Episodes

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

[♪ ethereal music playing ♪]

 

[CRIS CHEEK]

This… is… Phantom Power.

 

[COMPUTERIZED VOICE]

Episode 4.

 

[CRIS]

On Listening In.

 

[buzzing sounds fade in, and fade out as Cris begins to speak]

 

The hive of the sugarbag bee, endemic to northeastern Australia

 

[loud music starts abruptly]

 

The first notes of a piece called…

 

[more loud notes]

 

Hammering the Screw.

 

[scratching noises and metallic noises begin]

 

Found objects – a 44 gallon drum, a ghost town in far northern Australia.

 

[scratching sounds]

 

Just some small extracts from recordings made by today’s guest.

 

[MACK]

It’s Phantom Power, sounds about sound. That’s Cris Cheek, and I’m Mack Hagood.

 

[LAWRENCE, pre-recorded]

I’m Lawrence English, and I have been described as a professional listener.

 

[bullfrog sounds fade in]

 

Which does make me sound like a very second-rate therapist.

 

[laughing]

 

But, it is the kind of thing that I spend a lot of time doing in my everydays. There is a lot of listening that goes on, and I suppose in some respects I’m increasingly interested in problematizing what that actually means, what our relationship is with that way of knowing the world around us.

 

[music fades in, intense and somewhat sad]

 

[MACK]

So, Cris, I’m really excited that you got this interview with Lawrence English.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah!

 

I’m familiar with his work. I always thought of him as the Drone Guy, he does these really amazing and complex droning soundscapes, but it turns out, as you’ve just shown us by playing that material, that’s not even the half of what he does.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah, that’s right. He’s a highly contemporary model of the artist scholar, I think. A prolific composer – there’s at least 18 solo records and rising in the current millennium. He’s a sound art researcher, an artist, a fine photographer, and he supports a ton of other artists through his highly influential imprint, Room 40, based in eastern Australia, but genuinely servicing a global audience. Really interesting.

 

[MACK]

So, Cris, I know today you’re gonna walk us through some of Lawrence English’s recent work, including this recreation of a piece by a godfather of sound art, Luc Ferrari, and also some of his recent albums such as Cruel Optimism and Wilderness of Mirrors. But, what was it like talking with him? Did you find that there were any sorts of through lines to his work?

 

[CRIS]

One of the through lines that I found is that we were always coming back to talk about listening in relation to audience, listening in relation to where you are, to context, listening as a kind of politics, collective listening – all of his projects are situated in relation to the act of listening. As both an artist and as a scholar he’s making an intervention into how we listen and how we filter sound.

 

[LAWRENCE]

I always argue that we are much better at filtering sound than we are at actually listening to it. We’re much more successful at filtering. And all you have to do is go outside and walk around for half an hour.

 

[everyday sounds fade in – the chiming of a clock tower, a few chattering people, the leaves rustling]

 

And you realize actually if you stop and then consciously listen you will suddenly recognize all of this material that is going on around you that you have been very successfully filtering with almost no real effort. And I think that’s a great thing to be conscious of because even in social settings, semantic listening, we often still kind of have that going on, and it has implications for Communication Theory as much as it does for a kind of Aesthetic Listening Theory.

 

[MACK]

This is really interesting. So, just to get through our day, we filter out the vast majority of what presents itself to our ears.

 

[CRIS]

That’s right.

 

[MACK]

But we get so poor at paying attention to what’s going on around us that this even happens when we’re listening to others – the semantic listening that he’s talking about, listening to others’ words, we filter those out, too.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah, or we filter out part of what they’re saying, and focus on another part, the part that we want to focus on, or the part that we’re more comfortable with or familiar with.

 

[music fades back in]

 

[LAWRENCE]

This idea that somehow listening is this given, that we can just all do it all of the time, is a fallacy. It’s the same as any other kind of serious pursuit or practice, it needs training. You look at a bodybuilder, a bodybuilder cannot lift 300 pounds straight away, they build up to that and they build techniques that facilitate them doing it in a way that allows them to maintain their strength over a certain period of time. I think it’s the same. Listening can be very fatiguing. You talk to people that are potentially introverts, or something like that – it’s very fatiguing for them to be out, with lots of conversation going on, and then trying to navigate their way through it. I think it’s the same way going out and making field recordings. It requires a lot of commitment and focus and energy from you to apply yourself to those particular things as they unfold in time.

 

[bullfrog noises fade back in]

 

Because, if you lose that focus, they’re gone. You can never get those moments again. They’re just there for that instant, and then they’re gone.

 

[music fades back out]

 

[MACK]

So, Cris, this kind of focused attention to the sound of our lived environment, this is something that you’ve spoken about in our previous episode with Brian House, but we really haven’t discussed soundscape recording and what that is and the history of it.

 

[CRIS]

You’ve got to think about somewhat portable reel-to-reel tape recorders. That makes a huge difference, when you can start to take technology, carry it around with you, to take it on journeys, to take it to some place to record the sound of the place rather than just to record a concert in a concert hall. And somebody like Luc Ferrari – and he was an early pioneer in this field – is known for being an electro-acoustic musician, combinations between technology and acoustic sound.

 

[music fades in, with pounding drums and some electronic sounds]

 

 

He’s also known as being a progenitor and pioneer in the field of concrete music, musique concrète, a sense of listening to everyday life with acute perception, or a kind of affective listening, as Lawrence writes about it.

