Yvette Smith. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Korryn Gaines. Akia Gurley. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Micah Jester. Deborah Danner. Walter Scott. Michelle Lee Shirley.

The list, tragically, grows, and still we say their names. We do so as an act of remembrance. As an offering. As peoples of African descent around the world do in times of ceremony, in the name of ritual. We remember those who have come before us, who have birthed this current historical moment of awakening here in the United States. We say their names.

And, as the sounds of their names said aloud echoes, we pray. Ashé.

Vanessa K. Valdés is associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The City College of New York; she is the editor of Let Spirit Speak! Cultural Journeys through the African Diaspora (2012) and The Future Is Now: A New Look at African Diaspora Studies (2012) and the book review editor of sx salon.  She is the author of Oshun’s Daughters: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas (2014). The title of this essay is inspired by Josh Kun’s Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, where he writes that his book is “focusing on the spaces of music, the spaces of songs, and the spaces of sounds” (25).  

Featured Image “Freedom Marchers” by Flickr User Keoni Cabral, Photoshop processed digital image from the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, Georgia (CC BY 2.0).

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SO! Reads: Shana Redmond’s Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African DiasporaAshon Crawley

Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson

Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka–Kristin Moriah

Something’s Got a Hold on Me: ‘Lingering Whispers’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana–Sionne Neely

 

The Magical Post-Horn: A Trip to the BBC Archive Centre in Perivale

Suddenly we heard a Tereng! tereng! teng! teng! We looked round, and now found the reason why the postilion had not been able to sound his horn: his tunes were frozen up in the horn, and came out now by thawing, plain enough, and much to the credit of the driver. —The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1865

At the BBC Archive Centre in Perivale, London, the proverbial “weight of the past” becomes literal for researchers of sound history. Housed in a massive, unattractive hangar-like building in an industrial park to the northwest of London, the archives suit their environment, one which speaks of practical and solid shapes far more than the lyrical, dainty ivory tower.  And by weight, I mean by serious, and sometimes dangerous, poundage:  the very first machine created to record off of radio, invented around 1930, was a steel pedestal with bus wheel-sized reels on either side. Audio Coordinator of the BBC Archives, John Dell, explained that not only was this machine laborious to load, but it used magnetic steel tape as its recording surface, which could come free from the reels and lacerate incautious operators as it unspooled and bunched.

The weight of these objects, however, is also metaphoric. The earliest recording in my personal audio drama library, sourced off the invaluable Archive.org, is a 1933 episode of Front Page Drama, a dramatized version of an American Weekly Hearst publication.  The past stands monumentally huge if this type of machine, the Marconi-Stille Wire Recorder, was the apparatus that allowed those 15 minutes of 1933 to be captured and, eventually, fed into my 2015 headphones as an MP3.

marconistille

I listen to much of my audio drama, whether old and crackling like Front Page Drama, or new and podcast-y, while commuting, usually on the London Underground.  The episode of Front Page Drama in question I heard during a marathon session when I knew very little could or would interrupt me:  on an twelve-hour transatlantic plane ride.  I quite like the audio-visual play between listening to audio drama that is new to me versus the familiar but never identical sights of the commute; as Primus Luta remarked in 2012, it’s rare for us to engage our full attention on the aural medium.

While listening to Front Page Drama and episodes of Lum and Abner on that flight, I had to wonder how I was prioritizing my listening time.  Who had recorded these episodes from the 1930s?  Who had later taken the trouble to digitize them and upload them to Archive.org?  Why, for example, were these particular recordings freely available yet I couldn’t find an MP3 anywhere of texts I wanted to share more widely, such as Don Haworth’s On a Summer’s Day in a Garden (1975) or Angela Carter’s Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1978)? Both of these recordings are in the BBC back catalogue; I know, because the BBC supplied them to me—but only the basis of a visit to the archive.

Archive.org is bountiful and accessible, the Perivale archives much more exclusive, but both seem to lack curation. The only hope for accessing things like Haworth or Carter outside the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image Archives is that someday a rogue MP3 or BitTorrent will show up online.   The archive does seem, in Neil Verma’s words, then, “transformed before dispersing in space, plucked from the air and mineralized like fossils” (Theater of the Mind, 227);  like Primus Luta’s weighty but playful experiment, Schrödinger’s Cassette, which suspended music in concrete to be risked, or remain aurally untouched forever.  This seems too often to be the impossible choice.

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BBC Perivale Field Trip, Image by Flickr User Hatters! (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The BBC archive storage is eclectic and generally arranged for access by BBC staff rather than for researchers.  The BBC Written Archives at Caversham are restricted to academics, and likewise, the speed of gaining access to sound files from Perivale is predicated on the amount of time BBC staff have to devote to it—naturally, the BBC’s own departments have priority, such as BBC Radio 4 Extra, the archival digital radio station, whose backlog of requests for digitised material from the Perivale archive apparently covers 20 pages.  The sound collections consist of commercial recordings on shellac (90 RPM records) and vinyl (78 RPMs) as well as impressively dinner-plate sized compilation transcriptions which require a special turn-table on which to play and digitize them. The BBC Sheet Music archive is in Perivale, as well, with original handwritten scores filling shelves.

The second half of the British and Irish Sound Archives conference 2015 afforded a privileged glimpse of the archive storage and technical facilities housed on site.  Most of my fellow attendees were archivists of one sort or another, asking detailed questions about transcription devices, fidelity, and storage.  Having recently completed my PhD from Swansea University in English in radio drama, I had made countless requests to this very facility through the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image request service; now I, at long last, hoped to see where my digitised sound files were coming from.  However, we weren’t shown any recordings made on tape cassette or CD but instead Betamax audio-only.  Unseen, too, were the data banks holding all the digitised content, but what myself and my fellow archivists had mainly come to see were the tangible objects making this content possible.

