I see them in the streets and in the subway, at dollar stores, hospital rooms, and parties. I see them silently dangling from electrical cables and tethered to branches of trees. Balloons are ghost-like entities floating through the cracks of places and memories. They are part of our rituals of loss, celebration and apology. Yet, they are also part of larger systems, weather sciences, warfare and surveillance technologies, colonialist forces and the casual UFO conspiracy theory. For a child, the ephemeral life of the balloon contrasts with the joy of its bright colors and squeaky sounds. Psychologists encourage the use of the balloon as an analogy for death, while astronomers use it as a representation for the cosmological inflation of the universe. In between metaphors of beginning and end, the balloon enables dialogues about air, breath, levity, and vibration.
The philosopher Luce Irigaray argues that Western thought has forgotten air despite being founded on it. “Air does not show itself. As such, it escapes appearing as (a) being. It allows itself to be forgotten,” writes Irigaray. Air is confused with absence because it “never takes place in the mode of an ‘entry into presence.'” Gaston Bachelard, in Air and Dreams, calls for a philosophy of poetic imagination that grows out of air’s movement and fluidity. For Bachelard, an aerial imagination brings forth a sense of the sonorous, of transparency and mobility. In this article, I propose exploring the balloon as a sonic device that turns our attention to the element of air and opens space for musical practices outside classical traditions. Here, the balloon is defined broadly as an envelope for air, breath, and lighter-than-air gases, including toy balloons, weather balloons, hydrogen and hot-air balloons.
Vertical Dimension: Early Experiments in Ballooning, Sounding, and Silence
On September 1939, Jean-Paul Sartre was assigned to serve the French military in a meteorological station in Alsace behind the frontline. His duties consisted of launching weather balloons, monitoring them every two hours and radioing the meteorological observations to another station. Faced with the dread of war and an immediate geography that he compared to a “madmen’s delusion,” Sartre took his gaze upwards to the weather balloon and its surrounding atmosphere to find refuge. In Notebooks from a Phony War, Sartre describes the sky as “my vertical dimension, a vertical prolongation of myself, and also abode beyond my reach.” The balloon becomes a vessel for an affective relationship with the atmosphere that is mediated by the sounding of meteorological data. While gazing into the upper air, Sartre experiences a tension between the withdrawn”frozen blackness” of the atmosphere and the pull for feelings of oneness with it.
The first balloonists to explore the atmosphere felt similar sensations of belonging by moving along masses of air, and at the same time, experiencing a deep sense of otherworldliness. Despite the dangerous enterprise, early balloon travelers repeatedly recounted expressions of the sublime associated with the acoustic qualities of the upper air. Late 18th and 19th-century balloon literature features countless textual soundscapes of balloon ascents that reveal how the experience of sound and silence helped frame early narratives of “being in air/being one with air.”
Ballooning developed in France and England among the emergent noise of industrialized urban life. The balloon prospect, as the author Jesse Taylor put it, spoke to “the Victorian fantasy of rising above the obscurity of urban experience.” Floating over the city, the English aeronaut Henry Coxwell describes hearing “the roar of London as one unceasing rich and deep sound.” In the same spirit, the balloonist James Glaisher compares the “deep sound of London” to the “roar of the sea,” whose “murmuring noise” is heard at great elevations. Ascending to higher altitudes, Coxwell hears the sounds from the earth become “fainter and fainter, until we were lost in the clouds when a solemn silence reigned.”
The balloon not only allowed access to a panoramic and surveilling gaze in the midst of boundless space but also a privileged access to a place of quietude and silence. In the memoir Aeronautica (1838), Thomas Monck Mason speaks to this point when he writes, “no human sound vibrated (…) a universal Silence reigned! An empyrean Calm! Unknown to Mortals upon ‘Earth.” According to Mason, when the balloonist goes “undisturbed by interferences of ordinary impressions,” like the sounds from terrestrial life, “his mind more readily admits the influence of those sublime ideas of extension and space.”
The experience of silence in the upper air brought forward in the Victorian white elite the longing for freedom, individuality, and assertion of social identity. Balloon flights provided a form of escapism from the confines of city walls reverberating with the aural manifestations of the Other. In Victorian Soundscapes, John Picker examines the struggles of London’s upper class of creatives (academics, doctors, artists and clergy) in finding spaces of silence away from the bustling noise of the urban environment. During the mid-19th century, the influx of immigration and the rise of commercial trade and street musicians altered the soundscape of the city. As Picker documents, the English elites rallied against this emergent aurality through racialized listening made evident by the use of sonic descriptors like invasion and containment that underlined anxieties related to the dilution of national identity, culture, class division and territory. For the elite, to physically ascend above the noise of the Other into the silent regions of the atmosphere via balloon, an instrument that dramatizes scientific prowess, validated an auditory construction of whiteness organized around ideals of order, rationality and harmony.
The descriptions of balloon ascents featured in James Glaisher’s book Travels in the Air (1871) are a vivid manifestation of these ideals. Experiences of floating at high altitudes were often met with poetic reports on the “sublime harmony of colors, light and silence,” the “perfect stillness,” and the “absolute silence” reigning “supreme in all its sad majesty.” The nineteenth century’s constructs of “harmony” and “quietude,” argues Jennifer Stoever, were markers of whiteness used to segregate and de-humanize those who embodied an alternative way of sounding. The Victorian balloon memoir echoes the construction of this sonic identity rooted in the white privilege of being lighter-than-air and claiming atmospheric silence. The balloonist Camille Flammarion, upon hearing “various noises” from the “dark earth” below, questions what prompts “the listening ear” to be sensitive to difference. “Is it the universal silence which causes our ears to be more attentive?” asks the aeronaut.