 

So, in 1968, Ferrari is attending a conference in what was at that point Yugoslavia and is now a part of Croatia, a small town, Vela Luka, on the seaside, so we’re fifty years ago, and he gets very fascinated by what he’s hearing in the everyday environment.

 

[a recording begins; it is old, and contains sounds of footsteps, chickens, and other everyday sounds one might hear in a small village; the sounds continue as cris continues]

 

By the sounds of how people move around that space, donkeys, wagons, carts, the kinds of engines that they’re using to drive with or the kinds of engines that they’re using to manufacture with, the sounds of the voices and the architecture and how the architecture affects the resonance of those voices, church bells, cicadas in the treetops, the sound of the seaboard close by and how the sound of the sea carries over the town at night, and so forth. He spends several days doing not much more than recording in various different parts of the town. He made a composition – it was about 20 minutes long – it was called Almost Nothing – Presque Rien.  [sounds fade out] And it’s that piece that Lawrence seeks to kind of recreate. He goes back to that town just under fifty years later, and re-records that town, and listens to Ferrari’s compositional arc, and stitches something together that really is in a relational conversation with the act of listening that Ferrari got engaged with.  [MACK]So Lawrence English is going back to the same town that Luc Ferrari originally recorded in some fifty years ago, and he’s recording there again, is that right?

