The Theremin’s Voice: Amplifying the Inaudibility of Whiteness through an Early Interracial Electronic Music Collaboration
On an October evening in 1934, Clara Rockmore made her debut performance with the theremin, a then-new electronic instrument played without touch, in New York City’s historic Town Hall. Attended by critics from every major newspaper in the city, the performance not only marked the beginning of Rockmore’s illustrious career as a thereminist, it also featured the first known interracial collaboration in electronic music history. A sextet of Black male vocalists from the famous Hall Johnson choir performed a group of spirituals arranged by Johnson with Rockmore, whom the press—apparently unaware of her Jewish heritage—considered white. The collaboration was an anomaly: no other record exists of Black musicians performing with Rockmore (she toured with Paul Robeson in the 1940s, but no evidence has surfaced showing the two ever on stage together).
Though the Johnson Sextet’s performance with Rockmore is of intense interest to me as a historian, at the time the white press mostly ignored the collaboration. This is surprising given Johnson’s fame: his choir and work were critically acclaimed in productions including the 1930 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play The Green Pastures and the 1933 musical Run Little Chillun’. The Sextet’s spirituals were prominently featured in Rockmore’s debut, with four songs closing the program (“Stan’ Still Jordan,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Water Boy,” and “O Lord Have Mercy On Me”) and “Old Man River” likely serving as an encore. Yet only two writers—one Black, one white—discussed the spirituals in any detail. Though brief, these two reviews can help us understand why most critics ignored the spirituals at Rockmore’s debut, and illuminate the role that race played in the reception of Rockmore’s career, the theremin, and electronic musical sound.
One of these reviews was by an anonymous critic writing for the New York Amsterdam News, the city’s highly influential weekly African-American newspaper. Though unidentified, the author was likely Black, given the source. The critic described Rockmore and the Sextet’s rendition of the song “Water Boy” as “particularly effective,” ascribing the theremin’s expressive power to its sonority: “the deep ’cello tone of the instrument was more than faintly reminiscent of the throaty humming of a Negro singer.” The white critic who wrote about the collaboration—Paul Harrison, in his syndicated column, “In New York,” that ran in several newspapers across New York State—seemed to corroborate the Amsterdam reviewer’s hearing, writing that the theremin had been “improved so that it now can be made to sound like the choral humming of a hundred Negro voices.” Remarkably, Harrison made the comparison without so much as mentioning the presence of the Johnson Sextet or the spirituals, erasing the very real presence of Black musicians in the performance.
These reviewers agreed that the theremin sounded like a Black voice during the spirituals. Yet Harrison used the comparison to disparage. His use of the word “improved” was clearly ironic, and the overall tone of his review was mocking (he described twenty-three-year-old Rockmore as “a lovely and graceful girl, but too serious about her new art”). The Amsterdam critic, meanwhile, compared the theremin’s tone to that of a Black voice to communicate the instrument’s expressivity—its beauty, emotion, and humanity. They validated their own hearing of the powerful performance by noting that the capacity crowd “hailed Miss Rockmore’s mastery of the theremin and demanded several encores.” Despite the contrasts, these pieces share something absent from nearly every contemporary theremin review: an explicit discussion of race and the theremin’s timbre. These seemingly anomalous takes, when understood in the context of the theremin’s broader contemporary reception history among (mostly white, mostly male) critics, can amplify what Jennifer Stoever identified in The Sonic Color Line as the “inaudibility of whiteness” in the history of the theremin and electronic musical sound (12).
When Rockmore performed as a soloist, critics tended to describe the theremin’s timbre in the context of western art music sonorities, making comparisons to the cello, violin, and classical voices. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers, describing its tone as warm and rich, and writing of its “vivid expressiveness” and “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone. Many attributed the instrument’s expressivity to Rockmore’s skill as a trained classical performer, praising her repertory choices, musicianship, and technique.
Alongside celebrations of the theremin’s emotionally charged sonority was an opposing rhetoric of noisiness, one that critics employed to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. Early critics often complained about the “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento employed by thereminists, most of whom, like Rockmore, were (at least perceived as) white women. There is a practical explanation for this: if you’ve ever played a theremin, you know that without the use of these techniques, it is nearly impossible to locate pitches, or create even the impression of accurate intonation. Critics turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking copious chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. They compared the theremin’s timbre variously to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano one critic dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such reviews used bodies and instruments assumed to be white and female as points of comparison: sopranos, violins, mothers (who were racially unmarked and thus by default white). To critics, the theremin was objectionable, was “other,” in a specifically white, specifically feminine way.
Critics were especially concerned with the theremin’s timbre, projecting onto it their hopes and anxieties about the potential impact of technology on their musical world. Since the theremin’s 1929 arrival in New York, critics had been assessing the instrument’s potential, treating it as a bellwether for technology’s impact on the future of music. Rockmore stoked this interest by claiming that her debut would “prove that the [theremin] may be a medium for musical expression.” Critics centered their hopes and anxieties about the promise and threat of electronic music in analyses of the theremin’s timbre, where the instrument could either be exposed as a fraud—a poor substitute for “authentic” “living” music—or celebrated as a breakthrough.
