Tag: field recordings

Sonic Cartography II: Questions of Scale

The last blog entry looked at ways a foreigner can find the pulse of a city and help focus local listening, re-evaluation, and discussion. After creating works that grew out of single keynote sounds, new questions arose for me. How could one create a sound map of an entire province? How literal and comprehensive would that map need to be? How could recordings of diverse acoustical spaces exist in a gallery? A commission from Documenta 14 to create Matanzas Sound Map provided the opportunity to explore these questions.

One approach I experimented with in making an audio piece that surveyed an entire province was to play with the scale of perceived acoustical space. Recordings of open landscape were used to create the illusion that an indoor sound installation expanded far beyond the gallery walls. We hear the close-up drone of insect chatter, scattered aviary calls marking territory in the wetlands at dawn, and a distant railroad bell. Listening to this rural audio space creates an illusion of being transported from the urban setting of the gallery and into a vast natural habitat. Changing the scale of the acoustical space can be disorienting and heighten visitors’ attention to what they hear.

Leonard recording recording with Ambisonic microphone in the Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs)

Leonard recording recording with Ambisonic microphone in the Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs), the site where a Cuban American paramilitary group invaded the island in 1961.

Later in the Documenta installation, after establishing this sense of vast space, listeners are transported to an urban soundscape where a former stevedore sings songs of the Abakua secret society, domino players erupt in outbursts as they argue the rules of the game, and a bartender tells of his mesmerizing dream of recreating a vintage 1945 tavern centered around a 78-rpm jukebox. There are no audible vanishing points in these spaces; the scale matches that of the gallery. Before we know it, our sense of place is redefined by the smaller space where the people who we hear seem to be within reach.

A helpful strategy in weaving disparate sounds into one cohesive map was to play with connections made during audio transitions. In one instance, the chatter of the forest fades to musicians singing a song that traveled from the Cross River between Nigeria and Cameroon, through the transatlantic passage, to the ports of Havana and Matanzas. The stevedore’s connection to water is a trope in the group’s songs, and this trope informed my transitions between field recordings, chants, and songs.

Bata drummer

Bata drummer playing the lead Iya drum, in the temple of Yemaya, in former plantation of Álava in the Matanzas province of Cuba

Cross-fading between the sounds of humans, animals, insects, wind through the forest began to evoke for me the paintings of Cuban artist Manuel Mendive. Mendive’s images center on the sensual interaction of beings that are a mix of human, animal, and plant life. One figure may have the head of a bird and the body of a man. A tree might be nurturing people with its breasts and simultaneously being plucked of its fruit by a hovering bird. Without being aware of it at first, my work began to parallel Mendive’s paintings of folkloric myth and metaphor. People, animals, and landscape sounds were sonically blended and the assembly took a turn to become more of a dreamlike map of associations.

When an artist makes field recordings directed by his or her own interests and intuition, the results are shaped by those biases as much as the environment being sampled.

Finally, I had to question how to place myself in the map. When an artist makes field recordings directed by his or her own interests and intuition, the results are shaped by those biases as much as the environment being sampled. I find myself up at dawn, waiting like a hunter for that one call of an elusive owl. My breathing is unusually slow as I wait, as motionless as possible to avoid startling the wildlife. The focus of my attention shifts to the distant traffic, waiting for it to stop, so I can wade into the ocean and record the most detailed sound of bubbles fizzing as a small wave breaks. My sensation of hearing is heightened as I suppress the desire to talk to my local guides.

Additionally, in this age of anxiety around authenticity and appropriation, I questioned how to highlight my subjective experience, as “inauthentic” or out of place as it might be. I sought to express something of the wonder I felt, not just experiencing new sounds on site, but also learning the context in which those sounds exist. For example, in building the Matanzas Sound Map, I attempted to distill the feeling that arose as I walked through the former plantation of Álava, once owned by the Don Zulueta, the richest man in mid-19th-century Cuba. The sugar trade that provided sweetening and spirits for my native New England was being explained, and its songs, silences, and stories profoundly affected me as I dug deeper.

I created sounds for that internal experience in the studio. These pensive saxophone vignettes moved slowly, like clouds passing through the installation. The aforementioned transitions from rural landscape to urban voices were followed by a section comprising saxophone and electronic sounds, recorded to reflect some of the stillness and wonder I felt on site.

My multichannel sound/video installation The Other Map, excerpted for this post, demonstrates how recordings of nature, the human voice, and electronic recordings were sequenced to create a purposeful meditation on the sounds of Matanzas. Waves break gently in a rhythm suggestive of deep breathing. The voices of Andro Mella and Raphael Navaro follow, with extended silences I added between phrases to match the pacing of the waves. The excerpt ends with a saxophone and electronics vignette using the pacing of the ocean and meditative breathing. The video, shot on site, moves just as slowly and so appears to be digitally altered when in fact it, like the sound, is the result of weeks of extended observation and inquiry and noticing moments when reality appears to be an illusion.

The sonic cartography in these pieces relied on surveying a province in a purposeful way, engaging locals to help me understand the site’s history and to guide me to places where the sounds could be collected. This is much different than simply taking photos and video clips with my cellphone and pastiching a work together. Hopefully, as with the pieces discussed in the previous blog post, these sound maps will promote a focus on the specific environments and social milieu that produce these fantastic sounds.