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78s at BBC Perivale, Image by Flicker User Hatters! CC BY-NC 2.0

In the physical copies of the Radio Times of the 1940s and ‘50s, also housed at the British Library at St Pancras (and now available, like all of the Radio Times up to 2009, on BBC Genome), there can be found a little asterisk in the listings for drama, which signifies that the drama was broadcast from a recording, rather than live. The later recording machines of the ‘30s through ‘50s, upon which these recordings would have been made, did not decrease appreciably in size, though perhaps in weight. “If I were to drop this,” Dell told us as he carefully handled a dark blue celluloid tube, about the size and circumference of a toilet paper roll, “it would bounce.  I’m not going to drop it,” he added.  Then the magic began:  via a custom-made device, we heard a few bars of a music hall song from circa 1900.  The recording was surprisingly clear.  It was agonizing when Dell turned it off after only a few seconds.

There is something incredibly seductive about old recordings. In “The Recording that Never Wanted to Be Heard and Other Stories of Sonification,” from The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, Jonathan Sterne and Mitchell Akiyama question the desire for “sonification” of ever-older recordings, especially when such desires manifest in the creation of a digital sound file in 2008 for “the world’s oldest recording,” a phonoautogram from 1860, which was nevertheless never intended to be played back—the phonoautograph was intended as a device to make the aural visual (555).  Radio drama writer Mike Walker really summed up the seduction of old recordings for me in his 2013 BBC Radio 4 ghost story The Edison Cylinderswith a character who is seduced as a scholar and as a participant in a time-traveling mystery by old recordings:  a sound engineer in need of money, she agrees to digitize what seem like boring diary entries from a British imperialist, only to be intrigued by his Victorian domain beyond her rather empty modern existence.  Unfortunately for her, these particular recordings are reaching beyond the grave to try to kill her.

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Edison Cylinder Exposed, by Flickr User fouro boros, CC BY-NC 2.0

Although they do reach out from the grave, most early sound recordings aren’t out to kill you. They do however, present common and vexing issues of authenticity.  By this, I mean specifically the provenance of the recording—is the recording of who or what it says it is?  On the first day of the conference, Dell regaled us with tales of two cylinder recordings surfacing in the mid-twentieth century, of William Gladstone giving a speech.  The words of the speech were identical, but the voices were completely different.  Who was the real Gladstone?  How could you authenticate the voice of a dead person?  Dell further deepened the mystery by telling us the tale of two boxes of wax cylinder recordings in the Perivale archive, whose provenance is torturously (and tantalizingly) unclear.  We glimpsed these mysterious, yellow-cream-colored cylinders, somewhat wider and fatter than the celluloid tubes, in situ, but were they original Edison cylinders from the 1880s?  The piercing desire to believe these cylinders might contain the voices of Gladstone, the future Edward VIII, or even Henry Irving, are potentially “perils of over-optimism,” as Dell puts it.

All the archivists at this event referred to the serendipity of discovering surprises on recordings.  Simon Elmes, whose official title reads “Radio Documentarist, Creative Consultant, and Former Creative Director, BBC Radio Documentaries,” made this manifest as he discussed a subject treated in his documentary from 2005, Ambridge in the Decade of LoveThe Archersan exceptionally long-running BBC radio soap which conjures up visions of rural Englishness and persists among a very dedicated, though mostly older, fan baselike much radio drama and emblematic of gendered attitude toward radio soaps, was not recorded in its first few decades.

Empty Shelves at BBC Perivale, Image by Flickr User Bill Thompson, Image cropped by SO!, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Likewise, anyone researching radio drama before the 1930s is playing a game of roulette; whether any scripts survive will depend entirely on the literary reputation of the author who may have had enough clout to publish them in book form.  Even in the case of Lance Sieveking, the acknowledged creative aesthete behind early BBC radio drama, we lack concrete evidence of his most important work, The End of Savoy Hill (1932).  And The Truth About Father Christmas (1923), the first original drama written specifically for British radio?  Forget about it—it was made for children’s radio.

To return to The Archers, though daily 15-minute scripts were being churned out by Ted Kavanagh from the first years of the 1950s, the broadcasts themselves went missing into the ether (after all, no one suspected the show would still be going after sixty years).  Transcription discs, meant for an overseas market, were found in a box in the BBC Archives, giving a reasonably complete overview of The Archers during the 1950s and ‘60s.  Elmes was ebullient about this discovery.

While I got the general sense that the other archivists at the conference were amused but indifferent toward this particular trove, to me it was inspiring.  I believe the future of audio drama will rely more and more on serials, so the rediscovery of these Archers episodes epitomizes to me the past, present, and future of audio drama in that it speaks of audience involvement and even audience interaction or co-production, which seems key for audio drama going forward, and the aspect of serialization which has vastly overtaken the single drama on television if not on radio.

Harry Oakes as Dan Archer and Gwen Berryman as Doris Archer, 1955

Harry Oakes as Dan Archer and Gwen Berryman as Doris Archer, 1955.

