Episodes

Ep. 10: Animal Control (Mandy-Suzanne Wong, Robbie Judkins, Colleen Plumb)

This week, we examine the sounds humans make in order to monitor, repel, and control beasts. Author Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s Listen, We All Bleed is a creative nonfiction monograph that explores the human-animal relationship through animal-centered sound art. We’ll hear works by Robbie Judkins, Claude Matthews, and Colleen Plumb, interwoven with Wong’s unflinchingly reflective prose. By turns beautiful and harrowing, these sounds and words reposition us, kindling empathy as we listen through non-human ears.

Links to works by the artists heard in this episode:

Mandy Suzanne-Wong’s Listen, We All Bleed. 

Robbie Judkins: Homo Tyrannicus, “Pest” (video), live in London, 2017

Claude Matthews: “DogPoundFoundSound (Bad Radio Dog Massacre)”

Colleen Plumb: “Thirty Times a Minute” (homepage), indoor installation (video)

[ethereal music plays]

 

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

 

[pig grunting]

 

[MACK HAGOOD]

Episode 10.

 

[CRIS]

Animal Control.

 

[MANDY SUZANNE WONG]

If humans did this to each other, they call it sonic warfare, terrorism or crowd control, depending on who did it and whom they did it to. They call the end result for the victims, that is post traumatic stress, but skunks aren’t human. They’re not even pets. Not like your spaniel who clearly enjoys notions of his own. Can a skunk suffer post traumatic stress? Aren’t they just wild animals? Yes and yes, sound is contact. Fear is a weapon. The wild is here.

 

[sounds fade out]

 

[MACK]

Welcome back to another episode of Phantom Power, where we explore the world of sound in the arts and humanities, I’m Mack Hagood.

 

[CRIS]

And I’m cris cheek.

 

[MACK]

Hi, cris.

 

[CRIS]

Hi Mack. How you doing?

 

[MACK]

I’m okay. We’ve got an interesting episode in store today I think.

 

[CRIS]

Good.

 

[MACK]

I spoke with an author of fiction and nonfiction work. Her name is Mandy Suzanne Wong. She hails from Bermuda. She’s got a PhD from the University of California in Los Angeles. You may have heard of the place.

[CRIS]

I have. she’s very interdisciplinary right?

 

[MACK]

Yeah, she’s another person that I met through that crazy conference for science literature and the arts. Like the other person that we met.

 

[CRIS]

Brian House.

 

[MACK]

Brian House, yeah. The other person we met at that conference, Brian House. She has a concern with animals and the sounds of animals and sound art about animals.

 

[CRIS]

Right, it seems like she is a creative writer in short fiction and also has a novel coming out this year. It seems like she is also an essayist about sound almost a creative nonfiction thinking about sound is that right?

 

[MACK]

Yeah, and she’s got this manuscript that she recently finished and it’s called “Listen, We All Bleed.” It’s her critical response to a number of sound art pieces that focus on the human animal relationship through sound. So, on today’s show we’re going to listen to four pieces of audio that Mandy Suzanne Wong has written about in “Listen, We All Bleed.” We’re going to listen to those pieces and we’re also going to listen to her words about those pieces. So, the first piece we’re going to listen to is by Robbie Judkins. It’s called “Desired Place” and it’s on his album “Homo Tyrannicus.”

 

[low, ominous music plays, sounds like an orchestra]

 

[MANDY]

What is empathy? There are at least two definitions of empathy out there on philosophers of animal ethics. One is basically if I empathize with you, I feel something similar to what you feel. Another is when I empathize with you, I am deeply affected by your situation, but in my own way/ I think Robbie Jenkins desired place could be about either or both. I think empathy is a kind of resonance.

 

[music continues]

 

The final track on his album “Homo Tyrannicus: Desired Place” opens with a beautiful electronic chord. Long and rolling in slow motion through the tones of some major triad with a bit of fuss. Two minutes. Most people would say that’s very long for a chord and it keeps going. And then little bells start ringing. Wind bothering a microphone, splash or stumble in the grass. The bells are somehow holler and then sheep and cattle mowing. The bells are full of footsteps in the grass.

[sounds mentioned above play out]

 

One interview recall this piece a collage of simultaneous curiosities. First, this long chord. I’m a fan of drone and ambient music. I know long cords. There are long chords I can sleep in, chords I can fly in, chords that hold my breath or gouge me or transforming into carpet or warm water. They assert their independence, which is why Robbie says they are humbling. This long cord is dusty velvet, maybe even musty, with velvet cushions on the sides. It’s also electric with dust motes and wintry light. It coils the tones of the Triad around and around. This motion is internal, quills of rope are still one route. This is a binding chord and the hollow little bells creeping up on it, and the footsteps in the grass.

 

[sounds continue]

 

Farm animals, says the album’s website, and English winter weather. I hear cattle and sheep moving through wide grasslands under heavy ash grey skies. I’ve read that northern shepherds keep track of the herded and attuned to their tempers by listening to the bells around their necks. I think this piece is about captivity and liberation and friction between what feels like liberation but is also captivity. There are at least two ways to hear the animals lowing, tinkling and swishing through the open field. Here’s one way, nature. Tranquility, pastoral simplicity, peace, and the wide open. Where everyone walks and tinkles instead of shoving and cursing, breathing the perfume of fresh grass instead of smoke. This feeling is genuine and legitimate, desired place is beautiful and calming. Here’s another way to hear the combination of “Homo Tyrannicus.” The sheep and cattle tinkle because there’s some human’s property. They fare better on the range than they do extensions, but the clang of captivity has them by the throat. Appended to their bodies at the neck bills are their prosthetic voices as though captivity were some defining part of them. Just as the human Robbie Judkins who comes to their wide open to escape himself is imprisoned in himself, even in the great wide open, to the point that he’s turned to mirtazapine and anti depressant of last resort, which gives its name to the previous track.

 

[sounds continue]

 

Empathy means coming to share a relevantly similar effective state with another. It happens here in the simple juxtaposition of sounds and words. Captive non human animals do suffer depression. We don’t often think of it as complicated, all consuming anguish worthy of drugs and psychiatrists, but it is. Horrifying, though it is. Captive fishes have been treated with Prozac and responded. I think desired place is that imprisoned human heart crying out to prisoner cattle. I feel what you feel. It’s so complex and knotted, it never let’ me go.

 

[sound of clanging cans]

 

Desired place isn’t just about the artist. Judkins makes his own field recordings, but he’s not the one who baws. He says playing with animal sounds and animals to the another humbling experience, for it’s about not feeling that you are a master of them. It’s about feeling with them. So desired place is neither a tranquil place nor a bear walled cell, but a place where words about human tyranny and anguish coincide with captive animal sounds to give us an opportunity to appreciate that they suffer tyranny and anguish of the same complexity but differently. Desired place is a resonance, sounding out the irony in humans have to use idea of freedom, echoing the complexity of non humans emotional experience of captivity. Empathy is a liminal place full of echoes and reflections, changing color as they fly.

 

[sounds continue, then fade out]

 

[MACK]

Thoughts?

 

[CRIS]

I have a lot of thoughts about that. I actually like it as a piece into relating her writing with the sound, although I know the sound exists in its own right. So, for people who want to hear the sound without the voices, we’ve put the links up on our website. I’m drawn to thinking about cowbells and sheep bells and goat bells and what that does to the sheep or the cow or the goat. They are forced into hearing this clanging every time they move their head. That must be, to say the least, incredibly annoying let alone intrusive, uncomfortable, maybe deafening.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, maybe literally deafening. You can certainly see this as a form of torture, yet I think from our anthropocentric perspective, this is the sound of the bucolic good life. This gentle clinking and clanging.

 

[CRIS]

We do. We think about it as kind of like a rural evil. Oh, the sound of the cattle coming across the hillside, or the clanking of the clinking, clanking of the goats in the valley.

 

[MACK]

I love it as this meeting place, this space for conjuring the kind of empathy that Mandy Suzanne long is talking about here. Trying to hear from the perspective of these animals and hear how this sound that’s beloved to us maybe torture to them.

 

[CRIS]

Absolutely. Let’s hear another one.

 

[MACK]

So the next piece is also by sound artist Robbie Judkins and this one is a live performance that he did in London in 2017. It’s called “Pest.”

 

[Pest begins to play. Starts as an annoying ringing]

 

[MANDY]

You’re fast asleep in your cookie cutter house on a decent suburban night. A stinking feral cat slinks onto your property bent on wreaking havoc among your flower beds and spreading cat

 

disease to little Junior. Never fear, you’ve got an ultrasonic animal repeller. The infiltrator trips the motion sensor and your faithful military green box on a stick start shooting powerful ultrasounds and blinding lights. The intruder, cat, bat, hedgehog, fox, raccoon, squirrel, skunk mole, or dog feels deafening sound spearing it’s brain. Scared out of its wits, the enemy turns and runs. Meanwhile, you continue snoozing in your bed, dreaming perhaps of football, having noticed not a thing. Humane and guaranteed. If humans did this to each other, they call it sonic warfare, terrorism or crowd control, depending on who did it and whom they did it to. They call the end result for the victims, that is post traumatic stress, but skunks aren’t human. They’re not even pets. Not like your spaniel who clearly enjoys notions of his own. Can a skunk suffer post traumatic stress? Aren’t they just wild animals? Yes and yes, sound is contact. Fear is a weapon. The wild is here. Robbie Judkins tells me the sounds of ultrasonic animal repellers give him ear pain even though he can’t hear them. Imagine hearing them with hypersensitive dog ears. Now dream back to London 2017 where Robbie’s made a sonic arsenal into a 22 minute artwork. He calls it “Pest.” With him on stage is the powered solar ultrasonic animal repeller, two of them actually. Robbie stands between them with his laptop on a table in real time, he translates their ultrasounds to audible sounds and layers them with field recordings of other sonic repellents. Sometimes Robbie leaves the table. He walks back and forth across the stage pacing as if on patrol or imprisoned in a bear cell. He keeps having to hop or duck the wires strung across the stage at chest level and ankle height. They’re high tension wires, the kind farmers used to keep birds out of their crops. When the wires move in the wind, Robbie says, they make a droning, humming noise, really noisy and really loud. So he layers that noise with solar ultrasonic javelins, stretched into law and loud lansing wailes.

 

[the wailes are played]

 

Every time he leaves or returns to his laptop. He must wiggle between wires stepping up and ducking under. He hits his head once, and then bending or crouching over the computer having nothing to sit on Later, he admits it somewhat painful to perform. That’s the point. The artists literally ensnares himself, he doesn’t spare himself as he blasts the only species on this planet that would purchase ultrasonic animal repellers with the noises of those very things.\ as the outcasts might hear them. Ortification as subversion. The whole thing is physically awkward for all humans present. Even for a fan of drone music, “Pest” is discomfitingly piercing. Drones are sonicwalls, as if magnifications of ultrasonic fortresses. “Pest” is an invisible fortress that makes my body feel like liquid. It sounds out the ambiguity of resistance, resistance as rigidity, refusal to give ground even to a squirrel. Resistance as critical, effrontery. Revolt the very force of change. Now there are no mice and moles and “Pest.” No non human animal sounds at all. What does their absence tell you about the kind of threat they are and where are the pests? What are they? Which species is trapped in emptiness here with nothing but itself and the traps it has invented and wildness trembling inside it?

 

[the piece ends]

 

[MACK]

What I like about listening to these pieces, I think what’s starting to emerge is all of these different methodologies that we have for controlling our relationship to animals. Controlling the animals themselves, and how much sound plays into these things. You want to keep tabs on the animals, so you put a bell around its neck.

 

[CRIS]

You want to know where it is.

 

[MACK]

Then you always know where it is, and where you want to keep the animal away. Some animals we want to keep them. We use sound to do that. Some we want to repel them, so we use sound to do that. Sometimes, the things that we’re doing to animals, as we’ll see in a moment, cause the animals to make inconveniently loud and unhappy sounds. So, maybe we’ll mask that with some sound. It’s all of these ways of asserting our dominance over animals.

 

[CRIS]

Dominance and privilege. A sense of the non human animal interactions that we favor, that we want to have. We want the cuddly, when we want the cuddly, we want the cuddly. Where and how we want the cuddly, we want the cuddly.

 

[MACK]

Cuddles on demand.

 

[CRIS]

Cuddles on demand. That sense of policing our own spaces to eviscerate them of any other animal presences.

 

[MACK]

Ok cris, so this next piece, I wouldn’t say it’s sound art per say, but it’s a field recording made surreptitiously by a guy named Claude Matthews.

 

[sounds of animals barking and crying]

 

Once you’ve heard a big cry, you won’t forget it, or hundreds of dogs. Big and small. Black and brown, and dappled. Claude Matthews, met them on death row. Matthews went again and again to the Center for Animal Care and Control in Manhattan, taking pictures of homeless dogs and cats in cages. He made flyers for each animal, urging humans to adopt them before the CACC killed them, froze their bodies and then burn them. In June 1996, he smuggled in a mic and recorder, hid them in his camera bag, put the bag on the floor pressed record. He shuffled quietly along the corridors 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, photographing every single dog and every last narrow dingy cage stinking with piss and fear. In every cage, a dog ran up to plead with him. They threw themselves at bars and mesh. They tried to eat away the mesh. Terriers and Great Danes ramming themselves through food slots while Bulldogs sprawled and corners giving up. All the while that recorder ran, so Matthew’s took home two hours of doggie agony. Now and then among the whimpering and raging at these bag russells. The floor taps him from beneath. He’s right there in the foreground where the dogs howl. In the background, not quite distant is music. of all things that old song by Billy Joel, “Leave a Tender Moment Alone.” It’s a horror of a coincidence. The CACC didn’t know about Matthews tape recorder. He offered to build a website connecting lonely humans with homeless dogs. The CACC turned him down, choosing to leave the moment alone and kill the animals instead. Matthews wrote, it was massive and systemized violence but it is not called violence. The facilities which perform the killing are cold shelters, facilitating denial of, or at least a diffusion of responsibility for what is in fact, a premeditated policy of cruel austerity. The music is foreign in the background. Silly soft rock, sequestered beyond empty walls and coradoors. If you don’t know the song, you won’t recognize it, but you’ll know it’s music. You’ll pick up its mellow rhythms, even though Matthews position is so that the dogs would drown out everything. For the CACC staff ,it was the other way around. Music flooded the halls to drown the screens. A musical deployment to crush responsibility and willful ignorance. Howls and croons were countermeasures firing on each other in a stalemate. Their collision on Matthews recruiting is an explosion of noise. The way he recorded it was hush hush subversive. The recording had to be made in secret, or the CACC wouldn’t have let Matthew set the bag way he did. From the hidden recorders in human perspective, human crooning drowns in non human misery. Doggy howling. drowns the human staffs pretensions to normality. The fantasy that those cages are like a doctor’s waiting room or shopping mall with piped in prettiness. Listening I start to feel like the rope in a tug of war between faint Billy Joel and deafening doomed pit bulls. The music’s presence shows how determined ignorance is but with their chaotic range of pitches, tempers, dire emotions, and shared shuttering volume, what can I say? The doggies win. Their voices so loud, so distressed and then such numbers coerce my decision.

 

[sounds fade out]

 

[CRIS]

So that’s a terrifying recording, but I have to almost make light of the fact that my response to Billy Joel might be not dissimilar.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, the juxtaposition of Billy Joel is just almost too much.

 

[CRIS]

It’s terrifying. I remember going to the zoo in Chicago several years ago. It was Christmas time, and the lions were in their cages, and they had kind of big carousels outside and they were playing Christmas carols. It almost reminded me of the US military trying to get Daniel Ortega out of his presidential palace by blasting the Rolling Stones at him.

 

[MACK]

The thing that I really like about this is this is a almost a very Friedrich Hitler kind of thing. Where the recorder because it works differently from the human ear. It just captures what’s there. This recorder is down on the floor in this bag, and it was at the dogs level. We’ve got this kind of, musical perfume that’s trying to cover up the stench of this place. The Billy Joel, but it’s kind of up at the human ear level. This recorder’s down on the floor with the dogs. It’s picking up this different soundscape where Billy Joel just can’t paper over the pain of these animals.

 

[CRIS]

That’s great.

 

[MACK]

I think once again it’s just like Mandy Suzanne is sort of positioning us in the position of these animals. Mandy’s grabbing on to these recordings that do this work of putting us in the position of these other beings that live on our planet.

