Ep. 7: Screwed & Chopped (Langston Collin Wilkins)

Houston slab with neon in trunk

Slab trunks feature sound systems and visual displays.

Since the 1990s, many of Houston’s African American residents have customized cars and customized the sound of hip hop. Cars called “slabs” swerve a slow path through the city streets, banging out a distinctive local music that paid tribute to those very same streets and neighborhoods.

Folklorist and Houston native Langston Collin Wilkins studies slab culture and the “screwed and chopped” hip hop that rattles the slabs and serves as the culture’s soundtrack. Wilkins shows us how sonic creativity turns a space—a collection of buildings and streets—into a place that is known, respected, and loved.

Slabs on display in a Houston park.


In this show we hear the slow, muddy, psychedelic sounds of DJ Screw and The Screwed Up Click, including rappers such as Lil Keke, Fat Pat, Big Hawk, and UGK–as well as songs by Geto Boys, Willie Dee, SwishahousePoint Blank, Biggie Smalls, and MC T Tucker & DJ Irv.

Photos by Langston Collin Wilkins.

Ep. 6: Data Streams (Leah Barclay and Teresa Barrozo)

On July 18th this year, Teresa Barrozo‘s question — What might the Future sound like? — will be opened to global participation. We bring news of World Listening Day, and speak with Teresa about her intervention.

We also hear of data archival developments in acoustic ecology. And we speak with Leah Barclay, the editor of Soundscape: The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, about her Biosphere Soundscapes project and some of the challenges of developing accessible apps for mobile platforms.

Cris grapples inadequately with the terminology of the anthropophone, the biophone and the geophone in his everyday life.

The audio work heard in this episode can be found on the Soundclouds of Leah Barclay and Teresa Barrozo.

Ep. 5: Ears Racing (Jennifer Stoever)

             This episode, we talk with Jennifer Lynn Stoever–editor of the influential sound studies blog Sounding Out!–about her new book, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (NYU Press, 2016). We tend to think of race and racism as visual phenomena, but Stoever challenges white listeners to examine how racism can infect our ears, altering the sound of the world and other people. We discuss the history of American prejudicial listening since slavery and learn how African American writers and musicians have pushed back against this invisible “sonic color line.”

Works discussed include Richard Wright’s Native Son and music by Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), Fishbone, and Lena Horne.

Additional music by Graeme Gibson and Blue the Fifth

Ep. 4: On listening In (Lawrence English)

Lawrence English is an influential sound composer, media artist and curator based in Australia. In this episode of Phantom Power: Sounds about Sound we speak with Lawrence about listening. In particular we think about his reworking of an important work in the fields of musique concrète and field recordingPresque Rien by Luc Ferrari, and the recent premiere of Wave Fields, his own 12-hour durational sound installation for sleepers at Burleigh Heads in Queensland as part of the Bleach* Festival.

Lawrence is interested in the nature of listening and the capability of sound to occupy a body. Working across an eclectic array of aesthetic investigations, English’s work prompts questions of field, perception and memory. He investigates the politics of relation listening and perception, through live performance, field recordings and installation.

The show includes extracts from the following tracks:

Album: Cruel Optimism: Hammering a Screw.”

Album: Wilderness of Mirrors: Wilderness of Mirrors,” “Wrapped in Skin.”

Album: Songs of the Living: Trigona Carbonaria Hive Invasion, Brisbane Australia,” “Cormorants Flocking At Dusk Amazon Brazil,” “Various Chiroptera Samford Australia.”

Album: Ghost Towns: Ghost Towns.

Album: Kiri No Oto: Soft Fuse.”

Luc Ferrari: Presque Rien

Ep. 3: Dirty Rat (Brian House)

This time we talk with a fascinating sound artist and composer Mack met at a recent meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts. As his website puts it, Brian House is an artist who explores the interdependent rhythms of the body, technology, and the environment. His background in both computer science and noise music informs his research-based practice. Recent interests include AI, telegraphy, and urban rats.” If that description looks a little daunting on the screen, the work itself sounds really cool to cris and Mack. We’ll listen to three pieces of Brian’s: a composition that imprints motion-tracking data on collectible vinyl, a field recording from the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and an encounter with the wildlife that put the “burrows” in New York’s five boroughs.

Links to works discussed: Quotidian Record (2012), Urban Intonation (2017).

Mack notes that it was incredible to edit this episode using Daniel Fishkin’s daxophone arrangement of John Cage’s “Ryoanji” (1983).

The other music on today’s episode is by Brian House and Graeme Gibson.

Ep. 2: City of Voices (Shannon Mattern)

Shannon MaternThis episode we have a single longform interview with a media scholar of note–The New School’s Shannon Mattern. We have teamed up with Mediapolis, a journal that places urban studies and media studies into conversation with one another, to interview Mattern about her new book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (U of Minnesota Press: 2018).

And lucky for us on Phantom Power, a large portion of Mattern’s story is about sound, from the echoes of ancient caves to Roman amphitheaters to telephone wires and radio towers—she shows us how sonic infrastructures allow us to communicate and form communities, cultivating forms of intelligence that are embodied and affective, as well as informatic. Before there was the smart city, there was the sonic city—and the sonic city isn’t going anywhere soon.

Some topics discussed: Patrick Feaster and First Sounds; Neil Postman; Harold Innis; Marshall McLuhan; John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous CloudsCarolyn Birdsall’s Nazi Soundscapes. 




[ethereal music ]

cris cheek:        This is Phantom Power.

Female computer voice:                       Episode two.

cris cheek:        City of Voices.

[fade out ethereal music ]

Shannon Mattern:         When we reduce the city to a computer, we think that everything can be ‘datified,’ everything can be fed through an algorithm. There are actually a lot of really important dimensions, human dimensions in particular, historical dimensions, things that resist ‘datification,’ that don’t really fit into that model. So, there’s a lot about a city that sort of leaks through those algorithms, that isn’t captured when you equate the entire city with a computational machine.

