Tag Archive | Leroi Jones

“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry


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.

"Record Player" by DeviantArt user SomeAreLove, CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0

“Record Player” by DeviantArt user SomeAreLove, CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0

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).

"Le Roi Jones" by Flickr user UIC Digital Collections, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Le Roi Jones” by Flickr user UIC Digital Collections, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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 […]

(Transbluesency 97)

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.

Asilomar Conference Grounds, site of 1964 Negro Writers Conference

Asilomar Conference Grounds, site of 1964 Negro Writers Conference

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:

Black scream
and chant, scream,
and dull, un

(Transbluesency 99)

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
bronze buckaroos.

For Jack Johnson, asbestos, tonto, buckwheat,
billie holiday.


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

warehouse […]

(Transbluesency 98)

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.

“IMG_0433″ by Flickr user Beyond Baroque, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

“IMG_0433″ by Flickr user Beyond Baroque, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

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.

"Stage Microphone TTV" by Flickr user Keith Bloomfield, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

“Stage Microphone TTV” by Flickr user Keith Bloomfield, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

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.

“A Poem for Speculative Hipsters by Amiri Baraka” by Flickr user Shawn Calhoun, CC-BY-NC-2.0

“A Poem for Speculative Hipsters by Amiri Baraka” by Flickr user Shawn Calhoun, CC-BY-NC-2.0

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.  

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Hearing the Tenor of the Vendler/Dove Conversation: Race, Listening, and the “Noise” of Texts-Christina Sharpe

Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali–Tara Betts

The Sounds of Anti-Anti-Essentialism: Listening to Black Consciousness in the Classroom-Carter Mathes

Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest

en francais suivant

NOTE: Due to the ongoing nature of the protests and the official bilingualism of Quebec, Sounding Out! wanted to ensure Jonathan Sterne’s work could be read by as many participants of the manifs casseroles as possible. Therefore, we bring you his wonderful post in English and French, with the French below. This translation could not have happened without the lightning-fast English-to-French skills of the excellent Frédéric Milard, fredericmilard@yahoo.ca, and of course, Jonathan’s generous flexibility and patience. Merci beaucoup and bang on! –JSA, Editor-in-Chief

Every night around 8pm, in neighborhoods across Montreal and Quebec, you can hear the din of clanging pots and pans in manifs casseroles (manif is short for manifestation en cours, a street protest). About a block from our home in Montreal’s Villeray neighborhood, at the intersection of Jarry and St-Denis—one of the major epicenters—our local manif begins with people crossing in the crosswalks, banging loudly and rhythmically. We see neighbors and people from local businesses, families with small children, elderly and retired people, working adults, and many students.


Sometimes a manif casserole sounds like random banging, but most I’ve experienced leave sheer raucous pounding for moments when one march meets up with another, or when someone on a balcony does something particularly cool to cheer on the marchers. A rhythm usually arises from the chaos, encircling the disorder and enveloping everyone. Sometimes the rhythms connect with chants like “la loi spéciale, on s’en câlisse,” which roughly translates to “we don’t give a fuck about your special law.”

Eventually, the numbers grow, and then all of a sudden, as if by magic or intuition, we stand in the middle of the intersection, blocking traffic. The police have taken to simply routing traffic away from the protest. Eventually, we march south on St-Denis toward other neighborhoods (the exact route varies), often swelling into a giant parade of thousands, or as E.P. Thompson might suggest, a parody of a formal state procession, announcing the “total publicity of disgrace” for its subject. (“Rough Music Reconsidered,” 6,8).

The numbers are part of the politics. For the last 100-odd days most Quebec students have been on strike against tuition increases of over 70% in five years. Some protests have numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The Quebec government tried to suppress the student movement by passing Bill 78 on May 18, 2012. Among its many preposterous provisions, any spontaneous gathering of over 50 people is illegal without prior police approval—even a picnic. Protesters not only must disclose their planned route, but also their means of transportation, According to Law 78, people are criminals the minute they join a protest, which is why so many people have taken to the streets.