 

[CRIS]

It’s so distressing to hear, and many people listening will understand from their own domestic environment. Possibly they are dog owners themselves, the terror that’s being expressed through these dog wines, these dog howls. The sense of insecurity in a place that’s called shelter.

 

[MACK]

So cris, the last piece that we’re going to encounter today is called 30 times a minute. It’s by the video artist Colleen Plum. It comes from years of her videotaping what’s called the stereotypical behaviors of captive animals. Specifically captive elephants.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah, the zoo. Not as a place of beauty.

 

[a howling chord plays]

 

[MINDY]

We’re listening to a chord that should have passed us by in a fraction of a second, but it happens that it’s stuck. Trapped cord. We’re on uncomfortable benches in a dark room with a big screen. Horizontal wires slash the picture all the way through. Behind them is an Asian elephant. Behind her a thick fence. Clothed. primates stare at her. She stares at emptiness. In the near distance, swaying from side to side to side. Her name is Linda. She’s in a zoo in Kansas. Cut to an African elephants swing side to side and another zoo. Cut to an Asian elephant swaying behind bars as thick as her gray legs. Side to side, never forward or backward. Different elephants, different zoos, all doing the same thing as this long cord just sits there. Colleen plum, the artists of this work, traveled to 60 zoos in the US and Europe, videoing elephants as they we left and right going nowhere. Swaying in place is abnormal for elephants. They’d walk 50 miles a day, if they were free. We can’t know for certain what the swaying is about not being elephants ourselves. Colleen observes, only captive elephants exhibit weaving, it’s stereotypic, pathological. If a human rock from side to side to side all day, every, every single long, long, endless day, they’d be diagnosed mentally ill. In elephants these compulsive repetitive movements can cause debilitating,  life threatening damage to the animal’s feet, and joints. In Pauline’s sound, and video collage, 30 times a minute. We watch beautiful gray bodies grinding themselves down, each elephant is alone wearing herself out to music that’s forgotten how to move. The trapped cord is the sound of old recordings of human animals, playing hymns and classical music on non human, non animal bodies, except Collins broken the music into fragments of sound and slow the fragments right down to one to 10% of their original speeds. So what once we’re melodies and progressions are now just cord. The pachyderms heart beats 30 times a minute half the speed of yours and mine. Slowing down human music to even less than half speed, Colleen wants us to feel how an imprisoned elephant feels her time. A photographer by training, Colleen had never worked with sound before. She wanted to make her own soundtrack because she wanted to retrain our perspective personally. To put herself through the experience of unlearning how to listen like a closed and squeaky always rushing primate. Colleen herself took on the work of unraveling familiar tunes into long piles of sound. It’s a new uncertain ritual for her. The painstaking process of her perceptions slowing ,seizing to be familiar or make sense. The long impossible anguish of becoming elephant. Colleen’s stretched sounds dream of a human body trapped in a captives time with elephants ears. Sounding out the slow sensation of an interminable day. Exposing Colleen’s own insides. Her delicate hearing organs and suggestible senses to caged elephants, monotony. Colleen’s distorted no longer human sounds, the sounds of Colleen listening to captivate elephants way of listening. Colleen’s sounds are listening in action, listening as action and response. The sounds are lovely by themselves. Juxtaposed with portraits of elephant after elephant jerking side to side compulsively, those trapped cords start to squeeze. Their grasping feels like too tight clothes. Colleen asks, how do humans seek what she calls connectivity, the feeling of being connected to others, since one of her answers is music, especially religious music. She gives us hymns with their very identities as hymns bled out of them as they bleed into sonic puddles. Zoos are another connectivity tactic. The zoo is where humans go to connect with other animals by learning about them, and above all, staring at them. Meanwhile, those at whom we stare imprisoned elephants, like Sunda retreat into themselves. Imprisoned in her thoughts, thoughts of a life imprisoned, her one outlet is side to side to side neurosis.What Colleen’s artwork tries to do is pervert feel good practices of connectivity into experiences of confinement.

 

[chords fade out]

 

[CRIS]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks to Mandy Suzanne Long for coming on the show. Thanks also to the sound artist and recordists whose work we listened to today: Robin Judkins, Claude Matthews, and Colleen Plum. You can hear their works in their entirety. Find the link to Mandy Suzanne Long’s website, learn more about Phantom Power, and find transcripts and previous episodes of the show all that Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you’s to rate and review us in Apple podcasts. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter @Phantompod. Today’s show was edited by Craig Ellie and Mack Haygood. Thanks to our intern, Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ep. 9: A Drummer’s Tale (Charles Hayward)

Charles Hayward is one of the most propulsive, resourceful and generative rock-plus drummers of the past half-century. An influential percussionist, keyboardist, songwriter, singer of songs, and forward thinker through sound, Charles spoke with Phantom Power about a 40thanniversary touring with a partly reformed and enlarged This Heat as This Is Not This Heat, and then opened into generous  reflections on his solo works The Bell Agency  and 30 Minute Snare Drum Roll.

 Charles is founding member of the experimental rock groups This Heat and Camberwell Now. Since the late 1980s he has concentrated on solo projects and collaborations, including Massacre with Bill Laswell and Fred Frith. Most recently he released an album of improvised duets with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.

This Is Not This Heat play their final concerts at EartH Hackney Arts Center in London March 1st , a two-day residency in Copenhagen March 5th-6th, Le Poisson Rouge in New York City March 18th, Zebulon in Los Angeles March 20-21, the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville TN on March 24th, the Albany in Deptford, London May 25th.

Live performances:

30 Minute Snare Drum Roll live at Café Oto, London

Improvisations with Thurston Moore

This Is Not This Heat

 

Full albums:

this heat

Deceit

Health and Efficiency

Camberwell Now

 

Images provided by Emma McNally and Fergus Kelly.

[CHARLES HAYWARD]

Song is to be human..

 

[ethereal music plays in the background]

 

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

 

[radio or television static mixed with an orchestra]

 

[MALE ANNOUNCER]

The time now, very nearly three o’clock. The next program on BBC One: “Songs of Praise” follows at three fifteen…

 

[Funk/techno music suddenly cuts in]

 

[MACK HAYGOOD]

Episode nine.

 

[CRIS]

A drummer’s tale.

 

[music fades out]

 

[MACK]

So it’s great to be back. Phantom Power Season Two, and this episode is one that I have been waiting for with a certain fan-ish frenzy, because we’re going to talk about Charles Hayward; the drummer, keyboardist, vocalist, tape manipulator, pioneer of experimental rock and roll.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah, right. And still putting out albums. Still touring. This Heat, the band that you would just hearing, they’ve recently done a 40 year set of concerts under the name “This is not This Heat.”

 

[MACK]

It’s amazing to hear This Heat still making such an impact on music, because I remember playing music in Chicago in the late 90s and early 2000s and at that time post rock was a genre that was a pretty big deal. Those of us playing that sort of music were really inspired I would say by a few bands. There was Can. There was Lee Scratch Perry. There was This Heat. Talk Talk was another one.

 

[CRIS]

Interesting to hear that. I like them too, especially their later albums.

 

[MACK]

So, This Heat was just a group that once you heard them you’re like, I can’t believe this already existed so long ago.

 

[CRIS]

They they take a punk DIY aesthetic and then they retain some of the immediacy of the elements of that music. They were more involved with a very different kind of idea about the interrelationship between melody and rhythm and noise. Dirty sense and dirty samplers and expanded sense inside music making that leads into trance ambience, precise bursts of silence. I think all of that is part of what makes their music still sound fresh.

 

[ethereal music fades in]

 

[MACK]

Charles Hayward went on to play with so many interesting bands, including Massacre with the guitarist Fred Frith and the bass player Bill Laswell.

 

[CRIS]

They just put out an album this year of improvisations with [inaudible] from Sonic Youth.

 

[MACK]

By the way, how do you know Charles Hayward?

 

[CRIS]

Loosely rubbing shoulders on and off over the years. When I was playing music around various different scenes in London. This sort of person who I felt was part of a community of music makers and interested audiences over a period of about 25 years. Of course, I’ve been over here for a while now.

 

[music changes to have more bells clanging]

 

It’s been a while. I know.

 

[CHARLES]

It’s been one hell of a while.

 

[CRIS]

It’s been a lifetime and you’ve just been so unbelievably busy. Are you ever at home these days?

 

[music becomes faster tempoed, more contemporary]

 

[CHARLES]

I’m at home less often then I have been in the past, but it’s all good. I broke my ankle quite literally a jolt. I was back to playing pretty much right away, but while I was lying in bed, I told myself, I wasn’t gonna hold myself back anymore. I was going to do all the things that were in my head that I thought were good, and I was going to share them with as many people as possible. It’s all about now as opposed to having this luxurious time span up ahead.

 

[CRIS]

How does it feel getting back into those somewhat old shoes?

 

[CHARLES]

We’re not doing any new material, we’re only doing what’s on the albums and the records. That can either be an incredible constraint or it can be a big liberating with this is what it is, let’s get on with it. It’s been the second one. There was this agenda when the group was a trio, which was about moving forward. We’ve found a way by integrating it with these five other players to actually, completely revitalize it. The materials got “now” written into it from 40 years ago. For instance, on Cenotaph the chorus is “history repeats itself.”

 

[a sample of the song plays. Very slow and contemporary]

 

The deep sense of irony. A thing happening and being said, at one point, and then:

 

[lyrics come in singing “history represts itself]

 

Unfolding sometime later, and the contradictions inside that or the parallels inside that is really being investigated, partly because history has taken us around this loop. Partly because, for instance, my daughter’s in the group and to be doing that with the younger generation, all the players are at least 20 years younger than me and Charles. With lots of new versions of what the material means. New input often about technology, or about instrumental attitudes, something beyond that concept of non musician. Some might say, well, I don’t know anything about the note F sharp but that thing where they don’t know the names of the notes, but they they now to get the emotion across, and they’ve got their own way of doing that. Then you’re constantly learning and that’s good, really.

 

[music fades out]

 

It feels to me like how I imagined the folk tradition, some non-industrialized position inside music seems to be a good model. When I think about my childhood, I was getting that sort of quiet orthodox 50s music tuition, school. That would be things like English folk songs, really. Then all the Anglican Church of England hymns, and all that stuff.

 

[a song plays inspired from English hymns, but still sounds contemporary]

 

I used to love going along to the school assemblies and singing, I wouldn’t sing the words, I would just do the tunes. I still really love opening up my lungs. Doing that nine o’clock in the morning, I used to feel absolutely fantastic. So I never ran away from that. I had a lot of mates who  sort of turn their back on that. That sense of song, for me, the melodies are so right. It’s not about trying to show off some sort of oblique angle or anything, it’s just getting the tune across, in a way that comes out of your own body.

[ethereal music plays]

 

I’ve always loved that folk thing, crossing over into Greek music, and you get it crossing over into African music. I mean, just the very same Indian music the same…it’s not even aesthetic, it’s the same ethic. There’s a story I heard about a session in the pub in Sligo in Ireland, where one of the Fiddler’s was like the man. Next to him was this 12 year old who was practically scratching at the fiddle. No one thought that the music was being impaired, that this virtuoso was being limited. What was happening was, the music was growing. That’s the good thing about this is not that it doesn’t actually sound exactly like the record. It’s more like a garden.

 

[simple jazzy music plays]

 

[CRIS]

Drummer, keyboard player, songwriter, singer of songs, forward thinker and reflector on sound.

 

[MACK]

So, there was This Heat and then there was This is not This Heat, but there was a long period in between those.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah, that’s kind of 35 years in between those two events. Charles has taken the politics of collective music production into community workshop settings. I asked him if he had a kind of ready made travel kit that he used.

 

[CHARLES]

I just be me. the most I’m ever really me is when I’m playing, unless I’m with my wife and kids. Then there’s that version of me but I don’t really find it very easy to share that with lots of people. The me that I do share with lots of people is is music. I’ve got a thing that I can carry very easily, it’s a frame drum, a little keyboard, a melodic. I think that’s basically it. Then there’s our little set of bells and my voice. Almost never words, or its words, but they’re mumbled and sort of half there. The bell agency, it grew out of disability arts workshops.

 

[MACK]

So what is the bell agency?

 

[CRIS]

Well, it’s like a game. A musical game, anybody can play. And any number of people can play. Each person as a beater, and there is either one or more bowls made of metal. Each person can take the opportunity or the opening to strike the ball with their beater, with this stick. Not in turn, but when they are moved, so to do, but then they have to wait until somebody else strikes it before they can strike it again. A music making structure that people with varying abilities could all participate in.

 

[MACK]

So this really gets into that thing he was just talking about folk music, right? Music for the people.

 

[CHARLES]

It started as a workshop thing with the brief that we’ve got to try and get funding admin and NHS.

 

[CRIS]

National Health Services.

 

[CHARLES]

Local coordinators, and us, and people with disability, there’s like 20 of us. There’s people in the group who’ve got all sorts of learning and sensory disabilities, or they’re not even necessarily disabilities, but they’re not the same as yours and mine. They give signal, and at the same time, the world often interprets the signal as meaningless or like nervous tic response or something like that. I see it as more material in the air. So I try and integrate that into what I make. There’s also dancers that work with the people.

 

[a single bell periodically ringing]

 

When we say dances and working with the people or another word other times has been clients. Another word has been participants. All these words, they basically divide us up into the people who are the professionals and the people who are the patients almost. It’s only language that really does that, because when we’re actually inside it together, that’s the thing that this particular workshop brings, is, there is no real division. The division starts again, the minute we get to half three and the support workers come in. They’re good people, but we were able to afford something that’s like, outside of practicalities. We’re in this world where we don’t even explain it to each other, we just get on with it. It’s very, very nice. It’s very, very abstract. It refreshes your soul. It wasn’t about turn taking where you could see that people getting uptight because they were three  goes away from it being their turn. Nobody had any real over responsibility. Some people were hardly ever participants, you know, they would only make one sound in the whole thing. That’s sort of how it started. It was just a way of sharing what we can do with people who weren’t musicians. That’s often when it comes out the best. I did one Bell agency, which was all arts admin people. One of them was taking the piss of it all the time, she was frightened committing herself. I’ve worked with this sort of thing before. I knew I used to sort of come on all matcho, and sort of almost be argumentative, but I didn’t. I started sort of very slightly weeping. Saying, look, it’s right for you, but these sounds actually mean something to me. Then not only do they mean something, to me, it’s my responsibility to look after them. I can’t handle you not giving them the respect they deserve. Then some of the other admin people started to elbow in and say, let’s get into this. So we got into it, and she got into it as well. By the end of it, she was just like a completely different human being, it was just amazing. It was like she was actually doing the thing that she’d been administrating and sort of like having a certain distance via the paperwork and all this sort of stuff. She’d been doing that for years. Then suddenly, she was actually engaged in this sort of experience she was setting up for people, she was actually inside herself, and it was just an amazing session. One of the things I’m very interested in in a moment is the interface between social obligation and ordinary timetables, like all my trains at four o’clock. Zoning out this weird thing where you can play for a quarter of an hour and it feels like war and peace, but it also feels like the batting of an eyelid. That thing where it transcends social time, and then finding a way of bringing those two together, because in a weird sort of way, they are brought together anyway. It’s the very nature of performance, It’s got social time constraints around it. If someone wants the bell agency to be 15 minutes, then I’ll go okay well, I’ll engineer it so that it’s 15 minutes. With the bell agency I tried to get people to become very conscious of shape across time as opposed to shape in space. I think that music and theater and dance…you’re asking the audience to engage with their memory of what happened at the beginning and how that follows through to the end. If you can get the participants in the bell agency to actually, I say to them that the first sound you make it almost doesn’t matter which one of the bells you play and actually to be honest, it doesn’t really matter that much the second bell you play. The first bell on the second bill, they’re just sort of like they’re at the beginning of the path. Once you’ve got the second bell and the space between the time between the first and the second, the amount of decay you’ve let happen, that’s sort of constraining what you really think should happen for the third sound. The fourth sound becomes even more defined because of the first, second, and third. As you go further into the piece, each choice becomes more and more inevitable. So, tune into that inevitability and obey it, as opposed to think, oh, I’ve got to express myself. Instead of that, just obey, obey, obey, obey, and follow the obeying all the way through. That might mean that the pieces two minutes long, and it might mean that the piece is seven minutes long. It’s because of the choices you made by about sound four and five, they’ve set up the conditions for everything else. It’s just a question of finding what those conditions are, by the doing of it. You’ve also got to be totally present to know when it’s no longer there or when it’s gone. Sometimes I’ll record it or I’ll say to people look, just a minute and a half ago, we went beyond the point. Did you hear it? we’re just now waffling. The feedback from the people who participate is fascinating as well. Who’s that guy, [inaudible]. He did that whole thing about quantum moments. The bell agencies’ that. You think the thing is going one way, but somebody else does something. That can change the conditions of what you thought it was going to be. You’re only allowed to make one sound at a time. That’s the only rule is you can only make one sound, then you have to let somebody else make a sound.