Nevertheless, even if pursuit of these aural rainbows is a foolish one, such desire also enables scholarship. The hope of finding “originals” inspired me personally to discover the birth of what can conceivably called audio drama.  Having researched audio drama from the first known broadcast dramas in English (the adaptations: 2LO London’s Five Birds in a Cage in 1922, WGY Schenectady’s The Wolf in 1922, British Broadcasting Company’s Twelfth Night in 1923; original drama: WLW Cincinnati’s When Love Awakens in 1923, British Broadcasting Company’s Danger in 1924), I was astounded to learn that listeners from World War I might have enjoyed short, dramatized stories on the celluloid tubes (according to Tim Crook, the first audio drama of this nature is a war drama from 1917).  While archives such as the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project of the University of California at Santa Barbara care for these recordings in the same way they do for musical and speech recordings, there is a significant lack of scholarship on them.

If commentary on specific pre-radio audio drama is scarce, it is heartening to read dissections of the performative aspects of “actuality,” such as Brian Hanrahan’s anatomy of Gas Shell Bombardment, 1918.  Wonderfully, in discussing the “staging” of this war-time recording, Hanrahan brings in traditions from theatre and silent film in addition to the phonograph. Professor David Hendy has persuasively argued that some of the organizing tenets behind the British Broadcasting Corporation, whose management was by and large made up of ex-soldiers, was predicated on a desire for silence and calm, ordered, managed sound after the cacophony of war.  Perhaps “cylinder” drama, then, is not really of its time and properly belongs to earlier, or later, cultural milieux.

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Wax cylinder playback at BBC Perivale, Image by Flickr User Hatter! CC BY-NC 2.0

The ephemera of the medium presents a recurring problem in radio drama studies, a weighty feeling of doom. With the future of the BBC’s existence currently perilous, one wonders what the consequences will be for archives like those housed at Perivale.  If the internal function of the archives (for the BBC to make use during Radio 4 Extra broadcasts, for example) disappears, will the archives be opened to wider use?  Or will material without commercial potential simply be discarded?  Who would make the decision as to what was commercially viable and how would they make such decisions?

And the problem with the medium seemingly begins with wax cylinders.  A beautiful, lyrical story from Baron Munchausen—alias Rudolph Erich Raspe, a German author who created a fictional travel writer and chronic teller of tall tales based on a real nobleman infamous for his boasting—cited by many of those fascinated with sound recordings is worth repeating here:  the Baron is traveling in Russia in a snowy landscape and desires the postilion to blow his horn to alert other travellers that their sleigh will be coming around the bend.  Unfortunately, the cold makes the horn incapable of any audible sound.  Disappointed, they make their way to an inn.  Diedre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson cite the “Frozen Horn” from their online Museum of Imaginary Instruments:  “After we arrived at the end inn, my postilion and I refreshed ourselves: he hung his horn on a peg near the kitchen fire; I sat on the other side.”  Warmed by the fire, the horn now begins to play its reserved tunes.

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Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1865. Listen to ABC radio feature on the “Frozen Post Horn” and the Museum of Imaginary Instruments here

With a little leap of the imagination, it’s not difficult to see the parallels with the reality of sound recording limitation.  The wax cylinders could only be played a few times before the sound degrades completely.  Tin cylinders are not much better. This is the reason why the two Gladstone voices could be both “real” and “fake.”  Celluloid is more durable, yet witness the reluctance of Dell to play one for longer than a few seconds, for preservation reasons.

Sound recordings are only as good as the medium on which they are recorded, a fact that surprisingly holds true even today.  We were told by our BBC hosts that discs of shellac, vinyl, and acetate whose contents have already been digitised will not be discarded—digital recordings are ultimately taken from these physical originals.

In the future, we might invent means of reproduction and playback which could provide more fidelity to the original event lifted from the physical recording, in which case it will be the MP3s that will be redundant.  There’s something both very modern and very old-fashioned about this. Once at a dinner party, I launched full-force into my postdoctoral rant about the eventual possible degradation of the MP3 as a recording format, that it was not infallible as we had been led to believe.  I was surprised that I was wholly believed; furthermore, the older people participating in the conversation rued the disappearance of their CDs, tape cassettes and, vitally, their LPs, for the oft-cited reasons (which Primus Luta distills as the pricelessness of old recordings to one’s personal history, and the “fuller” sound ans weighty materiality, one resonating with one’s emotional past).

Vinyl at BBC Perivale, including a lot of John Peel's old records. Image by Flickr User Hatter! (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Vinyl at BBC Perivale, including a lot of John Peel’s old records. Image by Flickr User Hatter! (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I admit, before I came to the UK and experienced the never-perfect but always interesting presence of BBC Radio, I treated radio as a background medium. I suppose recorded sound had always interested me, and I had had a strong relationship with local, classical music radio (Classical KHFM Albuquerque).  However, I could not have predicted ten years ago that I would become a passionate proponent of audio drama and sound studies more generally.  I’m almost embarrassed now at my excessive love of audio drama; I make almost no distinctions between “high” art like Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard and fan fiction radio serials like Snape’s Diaries as produced by Misfits Audio:  I listen to almost anything.

And, truly, the future of audio drama is only assured if people keep listening.  The digitisation and availability of cylinder recordings makes study of them more accessible, so the way is paved for further studies of the earliest audio drama.  It is imperative that researchers continue to request sound recordings from the BBC, even if they have to use the relatively inconvenient system currently available.

There are signs that things are improving and that more people than ever before want to access such materials. As Josh Shepperd puts it brilliantly, “Sound trails continue where paper trails end.”  As Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force at the Library of Congress, his efforts have underlined the fact that often it is the local and the rural whose radio or audio history vanishes more quickly than the national or the metropolitan.  This would historically be the case with the BBC as well, which for a long time privileged London sound above regionalism (and, some would argue, still does).  Since 2015, the British Library (and the Heritage Lottery Fund) have invested significantly in the Save Our Sounds campaign, positing that within 15 years, worldwide sound recordings must be digitized before recordings degrade or we no longer have the means to play the material.