Mack Hagood:             That’s Shannon Mattern, an associate professor of media studies at The New School in New York City. Thanks for joining us on Phantom Power, a podcast about the sonic arts and humanities. I’m Mack Hagood, flying solo this episode. cris cheek will be back for episode three. Last year we put this episode online as a preview of the series. So, for the couple hundred of you who listened to it, give it another listen. There’s a lot going on. Or just check us out again in two weeks, when we’ll talk to sound artist Brian House. But for everyone else, this episode, we talk with Shannon Mattern about her new book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt:  Five Thousand Years of Urban Media.  A large portion of Mattern’s story is about sound, from the echoes of ancient caves,


 to Roman ampitheaters,


to telephone wires and radio towers.

[pre-recorded radio broadcast]

She shows us how sonic infrastructures allow us to communicate and form communities, cultivating forms of intelligence that are embodied and effective, as well as informatic. Before there was the Smart City, there was the ‘sonic city,’ and the sonic city isn’t going anywhere soon.

[bell music]

If you spend any time looking at architecture or design blogs, or reading tech websites or watching TedTalks, you’ve probably encountered a couple of truisms about how human beings will live in the future. The future is urban, and the future is ‘smart.’

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          Half of the population of the world’s actually live in cities.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities covering less than 2% of the earth’s surface

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          But cities also give off a lot of challenges.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:              Never have cities been so challenged.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          Well, many cities are starting to adopt ‘smart technology.’

[upbeat music]

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  Public transportation, IT connectivity, water and power supplies, sanitation and solid waste management, efficient urban mobility, governments, and citizen participation, and it does this using every buzzword imaginable!

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice 2:           Such as the Internet of things.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          The Internet of things?

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  The Internet of things.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice 2:           An artificial intelligence.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          And harnessing the power of data.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  From Big Data –

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice 2:           For a multifaceted solution – the smart city.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  Smart City.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice 2:       The Smart City.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          The smart City.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          Everyone talks about being ‘smart.’

[ethereal bell music]

Mack:              Despite the recent hype, the Smart City has been beta testing since the second half of the twentieth century.

[fade music ]

Shannon:         After World War II, for instance, there were quite a few organizations and research groups, and kind of corporations who tried to sell their services and technologies because the War Department didn’t need them anymore – the government, the federal government, that is – to cities. So, companies like Rand and various government agencies used their computer power and their data-based methodologies to try and address urban issues

Mack:              Mattern thinks we should approach this so-called ‘Smart City’ with caution, and unearth the history, ideas, and assumptions that form its infrastructure, just as much as its servers, routers, and fiber-optic cable. And in her new book, she does a kind of urban media archaeology, digging through the strata of media technologies that have always made cities ‘smart.’

Shannon:         Today, with the ubiquity of computing, and particularly with the presence of computing devices in everybody’s pockets and bags, the ‘computer as’ is a metaphor that tends to be kind of universally applied. And we often use the computer, as a metaphor to think about how cities work. And that’s not just a metaphor, actually – we are incorporating a lot of computing power, a lot of sensor technologies, a lot of algorithms, a lot of central control rooms to really regulate and monitor, urban services and flows. But when we reduce the city to a computer, we think that everything can be ‘datified,’ everything can be fed through an algorithm. There are actually a lot of really important dimensions that don’t really fit into that model. Again, there are lots of historical, embodied, and also non-human types of things. These are all our co-inhabitants in urban environments, too. So, these are the things that sometimes leak outside of those algorithmic models.

Mack:              And so, your book really intervenes in this misperception that intelligence equals informatics, right? There’s a passage where you write, ‘yesterday’s cities, even our earliest settlements, were just as smart, although theirs was an intelligence less computational and more material and environmental.’ Can you talk about that?

Shannon:         Sure. So, when I’m mentioning that cities have always been intelligent, but that the historical forms of intelligence have been perhaps more material or environmental than they are computational, I’m arguing that forms of knowledge, even forms of the kinds of things that a computer does today, things like accountancy, administration, that those things have always been performed in cities – in fact, the whole need to account for things, to keep ledgers of things, was something that arose, some historians and archaeologists and anthropologists argue, with the rise of large-scale human settlements. So, things like computation, logistics, management of resources, again have always been inherently urban operations and necessities, but they’ve been taken, they’ve taken place often through more material media – things like clay tablets, bullae, which were kind of the clay tokens that some theorists including Denise Schmidt argues preceded a lot of writing systems. So, these, these forms, these historical forms of intelligence were always there, it’s just that they were registered and processed, if you want to use kind of contemporary computational metaphors, of media that were more analog than digital. Even the urban environment itself, the facades of buildings, the grid of the street, these forms, these types of things, the environment itself, has served as a conduit and a register of a lot of this form, this type of intelligence.

Mack:              Yeah, and you used the word, ‘logistical,’ which reminds me of John Durham Peters’ recent book, The Marvelous Clouds, right, he mentions that our digital new media sort of foregrounds the logistical role of media once again. So, for our field of media studies, it arose during the broadcast era, trying to study radio, film, and TV, but these might really be a sort of deviation in terms of media, right? Or the essential quality of media for somebody like Peters is not sort of the, the sort of transmission of or broadcast of representational information, but its more about managing our relationship to time and space and power.

Shannon:         Absolutely. And if you look again, a lot of historical media, which were prevalent in cities all throughout history, they serve that purpose. So, you had, and this might be kind of a liberal definition of what constitutes media, but this comes from kind of my training in media studies from graduate school, is taking a kind of a McLuhen-esque, informed by his own mentor Innis, and really being pretty capacious in determining what fits within the ‘basket’ of media, so if you look at statuary, at architecture itself, at inscriptions on buildings –  which again stretch our perception of what we might consider as media technologies today – these were all helping to shape people’s experiences, interactions, sync people up with time and space, which is again that much kind of more fundamental understanding of what function logistics serves.