 

[CRIS]

Yes, like a conversation between attentions. There’s a kind of a sense of constraint, productive constraint that’s developing as the piece goes on.

 

[CHARLES]

That’s exactly it. cris. Yeah, yeah.

 

[CRIS]

That is beautiful.

 

[CHARLES]

Yeah, well it is beautiful because I mean that lady I talked about at the Barbican workshop, I’ve been in this trapped inside, what will people think of me? Or sometimes I’m even still in this, how can I be me doing this? Well you’re not being you doing this, because you’re standing outside of yourself asking how can I be me doing this, the thing to do is to just do this. Then you will find that you’re being you. It washes away all these horrible burdens everyone’s carrying, including your personality and how you interact with people, suddenly, all that’s gone, because you’re just a obeying the sound.

 

[bell ringing continues then fades out]

 

[CRIS]

What do you think?

 

[MACK]

I find this really inspiring, and he’s so radically open and present to what’s happening. He’s using sound as a way to do that, to engage with other people. To engage with people across all these kinds of divisions that we make up as he says, with words and this whole idea of disability too. There’s a lot of scholars who work in the field of disability in the humanities and talk about how we have this medical model of disability that says, disabled people are people with bodies that don’t work correctly. Disability scholars will instead suggest that, no, there’s just a whole diverse world of different kinds of bodies. We have social and also physical material environments that make life more difficult for people with certain kinds of bodies. Just to listen to him talking about that knowledge that he has that these are sort of false divisions that we make, and that we can use music to sort of transcend those and let everyone participate according to their own authentic self. It’s really, really great and nothing I would have expected. Just from being a fan of This Heat. I had no idea he was doing things like this. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense with their politics of the band does this kind of radically open socialist perspective on dealing with other people and the spaces that you’re in.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah, that’s why I wanted to talk to him, because I find that the work that he has been doing in other contexts, and the kinds of qualities of attention that he’s been drawing out of being a drummer have opened into these inclusive spaces. You might think that to hit a bell is something that a drummer would do, but to encourage 20 people in a room to really pay attention to hitting that bell and listening to the decay on the sound and so on. The ramifications of trying to produce a little composition collectively really excites me. The thinking process of a musician and mature midlife.

 

[MACK]

That difference between the way he would have responded to that one woman who was sort of laughing at this process. the way he would have responded as that younger musician is to the more really gutsy way he responded to her this time. Which is such a less macho, male, masculine way of responding and yet took a lot more courage.

 

[slow music fades out, a drumroll on a snare drum fades in]

 

[CRIS]

When you’re performing something like 30 minutes snare drum roll we just heard a snippet of about a minute. When all of the attention is on you, and you’re kind of responsible for everything that’s happening but I used to play hand drums a little bit. Sometimes I would sense that it wasn’t me playing the drum it was the drum playing me and I feel like you’re really exploring that in a micro level piece like that.

 

[CHARLES]

If you play a role for the normal amount of time, which is like maybe five seconds, and inside a piece but if you just [makes sounds like a drum] all you really here is the role. If you only play the role and then you vary the role, it brings you into focus of what actually is going on. It’s no it’s no longer like a narrative line that’s being said, or I’m using the word narrative here or whatever. Instead of it being something that’s like a building block inside some sort of linguistic parallel, it’s instead purely sound. I did Barrow in Furness full of noises. I did a big with Laura and Axis Dryland Head, and I did 30 minute snare drum roll. We were in this large space in the interval. I’d gone outside for a breath of fresh air. When I came back in again, there was this whole paraphernalia about the door, the front door of the building. So then I’m doing the snare drum roll, and I can hear a gang of children downstairs in this big, large sort of stone staircase, running around in the building. I’m thinking well, the reason why there was all that ho-ha about the front door when I went out for breath of fresh air, the reason why there was all that ho-ha was because the backstage area wasn’t completely secure. People that got all the computers for the festival, blah, blah, blah, and suddenly there’s this gang of kids running around. I take the volume down of the snare drum and the kids disappear. I take the volume back up again, and there’s all these children singing. Of course, it’s not the children. There are no children singing. It’s snare drum. When you say about me playing the drum or is the the drum playing me, when it really gets going it’s definitely the latter.

 

[snare drum roll continues]

 

Things are starting happening that I’m not even in control of. The audience are hearing things that I don’t even know are actually happening. They’re in a different part of the space and that is something off the back corner of the ceiling. I can’t hear that.

 

[CRIS]

I went off and have a look other people who do drum rolls on YouTube. There’s a whole bunch of videos. Jason Sutter, Wayne Orlin, Kato Harrooto, Jesse Seef. I was looking at all of these and so many of them are all about something other than the sound. They’re sort of doing cheerleader maneuvers, twiddling the sticks in between. They’ve got some kind of marching band paraphernalia going on. What I really like about what you do is just the intense focus on the sound and the production of the sound and listening and paying attention.

 

[CHARLES]

The micro details of the piece change with the acoustic of this space. Sometimes there’s things I can’t bring out because they’re not actually in the room. Other times something that’s like there’s this base sort of [base noise]. There’s this is bottom thing that if you play with a particular sort of elbow, and at the center of the drum, you can bring out this sort of weird sort of base sub harmonic. You can’t do it in every room. If the floor’s not quite the right floor, it won’t happen. I do want to record it. It can’t be recorded in a definitive sense. It will change the acoustic space changes, then the actual piece changes.

 

[CRIS]

One of the cliches about punk is that people didn’t know how to play their instruments. Yet, you could like, if you just got three basic chord structures you could bash out a song in your garage. Leading in some quarters wrongly, to a kind of glorification of ineptitude. Charles is saying something very different. He’s pointing towards care. We heard it in the bell agency, he’s saying I really care about these sounds, I really care about this process. Clearly, he cares about his own music making. His care in terms of this sense of folk transmission that he was talking about. There’s care in terms of just wanting to stay inside the production of a 30 minute snare drum roll and make that interesting. Get as much juice out of it as he possibly can. Take people into the kind of the granularity of the sound. Taking care is the thread that we can pull here. It’s evident in everything that he’s saying.

 

[CHARLES]

The intellect and memory and language and the appreciation of structure through time. These things are part of the totality as well. It’s not like oh, we better be natural, so we better not do songs. Song is to be human. Construct from one day to the next. Going back to the studio to tweak the mix. That is human. It’s not some sort of alien thing. That’s what we are. To run away from that in some sort of anarcho squat parody. That that sense of, oh it can’t be right because you actually spent some time getting it perfect. Not perfect but getting it to feel like you want it to feel. You get upset if it’s not quite like that you must be an idiot. It’s like no, I’m being a human being. If I’d been like this after two days of getting engaged with the process, then maybe I was a bit childish, a bit silly. There must be a reason why I’ve been doing this for years. It’s to get better at it, share it more effectively.

 

[CRIS]

Coming back to a sense of daily practice whatever your line of living is, and taking care of it, and taking care about it whether it’s a garden or you’re building a model ship or you’re making music, learning how to draw or whatever it is. I think that taking care is a very interesting little guide that Charles Hayward suggests we might follow. Thanks so much, Charles.

 

[CHARLES]

The pleasure’s mine cris. Music actually fills the air for everybody.

 

[snare drum roll plays then fades out. Modern music plays]

 

[MACK]

That’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks to Charles Hayward for coming on the show. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to the things we talked about and find previous episodes of the show at phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d rate and review us in Apple podcasts. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter. All of the music today was by This Heat Charles Bullen, Charles Hayward and Gareth Williams, and Charles Haywards diverse solo projects. Thanks to our intern Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

[music fades out]

Ep. 8: Test Subjects (Mara Mills)

Season Two erupts in our ears with a film-noir soundscape—an eerie voice utters strange and disjointed phrases and echoing footsteps lead to sirens and gunshots. What on Earth are we listening to? We unravel the mystery with NYU media professor Mara Mills  who studies the historical relationship between disability and media technologies.

An ink blot, often used on test subjects in projective tests.



 
In Episode 8, “Test Subjects,” we examine the strange and obscure history of sound’s use as a psychological diagnostic tool. In the late 20th century, while many disabilities were eliminated through medical interventions, a host of new disabilities were invented, especially within the realm of psychology. Mills’s historical work in the audio archives of American Foundation for the Blind reveals how auditory projective testing was used to diagnose blind people with additional psychological disabilities. As we listen to these strange archival sounds, we learn how culture and technology shape the history of human ability and disability.

 
Read Mara Mill’s article on auditory projective tests, “Evocative Object: Auditory Inkblot” and visit NYU’s Center for Disability Studies, which she co-directs with Faye Ginsburg.
 
 
Thanks to archivist Helen Selsdon and the American Foundation for the Blind for the use of the auditory projective tests.

 
This episode’s theme music is by Mack Hagood with additional music by Graeme Gibson, Blue Dot Sessions, Claude Debussy, and Duke Ellington. The show was edited by Craig Eley and Mack Hagood.

[ethereal music plays in the background]

 

[CRIS CREEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

 

[static and creaking sounds fade in and out]

 

[MACK HAGOOD]

Episode 8.

 

[dial tone plays]

 

[CRIS]

Test Subjects.

 

[MAN OVER PHONE]

This is the first sound.

 

[fast ticking of a clock fades in. Water sloshing, then dramatic, ethereal music fades in]

 

[WOMAN]

They walk together slowly, their feet making a sound together. And the man wonders…wonders why all the noise, all the turmoil, so quiet. When will it stop? So quiet, so peaceful, so serene, so quiet. You can’t forget the quiet. You can’t ever forget.

 

[sound of a whistle, then a crash. Music and ticking play in background]

 

[CRIS]

I feel as if I’m being thrown into a space or a place that I am experiencing as anxiety, that sense of the alarms, the hurrying footsteps, the dramatic voice and the time passing. It’s just a kind of a…its a terror of time passing. It’s Jonathan Query’s  24/7 being made manifest in my ears.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, these are sounds I’ve been playing around with. Our guest for today’s episode just shared this archive of amazing sounds with me, and so I was just playing with them putting them into a collage. A lot of them do seem to induce a bit of a feeling of dread.

 

[CRIS]

No, I liked it. It was it was full of portent. It was almost as if I was in radio play where most of the dialogue could have been removed and I just had the sound effects left.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, and as we’ll learn, the sounds are sort of a relative of radio drama and believe it or not, they’re intended to be healing sounds cris.

 

[CRIS]

No way. I mean, the idea that the clock was kind of coming forwards and going backwards into the distance this stuff is pure terror!

 

[MACK]

I did mess around with the sounds a little bit, but these are sounds that are supposed to help you become the best person that you can possibly be. Welcome back to another episode of Phantom Power where we explore the world of sound in the arts and humanities. I’m Mack Haygood.

 

[CRIS]

And I’m cris cheek.

 

[MACK]

cris is a poet and performance artist. I’m a scholar of media and communication. Welcome to season two. Today we examine the strange and obscure history of sound being used as a diagnostic tool for the betterment of human beings. Now, how can anyone think that the chilling film noir sounds we just heard could possibly be good for you? Well, maybe I should just let our guest explain it.

 

[CRIS]

Exactly.

 

[MACK]

So let’s introduce her.

 

[MARA MILLS]

My name’s Mara Mills. I’m an associate professor of media culture and communication at New York University, where I also co-direct the Center for Disability Studies.

 

[MACK]

Mara is a scholar of both media studies and a scholar of disability studies.

 

[CRIS]

Right.

 

[MACK]

But the reason she’s on our show is that she combines these two seemingly different fields by working in sound. The mysterious recordings that we were just listening to have to do with research that Mara was doing on books for the blind.

 

[MARA]

Well in 2015, I was collaborating with Helen Selsdon, who’s the archivist At the American Foundation for the Blind to digitize their Talking Book collections.

 

[jazzy music plays in the background]

 

So we took the entire collection because they were fairly fragile to a high end digitization company in New York. I had a grant from the National Science Foundation to pay for the digitization, so we towed them in the trunk of my car, tons and tons of these records to this company and had them digitize them for us. They gave us back an external hard drive with completely unlabeled WAV files, which meant that I had to go through and listen to each one of the files to figure out what it was and to correlate it to whatever the title was on the finding aid, if there even was one, it was extremely time consuming.

 

[MACK]

So Mara has all of these digitized, unlabeled files. Meanwhile, she gets this really great invitation to be a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. So by day, she’s doing all of this stuff there at the institute, and then by night, she sitting in her Berlin apartment just listening to these strange files.

 

[MARA]

Many of which, in fact, are pretty remote from what one would think of as a book.

 

[music continues to play]

 

So listening to these files, many of them were in fact talking books, which were novels narrated by famous Broadway stars in New York in the 1930s and 1940s for blind readers made in the AFB studios. I expected that.

 

[a sample of an audio book is played. Has underlying static throughout.]

 

[AUDIO BOOK WOMAN]

“The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde. Recorded solely for the use of the blind in the Talking Books Studios of American Foundation for the Blind Incorporated. Read by Eva Le Gallienne. High above the city on a tall column stood the statue of the Happy Prince. he was gilded all over with…

 

[MARA]

Some of them were very unusual. It would be sort of 60 minutes of electronic beeping, which turned out to be the output of reading machine,s scanner based electronic reading machines that were text to tone, things like the visi-toner or the stereo-toner.

 

[several beeps are heard]

 

[CRIS]

What’s A visi-toner?

 

[MACK]

Well, the visi-toner is like a brand of something called an optophone. The visi-toner was actually made really nearby to us in Dayton, Ohio under a contract from the United States Veterans Administration. Basically, it’s this little machine that you would pass over a line of printed text. It would turn the letters into these sort of musical tones that blind people were able to interpret as letters.

 

[CRIS]

That is super interesting, so they have to learn the alphabetic-turnel correlation.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, and they can listen to their utility bills. It was used for these sort of perfunctory things just like the mail came in, I got to see what my bills are and they could listen to it like that.

 

[CRIS]

I love that.

 

[MAN ON OLD TAPE]

You’re hearing capital B now.

 

[beeping that is the equivalent of a capital B]

 

Here’s capital C.

 

[Mara]

Then, I came across this album. It seemed to me to be a series of nonsense words and completely ambiguous, nonsensical, disconnected sentences. So, a narrator with a ambiguously gendered voice sounding like a speaker from mid century radio, reading out sentences like you touch and a little comes off on your fingers.

 

[NARRATOR]

You touch, and a little comes off on your fingers, and you have to dust off your fingers.

 

[MARA]

Then moving on to another sentence totally disconnected from that one.

 

[NARRATOR]

A long shiver, it passes. Steps coming slowly.

 

[MARA]

My mind was racing to understand what those sentences could mean. Was this about a sugar donut? Was it about bicycle grease? What could this possibly be about?

 

[a ticking clock is heard in the background]

 

[NARRATOR]

Afraid. Afraid.

 

[ominous music plays with the ticking clock]

 

The chair was hard, but you knew she didn’t care, and she sat very straight, and around her there was silence. He picked up the little thing and turned it in his fingers, and it seemed he might never stop turning it and feeling of it. They walk together slowly, their feet. making a sound together.

 

[MARA]

I decided I had to know more about what this was. Who made this? What was it meant to do?

 

[NARRATOR]

All the noise, All the turmoil. When will it stop? So quiet, so peaceful, so serene.

 

[music and clock ticking fade out]

 

[MARA]

It turned out that the American Foundation for the Blind, the AFB had actually commissioned this record in 1952, and they commissioned it to be an auditory version of the thematic apperception tests, or TAT, which by then was a fairly well known means of psychological testing for sighted people. It was a series of still images, black and white sketches designed in the 1930s by a psychologist Henry Murray, who worked at Harvard and artist Cristiana Morgan.

