This post is dedicated to the memory of Amiri Baraka, who passed away on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.
I began writing this post while my wife, Sarah, was at a conference on writing curriculum for high school literature. Over the phone one night she asked how to help students better understand the language of Shakespeare, and at a loss for suggestions (not only because I don’t study early modern drama), I recalled my own adolescent struggles with Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. I recalled well-intentioned teachers who gave me recordings, telling me that they would help me get an “ear” for Shakespeare’s language—yet all I remember, maybe all I learned, while listening to the Caedmon recording of Macbeth on vinyl, was that, to my mid-1990s ear, Shakespeare (anachronistically) sounded like Star Wars (which appeared 15 years after the 1960 Caedmon album).
My high school confusion has not completely faded when it comes to the sound of recorded poetic language, even more so when the notion of the poet’s voice is thrown into the mix. As opposed to verse recited by actors (the Caedmon Macbeth featured Anthony Quayle), or the sound of the syllables when we read a poem silently to ourselves, I find it tough to parse the idea of the sound of the poem in terms of the poet’s voice because “voice” is a slippery category—a constructed one, contingent upon the given historical moment of inscription and reception. It is tough because this idea of the sound of the poem, located in the voice of the poet, gets complicated with sonic technologies where voice is subject to the shifting conditions of fidelity.
The act of listening to recorded poetry thus poses particular analytic challenges, which become more complex when the politics of identity are brought to bear on these questions of voice and poetry. As a site for identity production, the recorded poetry performance projects a mediated voice that is a potential self. The “sound” of this poetic subjectivity is different from recording to recording, even of the same poem. In an effort to work through these complexities, this post takes up three different recordings of Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black Dada Nihilismus,” which offer variations in delivery and performance that each depend upon the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of the soundscape that each recording is embedded within.
“Black Dada Nihilismus” is an excellent opportunity to consider the overlapping challenges of voice, performance and the politics of identity in recorded poetry. Published in the early 1960s, this poem was written before Baraka’s shift in politics, which was precipitated by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, yet the poem anticipates the intersection of aesthetics and politics during the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s into the 70s. This shift can be tracked in the sonic details of the first two recordings, made in 1964 and 1965. In the third version, a 1993 remix by DJ Spooky, we can hear how this shift reverberates beyond its historical moment.
In a statement of poetics included in Donald Allen’s classic 1959 anthology The New American Poetry, Baraka (then Leroi Jones) asked: “HOW YOU SOUND??” How a poet’s poem sounded mattered most for him: “you have to start and finish there … your own voice … how you sound” (425). Primarily referencing the poem on the page, he wasn’t whistling in the dark: often thought of as a vocal performance of language, poetry has a long history with sound. One thread of this history is the Homeric tradition of an “oral poetics,” a tradition where, as Albert Lord notes in The Singer of Tales, socialized performances of poetry were simultaneously modes of composition. The feel of language in the body remained inseparable from the poetry that relayed the heroic tales of the ancient world. In The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky offers a similar account of sound and voice, suggesting that the “sound” of language, the sensuous play of speech, is the material for poetic composition. Or as Charles Bernstein has it in Close Listening, “poetry needs to be sounded” because it is a way to understand it better (7).
Poetry is often said to be difficult—but how would a poet’s “sounding” of a poem help a listener better understand it, as Bernstein suggests? How is the recorded voice resonating in air different from inert marks on a page? What is the status of that difference? Why or how would the sound recording signify differently than the poem on the silent page? In short, is listening easier than reading? My answer to the final question is a resounding “no.” For me, the challenge is how to consider the recorded poetry performance in both formal and aural terms so as to remain tuned in to the aesthetic and the poetic as well as the social and historical dimensions of a particular poet’s work. This is not easily done.
“Black Dada Nihilismus” was first published in The Dead Lecturer (1964) and later included in Transbluesency (1995). Written in two parts, it asserts a black aesthetic by critiquing the dominance of (white) light in Western art and suggesting a connection between this light, ethnic violence, and religious ideology. This is how the poem opens:
.Against what light
is false what breath
sucked, for deadness.