[CRIS]Correct.  [Lawrence’s new recording of Vela Luka fades in] [LAWRENCE]Yeah, it’s interesting. I think Vela Luka is a very particular place in that some things have changed a lot and that some things have not changed at all. [laughing] It’s quite extraordinary. I can say categorically, there are less donkeys than there were in Ferarri’s day, that is for sure. I don’t believe I saw a single donkey walking. But now I would say there are a lot more scooters than there were before. But, it was interesting, the character of the architecture of the space was incredibly similar because the nature of the stone had not changed in the sort of fifty years since either of us had been there. Some of the motors were, I’m pretty sure, the same as they were, it’s just that probably I was able to record them in a slightly different way, and I probably approached them quite differently to the way that Luc might have done that. And the kind of language, the accent there is very particular, and I think that is still very much the same. When I play that to other people in Croatia they identify that as a very particular kind of accent that you get in the Adriatic. So, I think there’s scales of time, I think the expressions of time, and that the material influences of sound are at play there. Whether that be the kind of fixed architectural things, the thing that we understand maybe as “space,” it’s in some ways constant, but then the implications of place, how it is that we make the atmosphere that sort of tenuous thing that we understand as “place” rather than “space,” has obviously shifted dramatically in that time. There’s this weird tension there that exists between these things that are lingering and that are fleeting, and they’re constantly kind of pulling at each other in really interesting ways. [CRIS]I think the interesting thing there is Lawrence’s engagement with Ferrari’s act of listening, and feeling that he can hear – sounds kind of weird, but it’s not totally weird – that you can hear somebody else’s listening inside their recording.  [LAWRENCE]I think that for me is actually one of the pleasures of field recording, is that, as a practice, you’re trying to bring those things into focus or out of focus. What it is you’re trying to capture out of a particular moment is so individuated.  [sounds of nature fade in] It was very much about this kind of concept of Relational Listening, around how it is that the interior psychologicalist thing that we undertake and the external technological reception of the prosthetic ear of the microphone, if you like. What that relationship is there, but also how it is that you interrogate or can interrogate your own capacities for listening.  There are lots of different examples where there can be these situations where, suddenly, it’s like, “wow, okay, I was so focused on the bird in the tree that I didn’t hear the highway behind me” [the sounds change slightly, first to a highway as Lawrence speaks, and then to the sounds of trickling water and other noises before fading out] [MACK]Yeah, this is a fascinating point, because, on the one hand, English is pointing out that the microphone hears everything, it doesn’t filter out sounds the ways that the human mind does. It provides us more of a sense of everything that’s going on – within it’s technical capabilities. But, on the other hand, this brings us up to an important concept in Lawrence English’s work, which is Relational Listening. [water sounds fade back in] [LAWRENCE]So, and that’s why for me the Relational Listening idea was so critical, was that I recognized that these things are not naturally aligned, that we need to work towards that, not just our capacity as listeners but our capacity as being able to relate to the kind of auditory capacity of the microphone – it’s critical if we’re going to be able to reflect our listening through that lens, to use a metaphor, we have to kind of have that relationship, we have to be conscious of it, it can’t just be a given. It needs to be investigated. [CRIS]I am thinking about the question of how the experience of memory is continually modifying our experience of listening. [LAWRENCE]I became quite interested in this idea of [inaudible] memory construction. I think for me, as I return to field recordings, in the same way that if you return to photographs, I think there’s a certain capacity those documents or whatever you want to call them have for shaping our memory. It’s interesting that you can identify yourself or your presence in those things, even though, obviously, it’s not necessarily represented, it might be visually represented if it’s a photograph… when I return to field recordings, in the ones that I feel are most successful, I can sense myself in those recordings, because I’m sensing my listening in that moment. And I think for me, that’s really the value of the field recording, and what I love about people’s work, with field recording particularly, is when I sense them in it, whether that be the technical capacity that they have to transmit that interest, or sometimes just the sense of personality that comes through in the way that people approach a particular environment in those moments.  [water continues and music fades in; water slowly fades out] [CRIS]The key phrase that I’ve read from Lawrence is the idea of listening to the listener’s listening. So, if somebody goes outside, like Luc Ferrari, and records a particular sound – the trains in the trainyard, for example – because of how they position their microphone, because of how they frame the material the microphone records, what I end up listening to, if I hear that recording, is Luc Ferrari’s listening, in that particular place at that particular time. [MACK]Yeah, so a field recording isn’t just a recording of sound, it’s a recording of someone’s listening. [CRIS]Right. [MACK]The person who made that recording. That sort of agency, that intentionality that we bring when we do the kinds of focused listening that Lawrence English was talking about earlier, that can sort of be heard through their recordings. You leave your mark on the recording, on the memory that you have constructed, through the recording. [CRIS]Right. And so that’s the Relational Listening.  [music fades out; distorted technological sounds fade in, which change to soft music] [CRIS, soothingly]Help us out, just a little minute, everybody please, if you like the show, go rate us on iTunes, like us on Facebook, hit us up on Twitter. Helps us all to rise… [distorted sounds again, and an abrupt cut back to the show] [CRIS]So, I was thinking about the diversity of the kind of things that Lawrence English does, and wondering what happens if you pay this kind of intense, close listening to conventional instruments. The recording of them, and the production of the sound from them. And I asked him quite specifically to give me an example of how he produces his sounds.  [MACK]Oh, is this where we get to find out how he makes those magnificent drones? [laughing] [CRIS]Well, you know, the source for what you think is a drone does not sound the way you expect it to sound. [LAWRENCE]The first sounds on Wilderness of Mirrors, that kind of droning tone, is actually a piano. [a cut to the droning piano tones that continue as Lawrence speaks] Played with an EBow, but recorded very close and very hot, so a lot of the artifacting or the kind of harmonic distortion element of that sound is built in to the recording. For me that’s part of the framing and not being able to step back from something to kind of undo it, is in the capture of that.  [droning continues, becoming more intense and then fading to the background] [MACK]Yeah, I definitely would not have thought that was a piano. And he said he’s using an EBow – that’s really interesting. An EBow is this little handheld device with a battery in it, and it’ll stimulate a steel string and make it vibrate, and it’s usually used by electric guitarists. And it really changes the attack, so you don’t hear the string get plucked, it just starts vibrating due to this magnetic field. And so, the attack, the beginning of the note, really gets changed, and it often makes a guitar sound more like a violin. And he’s using this on piano strings, that’s really cool.  [CRIS]Right. And I like this term that he uses, recording something “hot.” [MACK]Yeah, yeah, turning the levels up and getting these harmonics of distortion going.  [CRIS]Super close miking, contact mics, and so forth to get very different kinds of resonances out of their instruments.  [MACK]And he’s making this decision from the get-go. He’s not recording a “clean signal,” so to speak, and then adding distortion later in the computer. He’s doing it in real time and listening carefully as he does it. He’s committing.  [LAWRENCE]In some respects, I guess it reflects the practice in listening in field recording, that I’m making a decision in that moment, and that decision is the decision I need to live with, so I need to think about it there and then, rather than this idea of being able to go back and change things later, which, for me, I totally understand in some circumstances that’s really critical, but for the work that I do for myself, I want there to be decisions made that are irreversible, that can’t be changed, that in some respects shape the way that the future of the work will become. There’s a kind of pressure or a weight that gets behind the way that the work is developing, and you can’t really return to a sense of ground zero, or to get back to the roots of that thing. I like the fact that some of those decisions are sort of hardwired, and they inform what that come after them. And there’s this kind of additional pressure or material pressure. [the music gets louder and intensifies before fading out] [MACK]And so I bet these swelling drones, these fields of sound that I normally experience through my headphones or a speaker, must be an incredible experience live. [CRIS]Yeah, I think I used the word “visceral” to describe the experience of the sound. It’s almost as if your body is being taken over by the sound. Your body, your body-mind, your psyche is being occupied. [MACK]Is that something he thinks about in terms of live performance? The bodies of the audience? [CRIS]Yeah, absolutely. He talks about the embodied listener. [LAWRENCE]Yeah, I mean, that’s actually a lot of the performative end of what I’m doing, the sort of synesthetic nexus, I suppose, that exists between audition and sensation, the transitional points where sound falls out of our sense of acoustic audition into the realm of the flesh. There’s that very powerful moment where sometimes you recognize yourself, as in your body, in the sound, in a way that you don’t necessarily get in everyday life. I think that’s one of the powerful things about concerts, is the opportunity for that to be realized, particularly now with the quality of sound systems that are available, and that kind of thing. But it’s also interesting as a kind of collective experience, because I think for me it’s actually, and I say this quite often when I’m talking just before concerts, it is a very powerful metaphor, the fact that we can all come together, to this place, and we all have these very individuated experiences, whether they be the psychological experiences of how the music affects us, or whether they be the physiological way that our bodies resonate in that time and place, and everyone will have those, very different to one another, but we’re sharing this common time and place together, and for me that’s a really interesting metaphor for the idea of community, where we do have all these different opinions, but we can come together and share these things and have a dialogue, whether it be a purely sensory dialogue or something more afterwards. It’s very powerful, I think, to think about it in those terms, that it’s not just this very simple appreciation of performance, but there’s other resonance, you can think of a social resonance. Partly, Judith Butler’s most recent books about public assembly, this idea of a sort of performative language for public assembly, is really interesting. Because it does lend itself, I think, to having ratings that are outside protest, that are about different kinds of gatherings. Obviously, she touches on those.
Something like Cruel Optimism or Wilderness of Mirrors is entirely born out of these interactions with the broader socio-political cultural sphere. I’m not one of these people that can just make music for the sake of it, I tend to work much better when I’m trying to address a particular theme or difficulty or whatever the case may be. I like a frame, and I like it to be tightly bound. I think there is great energy to be absorbed out of being bound and the kind of pressure that it brings. [CRIS]Constraints, working with constraints. [LAWRENCE]Absolutely. And I think it’s one of those things that for me is more and more important. And also because I think it breathes a certain intensity to the way that the work can be expressed. [music fades out; popping sounds fade in, almost like fireworks; the sounds fade out] [MACK]So, you did this interview a little while ago, but you asked him what he had coming up next, and that sounded pretty interesting too. [CRIS]Right, so here he is talking about a piece called “Wave Fields,” that premiered on the gold coast of Australia, in early April, this year.  [music fades in, ethereal, with deep, long sounds and higher sounds of the same length] [LAWRENCE]I’m working on a very long duration, twelve hour piece, actually, which will be performed next to a very significant indigenous site, and people we invited to come sleep on the beach, 200 or 300 people sleeping on the beach together, and overnight, basically, the piece runs from dusk until dawn. And it’s a very interesting process, maybe because a lot of the work is to do. I’ve been very interested in the way sound operates in sleep for a long time. This is a very particular investigation into that, because I’m also working with the natural environment, the waves are very present there, very strong sound base. So it’s how all these things speak to each other, and how do they speak to each other in a way which facilitates various levels to which the sound can be participated in or experienced in, whether it be conscious or subconscious in this case. [MACK]So wait, this is a concert where you actually have permission to fall asleep? [CRIS]Yeah, and I’ve had that experience, too. It’s too long a story, but at the beginning of the Japan festival with a Noh performance in London, the guy who was the Japanese cultural ambassador said, “feel free to go to sleep; because whatever you see when you wake up, will be the essence of Noh.” [MACK]Oh, that’s nice. [laughing] [CRIS]So he’s encouraging people to think about the function of sound and hearing during sleep. [LAWRENCE]When I think about the history of how it is that our ears have operated, they have been our greatest security device. In the early days, when there was the campfire and nothing else, it was our ears that told us the wolves were coming for us or the bear was behind us, whatever the case may be. Our eyes failed us, but our ears kind of opened up the dark. You have those moments occasionally where you are out somewhere and you don’t necessarily know a space, and it’s dark, and you hear whatever it might be, a twig snapping, footsteps, whatever it is, and you feel in your body a very visceral, tactile response to that audio information that still somehow ties us back to that ancestral way of steering clear of trouble in the dark.  [music fades up from the background again, then fades out, while a new piece starts]