Out of curiosity, I downloaded the more than 600-page listing, the Directory of UK Sound Collections, assembled rather hastily through the Save Our Sounds project in 20 weeks, and comprising more than 3,000 collections and more than 1.9 million objects.  This document makes for fascinating and eclectic reading, ranging as it does between a Sound Map of the English town of Harrogate to the archives of the Dog Rose Trust, which mainly provides recorded tours of English cathedrals for those who are blind.  Undoubtedly, there are wodges of local or forgotten drama in these archives, too.  The linking up of these archives and making them more widely accessible suggests how important sustained, collective effort is to unfreezing radio’s archival post-horn, delivering more of its unique tunes.

Featured Image: “The Route to Open Data” at BBC Perivale, Image by Flickr User Hatter! (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Leslie McMurtry has a PhD in English (radio drama) and an MA in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University.  Her work on audio drama has been published in The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Studies in Turkey, and Rádio-Leituras.  Her radio drama The Mesmerist was produced by Camino Real Productions in 2010, and she writes about audio drama at It’s Great to Be a Radio Maniac.

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Desiring Medieval Sound

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Medieval SoundEach of the essays in this month’s “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader“comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70).  These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.

The posts in this series begins an ongoing conversation about medieval sound in Sounding Out!. Our opening gambit in April 2016, “Multimodality and Lyric Sound,” reframes how we consider the lyric from England to Spain, from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, pushing ideas of openness, flexibility, and productive creativity. We will post several follow-ups throughout the rest of 2016 focusing on “Remediating Medieval Sound.”  And, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

In fall 2013, The Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel was brimming with bodies in motion, in relation, in sound and in silence, attracting ear and eye away from the hall’s sparse collection of medieval sculpture and fresco to a performance unfolding in its midst. For the first time in its seventy-five year history, The Cloisters presented a work of contemporary art: Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet (2001), a site-specific virtual performance of Thomas Tallis’s famous sixteenth-century, forty-part motet Spem in alium, played on a continuous fourteen-minute loop through an array of forty high-fidelity speakers.

It was, by all accounts, a resounding success. Reviews in the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and NPR’s Soundcheck were rhapsodic. The volume of visitors to The Cloisters, which houses most of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection, tripled. On the day I visited, I found myself deeply moved—in part by the music, yes, but also by my weird intimacy with each speaker’s singular human voice, and by the unguarded auditions unfolding all around me. One couple chatted cheerily over the music; a white-haired matron sharply shushed them quiet. Some sat on benches or the apse steps, eyes closed; many travelled from speaker to speaker, lingering. One visitor openly wept. I learned from a museum attendant this was a near daily occurrence.

How could a looped recording of Renaissance polyphony generate such outpourings of enthusiasm and emotion?

By multiplying auditions. By putting bodies in relation. By sculpting space. By dislocating time. By sounding in The Cloisters. By irrupting the Middle Ages. By desiring medieval sound.

Sculpting

John Speed, Nonesuch Palace, 1610

John Speed, Nonesuch Palace, 1610

Cardiff’s installation arranges forty high-fidelity speakers on stands at roughly head height in a large, inwards-facing oval array. Each speaker emits one of the motet’s forty distinct voice parts, individually recorded by singers from the Salisbury Cathedral Choir. Historical evidence suggests that Tallis composed Spem in alium to be performed this way, in the round, high in one of the royal Nonsuch Palace’s octagonal towers, where the work’s eight vocal quintets could imitatively pass musical material around the tower’s circumference, respond antiphonally across its diameter, and bombard the center with forty-voice polyphonic counterpoint. “It was like the composer was a sculptor,” Cardiff explains, “and I wanted to show how sculptural the piece of music was.”

Spem in alium chimes with the whole of Cardiff’s body of artistic work in its abiding interest in the physicality of sound, “in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.” The language she uses to describe her work here links sound and motion in the sculpting of space: as the sound moves between choirs, variably filling acoustic space with voice, so audiences move among speakers, plotting itineraries according to the physical, visual, and aural push and pull of bodies in relation to other bodies. Moving and being moved are the hammer and chisel Cardiff use to give sounding space its shape.

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Inhabitation

Cardiff describes the genesis of Forty-Part Motet in an interview: “When you listen on your stereo it’s so frustrating because you know all these people are there, but you can’t hear them. I just wanted to climb inside and hear them individually.”

Syntactically, what does Cardiff want to climb inside of, so that she might hear voices individually?

The radio—but that would merely eliminate a mediating technology, putting her in the concert hall or cathedral, no closer to the individual voice. The performance—but that would render her a singer, her own voice filling her hearing so she’s unable to attend to the voices of others. No—Cardiff seems to wish to climb inside each singer to hear their voice individually, intimately, as if her own. The motivation driving Forty-Part Motet amounts to a fantasy of transpersonality.

Cardiff employs these same transpersonal tropes to describe her audio walks: dream-like, site-specific, binaural soundworks narrated on a Walkman which seek to create

a surrogate relationship with a viewer… People could get this intimate connection with this virtual person in the audio walks, in the same way they can with Motet…. They hear the sound of my breathing; it’s right at the back of their necks, but not in a creepy way. It’s almost in a natural way; it’s almost in their head.

In Forty-Part Motet, though, this intimacy is in reverse. It’s not another’s voice in our head. It’s us visiting voices in the heads of forty others.