Murder, the cleansed
purpose, frail, against
God, if they bring him
Bleeding, I would not
forgive, or even call him
black dada nihilismus.
The protestant love, wide windows,
color blocked to Modrian, and the
ugly silent deaths of jews […]
Through critique the poem develops the connections between aesthetics and racial dominance and violence. These connections take on different inflections in each recorded version of the poem, and with each inflection another aspect of them is amplified.
The first version is a bootleg of a reading at the Asilomar Negro Writers Conference that was held in Pacific Grove, California, in early August, 1964.
In addition to the preamble, where Baraka explains some of the poem’s key terms such as Dada, which he describes as a movement in France (rather than Germany or Switzerland), another sonic detail that marks this as “live” is at the 2:59 minute mark when we hear the flap of a turning page, reminding us that Baraka is treating the poem as a script in these recordings. In this version, the opening lines are sharply delivered, the voice fully pausing at the linebreaks and acutely pronouncing the hard vowels (e.g. “sucked”). Against the continuous background hush of the original reel-to-reel recording, Baraka punches his words into the air, as if trying to find a rhythm between these harder vowels and the softer ones that often denote the poem’s object of critique (e.g. “light”).
The next version is off the A side of New York Art Quartet and Imamu Amiri Baraka (ESP Disk 1965), where the poem’s rhythm is immediately established by the musical accompaniment.
Between the first recording and this one a shift began in Baraka’s development as a poet. The assassination of Malcolm X pushed him to think even more about race, politics, and art. In this version the opening lines, delivered with punch and pause in the bootleg, take on a different register when juxtaposed with the smooth coolness of the quartet. Overall, though, the poem is delivered more militantly here. In the first version the opening lines are delivered forcefully, but ultimately this forcefulness subsides over the course of the reading. The opposite is the case in this studio version that slowly builds to the apex of the poem, the point of most force, this stanza:
and chant, scream,
and dull, un
In the bootleg, the turn of the page—between “earthly” and “hollering”—interrupts this stanza, and Baraka hesitates and slowly finds his way toward the poem’s close, while in the studio version, the musical accompaniment reaches a fevered pitch here, making it feel as if it is at the edge of the scream that it names. This prepares us for the closing litany of names of black figures of “black dada nihilismus,” which goes like this:
For tambo, willie best, dubois, patrice, mantan, the
For Jack Johnson, asbestos, tonto, buckwheat,
In the final version, which is DJ Spooky’s remix of the second one, included on the CD Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip (TVT Records 1996), this litany feels more like the outro (that is meant as) against Spooky’s beats and moody reverb.
An aspect of the poem amplified in the remix is the stanzas leading up to the apex stanza of the “black scream.” In a series of tercets that open the second section, the speaker addresses the experience of racial oppression and a growing need to strike back:
The razor. Our flail against them, why
you carry knives? Or brutaled lumps of
heart? Why you stay, where they can
reach? Why you sit, or stand, or walk
in this place, a window on a dark
The “why” is significantly amplified in the remix, forcing us to hear the ironic indictment of the oppressive “light,” not as audible in the other two tracks, explicit in Baraka’s tercets.
The original recordings of these versions of “Black Dada Nihilismus” are each in a different format: vinyl LP, tape-to-tape reel, and CD. I have been working with digitized versions, so the way I am hearing these recordings—through a smooth digitized MP3 file or Youtube clip—is not the same as the crackle of a needle running an LP’s groove or a nearly noiseless laser tracing a CD. These variations in format mean that the different ways these versions individual signify—their respective “sounds”—are flattened out by compression. Despite this loss of material context, Baraka still sounds different in each of these tracks. Each version of Baraka’s poem offers us another iteration of his “voice,” and the poem, but listening to each of them does not necessarily provide a better understanding of it. We are, though, given different sonic experiences that depend upon the purpose of Baraka’s performance, the listener imagined during the reading, and the voice enunciated through the mediated environment.