Balloonist’s encounters with silence in the upper air and the sigh of “boundless planes” and “infinite expanse of sky” were accompanied by feelings of safeness and overwhelming serenity. Elaine Freedgood argues that the balloon with its silk folds and wicker baskets were a perfect container for states of regression and the suspension of the boundaries of the self into an oceanic feeling of at-oneness with the atmosphere. According to the author, the self and sublime become momentarily entangled originating a sense of heroic masculinity, power, and the rehearse of imperial and colonial ventures. This emotional state justified an unprecedented mobility and the sense of losing oneself to the whims of the wind with no preoccupations of where to land. However, in an image that contrasts the privileges of mobility, Frederick Douglass uses the metaphor of the balloon as the terrifying anxiety of uncertain landing – either in freedom or slavery. The novel Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyan, deals with similar issues by fictionalizing the balloon ascent and traveling of a young slave, whose hearing is tuned to the “ghostly sound“ of human suffering coming from beneath.
By late 1780s, thousands of people witnessed the European wave of balloon flights, but only a small fraction had access to them. Mi Gyung Kim, author of The Imagined Empire, draws attention to the silence imposed on the figure of the “balloon spectator” whose dissident voices were erased by the dominant colonial narrative of aerial empire. Mostly, the balloon spectator is featured in Victorian texts within a soundscape of affects characterized by “vociferations of joy, shrieks of fear” and “expressions of applause” that advanced the dominant colonial narrative.
Although explorations in sound were one of the many goals to legitimize the balloon as an instrument in modern natural philosophy, the scientific utility of the balloon succumbed to spectacle and entertainment. Early aeronauts tried to use their voices and speaking trumpets to sound the atmosphere and experiment with echo as a measurement of distance. Derek McCornack in his book Atmospheric Things, says that these balloonists were most of all “generating a sonorous affective-aesthetic experience” with the atmosphere. Along with scientific tools, balloonists often ascended with musical instruments and, in other instances, the balloon itself became the stage for operatic performances. More than a century before modern composers had transformative encounters with silence in anechoic chambers, aeronauts had already described its subjective qualities and effects in detail. In 1886, the photographer John Doughty and reluctant balloon traveler, while floating in a silent ocean of air, recalls hearing only two bodily sounds: “the blood is plainly heard as it pulses through the brain; while in moments of extra excitement the beating of the heart sounds so loud as almost to constitute an interruption to our thoughts.”
I feel like a balloon going up into the atmosphere, looking, gathering information, and relaying it back. Rachel Rosenthal, 1985
The first untethered balloon ascents happened between 1783 and 1784. In current literature, this period is most cited for the patent of the steam engine, the beginning of the carbonification of the atmosphere by the burning of coal, and the start of the Anthropocene. In the industrialized society, the balloon floats through irreversibly modified atmospheres. “We are still rooted in air,” writes Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos. However, this air is partitioned and engineered to facilitate consumerism, war, terror and pollution.
Contemporary art practices using the balloon address some of these concerns. The balloon functions as an atmospheric probe that reveals “invisible topographies” and “politics of air” such as human interference, air quality, air ownership, borders, surveillance and the privileges of buoyancy. As a playful, non-threatening object, the balloon can elicit practices of inclusivity (e.g. balloon mapping) and affect. The transmission and reception of sound and music through the balloon help manifest air’s qualities and warrants artistic and social encounters with weather systems.
During the 6th Annual Avant-Garde Festival parade going up Central Park West in 1968, the body of the cellist Charlotte Moorman rose a few feet above the floor attached to a bouquet of helium-filled balloons. This led the police to chase her and demand an FCC license for flying, to which Moorman replied: “I’m not flying – I’m floating.” Moorman was performing a piece called Sky Kiss, conceived by the visual artist Jim McWilliams that involved cello playing suspended by balloons.
In an interview for the book Topless Cellist by Joan Rothfuss, McWilliams explains that the original concept of Sky Kiss was to sever the connection between the cello’s endpin and the floor and expand the idea of kiss to an aerial experience. According to Rothfuss, McWilliams intended this piece to be an expression of the ethereal. But Moorman preferred the playfulness and the communal experience of the airspace. Instead of avant-garde music, she played popular tunes like “Up up and away” and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Dressed with a super-heroin satin cape, Moorman infused Sky Kiss with humor and visual spectacle, posing a challenge to the restrictive access to buoyancy.
Furthermore, Charlotte Moorman collaborated with sky artist Otto Piene to establish the right quantities of lighter-than-air gas to reach higher altitudes. Otto Piene, was a figure of the postwar movement Zero and coined the term Sky Art to describe his flying sculptures, multimedia balloon operas, and kinetic installations. For Piene, a child growing up during World War II, “the blue sky had been a symbol of terror in the aerial war.” The balloon collaboration between Charlotte Moorman and Otto Piene was a form of acknowledging aerial space in a musical and peaceful way. In his manifesto Paths to Paradise (1961), Piene questions: why do we have no exhibitions in the sky?(…) up to now we have left it to war to dream up a naive light ballet for the night skies, we have left it up to war to light up the sky.
Phil Dadson’s work Breath of Wind (2008) lifts an entire brass band of 24 musicians into the sky with 17 hot-air balloons. Brass instruments, usually associated with moments of revelation in religious texts, serve here as a calling for an aesthetic experience of wind and air currents. Since 1970s, Dadson’s environmental activism has brought forward sonic tensions between the human subject and Aeolian forces, as in Hoop flags (1970), Flutter (2003) or Aerial Farm (2004).
Similarly, the artist Luke Jerram displaces the experience of a concert hall to the sky. His project Sky Orchestra comprises of seven hot-air balloons floating across a city with speakers playing a soundscapes design to induce peaceful dreams. The hot-air balloon orchestra ascends at dawn or dusk so the airborne music can reach people’s homes during sleep or while in states of semi-consciousness. The sound-targeting of residential areas during periods of dimmed awareness exposes the entangling capacities of airspace, and the vulnerability of the private space.
Artist and architect Usman Haquem utilizes a cloud of helium balloons as a platform to identify and sonify changes in the electromagnetic spectrum. This project, Sky Ear (2004), reveals our meddling with the urban Hertzian culture via mobile phones and other electronic devices. Andrea Polli’s environmental work features sonifications of data sets captured by weather balloons. These sonifications provide audiences an emotional window to frame complex climate data. In Sound Ship (descender 1) by Joyce Hinterding and David Haines, an Aelion harp is attached to a weather balloon that ascends into the edges of space. The result is a musical trace of the vertical volume of our atmosphere and the sonification of masses of air as the balloon journeys upwards.