[ethereal bell music ]

Mack:              As a student of media ecologist Neil Postman at NYU, Shannon Mattern took her place in the intellectual lineage of Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, and others who consider media and mediation as integral parts of the lived environment. When in the late oughts she encountered the emergent field of media archaeology, it gave her a new way to frame her already ongoing studies of media cities. Media archaeology is a field that attempts to understand new and emerging media by examining old and often dead media technologies. Mattern takes inspiration from the field, but notes that most of its ‘digging in the past’ is metaphorical. ‘What if we took media archaeology literally,’ she writes, ‘and borrowed a few tricks from archaeologists of the stones and bones variety?’ Her book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt, pushes us in that direction. Each chapter moves us farther back in time, in an examination of old urban media infrastructures, starting with the sonic technologies of the telegraph and radio, then moving to the urban emplacement of the printing press, followed by an examination of the earliest surfaces for writing, clay and stone; and finally, perhaps the oldest medium of them all, the human voice. Each of these media reorganized the city around itself, and each of them is still with us today, as past and future media mingle in the present.

[fade out music ]

One of Marshall McLuhan’s more famous ideas, which I think he sort of cribbed from his student Walter J. Ong is that voice communication is this more primitive yet holistic form of communication and he associate, tends to associate it with tribes and villages and that sort of thing. And then we get this more rational yet alienated print culture that I would assume would allow us to build complex things like cities, but one of the things I really liked about your book is that it doesn’t have these sort of clear-cut stages, and in fact it gives us a way to think about the city as a sonic development, and in many ways, to think of a city as a space made for voices.

Shannon:         Right, so, while McLuhan and Innis and Ong have been influential in kind of my foundational study, I think there’s been a lot of thinking and scholarship in the years since they did their work that still values the contributions they made, particularly their very liberal interpretation of what constitutes a medium, their idea that media shape environments, Innis’s idea that even infrastructures and staple goods constitute communications media. So, there’s a lot of value in their work, but at the same time, I think scholars have really questioned this idea that history precedes in various, not necessarily ‘clear-cut,’ but defined revolutions. So, we’ve kind of realized, since these foundational thinkers did their work, that history didn’t really happen the kind of periodic way that they presented it. So, when we think about our urban histories, and how those have been intertwined with our media and communications histories, we also have to recognize that traces, and not necessarily historical ruins but also living, still vibrant, existences of these quote-unquote ‘old media’ are still present in our contemporary cities.

Mack:              Yeah, I really like this word you used of ‘traces,’ and, it makes me think of the sound scholar Patrick Feaster?

Shannon:         Whom I do not know, I’m afraid.

Mack:              Okay. So, so he’s a really interesting person, and somebody who I think of as a very literal media archaeologist. So in his, in his terminology, he educes, the information in old media objects.  So, so Feaster is best known for digitally educing sound from the phonotograph –

Shannon:         Huh.

Mack:  – which was that 19th century stylus that traced soundwaves onto sort of scratchy lines of paper.

Shannon:         Uh-huh.

Mack:              And he figured out, with his partners, a way to, digitize that sound and actually turn it into sound, educe sound from this thing that was just supposed to be a visual tracing of sound waves.

[scratchy sounds from phonotograph fade in]

And then he moved on to do things like use this technique on medieval musical notation, drawing sound out of these pieces of paper.

Shannon:         Hm.

Mack:              And, once he said to me – and I think he was half-joking [laughter] – that he would like to educe acoustic events that had sort of registered themselves on clay walls millennia ago. But I think this word ‘eduction’ is a good word for the kind of work you’re doing in this book, because we can’t reproduce the sounds of the past, but we can treat the city as a historical medium in itself and try to coax these remnants of forgotten sounds from that medium.

Shannon:         So, I appreciate that very much. And yes, I like this idea of ‘eduction,’ which isn’t really a word that I used in the book, but now that you’ve mentioned it, it really does resonate very nicely. And I think that plays out that methodology kind of, unintentionally on my part, kind of plays out a few places in the book. Sonic media are one particular, kind of I guess you could call it ‘class of media,’ that make it, make historic study kind of difficult, especially when you’re looking past the beyond, or preceding the time before recorded sound. How do you know what a space sounded like before you had recordings that you could play back on machines today? This is something that sonic historians, the rise of the whole field of sensory history over the past 15 or so years, they have been addressing these methodological issues, particularly the problematics of doing things like recreations or re-staging, because our contemporary ears that are so, ruined by earbuds and the contemporary use of autotune, et cetera, the way we’re trained to hear today, we just couldn’t possibly imagine the cultural, class, racial, historically defined ways that people heard in these preceding eras. But, there is still something to be learned by thinking about our historical environments, not just as visual and material spaces. We don’t necessarily have to be limited by the senses that our, existing historical records leave for us. Even images, tracings in the walls, ruins – archaeological ruins, for instance, still offer, again, traces or echoes of what they might have sounded, how they might have reverberated or resonated in the past. So, Emily Thompson wrote a really foundational book in 2002, goodness, Soundscape of Modernity, where she really has to use things like photographs, catalogues of acoustic materials, textbooks from the, kind of the rising field of architectural acoustics, to piece together what these new, modernist architectures sounded like. You also have then the field of archaeology, I would say maybe a marginalized but still present community of people who are practicing archaeo-acoustics who are using somewhat speculative methods, still adopting a lot of the media technologies, so there’s a lot of intersection of what we do in media studies in this field of archae-acoustics, to try to imagine how certain rituals or everyday practices might have functioned as sonic practices in historical or ancient environments. So, testing reverberation patterns, seeing how particular hallways or subterranean spaces might’ve lent themselves to particular types of acoustic or verbal events or performances, and again this is speculative, but still it opens up a richer, more multisensorial, more performative form of history, and, allows us to recognize kind of different, different types of embodied history, I guess you could say.

Mack:              Yeah, there’s a really lovely episode of David Hendy’s BBC radio series Noise:  A Human History

Shannon:         Yes, uh-huh.

Mack:              – with the French scholar Iégor Reznikoff, who, you also mention in your book.

Shannon:         Mm-hmm.