Lago de Maya, Matanzas Province Cuba

Lago de Maya, Matanzas Province Cuba. This bridge was since washed away during Hurricane Irma

Sonic Cartography

My recent sound installations include sonic maps documenting how global marketing impacts our listening. These pieces were made in collaboration with bartenders, biologists, street criers, and dockworkers. Sometimes my work focuses on a single sound encountered by chance. At other times, a site’s social and political significance inspires me to look for a collection of sounds that speak to the site’s history. The result has been a series of multichannel installations, comprising a plane of sound—including keynote voices, landscape recordings, and songs—that invite discussion of how social or economic change can be heard on site.

Listening to the sounds of a new culture when traveling can provide amazing starting points for a piece. Away from home, curiosity, serendipity, and naïveté lead me to investigate sounds that have become commonplace to the locals. In Padua, Italy, I stumbled across Bar Romeo, a small tavern in the center of town where butchers, dressed in blood-stained smocks, sang fantastic a cappella songs, directed by a tailor who conducted with a prosecco flute for a baton. My local musicologist and composer friends had never heard of the bar, located less than a five-minute walk from their offices. These specialists assumed that the noise from radio and TV had all but decimated the practice of amateur singing bars. When I took them to Bar Romeo, they were astonished and were not able to fully decipher the thick dialect and coded lyrics of the antiquated tavern songs. When I asked the butchers if they would collaborate on a work, they answered, “We’ll make an entire opera!” In the end, it turned out to be a much smaller work, but the piece, conceived by the naïve ear of a traveler, sparked a discussion about the city’s disappearing tavern songs—a tradition that spanned back decades, if not centuries.

Bar Romeo

Still frame from Bar Romeo (2006) 1-channel video with sound. Neil Leonard (sound); Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (video).

In Cuba, there is a rich tradition of popular songs about street criers (pregoneros). My father had a 78-rpm disk of Louis Armstrong singing Moisés Simons’s “El Manicero” (“Peanut Vendor”). I heard the recording when I was in elementary school and can still remember Armstrong singing “Mani!!!” then dropping the lyrics and brilliantly scat-singing in place of the original Spanish words. Simons’s lyrics feature the peanut vendor singing his pregón (cry), within the song that Simons composed for us to hear. The sheet music of “El Manicero” is reported to have sold more than a million copies. The tune helped launch the mid-20th century rumba craze in the U.S. Dozens of covers of the tune appeared on recordings. Groucho Marx whistled the tune in Duck Soup. Cary Grant sang it in Only Angels Have Wings and Judy Garland sang a bit of it in A Star is Born. Along with “Guantanamera,” “El Manicero” is one of the iconic pop songs of Cuba.

Small businesses were illegal in Cuba through most of the revolutionary era, however, causing pregoneros to discreetly hawk their goods in silence. During the substantial time I spent in Cuba starting in 1986, I cannot remember hearing a single pregonero, until one day, in 2010, I saw a distinctively oversize man riding a large tricycle down the street in Matanzas City. He pedaled under the shade of an umbrella, chanting his pregónes to sell baguettes. I started recording immediately. Next came an exterminator selling a pesticide to kill “cockroaches, ants, and mother-in-laws.” The social soundscape of the entire island had changed the minute the law permitted small businesses to re-open and processions of pregoneros, theatrically pitching products, reemerged instantly across the entire island. As a foreigner, it was striking that the locals seemed to ignore the pregoneros. Local families were focused on finding a way to afford bread or other wares. Only a foreigner had the luxury of appreciating the carnivalesque antics of the pregoneros.

10-channel sound installation with 2-channel video. Neil Leonard (sound and video).

A subsequent performance piece, Llego Fefa, that I created in collaboration with Cuban visual artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and Havana pregoneros, made the front page of Granma, Cuba’s only national newspaper. Under a lead article featuring a photo of Raúl Castro embracing Hugo Chávez, a smaller news piece on the 11 Havana Biennial declared that our work did much to restore dignity to this core ancestral tradition, which was ignored in favor of survival needs or dismissed as an accessory to what had been a black market crime.

What I present as sonic cartography in these pieces is as much of a personal narrative, created as I survey and record a site. Back in the studio, as I assemble works, my feel for the site and associations help steer the process. I recall flinching upon hearing the almost inaudible flap of a bird’s wings darting inches above my head in an estuary at dawn. Or, struggling with my limited Italian, trying to ask a horse butcher about his songs. I remember the awe I experience upon hearing a stevedore singing songs of the docks for me from his living room sofa. My personal experience and biases are in the foreground and the work feels personal. The most satisfying moments then come as visitors hear the final map and share their own associations to the same materials. More than an accurate record of the site, the work is a dreamlike map of connections exploring our shared listening experience.

Sounds of Futures’ Past

I am afraid of the future.

Not for myself—I likely only have a few decades left, and there’s only so much that time can bring. But I have a daughter, a little girl, and it’s quite possible she will see the turn of the next century. There is no manifestation of our ongoing, 250-year process of terraforming that I will be able to protect her from, and that terrifies me.

What will she see—that is, if there is anyone left? More than a question of what the Earth will look like, I wonder what will be left of us, what we will leave behind. The Earth will abide; civilization is the open question.