 

[old timey music plays in the background, light static is in the recording]

 

The images that Morgan drew were meant to be extremely ambiguous. They were meant to be generalized. They were meant to be interpretable in many different ways by a wide range, almost a universal range, of people. The viewer, in this case of the visual TATs, was usually asked in a psychological office to look at one of the particular images and then to write a story about it.

 

[music continues, mainly piano music]

 

After that story was written about the image, the difficulties arose. The psychologist then had to figure out themselves how to interpret that story, what it meant, what it meant about that person, what it meant about their latent personality traits or about their feelings.

 

[music fades out]

 

[MACK]

The thematic apperception test, just the story of it is really fascinating. Morgan and Murray were really interesting people. Morgan was this artist and writer and she was an amateur psychoanalyst who collaborated with the famed psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. Murray was this Harvard psychologist, and the two of them became lovers, which was actually something that Jung had recommended so that they could release their creative energies.

 

[CRIS]

I say nothing.

 

[MACK]

In the 1930s!

 

[Mack and cris laugh]

 

It was all going off.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, it really was.

 

[CRIS]

That’s what happens with prohibition.

 

[MACK]

I mean, I guess it worked because they created the thematic apperception test after that, and the TAT became one of the most widely used projective tests in the world.

 

[old timey piano music fades back in]

 

[MARA]

The auditory version of the projective test, the one commissioned by the AFB, was produced by a psychologist in Hartford named Seidel Braverman and also a fairly well known blind memoirist and radio script writer who lived in New York named Hector Chevigny. Chevigny had written a memoir called “My Eyes have a Cold Nose” that was a reference to his service dog, his eyes. Chevigny, having experience in radio as a script writer, but also as a producer had lots of contacts in New York from whom he could acquire sound effects, voice actors, and he helped Seidel produce this oral analog to the visual TAT. So, the auditory protective test had several sections, and I had to listen to the whole thing to figure out what those sections were. So I’ve now administered about 40 protective test to myself.

 

[dramatic music plays]

 

[NARRATOR]

It was there, strong and straight, and seemed destined never to come down. Moving and then stopping, and then moving again, but always forward. Forward, soft, very soft, and warm.

 

[MARA]

The opening section contained these ambiguous descriptions of objects or scenes, and at the beginning of this section, listeners are instructed to tell what happened, what led up to it and what the outcome will be. That’s followed by these very ambiguous descriptions of scenes or objects.

 

[NARRATOR]

It was harsh, high and loud, and it kept on and on and you couldn’t stop it. You couldn’t stop it at all.

 

[ticking clocks are heard, then fade out]

 

[MARA]

So the second section of the auditory projective test is a series of dialogues and an invented language, a completely nonsense language, but spoken in very highly charged or effective intonation. To my mind and to my interpretation, these dialogues sounded either extremely angry and heated or extremely sad. Of course the whole point of it is is to figure out what the listeners interpretation of the dialogues are, but there was no way to know what the language was because they were completely invented words.

 

[a man and woman speak back and forth in a made up language. Their tone appears to be angry]

 

The listener was asked to tell a story about what the dialogue was about, to put words in the actors mouths. It turns out that these voice actors were from New York. They knew Hector Chevigny. They were trained in double talk, a strategy used by people on stage or on radio to use invented words, usually just one at a time, sprinkled into speech for humorous effect.

 

[the made up conversation continues]

 

[MACK]

That’s why I said earlier that this recording or these recordings were a relative of radio drama, because this blind script writer Chevigny had access to all of these great voice actors to create these tests.

 

[CRIS]

I’m thinking about traditions of nonsense poetry. I’m thinking about Russian futurist trans rational sound, the idea of an invented language that would cross national boundaries. I’m thinking about Esperanto. I’m thinking about other traditions of nonsense poetry like Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky.” I’m thinking about Hugo Ball with his sound poems. I’m thinking about Kirch Fitters, Ursa Naughta. There’s a whole world here of composing and invented languages.

 

[MACK]

I’m thinking about the peas and carrots, peas and carrots that they used to teach us as actors if you were supposed to be whispering in the background.

 

[CRIS]

And kind of Pig Latin. We’re into a territory of opacity and transparency in relation to what words signify, what they bring. Not just a sort of literal, literal translations and literal interpretations, but the analogues, the metaphors, the dirty stuff.

 

[MACK]

The ways that sounds and words conjure things within us.

 

[the made up conversation continues, then the ticking clock fades in]

 

[MARA]

Then there’s a final section of the record with several tests which just have nonverbal sounds, and the sounds were from the ABC sound effects department. Each test would have 10 or so sounds played in a row, a gunshot, a dog barking…

 

[several sound effects are played in a random order]

 

The listener was instructed to aggregate these sounds into, if not a story into some sort of cohesive anecdote, to explain what these sounds are doing assemble together. The listener would either verbally, in each of these cases, say out their explanation to a psychologist or write down a story or a paragraph about them and then submit it to that psychologist.

 

[sound effects continue, then fade out.]

 

[CRIS]

So, how widespread was this kind of work with auditory perception on the tests?

 

[MACK]

I think that this test itself wasn’t like really used that much with blind people. it was a little bit, but as Mara did more research, she came to realize that the use of sound for this kind of projective testing was pretty widespread. In fact, the history of psychological projective testing is at least as much sonic as it is visual.

 

[calm music plays in the background]

 

[MARA]

Well, after listening to the auditory protective test, I wanted to know if this was one of a kind or if it was part of a bigger genre. I immediately discovered that of course, the entire field of projective testing probably starts with auditory protective testing, even if it wasn’t called that immediately, and dates to word association tests produced at the beginning of the 20th century by people like Carl Jung, and most famously by Carl Jung, but there were precursors to him. In Jung’s word association testing he published I think his first article on it in 1910. He wrote a list of test words,green water, ink, which he would then read in the clinical setting to a patient and ask the patient to respond to him with the very first word that came to their mind, creating a sort of couplet of terms between the tester and testee, the therapist in the patient. He then would try to interpret what that meant either with the patient or on his own.

 

[music fades out]

 

[MACK]

Alright cris, let’s do this. Green.

 

[CRIS]

Grass.

 

[MACK]

Water.

 

[CRIS]

I can’t say bong on the radio.

 

[MACK]

Bong, is that what you said?

 

[Mack and cris laugh]

 

[CRIS]

Well, Bong Water. It was that famous band.

 

[MACK]

A great band. Ink.

 

[CRIS]

Um, pollution.

 

[MACK]

Window.

 

[CRIS]

Vibrancy.

 

[MACK]

Friendly.

 

[CRIS]

Tea.

 

[MACK]

Cold.

 

[CRIS]

Map.

 

[MACK]

Village.

 

[CRIS]

Idiot.

 

[MACK]

I really liked that you call that you came up with poison after ink. Never give a poet a word association test, I guess.

 

[CRIS]

Well, I think of writing as pollution.

 

[slow music fades in]

 

[MARA]

After looking into Jung, I decided I wanted to follow up more specifically on other recorded auditory projective tests. In fact, there were a ton of protective tests recorded on phonograph records starting in the 1930s with the advent of electrical recording. One of the earliest that I came across shockingly was made by BF Skinner.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, and he was a guy who really didn’t care about interiority very much. He liked to call the brain a black box that just had inputs and outputs.

 

[MARA]

He was a postdoc at the time at Harvard, and he created something that he called the verbal submator.

 

[the sounds of the submator. A male voice speaking through static.]

 

Basically, he had been working late nights in the lab as a postdoc and hearing all sorts of weird machine sounds. Those machines sounds he was fantasizing, hallucinating, were speech. The machines were telling him go outside, go outside, because he was exhausted and didn’t want to work in the lab anymore. He thought to himself, oh, what would it be like to make a record with speech as if it was heard behind a wall or heard in another room? Muffled speech. I could play this record then for people, and it would advance what he called Verbal Behavior from them, because he was already getting interested in behaviorism. This, for Skinner, was still quite close to something Freudian. In fact, he even says in his report about it, that it might be useful for some sort of radiant analysis that you would get to know something about someone’s personality. He quickly moved way farther into his behaviorist studies which were all about the seemingly endless potential to train animals and humans to do totally new things. The human is a blank slate.

 

[submator sounds fade out and horn music fades in]

 

After encountering the Skinner Test, I learned that there was another entire sub field of auditory protective test based on music. A number of psychologists some at Harvard, some colleagues of Skinner’s like Carl Coonsa, either created new recordings, or used existing recordings of music. So Carl Coonsa’s musical reverie test as he called it, used pieces by, for instance, Debu and would ask a listener to sit in a very comfortable armchair, listen to this piece of music and then tell a story about it, which they then would use to diagnose them with personality propensities or disorders.

 

[background music gets louder, sounds like concert music.

 

[MACK]

So cris, so far we’ve heard how NYU Professor Mara Mills has assembled this curious history of auditory predictive tests. All of which propose to mind some kind of essence from the individual by having them listen to sound and then respond to what they’d heard, which is cool. What I love about Mara’s work and what really inspires me about it is that she uses history such as these to ask really big questions. Questions like, when we test someone what are we really testing, where derived notions of normalcy come from, and who or what do these ideas of normal really support?

 

[MARA]

Morgan and Murray described their own process as analysts of these tests as a process of double hearing. It’s interesting that they use the word hearing, because they were, again, working with visual projective tests, not the auditory ones. If the testee is supposed to look at a test and give an interpretation of it, the analyst is giving an interpretation of an interpretation, they’re supposed to have double hearing. They’re supposed to themselves think about what their interpretation of the test would be, what the average normal interpretation of the test would be, and then think about how the interpretation of the testee works. Another problem that arose for me is that as a historian, I’m supposed to have triple hearing or actually, I wanted myself to have triple hearing. I wanted to will myself into trouble hearing. I wanted to let myself take the TAT naively experience it. What did I think of this? I also had to hear like the psychologist, I had to understand what the psychologists are doing. Then I also have to hear in this very broad socio historical contextual frame like a historian.

 

[ticking clock fades in with dramatic music]

 

I come to this project as a disability historian and I came to this project as someone interested in access technologies for blind people. The idea that blind people we’re also going to be subjected to the medica perception tests just made me question access to what. Of course, there’s not just access to nice novels and other sort of things that blind people choose, but there’s, access to disciplining and diagnosing technologies that were happening at the same moment.

 

[MACK]

You know, the French historian of ideas and philosopher Michel Foucault was asking some similar questions as he looked at historical practices such as diary keeping and letter writing and confession in the Catholic Church. These are all activities where we think we’re burying our soul. We’re revealing our innermost depths. Foucault said, no, no, no, no, these are the activities, the techniques, these are the technologies by which we really invent the soul. In those moments, that’s where we construct the self. The self isn’t already there inside of us as this kind of unchanging essence. We invent it through these cultural activities. The ancient stoics and their journaling were trying to achieve self mastery. The Catholic’s confession was used to craft a soul that was purged of sin, and in the modern era psychology and it’s tests and therapies are designed to make us well and whole.

 

[CRIS]

Right, and in fact, I mean, I suppose we are increasingly being conditioned by these technologies.

 

[MACK]

Yeah. One last thing, there’s this historian of science at Harvard, Peter Galison, and he wrote this great piece about the Rorschach inkblot test where he says, first, in order to even create a test like that, you have to have some sort of idea of what the self is that you’re testing for. There was this idea that there’s a deep unconscious,Freudian self that could be evoked or brought out by the ink blot. Back when the first project of tests were invented, only a few bearded psychoanalysts shared this new kind of modern notion of the self. What happens? They begin administering the test and then by the very act of testing, this new notion of the self begins to spread throughout the culture.

 

[CRIS]

Oh, yeah. We see it all. We hear it, and we see it all around us right now in terms of arguments about identity, arguments about behavior.

 

[MACK]

This is the kind of cultural history that Mara Mills is exploring through these auditory projective tests.

 

[music and sounds fade out]

 

[MARA]

The thematic apperception test, the visual ones, were not meant to ever circulate widely, because it would buy us the test results if someone had seen the image before. Of course, today in the digital moment, all of the cards, all of the images can be seen easily online. If you want to look at them, the first problem that immediately one can see is that they are not as generalized nor as ambiguous nor as neutral as they were supposed to be.

 

[old timey music plays with static]

 

They’re supposed to be like inkblots. Extremely ambiguous scenes that anyone can relate to and that will plum something about that person. Of course, they’re all scenes of white people from the early to mid 20th century. Many of them are middle class scenes. If they’re not middle class scenes than they are scenes, which to the present day eye, represent middle class fears about urban degeneracy.

 

[music continues]

 

So these are clearly not neutral test taking instruments in the first place. For Morgan and Murray, who did not create a coding scheme, they eventually settled on this idea that the correct answer was the average answer. Reality is what most people perceive. If most people believe that an image of two people embracing is an image of a heterosexual married couple, then that’s the correct response, and anyone who interprets that image as a homosexual image, as an image of an affair, as a pedophile like image, whatever, that then is revealing something pathological about themselves. I mean, it’s terrifying to think that truth is the statistically typical. There were more complex coding schemes than that. That is, to me a quite terrifying way to interpret those images. Many of the disorders they were supposed to diagnose, it was often things like sexual disorders, it was often things like homosexuality, which after 1973 is no longer considered to be a disability. The suite of things called disabilities at that time, which psychologists were looking for, many of them aren’t even considered to be disabilities today. If you’re looking for homosexuality, yeah, you can find it. If they’re looking for other affective disorders, they might be able to find it, but these are things that we wouldn’t consider to be fixed traits today and aren’t considered to be disabilities today. Certainly, the way people use TATs has shifted. As people, the way we think about sexuality has shifted from something that’s fixed, from something that’s anate, to something that’s much more fluid or the way we think about gender has shifted or what counts as a disability has shifted.

 

[music plays, then fades out]

 

[MACK]

I think what all of this shows us is that normal has a history. Disability has a history.

 

[slow music fades in]

 

[MARA]

I think what was also interesting about the auditory projective test for blind people, it could be used to help blind people understand their interests, and then think about what kind of education they wanted to get, what kind of jobs they would want to go into, but it could also be used to diagnose additional disabilities in a universe of proliferating disability, which is what the 20th century was. As many infectious diseases and disabilities from prior times began to vanish, because of new healthcare interventions, pharmaceutical interventions, a whole host of other disabilities began to be invented, especially in the case of like the DSM, psychological disabilities, the proliferation in that realm of disability. It’s interesting to think of blind people then being diagnosed with this whole range of other disabilities, perhaps through the auditory protective test. All of the impairments that all of us can be tested for in this particular moment where disability and impairment are presumed to be lurking everywhere and presumed to be a sort of baseline.

 

[MACK]

Back when we were an agrarian nation, there was no such thing is ADHD.

 

[CRIS]

Right.

 

[MACK]

It didn’t exist as a disability because it didn’t have a reason to. When you were using the plow or

what have you, it didn’t require that much trained attention. Also, there weren’t that many things around to distract you either.

 

[CRIS]

That’s right. Well..

 

[MACK]

Some birds or, I don’t know.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah, flies. Dust on your shoes.

 

[Female laughing is heard, with the sound of people booing. A siren starts to blare, then the sound of the clock ticking takes over. Mysterious music plays with the ticking]

 

That’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks to Mara Mills for coming on the show and to Helen Selsdon on the American Foundation for the Blind for the use of the auditory projective tests. You can learn more about Phantom Power, find transcripts and links to the things we talked about and find previous episodes of the show at Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d rate and review us in Apple podcast. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter and music was by Mack Haygood, Graham Gibson and Blue Dot Sessions, as well as Duke Ellington and Claude Debussy. The show was edited by Craig Alien and Mack Haygood. We’d like to bid a fond farewell and happy graduation to our intern Adam Whitmer and we welcome our new intern Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from rheRobert H and Nancy J. Blaney Endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

[sounds and music fade out]

Season One Recap

It’s T minus one week and counting until the Launch of Phantom Power Season Two! We can’t wait to share this season’s shows on auditory psychology, animal sound art, radio drama mashups, ritual poetry, and more. As always, we’ll interview performers and scholars at the cutting edge of sound, but you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy podcast—curiosity is the only prerequisite! If you haven’t heard Season One yet, here’s a quick recap of our first seven episodes with links for listening:

Read More

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.

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.

[low humming and static playing]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

 

[Tamborine beat blends in]

 

Episode 7: Screwed and Chopped.