[clip from Noise:  A Human History]

David Hendy:              Iégor Reznikoff is one of several archaeologists who’ve tried an intriguing experiment. Moving slowly, and in total darkness along the narrower passages in caves –

[Iégor Reznikoff vocalizing in the background]

Like Arcy-Sur-Cure they’ve used their voices as a kind of sonar, sending out a pulse of sound, then listening out for any unusually resonant response.

[end clip]

Mack:              He is sort of moving through these caves in France, using his voice to sort of sound out the spaces, and then when he encounters particularly resonant spaces, he’ll turn on his flashlight and quite often, that’s where the cave art will be located, not in a space that would be the most obvious visually, and in fact often the cave art is in a pretty inaccessible and strange space from a visual perspective, but from a sonic perspective, it’s a place where the cave speaks back to you.

[another clip from Noise:  A Human History]

[Iégor Reznikoff vocalizing]

David Hendy:              We’re near the bottom of the main hall, where each sound might provoke up to seven echoes, and, looking around, we can see several mammoths, some bears, a rhinoceros or two, some fish, some sort of big cat, and on the floor, the delicate outlines of a bird.

[end clip]

Shannon:         Right, absolutely. To understand how some of our oldest media, including things like cave paintings, worked, we have to realize that they were very much embodied, performative experiences. They were kind of training rituals, for people to learn the hunt, essentially. The resonance of the space was combining with the flickering light which made the cave paintings supposedly look like they were dancing – not dancing, but moving, which really kind of reinforced the power of those experiences, of seeing the bison running, hearing their footsteps, and kind of psyching yourself up to go out for the hunt.

Mack:              And so this perspective allows us to start thinking about the city as an outgrowth of that, right? That there’s a sort of embodied and affective intelligence and communication that evolves in and through the city and that throughout time we have actually developed spaces for verbal and oral communication, as you argue. So, Walter Ong thought of Ancient Greece as the site where the transition form orality to literacy happened, but you show in your book that the oral rhetoric and the Ancient City were sort of a co-production, right? Like, they literally shaped one another. Oral rhetoric and the space of the Roman City, for example, were shaped for and by one another.

Shannon:         Right, so if you look at Classical, philosophy, you look at the work of kind of early architects, before they were officially architects, the work of Vitruvius, for instance. You can see that acoustics was an integral part of not only the way a city should be designed but also of even these idealistic visions or imaginations of what a just, ideal city would be. So, the city is a space of discourse. The voice is an integral thing that has to be essentially planned for when we are organizing our cities. The idea that a city shouldn’t be so big that you can’t hear the voice of a herald standing in the center of the city calling out to everybody. You need something that’s going to unite everybody within an acoustic environment. So there are a lot of these principles that shaped ideals for the city and actual plans. You can look at things like the way an amphitheater was designed, for instance, or the way certain kind of meeting spaces in Ancient Greece and Rome were designed, kind of legislative spaces. There were definite acoustic principles that were shaping the materialization of those sites.

Mack:              You use this wonderful term, I don’t know if this comes from Carolyn Birdsall’s book Nazi Soundscapes or not, but you talk about this ‘affirmative resonance,’ right, the way that sound in a collective space can sort of interpolate us as subjects or group members.

Shannon:         Right. I do think that is Carolyn Birdsall’s term in regard to Nazi Soundscapes, but you can see that principle applying elsewhere too. You can see it today in protest movements around the world.

[rhythmic clattering sounds fade in]

In, the sound politics of making noise among marginalized populations, the fact that they’re kind of claiming their right to space by creating an acoustic envelope for it. So, these are still examples of this principle of affirmative resonance. It’s enclosing people who are within the earshot as being within a community of some sort.

[clattering fades]

Mack:              I can’t help but think about Trump rallies when I’m, uh…

[both laugh]

I mean, Trump is sort of a master architect of effective spaces –

[fade in an unintelligible Trump speaking through a megaphone, crowd cheering]

[fade out clip]

– Trump is a sort of architect of effective spaces, and sound is a big part of what he does.

Shannon:         Yeah, so I guess you could say that the idea of affirmative resonance does not necessarily suit one particular political orientation over another, it’s not an inherently democratizing, progressive type of thing, it’s not necessarily for radical protest, for instance; it is a method, I guess you could say a socialization method, for lack of a better phrase, that could serve multiple political purposes and end goals.

Mack:              Yeah, I think that’s very important, because we get excited about things like The People’s Microphone in Zucotti Park, and, I mean, that’s very wonderful, but these resonances can have all kinds of effects, and it’s definitely not only progressive, for sure.

Shannon:         Right. The Third Reich used that principle very well too, just as the liberation movements in the Middle East around 2011, and, as you mentioned, Zucotti Park, so, yes, it operates for multiple ideologies.

[ethereal music and radio interference fading in, a man’s voice ]

Mack:              But I also want to talk about the radio stuff.

Shannon:         Okay.

Mack:              In chapter one, you focus on radio as what you call an ‘ethereal medium,’ so, it’s a medium that almost supernaturally affects the atmosphere of a city with sounds and voices that are carried on electromagnetic waves, but at the same time, it’s also a heavily material system. As you mentioned, there are wires and tubes and transmitters and switches. So, maybe we could say that this chapter is about radio as a force that reshaped the city both materially and immaterially?

[ fade in song “Mr. Radio Man” broadcast over a radio]

Shannon:         Yeah, absolutely.

[music continues to play ]

Sound, we could say, is a medium without a body. It doesn’t really have a material instantiation in the same way that a printed book does, or a carved clay tablet, for instance. So, it is ethereal, in that way, and particularly if you look at some of the early writing about radio when it first came into existence, it kind of was, there was a lot of spiritualized language surrounding it. It was very much connected to kind of the rise of spiritualism, with some of its wired predecessors, the telegraph and the telephone as well.