Older, lost civilizations come down to us through objects that have managed to endure and that bear information: writing, images, symbols. Our own printed paper, painted images, and sculptures are also likely to last to some extent. I’m doubtful about the lifespan of these words that I’m writing. You are able to read them because of how fundamentally cheap digital media is, but that same cheapness means they are eminently disposable—they barely even exist. They’re just ordered bits on a storage device that can be erased, destroyed, or that will eventually, simply, de-cohere.

As much as for words, this is the contemporary and burgeoning state of music. Unlike older, lost civilizations that had no means to record and preserve audio, nor a method for notating musical instruction, we have been preserving sound for 150 years, and digital audio has been accumulating like an avalanche at easily the same speed as digital words.

Then there is all the physical media: vinyl, tape, CDs. Of these, tape is the most unstable, vinyl is fairly hardy if handled delicately, and CDs are predicted to last up to, or beyond, 200 years. And there are so many other places to find recorded audio: celluloid film, video game cartridges, Speak and Spell and other toys, the Mellotron.

But these are all based on technology and need a means with which to reproduce the sound, from a cylinder player to a set of AA batteries. As the massive, and especially plastic-based, manufactured detritus of consumer society accumulates, we are likely to leave behind stores, warehouses, veritable foot hills of this stuff. Will there be a means to play recordings, and will anyone be around to hear them? Just as recordings are ghostly hauntings from the past, so too will our sounds haunt the future. But which ones? What will be the sounds of the future’s past?

Not music, but sounds. Through the thousands of years of civilization, we have developed a large-scale, consistent, and constantly developing consensus on the nature of music, and we have made music, with deliberate intention, as a basic element of human society. While all sound recordings are a document of the past, all older music, from Haydn to Hendrix, is a document to some extent, a time capsule into the epochal currents and values that were the context for that melody, that rhythm, that set of chords.

Will music, in that sense, survive, and will it be recognized as such? Between a Bach CD and a bicycle bell found in a pile of garbage by some future scavenger, which is likely to be heard? For that future human, the bell will be the music of the ancients.

Walter M. Miller Jr. thought this through in his extraordinary 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. His context was different—the apocalyptic threat in the mid-20th century was nuclear war, not environmental catastrophe—but his fundamental question was the same: what of civilization would endure in the aftermath.

His answer was that the Catholic Church would survive in some way, with a new Vatican located somewhere in North America. Within the church, a new monastic order arises, dedicated to Saint Leibowitz. Before the war, the Saint was Isidore Leibowitz, an electrical engineer working in some capacity for the government. After, he was martyred during the Great Simplification, when the survivors destroyed any bit of learning and knowledge, burning books and people alike.

The original cover for Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz published in 1960.

The original cover for Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz published in 1960.

The Order of St. Leibowitz exists to preserve as much of the past as they can find, via the medieval method of copying by hand—it is the sacred Memorabilia. Everything matters, even if it is incomprehensible:

The monks waited. It mattered not at all to them that the knowledge they saved was useless, that much of it was not really knowledge now, was as inscrutable to the monks in some instances as it would be to an illiterate wild-boy from the hills; this knowledge was empty of content, its subject matter long since gone. Still, such knowledge had a symbolic structure that was peculiar to itself, and at least the symbol-interplay could be observed. To observe the way a knowledge-system is knit together is to learn at least a minimum knowledge-of-knowledge, until someday—someday, or some century—an Integrator would come, and things would be fitted together again. So time mattered not at all. The Memorabilia was there, and it was given to them by duty to preserve, and preserve it they would if the darkness in the world last ten more centuries, or even ten thousand years.

One monk, Brother Francis, finds sacred relics, including a shopping list: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.” One item is a circuit diagram, which he painstakingly copies, then illuminates, as a gift to the current Pope. He has no idea what it means, nor do any of his peers, the shapes nothing but “thingamabobs,” but to Francis it is both beautiful and marvelous and it is to be maintained and carried forward into the future, a fragment of old knowledge that might yet become integrated into a new civilization.

(In the end, civilization does arise again, in great part due to the efforts of the Order. In the conclusion, which is both horrific and poignantly hopeful, the monks continue their mission, just not on this planet.)

These visions of how the past views the post-apocalyptic future have likely been with us since man first imagined what the next day might bring. Their cultural legacy has survived primarily through writing and the visual arts, and in a mis-en-abime of the medium is the message, they focus on what the painter envisions, what stories the writer thinks will be told, and what surrounds us in the present day. And so J.G. Ballard, whose first novels chillingly (and perhaps presciently) predicted civilization’s destruction coming at the hands of wind, drought, melting ice caps, and scientific disaster, saw the gnostic literature of the present and future in billboards and news magazines.

This haunting, wrenching, agonizingly complex concept of a post-apocalyptic cultural legacy has certainly existed in music for thousands of years. Fragments of Medieval music concerned with the End of Days have come down to us, and apocalyptic thought began neither in Europe nor with Christianity. But the context of that music is the Second Coming, a redemptive and transformative event. And with no means to preserve the sounds of what was the present in the 10th century, nor that advantage of a post-Cageian concept of what constitutes music, there was no thought toward what the past might sound like to those who might come after.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, those thoughts are rapidly, if inchoately, encroaching. There is more to the exponential rise in drone music than just the prevalence of technology, there is a vision floating around in the zeitgeist of a world emptied of people. As Joanna Demers writes in her book Drone and Apocalypse (Zero Books, 2015), “Apocalypse as a cataclysm draws a line between the present and the future, presence and absence. It is an emptiness, a threat or a hope of a revelation … but it is unthinkable insofar as we cannot claim to have already lived it.”