Discussions among New York’s white critics about the theremin’s musical promise unfolded specifically and exclusively with regard to the white western classical tradition. Just as Toni Morrison noted in her book Playing in the Dark that “the readers of virtually all American fiction have been positioned as white,” whiteness was the default for writers and readers of music criticism on the theremin (xii). Though most white critics at Rockmore’s debut never mentioned race, their tacit dismissal of the spirituals she performed with the Johnson Sextet reveals that race was a central organizing force in their assessments of the instrument. The brief reception history of the spirituals Johnson arranged for voice and theremin, wherein writers—listening to the instrument perform with Black voices—clearly heard the theremin’s tone as Black, is the exception that proves the rule: white critics, by and large, heard the instrument as sounding white.
Just as Morrison asked: “how is ‘literary whiteness’ and ‘literary blackness’ made, and what is the consequence of that construction,” we must explore the ramifications of the assumptions we’ve made about whiteness and electronic musical sound (xii). For it is not only critics of the 1930s who heard the theremin’s sound as white: most current histories continue to focus on and reify a predominantly white academic and avant-garde electronic music history canon. The Amsterdam critic’s hearing opens new possibilities for understanding the history of electronic musical sound. While popular perceptions often frame electronic musical sound as “lifeless” or emotionally “flat,” the Amsterdam critic’s comparison of the theremin to the voice opens our ears to alternative hearings of electronic musical sound as expressive, affective, even human. When we hear this aspect of electronic music’s sound, we can begin to account for histories that go beyond the white western cannon that dominates our understanding of electronic music history. We can populate such accountings with performers like Rockmore and composers like Johnson who worked and lived outside the boundaries we have traditionally drawn around electronic music history.
Dr. Madd Vibe (aka Angelo Moore) plays theremin in his band The Brand New Step, covering “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” Angelo Moore been playing theremin for over 20 years.
Featured Image: “Theremins are Dreamy” by Flickr User Gina Pina, (CC BY 2.0)
Kelly Hiser is co-founder and CEO of Rabble, a startup dedicated to empowering libraries to support and sustain their local creative communities. Kelly holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and embraces work at the intersections of arts, humanities, and the public good. She talks and writes regularly about music, technology, identity, and power.
Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands. Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel. While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?
In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on. Today’s essay is by the amazing and prolific Chris Chien. Join Chris as he questions the the uneven intersection of racial and sexual vocalization in punk’s legacy.
–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)
Eddy is white, and we know he is because nobody says so. – Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark
We just celebrated the 4th of July, which is really just national Fuck the Police Day… I bet that during the Revolutionary War, there were songs similar to mine. — Ice-T, interview in Rolling Stone, August 1992
I think it’s real important that us as Americans recognize the fact that we have a lot of violence inherent in us, you know, it’s like part of our culture; it’s part of our art, you know, the 1950s, the great artists, like [Jackson] Pollock and [Willem] de Kooning, and we should work now, now that wars are over to not be ashamed to put violence in our art; I have a lot of violence in my art — Patti Smith, interview from Rock My Religion
In a 2015 interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Toni Morrison recounts the time her father threw a drunken white man down the stairs because he thought the man was coming for his daughters. She concluded that it made her feel protected. Gross circuitously questions this rationale, implying that her father’s act, his black violence, must have been terrifying for Morrison and her sister to see. Morrison responds, “Well, if it was you and a black man was coming up the stairs after a little white girl and the white father threw the black man down, that wouldn’t disturb you.” Chastised, Gross adds, “I think it’s a product of being in this, like, not-very-violent, working-class, middle-class family where I didn’t see a lot of violence when I was growing up, so any violent act would probably have been very unnerving to me.” Gross’ response to Morrison’s childhood memory of black fatherly love and protection, coded to elevate her white, middle-class upbringing, left me wondering: whose violence is acceptable, and whose is not?
This question remains pressing in today’s climate. In the past year, state-sanctioned violence against indigenous, black, brown, queer and trans people, which has run like rich, nourishing marrow through the backbone of this country, is once again being openly and actively fomented throughout the public sphere by the figures at the apex of state power. In reaction, antifa anarchist groups, responsible for the much-publicized #PunchANazi meme have revived the use of black bloc tactics; along with the rise of “left-leaning” gun clubs, these responses have given renewed currency to the notion of arming up to fight back out of fear, disgust, and rage.
Olympia queer and trans hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. embodies many of these impulses, especially in their most recent (and now final) EP, Trans Day of Revenge. Through calls to direct action and explicit violence, the band rages against every oppressor that has ever crossed its path. On the whole, popular and critical reception to the EP has been positive, even celebratory, due in part to the preceding lineage of music criticism in which the violence of hardcore music is neutralized or intellectualized because of the implicit whiteness of the genre. And, in mirroring both critical and popular reactions to the work of Black Lives Matter and other black social movements, the calls to direct action in rap and hip hop are either discredited or disavowed. In other words, certain white genres of music, and the violence therein, appear to require intellectual analysis or even possess an inherent rationalization. (Dan Graham’s seminal video essay Rock my Religion is an early example of this foundational project in the history of intellectualizing rock.) The mutation into either incredibility or physical threat, on the other hand, accompanies music produced by certain racialized subjects—in America, almost always the black musician. By looking at the critical reception to G.L.O.S.S.’ Trans Day of Revenge, I will examine the dynamic that celebrates the white voice, especially when it calls for violence, as righteous and “metaphysical,” exemplified by the Patti Smith interview in the epigraph (note the use of the uninterrogated second person), and condemns the voice of black rage in rap and hip hop, for its “thuggery.” To question this dynamic is not specific to G.L.O.S.S. but is meant to denaturalize the uneven musical imaginary that supports the white ‘voice’ and smothers the black, as symptomatic of the way in which the political horizons of black political action are foreclosed in favor of righteous white action.