[song becomes clear. Mr. Radio Man, tell my mama to come back home, won’t you do what you can, `cos I’m so lonely, I’ve been listening here every day, since she went away, but no word from Heaven’s been heard, can’t the angels hear me pray, when the sandman is nigh ]

[music fades ]

But, these seemingly ethereal media do have, as you said, a lot of very material kind of effects on the landscape. And this is something that sounds like a new revelation in the Data Age, and the past few years a lot of theorists and artists and designers have talked about, surprise, the Internet is a place, you know, it actually has a material existence, it lives in data centers and cables and satellites, et cetera, and that was very important for us to recognize because it helps us to realize the uneven distribution of connectivity, it helps us to recognize there’s a political economy and ownership structures, to see the Internet as a thing with a geography that shapes space and is shaped by geography, which I think is a very kind of important revelation for us in the Digital Age, to think critically about these seemingly placeless ethereal media. A similar thing was happening in kind of the radio and telegraph and telephone age – these things that were kind of discussed in this romantic, often spiritual language, had a very physical, architectural impact on the landscape. Again, laying cable, building new architectures, new purpose-built buildings, the rise to new in some cases beautiful antennae that inspired a lot of aesthetic movements at the time, so their traces were very physically present in the landscape, too.

[fade in ethereal music and radio interference ]

Mack:              And this is where we come full circle. Because, you know that ethereal magic we all love today – WiFi, and LTE? Yes, that invisible connection that allows us to text our friends and control our thermostats from afar, and imagine our data as sending into the Cloud just like the angels – that’s radio too. Both the hardware and the spiritualism of the Smart City show evidence of radio’s material and ethereal influence.

[fade in clicking computer processing sounds]

Shannon:         And also today, with the rise of Smart Cities and the Internet of things, is the fact that we have these devices that are talking to each other all throughout our cities, supposedly making life much more efficient and allowing us to monitor things like air quality and traffic, et cetera, we’re still relying on radio technologies and a lot of line of sight communication to make that happen. So, radio might be used by different devices, but radio, kind of the whole world of radio technology, is still super present in our cities today.

Mack:              Shannon Mattern, talking about her book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt:  Five Thousand Years of Urban Media, out on Minnesota Press, and this episode was written, edited, and musically scored by me, Mack Hagood. Special thanks to Shannon Mattern and special thanks to Orfeas Skutelis at The New School for his engineering assistance. This episode was produced in conjunction with Mediapolis:  A Journal of Cities and Culture. Mediapolis is edited by Brendon Kredell and Erica Stein. The reviews editor, who suggested today’s interview, is Noelle Griffis. You can get lots more great content on media and cities at mediapolisjournal.com. Phantom Power is produced by me and my cohost, the poet and media artist cris cheek, and you can get more information at phantompod.org. Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ep. 1: Dead Air (John Biguenet and Rodrigo Toscano)

On our first episode of Phantom Power, we ponder those moments when the air remains unmoved. Whether fostered by design or meteorological conditions or technological glitch, the absence of sound sometimes affects us more profoundly than the audible.

We begin with author John Biguenet discussing his book Silence (Bloomsbury, 2015) and the relationship between quietude, reading, writing, and the self.

Next, we speak to poet and hurricane responder Rodrigo Toscano, who takes us into the foreboding silence in eye of a storm.

Finally, our own co-host and poet cris cheek ponders the many contradictory experiences of “dead air” in an age of changing media technologies.

Today’s episode features music by our own Mack Hagood and by Graeme Gibson, who is currently touring on drums with Michael Nau and the Mighty Thread.



[♪ ethereal music playing ♪]



This… is… Phantom Power.



Episode One.



Dead Air.



You know, silence…



It’s like, uh, it’s like a vacuum… like a walkie-talkie, where you’ve gotta press the button to speak and let it go to hear.



The signal drops out.



Hello, and thanks for joining us on Phantom Power, podcast about sound in the arts and humanities. Over the next six or seven episodes this season, we’ll be investigating how artists and scholars are thinking about sound, writing about sound, and using sound to make things. My name’s Mack Hagood, I’m a media scholar, a writer, and a musician.



I’m cris cheek, I’m a poet. Sometimes a sound poet, sometimes an unsound poet. I’ve also done a lot of work with music over the years. And I’m gonna be learning a lot as we make this series in terms of thinking about listening and talking together. Sounds about sound.



And I don’t, I don’t know if this is ironic or fitting, but we’re starting off this first episode talking about silence. So today we sort of have a three parter. We’re thinking about the roles of silence, uh, in reading and writing, and we’re going to think about the dead air in the eye of a hurricane, this kind of silence that prestiges something terrible. And, um, then we’re going to think about silence as a disruption. You know, an interruption of your regularly scheduled broadcast, or what they call



Dead air.




So, cris, a long, long time ago, I was a 19 year old college student in New Orleans, Louisiana, at Loyola University. And I just took this, you know, intro English class with this professor named John Biguenet and he just made a huge impression on me, really started making me think in different ways. And then I went on with my life, and it turned out that this gentleman John Biguenet turned into a well known fiction writer, poet, playwright, um, he has written a collection of short stories called The Torturer’s Apprentice, which is just this sort of spellbinding collection that is a little bit Chekov, a little bit Kafka, a little bit Borges. Um, he’s won the O’Henry Award for Short Fiction, uh, he’s won a Harper’s Magazine Writing Award. He wrote this trilogy of plays about Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. And now he’s written a book on silence, uh, for this series of short books that have titles like Bread, or, uh, Golf Ball. [laughing] So, just kind of thinking deeply about these quotidian objects in our everyday lives and John chose silence. I read it, it’s a terrific short book, I highly recommend it. And so the last time I was down in New Orleans, I went to his office and we had a terrific conversation.


[♪ record crackles, loud bells chiming ♪]



We may conjecture that somewhere in the cosmos, beyond the border of all human trace, a zone of silence awaits.


[♪ bells chime again ♪]


Always receding, of course, before the advance of future explorers. A great sea of stillness unperturbed by the animate. An utterly quiet virgin territory. Our imagination misleads us if we conceive of silence as a destination at which we might arrive. Similarly, in a less poetic vein, if we assume that silence is merely the absence of soundwaves, or more precisely the absence of a medium capable of transmitting sound waves, though we are correct, we miss a larger point. Silence is a measure of human limitation.