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Cardiff, “Forty Part Motet” at the Cloisters in NYC, Image by Flickr User Allison Meier

Motet

Latin for “Hope in another,” the incipit of a medieval Sarum rite responsory from the Vulgate Book of Judith, Spem in alium is widely considered Tallis’s greatest work.  The motet is experimentally syncretic in structure and style. It opens with elaborate polyphony frowned upon as too Catholic in the Protestant England of the mid-sixteenth century, when the work was composed and premiered. A point of imitation percolates through four quintets of soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass, until twenty singers voice twenty distinct lines, obscuring any sense of rhythmic pulse and textual intelligibility. This mass of vocal sound passes through the eight total quintets until it completes a full rotation through the choir.

All forty voices enter at once for the first time at the fortieth breve [3:08 in video above]. The quintets then rotate back to where they began, and the mass of forty contrapuntal voices resurges [5:20], made all the more massive by slow harmonic movement between tonic and dominant. We are hit with a sonic welter, nimble and static all at once.

Suddenly, all voices fall silent [5:40]. This is the first of three caesuras in the piece, all of them crucially important: they articulate the motet into distinctly characterized segments, they offer aural contrast to the work’s welters of sound, and they create opportunities for forty-strong choral entries, rare moments where all voices coordinate, where the horizontality of the vocal line temporarily vanishes before vertical harmonic coordination.

Following this first hiatus, Spem in alium adopts a distinctly homophonic and antiphonal style: the text is clear, rhythms readily discerned, as English sacred music responsive to Reformation ideals aspired to be. A transparent voicing on tonic C major precedes the second caesura, whose yawning gap gives onto alien sonority: A major [8:06]. Non-functional, unresolved, otherworldly, the chord hangs across all voices for the span of a breve before shifting mode, C-sharp giving way to C-natural, the motet resuming diatonicity and building momentum towards its final seventeen breves’ worth of full-throated, forty-voice polyphony [9:08].

For a moment, though, Spem in alium cracks open, slowing time, reconfiguring voice. Something utterly other irrupts into audibility, arresting, ephemeral, ravishing—and then is smoothed away.

Temporalities

Carolyn Dinshaw opens her love letter to the amateur medievalist, How Soon is Now?, with an anecdote about a bespectacled young man in a dark blue bathrobe at the fall 2008 Medieval Festival at The Cloisters. “[H]e had glanced around his house and grabbed something that looked like a monk’s robe or that otherwise signified ‘medieval’,” she writes. “The past is present in this intimate, mundane element of undressed everyday life” (2). Dinshaw gives a name to the nonce infolding of past and present that captured her fascination in the figure of this young man: “asynchrony: different time frames or temporal systems colliding in a single moment of now” (5).

It’s no accident that Dinshaw launches her study of medieval and medievalist asynchrony at The Cloisters: the museum building is a patchwork of medieval architectural elements spanning the eleventh- through sixteenth-centuries, lifted wholesale from their European sites and mortared together with modern materials and techniques in a medieval style. In the Fuentidueña Chapel where Forty-Part Motet was installed, for example, a twelfth-century Spanish apse’s mottled limestone abuts neat grids of hewn block and smooth tile that forms the modern nave; the modern structure’s recessed clerestorial apertures emulate the apse’s Romanesque slit windows, permitting only the skinniest vertical bars of light.

The Fuentidueña Chapel, The Cloisters, New York City

The Fuentidueña Chapel, The Cloisters, New York City

Thomas Hoving, former curator of the medieval department and director of the Met, describes two attitudes towards The Cloisters’ amalgamative architecture: critical disdain towards a “hodgepodge of ancient European architectural history, ripped out of context, pasted together to form a dreamlike but haphazard ensemble” (56); and affectionate reverie: “If you dream a little, you can float through time to the eleventh… through [the] twelfth… all the way to the beginning of the sixteenth century” (58).

In many ways, dream is the mental site of asynchrony where memory and vicissitude, anxiety and hope promiscuously mingle. The museum, that consummate heterotopia assembling traces of the past in a single moment of now, likewise manifests asynchrony in physical space. The Cloisters, then, is a dream of the Middle Ages, a locus of temporal heterogeneity we enter after crossing the greenwood of Fort Tryon Park, as if on pilgrimage into the past, still clothed in our everyday life.

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The Cloisters, NYC, 2014, Image by Flickr User Alex.Palmer

Ghosts

I.

Shortly before Forty-Part Motet was installed at The Cloisters, Janet Cardiff Googled one of her favorite singers from the recording, to see how he was getting on. She found a funeral announcement. “He’s still singing in the choir,” she remarks.

II.

Asynchrony takes “the form of restless ghosts haunting the present” (34).

III.

The press opening for Forty-Part Motet was visited with an apparition:

The Brother entered, listened to the nine-minute motet, and his face glowed… When it was finished, he glided out. Perhaps (Videte miraculum!) he has lived in the Funtedueña Chapel for its thousand-odd years, and appears only for special celebrations.

A photo taken at the event shows a man in a monk’s habit, glasses perched on his nose, his robes a faded shade of blue.

IV.

Cardiff relates the moment she discovered sound as her medium:

I was recording with the tape recorder out in the cemetery. I had a headset on and I was walking around doing research, just recording the names of the people on the headstones… Then I pressed stop and… I hit rewind by mistake, so I had to press play to find out where I was. All of a sudden I heard my voice describing what was in front of me and my footsteps walking… I was electrified. It was really, really incredible.