 

[Hip hop music with vocals cuts in]

 

Parental discretion is advised. Welcome to Phantom Power. I’m cris cheek. Today on the seventh and final episode of our first season, my co-host Mack Hagood converses with Langston Collin Wilkins. Langston is a folklorist an ethnomusicologist active in both academia and the public sector. Working as a traditional art specialist at the Tennessee Arts Commission. Mack spoke with Langston recently about his research into Houston’s unique slab, car culture. The city’s relationship to hip hop and hip hop’s to community. Enjoy.

 

[Different hip hop music plays]

 

[MACK HAGOOD]

So before we get into the research of Langston Collin Wilkins, maybe we should get one question out of the way. Why would a folklorist be studying hip hop? Don’t they study things like folk tales or traditional music or quilting? Well, in fact the folklorist I know study things like bodybuilding and fashion and internet memes. Folklorists study everyday creativity. One contemporary definition of folklore is “artistic communication in small groups.” As Langston shows, it’s the way a town like Houston gets a look and a sound all its own, but folklore didn’t lead Langston to hip hop. In fact, it was quite the other way around.

 

[Hip hop music cuts out]

 

[LANGSTON COLLINS WILKINS]

Back when I was a kid, around 12 years old, I received my first hip hop record, which was the “Ghetto Boys Resurrection Album”  in 1996.

 

[A song from the album plays]

 

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, the south side, where Scarface is from that same area. The Ghetto Boys in my hometown heroes as they are for everyone growing up in Houston in those communities. I just became obsessed with hip hop, and not just the music, but just the larger culture and community surrounding it. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about hip hop, I was watching everything, just studying the culture and that kind of continued through college. When I got the grad school, I went hoping to study hip hop in some form or fashion. It was through hip hop that I learned about folklore and became interested in it. I spent a year doing ethnographic research in Houston amongst the hip hop community there. I focus mostly on I guess the more street oriented or gangsta rappers, and we’re studying the artists and producers connection to place. I was looking at how and why these artists was so deeply connected to the city itself, apartment buildings, streets, neighborhoods,  and how these attachments and connection to place have been reproduced in their musical output.

 

[Different hip hop song plays]

 

Why do Houston Raptors always shout out, call out, give dedications to places that they are familiar and intimately connected with?

 

[Several places are listed through hip hop songs]

Washington, Armstrong, Mainwelles and St. Williams. Robinson, Thomas Hopes, we all be chillin but when a sucka starts illin’, the chillin gets rough, and like (inaudible) we tie an ass up.

 

[song continues, then ends]

 

[LANGSTON]

That’s what I studied and as I was doing that research I realized that this car culture slab, which originated in Houston Texas, was a part of this place identity that these artists were projecting.

 

[Street sounds with cars, motors running, and people talking]

 

It originated amongst working class African Americans in the early 1980s. It’s hard to offer a concrete definition of slabs, but mostly they’re older modeled cars, older model American luxury cars. So we’re talking Cadillacs, Lincolns,old mobiles, if you can find those, and they’re modified in various ways. Some of the core components include the rims or wheels which are in the community call swingers or elbows depending on who you talk to. These are 30 spoked home like wheels made of chrome. That’s a core fundamental aspect to slap culture. Then you have the paint, which is typically called candy paint, really shiny, glossy, paint with bold colors, and beyond that you have the stereo systems which are also important components of the culture. These stereo systems feature multiple speakers, subwoofers that feature incredible bass sounds. They’re typically powered by multiple batteries. Essentially, slab is a modified, customized car and the components are unique to Houston because there are various car cultures, modified car cultures around the country, but I think the combination of the candy paint, the swingers, the elbows, and the stereo systems make slab unique to Houston.

[Street sounds fade out]

 

[MACK]

Was there anything from your training in folklore that made you see this phenomenon and maybe even hear it in a different way?

 

[Hip hop music plays in the background]

 

[LANGSTON]

I had seen these cars going up, but I’d never really appreciated them. They were just how people got from A to B. That’s how they traveled. My uncle who I’m close to, he had not a slab, but he had a modified car, but that was just his car. Going through the program and learning about how cars and other forms of material culture are results of both individual and communal creativity, I began to look at the cars more deeply.

 

[MACK]

It’s interesting what you’re saying there, that these material objects we come up with, almost as these reasons we create spaces to come together and generate a sense of community, but also promote this arena for individuals to show off their distinct abilities at the same time. It’s funny, because the automobile has formed that space for a lot of different subcultures. Those old codgers who have their vintage car things like in the parking lot of the Cracker Barrel, or whatever.

 

[LANGSTON]

Right, absolutely.

 

[MACK]

Maybe not that different in some ways.

 

[LANGSTON]

I don’t think it is. Beyond that, as I was taking the music, the cars were constantly referred to in these rappers’ verbal output. So, that’s what turned my attention for staying in the cars because I figured out that they were both an interesting form of creative culture in themselves, but also a fundamental part of Houston rappers, creative output.

 

[Another rap song fades in, then fades out]

 

People who own slabs aren’t going to your local car audio store to get their systems put together, they go to the audio guy in their neighborhood, who knows the culture, knows the community, and knows the aesthetic to put these sounds together. We were just talking about multiple speakers, heavy bass, and the base, you have to be able to feel the bass that’s part of the aesthetic. Actually, you’re able to see the music. That’s another part of this, that your slab is supposed to rattle, and the truck is supposed to rattle and kind of bump when you’re listening to your music which is typically local hip hop.

 

[Hip hop plays from what sounds like a car stereo. You can hear the base.]

 

At least in slab culture, in the music it’s meant to be felt and heard and seen. I think that’s why you get these terms like bang or bump, to refer to the sound systems.

 

[The bass has completely taken over. Hip hop music slowly fades back in to show how the bass fits. Both sounds fade out]

 

[MACK]

You mentioned that it’s local music. Can you talk about the kind of music that’s associated with this culture?

 

[LANGSTON]

There was a major economic downturn recession in Houston in the early 1980s that resulted in a lot of people being out of work, a lot of black people being out of work, I’ll say.  At the same time in the early 1980s, you saw the rise of crack cocaine and that offered a kind of an economic pathway for many of those guys in those communities. So that’s kind of the context. There’s this community of dope dealers in the south side who wanted to flaunt their wealth and wanted their names, and their presence to be as big as possible in the cars and the music, the local hip hop sound. Scared, Screwed and Chopped, kind of allowed them to do that.

 

[Another hip hop song plays]

 

Essentially, screwed means to slow a record down. Screwed records typically are between 60 and 70 beats per minute. It kind of creates a muddy, slow and somewhat psychedelic sound for hip hop. The pioneer of the sound is DJ Screw who passed away in 2000. He was from the south side of Houston, Texas, again, from these working class communities.

 

[A song from DJ Screw plays. It sounds like a hip hop sound that has been slowed down.]

 

[MACK]

Anybody who’s familiar with dance music or hip hop production will know that 60 to 70 beats per minute is really slow.

 

[LANGSTON]

I think the slowness of the music is heavily influenced by the car culture, because these cars kind of originated out of the street culture in the mid 1980s. Pioneered by local drug dealers who kind of used modified cars to flaunt their wealth. They would put together these cars and they would drive them slowly, to  parade them to the streets of Houston. Very slowly so people could pay attention to him and focus on him.

 

[Hip hop song continues]

 

DJ Screws first mixtapes were being purchased by these local drug dealers. They would play them in their cars as they were traversing the streets. You had this slow experience, these slow parades going on through the streets of Houston. You also have the drug culture the lean, the Serb culture, which just makes you move extra slow, and that was certainly a part of the screwed and chopped culture and certainly a part of the slap culture as well.

 

[Different hip hop song plays, this one with with a faster tempo]

 

Lean, also called syrup. There’s other names for depending on who you talk to. It’s essentially prescription strength, cough syrup, mix with some sort of sweetener. I could be soda, or people put candy in the cough syrup. When you drink it, it slows your faculties down. You move slower, you you lose your sense of balance, which is why it’s sometimes called lean because people on the drug kind of lean over so, and again, kind of like slab, it became a marker of local hip hop identity.

 

[Hip hop song continues]

 

So you have this slow, muddy kind of psychedelic sound, that’s the screwed part. Chopping is a fundamental part of the hip hop DJ aesthetic, but what DJ Screw would do was that he would take two copies of the same record, put them on two different turntables, but he would play one record a little behind the other record. When he would mix back and forth, he would repeat phrases.

 

[An example of DJ Screw’s mixing]

 

That became the chopping part of screwed and chopped. Repeating phrases and sometimes repeating percussive sounds, so that the mix between the slowness and these repeated phrases. That’s essentially screwed and chopped music.

 

[An example of screwed and chopped music plays]

 

I think if you get down into DJ Screw’s mixtapes which they were maybe 250 plus of, if you haven’t been part of the culture, it’s hard to really understand what’s going on there, what he’s doing, and how complex it is.

 

[MACK]

When you say it’s hard to know how complex what he’s doing is, is it because someone who isn’t familiar with the original songs that he’s mixing can’t tell how he’s chopping them?

 

[LANGSTON]

Yeah, I think so. I think because he’s mixing at any given time, maybe five or six records together, and he’s manipulating them in real time and then he’s going back and slowing it all down. It’s just these record,s these songs are hard to navigate.

 

[Upbeat, childlike music plays]

 

[CRIS]

People, people, help us out just a little bit here. Go to iTunes, give us a rating. It’ll take under five seconds. If you have more time, a small review helps us bring this to you. Give us some feedback on Facebook. Hit us up on Twitter. You know the score.

 

[Upbeat music fades out and slow hip hop music fades in]

 

[MACK]

So far, Langston has shown us how some of south side Houston’s African American residents customize cars, and customize the sound of hip hop. The slab swerved a slow path through the city streets, banging out music that paid tribute to those very same streets and neighborhoods. In the process, individuals made names for themselves as makers of money or cars or sound systems or music while at the same time, the community made a name and an image and a sound for itself. This is the everyday artistic communication folklorists look for. It’s also the way of space, a collection of buildings and streets, becomes a place that is known, respected, and loved. All of this is taking place on the consumption side of the music, but as Langston explained to me, a similar social process was taking place on the production side. When DJ Screw and screwed up click rappers like Little Kiki, Fat Pat, ESG, and Big Hawk made tapes at house parties.

 

[Hip hop music winds down and ends]

 

[LANGSTON]

the screwed and chopped mixtapes. Essentially, he would invite rappers over to his house, maybe 3, 4, 5. They would have a big party, and in the midst of this party, he would begin playing music and recording a mixtape. What you’re getting on these mixtapes are a social experience.

 

[A mixtape is played. We hear music with rappers talking and laughing over it.]

 

This whole culture was rooted in the drug game, and so you had a lot of early deaths in these communities in the late 1980s early 1990s. You had a lot of memorial mixtapes, mixtapes that were created in dedication to someone who had just lost their life. You also had mixed tapes that were for someone’s graduation celebration. You had mixtapes to celebrate someone in community who had given birth. All of these tapes has some sort of social function to them.

 

[Mixtape continues. We hear a rapper come up with a wrap.]

 

[MACK]

So in that context then, DJ Screw is basically DJing and a party and then people are free styling.

 

[LANGSTON]

Yeah he’s DJing a party, people are drinking, eating, having fun, talking crap to each other, and then he would hit record and he would do his mixes. If you’re a rapper in the space, you can come up and you can freestyle. Then they go back to partying for a couple hours. Then he would start recording again, and some other rappers could come up. If you talk to different members of screwed up click they’ll tell you that some of these quote unquote recording sessions will last all night. You would go over to Screw’s house around 7pm and you’d leave at maybe 9 o’clock the next day, the next morning. These are just kind of social events organically captured on tape. That’s what happening.

 

[MACK]

While it’s happening in real time, the beat is actually faster, it’s the original.

 

[LANGSTON]

Yeah, they’re recording it regular speed.

 

[Mixtape continues, then fades out]

 

The DJ Screw would take the recordings, put them into his four track, and use the piss control knob to slow the speed down.

 

[An example of this slowed down track plays]

 

[MACK]

Wow.

 

[Track continues]

 

[LANGSTON]

In my eyes, makes especially their rap performances much more interesting because most of those freestyles were done completely off the top of the head, and they were completely extemporaneous and performed in real time. These rappers don’t get the credit that they deserve for being incredible freestylers.

 

[MACK]

So maybe we should talk a bit about what that does to the voice.

 

[LANGSTON]

Just a darker, almost otherworldly tone to the voice. I think again, that goes hand in hand with the drugs that were being consumed, to drug market based environment that they’re coming from, and also the slab culture. It just kind of produces an almost ghostly vocal sound.

 

[Mixtape continues, then fades out]

 

[MACK]

I don’t know if you’ll agree with this, but I almost feel like to me, this music sounds more like west coast hip hop from the 1990s then the sort of, at least the stereotype of Southern hip hop.

 

[Different hip hop track plays, this one with a slightly faster tempo]

 

I was wondering if there’s some kind of connection there between,, like that car culture you’re talking about? Where there’s just something about this, that it sounds like riding music to me.

 

[LANGSTON]

I think there’s a deep connection. I think you’re correct for multiple reasons. One, DJ Screw, the pioneer of this whole culture, his favorite artists were from the west coast. We’re talking, Ice Cube and CBOE from Sacramento, California. Much of the music on those early screw tapes and even towards the end of his life were comprised, most of the music was West Coast based, hip hop, gangster rap.

 

[MACK

Just that endless, ribbon freeway.

 

[LANGSTON]

Right, there you go. I mean, you have to have a car to get anywhere in Houston. Our public transit system wasn’t great. You have to have a car to get around. Therefore, people spend a lot of time in their cars. The culture seems similar. It seems like you have to have some sort wheels to get around in Los Angeles. I think just the sheer geographic sizes of  these two hip hop centers creates a relationship between the two. I think that manifests in the similarities between Houston and west coast based hip hop.

 

[Hip hop song continues, then fades out]

 

[MACK]

In the 2000s, both slabs and the chopped and screwed sound spread beyond Houston south side, and eventually beyond Houston itself.

 

[LANGSTON]

Between 2004 and 2007, local hip hop culture for the second time, because the first time was with the ghetto boys in the early 1990s, rose to national and maybe international prominence through music that was created on the northside of Houston, through this label called Swish a House. Rappers like Paul Wall, Mike Jones, and Slim Thug.

 

[One of these artist’s songs plays]

 

It was through them that screwed and chopped music rose to the mainstream, and they did it I think, by using car culture, because the first few songs that came out in that era from local hip hop artists were songs that were dedications to car cultures. Still Tippin was about SAP culture. Come Millionaires, Riding Dirty was about local car culture and the criminalisation of it.

 

[Hip hop song continues, then fades out]

 

[MACK]

It’s fascinating to me, because growing up in New Orleans, Houston and New Orleans are pretty close, as close as any place in Texas can be to anywhere, because Texas so big. It’s around that same time DJ Screw was creating his innovations, in New Orleans there was just really fast hip hop that was happening. With producers like Mannie Fresh, Hot Boys, Little Wayne, juvenile in this kind of bounce music sound with the trigger man beat.

 

[Another hip hop song plays, very fast tempoed, then fades out]

 

It just seems kind of interesting that these cities are so close together and yet their music couldn’t be more opposite, at least to my ears.

 

[LANSTON]

It is fascinating, and I will say that bounce and all of  that New Orleans music had a strong presence in Houston as well, and we did also see it end up on DJ Screw’s mixtapes and such. I think the special thing about hip hop when I was growing up, and I hate to sound like old man, at least to me was the fact that  hip hop in New York didn’t sound like hip hop in Houston and hip hop in Houston didn’t sound like hip hop in New Orleans even.

 

[Another hip hop song plays, more moderately tempoed]

 

Each region has its own unique sound. I thought that was a beautiful and incredible thing. The internet kind of has broken down those regional barriers and has made different regional sounds readily accessible to everyone around the country. In some respects, that’s awesome. I’m glad that sounds have changed. I’m glad that hip hop has grown and is continually reorienting itself, but I wish there was some sense of regional or local uniqueness because I just think that’s virtually disappeared in the culture and in the industry.

 

[MACK]

It’s almost like the regions are the different regions of the internet now. Like, you have SoundCloud rap, that’s a neighborhood in internet land.

 

[LANGSTON]

Exactly. I think connection to place is a fundamental aspect of hip hop culture. It exposes an intimate relationship between the person and their place. Place in itself is something very different now.