21st Century Charivari­

In a piece I co-authored with Natalie Zemon Davis for the Globe and Mail, we connected the casseroles with a 700-year-old Francophone tradition of charivari. In English, the tradition is called “rough music”; there are also Italian, German and Spanish versions and the practice has spread from Europe throughout its former colonies. Groups of disguised young men would meet up at night and bang on pots and pans and make a grand din outside an offender’s home. Usually the offense was against some heterosexual norm, but they sometimes took on a political character, and older people would join in. As Allan Greer has shown in The Patriots and the People, they played an important role in Lower Canada’s failed rebellion of 1837-8, where charivaris greeted British officials who would not surrender their commissions (252-57).

Granville, “Eine Katzenmusik” lithograph published in La Caricature, 1 Sep. 1831

In the French tradition, charivaris were (usually) an alternative to violence on occasions where community reparation was possible. Charivaris were largely inclusive, as the subjects of harassment were usually allowed to return to good standing after paying some type of fine. This history may well have resounded in Jacques Attali’s ears when he described music is a simulacrum of violence in Noise: “the game of music resembles the game of power: monopolize the right to violence; provoke anxiety and then provide a feeling of security; provoke disorder and then propose order; create a problem in order to solve it” (28).

Of course, the broader multinational traditions of rough music have no guaranteed politics. Pots and pans were sometimes heard before lynchings in the American South, but also as improvised instruments for black musicians in New Orleans’ public squares. John Mowitt has even suggested that rough music is one of the cultural roots of the drummer’s trap kit, that backbone of rock and jazz music.

Image by Flickr User Scott Montreal

In the 20th century, varieties of rough music largely moved from domestic concerns to political protest, though again without guarantees. Rough music has greeted bank failures in Latin America and—most recently—Iceland; it was the sound of Spanish citizens opposed to their government’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq war. In Chile, protesters used pots and pans to protest Allende in the early 1970s, and later to protest Pinochet in the mid-1980s.

The casseroles thus have symbolic roots in charivari, but of course they are also creatures of social media and the particularities of Quebec culture and politics. A popular 2003 Loco Locass song “Libérez-nous des libéraux” (“Liberate Us From the Liberals”), written for the provincial election, mentions a charivari for Quebec’s liberal party.


And, as the student movement has already demonstrated, the protest cultures here are extremely vital. While New York’s May Day Parade was happy to attract tens of thousands in a metropolitan area of over ten million, participation here can be counted in the hundreds of thousands for a region with three million.

Rhythm and Participation

We need to listen to the casseroles protests to understand them. They are, after all, embodied acts in the old-fashioned sense, performed loudly and defiantly by people in the streets. They have a politics of volume and frequency, as well as rhythm.

In Percussion, Mowitt writes: “there is something extraordinary about the importance of beating, of creating a specifically percussive din … as though a distinctly sonoric response was called for when a breach in the community’s self-perception was at issue” (98). Rhythmic participation in the casseroles is a kind of political involvement, and participation of various kinds plays a role in most of the positive political visions associated with music.

Image courtesy of Flickr User Juan Madrigal

“Participation is the opposite of alienation,” wrote Charlie Keil in his essay “Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music”, and his account of music as a social process in “Motion and Feeling through Music” helps us better understand the casseroles’ particular combination of clangor and rhythm. Writing amidst massive changes in the 1960s, Keil challenged prevailing theories of musical affect, like Leonard Meyer’s, which assumed that musical meaning was lexical and syntactic, contained in melody and harmony. While Meyer attempted to draw universal conclusions about emotion from Western Art Music and its attendant values, Keil derived his theory of musical affect from African-American traditions like blues and jazz. Against the ideals of concert hall perfection and rational mastery, Keil—along with writers such as Christopher Small, Leroi Jones, and Steven Feld—argued that music should be understood as action. Thus, Small coined the term “musicking,” describing music not as a collection of rarefied texts performed by experts and professionals, but rather as a field of social action that includes all participants, from musicians to the people cleaning up after the event.

By the 1980s, Keil specified the affective power of music through its “participatory discrepancies,” the mixture of groove on one hand, and timbre and texture on the other (96): “music, to be personally and socially valuable, must be ‘out of time’ and ‘out of tune.’” Over the minutes and hours, the casseroles sway in and out of both, as people join and exit, and as the procession happens to each new block. Because of their unique musical character, the nightly manifs casseroles are profoundly inclusive. They are in many ways closer to the utopian ideals of collective musicking one finds in Keil and Small’s work, and that of Attali’s “composition,” than the so-called digital revolution in musical instruments. They are also good fun, as any child will tell you.

