This special episode features an interview with Alanis Obomsawin, an Indigenous Abenaki filmmaker, singer, activist and ‘national treasure’ from Turtle Island/Canada. We spoke online late in February with reference to a major survey exhibition of Alanis’ life and work, ‘The Children Have to Hear Another Story’, 12 February – 18 April, at Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin.
Many thanks to Lilli Heinemann from HKW and Michael Shu from the National Film Board of Canada for making this possible.
Bush Lady (2018)
Vignettes: June in Povungnituk – Quebec Arctic (1980)
With headphones in, I’m not surprised that I become more attuned to the audio environment and move according to what might sound interesting. I consider passerby according to how I think — or rather sense — they might contribute to the recording. At the same time, I try to hum absent-mindedly. I don’t want to think about what I am humming; when a motif from a song or a familiar musical phrase escapes from my vocal chords and I wonder a little about what it is or where it came from, but try not to dwell on it or consciously change.
My sounding is not ‘echo location’ (at least not in any conventional sense), nevertheless I am humming as way of perceiving the environment. I hum at a volume that I think only I can hear it. Indeed, and especially with earbuds in, humming feels like a sound that is only inside my head. It’s much more intimate than, say, whistling. As well has drawing my attention to my sonic surroundings, humming also makes me aware of a certain pressure in my chest and nose and mouth. It’s a muffled expression —like a muted trumpet — rather than an expressive open mouthed articulation and I wonder why I never noticed this before.
Around the 11 minute mark I try to hum with the sound coming from a GeldAutomat which, now that I think about it, seems to be installed quite randomly along an otherwise residential street. I did attempt to harmonise with the sounds expressed from the vents of the machine, that upon close listening seems more granular than regular — ie more like static noise than a drone.
Drifting, I try not to notice where I am going. I try not to make conscious decisions about where I am in relation to where I began and let the audio experience by my guide, although other factors are at play. It is a warm day in early Spring and I favour the sunshine. I come to a street that I recognise as the address of a wholesale ‘oriental’ grocer that a friend had sent me to more than a year ago. I’m surprised to come upon it, but what strikes me more is the acoustic resonance of the laneway. At around 21 minutes in the recording, I pause in silence to appreciate a patch of sunlight between concrete structures that shape this light industrial zone and listen to the bass pumping out of a nearby parked car. I am surprised when the music is drowned out by an encroaching truck, pulling into a nearby parking bay. The sweeping ‘woof’ of the truck engine is physically palpable and I cannot distinguish the sound from the hot air which seems to engulf the truck like a cloud. The screeching highs of hydraulic truck brakes accentuate the effect as a full spectrum audio-body experience. It’s remarkable.
I used to daydream about releasing a 7″ vinyl record split between a free noise band I infrequently play in, Antipan, and the Aboriginal ‘postcolonial death metal’ band Dispossessed. Antipan is made up of a group of settlers in so-called Australia (white and first and second generation immigrants) that emerged out of Sydney’s improv/experimental music scene around 2004. Dispossessed were labeled as ‘Fanon’s children’ by Daniel Browning, the long-standing host of AWAYE! on Australia’s Radio National. The band have described themselves as as ‘vessels carrying our ancestor’s wrath, sorrow and vengeance’ and as a platform for a wider movement of Aboriginal resistance and struggles for justice. While Antipan arguably take great pleasure in loud, unbridled sound. These bands have little in common in terms of life experience and are positioned differently along the matrix of settler-colonialism, but they both extend a genealogy of punk rock, hardcore and metal. Given the uncompromisingly sensibilities of several influential groups in these genres, I imagine that our release would be a material-sonic testament to anticolonial solidarity.
At the risk of over-emphasising binaries, my fantasy split 7″ raises a number of ideas concerned with sound: signal/noise, meaning/message (medium), didactics/aesthetics, which lead me to think about noise in relation to politics.
Tuesday 2 June 2020 was declared ‘Black Out Tuesday’ by USA workers in the music industry, ‘a moment of solidarity that unites the music industry against racism, injustice and inequality experienced by the Black community’ according to a statement on Soundcloud.
While many on social media replaced their profile pictures with black squares, others on were critical of the initiative, claiming that social media was a crucial source information for those resisting racism and fascism in the USA. There were also concerns that as people uploaded black squares they were using the hashtags associated with the Movement for Black Lives and thus obfuscating the flow of important information.
A surprising intervention came from legions of K-Pop fans, who over the week of protests and uprisings following the public lynching of George Floyd, refrained from Tweeting not insignificant news about their idols, such as the release of BLACKPINK’s collaboration with Lady Gaga, Sour Candy. Instead, they turned their social media savvy to take on those opposed to Black Lives Matter (eg #whitelivesmatter, #bluelivesmatter) and went on to flood US police and FBI channels had called for evidence of the protestors’ violence with K-pop content. Music scholar and critic Josh Kun described these actions as an act of solidarity and acknowledgement of the influence of Black performers on Korean popular music.
To all BLINKs and BP fanbases! Please stop using the tagline so we can all show our respects for George Floyd. Instead let's put our energy into fighting for justice, signing petitions, and spreading awareness. I hope everyone understands, please and thank you. #BlackLivesMatter
On Saturday 6 June 2020 a anti-racist gathering occurred at Alexanderplatz, Berlin, promoted as a ‘silent protest demo’. In the morning I was arranging to meet with friends from the Black Earth climate justice collective, who were critical of the premise of the demonstration given that Black people had been silenced for centuries and they had no intention of suppressing their outrage. Soon after I received this pamphlet from another friend:
Noise demos, casserolado … Noise can be thought of as dissonance, an undesirable or disagreeable sound that must be filtered out from the message (as medium) in order to discern meaning. Noise might also be that which is not ‘on message’, drawing attention to the affective, material and textural qualities of what is being announced. Improvised noise as dissonance — dissensus — is arguably an opening; an attempt to break into an experience that is not predetermined. Free noise is potentially liberating, uninhibited by the strictures of formalised music or what is recognisably organised sound. Free noise might seem out of control, yet it can also be purposeful.