But drone music and field recordings make it easy to think about the apocalypse. There is the music of corrosion and desolation made by William Basinksi, Herbst9, Lost Trail, Patrick Emm, and Howard Stelzer. Beyond the dolorous calm of drones and the strangely comforting sounds of emptiness, the subliminal aura of vast machinery functioning without human supervision, there is in particular cases (especially Basinski) the use of decaying technology and media.

Philosophically and aesthetically, this music is a companion to the final movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6, a narrative that contemplates nuclear annihilation and a landscape emptied of humanity. Our specific, contemporary anxieties make that movement, and the long line of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, sound like explorations of entropy.

This music is post-apocalyptic in the sense that it is music for a transformed and empty future. For what a future Brother Francis might hear, and might believe (not incorrectly) that we heard—for just what might appear to the future as the music of the past—listen to Fossil Aerosol Mining Project. Without intending, this long-standing and quasi-anonymous collective is an Order of St. Leibowitz of sound, making audio “symbolic structures” out of literal shards and fragments of civilization.

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project's earliest public release was the 1987 cassette-only Simulated Mutation.

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project’s earliest public release was the 1987 cassette-only Simulated Mutation.

The Project rose during another era with apocalyptic overtones, the Reagan-era ‘80s, the last great hurrah (one hopes) for the idea of nuclear annihilation. Robert, who founded FAMP, describes their start as just a bunch of friends exploring suburban ruins in their home state of Illinois, digging through the debris of abandoned houses, shopping malls, and movie theaters. The stuff they found—objects, images, audio-visual equipment, “fragments of open reel 1/4’ tape and 35mm film recovered from burnt out warehouses and abandoned drive-in theaters”—they assembled into visual art, video, and tape loops. They knit together symbols of the cultural past into scrapbooks of preserved knowledge, without context or critical argument.

Initially short-lived, and with only two limited edition cassettes released in the late 1980s, Robert and various new members have revisited the project through the years. Since 2004, FAMP has been remixing and reissuing old recordings and creating new ones, including re-recording previous recordings via their old found equipment in sites they previously visited, and a new CD, Revisionist History, that celebrates the 30th anniversary of their first cassette and that recontextualizes older recordings with new material. (There is also a 1988 recording of a live performance in the basement studios of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that streams at Mixcloud.)

What they collected and made at times had a conscious expression of anxieties about the present and possible future—what their official history describes as “inadvertent examples of the post-industrial, post-apocalyptic landscapes so commonly imagined in Cold War-era media. Places and desires that fostered views of modern pop mummified, and contemporary provisions made artifact. Zombie pepsis (sic) and fossil aerosols.” There are recognizable fragments, deliberately placed in some of the recordings, of audio from George Romero’s seminal zombie movie Dawn of the Dead.

Listening to their recordings is immersive, haunting, troubling—a mix of beauty, fear, and hope. There are the gauzy, warm drones, the reliable and grounding loop points, but there are also the voices.

Yes, the voices. There is the report that “Communications with Detroit have been knocked out, along with Atlanta” from Day of the Dead. There is the spoken introduction to the TV series In Search Of (“This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture …”). There are culturally familiar but unidentifiable fragments of news reports and televangelists and half-remembered movies. And then there are moments where you hear a phone ring, someone picks it up, and a man asks, “Yeah, can I listen to tape 60?” Is that an accidental archival recording from a business or a training center?

All the voices are revivified through the recordings, and the ones like the last strike deep. There is something assuringly unreal about hearing film and TV dialogue—spoken as a performance, it comes from characters who are fundamentally features of the imagination. But the men on the phone were real, and sound real. What happened to them? Are they still alive?

From their past, they speak to us. Through the sound of corrosion and decay, they speak to us. This is upsetting, because we are their future; preserved and reproduced by FAMP, they need a reintegration with broader knowledge to be understood, and we don’t have the tools, only these fragments. Like ghosts, they haunt us but we can’t understand them. (And with mass-surveillance, mass-dissemination via social media, and mass digitization, will any of our voices, accidentally archived, haunt the future?)

These are transmissions, speaking to us from the past, in what might be the mundane routines of personal and professional life. Much of what you hear on FAMP recordings was never music, but in an audio collage, it takes on the inherent qualities of music: timbre, pitch, rhythm, a developing structure through time.

This is listening in the post-apocalypse. This is a music of the future, heard in the present, and because it is made with real materials, it is as frightening as the terrifying messages from the future sent to warn the characters in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. FAMP’s recordings are broadcasts from the interior planet of cultural memory, excavations of the bunker, the sacred shopping list and circuit diagram as music. They force us to contemplate the future and the end of civilization.