While there may be a seeming disconnect between music criticism and the politics of activism, radical hip hop’s roots in Black Power movements and hardcore and punk’s roots in the politics of white disaffection of the 1970s have both been well-documented. These political-sonic genealogies bind these respective genres to their racialized origins and mark the political stakes of G.L.O.S.S.’ message and its critical reception. The primary difference between the two genres is that the former genre was racialized from the start while the latter remains “unmarked” to this day, despite its early, close connection to white supremacy as documented by, among others, influential rock critic Lester Bangs. Even fascinating work that links and critiques American machismo and hardcore violence completely occludes the valence of race in discussions of masculinity. A closer look at the critical reception to Trans Day of Revenge will help to tease out the ongoing influence of the racialized origins of these two genres on contemporary music and political movements.
To be clear, it is not my intent to moralize the use of violence in leftist social movements. It would be foolish to deny the trans and queer rage that permeates Trans Day of Revenge, and which G.L.O.S.S. literally embody as an apt and poignant expression of a life lived under state-sponsored brutality and domestic abuse. No where is it more poignant than the opening, which is inaugurated with squealing feedback, dense, chugging guitar, and then a strained scream from lead singer Sadie Switchblade: “When peace is just another word for death, it’s our time to give violence a chance!” The four songs that follow, totaling a mere 7 minutes, all tap into the well-established tradition of nihilistic vengeance in G.G. Allin’s “Violence Now—Assassinate the President,” direct aggression in antifa punk in Oi Polloi’s seminal “Pigs for Slaughter” and “Bash the Fash,” and hardcore staples such as Black Flag’s “Police Story” and The Dicks’ “Hate the Police,” which center on booting (or shooting) oppressors in the face. More than that, however, G.L.O.S.S. is intent on smashing the culture of respectability and pacifism of LGBT politics, singing, “Your calls for peace are ignorant and basic / Self-appointed leaders / Who put you in charge?”
In a glowing review that invokes Jose Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, Brad Nelson of Pitchfork insists that, “At its best, hardcore is personal; it tends to erase the spatial distinctions between performer and audience, until there is a primordial flow of bodies, ideas, and energy.” Putting aside the cognitive dissonance of quoting Muñoz in a review of an album that urges the use of outright violence, Nelson espouses the grounding liberal, “post-racial” ideology that informs many contemporary conceptions of punk and hardcore. And in doing so, Nelson papers over the racialized history of hardcore while quickly conflating the specificity of state-sanctioned anti-black violence, which G.L.O.S.S. is explicit about, with generalized notions of state oppression. Other reviewers have similarly intellectualized the band’s explicit incitements to violence. Embedded within these glowing reviews, all of which fail to mention the white racial position from which the band speaks and celebrate their calls to violent action, then, is the assumption that white violence is inherently justified because it’s so rare. Put simply, if it’s happening, it’s happening for a good reason. Contrast this with perception that direct action and (self-defensive) violence in both black activism and music reveal some corruption of being, such as an essential “violent character” or the well-worn notion of a savage nature.
It is certainly possible to argue for trans and queer ways of knowing and creating art that evade these hetero-masculinist histories but this does not seem to be the case here: many reviewers cite the band’s positive influence on hardcore as both genre and scene, work that the band themselves seem invested in. Such interventions in the scene, then, compel us to recognize that the band’s message is channeled through the generic conventions of hardcore, which prime listeners to appreciate the role of violence as a necessary outcome of and antidote to oppression. The main progenitor of this narrative is Black Flag’s Damaged, which invokes the chaotic, uncontrollable violence of white male angst in songs such as “Damaged I.” (Golden Age country music provides an apt analogue with its generic figure of the violent, romantic white outlaw.) Though G.L.O.S.S. rails against murderous gender and sexual violence, they do so by asserting their position in the tradition of white rage that made Black Flag and Minor Threat the deified figureheads of hardcore—though admirable of gender-nonconforming and transfolk to do this work, this tension of lineage is neither addressed nor resolved. In this way, the violent implications of the genre, along with the issue of a privileged white voice, are absorbed and normalized—just a part of the scene.
Indeed, not a single review so much as gestures towards the band’s race, which, as Toni Morrison suggests, codes the neutral as white (whether this is true to their “actual race” or not is not the point—it’s a matter of perception). This is all the more glaring as multiple songs encourage fighting racist police violence against black trans women; yet this message inhabits a continuum of hardcore and punk that has long held an equivocal relationship with white supremacy, which has often been positioned as either a simple matter of white male disillusionment or edgy nihilism. And while there has certainly been anti-racist music in hardcore, the message becomes mixed by veneration of and apologias for songs such as Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White” and Black Flag’s “White Minority.” This muddled message appears in G.L.O.S.S.’ work as well. During the opening track, Switchblade screams: “anti-racist doesn’t mean non-racist!” The lyric may be a riff on a Guardian video by Marlon James in which he insists that “non-racist doesn’t mean anti-racist.” He asserts that non-racism (non-action, moral statement of belief) is inadequate since it does not prevent racial violence. Instead, one must go further and adopt an anti-racist (active) stance. G.L.O.S.S.’ inversion of James’ formulation in the context of hardcore and punk, however, reads with an added bit of irony: if even active anti-racist action does not preclude one from holding racist views, then this highlights the submerged racial dynamics of voice that hold up G.L.O.S.S.’ violent aesthetic and that elude the onslaught of sloganeering that shape their lyrics.