 

[MACK]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thank you to Lawrence English. Today we heard a little bit of sound by Luc Ferrari while Cris was talking about him, but other than that, all of the other incredible sounds you heard today were by Lawrence English. We’ve got some great shows lined up for the coming weeks including English professor Jennifer Stoever on her new book The Sonic Color Line, sound artist Leah Barclay on acoustic ecology, and ethnomusicologist Langston Collin Wilkins on the slow, loud, and bangin’ sounds of Houston’s hip hop car culture. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve heard and talked about at phantompod.org. And those transcripts take a little time to write up and drop, so I think we’re up to episode two – we’re catching up, so please be patient with us on that. You can also subscribe to our show at phantompod.org or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you rated us on Apple Podcasts. Tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook, or give us a shout on Twitter @phantompod. Our interns are Natalie Cooper, Nicole Keshock, and Adam Witmer, and Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

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.

[♪ ethereal music playing ♪]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This… is… Phantom Power.

[FEMALE COMPUTERIZED VOICE]

Episode 3.

[CRIS]

Dirty Rat.

[unidentified sounds raising and lowering in pitch, banging noises]

[CRIS]

So, what are we listening to here, Mack?

[MACK HAGOOD]

What do you think we’re listening to here, Cris?

[noises continue, Mack laughing]

[CRIS]

I don’t know, what is that? Is that an owl, put through a filtering device or something?

[MACK, still laughing]

You think it sounds like an owl put through a filtering device? Let’s listen to some more.

[CRIS]

Oh, wow. So synthetic.

[MACK]

It sounds like an old theatre organ having a bad day.

[CRIS]

Oh, yeah, no, I’m hearing that now. A pipe organ.

[MACK]

Yeah.

[CRIS]

Or something that hasn’t got a lot of wheeze left in it.

[MACK]

Something sad is happening in the silent film.

[CRIS]

Something very sad is happening.

[MACK]

Harold Lloyd fell off the clock.

[both laughing]

[CRIS]

And so he did.

[MACK]

Alright, so… it’s… it’s rats.

[CRIS]

That’s a rat?!

[MACK]

That’s a rat.