Haines and Hinterding, Sound Ship (decender1), 4-min extract, 2016
Yoko Ono and John Lennon created similar exercise in sounding in the film Apotheosis (1970). A boom microphone and camera attached to a hydrogen balloon ascends over a small English town documenting a sonic geography of the upper air. The artists stay in the ground as the balloon rises. In a period of great media spectacle, the couple choses to stay with trouble while balloon records Earth’s utterances slowly fading into atmospheric silence.
It is important to note that these musical and sound based works that expose the physicality of air movements and assemble affective meanings with atmosphere and weather systems are not particular to contemporary practices. The scholar Jane Randerson draws attention to indigenous modes of knowing and sensing air and the weather that incorporate sounding instruments. In Weather as Medium, Randerson writes: “in Indigenous cosmologies, the sense of interconnectedness “discovered” in late modern meteorological science merely described what many cultures already sensed and encoded in social and environmental lore.”
The balloon has a lighter than air object mediates our relationship with the airspace and offers opportunities to expand our aerial imagination. By sensing changes in the atmosphere, the balloon is a platform that generates knowledge and can help us experiment with new forms of being-in-air some inclusive and empowering, others much more invested in exclusivity sounded through the rare air of silence and the silencing power dynamics fostered via the view from above.
I would like to express my immense gratitude to Jennifer Stoever for editing this paper and for sharing her scholarship and input on this article. Thank you to Phil Dadson for sharing his video.
Featured Image: Scientific Balloon of James Glaisher, 1862, Georges Naudet Collection, Creative Commons
Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio producer and independent researcher based in New York city.
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In “Asesina,” Darell opens the track shouting “Everybody go to the discotek,” a call for listeners to respond to the catchy beat and come dance. In this series on rap in Spanish and Sound Studies, we’re calling you out to the dance floor…and we have plenty to say about it. Your playlist will not sound the same after we’re through.
Throughout January, we will explore what Spanish rap has to say on the dance floor, in our cars, and through our headsets. We’ll read about trap in Cuba and about femme sexuality in Cardi B’s music. And because no forum on Spanish rap is complete without a mixtape, we’ll close out our forum with a free playlist for our readers. Today we continue No Pare, Sigue Sigue: Spanish Rap & Sound Studies with Lucreccia Quintanilla’s essay on reggaetón and Latinx identity in Australia.
Liana M. Silva, forum editor
The first time I heard Cypress Hill was at my fellow Salvadoran friend’s house in the outer suburbs of Brisbane, Australia. She was wearing big baggy clothes and announced that we needed to go in her room the very minute I arrived. So, we left our parents to talk in the lounge room and we sat on her bed and listened. Latin rap had arrived in my life! In the world of pop and the Latin American classics we kept hearing at quinceañeras, here was something new and energetic for us. It was our language, our people: in this way it provided a much needed connection to the outside world for us who existed in what was then quite a small and freshly arrived Latinx community. The place we found ourselves in was particularly racist, and for a moment we felt acknowledged and could just be proud of being who we were. The trumpets and snippets of familiar sounds mixed in with hip hop activated the familiar. But these Latinxs did not even try to be “good” migrants like we did. This was so refreshing to me.
It has been a long time since I was a fifteen-year-old, freshly arrived in Australia, in a classic story that involved fleeing from the Salvadoran Civil War and a period of migration to New York before finally landing in Australia. Pretty soon after arriving, I realised that Australia was not the place that I had seen in the documentary back in El Salvador about Indigenous people here. The one where thousands of years of culture were acknowledged and respected. Slowly, I came to the understanding that I too was a settler on this land at the expense of its indigenous people. Colonisation remains a continual process, and the effects of The White Australia Policy, which excluded non-European migrants until the late 1970s, is still clearly evident in the current political climate, epitomised by the treatment of asylum seekers coming from mainly Afghanistan, Iran, and Sri Lanka to these shores.
Because of Australia’s geographical and cultural disconnect it seemed rather difficult to find a space that was not an oversimplified or commodified version based on stereotypes of “Latinness” because of the relatively small communities where they played the old classics and followed traditions nostalgically closer than our relatives back home. As for me, back in El Salvador, I listened to the live music–which were mostly salsa and cumbias–playing in the party hall behind my house while I slept, which had an obvious and subliminal impact on me. I spent years humming Ivy Queen’s “Muchos Quieren Tumbarme” to myself until the day a decade later I sat down determined to find the original on Youtube. With all the might one has to muster to not be swept up by the broom of assimilation, I was exhausted and I had not found the time to listen to the music that was present in parts of my mind—and those parts were beginning to lose patience.
Until recently, World Music held Latin music as part of its domain at Multicultural events and festivals in mainstream Australia. Listen, there is nothing Latinxs love more than having our culture appreciated. We love it when non Latinxs also rush to the dance floor, liquid spilling out of their drink glasses, unable to keep up with the rush of the body that happens when Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” comes on. However, my focus here is to bring those who are ancestrally implicated in the music to the front. Music is where the multiplicity of Latinx cultural narratives converge, past, present and future all at once. This is what propelled me to finally take up DJing in my mid-twenties: I wanted to explore this way of telling stories at a time when I remembered how my body wanted to dance and I didn’t hear the right music for it around me. I spoke to some people who are engaging with and making space for themselves and others around reggaetón and Dembow. What follows are snippets of our online conversations.
In a place, haunted so actively by the cruelty of colonialism and so suspicious of difference it makes sense that music like reggaetón with its relentless beat becomes a disruption to a muffling veneer of politeness and civility. It is our punk! Peruvian– Australian writer, DJ and event producer Triana Hernandez aka Airhorn Mami sees a politics of disruption in the music she plays. In response to some questions I posed she writes:
Music has historically always been a healing and therapeutic experience, and this continues to be the case today. I think about how White Australia has a huge disease called National Amnesia, a mental illness mostly enforced by silencing and lacks of moments of self-expression I think perreo/dembow/etc. have a really Caribbean or sun-filled, upbeat mood and bass-heavy nature so it is somehow like feeding Vitamin D into people. It’s just really liberating and playful sounds.