 

[Hip hop song continues, then fades out. Another hip hop song fades in]

 

[CRIS]

That’s it for this episode, and this season of Phantom Power. Thank you again to Langston Collin Wilkins, and we’ll be back in the fall with season two. We hope to connect with you then. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve heard and talked about a phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts, and we’d love it if you’d rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. Tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook, give us a shout on twitter @PhantomPod. Today’s show featured music by DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Clique. Our interns are Natalie Cooper and Adam Whitmer. Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

[Hip hop song fades out]

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.

[low humming and static playing]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power. Episode 6.

[squeaking sounds]

[CRIS]

Data streams.

[sound of flowing water fades in as squeaking continues]

[MACK HAGOOD]

Welcome to Phantom Power, I’m Mack Hagood. Today,  My co-host cris cheek prepares us for World Listening Day, an annual global event held every July 18th and sponsored by the World Listening Project with events held all over the planet. We’ll get you tuned in to acoustic ecology and World Listening Day with plenty of time to find an event near you, or perhaps to start one of your own. cris has a show for us in three parts. First, we’ll meet Teresa Barrozo, a sound artist, composer and sound designer for film, theater and dance, and the creator of the theme for this year’s World Listening Day. Next, cris does some close listening of his own in a meditation on the sounds of humans, animals and earth in his neighborhood. Finally, we meet Leah Barclay, who made the recording we’re hearing right now in dolphin code on the great Sandy Biosphere Reserve in Queensland, Western Australia. She’s the president of the Australian forum on acoustic ecology, the editor of Soundscape Magazine and the Vice President of the World Acoustic Ecology forum. Leah spoke with Chris from a remote biosphere reserve when it was still summer in the southern hemisphere.

[sounds fade out, ethereal music fades in]

[CRIS]

World Listening Day enters its second decade in 2018. This year’s theme is future listening, created by Filipino sound artist, Teresa Barrozo. Phantom Power caught up with Teresa amidst her preparations.

[ethereal music continues with drum rolls, wooden chimes, and traffic noises periodically playing]

[TERESA BARROZO]

I’m Teresa Barrozo, and I’m a composer and a curious listener from the Philippines.

[CRIS]

Whereabouts in the Philippines are you?

[TERESA]

Carson City, Manila.

[sounds continue]

[CRIS]

Theresa, how did you get involved with the World Listening Project?

[TERESA]

It’s quite popular every year. I get to read up on it. For this year, I got invited by Eric Leonardo and Leah Barclay to create a theme for this year’s World Listening Day. I’m actually surprised that they invited me, because I’m starting out as a sound artist.  My day job is that I’m a composer for film and theater and sound designer for theater, but this since that’s my background, I’ve been very fascinated with how sound and music is used in storytelling. How we use sound and music to manipulate our audience.

[sounds are distorted, sped up and slowed down, with an occasional car honk being heard over the noise. Technological sounds are added.]

That’s where my interest began. Here in the Philippines, there’s no such thing as sound studies, so I started looking outside the Philippines. I started reading about sound and listening online. Mostly, we find everything online, so I just started Googling stuff about sound. I really got interested. I got interested with sound installations; how sound can stand on its own as an art work. I’m interested on how sound can shape the society.

[sounds become softer and have more of a rhythm, or steady beat]

I saw online there’s this thing called acoustic ecology. There’s this thing about deep listening, of course I heard about (inaudible).

[CRIS]

So, what’s your idea for World Listening Day this year?

[TERESA]

The theme for this year’s World Listening Day is Feature Listening. Here we are inviting people to respond on the question what does your feature sound like?

[distorted sounds play again in the background]

There are also other general guide questions to consider. I’m going to read them. What does your past sound like? What does your present sound like? Which sounds do you wish to retain? Which sounds do you wish to never hear again? Which sounds do you consider as toxic waste? How does the silence and noise sound in your feature? Which sounds have gone silent? Can you still hear?

[rhythmic technological sounds play in the background]

[CRIS]

People will be responding to World Listening Day all over the world, I hope. Are they expected to make recordings, or to write about the their experience, or both?

[TERESA]

I personally feel that anyone is welcome to respond in any way they prefer. One example, they’ve been doing this for the past few years, other communities do sound box, and there are some other groups that gather and talk about sound. There are groups who curate concerts or performances that’s inspired by the theme, not just artists but anyone who has something to say or anyone who hopes or dreams can actually be included in this global campaign. It’s not exclusive.

[CRIS]

What kind of future sound do you imagine?

[distorted sounds play again in the background]

[TERESA]

How we can change our future by being present in our listening.

[rhythmic technological sounds play in the background]

How we can examine our hopes, dreams and even our ambitions to go where we want to by being conscious of what we hear.

[CRIS]

One term often used to describe the some of what we hear is “acoustic ecology.” Theresa Barrozo used that there, but what is it? It seems kind of specialist, right? Here’s is a very brief description.

Acoustic Ecology, sometimes called echo acoustics or sound safe study, is a discipline studying the relationship mediated through sound between human beings and their environments. My thinking increasingly became about phones. The anthropophone, the biophone, and the geophone. Here’s my own attempt to get to grips with that. I make a quick local inventory of what I hear around me.

[as sounds are listested, we hear them in the background]

The racket of a pair of my shoes tumbling in the dryer, drifting up from the basement of the house clanks like a broken part in some kind of drum. Not as loud or persistent as the repetitive whirl and woosh of an air conditioner spinning into action during high summer or the clicks and hums of the fridge in the kitchen, but examples of anthropophone nonetheless. Someone sanding a plank with a cranked amp in a trunk to bring some kind of bump crawls by. Peer pressure is the sound of summer mowing, leaf and snow blowing, and all the fun of the power tools that change the dynamic. An anthropophone in the anthropohone scene. All sound produced by humans, whether considered coherent, such as music and language allegedly, or incoherent and chaotic, such as random signals generated primarily by electro mechanical means of ambient noise all forging part of this ongoing sonic patina. In the evenings, I hear the voices of various people calling to their pets across the hill, emergency sirens on the arterial, whistles from distant trains. A stronger wind brings chimes from the neighbor’s deck. A cackle phone of city dwelling here in Northside, Cincinnati.

[rhythmic music continues]

Lying awake at night, we can hear screech owls outside the house sometimes. Raccoons fighting, persistant dog barks, sometimes even coyotes hunting along the creek bed in nearby woods. By day, blue birds, cardinal sparrows, hawks and starlings flick and tweet and sing and sometimes swarm the trees around our house. Imitate phone tones, perhaps, and in a decent breeze, tall trees creek out and rub against each other. Bees troll for pollen. Squirrels skitter from branches to gutters in across rooftops. At dusk, possums edge out eerily across the steps leading up to the porch. Mice in the leaves. Moles cruise street side strips of lawn along the edge rows of this urban biophone. We cannot hear their frequencies. A resonance within the hill on which house is set. The sounds that travel underground. Granular land, water runs, ears with roots,  rock cracks and earth tremors in the gathering ice and or heat. Those songs of the earth, geophony.

[moderately tempoed music fades in]

Hey everyone, its Mack Hagood. Here at Phantom Power we are so fortunate to have generous funding from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Among other things, this means that we don’t have to implore you to buy a new mattress or join a Sock of the Month Club. If you’re a regular podcast listener, you know what I’m talking about. So luckily, we don’t have to do that. We do however, have one small ask, just go to iTunes and leave us a review and a rating. We’d really appreciate it. It’s a great way for the people who are funding this show to know that folks really are listening to it. It’s also a great way for more people to learn about Phantom Power. Thank you.

[music fades out]

[CRIS]

for the rest of the show, here’s Leah Barclay.

[calming music with nature sounds fade in]

It sounds like you’re in a great environment right now, actually. There’s some nice bird sounds in the background.

[LEAH BARCLAY]

I am. Yeah, I’m actually in the biosphere. There’s cicadas, very loud cicadas. Can you hear those now?

[sound of cicadas fades in]

[CRIS]

I can.

[LEAH]

Okay. I mean, I can close the windows. If that’s…

[CRIS]

No, no, no, I like it. I like it.

[LEAH]

All right.

[cicadas sounds fade out]

My name is Leah Barclay. I’m an Australian sound artist and composer, and my work really revolves around acoustic ecology and environmental field recording. I work with different ecosystems, particularly ecosystems that are often beyond our auditory perceptions, such as rivers and lakes, and marine environments. I create experiences of being immersed and present in those ecosystems.

[surreal music and sounds play in the background]

[CRIS]

Installation style, or concert style, or a mixture of both?

[LEAH]

Both. So, I use these environmental field recordings in different contexts. Immersive installations, which are always in surround sound, usually eight channel surround sound, and often have interactive elements so that human presence in the space affects the sonic environment. I also create live performances with these materials where I’ll mix all the sounds live again in a surround sound context. These often involve live streams as well, so live streaming hydrophones from a different ecosystem that I will bring into that live performance.

[surreal music and sounds continue. A chime sounds, then sounds distorted.]

[CRIS]

Can you talk about the biospheres project?

[LEAH]

Yeah. Biospheres Soundscapes is a project that I started in 2012, and the idea launched in the new biosphere reserve in Queensland, Australia. Inspired by the model of biosphere reserves, which UNESCO designated sites designed to look at innovative approaches to the conservation of biological and cultural diversity. It was a model that revolved around a local environment but was globally connected. Biosphere soundscapes really started as this project that could develop participatory acoustic quality experiences in the context of local communities of biosphere reserves, and connect to different sites. Using sound as a tool to inspire ecological engagement, but also leveraging the scientific possibilities of sound for understanding ecosystem health.

[gong goes off, music and sounds are more ominous, then fade out]

We’re actually rebuilding our sound maps and databases at the moment to create this central repository for community recordings. What we found when we’re running workshops and engagement exercises in the biosphere reserves, is the communities want to keep going. They want to keep recording the environment for both artistic and scientific purposes. We want to create these interfaces that enable them to keep doing that and enable them to share and compare those recordings with other biosphere reserves as well.

[a low hum is played in the background with an occasional bug chirping]

[CRIS]

How are you archiving the data that’s collected?

[LEAH]

That’s an excellent question. It has been ongoing challenge with the project. Initially, we looked at this model of cataloging everything on site, backing everything up on hard drives, and we’re always taking a different approach to recording. We’’re doing in situ field recording where we’re staying with the equipment, which might be a three hour session. Then we’re doing long duration recordings, which can be a 24 hour recording, or could be a two week continuous recording. So obviously, the kind of backup systems and the data management on site is dramatically different for that kind of material. We’ve gone through different processes of the best way to manage that. That’s why we’re building these new databases and sound max now, which will streamline that process so communities can upload their material directly. As with any project of this nature, where we’re generating huge amounts of acoustic data, there’s a lot of material from the past that hasn’t been annotated at all. Basically, the exciting point where we are now with this kind of technology, with real time species recognition and algorithms that can analyze that acoustic data, we believe that we’re going to be able to use that material as we move forward to prepare acoustic diversity to 10 years ago.

[the hum fades out as nature sounds continue]

While we’re not annotating and data basing everything in a perfect way, we see great value in collecting as much acoustic data as possible.

[CRIS]

Yeah, and I presume that tagging must be a really big part of that too.

[LEAH]

Absolutely.

[CRIS]

What layers and levels of tagging you get into, how much detail and how much complexity?

[LEAH]

That’s exactly right. The new community system basically has layers of tagging. You can select location is the big one, time of day, and then our communities can choose them to add more layers of information to the point that they can actually identify specific species if they want to, or identify, simple differences between biophilia and giophilia and things like that.

[nature sounds continue, this time more water-based sounds]

[CRIS]

There will be this gradual…I’m going to be a bit of a space cadet in saying this, global mapping in terms of complexity of sound and location.

[LEAH]

I think there’s been a lot of calls for that throughout various artistic and scientific communities. Obviously, there’s a lot of incredible soundtracks that exist online that have inspired elements of this project, but often they don’t call for community participation, or the ones that do call for community participation are around specific themes or very broad. Looking at the way that listening can inspire presence and connection to place and all of the future possibilities we have in these scientific fields that allow us to use to monitor environmental health.

[calm, quiet music plays in the background with an occasional metal clank]

[CRIS]

The potential proliferation of live streaming sites triggered by presence or triggered remote.

[LEAH]

Exactly, the live streaming element is a really interesting one as well. We had set up various models and frameworks to live stream within biospheres, within a parallel project called River Listening using hydrophones in rivers.

[sounds of rivers mixed with calm music]

[LEAH]

It didn’t always work. We had all these issues with, if you’re in a remote area, internet dropping out and technology going missing and the interfaces we were using weren’t working. Then I discovered Sound Camp in London in the UK, who has been running really fantastic community by the live streaming projects for many years. We started working with them to build various frameworks for community streaming kits. That’s quite transformational to data management, the stream to use them both for artistic and scientific context. They can be integrated into installations and performances, but they can have algorithms attached to them that do real time species recognition.

[sounds continue]

[CRIS]

Do you notice a difference between recording an environment when people are there and recording an environment when people aren’t there?

[LEAH]

Absolutely. That’s been an interesting process for me personally, as a field recorder. I notice the difference when I am there as well. If I’m setting up equipment in the environment, and I’m in situ on there, with headphones on actively listening, which I love doing. I think it’s such a magic way to connect to the environment, but I notice a distinctive difference in those recordings between when I’m there and when I’m not there, because obviously, everything that lives in that ecosystem is equally as aware of my presence and of anyone else has presence, and naturally, they vocalize in different ways.

[subdued nature sounds play]

[CRIS]

lEAH, I think I’m right in saying that you’re involved with the development of apps for mobile platforms?

[LEAH]

That’s exactly right, which has been a big part of the community engagement. I’ve been really interested through both biosphere soundscapes and (inaudible) to develop mobile apps that enable communities to record and locate their sounds very easily. When they’re in environments where they’re hearing different species, they can literally just pull out their phone and start recording and add that to the database. For example, you know where we are, right now you may hear the waves of cicadas in the background which aren’t necessarily a common soundscape for this time of day, but we know that this particular species of cicadas comes out when the temperature gradually starts to rise. It would mean that a community member could pull out their phone and record this and upload it straight to the database.

[calm music and a bell chiming in the background]

[CRIS]

While we know that sound has been the relatively less focused on human sense, in terms of development of internet platforms and interfaces, using the technology is also humans interfering in the environment even further. So there’s a kind of a trade off.

[LEAH]

Of course, yeah, and look I mean, realistically, I think, there’s an inherent contradiction in in many of the projects that I’ve really been pushing in a acoustic ecology and using mobile technologies as a tool to reconnect young people to the environment obviously, is problematic in more ways than one. At the end of the day, when young people are carrying these mobile phones in their back pocket, it’s not like they’re going to get rid of them tomorrow. I see great value in using the available platforms we have and repurposing these technologies in ways that can inspire this culture.

[sounds continue]

The fact that I can create these augmented reality sound walks and installations with mobile applications, and I can take those to climate change conferences and literally put them in the hands of decision makers so they can be listening as they walk past in the hallways, it transforms the accessibility of these experiences. When we start to think about these environments that we don’t traditionally have access to. Throughout auditory perception, the freshwater environments in rivers, the horrific impact that anthropogenic noise is having now on marine environments, but then, when they’re immersed in an installation or listening experience where they actually hear how loud and intense and heartbreaking in a way, that sound load is for species such as humpback whales who are migrating, yet it’s quite confronting.

[music and water-based sounds play]

[CRIS]

Well, thanks, Leah. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.

[LEAH]

Thank you.

[CRIS]

I wish you a great day there in the biosphere.

[LEAH]

Thanks very much for having me. I’m excited to hear more episodes of this podcast as well.

[acoustic music plays]

[MACK]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks to Teresa Barrozo, the track that played during her segment was a piece called “Duet” and thanks to Leah Barclay. All of the sounds in Leah’s segment were by her. You can learn more about those pieces and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve talked about at phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there, or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d review and rate 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 and Adam Whitmer. Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

[music fades out]

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

[low humming playing]

 

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

 

[COMPUTERIZED VOICE]

Episode 5.

 

[CRIS]
Ears racing.

 

[low humming and contemporary music fades in]

 

[MACK HAGOOD]

Race. We think of it as a visual phenomenon.

 

[CRIS]
But race has sound too.

 

[DIFFERENT VOICES GIVING GREETINGS]
Hey guys, welcome back. Hi sisters. Hey Jim, (inaudible). Hey everyone. Hey!