Human music will survive, but who will hear it? Like emissaries from the Order of Leibowitz, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft each carry a “Golden Record,” an aluminum-jacketed, gold-plated copper disc analog recording (thoughtfully packaged with a cartridge and needle). The Golden Records contain greetings in fifty-five languages, recordings of space, human, industrial, environmental, and animal sounds, and ninety-minutes of actual music: including Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Pygmy and Aboriginal songs, Azerbaijani music, a honkyoku piece from Japan, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and Blind Willie Johnson singing “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” If there are any creatures in the depths of the universe who can discern this essential human activity known as music, perhaps they will hear that as a fitting epitaph to the human race. But is also quite possible they will think our world sounded like Beethoven, and that the sound of factories is our music. Like the fallout shelter signs at my daughter’s elementary school (a drill I—and Robert—went through for years but that she will never experience), the inherent meaning and purpose of the materials won’t survive.

The hopeful part of the sounds of futures’ past is that while there may only be fragments of our shattered civilization 100 years from now, Fossil Aerosol Mining Project know that there will be sounds, “songs of enhanced decay and faked resurrection,” and trusts there will be someone there to listen to them.

The cover of FOMP's album The Day 1982 Contaminated 1971

One of the FOMP’s most provocatively titled recordings is The Day 1982 Contaminated 1971 which was released in 2015.

George Grella is a composer, critic, and independent scholar. He is the music editor of the Brooklyn Rail, a freelance critic for the New York Classical Review, and the author of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

Listening to Labor in the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”

Miners from Congo, Ohio.

Throughout this series of posts, I am presenting portraits of people and places of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds region in Appalachian Ohio. Each post focuses on sounds and how paying attention to them can give insight into issues such as labor, protest, recovery, and social life. Recording and carefully listening to these sounds can also suggest ways of bridging between place and creative sound works.

Well Rocks

Workers throwing limestone rocks down a well, Crooksville, Ohio. Photo by Brian Harnetty

Visiting an Independent Gas and Oil Rig:

“You want to get a badass sound, man? Check this out,” says a young assistant working at a gas and oil well drill site. I am standing next to a small opening in the ground, perhaps a foot across. It is a cold December day, and I join an independent driller and his crew to record them as they work on the well. Two assistants fill up buckets with limestone, and the rocks are slowly thrown down the hole. As the rocks descend hundreds of feet, they bounce randomly off the walls of the well. A few seconds later they begin to hit the bottom, and the sounds that travel back to the surface are sharp, percussive, and reverberate through the long tube of earth. “Sounds like a gun ricochet,” says one of the men. “Yeah, or it’s like water,” the other remarks. To me, it sounds like fireworks coming from the wrong direction, and I note that the sounds of the rocks measure the distance traveled into the ground. They send sound waves down and back up, vibrations that we feel racing back out of the hole. Fortunately, nothing else comes up with the sound. “You better stand away from that hole a little bit,” says the driller, “the sparks going down in there may light some of the gas. It might do that, it might not. I heard it yesterday go ‘Whoom!’ before gas fire shot out…”

Workers throwing limestone rocks down a well before drilling.

This drilling site is in a small clearing in the woods. The rig sits in the middle, a 1956 model that is attached to an old truck from the same year. The rig’s appearance looks as if it couldn’t possibly work. Yet it does, and natural gas powers it from a nearby well. With a long hiss, the air is let out of the line and the motor starts. Gears, wheels, squeaks, and cables all conspire to create lurching rhythmic patterns.

The drilling begins. The drill bit does not rotate; instead, it pounds. The pounding is both heard and felt and, from this point on, shouting is the only way to communicate. Behind the rig’s controls, the driller looks like a conductor of a musical ensemble: his rhythmic movements are in tandem with the motor and his many years of experience make his continual adjustments to the old machinery graceful. There are many levers that he is simultaneously operating, allowing him to add an inch of cable at a time to the drill’s length. In this dangerous and unstable environment, I am reminded that he can’t see what is happening below the surface; he is working by knowledge, touch, and sound. The rhythmic regularity of the pounding sonically connotes his years of experience and his control over the machinery. At the same time, variations in the intense pounding tell him what kind of rock he is drilling through and at what speed.

Later that day, I leave the drill site while the men continue their work. As I walk away, the overwhelming sounds of drilling fade into the distance yet are still throbbing in my ears and stomach.

Joshua “Judd” Matheney, Mine Inspector:

“Could I tell you a little story about that?” asks Joshua “Judd” Matheney on a sound recording from the Little Cities Archive. The recording was made in 1988, and Matheney speaks of his family, childhood, and work as a state mine inspector. The sound and grain of his voice reveal his age and regional accent as he recounts his life, and his descriptions of working in the mines are vivid. For example, the sounds of controlled explosions—what he calls “shooting down a hole”—were frequently heard. Matheney also remarks on his experiences as an inspector and of getting along with men and women working in small family mining operations. Throughout, Matheney’s voice is quietly heard on the cassette tape just slightly before hearing it at full volume, a tape “print-through” that has the ghostly quality of pre-echoing his own voice.

Interview with Judd Matheney. Courtesy of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Archive.

Matheney continues his story, and talks about “sounding” the roof of a mine to check for safety:

I went in a little mine up Pittsburgh Holler one day—couple of men working by themselves. And I looked up at the roof and there was just like a circle around it. …I said, ‘Let me have your pick a moment.’ And, uh, I sounded it with a pick, a customary way of checking the roof. And it sounded a little drummy, and I said, ‘Fellas, I believe that’s dangerous.’ …One of ‘em handed me a pinch bar, and I pinched a little bit, and finally got a pretty solid hole. I chipped in, gave a good pry on it, and there was big circle of slate, at least six foot across, and there was this cone shape. …It would’ve mashed those two men easily. …Of course all men didn’t escape them kind of conditions, many men got tangled up with them and lost their lives.