Certainly G.L.O.S.S. screaming the refrain “black lives don’t matter in the eyes of the law!” is critical work being done to highlight anti-black violence and their commitment to addressing oppression of all kinds. But it does not preclude them from criticism for benefiting from structural racism, which includes enjoying the unquestioned privilege of being feted for advocating extreme violence rather than, say, being placed on an FBI watchlist. Simply put, the band has the option of espousing this violence from a position of relative safety, especially from state-sanctioned repercussion and harassment. These unnuanced lyrics make it all the more difficult to square some of their anti-racist lyrics with their intersectional politics. The generic bounds of hardcore dictate crafting lyrics like volleys of missiles, and here such pithy concision becomes an easy conflation of anti-black, anti-queer, anti-trans, and anti-femme oppressions that threatens, ironically, to erase the hard work and frequent clash of axes of oppression in the formation of transversal alliances rather than support it.
If the new hardcore that G.L.O.S.S. spearheaded intends to responsibly involve itself in social justice, the lyrics must move beyond sloganeering. The continued submersion of the multiple and complex intersections of race in white activism is an elision that performs its own form of silencing, a repression of a black voice that has long and often erupted into righteous anger and violence. Scholar Tricia Rose provides an extensive history and analysis of this dynamic in in Hip Hop Wars. In addition to Rose, many scholars from Houston A. Baker to Nelson George, have noted the deep indebtedness of early gangsta rap and radical hip hop (Public Enemy and dead prez, for example) to the tradition of anti-passive philosophies of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and earlier pre-Civil Rights movement radicals. Due to these genre’s callback and conscious inhabitation of the genealogy of the black resistance in order to address the historical nature of their continued material oppression, critical responses to this music focus largely on the music’s racial aspects (unlike G.L.O.S.S., or hardcore music in general). Consequently, the condemnation of violent action against oppression rather than celebratory accreditation is always couched in the fear of the black voice and active body.
This dynamic is nowhere clearer than the press’ reaction to Ice-T’s side project Body Count, which featured the controversial song “Cop Killer.” Ice-T has stated that the album as a whole was meant to actively invoke the sonic cues of not only hardcore but metal (also known for its troubled relationship to white supremacist politics) the mainstream media applied the label of “rap” to it in order to identify the violence as both gendered and racialized, that is, more closely with a black, male genre of music, with all that that entails to American society. Ice-T’s transgressive identification of black genres of music in the epigraph, “music like mine,” with the originary, rebellious violence of the Revolutionary War speaks to the divide within the American imaginary between “justified” revolutionary, white violence, and corrupted black violence. He observed:
There is absolutely no way to listen to the song “Cop Killer” and call it a rap record. It’s so far from rap. But, politically, they know by saying the word rap they can get a lot of people who think, “Rap-black-rap-black-ghetto,” and don’t like it…They don’t want to use the word rock & roll to describe this song. (qtd. in Rose 130)
In contrast to criticism of heavy metal, Rose, in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, explains, “The terms of the assault on rap music are part of a long-standing sociologically based discourse that considers black influences a cultural threat to American society” (130). She explains, young fans of rap are themselves in concert with the music, ready agents of destruction whereas heavy metal is a threat to the fans, young white males, inherently innocent but in danger of corruption. Put simply, the dynamics of racialized music criticism reflect the attitudes of society writ large: the dismissal of the righteousness of violence in black genres of music mirror the same in black social movements or personal survival.
Across the spectrum of black musical genres, we see the same dynamic. Beyoncé, a master of combining maximalist visuals, nuanced political messages, and hyper-popular culture, was greeted with boycotts and protests after her performance at Super Bowl 50, which invoked a Black Panther aesthetic and, presumably, the group’s promotion of anti-passive and self-defense ideologies. Similarly, she faced a backlash to her music video for Formation, which was perceived as “anti-police” and resulted in an attempted nationwide police boycott of her Formation World Tour. Outside the strict confines of the music industry, black folks, especially black transwomen of color, are held to a different standard in eschewing the avenues of violent protest and activism—or even self-defense (see the tragic case of CeCe McDonald). In a seven-minute EP, G.L.O.S.S. highlights the continued violence against black transwomen in their work, which is positive, critical work. But the uneven reception of black political music by the American public proves just how fraught that project can be without full knowledge of one’s positions of privilege, or the history from which one speaks.
In the end, this issue of voice is about political horizons. G.L.O.S.S. is entirely future-oriented: Switchblade sings, “we break the cycle with revenge,” the band’s name stands for Girls Living Outside of Society’s Shit, and their first EP features a song called “G.L.O.S.S. (We’re from the Future).” But just how much do their actions refuse repetition?