For me, finding my own voice within the music of La Hill, Ivy Queen, and lately Tomasa del Real and Amara La Negra, amongst others has been a really exciting feminist moment. It is a feminism very far away from the offensive lyrics that have given the genre a bad name, but also from the prevailing privilege that infuses Western feminism here. Within a mainstream charged with expectations of emotional and sexual repression, music like reggaetón presents another possible way of existing as a woman: as one who tells it like it is, is proud of her sexuality and aware of her body, her community and her culture.
Argentinian/Australian community worker and DJ Rebeca Sacchero founder of Nuestro Planeta, a queer, feminist collective, describes her experience of navigating the contradictions that exist within reggaetón:
Eliza and I really wanted to make a femme-energy heavy party where people who are female, non-binary, trans, or queer would be able to feel welcome to enjoy music that isn’t always welcoming in its lyrical content or in the spaces it dominates. Being Latinx for me is fraught with contradictions, for example my staunch feminism and then deeply held cultural values which view gender and sexuality in ways which depart from western conditioning. I see these tensions and contradictions as beautiful yet difficult and I see the same things play out in the music I enjoy.
…That said, a lot of the music we love comes from unsafe spaces and is born from resilience and tension, so we appreciate and honour the magic that comes from having a diverse crowd and try to have patience and love for everyone and understand that knowledge about how to behave in a club space is a privilege. My work as a youth worker has also had a huge impact on Nuestro Planeta. I work in Fitzroy, running graffiti and djing programs mostly with young people from the housing estates in the city of Yarra and young people in and out of home care. Skating, graffiti, rap music, clubbing and art are all ways young people resist oppressive structures and I think that they are all beautiful and important, so my events need to be a space that offer an alternative to an oppressive structu not mimic one
On a more experimental front Galambo, the solo live project by Chilean-Australian Bryan Phillips who works with beats such as Dembow and Cumbia as well as experimental sound production, poetically describes the conversation that takes place as he performs:
Doing the Galambo is a process where composing and performing occur at the same time—specific to site, time and people. My joy is trying to join with people in an embodied experience—a sonic ritual—through electronic dance music. Electronica de raíz, embracing electronic music from its material roots.
Sound like river. Son las vertientes—the streams of altered states of consciousness, that meander and bifurcate and join waters. The main body being the sonido rajado—the torn sound of the Bailes Chinos of the southern Andes—el sonido originario. The loud and dissonant flutes or pifulcas that resonate through the valleys, from the highest altar¬—Andacollo. The Andean dissonance that resists and brings difference to the coloniser culture of taming the sound through equal tempered pitches and harmony itself. That performing involves everyone present, en el presente.
These are narratives articulated via sounds and fragments that activate memory while becoming new. Importantly, these sounds give voice to an ongoing mythology, to a landscape that has seen and interacted with generations of the artists’ ancestors to be transmitted via echoes across the ocean thousands of miles away and as Galambo puts it in the “present.”
There has been a surge of reggaetón and Latin trap on the mainstream charts all around the world; not only are these beats “spicy” and contagious but they are also a type of living cultural archive. Latinx people find ourselves there in the indigenous tempo, Africa via the Caribbean, the undeniable middle eastern presence via rhythms, and in there is also colonisation in the Spanish lyrics and the U.S. twangs amongst other things. We don’t need to read books for this. We know and feel these stories. There are more experimental artists working in the genre all over the world that want to highlight different aspects of this history, namely the indigenous and Afro-Latinx artists Kelman Duran and Resla, and Tayhana, and producers and DJs like Riobamba. Thank you, Soundcloud!
It has been hard over the years to imagine creatively generative discussions around reggaetón in Australia as community building that also acknowledges both its negative and productive aspects and that engage with ideas around gender and experimentation. Reggaetón is even entering the club scene being sprinkled over the techno sets of Melbourne. As an artist, it has been completely worth the wait because in an art world still largely focussed on an inclusion/exclusion binary, experiencing people creating space around culture via music is pretty exciting. By doing so, artists on the margins of a Western mainstream are not waiting to be let in but creating our own space on our own terms, outside of presenting generic stereotypes. Instead this is a dynamic alive and growing space. Bryan Phillips expands on his creative process and his role as creating music in Australia:
I converse in a process of embodiment of sound, en el presente, that allows for the voice to emerge, that sings in huaynos, punk rock and cantos a lo humano, somehow always in español. I speak with el Pueblo, through Violeta Parra and the lineages of poetas populares. La Nueva Poesía Chilena-La Nueva Canción. Cecilia Vicuña, shamana poeta, the songs that teach us so much. That teach us to care. That performing is a subversive political act in itself. That performing involves everyone present, en el presente. That it sings in a voice that is indígena and feminista.
Phillips is right, it is political and life-giving to play and dance to this music. Perhaps the misogynist ‘catch cry: ‘contra la pared’ – against the wall- can mean something new to the Latinx community in this far away diaspora. It can connote something of solidarity and identification with our siblings and cousins in Latin American and the U.S.A. who are enduring tougher times.
Editor’s note: tune in next week, when we will release a mixtape by Lucreccia Quintanilla to accompany this post.
Featured image: “DJ” by Flickr user Ray_LAC, CC BY 2.0
Lucreccia Quintanilla is an artist/DJ/writer and PhD candidate at Monash University in Naarm, Melbourne, Australia.
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After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul–a three part “Inside the Game Sound Designer’s Studio”– and a post on sound and black women’s sexual freedom from SO! Regular Regina Bradley, our summer Sound and Pleasure series keeps doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well, this week with a beautiful set of meditations from scholar, artist, performer, and voice activist, Yvon Bonenfant. EVERYBODY SCREAM!!!–-JS, Editor-in-Chief
What I have to say about sound and pleasure can mostly be summed up this way: everyone deserves to take profound pleasure in their body’s sound.