The “drummy” quality of the roof indicated—to Matheney’s trained ear—an unsafe mine. Hillel Schwartz refers refers to this process of tapping the roof of mines as “jowling,” a term used in the UK and dating back to early coal mining there. Matheney’s ability to sound the mines as well as a lifetime listening to those operating them served as a means of not only maintaining mine safety, but also building long-term rapport with miners.

Miners from Congo, Ohio.

Miners from Congo, Ohio. Photo courtesy of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Archive.

Listening to Labor:

Both of the above examples are brief glimpses into the dominant industry in the Little Cities for nearly two centuries: extracting energy in the form of gas, oil, and coal. As I listen in, I am reminded that the workers listen, too, as part of their jobs. For them, listening becomes seamlessly integrated into their routines and keeps them safe, a sonic tool to discern danger. For my own practice, I listen to these archival and contemporary recordings repeatedly and carefully. David Grubbs suggests this process of repetition reveals facets of recordings that cannot otherwise be heard, and can transform them into musical gestures. I focus on the grain and hiss of the deteriorating archival recordings; the machinery and its interaction with the land; the rhythmic and melodic pacing of the workers’ words; and their stories. I pick up on the overlapping cadences of labor and everyday life, and they seep into my own work as I sample and collage them together.

The recordings make audible an unstable and changing past, as Judd’s voice moves forward to meet us in the present. Observing the independent driller of today shows his struggles to survive amid an uncertain work environment and larger corporations moving in to the area. This in turn points to yet another future iteration of the extraction–boom–bust–destruction cycle. I hear the complex tension between labor and environment unfolding over time, and the arc of people’s lives coming and going. I listen to the voices of these people coming together contrapuntally, and also listen for new voices to break this cycle, opening new ways of thriving in the region that are not bound to extraction alone.

Place, Sound, History, Now: Listening to the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”


Courtesy of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Archive

In a brief essay from 1975, author, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry wrote that he used to think there was a division between culture and place. He thought art could be detached and removed from environmental damage, that art was somehow perfect in an imperfect world. After inadvertently damaging his own property, he recognized that the complex relationships between power, culture, and place are in fact deeply entwined. Berry acknowledged, “It used to be that I could think of art as a refuge from such troubles. …Art was what was truly permanent, therefore what truly mattered. …I am no longer able to think that way. That is because I now live in my subject. My subject is my place in the world, and I live in my place.”

I listened to Berry’s words carefully, and took them to heart. After returning from being a student in London to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, in 2000, I increasingly incorporated regional and local material into my work, mostly from sound archives. I developed friendships with like-minded artists and musicians who felt a deep sense of embodied stewardship toward the cultures and places where they lived, from Whitesburg and Berea, Kentucky, to Chicago, Illinois. Since 2010, I have done ethnographic research in Appalachian Ohio with a focus on sound and senses of place. Over this series of posts, I’ll write about the archival and contemporary sounds that I have listened to in the region. I’ll also consider how listening connects me to the people and history of the area, and how these sounds might become material for creative projects.

For the past two centuries, this region of southeastern Ohio has been immersed in extraction industries, from coal, oil, and gas to timber, iron ore, and clay. Located in what is now the Wayne National Forest, the towns that quickly arose around coal mining in the 19th century are collectively referred to as the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds.” The area is also bound together by a common heritage of booms and busts, environmental destruction and recovery, and the formation of early labor unions. After nearly a century of economic and population decline, another boom and bust cycle is playing out with the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Despite facing an uncertain future, the communities that live in the Little Cities continue to work for environmental, economic, and cultural enrichment. On a personal level, my father’s and mother’s families have roots in the region, with both families immigrating there in the 19th century. For me, listening to the past of the Little Cities involves listening to traces of family history. And because there are so few recordings, I also listen through images and text: photos, yearbooks, musical scores, and letters. David Toop (2010) refers to this process of listening to “silent media” as a form of “mediumship,” where writing and images offer clues and suggestions of “acoustic space.”

The sonic ethnography I’ve been doing in the Little Cities falls under the auspices of sound studies, an emergent field that draws from disciplines such as anthropology, performance studies, geography, and cultural studies. But in listening to these places and people, I also rely on my background and training as a musician and composer. In local archives and oral histories, field recordings and conversations, I listen to many voices in counterpoint across history. This practice echoes Edward Said’s (1993) contrapuntal rereading of the cultural archive with an ear to tension and exchange between power and marginalization. It also follows the sound art collective Ultra Red’s (2013) call to listen “in tension,” to allow many different voices to be heard, and to push creative practice into direct social engagement. For me, research in the Little Cities becomes groundwork for current and future sound works, including recordings, performances, and installations. Disciplinary lines break down; research and creative practice influence each other and become integral to one another. Together, they affect my compositional decisions. They allow me to develop sonic material that is richly contextual and always grounded in people and places.