[clanging noises begin, rat noises stop]

[MACK]

So today we’re gonna meet the guy behind the rat recordings that you just heard a moment ago:  Brian House. He’s a composer and sound artist I met last November at the Conference for the Society of Literature, Science, and the Arts, which is this really crazy conference for interdisciplinary scholarship and creative experimentation. I met Brian, and when I heard about what he was working on, I just knew we had to have him on the show. His work uses sound to express relationships between bodies, human and nonhuman bodies, social relationships, geographic relationships, temporal relationships, and sonic relationships. So we’ll be hearing three different pieces of his:  a musical composition that traces human, urban, and transatlantic movement, a field recording from the wetlands of Botswana, and an installation that will take us into the underground boroughs of New York City. This is work that helps us make sense of relationships we normally can’t sense at all.

[BRIAN HOUSE]

Well, my name is Brian House, and I’m an artist based right now up here in Providence, though I frequently do work down in New York. Yeah, I’m up here at Brown University at the moment, working on my PhD in music.

[♪ upbeat technological music ♪]

[CRIS]

So, Mack – how does Brian get interested in rats when he’s working on music?

[MACK]

Well, I think in order to get into that, we need to understand more of his previous work and some of the themes that are going on in it.

[BRIAN]

You know, I’ve been particularly interested in the ideas of Henri Lefebvre, right, who, in his last writings, outlined this poetic methodology called “Rhythm Analysis.”

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah, he was the French Marxist sociologist, spent a good amount of time thinking about life in the city, and –

[CRIS]

And the design of the urban environment, and –

[BRIAN]

And that’s been the basis for a lot of my recent work. And, through focusing on time in a specific way, or rather, temporality, in a way that maybe subverts some of the epistemological biases of the society that we live in, which is very object-focused, very visually-focused. So, to have a more acoustic way of experiencing things, but not in a way that’s limited to sound, more the ways that the rhythms of our body come into contact with the world around us.

[MACK]

So, if this is sounding a little bit abstract, maybe it’ll help to talk about a particular piece. What we’re listening to right now is a piece of Brian’s called Quotidian Record, and it’s a kind of sonic mapping of his movement through space.

[BRIAN]

Well, you know, I was really interested in the rhythms of everyday life, as you move around the city, and how that had a particular kind of musical quality to it – or, at least I thought it did, right? So, I tracked my location, using an app on my phone, right, for an entire year. So, I had the latitude and longitude coordinates. And I took that, and transformed it into a piece of music. So every place I visited became a note. And the same pitch of the note meant the same place. But the rhythms from one place to another were largely as I experienced them, except for the fact that instead of taking a year, I condensed it down to about 11 minutes. So that’s about 1.8 seconds per day.

[music fades out]

And the reason it was that speed is because, I realized that a vinyl record –

[sound of a record crackling]

is a beautiful kind of representation of time. You have its rotation, you have this feeling of moving in and out on the platter, so I made this piece of music so it’d fit on the vinyl record such that one rotation of the record –

[clanging noises begin]

was one day of my lived time. So you hear it go around, and you hear the kind of motifs of my everyday life unfold as this record turns, and you can actually see what time that you’re hearing by where the stylus is on the record.

[clanging stops, record crackling fades out]

[CRIS]

I’m liking this idea of the revolution of the day, or the day as one revolution.

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah, it’s lovely, and I gotta say, this is a beautiful object, this record, I’m just so sad that they only made 20 of them because I really want one.

[Quotidian Record fades in again]

[CRIS]

They could at least have made 365.

[MACK, laughing]

Exactly, right?

[BRIAN]

So, I worked with a friend of mine who’s a designer, Greg Mihalko, and we made a diagram for the surface of the record – you know, like it was like a clock, so you could see the time, and you could see what month you were at in the year, and we even put in there what city I was in. So cities corresponded to key changes. And it turns out that it sounds pretty cool, it sounds good, because most of the time it’s just riffing on this major third, which is me at home in New York City, and when you get to the jazz intervals, that’s when I’m going farther field.

[MACK]

So, yeah, but he’s making audible this kind of unheard rhythm of urban life, right? And definitely we’ll put a link to the website so you can see what the record looks like.

[CRIS]

Right.

[MACK]

Yeah, so I think an important point to think about here is that, from Brian’s perspective, this isn’t a representation, per say, he doesn’t want you to decode this –

[CRIS]

Right.

[MACK]

– and figure out that he was in Berlin in July, or whatever.

[CRIS]

Berlin is F sharp.

[MACK, laughing]

Right. But he’s giving us a way of sensing these social relationships in these different kinds of rhythms through space, the ways we move through space, and the ways we interact with humans and nonhumans, actually.

[CRIS]

Right, this is what people ought to be thinking more about, is pattern among organisms.

[MACK]

Yeah, these relations and expanding our idea of what social relations are.

[CRIS]

Exactly.

[clanging noise]

[MACK]

So far, what we’re hearing mainly is his sort of geographic location, but as you’ll hear, he got inspired by some more work that he did, and started to think more about the relationships that are going on between humans and even nonhumans.

[CRIS]

Right. So he’s going backwards and forwards through this network of spaces, but there are other things in those spaces.

[BRIAN]

I had some experiences with field recording over the last couple of years that really opened up my thinking in regard to rhythm as a social relationship. And this really comes off of some of the classic work in acoustic ecology from people like Bernie Krause and this idea of the Niche Hypothesis.

[MACK, laughing]

Ah, yes, the Niche Hypothesis. And what is that, Cris?