Contre la loi spéciale : les casseroles!, May 23, 2012 in Quartier Latin, Montreal, QC, CA, image by Flickr User . . .bung

Despite Anglophone press caricatures that recast the protests as the product of entitled, rabble-rousing students, the casseroles transcend differences that often structure local politics–like language, class, and race–as well as gender and age, which can present barriers in music-making (especially drumming) in addition to politics. Because the instruments are simple, cheap and improvised, almost anyone can join. Because the music is deliberately non-professional, the ideals of mastery and perfection and the weighty gendered and aged assumptions about who can be a “good musician” are inoperative. The beats are easy to pick up and play in time—and if you swing a little out there, all the better. I have heard skilled drummers syncopate catchy rhythms on single drums or cymbals, but most people are content to simply move in and out of time with everyone else. (My partner and I join with maracas and an otherwise-rarely-used buffalo drum—I am a bassist at heart—though we offer guests pots and pans).

Casseroles 26 mai 2012, Place Emilie Gamellin, Image by Flickr User scottmontreal

Taken together, volume and frequency work to immerse some in its proximal footprint, while hailing others at a distance. The sheer power and volume for someone inside a casseroles protest is hard to convey. My neighbor on a pot is a lot like my drummer hitting a cymbal. The transient (the sharp, initial part of the hit) can be piercing at close range due to frequencies at the very top of the audible range traveling at a high sound pressure level (this is why drummers often lose their hearing faster than guitarists). Inside the casseroles march, our ears are percussed with every hit; many people show up wearing earplugs.

The frequencies dull a bit farther away, and the more pitched sounds of the casseroles tickle the ear’s center of hearing in a gentler cacophony that is both declarative and invitational. Since the point of the protests is to audibly flout Law 78, the fact that they can be heard much further than they can be seen helps make this lawbreaking an expressly public and political act. Montreal mayor Gerard Tremblay acknowledged as much: “They can stay on their balconies to make noise. I’m in Outremont [a wealthy enclave next to Mile End and the Plateau, another epicenter of the protests] and I can hear it. No need to go onto the street, to walk around and paralyse Montreal.”

The volume’s territorial reach also works as an invitation to join in, either by banging along on one of Montreal’s ubiquitous porches, or by entering the procession itself. While at the other end of the frequency spectrum from Steve Goodman’s “bass materialism,” it affords some of the “collective construction of a vibrational ecology” he describes in Sonic Warfare (196), as the whole of the pots and pans becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Participants’ overwhelming response to the casseroles has been a kind of weighty sentimentality, an outpouring of emotion and relief. One can hear it in the viral video that has been making rounds:

and one can see it in letters like this one to the editors of Le Devoir:

Now people greet and talk. Now neighborhood meetings, discussions, vigils start up casually among neighbours on the steps and balconies of Montreal. The neighborhood will be less and less alien. This is a true political victory!

We should repeat this friendly beating [the evocation of tapage doesn’t quite work as well in English] possibly in other forms, until the land is occupied by neighbors who recognize one another, encounter one another each day by chance, and have known one another over the years. That is how we live in a place, that is how we become citizens.

My heart swells with joy.

Because “the clashing of pots and pans […] is so blatantly percussive, it is hard not to hear in the retributive structure of rough music something like a beating back—a backbeat, in short, or a response on the part of the community to what it perceives as a provocation, a call to act,“ writes Mowitt (98). The connections to charivari matter: the casseroles protests are local, neighborhood, community movements asking for a simple redress—the repeal of a heinous law. Of course there are many other resonances: signs can be seen challenging various aspects of neoliberalism alongside symbols of Quebec nationalism (which, I must remind Anglophone Canadians, is not automatically separatist). In my neighborhood, people collect food donations.

“If you keep us from dreaming, we’ll keep you from sleeping,” Image from Flickr user ScottMontreal

When we recently spoke about the differences between student activists in the 1960s and now, my former teacher Lawrence Grossberg pointed to the central role of music in the 1960s. Those movements had songs that everyone knew, and through which shared affect grew. Like many other observers, he doesn’t see music playing the same role today (perhaps supplanted by a wider range of media practices, as the usual story goes).