[record crackling]


I began to be involved in this book, um, when I was approached, um, by Ian Bogost and Chris Shayburg, who are the co-editors of the Object Listens series for Bloombury. Uh, they gave me my choice of subjects and I chose silence.


[papers crinkle]


It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was an unusual choice, um, for a book of um… that is supposed to focus on objects, because as a writer I spend so much of my day in silence either reading or writing that, um, it’s the most common object in my life in fact.


[footsteps and pant legs swishing]


Uh, it’s the farthest corner of my house.


[door opens, footsteps]


Um, the one where I can control the sound, um, we just say the one in which there is no sound.


[door closing]


It’s, uh, it’s more of a nest than an office.


[papers swishing, low murmuring, typing]


I’m surrounded by the notes and photographs and maps and all the kind of information that a writer needs to tell a story, and since I most often am writing fiction, inventing where I go, um, the reality that’s grounded in those documents I find very helpful. But for the most part the one thing that I really need is silence, and a cup of black coffee to be able to write.


[♪ ethereal music fades up, low whispers overlay each other, and fades slightly down ♪]


Silent reading is a contradiction in terms, um, as I began to understand, the deeper I got into my study of silence. Because, um, a book is not intended to be a monologue but a conversation. We – It’s a lot like a walkie-talkie, where you’ve gotta press the button to speak and let it go to hear. We suppress our own consciousness for a moment, and read a few paragraphs, and then we stop reading and look up and ask ourselves, ‘do I agree with that? Does that make sense? Is it accurate? Is it true?” And once we’ve made a judgement about that, we return to that other consciousness which is manifest in the words of the book, um, and, um, or for a sort of hospitality, um, to another mind, um, we internalize it, and then, once again, we stop, freeze things, and judge it, and decide, “is this true? Is this a representation that I can embrace?” And then we continue reading. So reading for me seems to be a movement back and forth between my mind and someone else’s mind.


[Singing, whispering, ominous music]


In fact, I told a story recently, um, and I was asked at the end of an interview about that story what books would I suggest that Donald Trump should read. And I said, “the real question is not what should he read but why can’t he read.” And I think the reason he can’t read is he is such an extreme narcissist that he can’t admit anyone else into his consciousness. He fills himself. And so, because he can’t escape himself, understandably he is furious all the time. The fact that he can’t read a book, that he can’t read anything, all he can do is watch television about which he is the subject. Uh, suggest that someone without the capacity to admit another’s consciousness is incapable of reading.


[music and sounds fade]



So, um, uh, listening with great interest to John talking there, Mack, and I think he’s asking at least one very provocative question. And the first one is, “can we really think of silence as an object?” in the terms that he lays out and I have to admit I don’t feel I have an adequate response. I just find it a provocative question.



Yeah, I’m-I’m probably not an object fan or someone who would really think about silence in terms of being an object myself. Um, especially because I feel like this relationship he’s talking about between a writer and a reader is really suggestive that silence is a kind of relationship.






And I’m really fascinated by this, this idea that silent reading is this kind of contradiction of terms.



Yeah, you know, one of the things that I think about is the other voices we hear inside our heads when we’re reading. It might be the voice of the author, but it also might be our own voice interpreting the voice of the author. I agree that reading is a conversation.



Yeah, but I really like that though because, you know, again, there’s this relationship going on, right? There’s this dynamic. So you’re in a quiet space where the inner voice can emerge and then you do this kind of silent reading where, you know, some kind of co-production between your own interior voice and the voice of the author happens. Or perhaps it’s this walkie-talkie two-way relationship that’s happening, um, although that seems a little bit sort of sender-receiver? Right?



Right, it does, yeah



Like there’s just this pure message that sort of travels between the author and the reader which maybe I’m a little bit unsure of. But I still, nevertheless, I just love the idea of this internal dialogue.



Call and response.



Yeah, yeah. And there’s this psychologist who wrote this book called The Voices Within, Charles Fernyhough, I believe. And he makes this entire argument that thought itself is a matter of voice. That there’s this interior dialogue that’s always happening, so that thought itself is dialogic, but we sort of have these conversations going on inside of ourselves as well as the conversations we have with people on the outside.



Right, yeah, I mean, the poets would – okay, now here’s a bit of fancy terminology for you, poets would talk about the endophone, which is the voice that stays within the body,






and the exophone, the voice that leaves the body.



Oh, that’s nice. And what is the relation between those two?



Well, the endophone is the sound of you thinking, the sound of you reading things over in your mind, the sound of you reading a book without speaking out loud. And the exophone is when you begin to talk, or begin to read out loud.



Yeah. I have to say, that this really appeals to me, because I feel like I’m an interior voice person. [Cris laughing] Like, I, uh, remember teachers telling me that, you know, you should read more quickly by not sounding out the words and I feel like I’ve never been able to accomplish that.



Right, right.



But in fact, there’s a lot of research that suggests that very few people actually do that. That there’s this interior voice.



Speed reading.



Right, right. But, I was describing this to my wife, and she tells me that she does not hear an interior voice when she reads, and it also makes me think of you know, um, a conversation that I had with a deaf artist Christine Sun Kim, and, you know, she told me that she thinks in signs and images.






So there’s obviously a sort of diversity of experiences of thought going on.



I like that too.



Different kinds of silences.






So maybe we should, uh, keep listening.



Yeah, I think the, um, this entire question of whether one has the calmness, and the leisure, and the relaxation of the self sufficient to read in a fully engaging way requires the right circumstances, and that if one is under stress from disease or disaster, that reading is going to be slow to recover.


[♪ helicopter whirring, bell music ♪]


(recording of unidentified female reporter)


Eighty percent of New Orleans underwater right now, the levies have broken and they can’t figure out why and they’re having a difficult time trying to fix the situation. The damage is staggering, insurance companies are saying that they could be suffering losses anywhere between… (fade out)



What confirmed this for me was my own experience after the levy collapse in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina sideswiped the city. We lost everything like almost everyone else in New Orleans and were homeless for about a year. In the beginning we were sleeping in a daycare center. I was writing for the New York Times and in fact I became their first guest columnist sending out bulletins basically about what was going on in New Orleans from the point of view of someone who knew the city.