 

[CRIS]
When you heard those voices, did you give them a race, a class, perhaps some kind of assignation of character and if so, why do we do this? Where does this discriminating ear come from?

 

[MACK]

I’m Mack Hagood,

 

[CRIS]

and I’m cris cheek.

 

[MACK]

Today on Phantom Power we listen, to race or to put it more correctly, we examine how we are always listening to race. Our guide is Jennifer Lynn Stoever, Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York Binghamton. Stover is the author of the “Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening” a book that argues that white racism depends just as much on the ear as it does the eye. She shows how listening has been used since slavery to distinguish and separate black and white and how African American artists and critics like Richard Wright Leadbelly and Lena Horne have identified, critiqued, and push the boundaries of this sonic color line.

 

[techno-like music and a choir play in the background, then fade out]

 

[MACK]
Cris, when I spoke to Jennifer, she reminded me of a story that really shows how high the stakes of this kind of listening can be.

 

[JENNIFER STOEVER]
You know, I talk  in the opening of the book about the case of Jordan Davis.

 

[piano music fades in]

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]

It happened November 23rd, 47-year-old Michael Dunn told investigators he felt threatened at a gas station. Parked side by side with an SUV full of teenagers, the alleged gunman complained they were playing their music too loud.

 

[JENNIFER]
Jordan and his friends are playing hip hop at the gas pump. They were driving they had their music on. They were getting gas. Gas stations in theory (are) a transitory shared space where we all come in with our music we pump our gas and we leave.

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]
Detective say Dunn confronted Davis who was in the backseat and told him to turn the music down.

 

[JENNIFER]

The white man at question felt a proprietary access to the soundscape both it if he decided it was too loud, is too loud for everybody there, that his sensibility should be catered to. That there is a way that a gas station should sound and hip hop is not part of that. And when they said no, he saw that as as aggression.

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]
Dunn’s attorney says his client thought he saw a gun so he pulled his own weapon and started shooting.

 

[last line echos a few times]

 

[JENNIFER]
Shot into the car.

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]

Firing at least eight shots.

 

[JENNIFER]

And killed a young man.

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]
Investigators never found a gun and the teen’s car.

 

[ethereal music plays in the background]

 

[MACK]
In her book, Jennifer Stoever has a term for the way Michael Dunn heard Jordan Davis at that gas station back in 2012. The listening ear.

 

[ethereal music cuts out]

 

[JENNIFER]
The listening ear helps us get at what’s really happening in a case like that. The listening ear is a term that I use to think about the way that racialized listening practices come about the way that they accrete over time. I was also trying to think of about how whiteness in the US has become aligned with citizenship, what it means to be a full citizen with all of the rights and privileges there of and have them be respected. And you know, that this has become soldered to not just a white visuality, but a white way of being in the world. And where does this white way of being come from?

 

[ethereal music returns to the background]

 

[JENNIFER]
At times, it’s a form of distancing. It’s a way of habit, drawing a line between what is music and what is noise, and putting, say, hip hop on the other side of that line.

 

[cut to snippet of Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News]

 

[BILL O’REILLY]

Now I submit to you that you’re going to have to get people like Jay Z, Kanye West, all of these gangsta rappers to knock it off.

 

[JENNIFER]

And then not just doing that, but then associating the sound of hip hop with a long history of stereotyping of black masculinity as dangerous as outsized as…

 

[BILL O’REILLY]

Listen to me, listen to me. You gotta get where they live, alright? They idolize these guys with the hats on backwards.

 

[JENNIFER]

And then the sound itself becomes a stand in for talking about black masculinity, and excluding black men from neighborhoods from equal treatment under the law.

 

[BILL O’REILLY]

And the terrible rock rap lyrics and, and the drug and all of that.

 

[JENNIFER]
Our moment is shifting now. And I think, you know, we are having more overt racial threats. But say, three years ago, conversations were being had through these sonic codes, and so part of what the book is to kind of expose, you know, when we talk about hip hop as being loud, and as being culturally, when we hear these conversations about about hip hop, what are we really talking about?

 

[BILL O’REILLY]

It’s these gangsta rappers, and it’s the athletes, it’s the tattoo guys.

 

[JENNIFER]

So the listening ears also very, for white people, white men, in particular, the very kind of proprietary. It’s about the imposition of power.

 

[ethereal music fades out]

 

[MACK]
I think the thing that I appreciate the most about your book is that it addresses this racial dynamic, this kind of judging by listening that white people do. Something that I think any American really no matter what their politics are, they would at least admit that this does exist, right?

 

[JENNIFER]

Yes.

 

[MACK]

But when it gets discussed at all, which is pretty rarely, it generally gets reduced to this debate about Ebonics and so called standard speech, but what you seem to be arguing in this book is that we use a prejudicial and even, you know, white supremacist form of listening that involves way more than accent or dialect and that this actual type of listening is central to American racism itself. So maybe could you talk a little bit about your concept of the sonic color line and what that does?

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes, thank you. I think that’s a really excellent interpretation of my work. I think that why I chose that title drawing on Dubois’ concept of the color line was the way in which the sonic color line brings together and helps us understand the linkages between the prejudicial listening, that happens in terms of speech, in terms of musical production, musical taste, musical desires, and also the way in which we think about soundscapes and space and really the sonic color line ultimately becomes a way to understand how we create spaces that are exclusionary. America is free and we have these legal protections in terms of space, but if experiences of race and racism are internalized through the senses, we all walk and experience space in very, very different ways.

 

[FEMALE NEWS REPORTER]

11 women kicked off of a wine train and Napa Valley after complaints they were being too loud, but the women say they we’re not booted for being rowdy. They say they were kicked off for being black.

 

[news transition sound]

 

[WOMAN KICKED OFF TRAIN]

We made it ya’ll. Look it us; we ready to get on the wine train.

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]

What started as a joyful event for 11 African American book club members quickly grew sour even before they left the Napa wine train station.

 

[WOMAN KICKED OFF TRAIN]

And she said to us, “I’m going to need to lower your…the noise level needs to come down a little bit because you’re being offensive to some of the other passengers.”

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]

So 45 minutes into the trip, they were told they had to leave and would be escorted off the train. And when that happened a further indignity.

 

[WOMAN KICKED OFF TRAIN]

We had to walk all the way through all the additional five cars to be able to get off the train. So they took us and they paraded us through every single car with all the passengers watching us. It was humiliating, degrading, and that’s the part that I will never, ever ever forget.

 

[JENNIFER]

It can say that it’s open, and that it’s diverse, and it’s accessible, but because of the way that experiences of sound can be fractured, can be very different. These spaces can be very actively exclusionary toward people of color in ways that can be, hidden or covered over and, and so I kind of started there. Trying to understand where we’re at, in the contemporary moment, but then needing to go back historically to document and trace that.

 

[ethereal music fades out]

 

[MACK]
And so, we tend to think about sound as something that just is.

 

[JENNIFER]

Yes.

 

[MACK]

And something sounds a certain way, but what you’re really emphasizing here is that we all listen through these ideological filters. So, as a guitar player, I think about this sometimes in terms of like, effects pedals.

 

[JENNIFER]

I like that metaphor.

 

[MACK]

We listen through these different distortions and delays, and we don’t really realize that we have these things in our signal chain. We think we’re listening to a clean natural signal, but there’s no such thing as that. I think a couple of questions for me come to mind. First, what do you want white people to do with that knowledge? I guess we could just start there. What kind of intervention would you like to see your book make with white folks?

 

[JENNIFER]
That’s a really important question. I mean, first, as you put it, just this calling attention to the fact that listening is not a natural process for folks that work in sound studies, it seems very basic. in some ways, that’s the foundation of our field. I’m going to paraphrase Hari Kunzru. I just finished teaching the book White Tears with my class. There’s a point where he says, “whether or not you believe in race, race finds you.” I think this is part of it, that the book is written to counter color blindness, and the ideology of color blindness, that if you don’t see race, quote, unquote, that it doesn’t exist, that there’s a certain element of white people, often very liberal white people that no longer believe in race. Race has been proved as a scientific fiction for over 100 years now, but the materiality of racialization is everywhere around us, and so getting white people to not imagine themselves at the center of the human experience. That the way that they hear is not the way everybody hears, and that the way that they hear is impacted by race is impacted by this idea of what whiteness is, and how to inhabit whiteness. One of the ways I think that sound, at least in terms of producing white racial identity works more powerfully than vision is because it allows a feeling of whiteness, that it makes whiteness and race real for white people rather than an abstraction. The way we talk about visuality in race is often that whiteness is invisible, that race is marked onto other bodies, but with sound and hearing in white ways, and sounding in white ways, it actually makes it this very material experience, and because it’s been so associated with Americanness.

 

[orchestra plays out of an old radio]

 

[MALE RADIO ANNOUNCER]

The ear is the human organ, the public speaker is most likely to try to impress as he makes a speech.

 

[radio static]

 

[JENNIFER]
And naturalize this way. The white way of hearing has been in America for many decades, if not a century and a half or more, the way to be as a human.

 

[MALE RADIO ANNOUNCER]

People can be interested in new ideas when those ideas are expressed in well selected words, but did you ever consider how many jobs depend on your ability to express yourself to a group of people? Whether it’s the former owner of project, or a judge on the bench, or a salesman, it’s important to be a good speaker. And when you speak well, you get along better with people. Whether it’s persuading them to come along and have fun at a wiener roast, or trying to be a better citizen at school or in the community.

 

[JENNIFER]
And so challenging that and getting an opening of multiple perspectives and multiple interpretations of the same sound is really important.

 

[static continues on a loop]


And even the idea say, of a quiet neighborhood as the goal.

 

[upbeat music plays through the old radio]

 

[MALE RADIO ANNOUNCER]

The suburbs.

 

[JENNIFER]

there’s a way that race and class meet in that, and that brownness, blackness is associated with noise and sound, and the way that neighborhood soundscapes are policed.

 

[nature sounds with kids yelling and playing]

 

The way that noise complaints are called on neighbors that often start a whole chain of potentially dangerous legal implications and problems.

 

[nature and kid noises fade out as ethereal music fades in]

 

These conversations need to be opened up, not imposed based on a white middle class sensibility. So really, kind of shaking up and realizing the partiality of white listening for white listeners. It sounds simple, but it’s actually quite difficult to do, and I work on that in my teaching all the time.

 

[ethereal music fades out]

 

[CRIS]
As a literary scholar, one of Stoever’s techniques is to engage with African American literature as a storehouse of historical sound. One example being a close reading of Richard Wright, author of Uncle Tom’s Children, Black Boy and Native Son.

 

[JENNIFER]
I’ve come to think of certain kinds of music in particular as being sonic traces of listening experiences and DJ’s as communicators of ways of listening. I realized when I dropped into Richard Wright’s Native Son, I was receiving similar transmission of listening practices.

 

[man imitates an alarm clock as upbeat jazzy music fades in]

 

[CRIS]
An alarm clock clang in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked. A woman’s voice sang out impatiently. This is the first three lines of Native Son. All establishing the scene through sound.

 

[JENNIFER]
Bigger Thomas moving through the streets of 1940s late 1930s segregated Chicago. We were, as readers, invited to listen as hard as we can to how bigger heard the city and realizing that many of his cues and many of the most important metaphors and imagery in the book comes through sound. That Bigger can walk across the street from his extremely noisy apartment complex in the tenement I should say kitchenette really in the in Bronzeville, in South Side, and then move across the street to the Dalton mansion in the very wealthy, white neighborhood in Hyde Park, and everything becomes quiet.

 

[upbeat jazz fades out and ethereal music fades in]


This seems very natural. We’ve come to naturalize that inner city neighborhoods are noisy that wealthy neighborhoods are quiet but what Right does is to show us that it’s the overcrowding of the neighborhood that makes it noisy. It’s the lack of protection or controls on industry and conditions of segregation create that metallic noisiness something that Laura Toledo calls “environmental racism.” That’s where the factories get put. That’s where the incinerators are. When he moves across the street that this quietness is not a natural state of affairs, but it’s extremely constructed, and that buffer is set up so that the residents do not encounter or have to think about the black neighborhood down the street, but they in fact own the building that Bigger lives in. That invites us to think about that these two spaces are connected that the sonic color line appears as a division but it’s really this link that we need to pick up and hear between these spaces.

 

[ethereal music fades out as mellow techno music fades in]

 

[MACK]
Hey everyone, its Mack Hagood. Here at Phantom Power, we are so fortunate to have generous funding from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Among other things, this means that we don’t have to implore you to buy a new mattress or join a sock of the month club. If you’re a regular podcast listener, you know what I’m talking about. So luckily, we don’t have to do that. We do however, have one small ask. Just go to iTunes and leave us a review and a rating. We’d really appreciate it. It’s a great way for the people who are funding this show to know that folks really are listening to it, and it’s also a great way for more people to learn about phantom power. Thank you.

 

[mellow techno music fades out]

 

[CRIS]

We’re going back now to Mack’s conversation with Jennifer Stoever, author of the Sonic Color Line out on NYU press. As Jennifer mentioned earlier, her book attempt not only to explain racialized listening in America, but also to trace its history. She does so by assembling a historical archive of texts, slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, newspaper reviews of black and white opera singers in the 19th century, the writing of WEB Dubois and Richard Wright, musical recordings, radio dramas featuring the Jubilee singers, Lead Belly, Lead Better, and Lena Horne. By examining these as texts, Stoever shows how the sonic color line evolved and how African Americans documented, theorized, and resisted America’s dominant cultural politics of listening.

 

[MACK]
There are these different moments that you point out where it becomes really important to listen for race to people who are invested in racial divisions, because the paradigm of the visual ality of race actually gets undermined. The first of these occasions in the book has to do with just the mere fact that so many white slave owners were raping the African American women on their plantations and having mixed race children. Then we get into the one drop conception of blackness and all of this where it becomes difficult for people to discern by the eye what race someone is, right?

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes, And, the fugitive slave law I think was also part of that too, when the nation in the 1850s at the same time was then, the entire nation was turned into essentially slave territory, in part by that act. It also caused a discernment of can you detect if someone’s slave or free by listening? Those two things I think working together began to create this language of what blackness sounds like.

 

[ethereal music fades in]

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was telling people privately that Barack Obama’s campaign would be helped because he was, quote, a light skinned African American with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one. Should he resigned?

 

[WOMAN ON NEWS]

I don’t think so. The President has accepted the apology and it would seem to me that the matter should be closed.

 

[ethereal music fades out]

 

[JENNIFER]
Blackness and race and sound were then associate and then also at the same time, then what does whiteness sound like?

 

[MACK]
This sonic color line at this point, it’s doing more than just defining and judging what it means to sound black. Also, it’s this subliminal process by which whites are figuring out what it means to sound white without without even consciously thinking about it.

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes, yes, absolutely. this happens a lot in music and studies of music that when we talk about race and sound, it’s about blackness, it’s about brownness, it’s about the other as having a racialized sound.

 

[MACK]
The sonic color line is doing other kinds of work. Now it’s not simply a way of sort of disciplining and identifying black bodies and black voices. It also becomes this way of essentializing them, like this way of making them exotic of sexualizing them, making them profitable to white people. I’m thinking here about the great musician Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly.

 

[country music out of an old radio plays]


His relationship with the folklorist and record producer John Lomax. Can you talk a little bit about their relationship, those two men?

 

[JENNIFER]

Well, I actually want to start with with Lead Belly, and he actually hated that nickname and that’s why in the book I most often talk about Ledbetter and use his name because that nickname was given to him in prison. Lomax insisted on it because he saw him being you know his imprisonment as a kind of racial authenticity. John Lomax was a folk collector and grew up in Texas and he would travel. He worked for the Library of Congress and various other organizations and saw himself as the great preserver of black folk culture.

 

[country music fades out]

Lomax quite disturbingly saw prison as a way of preserving folk culture. He would often travel to prisons because the convict system, which really is an extension of enslavement, and a new form of enslavement, where black men would be picked up for petty crimes, quote unquote, vagrancy,
etc, etc, and then in prison for inordinate amounts of time and then used on a chain gang as labor.

[folk singinging starts]

 


He would see them as they were segregated and cut off from the radio and all of these modern technologies that he felt were ruining the folk culture. He didn’t like blues and jazz that were being played on the radio or mass produced through records. He actually saw these kinds of musical exchanges as corrupting this kind of purity but then what does it mean? So little concern for the men that were producing these, and he just saw them as producers of music, not human beings. He didn’t do anything to try to dismantle the convict lease system and so when he says he met Lead Belly there and you know quote unquote discovered him as a great talent.