Apart from viral videos and the revivified Loco Locass tune, I’m not sure the current Quebec movement has unifying songs.

But it certainly has a groove we can move to.

Many thanks to Natalie Zemon Davis, Manon Desrosiers, Nicholas Dew, Dylan Mulvin, Derek Nystrom and Carrie Rentschler for comments on and conversations leading up to this piece. Thanks also to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for the space to do it and the engaged editorial eye.

Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University. He is author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke, 2003), MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke 2012); and numerous articles on media, technologies and the politics of culture. He is also editor of The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012). Visit his website at http://sterneworks.org.

Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest

Tous les soirs vers 20 heures, plusieurs quartiers de Montréal et de Québec s’animent au tumulte des manifs de casseroles. J’habite tout près d’un des épicentres du mouvement, à l’intersection des rues Jarry et Saint-Denis, dans le quartier Villeray à Montréal. Ici, comme ailleurs, la manifestation démarre quand quelques personnes se mettent à traverser sans discontinuer des passages piétons en martelant poêles et chaudrons. Ce sont des voisins, des commerçants du coin, de jeunes familles, des personnes âgées, des retraités, des travailleurs et, surtout, des étudiants.


Si, parfois, les manifestations de casseroles peinent à s’élever au-dessus du simple tapage informe, la plupart de celles dans lesquelles j’ai été tiennent en réserve le vacarme pur et simple pour les moments où l’on croise une autre marche ou lorsqu’il est question de saluer ceux qui, sur leur balcon, se distinguent par leur ferveur pour la cause. Autrement, le chaos cède généralement la place à une structure rythmique qui vient encercler chacun et contenir le désordre. Parfois même, les rythmes s’accrochent aux slogans qu’on scande, du type : « la loi spéciale, on s’en câlisse! ».

Bientôt, les rangs grossissent et, sans qu’on sache trop comment, comme par magie ou par intuition, nous voilà en plein milieu d’un carrefour à bloquer la circulation. Les policiers, dépassés, se contentent de faire dévier le trafic dans les rues adjacentes. La marche finit par descendre le boulevard Saint-Laurent vers d’autres quartiers plus au sud (les itinéraires varient sans cesse). Elle se transforme alors en un gigantesque défilé de plusieurs milliers de personnes ou, comme le suggère E.P Thompson, en une parodie des processions politiques, annonçant pour ses sujets une « total publicity of disgrace » (“Rough Music Reconsidered,” p.6,8).

En politique, les chiffres ont leur importance. Depuis plus de 100 jours, une bonne partie des étudiants du Québec fait la grève pour s’opposer à une augmentation des frais de scolarité de plus de 70 % sur cinq ans. Certaines des manifestations se sont chiffrées à plusieurs centaines de milliers de personnes. Le 18 mai 2012, le gouvernement du Québec a voté la loi 78 pour tenter de mater le mouvement étudiant. Une de ses nombreuses dispositions aberrantes rend illégale toute manifestation spontanée de 50 personnes et plus si celle-ci n’a pas été approuvée au préalable par les autorités; un pique-nique rentre dans cette catégorie. Les manifestants doivent révéler non seulement leur itinéraire, mais aussi le moyen de transport qu’ils entendent utiliser. Selon la loi 78, une personne est coupable dès qu’elle se joint à une manifestation; c’est pour cela que tant de personnes sont descendues dans la rue.

Un charivari du vingt-et-unième siècle

Dans un article écrit en collaboration avec Natalie Zemon Davis pour le Globe and Mail, j’ai rapproché le phénomène des manifestations de casseroles à la tradition du charivari, qu’on retrouve dans les pays francophones depuis 700 ans. En anglais, on appelle rough music cette tradition, qui existe aussi dans des variantes italienne, allemande et espagnole et dont la pratique s’est propagée de l’Europe vers ses anciennes colonies. Des groupes de jeunes hommes déguisés, auxquels se joignaient parfois des personnes plus âgées, se retrouvaient le soir pour faire du tapage devant la maison d’un individu au comportement jugé déviant, généralement à l’aune de quelque norme hétérosexuelle. La faute, cependant, pouvait être de nature politique. Ainsi, comme l’a montré Allan Greer (The Patriots and the People, p.252-57), les charivaris jouèrent un rôle important au Bas-Canada lors de la rébellion manquée de 1837-38 et visèrent les fonctionnaires au service de la Couronne qui refusaient d’abandonner leurs fonctions.