Some of the voice details do remain consistent across these recordings. For example, the delivery of one of the poem’s most memorable phrase—“Hermes, the/the blacker art”—that occurs toward the close of the poem’s first section is steadily delivered in a lower register, in the hush of an aside, and might be taken as the motif of each of these variations.
A vast archive of recorded poetry exists. Mid-century recording projects by Caedmon and Folkways made “voices” of well-known poets, such as Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas, available for mainstream consumption. More recent anthologies and series like Poetry Speaks and The Voice of the Poet suggest that the “voice of the poet” still holds appeal. The proliferation of online sound archives such as Penn Sound and From the Fishouse further attest to an ongoing investment in recording, storing, and making available sound files of poets reading their work. And this fascination with the “sound” of poetry is not limited to mainstream cultural spheres or web-based archives. Several scholarly collections on this convergence of sound, voice, and poetry such as Bernstein’s already-mentioned Close Listening, Adelaide Morris’s Sound States, and Marjorie Perloff’s and Craig Dworkin’s The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound have appeared over the last decade.
The idea of the sound of the poem, located in the mediated voice of the poet, therefore remains relevant today. In many of these instances, however, the poet’s voice falsely takes on an authoritative “aura,” as Walter Benjamin used that word in his (recently re-translated) “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Benjamin uses “aura” to talk about authenticity in art and how that is lost when images (or sounds) can be reproduced and widely distributed, and this is not a bad thing: “technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual. To an ever-increasing degree, the work produced becomes the reproduction of work designed to be reproduced” (24). When Benjamin’s concept is applied to recorded poetry, two key points emerge. First, the “sound” of a poet’s voice is the product of technological conditions. Second, just as a book editor makes aesthetic judgments based on a perceived audience, a listener is imagined when a poetry performance is recorded. Too bad I didn’t know this in high school.
Featured image: “Paula Varjack” by Flickr user Very Quiet, CC-BY-SA-2.0
John Hyland recently completed his dissertation on sound, poetics, and the black diaspora, titled “Atlantic Reverberations: The Sonic Performances of Black Diasporic Poetries,” at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in a range of journals, such as The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, College Literature, and Borderlands. Recently, he has enjoyed performing with the Buffalo Poets Theater and co-edited a special issue of the poetry journal kadar koli on the relationship between violence and the expressive arts.
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Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali–Tara Betts
There have been many heated debates over Arizona’s newly-implemented legislation SB 1070, a law which targets one of the U.S.’s most vulnerable communities, undocumented workers, and makes them subject to deportation, police harassment, and criminalization. However, in the midst of all the shouting, there has been surprisingly little said about what the role of sound will be in the enforcement of this law. Conversations about racial profiling have been predominately limited to visual aspects: skin color, haircuts, and most infamously, footwear selection. However, in order to fully understand the devastating impact of SB 1070, we need to render sonic examples of discrimination as visible as their visual counterparts. In other words, what does “illegality” sound like? And, conversely, how is U.S. citizenship produced through sound? Even though we rarely talk about either of these auditory social constructions, sonic representations of both abound in American culture, and—regardless of constitutionality—Arizona residents will use both to ferret out whom they feel belongs and whom they believe does not.
In other venues, I have termed dominant listening practices in America the listening ear [For those with access to an online Social Text subscription, click here to download the full text of my article, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York”]. The listening ear is a phrase that describes mainstream perception. It represents the ways in which Americans have been disciplined to consider some sounds as natural, normal, and desirable, whole deeming alternate ways of listening and sounding as aberrant, dangerous, and yes, even illegal. Basically, the listening ear is what Judith Butler calls “a constitutive constraint” in Bodies that Matter: a socially-constructed filter that produces but also regulates specific cultural ideas about sound. In regards to SB 1070, the listening ear lines up a little too comfortably with the hazy language of “reasonable suspicion” that has been the focus of so much outcry against the law.