[CRIS]

It’s that sense that every living thing that is producing sound has its place within the overall sonic ecosystem of a given environment.

[BRIAN]

Different organisms communicate in their own kind of frequency bands, in a way that they won’t interfere with each other, and can just kind of zero in on the particular frequencies that are of interest to them. So, I went to Botswana with National Geographic and did some field recording in the Okavango Delta region.

[fade in sounds from the Delta, including frogs and a myriad of other creatures]

And this is one of the richest ecosystems in the world. Tons of sound made by all kinds of animals. And so I would just put up the microphone and let the soundscape unfold, and then looking at those recordings later –

[MACK]

Now, when Brian says “looking at the recordings” he’s actually talking about a spectrogram. So, you feed a recording into this software and it shows you all the different frequencies that are being used in that particular recording.

[BRIAN, continued]

It’s very clear how different species have organized themselves in very specific frequency bands. So, they’re layers, it looks like geographic stratification. Absolutely fascinating. You can pick out, “here are the frogs, here are the insects, this is this particular type of bird, these are the big mammals at the bottom.” So they’re all organized in their particular frequency bands, and also temporally, right? There’s different rhythms that these animals use that spread out and interweave with each other. So it’s very apparent that the different species within a soundscape like the Okavango have learned how to listen, not only to each other, but a certain sensitivity to where they fit in within the environment. And, you know, in some cases, they might not be able to even hear each other, because of the physiology of their hearing, or in other cases, they might be paying specific attention to noises outside of their frequency band, because that’s a different type of relationship, maybe a threat or potential lunch.

[CRIS]

That’ll be the mammals at the bottom.

[BRIAN]

But within their own frequency band, that’s a very social relationship. Those are mating calls, are territorial calls, this kind of organization within a society. So sound in that context becomes a very direct way to think about social relationships through rhythm, and we can learn about how these things inform themselves.

[CRIS]

Hang on a minute, Mack. Brian is talking about pitch, but I thought we were talking about rhythm.

[MACK]

Yeah, I had that same reaction, too, but he’s reminding us that pitch is rhythm, that frequency is a micro-rhythm that just moves so quickly that we perceive it as pitch.

[BRIAN]

One way to think about it is that this is all just movement. It’s movement at different speeds. Music, for instance, is audible human motion. That’s an interesting way to think about it because the different speeds of the human body show up in the way that we organize musical time. For instance, the main pulse of a song, the beat –

[a metronome starts]

That’s a heartbeat rhythm. Or it’s a walking rhythm –

[a scale on a piano is played]

Those two things together reflect the energy of the piece. But of course –

[the scale continues, this time twice as fast and in three octaves]

There’s faster sounds that happen in that, the notes flying by, that’s at the speed we move our fingers. It’s a different type of rhythm because it references a different part of our physiology.

[the scale continues, even faster]

And the tone is something that does correspond to the voice, this idea of timbre, something that vibrates on a level that we hear as the quality of the sound or even the pitch of the sound that vibrates our eardrum.

[the scales stop; the metronome fades out]

[electronic music starts; it sounds like what you might hear fighting a boss in an 8-bit video game]

[a distorted, computerized voice that fits the quality of the music fades in; he reveals himself to be MULLOCK]

Hey, what’s up guys, it’s Mullock, the Dark God of Information Capitalism. Mullock, whose eyes are a thousand blind windows. Mullock, whose soul is electricity – and banks! Just takin’ a quick break to remind you guys to rate Phantom Power on iTunes or Apple Podcasts, and even better, write a review of the show! That’s what we in the industry call “engagement,” and it lets Apple know that this podcast rocks! Today we wanna give a big ol’ shoutout to Steph Cerasko, who wrote an iTunes review called Sound Nerds Unite! “Really thoughtful and provocative,” she writes. “Great podcast for sound nerds.” HA HA HA HA HA. Thanks, Steph! So remember, do Cris and Mack a solid and leave a review. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get a shoutout from yours truly, Mullock, the Dark God of Information Capitalism! Now back to the show!

[music fades out]

[MACK]

So, it’s all about relationships between bodies, then. It’s all these temporal relationships between different parts of our bodies and our bodies connecting with one another temporally through sound.

[CRIS]

Yeah, and there’s a similar idea in dance, which is that when you try to stand still, there are multiple small dances going on within the standing still body.

[MACK]

Hmm. That’s really nice. And I think finally we can bring this back to the rats.

[CRIS]

Bring the rats back, Mack.

[clanging noises sound intermittently; the rat noises from earlier very slowly fade back in]

[BRIAN]

So I guess the rhythms that I’m particularly interested in are those that happen on a scale that are outside of the motion of our human body, they’re either faster or slower, and so we don’t typically experience them as sound or music. But through electronic technology or some other strategy, we can scale those things so that they can make sense – I mean literally make sense to our bodies – and we can feel as music or sound something that would normally be operating on a different level, on a different frequency strata, so to speak, just like the Niche Hypothesis of Bernie Krause. And, this is what got me interested in rats – well, that’s a little bit of a lie, I’ve always been interested in rats, for multiple different reasons. Rats are fascinating because they’re an animal, they are a wild animal, but they live entirely within human urban areas. We’re talking about the Norwegian rat or the brown rat here, which spread via capitalism to every major metropolitan city around the world. Rats have adapted to living among us in a really remarkable way. And this idea that there’s a human/nature divide, that nature is somehow elsewhere, and that a city, a human city, the center of human culture, is quintessentially non-nature. Rats burrow through that all the time. They make it very clear that we have our own animal nature and that nature is a process that’s continually happening.