Not only this, everyone deserves to both engage passionately with social sound and negotiate the exchange of social sound on pleasurable terms.
Like other expressive systems, however, these inalienable sonic human rights are mostly ignored, curtailed, or otherwise ‘disciplined and punished’ in the Foucauldian sense by our social systems. So, we are mostly neurotic, or otherwise hung up on, what kinds of sounds we make, where and when. We fetishise sound, particularly virtuosically framed sound, because it is part of a series of sublimated impulses, or we repress it because we think we aren’t supposed to emit it, or we ignore it.
In any given human relationship within which all parties can vocalize, the voice is an evident, key relational tool. It is full of gesture and meaning and text and sends rapid-fire, complex, layered, even self-contradictory or oxymoronic messages. It is a truly tangled web, and of course, for those who can use speech, transmits language.
However, I’d like to disentangle our sound from our language for a moment. Indeed, sound is not necessary in order to develop and transmit linguistically carried ideas, information and impulses. It has long been accepted that sign languages are fully developed languages, with intricate grammatical systems, vocabularies, and all of the other features of spoken languages. It is thus not necessary to use sound as a carrier of language. Yet if we have a voice, we almost always use sound to carry our language. And we force deaf people to try to fake having a voice and to fake listening to voices through lip reading and gesturing.
The last twenty years has seen a real boom in speculation and even scientific experiments that theorise why human bodily sound – the most evident aspect of which is our vocal sound – is so important to us. Musicology, biomusicology, evolutionary psychology, neuropsychology, and cultural studies of many kinds have tried to account for this. I have my own favorite reason, one I’ve tried to describe in a number of scholarly articles. This is that sound is much like touch. Like, yet unalike. It reaches and vibrates bodies, but at distance. It voyages through space in other ways, but it evokes haptic responses.
Sound isn’t solid, but it takes up space. This is expressed by Stephen Connor within his concept of the vocalic body. When we sound, there is a resonant field of vibration that moves through matter, which behaves according to the laws of physics – it vibrates molecules. This vibratory field leaves us, but is of us, and it voyages through space. Other people hear it. Other people feel it.
I’ve said that sound is like touch. However, one key way that it is not like touch is that it can do this thing. It can leave our bodies and travel away from us. We don’t need to grip it. We don’t need to hold on. And once emanated, it is out of our control.
More than one emanation can co-exist within matter. Their vibrations interact with one another, waves colliding and travelling in similar or different directions, and the vocalic bodies that they represent are morphed, hybridized: they intersect and invent composite bodies.
We hear the resulting harmonies. Historically policed into ‘consonances’ and ‘dissonances’, we have the power to let the negativizing connotations of either of these words go and simply hear the results of the collisions. Voices sounding simultaneously create choreographies of gesture that can be jubilant, depressing, assertive, aggressive, delightful, morose… or many of these simultaneously and in rapid alternation.
The fields of human sound in which we bathe are a continually self-knitting web of sensation. They are full of gestures pregnant with intention, filled with improvisatory spontaneity, success, failure and experimentation. They are filled with a desire to act upon matter, and to reach and engage one another.
My Ukrainian-origin mother was ‘loud’, I guess, at least by Anglo-Saxon standards, and her voice was timbrally very rich. And my father was a radio announcer (he disliked being called a DJ immensely, even though he worked in commercial radio and worked on shows that spun discs – he preferred being associated with talking). His voice was also very rich, as well as extremely crafted. It could be pointed and severe: a weapon. He had professional command of its qualities. We were not a quiet family; none of us were vocal wallflowers. But were our soundings pleasure-filled? Certainly, we were allowed to make lots of sound in some circumstances. However, just being allowed to be loud – though it might sometimes be a pleasure – does not necessarily lead to a pleasure-filled dynamic. Weightlifting makes us stronger, but it doesn’t necessarily feel good.
The amount of sound and whether ‘lots’ of it, or heightenings of its qualities – lots of amplitude, or lots of other kinds of distinctness, let’s say things like pitch or emotional timbre – are key variable features of family life in our cultures. Sound takes us directly into the meatiest of interpersonal dynamics – the dynamics of space and gesture, the dynamics of who takes up space with their sound and when. Families are, of course, microcosms of this sonic dynamic, but any group within which we generate relationships and encounters is subject to this dynamic, too. Our very own bodies end up developing what Thomas Csordas might call a ‘somatic mode’ that embodies our experience of these dynamics.
Whether we start from psychodynamic, neuropsychiatric, or even habitus-based models, it’s clear that repressing the expression of bodily sound regulates breathing impulses and other metabolic processes in ways that might become, well, habits.
Let’s put this in other ways.
The classic, Freudian, psychodynamic model of neurosis – as disputed as it is, and with all of its colonial, sexist, homophobic, racist and even abuse-denying overtones – did at least one thing for our understanding of what repressed emotion does. Repressed emotion affects the body.
Today, a popular understanding of this kind of emotional repression from a biophysical perspective might be: the use of the conscious mind to hold back emotional flow, and along with it, the emotional qualities of certain associations, memories, or even the content of the memories themselves.
Repressing this thing we might call emotional flow represses the voice. The literal, physical voice. Now, this kind of repression of the voice can become what Freudians would call unconscious. To allow it out isn’t any longer a choice that can be made, because we’re so used to holding back, that we don’t realize we’re doing it any more.
Somatics have taught us, through the contended practices of the body psychotherapies descended from Wilhelm Reich’s work, or Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering, or any numerous other somatic practices – from certain styles of yoga through to Zen meditation and beyond – that emotional flow is at least partly dependent on how we breathe. And neuropsychology and physiology bear this out.
Whatever might ‘cause’ an emotion – and the roots of the causes of emotion are a source of debate – once it gets going, it isn’t just a thought process. Emotion is meaty and full of pumping hormones and breath pattern alterations and gestures and rushes of fluid. Chemicals get released. Chemicals get washed away. Heart rates speed up and slow down. Our breath rises and falls and its patterns change. Digestion patterns speed up or slow down or get interrupted. What happens in the body affects the body. What happens in the body affects the voice. Ever heard that kind of voice that seems hardened against the world? Or that media voice – the voice that is carefully shaped to invoke reason? Maybe these vocalisers can never let go of that sound: maybe it’s the only sound they can do, now. It’s just too habitual to let it change.