Jose Muñoz was no stranger to witnessing and experiencing the horrors of anti-queer police brutality. In Cruising Utopia he recalls the brutality of riot police attacking a peaceful vigil after the murder of Matthew Shepard (while recognizing that “if Shepard had not been a pretty white boy, there would have been no such outcry”) (63). Muñoz fights against the violence of the “here and now,” the quagmire of political expediency, which is analogous to G.L.O.S.S.’ anger at the pragmatism of LGBT politics. Yet, in a very real way, violence at all costs can be considered a “political expediency” of its own for what occurs after violence? Is revenge and ultra-violence as sole response really “breaking the cycle”? In the rush to implement such violence, who is left by the wayside as we seize and assert our power? This is a question of effectivity, not morality.
For his part, Muñoz insists on breaking the cycle of the present by citing the use of “queer anger” through activism as public performance (64). This is the means toward utopian possibility, that imagines otherwise in a violent, repressive heteronormative present. But he stops short of arguing that queers must take up arms. The critique often levied against revolutionary utopian theorizing has been the obviation of the conditions of “the post-revolution” in favor of dreamy, uncritical rhetoric. Indeed, the same can be said here in the case of G.L.O.S.S. and all others who uncritically embrace not only outright violence but also intersectional politics blanched of much-needed nuance. As a vehicle to bringing trans and queer folk together, G.L.O.S.S.’ rage is a form of Muñoz’s ‘public performance’; they have poignantly invoked his “critical dissatisfaction.” But the generic bounds of hardcore preclude a nuanced conception of his “collective potentiality” (189), particularly one that is attentive to the racial hierarchies of voice. In short, there are yet songs to be sung. Though they have disbanded, we can thank G.L.O.S.S. for helping to set the stage.
Cover image is G.L.O.S.S. by Sid Sowder @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.
Chris Chien is an American Studies and Ethnicity graduate student at the University of Southern California, and is doing research on early Asian gay and lesbian organizing in North America, and these social movements’ place within contemporary transpacific, diasporic narratives of a liberalizing Asia, particularly Hong Kong. He has previously written on Sounding Out! about the sonic materiality of diasporic feeling through the relic of the cassette tape, and has an upcoming article on righteous white violence in the music of trans-hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. He hadn’t seen Moonlight or even a trailer before this screening, but heard from many people he respects that it was magical. When SO! ed-in-chief JS reached out after seeing him post about attending on FB, he immediately embraced the idea of a conversation with Shakira.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Feeling Through the Keen and Grind: Team Dresch’s Personal Best – Gretchen Jude
Riot-Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique – Tamra Lucid
The slaves who were ourselves had known terror intimately, confused sunrise with pain, & accepted indifference as kindness. – Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo
Sanford. Baltimore. Chicago. Staten Island. Charlotte. Cleveland. Oakland. Austin. Los Angeles. The Bronx.
Despair in the United States is nothing new. It is neither an emotion confined to the neatly-drawn borders of this land nor is it experienced more acutely by any one group of people. The vast discrepancy between the results of the popular vote and the electoral college’s selection of Donald Trump as forty-fifth president of the United States amply reveals despair to be an sentiment viscerally experienced by a wide swath of people in this country, irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, class, or sexuality.
Such despair has been ignored, however, by those who have caused and who continue causing the suffering of peoples of both indigenous and, later, African descent. We are taught that men from what we now recognize as Europe arrived in this hemisphere in the late fifteenth century, settling initially on a strip of earth in the Caribbean Sea that would become the first site of massacre and genocide, acts which unleashed, if one lends credence to the narrator of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the fukú, the “Curse and the Doom of the New World.” The narrating voice himself characterizes the curse not in the actions of death, but in the “screams of the enslaved, [..] the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began […]” (1). The fukú resonated through the sounds that these human beings made.
Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. – Toni Morrison, Beloved
The State’s unwillingness to hold George Zimmerman responsible for the murder of Trayvon Martin–and its subsequent refusal to hold any police officer accountable for the hundreds of deaths they have caused–has galvanized the United States in the last four years. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children alike have taken to the streets, as #BlackLivesMatter, a true and succinct sentence, has roused ghosts of the past who have never left us, who have always been present, accompanying us on this journey.
This post is not a reflection of the music that has served as a soundtrack to these protests, though there are articles that have done so, such as this one, this one, and this one. These pieces do not include the extensive list of articles that address perhaps the most widely-viewed piece of protest music thus far, Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, a scarce offering of which can be found here, here, and here. Instead, it is an essay inspired by the sounds of the protesters themselves, the noises made by the minds, bodies, and spirits of the men, women and children who have taken to public spaces and sometimes commercial zones in order to confront and object to the protections applied to those who kill men, women, and children, often of African descent.
Listen to Los Angeles in 2013. . .
. . .to Houston in 2014. . .
. . .to New York City in 2014. . .
. . .and to Charleston in 2015. . .
. . .
