Writer, musician and activist Christopher DeLaurenti on sonic protest and his field recordings of social change.
May 1 2012: It was dusk. One of many Occupy Wall Street marches in New York City had fanned out, trickling through the runnels of towers downtown to a giant marble monument close to the river. Dusk awakened my ears and dimmed my vision. “Sound gives us the city in matter and memory,” writes Fran Tonkiss; streets and buildings lost their uneeded names. Not owners, but gatherings of people, sound, and listening defined this place.
“Welcome home!” The consciously echoed voices you hear become the People's Microphone. This human repetition and acoustic amplification of announcements, testimonies, and ideas evade New York's suspiciously inconsistent noise ordinances. Surging waves of words echo and enjamb every phrase: “Our battle,” “is not against,” “flesh and blood,” “but against,” “powers and principalities...”
Unlike chants at sporting events, every echoing group of voices has its own timbre, spatial location, and variably passionate presence. What we hear is for us, not someone's corporation. Beyond the bland term “collective listening,” you're hearing an aural model of governing consensus and perhaps the germinal sound of an unselfish social network.
Activist Sound is one way to describe the sound pieces, performances, and installations I make from field recordings of protests, testimonies, and other pertinent sonic materials of social change. In my longer works, I'm a reporter who writes novels in sound. I listen to find out whether what we hear harbors the power to suspend and offer alternatives to the basic as well as superstructural assumptions, habits, and actions which implicitly guide our lives.
I recommend burning the word-flags. In 1944, Igor Stravinsky was harassed by the Boston police department for tampering with national property, ie re-arranging the USA's dreadful-to-sing national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Inspired by Stravinsky's mug shot in 2003, I failed to sing my “Anthem,” a short song which intermingles and transposes lyrics and melodic fragments from various American patriotic songs, including “Banner,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and so on.
If economics is merely a virulent, money-obsessed strain of anthropology, then perhaps words, when subjected to similar violence, can encode transtemporal prophecies. According to William S Burroughs, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out.”
Does Activist Sound have any practical uses? Here's one of many: What some have called “protest porn,” frank sections of cruelty and battle, do more than merely document our selectively enforced right to assemble. During the last decade, political organisers have told me that sections of my album N30: Live At The WTO Protest November 30, 1999 helped acclimate novice protestors to the chaos and trauma when law enforcement attacks. “It's not music,” said one, “it's a training manual.” And an aural antidote to Hollywood.
For many of us, our experience of confrontation comes from Hollywood blockbuster films. The well-organised and elegantly EQd soundscapes of Hollywood movies usually lie, telling us that gunshots don't deafen and louder batons hurt more than muffled jabbing thrusts. In movies, crowds are to be feared, and no wonder: Where's the close up for the star? Yet what Elias Canetti in Crowds And Power called the “excited flux” of a crowd whose “sense of itself is more spontaneous” is not a uniform entity to be feared; instead I experience (and try to record) an ad hoc autonomous zone of ineffable emotional polyphony.
Listening bestows hard-to-hold gifts. “We're here for you,” says a voice to the impassioned gentleman on the street; he's publicly sharing his anguish about the killing of Trayvon Martin, a victim of racism and Florida's Wild West “stand your ground” law. I tried to be there for you, sir; after failing then, I hope preserving your testimony is at least a meagre way to defy the silence (or one-line news item) which envelops too many of the poor, non-white kids who die every day.
I know I'm documenting only a handful of the voices who inspire me to work and improve the world. Listening cannot bandage a wound and feed someone, but it can expose the behaviors, choices, and culprits who allow the bad news – poverty, property, war, and naive, faultless money – to continue. I'm not worried about John Cage's caution about making things worse. We are already there. The world is too much with us. It is dusk.
I know I am not innocent. The best antidote to guilt is action. I make this work to liberate myself, to teach myself to listen, and to cope with living in a narrowing world.
Here's my favorite formulation of listening as a subcutaneous liberation theology: Charles Mingus told Nat Hentoff in the 1950s, “People are getting so fragmented, and part of that is that fewer and fewer people are making a real effort any more to find exactly who they are and to build on that knowledge. Most people are forced to do things they don’t want to most of the time, and so they get to the point where they feel they no longer have any choice about anything important, including who they are. We create our own slavery. But I’m going to keep on getting through, and finding out the kind of man I am, through my music. That’s the one place I can be free.”
Ultra-red 10 Preliminary Theses On Militant Sound Investigation, Printed Matter, 2008
Nat Hentoff and Lewis Porter, At The Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years On The Jazz Scene, University of California Press, 2011
Fran Tonkiss, “Aural Postcards” in The Sound Studies Reader, Routledge, 2012
Earroom, “Christopher DeLaurenti Interviewed By Mark Peter Wright” August 6, 2013
Elias Canetti, Crowds And Power, Continuum, 1973
Morse Peckham, Explanation And Power, Seabury Press, 1979
R Murray Schafer, “I Have Never Seen A Sound” in Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, 2006
Christopher DeLaurenti, “On Phonography: A Response To Michael Rüsenberg” in Soundscape, Fall/Winter 2005
Hildegard Westerkamp, “Soundscape Composition(1) : Linking Inner And Outer Worlds” 1999
Gabi Schaffner, “The Madness Of The Documentarist” in Field Notes issue 2, 2009
Pauline Oliveros “The Poetics Of Environmental Sound” in The Book Of Music And Nature, Wesleyan, 2001
Dion Workman, "Free Music, Literally" Antiopic Allegorical Power Series, July 2003
DeLaurenti's recent and forthcoming albums include: Phonopolis: Urban Field Recordings Vol 1 (Masters Chemical Society), Seattle Phonographers Union's Building 27 (Prefecture Records), No Sound Is Stolen: Fair Use Music 1983–2013 (Alterity 101) and Three Tunnels (GD Stereo).
Most of his work is free at delaurenti.net