So, these habits can become so habitual that we don’t notice them anymore. We might change our breathing in some way to modify our expressive states. Because the exact nature of the sound our voices make is exquisitely dependent on how we breathe, and on everything else we do with our bodies, it then changes as well. Our choices to not let impulses flow – and the breath is only one bodily impulse among many – get caught up in this web. What were once choices can become embedded, difficult, and stubborn. To go far beyond the psychoanalytic and neurophysiological models, we can end up embodying a culture of these choices, and invent together a cultural body that regulates vocal sound based on groups of people making similar choices or playing by similar rules of sonic exchange.
This can end up perpetuating itself within our very tissues, and it can be an incredibly subtle dynamic to identify and shift. The way we embody the complexities of how we structure our physical and psychological engagement with the world – the ways we breathe, look, move, gesture… the ensemble of these is how Bourdieu defined the habitus. Where these complexities start and end is perhaps an infinite loop, a continual cycle of turning and exchange and influence flowing from ourselves to our culture and back again. Our bodies are cultural, counter-cultural, infra-cultural, extra-cultural bodies: we react to culture; we interact with it: we take positions.
Sound – who gets to do it, and when and how – is negotiated, with others, but also, within our own bodies. The traces that others leave there, the things we might call sonic and vocal inhibitions, tensions, these held-back-nesses, eventually become ours to carry, live with, and/or dissolve. They are gifted to us by our culture…. by our environment… by our experience … and by our bodies themselves.
We negotiate sounding.
Pleasure is negotiated, too.
We do this to our children: we shut them up. Oh, of course, we also facilitate their sound, and some do this more than others. But even if we give them sonic liberty at home, someone will shut them up, somewhere. We all know and we all remember being silenced as children by somebody, or at least, made to raise our hands in a classroom to ensure one speaker at a time, chosen by the authority in question. Later, teenagers, more often girls than boys, are called mouthy. The mouth: implicitly loud, and if too active, implicitly offensive. The term has been used against feminists, every identity we might include within LGBTI+, African-Americans, and the list goes on.
The wet, open, loud, loud mouth, just ready to mouth off, just ready to make trouble with its irritating, nasty, and above all, bothersome noise – bothersome because it makes us have to react – to have to consider the existence, the needs, the demands of those we might otherwise ignore – that moist orifice can be a source of great pleasure.
And on the score of that poor mouthy mouth, let’s consider some other colloquial terms, like ‘sucker’. Sucking is bad, apparently. It expresses need. Thumb out of the mouth! Stop wanting intimacy, reassurance, warmth, contact, and above all stop wanting to satisfy your hard-wired, biological need to suck for comfort and food (my little child). And you there, you sexually active adult! You fucking cocksucker. You ass-licker. That gaping mouth should shut itself up: its gooey pleasures are disgusting. These pleasures involve direct skin-to-skin contact.
Perhaps there is a revolution to be had, in the simple facilitation of gape-mouthed drool.
The vocal tract – that long tunnel surrounded by tongue and palates and teeth and various bits of throat, with at its bottom, the resonant buzz of elastic membranes, through which air is squeezed – also grips the world with direct contact. It’s not just a resonating and sound-shaping cave.
I’m making some artworks for children and families right now, and I group them together under the project moniker “Your Vivacious Voice” [See SO! Amplifies post from 6/19/14 to learn more about the free Voice Bubbles App aspect of YB’s project—ed]. I’m collaborating with some scientists and clinician-scientists on this project. They all work with the voice – in psycholinguistics, in understanding infant language acquisition, in voice medicine, and even in laryngeal surgery. We interview these scientists, and use inspiration from our conversations as sources of metaphors for art-making.
One of these is the head Speech and Language Therapist at the Royal National Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in London, Dr Ruth Epstein. She sees and/or oversees some of the most difficult cases of vocal problems in the whole of the UK. When we asked her what concerns she’d most like us to address in artworks for children and families, she responded along the lines of: please, find a way to get through to them that voice is contact, human contact. She has begun using communication skills, such as eye contact and turn-taking exercises, in addition to vocal skills, in families with children who have injured voices – because she realized at some point that in many of these families, the near exclusive modality of contact was yelling: yelling without contact – without relationship.
The contactless yell is the thrashing arm that somehow remains alone in a void. It’s a yell that might strike if it lands on other flesh, but somehow doesn’t grip, and can’t convert to a caress. It can’t hold… it only punches.
This reminds me of a rockish tune by Carole Pope and Rough Trade from the Canadiana of my childhood – the refrain went:
It hit me like, it hit me like, it hit me like a slap, oh-oh-oh, all touch…
All touch and all touch and no contact…..
Back to our children, and to us.
Bodily sound can be a pointed weapon. It can be violent, in that it can frighten, dominate, attack, evoke deep fear, and engage other mechanisms of terror and control and subjugation, and that it can attempt to annihilate our ability to recognize the existence of others. We can drown out others’ sounds. We can drown out their gesture. We can drown their vocalic bodies in our own through amplitude and clashes of timbral spectra. We can shut them up.
Let us consider, here, the desire for amplification and how amplified sound represents an exaggeration of this power, a cybernetic enhancement of the ability to dominate with our emanating waves. We can drown out the social ability for whole groups to hear anyone but ourselves.
However, if, in our cultural environments, everyone is allowed to sound – if, indeed, we facilitate social environments in which everyone’s sound is welcome, then those who are subjected to vocal and sonic violence have an incredible counter-power to this power: they have the power to make sound too.
Although making sound back to violent sound, back to annihilating sound, is not always easy, possible or permitted, it is a power that can’t be easily erased. And we can almost always feel, if not cognitively hear, our own sound vibrate within our own skulls and through our own bones, no matter what is coming from the outside, no matter what waves of vocalic body are streaming toward us. Our sound waves continue to exist, even if transformed.