Basically, before Judge Susan Bolton declared a temporary injunction against the law on July 28th, 2010, it allowed police to check the immigration status of any one they made a “lawful contact” with, provided that “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien.” Because unspoken, racialized norms about sound exist and circulate through American culture via the listening ear, members of dominant groups may use sound with impunity to forge “reasonable suspicion” about the citizenship status of anyone who sounds different from them (and who creates, consumes, and appreciates sounds differently from them). Certainly the sound of Spanish is at the top of this list; even though the United States does not have an official language, Arizona has enacted multiple strident “English Only” laws, the most recent of which resulted in the removal of a U.S. Census 2010 banner in Prescott, AZ because it included a sentence in Spanish. Beyond the sound of Spanish itself, there is the sound of accented English, and, as Stanford sociologist John Baugh’s work on linguistic profiling bears out, accents can have extreme impact on one’s economic chances in the U.S. as well as one’s sense of belonging. Now, accents may decide whether or not one gets hassled for their papers and detained and—if not a citizen or a legal resident—deported. Undoubtedly, the accent of the Fresno, CA-born American citizen who was asked to show his birth certificate to police at a truck weigh-in station in Arizona in April 2010 had much to do with his subsequent detainment.
In one of few examples to address the sonics of citizenship via language and accent, the ACLU’s recently released video “Would You Ask This Man for His Papers?” utilizes the sound of Spanish to illustrate the potential for auditory markers to determine citizenship status, especially in concert with visual cues like skin color and classed and raced job duties, like landscaping in the Southwest.
The video’s message—that sonic markers of citizenship are just as unreliable as visual ones—hinges on the fact that the man in the video, Roberto Reveles, is not only bilingual, but a prominent, natural born citizen; he has been president of the Arizona Board of Directors of the ACLU since 2006. However, the stark contrast in representation here risks reifying the division between the sound of Spanish as “foreign” and the sound of English as “normal” or “American,” just as it suggests that speakers of Spanish are much more agreeable to the American listening ear when their citizenship status is no longer in question.
The sounds of Spanish, however, are only the most obvious of a whole host of sonic markers of citizenship. The sounds of music are another. The American listening ear lumps musical genres like mariachi, Tejano, salsa, norteña and reggaetón together—regardless of the diverse national origins of the music or its consumers—and the sounds of instruments like the accordion, timbales, and brass horns become metonyms for the presence of Latino/a “Others.” For many monolingual English-speaking U.S. citizens, the increasing numbers of radio stations that broadcast pan-Latin musical genres—there are over 23 in the state of Arizona—sonically symbolize the perceived invasion and encroachment of the undocumented Latino/a “Others” on (white, English) American territory. The film “The Job” (2008), a short by Screaming Frog that satirizes the imagery of immigration in light of America’s most recent economic crash, represents one facet of the ready associations that the dominant American listening ear draws between music, sound, race, and social status.
The parodic twist in “The Job” turns on the association of particular types of music with undocumented workers. Note the sonic contrast between the “serious” sounds of the white corporate atmosphere and the festive stylings of the Latin music—not unimportantly, a “stock” song called “mariachi” that the producers obtained from Royalty Free Music—as well as the expedient way in which the horns function to herald the brown body of the Latino day laborer before viewers see him.
Given these preexisting aural connections, noise laws are a ready site at which SB 1070’s all-important “reasonable suspicion” can be obtained in a manner that circumvents traditional “colorblind” ideas about racial profiling. After all, it isn’t merely the content of a sound that determines whether or not listeners will hear it as “noise,” but also its context—its appearance in time and space. Whereas numerous forms of representation have disciplined the dominant American listening ear to hear mariachi music at El Torito’s Sunday brunch as a pleasant aural form of “local color,” the reaction to hearing a version of said music emanating from the backyard of one’s neighbor late on a Saturday night might be qualitatively and quantitatively different, particularly if the listener is already primed to perceive immigrants and/or people of color as threatening trespassers, no matter what their legal status may be. Historian Peter Bailey describes noise as “sound out of place,” and I cannot think of a more apt description for the aural stakes of illegality in America’s borderlands. In other words, it isn’t just the sound of an accent or the blare of a trumpet that marks someone as a noncitizen—or worse yet, a non-person, as the progenitors of the dehumanizing term “illegal alien” would have it—but where and when the sound appears and what boundaries it is perceived to cross by citizens empowered to lodge noise complaints.