Granville, “Eine Katzenmusik” lithograph published in La Caricature, 1 Sep. 1831

Dans la tradition française, les charivaris étaient (habituellement) une solution de rechange à la violence dans des cas où il était possible d’expier sa faute envers la communauté. Les charivaris avaient un caractère inclusif, les victimes rentrant généralement en grâce après avoir fait amende honorable. Il est probable que Jacques Attali, dans son livre Noise ait eu en tête de telles pratiques quand il décrit la musique comme un simulacre de la violence : « The game of music resembles the game of power: monopolize the right to violence; provoke anxiety and then provide a feeling of security; provoke disorder and then propose order; create a problem in order to solve it » (p.28).

Les diverses traditions internationales de la rough music n’ont évidemment pas toutes cette dimension politique. Le son des casseroles a parfois servi de prélude aux lynchages du sud des États-Unis, mais a aussi enrichi les improvisations des musiciens noirs dans les squares publiques de La Nouvelle-Orléans. John Mowitt suggère même que la rough music est une des origines culturelles de la batterie, pierre angulaire du rock et du jazz.

Image by Flickr User Scott Montreal

Au 20e siècle, les variantes de la rough music ont migré, en grande partie, des affaires domestiques vers les manifestations politiques, avec encore une fois quelques bémols. La rough music a ainsi servi de bande sonore à la faillite des banques en Amérique Latine et, plus récemment, en Islande; c’est au son des casseroles qu’en 2003 les Espagnols se sont insurgés contre leur gouvernement au sujet de l’engagement de leur pays en Irak. Au début des années 70, au Chili, les opposants d’Allende sortirent leurs casseroles, imités quinze ans plus tard par ceux de Pinochet.

Le phénomène des manifestations de casseroles puise donc ses racines symboliques dans le charivari. Mais pas seulement : il est aussi, bien entendu, une créature des médias sociaux et le fruit des particularismes politiques et culturels du Québec. Une célèbre chanson du groupe Loco Locass, Libérez-nous des libéraux, composée au lendemain des élections provinciales de 2003, appelle ainsi explicitement au charivari contre le Parti libéral du Québec.


Les traditions de militantisme, comme celle entre autres du mouvement étudiant, sont aussi très actives. Tandis que New York, forte de ses 10 millions d’habitants, s’enorgueillit d’attirer les manifestants par dizaines de milliers pour son défilé du premier mai, ils se comptent, à Montréal, une ville d’à peine trois millions d’habitants, par centaines de milliers.

Rythme et participation

Il faut écouter ces manifestations de casseroles pour en saisir le sens. En effet, elles sont avant tout des spectacles vivants (au sens classique du terme) donnés dans la rue, par bravade et à plein volume. Elles participent ainsi d’une politique du volume et des fréquences, une politique du rythme.

Dans son livre Percussion, Mowitt écrit : « There is something extraordinary about the importance of beating, of creating a specifically percussive din … as though a distinctly sonoric response was called for when a breach in the community’s self-perception was at issue » (p.98). La participation aux rythmes des casseroles est une forme d’engagement politique; de même, la participation sous toutes ses formes joue un rôle dans la plupart des visions politiques positives portées par la musique.

Image courtesy of Flickr User Juan Madrigal

Charlie Keil écrit dans son essai P“Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music”: « Participation is the opposite of alienation ». Sa description de la musique comme processus social permet de mieux saisir la combinaison particulière de bruit métallique et de rythme qu’on retrouve dans les manifestations de casseroles. Plongé au coeur des bouleversements des années 60, Keil entreprit de réfuter les théories alors dominantes de l’affect musical, comme celle de Leonard Meyer pour qui le sens de la musique était lexical et syntaxique, et résidait dans la mélodie et l’harmonie. Alors que Meyer cherchait à tirer des conclusions universelles sur l’émotion depuis l’art musical occidental et ses valeurs sous-jacentes, Keil, lui, élaborait une théorie de l’affect musical à partir des traditions afro-américaines, telles que le jazz et le blues. S’opposant aux idéaux de virtuosité formelle et de perfection des salles de concert, Keil — tout comme Christopher Small, Leroi Jones, et Steven Feld— soutenait que la musique doit avant tout être comprise comme action. C’est pourquoi Small a proposé le terme musicking : la musique doit être conçu non pas comme une collection de textes ésotériques joués par de rares experts et musiciens professionnels, mais plutôt comme un champ d’action sociale qui inclut tous les participants, des musiciens jusqu’à ceux qui s’occupent de nettoyer les rues après les manifestations.