In his pivotal Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996), Joseph Roach characterized New Orleans and London as urban centers marked by two simultaneous, consistent acts: appropriation by white people and white power structures of the cultures of the peoples they have violently marginalized, and then, at the same time, a clear distancing from those very cultures and peoples. Although now in its twentieth year of publication, Roach’s theorization of the circum-Atlantic world remains vastly underutilized in scholarly circles—particularly in sound studies, where it should have special resonance– and has become increasingly critical to our understanding of this historical moment, as it “insists on the centrality of the diasporic and genocidal histories of Africa and the Americas, North and South, in the creation of the culture of modernity” (4). With this configuration, Roach accomplishes two feats simultaneously: first, he decentralizes the United States as the focal point of studies about the so-called New World, instead, placing on equal footing all of the histories and cultures of the Americas. For this scholar of the literatures of the Americas, particularly those written by men and women of African descent, Roach’s is a critical gesture that facilitates comparative work across national boundaries.
Second, and most importantly, Roach emphasizes the role of murder, rape and the destruction of whole cultures indigenous to the American and African continents in the foundation of the nations of this hemisphere. Ta-Nehisi Coates is perhaps the most recent writer to remind us that the most potent legacy of such modernity, racism, “is a visceral experience, that is dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth” (Between the World and Me, 10). That which we know as “modernity,” itself a deeply flawed construct that remains in need of serious revision, was born of broken backs, mutilated limbs, hushed middle-of-the-night tears of indigenous and African peoples. Moans and sighs, whispers and wails, cries and screams, they are the musical score of this hemisphere’s American experiment.
The slaves who were ourselves aided Indigo’s mission, connecting soul & song, experience & unremembered rhythms –Ntozake Shange
In the face of a populace accustomed to ignoring the wailing of mothers who have buried their children, who have disregarded their dignity and the weight and shape and taste of their loss, men, women, and children have mobilized. They have made manifest that which communities of peoples of African descent have spoken of and have documented since the founding of this nation. As Roach has utilized the term performance, the literal rituals of mourning by communities of African heritage not only commemorate those who have recently passed but they also invoke the spirits of those who have long borne witness to such violence. Throughout his study, Roach distinguishes between a European heritage that begins to segregate the living from the dead during the Enlightenment (50), and more traditional cultures, particularly African ones, where spirits mingle with their human counterparts. While written texts may not, and often do not, adequately commemorate the loss of lives deemed marginal to the larger society, performance itself – chants, wails, songs – serve not only to memorialize but also as gestures of restoration.
Protesters and activists are no longer satisfied with the well-established decree that we should wait for a distant moment for a more perfect realization of the United States’s many promises. No, instead, they have identified this as the historical moment in which those oaths are to be fulfilled. They have walked, marched, and stomped through streets, on sidewalks, parks, churches, filling malls and transportation hubs with their bodies as testimony. They have repossessed and redefined spaces once thought of as simply neutral, transparent space as Katherine McKittrick refers to it in Demonic Grounds, revealing the fault-lines of difference based on class, race, gender, and sexuality in this society (xv). They have done so manipulating sound, both recycling chants used through the decades to protest injustice and, at times, simply occupying space, without a word uttered.
The silence waged in the 2014 protest in Grand Central Terminal after the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo in the murder of Eric Garner does not represent erasure, but rather a purposeful demonstration of the willful humanity of those unwilling to forget.
They quiet themselves. They replace the sounds of unfettered pain and grief with its absence, until all that you hear is the mechanized announcement of train schedules. The contrast is stark: the moment highlights what Claudia Rankine has identified as the condition of black life in Citizen, that of mourning (145), against a backdrop of technological advancement, that which has been built on the backs of and through the physical, emotional, and intellectual labor of black life. Here, the members of this community enact what has been called a “die-in”: simulating the physical positioning of bodies in caskets, they force onlookers to confront an uncomfortable truth about the history of this country and of the nations of this hemisphere.
All of us walk on land soaked in the blood of those who have made our lives easier and more convenient. The men and women at Grand Central make manifest what Roach terms surrogation: in the chasm left by death, they offer a replacement, one that both evokes those who have died and disturbs the complacency of survivors themselves (2). The performance serves to confront those who dare say that the violence of genocide and enslavement of past generations should remain in the past; no, these men and women and the spirits they invoke respond. Time is not linear, as we have been taught. For past, present, and future are temporal constructs used to service oppression and domination; this will no longer do.
Here, in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. – Toni Morrison
We bear witness to the reclamation of grief, of lives cut short at the hand of a government charged with protecting those human beings who inhabit its borders, at least theoretically. While, as Roach surmises, “memory [may be] a process that depends crucially on forgetting” (2), we hold space to those dedicated to not forget, to instead excavate the silences, breathe life into those histories, remembering that the stories we have heard, the pages we have read, were once human beings. We create “counter-memories” as challenge and testimony, as a sacred pledge to those who are no longer present physically in this realm (Roach 26). We recall the cultures and practices of those who lived before the written form was a tool of exclusion, when remembrance was a practice of community.
American culture, in the hemispheric sense, incorporates all such rituals, across generations; as Roach notes, it is performance that “works on behalf of living memory, by bringing the parties together as often as necessary” (138). No longer consigned to the past, the spirits of those killed by the state are revived, their existences in the human plain celebrated. They are not defined by how they died but instead by how they lived. While literacy of the written form can separate, sound and gesture more effectively bypass the fictions of difference based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality. Cities of the Dead amplifies how “performance can articulate what otherwise may not be properly communicated” (161).