 

[folk music cuts out]

 

He would often force Lead Belly to perform in prison gear that actually in my research I found hadn’t been used in the state of Alabama for a decade because even the government at the time found it to be dehumanizing. Lomax felt that he was, and this is where the essentizing comes in and this is part of the naturalising of criminality with blackness, was constructing a racial image. He felt he was reflecting it and representing it, but it was a very dangerous thing to do.

 

[MACK]

This was the early days of something that persists to this day, which is white men sort of assessing and determining what authentic black musical culture is.

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes, I’m feeling a kind of possessiveness and ownership over this authentic image.

 

[MACK]
Yeah, yeah, I mean, I hear it today of lamenting that African American people have turn their backs on the music of John Coltrane or whatever, in favor of hip hop. I mean, this is still something you hear all the time.

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes. And I mean, even  in hip hop, what is the real hip hop and real hip hop is political, and hip hop uses samples.

[Lead Belly music plays through an old radio]


Lead Belly was an incredible musician. He had, as it’s been reported, over 500 songs committed to memory. He really viewed himself in the tradition in the south of what’s called a song stir that he would travel from place to place that he would be very attentive to his audience and play songs that they would relate to that and he would switch this depending on where he was. He very much wanted to be a pop star in the vein at the time of Gene Autry and had his own goals and desires and really wanted to cross musical boundaries, but was bound through a contract with Lomax until 1939. This contract, actually prefigures what are called 360 deals now in the music industry where Lomax had control over where he played. Lead Belly couldn’t book shows without Lomax’s permission, in addition to the fact that Lomax made the lion’s share of the profits. This idea that he controlled Lead Belly’s entire image and doing anything that Lomax would deem inauthentic was him really exerting this, back to the listening ear, this proprietary ownership over Lead Belly, the person not just Lead Belly, the music. The music becomes a way to express this desire and need for control and containment of black music and through this kind of fetishising.

 

[Lead Belly’s music fades out]


That I think is what really shifts from the 19th century into the 20th century is that consumption of blackness for the white listening ear becomes about a certain kind of pleasure that in the 19th century was a different experience. There was almost immediate dismissal of black music as noise, where in the 20th century if it’s noise for many people, it has profitable currency because of the sonic color line and because of the pleasure for white listeners of transgressing without losing their position in the racial hierarchies of the US.

 

[MACK]
Ledbetter goes on to be covered by pretty much I mean, it’s astounding how influential his music was. Frank Sinatra, Led Zeppelin did a version of his song “Gallus Poll.”

 

[cover of Gallus Poll plays then fades out]


If you listen to Led Belly’s original…

 

[Original Gallus Poll plays]

 

It kind of blows Jimmy Page away and he’s doing it on a 12 string guitar which seems so difficult.

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes.

 

[Gallus Poll continues then fades out]


There’s been a lot of discussion in England about the skiffle revival and that that was part of the circulation of Lead Belly’s music to England George Harrison sites him as who also plays the 12 string, plays the 12 string sometimes as an influence in that regard as well and none of which monetarily are enough. Lead Belly has very poor health and died young. He was very much on the economic edge his whole life and so he never really saw any kind of… I mean props are amazing but you cannot eat props though.

 

[MACK]
It is interesting because Lomax was attracted to Lead Belly because he heard something from the past or at least he thought he did, but Lead Belly’s influence shows that he was playing something from the future. Even into the grunge era like a Nirvana covered “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and if you just listen to the guitar part on that song it just sounds so modern.

 

[Nirvana song plays then fades out]

It completely makes sense that a band like Nirvana would use it and Cobain said that Lead Belly was very influential on the band and I’m of the same generation is as Cobain and I remember being in high school and sort of obsessively listening to Lead Belly in Robert Johnson records in high school and hearing something that felt really true to me and or in vital, painful authentic. This is where I get some confusion because is this a way that white men have found empathy in resonance with black experiences or is it actually a reinstantiation of the sonic color line a way of marking what is supposed to be an authentic black sound? I’m just asking for a friend here.

[Mack and Jennifer laugh]

 

[JENNIFER]
There’s some question about…the sonic color line is about the commercializing of and the capitalizing of black pain. What happens when you turn black pain into a commodity and I think that’s really central to this authenticity is a form of arrest and a form of limitation of forcing a kind of boundary. It’s also a way of bracketing. If you can bracket that power from the past, then it erases the contemporary connections and it’s a challenging question like I say in the book. I actually dedicate at the beginning the book to fishbone.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, I love fishbone.

 

[JENNIFER]

Oh, I love them too. They were as I say in there, my first and funkiest is critical race theorists.

 

[fishbone plays]

 

Through fishbone and the way that  listening to fishbone opens up my ear to not just many different kinds of music, but the potential and the fusion and connection between them. That’s the very reason why the music industry failed fishbone in the sense. It was never consistently ska or funk or heavy metal. The band really found these points of intersection and merging of the sounds that we can’t label you and therefore we can’t sell you.

 

[fishbone ends]


So music has that potential and because it has that potential to open up listeners ears.

 

[ethereal music fades in]


That’s why the sonic color lines there. It’s to contain that power that music has.

 

[ethereal music fades out]

 

[MACK]
I want to skip forward to this second moment when the listening ear and this sort of listening for race becomes very important. So there was the earlier stage during slavery and trying to discern if you couldn’t discern visually what race someone was trying to listen for race. Then we get into this new era where we get the scientific knowledge that race really isn’t biological.

 

[JENNIFER]

Yes.

 

[MACK]

Yet, this sort of ironically, actually seems to recharge the sonic color line. So you’ve mentioned color blindness earlier in our discussion, but can you kind of talk a little bit more about what color blindness is, when it began, and how it kind of amped up the the listening ear.

 

[JENNIFER]
Color blindness is the belief and it’s the reigning racial formation of the US and the late 20th century and up through our contemporary moment is the idea that race can be fundamentally ignored.

 

[WOMAN ON REALITY TV SHOW]

Call me crazy but I just don’t see race.

 

[JENNIFER]

The metaphor for color blindness is that if we cannot see skin color as a factor, then it follows that a race free society or society free from racism will emerge.

 

[WOMAN ON REALITY TV SHOW]

I guess I’m just the least racist person here.

 

[MAN ON REALITY TV SHOW]

Ok.

 

[JENNIFER]

This is impossible and, as a matter of fact, that creates and enables a new layer of racism to emerge. In fact, the more dangerous one because then you can no longer talk overtly about race.

 

[MAN ON TV SHOW]
You’re only telling yourself that so you don’t have to think about racism or confront your own prejudices.

 

[JENNIFER]

The only way that the colorblindness could take root as an ideology is that the race has to transfer and move somewhere else, and that if sound allows racism to do that.

 

[TV static]

 

If racial profiling is only thought of as a visual entity, what does it mean to stop a car because of the kind of music that’s playing, or what does it mean to use accents to determine citizenship?

 

[TV static fades out]

 

[MACK]

This notion of color blindness it’s an ostensibly liberal move, right? I mean, but it really turns blackness into a choice that’s the wrong choice. Something to be listened for, it becomes “well are you going to join the great middle class standard way of being or aren’t you?” and if you choose not to there’s something wrong with you.

 

[old timey music plays in the background]

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes, World War Two and the Cold War was an essential part of this realignment of kind of body and and voice that what we think of color blindness as a 90s thing or even a 70s thing that color blindness was part of the effort by the American government to recruit people of color to the armed forces, that there is a kind of inclusion that’s offered through color blindness that if race is no longer a factor than everyone can be American but at the same time, skin color no longer bars you and visual appearance no longer bars you from being American, but  maybe everyone can sound quote unquote American. Then it becomes about this kinds of disciplining, of the voice disciplining of listening to hear and have those kinds of middle class sensibilities and this idea of kind of standardization through voice speech, music, musical taste. It starts in that Cold War moment.

 

[MAN #1 ON TV]
Well, since you want to talk so very badly, I guess I’m not going to have much trouble getting you to talk into this machine. Alright now, who’s going to be the first to try this out, huh? How about Moralis? What’s the matter with Moralis?

 

[MAN #2 ON TV]

Sure, Moralis, he loves to talk.

 

[MAN #1]

Now  Tomita, suppose you step up here and try it.

 

[MAN #2]

You against Morales because you don’t talk good english?

 

[MAN #1]

That has nothing to do with.

 

[MACK]

one of the things that I think is so interesting about your writing on this is that you connect this to the technology of the radio and so this is another one of those things where just like listening, we generally think that technology is neutral but you really think a lot about the way that radio fed into color blindness and this standardization of speech.

 

[JENNIFER]

There are very few representations visually, literarily, in the radio research on black listenership and then thinking about well, wait a minute, there’s this overlying, very entrenched discourse on the 30s and 40s as the Golden Age, quote unquote, golden age of American radio.

 

[sound of radio tuning into a station]

 

[MAN ON RADIO]
From a humble beginning in a Pittsburgh garage, to the sumptuous studios of the national radio networks in New York, Chicago and Hollywood. These are the years we refer to as the golden age of radio.

 

[song plays on the radio]

 

[JENNIFER]
It’s important to understand how and why that came about, and how and why it’s also seems to perfectly align with the worst and most segregated both legally and de facto in US history. So how can we then refer to, or think about this as a golden age, given this level of exclusion? The Make America Great Again, campaign, I think, is very much tied to these nostalgic images of white radio, listening in the 40s and 50s.

 

[radio music fades out as ethereal music fades in]


How were black artists actively excluded from the radio, and not just actively excluded, but their performance and their representation, tightly controlled, and the fact that the belief in technology as neutral as just something that is and  thinking about radio itself. There’s a huge discourse about radio as blind and connecting that to color blindness, that you can’t see race over the radio, and that it’s this open, equitable space. A lot of the Cold War propaganda was saying exactly that. Thank God our airwaves are free and open. They’re not like Germany, but also it really ignores the way in which racial hierarchy was driving the industry and the way that the industry was thoroughly segregated down to separate musicians unions for black and white musicians. Black musicians, did not get nearly as much work as white musicians.

 

[ethereal music fades out]


Many, many people, when I give presentations or teach are surprised to find out how black actors, the dialect was scripted for them. Many black actors were quote unquote, taught this way of speaking by white producers. That there again, I think that price of admission of getting working roles on the radio with having to speak in dialect and this very dialect that no one speaks. Having to speak this white, imagined language of what black sounds like.

 

[radio show fades in]

 

[MAN ON RADIO]
Take it easy. Take it easy. Don’t get so excited.

 

[WOMAN ON RADIO]

Yes, but Mr. Marlin, you know what…

 

[MAN ON RADIO]

I love you, relax. Now go out and come in again.

 

[WOMAN ON RADIO]

Yes sir.

 

[sound of woman leaving the room, audience laughing.]

 

[WOMAN #2 ON RADIO]

Now Marlin, that’s ridiculous.

 

[MAN ON RADIO]
Well, she’s got to learn to control herself. This will be good for her.

 

[WOMAN ON RADIO]

Mr. Marlin, may I speak with you sir?

 

[audience laughter]

 

[MAN ON RADIO]

Yes Bueller. Now you see what I mean?

 

[WOMAN #2]

Yes, go ahead Bueller.

 

[WOMAN #1]

Well, when you hear what happened, I was down at the grocery store.

 

[audience laughter]

 

[JENNIFER]
Again, normalizing and naturalising it for a huge swath of American listeners. Microphones weren’t weren’t colorblind as so many of the radio industry executives seem to feel, but the belief that they were is really telling, and it’s shaped a lot of how we’ve come to understand race through sound that way.

 

[MACK]
Well, in fact, the invisibility of the performer charges the racialized listening. You listen more closely for race because you don’t know. You can’t see what race the person is.

 

[JENNIFER]

That’s exactly it. One of the great fears of radio producers was that black performers would be indistinguishable from white performers. That’s why Wonderful Smith was fired from the “Red Skelton Show”, because it was a sketch show, and he was slipping in and out and changing character so often, and that this racial boundary, this aro ratio boundary could not be reliably maintained. He was also himself asserting his agency and constantly challenging it.

 

[MACK]

Which shows colorblindness to be a lie, because the whole premise here is that if you will just, pay the price of admission and speak correctly and behave in a bourgeois middle class way, then we will ignore your race  and all will be good. Then you get performers who actually do this, and then that becomes so threatening to white identity that they have to be fired.

 

[JENNIFER]

In fact, the dialect from the very beginning and Gavin Jones is a scholar that has been working on this for many years, and white southerness and black southerness sounded alike, almost indistinguishable, and that’s exactly where the dialect comes in. To separate the sense of white and black, to draw those boundaries and to enforce and to create the sense of a difference.

 

[slow, jazzy music plays as a woman starts to sing]


Lena Horne. She’s middle class New York, Brooklyn. She was one of those artists that challenges the sonic color line and really challenging this enforcement of what blackness sounded like.

 

[song continues]

Lena Horne’s voice posed a dilemma, in that her voice fit neither of the kind of stereotypical white nor stereotypically black.

 

[different jazz song plays]

It was this voice that challenged both of those imposisions. It had a kind of racial fluidity. Lena Horne had a kind of, many people described it as a kind of coldness to her voice, that she was aloof. Yet, even with this, the white press tried to racialize Lena as a blues singer, and she was definitely not a blues singer by any stretch. What does it mean again, that this listening ear then has to label her according to this racialized music genre, and black listeners heard Lena Horne as a beautiful singer. What does it mean then to kind of think about and discuss the beauty of her voice in relation to her body. There’s a very different discourse about Lena Horne’s voice in the white press, and the black press.

 

[jazz song continues, then ends]

The sonic color line is not about accuracy. It’s not about an accurate description of diverse racial identities. It’s actually about the reduction of race to the idea that there can be this firm boundary between blackness and whiteness, and then other racial identities then have to contend with these polls.

 

[ethereal music fades in]

 

[MACK]
The racial makeup and dynamics of the country are a lot more complex than this, and yet this is where we always seem to come back.

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. This isn’t to say that this is the only Sonic color line or that race and sound does not impact Asian Americans and indigenous peoples. As a matter of fact, and this can be a point of solidarity in terms of organizing against racism and an equity but yet, like you said, here we are again. How do we jam the signal of this black white binary and the inequity, it’s wreaked on all of us?

 

[ethereal music continues, then fades.]

 

[upbeat techno music plays]

 

[CRIS]
That’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks again to Jennifer Lynn Stoever. You can learn more about the Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve heard and talk about the Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you to rate and review us on Apple podcasts. Tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook or give us a shoutout on Twitter as PhantomPod. Today’s show featured music by Grim Gibson and Blue the Fifth. Our interns are Natalie Cooper, Nicole Keshock, and Adam Witmer and a special thanks and bon voyage to Nicole who is graduating. Thanks for your great work on the new website. Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center the National Endowment for humanities.

 

[upbeat techno music fades out]

 

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]

 

[CRIS]

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 HAGOOD]

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

 

[LAWRENCE ENGLISH, 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 you know, 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!

 

[MACK]

I’m familiar with his work. I always thought of him as the Drone Guy, you know 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 cut 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.

 

[sound of wind lightly blowing]

 

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.

 

[background sound cuts out]

 

[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, and 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, flutes,  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.

 

[music and sounds fade out]

 

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. Includes sounds of small bells, bugs chirping, and people talking]

 

[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 then 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 certain things that, 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 quite interesting ways.

 

[sounds of bugs and birds chirping continue in the background]

 

[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.

 

[background noises fade out]

 

 [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.  

 

[sounds of nature continue]

 

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]

 

But the microphone has no interest in the bird or the highway. It’s just interested in capturing sound.

 

[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, right? 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 physiocentric 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.

 

[water sounds continue]

 

[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] almost like 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]

 

[CHRIS, 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 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 into 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.

 

[string music fades into the background]

 

[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 and different kinds of value systems, 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.

 

[music continues]

 

Partly, Judith Butler’s most recent books about public assembly, this idea of a sort of performative language for public assembly, I think 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.

 

[music continues, sounding more intense]

 

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 in 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 beautiful headland and [inaudible] which is a very significant indigenous site, and people we invited to come sleep on the beach, 200, 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 probably 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 with people, 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.

[laughing]

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 those very 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 sort of 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 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 rate and review 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.

 

 

[music continues then fades out]

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. 

 

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