In the Little Cities, I listen to these people and places closely. I hear the soundscapes of energy extraction, including independent oil and gas drillers who have worked in the region for fifty years, as well as contemporary sounds related to fracking. I listen to the forest, to environmental damage creating silences there, and to the emerging sounds of recovery, such as the return of wildlife to the region’s waterways. Through archival recordings and contemporary conversations, I listen to oral histories of those that have lived in the Little Cities. Residents describe concerts and basketball games, parades and funerals, and hopes for the future. I also pay attention to those affected by extraction-related disasters, such as miner Sigmund Kozma as he describes the sonic qualities of “pressure” and “force” of a mine explosion. Finally, I listen to voices of dissent and protest, of people who seek to avoid yet another boom and bust cycle after fighting so hard to recover from the previous two centuries of extraction.

The sounds of a 50-year old gas and oil driller still in operation.

Sigmund Kozma describing his experiences surviving the 1930 Millfield Mine Explosion that killed 82 miners. Interview courtesy of Justin Zimmerman

Over the next three posts, I’ll explore the above sounds in more detail, focusing on labor, environment, social life, disaster, and protest in the Little Cities. The posts also coincide with a parallel creative project I am working on titled Shawnee, Ohio. The piece assembles these sounds into a performance of collaged archival samples, photos, and videos, with live musicians. As I work on the piece, I continue to think about Berry’s words and deeds. When he concludes that “an art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars,” he is speaking from experience. Art stemming from and reflecting place will often be all too human: flawed, fragmented, and incomplete. Sometimes this art will not end up the way it was intended to be. But it will also be rich with knowledge and potential. I feel compelled to “live in my subject,” to add my voice in solidarity to those working as stewards to their own place. I also feel encouraged to create something that moves toward protecting the places my families are connected to, despite their past damage.

Brian Harnetty

A composer and artist, Brian Harnetty’s creative and scholarly work connects sonic archives, performance, ecology, and place. His pieces transform archival material––including field recordings, transcriptions, and historic recordings––into newly re-contextualized sound collages. For the past decade, this has led to a focus on projects with archives, including the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky and the Sun Ra/El Saturn Creative Audio Archive in Chicago. Harnetty received a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Arts at Ohio University, an M.Mus. in music composition from the Royal Academy of Music, London, and a B.Mus. in composition from The Ohio State University. Harnetty’s most recent release, Rawhead & Bloodybones, is on Dust-to-Digital Records. His 2013 release, The Star-Faced One, was MOJO Magazine’s Underground Album of the Year. His current project, Shawnee, Ohio, will premiere in October, 2016 at the Wexner Center for the Arts and is a project of Creative Capital.

Off the Trail: Absorbing the Reflection of the PCT

ascent from Red Pass

Ascent from Red Pass.

Over the course of the last four and a half months, my residency-on-foot was a prolific time. I wrote a couple dozen short works, made hundreds of field recordings, and have been able to think about music and sound in ways previously unimaginable to me. Since all I was doing every day was just walking, the sheer amount of time and space that each thought was allowed was huge—rewarding but also at other times maddening. It is a very privileged few folks who are able to conjure up the finances at the right time (such as when they have their health) and leave everything else behind to go walk across the country, knowing that they’ll be able to enter back into society relatively easily. This privileged set was one that felt oddly familiar to me as a composer: the vast majority of the thru-hikers out there were white dudes, and of both genders almost exclusively white. The process of writing and walking this multitude of landscapes led me to think, read, compose, and make field recordings based on related demographic queries such as who used to live there, how people alter and interact with the landscape then and now, who are the current inhabitants, and how everything sounds as a result.

The Pacific Crest Trail traverses all sorts of different types of land-designations—national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, Department of Natural Resources and Bureau of Land Management land, state parks, private land, and also a few Native American reservations. Each of these different types of land are managed in radically different ways by different agencies and people, yet one point all of them share is that prior to 1492 when Columbus and company washed ashore (opening a wave of change and genocide over the centuries) they were inhabited by various Native American tribes who had a symbiotic relationship with the land—with myriad managements of their own that evolved in tandem with specific bioregions over tens of thousands of years. Fast forward through hundreds of years of disease, presidentially authorized massacres by the military, forced removal, over-hunting, clear-cutting of forests, mining, colonization, romanticization of nature in the occidental arts, and a wave of westward expansion and pioneers, and the landscape is dramatically different. Even John Muir, radical as he was in his day advocating for the preservation of the natural world, helped change things further by pushing for Native Americans to be removed in order to create the first national parks, such as his beloved Yosemite in Central California. Thus, the concept of “wilderness” was born in the American mind—nature being something virginal and pure to be placed on a pedestal and admired from a distance, separate from humans.

near Stevens Pass in Northern WA

Near Stevens Pass in Northern Washington.