It’s so magic folks feel their own ancestors coming up out of the earth to be in the realms of their descendants – Ntozake Shange
We say their names. We say their names: Eleanor Bumpers. Anthony Báez. Sean Bell. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Tyisha Miller. Oscar Grant. Rekia Boyd. Trayvon Martin. Tanisha Anderson. Renisha McBride. Eric Garner. Yvette Smith. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Korryn Gaines. Akia Gurley. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Micah Jester. Deborah Danner. Walter Scott. Michelle Lee Shirley.
The list, tragically, grows, and still we say their names. We do so as an act of remembrance. As an offering. As peoples of African descent around the world do in times of ceremony, in the name of ritual. We remember those who have come before us, who have birthed this current historical moment of awakening here in the United States. We say their names.
And, as the sounds of their names said aloud echoes, we pray. Ashé.
Vanessa K. Valdés is associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The City College of New York; she is the editor of Let Spirit Speak! Cultural Journeys through the African Diaspora (2012) and The Future Is Now: A New Look at African Diaspora Studies (2012) and the book review editor of sx salon. She is the author of Oshun’s Daughters: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas (2014). The title of this essay is inspired by Josh Kun’s Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, where he writes that his book is “focusing on the spaces of music, the spaces of songs, and the spaces of sounds” (25).
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Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson
“Listening is little short of a synonym for learning.”
–Julian Henriques, Sonic Bodies
This is the third post in Sounding Out!’s July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2013. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. To read last week’s post by Maile Colbert click here and Regina Bradley’s discussion of listening, race, and Rachel Jeantel (and to read more about World Listening Day) click here.
How can listening, which I’ve come to understand as an essential way of knowing, enhance the learning experience? My pedagogical challenge over the past few years has been to develop a heightened awareness of the ways our ears are not necessarily, as Robert Frost asserts, “the only true reader and the only true writer,” but certainly an essential mode of reading and writing that is too often underdeveloped. As my high school students read works by Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Michael Ondaatje, Jonathan Safran Foer, James Baldwin, and Lucille Clifton, I want their ears to become increasingly attuned to the sounds, silences, vibrations, and other sonic significance embedded within printed words. I want them to experience how listening enhances their understanding of literature, that listening is learning.
I’ve taught A Listening Mind, a trimester course for high school juniors at Princeton Day School in New Jersey, for two years. Inspired by Toni Morrison’s 1996 National Book Award acceptance speech, “The Dancing Mind,” the course title signals my interest in challenging students to practice writing and reading in ways that are collaborative and cognitively (and otherwise) dissonant with their usual English classroom habits of mind. For my students, at least initially, writing is ruled solely by the mantra “Show. Don’t Tell.” This course, then, creates preconditions for a new kind of learning. It aims to heighten students’ aural attentiveness in general, and particularly in relation to the sonic life that inhabits the lower frequencies of the printed word. In many ways, the class resonates with Liana Silva’s discussion of sound as significant to writing and learning. In this course, we grapple with essential questions such as: How might we read and write with our ears? What happens when we take the risk to do so? As I design assessments and moderate the course, I keep in mind my own essential question as an educator: How can my scholarly interest in listening as a significant mode of cultural and social engagement translate into sound study learning opportunities for my students? The assignments students complete in A Listening Mind, a few of which I share next, are my response to these questions–a response that is in constant development.
CULTIVATING A LISTENING MIND
On the first day of class, I play Jason Moran’s “Cradle Song” from his most recent album, Artist in Residence. Moran plays the Carl Maria von Weber-composed lullaby on unaccompanied piano; the urgent scratching of a closely miked pencil on paper writes slightly ahead of the calming melody.
The song, a tribute to Moran’s mother who would stand over his shoulder taking notes as Moran practiced piano as a child, amplifies a sonic life that more often lingers within the printed word. Thus, it allows us to begin exploring the possibilities of listening as an approach to reading and writing.
In the first month of the course, students practice low stakes listening and writing: they go on short listening walks and record by hand what they hear in their sound journals. Rutger Zuydervelt’s Take a Closer Listen, an excerpt from the opening pages of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and the New York Times Magazine prose and audio essay, “Whisper in the Wind” are our inspirations for this assignment. They visit a space in which they feel most like themselves and tune into the space’s acoustics. They do the same in a space where they are less comfortable. Students also tune their attention to eco-listening – listening with intention to the natural or man-made environments in which we find ourselves. The idea is to notice the sounds our ears have become deaf to as we’ve become accustomed to a space. Their eco-listening results in their creating individual listening booklets that record the sounds we hear and our occasional reflections on them. By listening to various sounds and in various ways during the early weeks of the course, students exercise their ears and, along the way, some even realize that you need more than just ears to listen.
SONIC MATERIAL CULTURE
One of the assignments of the course involves work in what I call “sonic material culture.” According to the University of Delaware’s Center for Material Culture Studies, the study of material cultural objects “promotes the learning from and the teaching about all things people make and the ways people have acted upon the physical and visible world.” But, what about the ways in which material culture impacts the audible world? Sonic material culture looks at how material cultural objects help create cultural meaning through the sounds they make and the ways in which people use those sounds. Students explored an array of “sonic objects” that included, among others, a Tibetan singing bowl, steel drum, Shofar, typewriter, stethoscope, and a boom box. They then chose one of the items – an item that either makes sound (like a steel drum) or allows for access to sound (like a stethoscope), and began their research with a specific focus on how this item holds sonic cultural significance.