V.

1557. Spem in alium was probably commissioned by Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel. Alexander Blachly argues for a 1556 premiere, but “that premiere seems not to have occurred—most likely because of the death of Fitzalan’s son and daughter in 1556, and of his wife in 1557.” The motet was probably premiered under Queen Elizabeth in 1559, one year after the death of Queen Mary, its likely original dedicatee, for “a select seated audience of perhaps thirty or forty people”, in an octagonal tower chamber “roughly 25 feet in diameter (almost identical to the 27-foot width of the Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters).”

VI.

“[T]he speakers are a little like the tomb effigies of knights and ladies held in another chapel space of The Cloisters, containing something of the person who lived… [while] an object that also has nothing to do with that person except in memory.” That something is, of course, their voice.

VII.

The performance of Spem in alium runs to about ten minutes. Cardiff’s looped recording runs to fourteen. In those four extra minutes, the singers clear their throat, mutter to themselves, chat idly, moan about last night’s bender, excuse themselves to the loo. In a hall full of murmuring visitors, it’s difficult to tell which voices come from which bodies, or whether voices still come from bodies to begin with. This is the acousmatic situation, as Brian Kane describes it, a phantasmagoria that “[posits a] sphere outside the bounds of the mundane world… manifested in this world only at special or singular moments” (108).

VIII.

Cardiff explains to WNYC’s Studio 360 that “each individual speaker is an individual singer… You realize that, yeah, these are real people” [1:30 in the audio clip below]. Reporter Jamie York goes on to remark that “in some ways, the speakers are more like people than people are” [4:06]: unguarded, approachable, vulnerable, obverses of the brusque, hardened urbanites attending the installation. One visitor draws the obvious conclusion: “What the work does, the position that it puts you in, is really one of a ghost” [6:31].

Studio 360 – Show 1443 Janet Cardiff

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Desiring

Dinshaw aligns asynchrony with the loving labors of the amateur, reminding us of the word’s etymology, and with amateur forms of knowledge “derived not only from positions of detachment but also… from positions of affect and attachment, from desires to build another kind of world” (6). Cardiff’s work is similarly about affect and attachment, about “space impregnated with memory and desire, expectation” (32), about the active construction of worlds between persons, in that word’s etymological sense. Her soundwork blurs boundaries between presence and absence, inside and outside, the living and the dead, the aesthetic and the everyday; it performs the world’s “slippage between the recording and the recorded, the past and the present, and the confusion of what is memory and what is our present” (35).

What memory does Forty-Part Motet slip us into?

Surely, a fraught one: we take a seat in the towers of Nonsuch Chapel, we exchange pleasantries with that select audience, we hobnob with the Queen. This is the false memory of cultural fantasy, and we do well to interrogate it for what, and who, it includes and excludes.

Yet, we don’t remember, exactly. We did not, cannot perceive the soundwaves that filled the upper room in 1559. We do not sit with that aristocratic audience, stationary at the center of a compass of eight quintets. Rather, we circulate in space and in time, seen and unseen. We are ghosts who enter into relation, body to body, with persons not there, whom we cannot know, and with persons there, whom we come to know in a bed of sound. We oscillate between self and other, a hopeful vibration; we traverse and, in traversing, sculpt the space between singular voice and multiple chorus with our desire-moved bodies. We temporarily become the owners of voices not ours; we are undone and made intimate, in a visible and invisible community of intimates.

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“At the cloisters for Janet Cardiff’s 40 part motet,” Image by Flickr User V

Another way of saying this is that Forty-Part Motet slips us into the structure of memory, a structure that resonates in and with the physical structure of The Cloisters, multiplying asynchronies and blurring our quotidian orientations more powerfully than either could manage alone. “We need a non-modern temporal orientation to perceive [temporal] heterogeneity,” to resist modernity’s “subject-object split,” “to explore subjective attachment rather than objective detachment” (183n129). More attachment, Dinshaw implores, and indeed, how else could a looped recording move so many? How else to open the narrow aperture through which a medieval past momentarily irrupts into the present—non-functional, unresolved, otherworldly, in the space of sound?

Featured Image: “Janet Cardiff’s installation ‘The Forty Part Motet’ in the Fuentidueña Chapel” by Flickr User Joe Schultz

Andrew Albin is assistant professor of English at Fordham University at Lincoln Center.  He facilitates the Fordham Medieval Dramatists in their biennial performance of early English drama for public audiences at Fordham and in NYC. Publications include articles on the Chester shepherd’s play in Early Theatre and on Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale in The Chaucer Review, and a chapter in the edited collection Voice and Voicelessness in Medieval Europe on Richard Rolle’s Melos amoris; Prof. Albin is also currently preparing a multimedia, alliterative English translation of the Melos amoris for publication under the PIMS Mediaeval Sources in Translation series. He has also collaborated in the creation of musical works that have been performed across the United States and in Europe.

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Straight Leanin’: Sounding Black Life at the Intersection of Hip-hop and Big Pharma

Sound and AffectMarginalized bodies produce marginalized sounds to communicate things that escape language. The queer body is the site of sounds that engage pleasure, repression, rage, isolation, always somehow outside of dominant language. Sound Studies tells us that we should trust our ears as much as our eyes, justifying our trust in sound, and of the resonating body. Affect Theory goes further, saying that all senses play into a body that processes input through levels of response, experience, and anticipation. Affect is the vibrational space that is both bodily memory and anticipation. So where do sound and affect meet in queer bodies? How do marginalized peoples use sound and the body to express liberation, objectification, joy, and struggle?