Dans les années 80, Keil précisa la nature de ce pouvoir affectif de la musique grâce à sa description des participatory discrepancies (qu’on pourrait traduire par « hiatus dans la participation ») : un mélange de groove d’un côté, et de timbre et texture musicale de l’autre. Il écrit : « Music, to be personally and socially valuable, must be ‘out of time’ and ‘out of tune » (p.96). Au fil des minutes et des heures, les manifs de casseroles passent d’un ton à l’autre, suivent et perdent le rythme pour en créer d’autres à mesure que la procession grossit en nombre à chaque pâté de maisons. En raison de leur caractère musical unique, ces manifestations nocturnes demeurent profondément inclusives. Elles se rapprochent, à bien des égards, de l’utopie du collective musicking des travaux de Keil et de Small, et de celle de la composition décrite par Jacques Attali. En plus, et ça n’importe quel enfant vous le dira, ces manifestations sont franchement amusantes.

Contre la loi spéciale : les casseroles!, May 23, 2012 in Quartier Latin, Montreal, QC, CA, image by Flickr User . . .bung

N’en déplaise à la presse anglophone qui aime à caricaturer les manifestations comme la seule oeuvre d’étudiants gâtés et dissipés, les manifestations de casseroles viennent transcender les différences qui souvent structurent la politique locale — la langue, les classes sociales, les différences de race, de genre et d’âge —, tout ce qui peut faire obstacle à la production de musique (particulièrement celle faite à l’aide de percussions) ainsi qu’à l’implication citoyenne. Parce que les instruments sont improvisés, simples et pas chers, tout le monde peut participer. Délibérément non professionnelle, la musique se départit de ses idéaux de virtuosité et de perfection, et l’argument éculé selon lequel il y a un âge et un sexe pour être un « bon musicien » devient soudainement caduc. Les rythmes sont faciles à suivre et à reproduire; qui perd la cadence en créer de nouvelles, et ne s’en porte que mieux. J’ai entendu des batteurs chevronnés se lancer dans des rythmes syncopés sur des tambours ou des cymbales, mais la plupart des gens se contentent de suivre les cadences capricieuses du groupe. (Ma compagne et moi — un bassiste invétéré — avons déterré nos maracas et un vieux tambour en bison pour l’occasion, et laissons les chaudrons aux invités.)

Casseroles 26 mai 2012, Place Emilie Gamellin, Image by Flickr User scottmontreal

Pris ensemble, volume et fréquences pénètrent complètement les marcheurs qui tombent dans leur aire, en même temps qu’ils interpellent ceux qui se tiennent au loin. Il est difficile de rendre compte du volume et de la puissance purs ressentis à l’intérieur d’une manif de casseroles. Mon voisin qui se déchaîne sur son chaudron produit le même effet que mon batteur qui frappe sur une cymbale : à proximité, le son transitoire (la partie initiale, suraiguë du coup) peut être perçant parce qu’il mobilise des fréquences au faîte du champ auditif et qui voyagent à un niveau élevé de pression sonore (c’est pourquoi l’audition d’un batteur se détériore souvent plus vite que celle d’un guitariste). À l’intérieur d’une manif de casseroles, chaque coup atteint l’oreille; on voit ainsi beaucoup de manifestants porter des bouchons.

