media

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

[♪ ethereal music playing ♪]

 

[CRIS CHEEK]

This… is… Phantom Power.

 

[MACK HAGOOD]

Episode One.

 

[CRIS]

Dead Air.

 

[RODRIGO TOSCANO]

You know, silence…

 

[JOHN BIGUENET]

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

 

[CRIS]

The signal drops out.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

Dead air.

 

[MACK]

[laughing]

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

 

[♪ record crackles, loud bells chiming ♪]

 

[JOHN]

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

 

[♪ bells chime again ♪]

 

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

 

[record crackling]

 

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

 

[papers crinkle]

 

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

 

[footsteps and pant legs swishing]

 

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

 

[door opens, footsteps]

 

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

 

[door closing]

 

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

 

[papers swishing, low murmuring, typing]

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

[Singing, whispering, ominous music]

 

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

 

[music and sounds fade]

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

Right.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

Right, it does, yeah

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

Call and response.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

Hmm.

 

[CRIS]

and the exophone, the voice that leaves the body.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

Right, right.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

Speed reading.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

Right.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

I like that too.

 

[MACK]

Different kinds of silences.

 

[CRIS]

Absolutely.

 

[MACK]

So maybe we should, uh, keep listening.

 

[JOHN]

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

 

[♪ helicopter whirring, bell music ♪]

 

(recording of unidentified female reporter)

 

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

 

[JOHN]

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

 

[background music]

 

(unidentified male reporter)

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

 

[JOHN]

 

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

 

[♪ bell music, helicopter sounds ♪]

 

(unidentified male reporter)

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

 

[JOHN]

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

 

[whispering in the background]

 

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

 

[♪ ethereal bell music♪ ]

 

[JOHN]

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

 

[static]

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

[laughing]

Yeah.

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah.

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[previous recording]

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[RODRIGO]

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

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[RODRIGO]

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

 

[CRIS]

Uh huh, velcro.

 

[RODRIGO]

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

 

[CRIS]

Right, right

 

[RODRIGO]

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

 

[whispering and buzzing noises]

 

[RODRIGO]

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

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[RODRIGO]

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

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[RODRIGO]

You know that something’s wrong.

 

[CRIS]

Can it be a different amplitude?

 

[RODRIGO]

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

 

[CRIS]

Yeah. Thank you.

 

[RODRIGO]

Yeah.

 

[buzzing and whispering fades]

[end of recording]

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

Yeah, that’s an embodied memory.

 

[MACK]

Yeah.

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

Right, right.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

Yeah.

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[MACK]

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

 

[CRIS]

Right. Another kind of silence.

 

[MACK]

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

 

[♪ slow, jazzy music ♪]

 

[CRIS]

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

 

[a long pause]

 

[inhaling]

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

 

[silence]

 

[♪ music resumes♪ ]

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

[MACK]

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

 

 

[end transcription]