We can give voice to ourselves. We can change our habits. We can expand away from them.
It isn’t even necessary to fight back. It’s only necessary to vibrate.
And we can take it further.
We can actively encourage each other’s sound. We can actively encourage our children’s sound. We can actively encourage social sound. We can actively encourage a dance with others’ voices. We can facilitate, make space for, enjoy being touched by, the uniqueness of other voices. We can play with how our voices collide and create children with the vocalic bodies of others. After all, our composite vocal bodies are the products of our intensive exchange. We can jublilate in the massages we receive by making our own sound, by vibrating our own skulls, flesh, blood, lymph, interstitial fluid, and the air near us, and we can make it so that we can engage in passionate exchange with the vibrations of others.
This might be something like music. Or other kinds of art. Or it might be simple conversation. Or it might be cooing with a baby. Or it might be making comforting sounds while a toddler cries. Or it might be screaming with rage together.
What it always is, though, is focusing on, opening up to, enjoying the dynamics of the dance of individual, idiosyncratic, messy, fleshly, bodily, sonic emanations reacting with one another.
In the end, the policing of our sound is under our control. We can find ways to unpolice, and enjoy the unbridledness of our sound.
Our bodily sound is a means of engaging passionately with relationship and of glorying in its results.
Featured image: “Faces 529” by Flickr user Greg Peverill-Conti, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Yvon Bonenfant is Reader in Performing Arts at the University of Winchester. He likes voices that do what voices don’t usually do, and he likes bodies that don’t do what bodies usually do. He makes art starting from these sounds and movements. These unusual, intermedia works have been produced in 10 countries in the last 10 years, and his writing published in journals such as Performance Research, Choreographic Practices, and Studies in Theatre and Performance. He currently holds a Large Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust and funding from Arts Council England to collaborate with speech scientists on the development of a series of participatory, extra-normal voice artworks for children and families; see www.yourvivaciousvoice.com. Despite his air of Lenin, he does frighteningly accurate vocal imitations of both Axl Rose and Jon Bon Jovi. www.yvonbonenfant.com.
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This Is Your Body on the Velvet Underground— Jacob Smith
Welcome back to our continuing series on radio in the Caribbean and Latin America: Radio de Acción. A consideration of the multilingual history of radio from Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti to the Southern Cone and beyond, Radio de Acción turns this week to the Aymara in Peru, Chile, and especially Bolivia in a fascinating piece from anthropologist Karl Swinehart.
If you missed our first post, Alejandra Bronfman’s stunning history of radio and violence in the Caribbean, you can find it here. In the meantime, keep your dials tuned to Karl Swinehart’s study of the micropolitics of language and power on Aymaran radio.
– Guest Editor Tom McEnaney
“What do you like most about working at this radio station?” was a simple question I had asked Celia Colque Quispe, an Aymara language radio broadcaster on Radio San Gabriel in El Alto, Bolivia during an interview I conducted in 2007 as part of my dissertation research on Aymara-language media. Her response was simple, but profound.
“Clearly, here, being Aymara. I like to be Aymara.”
Quispe came to Radio San Gabriel from a small, rural community on the shores of Lake Titicaca. One day, she had heard an announcement on the radio that Radio San Gabriel would be hiring personnel through an open selection process involving an Aymara language fluency assessment. Competing against university-trained linguists and graduates of communications programs, Quispe stood out for her eloquent Aymara speech and was hired, beginning a career in radio where she came to not only to work as an announcer, but as a member of the Aymara Language Department where she wrote and approved scripts for the station’s programs. Stories like this are not unusual at Radio San Gabriel, but are otherwise rare in this multilingual Andean republic, still profoundly marked by anti-Indian racism. What “being Aymara” means in Bolivia remains highly contested. One thing was clear from my conversation with Quispe, however—her work at the radio allows her “to be Aymara.”
The presence of the Aymara language on Bolivian airwaves contrasts sharply with its general absence within other Bolivian media. There are some notable exceptions: Bolivian state television occasionally runs Aymara language programming on programs like Entre Culturas (‘Between Cultures’), and, famously, the neorealist director Jorge Sanjinés’ work has dramatized the struggles of highland Aymara and Quechua Indians in films like Yawar Mallku (Blood of the condor) and Nación Clandestina (Clandestine Nation).
These are exceptions, however, that prove the rule of Spanish language dominance within Bolivian television and film, leaving radio to stand out as the medium that most reflects the country’s multilingualism. In this post we will tune in to Radio San Gabriel, Bolivia’s oldest and most prominent Aymara language radio station, to ask how Aymara language radio might not just reflect Bolivia’s multilingualism, but also actively intervene in it, shaping how Aymaras hear their own language.
Aymaras and Bolivia
The Aymaras are one of the the largest ethnolinguistic groups within Bolivia, a nation that is now officially a “Plurinational State” in which 36 indigenous languages are recognized as co-official with Spanish. Aymara is among the most widely spoken of these and Aymaras constitute a majority of the population in a contiguous territory surrounding the nation’s capital of La Paz, and crossing national borders into neighboring Chile and Peru. With approximately two and a half million people (and many more than this if speaking Aymara is removed as a criterion of ethnicity), Bolivia has the largest concentration of Aymaras in the region. Perhaps because Bolivia’s political capital sits within Aymara territory or because of their sheer numbers with respect to other indigenous populations, the Aymara have long played a significant role in Bolivian politics. Increasing the presence of the Aymara language in public space, on the airwaves or otherwise, is thus a prominent component of a multifaceted politics of indigenous resurgence in contemporary Bolivia.
Aymar Markan Arupa – “The Voice of the Aymara People” – Radio San Gabriel
As Bolivia’s first and longest running Aymara language radio station, Radio San Gabriel (RSG) calls itself “Aymar markan arupa” (the voice of the Aymara people). In the wake of the 1952 Bolivian revolution, a major social upheaval in which miners’ militias played a crucial role, Maryknoll Jesuit priests founded RSG in 1955 with aims of Christian evangelization within a broader effort at rural uplift. RSG’s mission was also in line with the new government’s hopes of integrating indigenous rural communities into national political life. Jesuits had experience with radio in mining communities, a broadcasting milieu dominated by radical syndicalist and communist political currents, where Jesuits had also founded radio stations of their own. Although miners are remembered as the central protagonists in the 1952 revolution, also crucial to its victory were the highland indigenous communities who overturned nearly feudal relations of the haciendas through insurrectionary land expropriations.