So, when walking through all these various landscapes, constantly altered as they are by human interaction of some type, it became apparent to me that part of my job as a composer on this long walk was not to try to capture a series of idyllic bird calls from this mythical concept of a beautiful and pristine wilderness, but to capture the reality of the lands I was passing through. Dark and dense 30-year-old mono-crop forests, replanted after being clear-cut, stand almost silent with little plant diversity or animal life stirring contrasted with an ancient forest only a few miles away that is noisy and open, with a myriad of different sounds humming away from the forest floor to hundreds of feet up to the canopy. Deep scars across the desert floor, generations old, crisscrossed by fresh lines from marauding troops of people on ATVs and four-wheelers. The sound of a flowing stream suddenly joined with the counterpoint of a buzzing power station and lines of wires stretching across the hillsides. There’s the concept of things being very “quiet” out in this American construct of “wilderness”—but should they be? The summer trading parties of the Washo (coming from the east with pine nuts and obsidian) and the Miwok and Maidu (arriving from the west with abalone shells, yew bows, and acorns) in the North Sierra Meadows have been replaced with the sound of a few hundred privileged white people in high tech gear passing through, music being broadcast endlessly through the tiny speakers of their devices which also communicate with satellites to tell them where they are. The Cahuilla tribe no longer are gathering herbs and singing their days-long pieces of music that tell their history in the desert of Southern California. Instead we hear the sound of coyotes circling, in tandem with a security van cruising slowly along guarding a spring on private land; wind turbines whirring from miles away on the desert floor. And should the elk be so noisy walking through the forest? Before, many of these tribes cleared brush and did controlled burns, making most of the forests impossible to burn the way that they do now, massive tinderboxes filled with brush that they are. Indeed, the eery sound of hundreds of acres of creaking burned trees after a devastating wildfire is something we’ve created due to poor forest management.

A lot of these new juxtapositions sound kind of depressing, and I have to admit I found some things downright disturbing (like the sound of logging going on on US Forest Service land), but some of the sounds and combinations thereof when observed objectively are quite beautiful, and I must admit that I missed certain sounds of civilization and found myself delighted when happening upon them. For instance, when resupplying in Southern Washington I ended up lingering in the hallway of a gas station a bit longer so I could listen to the gentle lilting 6ths being emitted from the ceiling vent. And, humans aside, there have been a plethora of incredible sounds I’ve recorded along the way (altered or not by humans and interesting in their own right): noisy dawn choruses, insects humming away, or the almost Feldman-like quality (think woodblocks in Rothko Chapel) of woodpeckers deep in the woods.

Mary Clapp

Scientist Mary Clapp working in the High Sierras. Photo by Ryan Carlton

Sounds being indicators of human alteration are being utilized by scientists as well. Mary Clapp, a Ph.D. student at UC Davis, undertook a bioacoustics-based research project in the High Sierras right by where I walked on the Pacific Crest Trail. Here’s more about her project:

My research, very generally speaking, involves seeing if acoustic recordings are a useful way of revealing and tracking habitat change, degradation, or restoration by the intensity and diversity of the chorus of the biological community that is present there. Specifically, the alpine lakes of the High Sierra have evolved without fish–the way the mountains formed, waterfalls and massive glacially carved granite topography prevented fish from ever colonizing up high–until the mid 1900s, when federal agencies started stocking these fishless lakes with non-native trout. The trout have had huge effects on the biological community in the lakes, and potentially on the species that visit the lake (picture a swallow or a bat darting over a lake, catching mayflies for itself and its nestlings). I’ve noticed that fish-containing lakes are a lot quieter than fishless ones, which led me to wonder if these birds and bats aren’t able to find the food they need at the fish-containing lakes, and whether I could use sound recordings to measure the difference between fishy-lake and fishless-lake communities.

So, she used a mule train (still the way to move goods in the High Sierras—I saw a number of them during my time there) to bring loads of recording equipment up to capture many terabytes worth of field recordings this summer for her research. I’m curious to find out the outcome of her research, but either way it’s interesting to note someone from a completely different community taking stock of the natural world through this type of documentation.

River view from 4,000 feet up.

River view from 4,000 feet up.

Environmental degradation and cultural annihilation aside, the total combination of sounds is something that is interesting and wondrous to behold. Portland composer Scott Unrein just finished his piece for my project, and had this to say:

I’ve hiked small sections of the PCT in Oregon. One of the things that has always struck me about doing it is how sound often precedes sight; particularly when encountering signs of civilization. The catch is that there’s often a delay between hearing and fully perceiving the sounds. That’s one of the things I amplified when combining Nat’s field recordings with other sounds. There’s often a special kind of beauty in the confusion that arises when you’re not entirely sure what you’re hearing.

And so, it feels at this point that the pieces I’ve written while on the Pacific Crest Trail end up reflecting a little bit of all of this. In some ways sound is just sound, other pieces will simply present where humans are in their relationship to these various wilderness areas at this moment in time. A couple others examine the history of places I passed through and the missing human elements or acknowledgement of the people who wandered through in search of a new life more recently. (I’ve been slowing down civil-war-era fiddle tunes for use in one of these.) Hopefully, in the end the recording I’ll release of all of my music will reflect all the topics I cruised through here, and how said topics relate back to the myriad bioregions I walked through as I moved across the country on foot.

And perhaps that is one of the biggest things I’ve taken away from this whole experience as a composer: that immersing oneself in something seemingly detached from music and composing can end up deeply impacting and effecting one’s music and creative life. Walking across the country on the Pacific Crest Trail and living out of a tent for four and a half months is, I admit, a bit extreme, and I’m in a privileged position to be able to do this due to life situation, prior knowledge and experience, finances, and place in society, but the impact of simple activities that make us human, no matter the level of time and effort required, push us too. If you never cook, try cooking once a week! Make a commitment to only eat greens from your garden one summer, join a running group, or take a class on something you’d like to know more about. We don’t spend that much time actually doing the composing itself, so why not engage more fully in the rest of life? The results might surprise you.