Our writers in Sound and Affect tackle these questions across a spectrum of the marginalized experience. Last week, I opened by offering the concept of the tremble, a sonic form of affect that is necessarily queer in its affective reach.  Next week, Maria Chaves explores the connection between voice, listening, and queer Chicana community formation: through space, across time, and with laughter. The series finishes with Justyna Stasiowska bringing the noise in a discussion of the trans body and the performance work of Tara Transitory. Today, Kemi Adeyemi, sloooooooows thingggggggggs doooooooooownnnnn so that we can hear the capitalist connections between the work expected of black bodies and the struggle for escape from this reality through the sonic affects, temporal shifts, and corporeal elsewhere of purple drank. —Guest Editor Airek Beauchamp

The first track on Future’s 2015 album Dirty Sprite 2 opens with the gassy sounds of the rapper preparing “lean”: a prescription promethazine and codeine cough syrup mixture that is cut with sweet sodas and candies. He vigorously shakes the syrupy Sprite together before cracking the bottle open and pouring the fizzing drink over ice likely held in two stacked Styrofoam cups, the vessel of choice for hip-hop’s most audible drug. As Future takes his first sips his mouth puckers with the sweetness. He swirls and sips again, sighing with pleasure as he begins boasting “…I just took a piss and I seen Codeine coming out/We got purple Actavis, I thought it was a drought.”

Otherwise known as syrup, sizzurp, purple stuff, drank, Texas Tea, and barre, lean is a highly addictive concoction that is sipped slowly to release a potent blend of euphoria, hallucinations, and motor impairment—especially when consumed in conjunction with alcohol. Lean slows you down, muddies your perception, and makes you physically sway, recline, lean. Future’s album, like much of his oeuvre, pays homage to lean and this particular song, “Thought It Was a Drought,” flies in the face of the pharmaceutical company Actavis that stopped producing the drug in 2014 amidst fears that it was being illegally distributed to and consumed by non-prescription holders. The lack of production has apparently not stopped Future’s consumption, however. On 2014’s “Codeine Crazy” he explains in a lean-fueled cadence that trails into his Southern accent that “I’m an addict and I can’t even hide it.”

Future’s demonstrations of addiction speak to a significant strain of hip-hop’s cache that stems from the genre’s long engagement with the terse intersections of drugs and black life. As Touré succinctly described in a 2012 piece in the Washington Post, early hip-hop often charted the realities of the drug-addled inner city that arose in the 1970s and ‘80s. “If you’re wondering why hip-hop has often been angry, sneering, nihilistic and dystopic,” he explains, “you can blame the war on drugs, and how it feels to be on the wrong side of it.” Rappers such as Future continue to bolster their legitimacy by narrating their functional (if fabricated) knowledge of selling drugs and thus being on the “wrong side” of this so-called war. But where the crack/trap rap genre documents the rapper’s mastery of the war by espousing the maxim that you never snort what you sell, the acceptance of prescription drugs as a product the rapper can hustle and consume has become commonplace.

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Spotted at SXSW 2008, Image by Jazzbeezy

The hardest working people in hip-hop are at the forefront of their craft, and they are seemingly wasted every step of the way. In this, the mainstreaming of lean within contemporary hip-hop tells a familiar story of how embedded prescription drugs are within and across USAmerican societies. This essay offers a cursory glance at the sonic, physical, and affective terrain of lean in mainstream hip-hop, however, to query how prescription drugs are seen to generate productively intoxicated states that counter the violent realities of a particularly black everyday life. Contemporary soundscapes of lean have taken hold at a point when the intersections of neoliberalism and Big Pharma circumscribe particularly black ways of being. Beginning the work of understanding the discursive entanglements of race, labor, and drugs that are sounded by lean reveals larger questions about the subtle and covert ways that black consciousness itself is produced and policed in the neoliberal state.

As has been well documented by popular news outlets such as The Guardian and scholars such as Mac McCann, the sounds of lean were developed in the 1990s by Houston’s DJ Screw, who worked to record the loosened, detached body-feeling accessed through lean with his “chopped and screwed” productions. He slowed the tempo of whole songs to around 60 bpm, which elongated the vocals to an underwater slur, and chopped the rhythm up with strategic pattern interruptions that created even more goopy space between beats. Swishahouse Records took this droning Houston sound mainstream in the early 2000s with Top 40 radio hits by artists such as Mike Jones, whose song “Back Then” paired slow and guttural choruses that maintained the core elements of the chopped and screwed sound with bouncy lyrics about girls, cars, and money that trended toward mainstream pop rap.

By 2011, gesturing to the sounds of lean become a virtual guarantor of mainstream hip-hop success. This was evidenced in part by Harlem’s A$AP Rocky, who compiled the essential audio components of lean for his debut mixtape Live.Love.ASAP—which sampled Mike Jones on the ode to lean,“Purple Swag”—and immediately nabbed a $3 million dollar deal with RCA.

While the chopped and screwed aesthetic fell a bit by the wayside in ensuing years, recording the literal sounds of lean being poured, swirled, and sipped became increasingly common in hip-hop recordings—as did capturing the swooning effects the drug has on rappers’ flow. Lil Wayne’s public addiction to lean took center stage on his prolific and sometimes-erractic mixtapes such as Dedication 5 that feature many interludes where his words bleed into one another or trail off altogether following the droopy intoxication promethazine was having on his body. The devastating effects of the controlled substance became starkly clear when Wayne suffered multiple seizures, and when Rocky’s manager, A$AP Yams, passed away following complications with drugs—a fate Houston’s own DJ Screw and the beloved Pimp C had already met.