[CRIS]

This is a very different idea of a city, too.

[MACK]

Yeah, this whole idea he’s opening up that the city is actually a natural space and this natural and cultural divide that we’ve made, these boundaries we’ve set up, the rats have no respect for whatsoever, and in fact all of our efforts to be “civilized humans” have just produced this environment for the rats to burrow through.

[clanging noise]

[BRIAN]

I was particularly excited about rats when I learned that the social vocalizations that they make are largely above the human range of hearing. So we all know what a rat “sounds” like, quote unquote, in terms of squeaks or high-pitched growls, or something –

[normal rat noises fade in as he speaks of them]

But these kinds of awful rat noises, we associate with fear, or anger, or these kinds of emotions that we attach to rats – and that’s what they are, that’s what’s being expressed in the squeaks that we can hear. But what’s going on above what we can hear is all the fun stuff.

[upbeat electronic music fades in that includes the altered rat noises from before; it fades to the background as he speaks]

All the social interactions, the playful interactions, the mating, when young rats are playing, when rats are courting each other, when they’re establishing their social hierarchies, all of this is happening outside of our range of hearing.

[CRIS]

So, this is fabulous, and I can’t help thinking about all of the other species’ communication that we’re not hearing. Some of it is to do with pitch, as in that Niche Hypothesis idea, and some of this is to do with volume. And location.

[MACK]

Yeah. The rats are, by design, rather imperceptible to us. We don’t perceive the rats very easily, and, interestingly enough, they don’t perceive us.

[BRIAN]

The range that it can hear presumably covers its entire vocal range, so up to in the 90 kilohertz range. The lower range, of course, is dictated to some extent by the size of its body.

[fade in chatter of a human crowd]

And a rat can actually not hear the fundamental frequencies of the human voice.

[a sliding noise takes out the human voices until nothing but silence remains; a pause]

The overtones of our voices do transmit something, but the fundamental frequency is still below the rat’s range of hearing. If you really wanted to talk to a rat, doing so with the human voice is not ideal. It’s a subsonic frequency to them.

[a sliding noise brings back up the loud chatter of the human crowd from before; funky electronic music fades in as the chatter fades out]

[MACK]

So, I just find this so fascinating, Cris, that we have this sort of symbiotic relationship with these creatures, but we can’t directly communicate with them through the voice, that we live in these sort of parallel universes or niches.

[CRIS]

Yeah, absolutely. When Brian was talking about the hearing range of the rat there, it immediately made me say to myself, “well, what’s the hearing range of the human?” We’re 20 to 20,000 Hertz. This is way lower than that rat range. Dolphins and bats, for example, can hear frequencies up to 100,000 Hertz, higher than the rats, even. And elephants are even lower than we are.  So, there’s something there to do with mass and frequency that I think is of interest, too.

[MACK]

Yeah, it’s the embodiedness of our perception. It’s very based on the instrument that we are.

And what makes this very interesting from an artistic point of view, for Brian, is, our tools are designed to record frequencies that humans can hear.

[CRIS]

That’s right.

[MACK]

So when Brian did decide that he wanted to create this artwork of recording the voices of rats, he had to find special, ultrasonic microphones that could record those frequencies. And, of course, it’s really only because digital technologies operate at such high frequency rates now that these sounds can even be recorded at all.

[BRIAN]

I realized that it might be possible to build something that would let me record rats in their burrows in New York City – under the sidewalk, in the parks, in the trash dumps, whatever – if I could leave a microphone there for a long period of time, and let them habituate to it, maybe I would pick up some of the social interactions that were happening when I wasn’t around, and listen in on how they were talking.

[CRIS]

Yeah, and it makes me wonder, when people say that they’re making a field recording, what they’re actually catching, and were they to put them through a similar process of modification, they would hear other sounds that they didn’t realize were part of that field of audition, or that horizon of listening.

[slowly begin fading out music]

[MACK]

And this raises the point of just the technical issue that he faced of down-pitching the rats voices into a perceptible bandwidth for human beings. So, maybe we should –

[CRIS]

Let’s hear some.

[MACK]

Yeah, let’s hear how he did that.

[CRIS]

More rats.

[MACK, laughing]

More rats, please.

[rat noises start; they are of various pitches and lengths, sounding like sliding noises up and down]

[rat noises stop]

[BRIAN]

Yeah, so I did this project called Urban Intonation, which was just taking these rat recordings that I’d been making in the ultrasonic range and changing the frequencies of the rat voices in those recordings to a range that we could hear, that we could experience.

[rat noises again for several seconds]

And, whenever you change the frequency of something, that’s an act of interpretation. You’re changing the pitch in a mathematical sense, but you’re also changing how it’s situated in the world, what it resonates with, all kinds of other things shift. So, I aimed to make it as close as possible to human speech. Close as possible meaning, putting it in the range of human speech, and also making it a little bit slower temporally. Rats speak very high and they also speak very fast, so I slowed it down a bit, and lowered the pitch, so that we would hear it as speech, hear it closer to something that we would understand as a social relation.