To research the stethoscope, for example, one student interviewed a cardiologist and a medical historian. She learned that sounds doctors hear through the stethoscope “comprise a language, spelling out diagnoses and prognoses” and provide “gateways to our understanding of the heart.” Another student chose the Steel Drum, an instrument developed in the 20th century in Trinidad and Tobago, and ended up discussing the innovation involved in reusing oil containers to produce a new cultural sound. Another student’s research on the Tibetan Singing Bowl led him back to a moment in Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartimaeus Trilogy: Book Three, Ptolemy’s Gate when the character Kitty Jones describes the ringing of a Singing Bowl that signals her transport into the world of magical spirits. Listening to the Singing Bowl made this student more attentive to this moment that he initially skimmed. And, one student’s love of all things vintage led her to her father’s manual typewriter and an essay combining family history and larger insights about education, workplaces, and mechanical writing. In each of these cases, the students realized that the sounds cannot be extricated from the material, social, and historical conditions that produce them.
The last time I taught the course, I designed a sound history mini-project. Students read excerpts from the work of Mark A. Smith and my work on historical listening in David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, and considered these question: How might sound function as a way to narrate a specific historical moment? Students needed to choose a historical moment, locate a sound, and then create a museum card that, among others, answered the following key questions: What does this sound bring to our attention that we might not otherwise consider? What questions does this sound raise? What does it leave mute? Since students had watched Django Unchained recently, we discussed sounds of slavery in that film. If you write slavery through the crack of the whip, then your focus might be on violence and torture used during that peculiar past. If you tell slavery, though, from the code-laden singing enslaved persons used to send messages to flee, then you have a different frame, a different sonic way into the historical moment.
One student used the opening sounds from The Wizard of Oz to narrate the Dust Bowl. Another examined news reports and hip hop music to listen back to the Los Angeles Uprisings. One young woman interviewed her mother about her immigration experience from Guatemala; in her project, the sound of a train whistle signaled arrival to the United States and a new life. One of the most striking projects consisted in an inventive student engineering her own sound using a teakettle in order to recreate what she imagined as the sound inside a gas chamber in a concentration camp during World War II. As she explained during her presentation, the screeching teakettle captures for her both the sound of gas and the screaming of those persons trapped within a chamber. What an empathetic choice to make as a listening scholar: to imagine the voice of one in the midst of death.
Students worked on this assignment as part of their culminating assessment for the course. I assigned this work at the end of the course because it gave students an opportunity to delve into the work of a Sound Studies scholar: students drew on their skills as listeners developed over the term; returned to questions we asked regarding listening and interpretation of written and recorded texts; framed their own questions for inquiry; and used sound technologies such as Audacity and GarageBand to amplify their historical sound.
As I tune my ears excitedly towards another World Listening Day (this year on July 18, 2013), I find myself remembering my students’ portfolio reflections of their learning in this course. Students mentioned that their time in the course helped them pay more attention to sounds around them: “my ears have been retrofitted by my experience in this class.” Some students became more in tune with their own sound: “The world is too noisy. I need to focus in, to tune in to myself.” Yet others found themselves “slowly opening [them]selves up to others” and becoming “more engaged with others’ opinions even if they were different from” their own. Even though some students entered the class resistant to, uncertain about, or “unnerved” by the thought of a listening English course, they felt by the end that, in the words of one student, “Now I leave this class with a purpose and clearer understanding of the importance of listening to my own echo.” In short, the two groups of students who have taken this class grow more “in tune” to multiple frequencies of reading, writing, and learning.
Lastly, while I hoped students would grow as listeners, I did not anticipate that their perceptions of themselves as readers and writers would also shift. Students who previously described themselves as “just not an English student” or who began writing and reading assignments with self-defeating “I’m just not good at this” comments, delved more deeply into the writing process and produced strikingly confident, nuanced pieces by term end. They have grown in their sonic literacy. In this, my students remind me of the most essential of questions: How, to borrow Carol Dweck’s language, do we help students develop a growth, rather than a fixed, mindset where learning is concerned? In my view, listening—practiced as a dynamic, tinkering, beta-type approach to the study of literature and writing—provides interesting answers.
Featured image photo credit: “Listen, Understand, Act” by Flickr user Steven Shorrock, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0
Nicole Brittingham Furlonge earned her PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “On the Lower Frequencies: Listening and African American Expressive Culture,” marks the beginnings of her investment in sound studies as the field resonates with issues of race, class, gender and education. Her work has been published in the academic journals Callaloo and Interference, and in the publication St. Andrew’s Today. She also has published a cookbook for young children, Kitchen Passports: Trinidad and Tobago. She has taught in independent high schools and colleges for 16 years, including University of Michigan, UPenn, The Lawrenceville School, Holderness School and St. Andrew’s School in Delaware. She has extensive experience in the classroom and in administrative roles dealing with curriculum development, diversity issues, faculty development and issues regarding education, equity and access.Currently, Nicole chairs the English Department at the Princeton Day School in New Jersey and blogs at the Huffington Post. She lives in the green part of New Jersey with her spouse and their three young children.
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“Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations“–Bronwen Low and Emmanuelle Sonntag
“Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments“–-Jentery Sayers