Lil Wayne

Despite the physical risks of consuming lean, the drug appears to be a stalwart coping mechanism for artists whose work ethic has led to extravagant excesses that are balanced by the increasingly visible violence done onto black bodies. Future himself repeatedly strikes a balance between his addiction to lean and the conditions of his particularly black stardom. His video for “Codeine Crazy” is a swirling, purple-inflected picture of the artist in various states of repose: the video opens with him in a club attempting to hold his head up straight, taking his first wobbling steps after lying down in a field once populated by purple horses, and being shaken awake on an Atlanta porch while holding Styrofoam cups full of lean.

The production, lyrics, and imagery underscore his apparent struggles balancing celebrity life with the realities of his difficult upbringing, encapsulated in the admittance that he is “Drowning in Actavis suicide.” The sentiment is exacerbated in the video for “March Madness,” where iconic clips of Civil Rights Movement protesters being beaten by the police provide visual background while Future intersperses dedications to lean and exaltations of the good life with lamentations of the loss of black civil rights: “Ballin’ like the March Madness/All these cops shooting niggas, tragic/I’m the one that’s living lavish.” In these works, Future paints a picture whereby the entire spectrum of black life from extraordinary celebrity to mundane tragedy can only be understood in and through drug-induced states.

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Schoolboy Q show at The Door in Dallas 6/30/12, Image by Flickr User Mikel Galicia

Future’s balancing act is common among artists for whom prescription drug abuse is both a status symbol and a requirement of black everyday life where maintaining success requires that you work nonstop. When Hot 97s Angie Martinez queried the relationships between lean and seizures, the self-confessed functional addict Schoolboy Q responded with incredulity: “Man that shit ain’t from no lean, man…Bro, we are rappers; we don’t sleep. People don’t understand.” His story of churning out features, mixtapes, albums, and tours for Interscope Records reflects our larger neoliberal economy that places a premium on the individual’s maximum, efficient output. As Q suggests in his interview, prescription drug use has blossomed under these conditions whereby the individual is made to feel perpetually behind, as Joanna Moncreiff writes in the essay “Psychiatric Drug Promotion and the Politics of Neoliberalism.” Prescriptions are marketed to stabilize, enhance, and/or find relief in one’s productivity in an age where individual entrepreneurship and competition are rewarded. Set against a larger national reliance on prescriptions to remain physically and mentally “stable” enough to remain efficient under this intensity, the black coping strategies heard through lean are innately USAmerican coping strategies.

At the same time, the slowed pace of lean is also attuned to the national epidemic whereby black people are routinely killed whether they are working or not. The racialized politics of productivity required by neoliberalism are thrown into relief as black people such as Eric Garner are killed because of their entrepreneurial efforts. As a result, attending to the sounds of lean must necessarily reflect gaps in our understanding of how particular patterns in drug use do and do not render black people intelligible as functional citizens worthy of life. Rappers like A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, Future and others create musical odes to and demonstrations of the slowed pace of lean as it provides them a break from norms of physical and affective comportment. The drug incurs simultaneous sensory overload and the critical detachment from their bodies that allows them to experience (and potentially control) this overload at a slower pace—a physical and affective space that several rappers discuss in the Vice article “Lean on Me.” Lean radically grounds them, in other words, in an alternative body-space-time continuum that converses with the demands the neoliberal state places on the black body.

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A$AP Rocky, Still from “Purple Swag Bootleg” (Director’s Cut)

The dissociative pleasures controlled substances offer to black people have been historically criminalized, and radically different sentencing guidelines continue to be handed down for the perceived consumers of “crack” (black people) versus “cocaine” (white people). In this milieu, black reliance on prescription drugs for pleasure, physical ailments, mood stabilization, or otherwise has proven to be dangerously unintelligible. Sandra Bland and Ralkina Jones died while their requirements and requests for the proper prescription meds they took to remain alive were ignored if not refused outright by the police. The question of whether or not black people experiencing alternate states of reality are more or less deserving of death is further triggered by the murders of people who may have been knocked into “discombobulated” states following car accidents, such as Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell. The many deaths of black transpeople killed in the midst of various stages of medical reassignment further underscores a need for larger awareness of the ways that alternative conceptions of reality and consciousness map onto black life.

A critical history of hip-hop’s pharmaceutical undercurrent is not just an exercise in examining aesthetics. We can examine how lean is Auto-Tuned, chopped and screwed, and lyricized until we’re blue in the face. Sitting in the muck of lean-addled songs—theorizing how it feels to lean back and let our heads roll off our necks while we watch our surroundings fade and sway to purple—reveals a critically important rubric of black bodies, sounds, and affects that are wholly circumscribed by the entanglements of race, political economy, and the medical industrial complex. Reading black life against the sounds of lean subsequently makes the intersections of black labor, joy, and depression audible. This reading will not only take prescription drugs and hip-hop seriously within the canon of music and sound studies, but will also raise questions about intoxication—in its most expansive definition—as a critical component of black labor and survival from slavery to the neoliberal moment.

Featured Image: A$AP Rocky, Image by Flickr User Mira Shemeikka, Extra-swagged by SO!

Kemi Adeyemi is about to complete her PhD in Performance Studies at Northwestern University. Her dissertation examines how blackness is produced as an aural, visual, and embodied economy in the white nightlife scenes of Chicago’s gentrifying neighborhoods; the work illuminates how a small community of queer women of color that circulates through these scenes mobilize black sound as a theory and method taking pleasure therein.


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