[rat noises again, fading to the background as Brian speaks]

And they sing. They sing and hum and make these sounds that are uninterpretable by us, but clearly have a social meaning to them.

[a pause for rat noises to continue, this time sounding more like a song; they again fade to the background as Brian speaks]

It’s not an “other” creature that is “too low” or “too high” or “too other,” it’s coming at us as speech would come at us. But when you listen to those sounds, they really are uncanny in this way, because you hear aspects of personality, you hear these things that sound human, but of course there’s a kind of fundamental “unhumanness” to it. In terms of how to present the piece, then, I used PA speakers – something that’s making announcements, that is addressing the public, that’s making a particular type of public space through that address. So, why not put the rat voices… why not present them like that, right? [he laughs] Because that’s a totally different relationship. It’s positioning the animal not as a subservient position to our idea of public space, but as the kind of authoritative voice.

[clanging noises; instrumental music fades in]

[MACK]

So, one of the interesting final pieces of this for me, was that, when he was recording the rats, and getting at the frequencies where they live and communicate, so to speak, he found that there were very few human sounds in that space.

[BRIAN]

Well, so the first thing that struck me when recording ultrasonically in New York City is that, even though this is a noisy city – there’s all kinds of things happening, there’s people talking, there’s busses going by, the occasional bird, the radio, whatever it is – all of that, or at least most of that, happens within our hearing range.

[city sounds fade in, including loud automobiles]

So, its below 20 kilohertz that the noise of the city is really present. Once you get into the ultrasonic range –

[a sliding noise as the city fades out into a low whooshing noise]

that goes away. You hear the occasional eerie squeal of certain mechanical sounds or certain electric devices that are making noise up there, but for the most part, there’s a lot more space. So, part of their adaption to living among us is that they’re able to hear and they’re able to speak in a range that isn’t interfered with by all the noise that we’re making. I find that really interesting because, what is it about our species that we make noise within the range that we can hear?

[the city noises fade back up, almost drowning out Brian]

Thus making it more difficult for us to hear ourselves.

[electronic music fades back in as the city noises fade out]

[CRIS]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks again to Brian House. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve talked about at phantompod.org. You can subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you rated us on Apple Podcasts, that helps a lot. Tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook, or give us a shout on Twitter @phantompod. Today’s show featured music by Brian House, Graham Gibson, and Daniel Fishkin’s Daxophone Quartet. We want to bring up our interns, Natalie Cooper, Nicole Keshock, and Adam Witmer – welcome aboard. [to himself] Oh, no, I can’t say “welcome aboard,” that’s a terrible thing to say… [returning] Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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,

[echoes]

 to Roman ampitheaters,

[chanting]

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 ♪]

 

[CRIS CHEEK]

This… is… Phantom Power.

 

[MACK HAGOOD]

Episode One.

 

[CRIS]

Dead Air.

 

[RODRIGO TOSCANO]

You know, silence…

 

[JOHN BIGUENET]

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.

 

[CRIS]

The signal drops out.

 

[MACK]

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.

 

[CRIS]

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.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

Dead air.

 

[MACK]

[laughing]

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 ♪]

 

[JOHN]

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]

 

[CRIS]

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.

 

[MACK]

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.

 

[CRIS]

Right.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

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.

 

[MACK]

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?

 

[CRIS]

Right, it does, yeah

 

[MACK]

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.

 

[CRIS]

Call and response.

 

[MACK]

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.

 

[CRIS]

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,

 

[MACK]

Hmm.

 

[CRIS]

and the exophone, the voice that leaves the body.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

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.

 

[MACK]

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.

 

[CRIS]

Right, right.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

Speed reading.

 

[MACK]

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.

 

[CRIS]

Right.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

I like that too.

 

[MACK]

Different kinds of silences.

 

[CRIS]

Absolutely.

 

[MACK]

So maybe we should, uh, keep listening.

 

[JOHN]

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)

 

[JOHN]

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]

 

[JOHN]

 

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.

 

[JOHN]

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♪ ]

 

[JOHN]

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.

 

[static]

 

[CRIS]

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.

 

[MACK]

[laughing]

Yeah.

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

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.

 

[CRIS]

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.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah.

 

[CRIS]

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]

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[RODRIGO]

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.

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[RODRIGO]

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

 

[CRIS]

Uh huh, velcro.

 

[RODRIGO]

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?

 

[CRIS]

Right, right

 

[RODRIGO]

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]

 

[RODRIGO]

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

 

[CRIS]

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.

 

[RODRIGO]

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.

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[RODRIGO]

You know that something’s wrong.

 

[CRIS]

Can it be a different amplitude?

 

[RODRIGO]

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.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah. Thank you.

 

[RODRIGO]

Yeah.

 

[buzzing and whispering fades]

[end of recording]

 

[MACK]

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?

 

[CRIS]

Yeah, that’s an embodied memory.

 

[MACK]

Yeah.

 

[CRIS]

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.

 

[MACK]

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.

 

[CRIS]

Right, right.

 

[MACK]

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.

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

Yeah.

 

[CRIS]

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.

 

[MACK]

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.

 

[CRIS]

Right. Another kind of silence.

 

[MACK]

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 ♪]

 

[CRIS]

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]

 

[inhaling]

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-

 

[silence]

 

[♪ 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.

 

[MACK]

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]