[background music]


(unidentified male reporter)

Here’s where it began for those of us who live near Lake Pontchartrain. My neighborhood since childhood, a neighborhood now abandoned to the bulldozers of the corp of engineers [fade to background]




That first month, sitting on the little twelve-inch plastic chair in this daycare center writing on a 18-inch plastic table, I wrote 15 columns for the Times and also shot two videos, and had no trouble writing that or other pieces that I was producing about, uh, the serious problems that New Orleans faced in the midst of the flooding and its aftermath.


[♪ bell music, helicopter sounds ♪]


(unidentified male reporter)

Eventually, a mandatory evacuation enforced by US military units emptied the city for the next month. Half a million New Orleanians have been driven from their homes and were forced to live as evacuees around the country. Over 300,000 have still not returned to the city. Many of those that have returned cannot live in their homes.



But, I also found it almost impossible to read seriously. Um, my wife and I were taken by my sister in Texas just a few days after the flood. We had gone there to evacuate. Uh, to a film comedy, just to get our minds off of things.


[whispering in the background]


And at the end I told my wife I felt like I was suffocating in there, there’s something wrong with me. She said, “me too.” I think what happens is that when you go through something traumatic, you’re holding on so tightly to the self that you can’t admit anybody else into your consciousness. And therefore, serious reading becomes almost impossible. You can read a newspaper article or instructions or directions, but the kind of intense reading I’ve done as a teacher of literature and as a writer, um, seemed beyond my grasp. And it’s only little by little that I’ve recovered the ability to read intently, to make room for somebody else inside my consciousness. And if I have one lasting injury from the flooding of New Orleans, it’s that I’ve never fully recovered the intensity of my reading that I had before the flood. And in fact, at dinner parties here in New Orleans, when I’ve brought it up in the years after the flood, people were relieved to hear that someone else also was suffering from something that seemed quite widespread. The inability to relax the grip on the self long enough to be able to read, or even watch a film, for that matter.


[♪ ethereal bell music♪ ]



Silent reading is a contradiction in terms. Reading for me seems to be a movement back and forth between my mind and someone else’s’ mind. Yeah, silence… silence is, um… silence itself is something that in its very essence can’t be experienced, since our understanding of it is something that’s inaudible. So, sort of like the placeholder “zero.” It’s an extremely useful concept for us, even if we have no experience with it. Imagining silence is as close as we’ll come to it.





The interesting bit there for me was this sense that he needed to make room for somebody else in his consciousness, and that inability to relax the grip on the self long enough to read, uh, was something that he’s suffered lasting damaged from, and that reading has only sort of very gradually, little by little recovered, because he was holding on so tightly to the self. Which does feed back directly into his critique of our great leader.







That sense of the narcissistic peopleing of himself with the clamor of his own selves. Holding so tightly to himself that he has no room for anybody else and he has no room to become a reader of other voices



Yeah, it kind of reminds me, now that you mention that, of, um, Sherry Turkle’s argument that a media scholar at MIT Sherry Turkle, who talks about spending so much time on our devices and kind of having this, uh, low involvement form of “togetherness” where we’re kind of alone together but we’re never really alone and we’re seldom really “together,” and so that there’s not this space for self-development, this kind of quietude that John was talking about.



Right, I also really liked his statement that silence is something that cannot be experienced, since our experience of it is something that’s inaudible. We’re left imagining silence, which I feel does begin to answer some of my initial quibbles with his initial proposition.



Yeah, yeah.



So, while I was listening to John, uh, having heard these extracts a little earlier in the summer, I met up with an old friend of mine who is a poet, Rodrigo Toscano, who lives in New Orleans right now. Uh, but I actually know Rodrigo as also being a union worker. He works for the United Union of Steelworkers, and that’s the largest industrial labor union in the US right now. And he does a lot of liasing with areas of the country that have been hit by major storm damage to recover. So he’s been in these command and control center situations for five hurricanes now. Uh, and I sat him down really with very little notice and asked him, “Rodrigo, what does it sound like inside a hurricane?” And this is what he said:


[previous recording]



Is there no sound when you’re right under the eye?



That’s correct. That’s correct. If it’s over land, it’s like a vacuum, and it’s sunny above you and then [laughing] but you know that this is a temporary thing. The sound then becomes the arms… You hear it at a distance. For example, in your living, walking, daily life, when you see, um, a cloud, say, ten miles away from you, it’d be absurd to say you can hear that cloud. Not so in a hurricane. You begin to hear the rumble of the arms of that hurricane. Different pressures of air hitting others, so it’s air on air is what it is at first, and it’s a strange sensation because, to hear wind not interacting with material objects, but with wind itself, that’s the first thing that you hear. As the winds start to pick up, as the hurricane approaches, you begin to hear, you know obviously, the rustle of trees in a sort of orchestration of all these things moving all at once. Uh, a rumble, a pinging, wind on wind.



What kind of rumble is it? Is it.. Is it, like, distant thunder?



No. It’s… it’s more like a… like a huge piece of velcro being ripped above you.



Uh huh, velcro.



Because what’s happening is… yeah… there’s fissures of air, and there’s gashes of pressure systems being ripped open for this pressure of the wind, it’s gotta push, or it’s gonna sometimes slowly bellow up and sometimes rip through a certain pressure system. And then ultimately, as the winds start to pick up, you start to hear, um, the thunder of projectiles hitting solid surfaces, iron on brick, brick on wood, uh, you know, tree trunk on car, you know, what’s the sound of an automobile hitting a bridge?



Right, right



And that’s when things get really, really frightening. I remember one time, the winds weren’t the worst, there was an incident where a sort of canister, a container of some sort form a vacant lot, was picked up in the air and flung against the concrete walls of the command center. That thud, uh, [laughing] um, I could feel it inside my body. You might liken it to being in a tank and being hit by a shell. You hear the sound of walkie-talkies, you hear the sound of hasty, hasty reports, sirens, um, people checking in with each other, you know, warning bells, you know a lot of the expletives. Or, and, for instance, often heard is “this is getting bad.” you know, and then you hear, you know, more intense, “this is getting really really really bad!” But you cannot concentrate. I can assure you that nobody that I know with these experiences can do anything other than listen to the storm hitting. You cannot listen to your music, you cannot listen to the TV, you are completely locked. And that’s what very dominating about that experience. Its being dominated by visuals, and sound.