As I write, I am thinking about a report describing members of a Latinx punk band Vandalize, who mounted a generator, drum kit and guitar and into the back of a pick-up truck to play a ‘literal soundtrack for the oppressed’ during Black Lives Matter protests in downtown LA.
I’m also reminded of Steve Reich’s tape collage Come Out (1966), built from a four second loop taken from hours of recordings of interviews and testimonies about the Little Fruit Stand Riot in Harlem, New York, 1964. The incident occurred when a group of school children started to throw around the spilled contents from an overturned fruit stand. The vendor whistled for them to stop, alerting the police who allegedly descended viciously upon the children. Daniel Hamm, an eighteen-year-old local Black resident intervened upon hearing the children’s screams, as recalled in a 1966 report filed by James Baldwin:
…we heard children scream. We turned around and walked back to see what happened. I saw this policeman with his gun out and with his billy in his hand I like put myself in the way to keep him from shooting the kids. Because first of all he was shaking like a leaf and jumping all over the place. And I thought he might shoot one of them.
Hamm and another Black resident Wallace Baker were taken to a police station for their efforts to stop the violence, where groups of police took shifts to beat them for several hours. It is Hamm’s voice around which Come Out is composed. Severely bruised, the police refused to take him to hospital because he was not bleeding. Hamm speaks to tape: ‘I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.’
Hamm and Wallace were eventually released, pending charges over the fruit stand riot, despite the vendor testifying they had nothing to do with it. Then ten days later, Hamm alongside five other Harlem youth were charged with the murder of Margit Sugar, a local used-clothing merchant. The group became known as the Harlem Six and Hamm served nine years despite a ‘paucity of evidence’, according to Andy Beta in his essay marking the 50th anniversary of Come Out.
Beta notes that despite the Civil Rights movement in US being one of the biggest issues of the time, Reich by his own admission ‘wasn’t doing anything about it really’. By chance he was contacted by a civil rights activist, Truman Neslon, who had recorded interviews with the Harlem Six and their mothers for a book, The Torture of Mothers (1965), to raise awareness about their case. Nelson asked Reich to edit a story out of the recordings to played at a benefit, which Reich agreed to do pro bono on the proviso that he would be able to use the recordings for his own compositions.
I keep re-reading this paragraph from Beta’s text, in which he asks Reich:
Was Come Out made as a piece of agitprop? ‘I think a lot of ‘political pieces’ are, to put it kindly, a waste of time,’ Reich says. ‘If it’s a really good piece of music, then the political purpose to which it’s put is betrayed by the sense in which music will just vaporize, and the theme will vaporize along with it.’
I’ve long been a fan of Reich’s piece and much of his oeuvre, yet there is something about his sentiments expressed in Beta’s essay, also published in 2016 in the midst of struggles to counter anti-Blackness, that makes me feel uncomfortable; that Black pain is the source for white/non-Black production and consumption and as the material upon which we leverage our careers. I’m disturbed by Reich’s claim that good music ‘vaporizes’ any political purpose to which it may be put, although as Beta emphasises immediately after, the history and context in which Come Out was made is often acknowledged by those who cite, sample or refer to it in their own practices.
Reich describes to Beta how Come Out was received as ‘pass-the-hat music’ when premiered at a benefit for the Harlem Six at Manhattan Town Hall:
I don’t think people paid a great deal of attention to the music. They just thought it was some kind of funny sound effect that was atmospheric to get them to contribute. It wasn’t a concert situation at all!
Arguably Come Out is the piece that broke Reich as an artist and has become a canonical work of process music and minimal art, yet Reich’s recollections make me wonder more about how music, sound, noise, performance, reception and discourse produce publics who perceive events in different ways. To me Come Out is not so much proof of good music ‘vaporizing’ political intent, but rather raises issues about historicisation (and specific bias or privileged perspectives that I could label ‘white noise’).
Beta concludes his essay by paraphrasing Reich discussing Picasso’s mural Guernica (1937), which depicts the bombing of a Basque village during the Spanish Civil War: ‘Good art preserves the stuff it’s about.’
Again this idea of preserving, embalming, fossilising history strikes me as quite odd, when police violence continues to shapes the lives of racialised people today. For me, Come Out serves as a portal into the Little Fruit Stand Riot and the case of the Harlem Six that it draws from, and the contesting understandings of this history. It rides on the political momentum of the Civil Rights movement, the ‘long hot summer of 1967’ and vividly bursts into the present as I read Baldwin’s words:
The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.
Come Out viscerally catapults Hamm’s voice into whatever situation it is being played in. I also note that Bexta managed to contact the now elderly Hamm who declined to comment for his commemorative essay. Bexta observes that the Harlem Six, once a significant flashpoint for the civil rights movement has disappeared from ‘popular culture’, yet Come Out still resounds; according to the music scholar Sumanth Gopinath as its ‘most prominent historical memorial’. Might the history of Daniel Hamm and the Harlem Six outlive Reich’s hagiography or will they remain irrevocably entwined?