Tellingly, the language of many noise ordinances is just as vague as SB1070, echoing the normative language of “reasonable suspicion” and the hidden classed, raced, gendered, and nationalized standards of the dominant American listening ear. For example, although the noise laws of Phoenix, Arizona can be quite specific—referencing barking dogs, whistling on the streets, and loudspeakers for advertising—they include a general “morals and conduct” clause that allows that “anything which is obnoxious to health, or is indecent, or is offensive to the senses, or is an obstruction to the free use of property so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by any considerable number of persons, or unlawfully obstructs any public street, alley, sidewalk or highway is hereby declared a nuisance and may be abated by order of the City Court” (emphasis mine). Clearly, terms like “comfortable” and “offensive” are a socially determined grey area dependent upon which “considerable number of persons” comprise the power base for any given area. It is not a stretch of the imagination to consider how already “Othered” sounds like Spanish accents and Latin music or the sounds of daily life in Latino households that fall outside of the purview of the dominant American listening ear—alternate religious practices, holidays, and customs about children’s play and front/back yard use, for example—can lead to some SB 1070 dime-dropping by one of said “considerable number of persons.” Just ask the predominately Latino gardeners of Los Angeles, CA, who found themselves sonically profiled by wealthy whites who rallied against the sound of the gas-powered leaf blower in 1998, in part to decrease their presence in exclusive neighborhoods. Despite a prominent hunger strike on the steps of city hall by a coalition of Latino gardeners, leaf blowers were deemed illegal in L.A. that same year.
Not surprisingly, there has been an uptick in the battle against noise in the state of Arizona at the same time as the struggle over SB 1070 has heated up. Citizens of cities like Scottsdale and Prescott have been clamoring for tighter noise legislation and increased noise code enforcement in 2010; in language quite similar to SB 1070, one citizen of Scottsdale told the Arizona Republic that police officers should be empowered to “distinguish and make judgment calls as to who is loud and who’s not.” Note the telling slippage between noise and the people who (allegedly) make it.
Interestingly, in spite of the utility of noise laws for implementing SB 1070, the overt demographic target of much Arizona noise legislation has been motorcycle owners, who are among the whitest, wealthiest, malest, and most middleaged populations in the U.S. according to statistics complied by the 2008 Motorcycle Industry Council Owner Survey, and therefore traditionally a group resistant to visual racial profiling—at least in the arena of law enforcement. Perhaps, given Gary L. Kieffner’s claim in “Police and Harley Riders: Discrimination and Empowerment” in the Spring 2009 issue of the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies that the struggle of Harley-Davidson riders had “similarities with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, women’s liberation in the 1970s, and advances by other oppressed minorities,” aggrieved motorcyclists will join hands with the undocumented workers finding themselves on the wrong side of America’s sonic color- line.
Instead of holding my breath, I am going to put at least some of my faith in Sound Strike, a group of artists including Ozomatli, M.I.A., Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, DJ Spooky, Los Tigres del Norte, Kanye West, and Yeasayer among many others devoted to fighting the noise of SB 1070 with the silence of Arizona’s empty concert halls.
The Sound Strike on Facebook
Sound Strike Petition to Stop SB 1070
And it’s not like Public Enemy hasn’t been warning us for years. I’d like to close with their “noisy” rejoinder to Arizona’s refusal to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. as a national holiday back in 1986, “By the Time I Get to Arizona”. DJ Spooky has created a free downloadable remix of the song in the wake of SB 1070 for your listening displeasure. Let the sound strike begin.
P.S. I also want to mention that many artists are choosing to fight SB 1070 through their performances in AZ rather than boycotting the state, most notably Lady Gaga.