[whispering and buzzing noises]



And then, and then, and then what happens is the storm eventually passes, and there’s the sound of water you know clapping against waves, little wave-lets clapping against buildings, bubblings, uh things floating, definitely boots splashing in the water. People walking by, boats



So the sound of uh, of an area of a city that’s flooded out if you’re going through it on a boat, must be totally alien from the sound of that city if you were walking.



Absolutely. For one, traffic is stopped. Completely stopped. So there is no traffic. And once car traffic stops, a city, you’d be surprised how far you can hear. You can hear somebody a mile, practically, you know saying something. Or across the street, you don’t have to shout, you can just say something. Definitely the absence of car noise is an eerie, eerie sound.



And the whole resonance space, the whole sonic space of that part of the city…



You know that something’s wrong.



Can it be a different amplitude?



No, that sound itself lets you know that something is wrong with your city. Absolutely. It’s the sound that lets you know. You open the door, and you come out, and it’s… something happened here. It’s not just the visual, absolutely. It’s not just the knee-high or the waist-high water. In many cases, the electric lines have a sort of buzzing sound that you get used to as sort of white noise. Those aren’t working anymore. And then, you know, we’ve fought the water for so long with levies and all sorts of things to reclaim land from the swamp and erosion, and you see the water returning and asserting itself and having this way with, you know, our built landscape.



Yeah. Thank you.





[buzzing and whispering fades]

[end of recording]



Uh, yeah. He, uh… Rodrigo has quite the ear for detail. [laughing] Quite a good auditory memory. And yet, you know, as someone from New Orleans, I’ve been through some hurricanes myself, and those things really imprint themselves on you. Those sounds that he mentions, they, they form an impression, you know?



Yeah, that’s an embodied memory.






One of the things… I almost wonder if John and Rodrigo might not have met. [MACK laughing] And know each other. They would have some things to talk about.



Yeah, yeah, especially because both of them are talking about this relationship between interiority and exteriority, right? You can’t think about information in a moment when this hurricane is bearing down on you.



Right, right.



You can’t listen to the radio, or think logically about anything, your body is being affected by sound and you’re listening at this kind of primal level.



Yeah, in some ways this does refer back to John’s idea of having no space for other thoughts and other voices.






And there’s that beautiful thing that he says there in the sense that we are so used to hearing cars in our environment that when you remove all of those ordinary hums, suddenly the distance you can hear and the detail you can hear at distance is radically transformed.



Yeah, and I have had that  experience several times in New Orleans, the post-storm power outage silence. It’s really something to get to hear a large city within that kind of quiet state.



Right. Another kind of silence.



Yeah. Yeah. Another kind of silence. So, for our last piece, this is something that we’re playing around with, short audio essays by one of us on a particular topic. And this time, it’s by Cris, so we’ll let him take it away.


[♪ slow, jazzy music ♪]



I’ve been thinking about the term “dead air,” and the contradictions it might embody. Does “dead air” mean air without any life in it, or the air the dead breathe? Air without that which makes it “air.” Jane Joyce’s black snowflake that swirls through the air, looking for the meaning of life. Dead air is more than an uncomfortable period of awkward silence, which would sound like this.


[a long pause]



Landlines are losing their pride of place in many a house. But almost every weekend I speak with my 91-year-old mum 3,000 miles away, her on her corded phone and myself all gone cordless. She most likes to write letters, but the post office that is close to where she lived sort of closed, and an air letter now involves a bus journey. She calls herself part of the Lost Generation that will never absorb computers into their daily fabric. Very often, when we’re in the throws and flows of conversation on a Sunday morning, the line we’re talking on will suddenly go dead, seemingly for no reason. The signal drops out. Transmission cuts into a void. Sometimes, I’ve imagined her having fallen, or having stretched the cord too far, it pulled out of the wall socket, or perhaps simply put the phone down, having lost interest in and patience with her errant son, and so on. And other times, I think that a break might’ve been caused by me roaming the house so much that the stable signal came undone or some other such nonsense. I imagine we are being listened to by agents and footage edited from a 1970s conspiracy theory, the line tapping surveilance squad run rampant. That sound like thi-




[♪ music resumes♪ ]


There’s a difference then, I hope you can hear, between the intentional broadcast of silence and the unintention of dead air. Dead air freaks broadcasters out. It might occur as a result of operator negligence and it might also be a technical fault introducing unmoderated carrier wave into circulation. For a few seconds, just after 4:30 pm, Pacific Time, during Super Bowl 2018, viewers were treated to about 30 seconds of absolutely nothing during an ad break by an NBC network citing “equipment failure.”


[♪ new music starts, a bit slower in tempo ♪]


Bu growing up in a post-Second World War United Kingdom, Remembrance Day was marked by participating in a two-minute radio silence broadcast by the BBC, to meditate on the guns no longer firing and the arrival of peace. Across the UK, people dropped out of their everyday thoughts and actions to fall still, observing, listening to silence, minimizing their outward movements, paying respect to the millions who lost their lives in both World Wars. Undoubtedly creepy in respect of dead air, during an unnerving search for the term for this tiny think-piece, brought up marketing materials for the dead air silencer, and oft used gun modification, so that not merely did the guns fall silent, but now their very silence can be deadly too.



cris cheek. And that’s Phantom Power for this week. Big thanks to John Biguenet and Rodrigo Toscano. You can get more information about Phantom Power and find links to some of the things we discussed at phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there, or where ever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you rated us on Apple Podcast. Tell us what you thought about this show on Facebook, just search for “sound pod.” Or give us a shout on twitter @phantompod. Today’s show was written, edited, and sound designed by cris cheek and me, Mack Hagood, with music by me and Graham Gibson. Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.



[end transcription]