Bientôt, les fréquences ardues s’estompent quelque peu, les sons les plus aigus des casseroles finissent par amadouer l’oreille et se fondent en une douce cacophonie, à la fois déclarative et invitante. Puisque le but de ces manifestations est de bafouer la loi 78 de la manière la plus assourdissante possible, le fait qu’on puisse les entendre plus loin qu’on puisse les voir transforme ce délit en un acte public et politique exprès. C’est d’ailleurs ce que le maire de Montréal, Gérard Tremblay, reconnaît bien malgré lui : « Ils peuvent rester sur leur balcon pour faire du bruit. On va l’entendre le bruit. Moi, je suis à Outremont [une riche enclave entre le Mile-end et le Plateau, deux des épicentres du mouvement] et je l’entends le bruit. Pas besoin d’aller sur la rue, de se promener et de commencer à paralyser Montréal ».

La portée territoriale du volume fonctionne aussi comme une invitation à se joindre à la manifestation, soit en faisant du tapage sur les porches (emblématiques) de Montréal, soit en entrant dans la marche même. Si elle se situe à l’extrémité opposée du spectre sonore de ce bass materialism dont parle Steve Goodman dans son livre Sonic Warfare, cette portée territoriale du volume participe de cette « collective construction of a vibrational ecology » qu’il décrit (p.196). Là aussi, le tout formé par les casseroles finit par dépasser la somme de ses parties.

La réaction souvent unanime des participants aux manifs de casseroles est pleine d’effusion et teintée d’un sentiment de soulagement, comme on peut l’entendre dans cette vidéo virale qui a beaucoup circulé :

et comme on peut le constater dans bon nombre de lettres, comme celle-ci, envoyée au journal Le Devoir :

Désormais, les gens vont se saluer, se parler. Maintenant, mine de rien, s’amorcent entre voisins des rencontres, des discussions, des veillées sur les perrons et sur les balcons de Montréal. Le voisinage sera de moins en moins étranger. Ça, c’est une vraie de vraie victoire politique !

Il faut répéter ce tapage sympathique, éventuellement sous d’autres formes, jusqu’à ce que le territoire soit entièrement occupé par des voisins qui se reconnaissent, se parlent, se fréquentent au hasard des jours et se connaissent au fil des ans. C’est comme ça qu’on habite un lieu, c’est comme ça que nous devenons citoyens.

J’ai le coeur gonflé de joie.

Mowitt écrit : « [Because] the clashing of pots and pans […] is so blatantly percussive, it is hard not to hear in the retributive structure of rough music something like a beating back—a backbeat, in short, or a response on the part of the community to what it perceives as a provocation, a call to act » (p.98). Le rapprochement avec le charivari est ici capital : les manifs de casseroles sont en effet des mouvements locaux, communautaires qui, à l’échelle d’un quartier, demandent réparation : l’abrogation d’une loi liberticide. Évidemment, d’autres éléments entrent ici en résonance : on y voit autant de signes de défi contre certains aspects du néo-libéralisme que de symboles du nationalisme québécois (qui, il est bon de le rappeler aux Canadiens anglais, n’est pas forcément indépendantiste). Dans mon quartier, on organise même des collectes de denrées alimentaires.

“If you keep us from dreaming, we’ll keep you from sleeping,” Image from Flickr user ScottMontreal

Alors que je discutais récemment des différences existant entre l’agitation étudiante des années 60 et celle d’aujourd’hui avec mon ancien professeur Lawrence Grossberg, celui-ci soulignait le rôle de premier plan joué par la musique à l’époque : ces mouvements avaient des chansons que tout le monde connaissait et qui venaient renforcer des affects communs. Comme beaucoup d’autres, il considère que la musique n’assume plus aujourd’hui le même rôle (supplantée, peut-être, par un ensemble plus large de nouvelles pratiques médiatiques, comme le veut l’analyse habituelle).

Mis à part les vidéos virales et la reprise de la rengaine de Loco Locass, je ne suis pas certain que le mouvement québécois actuel possède de tels hymnes rassembleurs.

Une chose est incontestable cependant : elle a un groove sur lequel il fait bon marcher.

French Translation by Frédéric Milard, fredericmilard@yahoo.ca

Many thanks to Natalie Zemon Davis, Manon Desrosiers, Nicholas Dew, Dylan Mulvin, Derek Nystrom and Carrie Rentschler for comments on and conversations leading up to this piece. Thanks also to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for the space to do it and the engaged editorial eye.

Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University. He is author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke, 2003), MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke 2012); and numerous articles on media, technologies and the politics of culture. He is also editor of The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012). Visit his website at http://sterneworks.org.

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