In its early days, RSG approached the Aymara language as a bridge to Spanish language literacy and integration into the mainstream of the Catholic faith, an approach consistent with a mid-twentieth century view which formulated the “the Indian problem” as one of national integration. Yet these early assimilationist efforts would quickly change due to both developments in the Catholic Church, such as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the rise of “liberation theology,” and also political ferment in Bolivia in opposition to military rule. During the 1970s radical Aymara nationalism, or katarismo, was on the rise, finding institutional expression through organizations like the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupak Katari (MRTK, ‘Revolutionary Movement Tupak Katari’), and the founding of the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos Bolivianos (CSUTSB, ‘Trade Union Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia’) under katarista leadership in 1979.
Influenced by Aymara nationalism, RSG made a dramatic shift in its orientation towards Aymara language and culture. Their adoption of an Aymara-centric idiom resonated with other nationalist currents, while maintaining Maryknoll Jesuit aims of social justice and service to the poor by reformulating “liberation theology” as a “theology of inculturation.” Practices earlier demonized by the Catholic Church as pagan were now celebrated as being essentially Christian—with the spilled blood of a sacrificed llama, for example, recast as analogous to the wine of the sacrament. This remains in many ways the orientation of RSG today, and the station positions itself as an authority on questions of Aymara linguistic and cultural authenticity.
Broadcast language – dehispanicized “pure” Aymara
One of the ways that RSG’s authority becomes audible to its Aymara audience is through the language used on the air. On RSG, radio announcers speak without using Spanish loan words, using what radio announcers and other Aymaras refer to as “Aymara puro” (pure Aymara). This is ensured through the radio’s Aymara Language Department, which intervenes prior to each broadcast by either writing or editing scripts, and is responsible, along with the radio’s director, for these scripts’ ultimate approval. However, its responsibilities do not end with broadcasts’ content. The department is also responsible for a protocol extending through and beyond the actual broadcasts called seguimiento, or “following.”
Seguimiento involves two procedures: the real-time monitoring of broadcasts for “aberrations,” and a follow-up interaction with those who utter them on air.The department finds alternatives or invents neologisms for the many loan words in Aymara from Spanish. These loan words include words as common as the verb “to speak”—parlaña from the sixteenth-century Spanish parlar—and are testament to 500 years of contact with Spanish. Contact, of course, is a euphemism for what was first colonial and later republican subjugation, making the aberración serve as a linguistic reminder of this painful history. This is why, rather than simply “Aymara puro,” a more apt term might be deshispanized Aymara. While Spanish loan words are purged from the broadcasts, many words shared between Quechua and Aymara escape the protocols of seguimiento, even though these also likely entered the language as the result of earlier subjugation of the Aymara under the Inca Empire. It was not the Inca period, however, but the domination of all Indians, whether Quechua, Aymara, or otherwise, by the Spanish under the colony, then by their descendants during the Republican period and into the 21st century that has most profoundly shaped Bolivia’s dynamics of race and class and, it turns out, the linguistic phenomena that accompanying them, leaving the loan word, the aberración, to be understood as the residue of this history.
Decolonization over the Airwaves
Is the linguistic purism of the RSG any different from that of, say, the Academie Française? In terms of aims and procedures, much remains the same—both groups identify loan words and push for consensus to implement neologisms. Such a comparison, however, would obscure the starkly different social context in which this process unfolds in Bolivia. If “protecting” the language is commensurate with protecting the people, at RSG, this means targeting loanwords that serve as reminders of the painful processes of colonialism. In this light, many at RSG understand their work as fitting within a larger project of decolonization, a project not without its contradictions or ironies, particularly considering the role of the Catholic Church in both the past and the present. I explore these ironies more in a longer ethnographic account of the process of seguimiento at RSG.
Whatever the ironies, RSG’s cultivation of a model of refinement in Aymara speech has created opportunities for people who are otherwise profoundly marginalized in Bolivian society, particularly rural women, to advance professionally in a labor market that too often shuts them out. Where Celia Colque Quispe’s wearing of long braids, broached shawl, and full pollera skirt of rural Aymara women, for example, would have her barred from other employment whose job descriptions might demand of employees a euphemistically racist and sexist requirement of buena presencia, at RSG her traditional dress and status as a rural Aymara woman was valued and bolstered her authority within the institution. In a society still steeped in legacies of colonialism, it is no wonder, then, that what Quispe likes most about her work is simply that she can be Aymara.
In the broader media landscape, stations like RSG surely fill a gaping hole of Aymara language programming. Yet as “the voice of the Aymara people” extends across the high plain, radio introduces new absences: the absence of speech deemed too marked by colonialism to appear on air. Linguistically, then, the static on the frequencies of Aymara language airwaves are many. Both the neologisms of the voices cultivated for the airwaves and the incursion of Spanish into the speech of those whose tongues are less trained complicate any notion that the voice of the radio resonates free of the static of history.
Featured image: Aymaras marching to commemorate the uprising and massacre of 1921 in Jesús de Machaca, La Paz.
Karl Swinehart is Collegiate Assistant Professor and Harper-Fellow at the University of Chicago. He is currently working on a manuscript on hip-hop in Bolivia, Clear, Hidden Voices: Language, Indigeneity and Hip-Hop in Bolivia. He is a linguistic anthropologist with interests in media, popular music, social movements, racialization and multilingualism. He is co-editor of Languages and Publics in Stateless Nations, a special issue of Language and Communication. His work can also be found in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language in Society, and Social Text.
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“Violent Circuits, Contentious Voices: Caribbean Radio Histories”-Alejandra Bronfman
“Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms”-Monica De La Torre