Open Soundscape: Scaffolds

4/30/17 – Opening a Dialogue for Contemporary History: A Collaborative Post

As we reached the completion of this project, one layer was left: 9/11. Neither of us were making progress with it, and when we met, we discovered that both of us had difficulties approaching the subject. Why is that? Is it because 9/11 is rather recent? The Lenape occupation of Manhattan (or, as they called it, Mannahatta) is over 500 hundred years old. The Dutch settlement, New Amsterdam, was established in 1626, and the Civil War Draft Riots were in 1863. The events of 9/11 happened a mere fifteen years ago. The relative contemporaneity of the event is both a blessing and a curse in terms of a project. There is more material available for this layer than any other. But because of this one needs to be more selective, to curate data. Finally, because these events happened in living memory, it’s hard to approach it in a productive way. The question is not, “What happened?” We know exactly what happened. The question is, “Where do we go from here?”

As we attempted to problem-solve how to represent this site and event, we realized that our relative perspectives gave us different reasons for concern. Since it was a dialogue, we thought we would record our conversation in real time. The link is below.

First speaker: Amanda

Second speaker: Victoria

(Note: The “memorial” is the 9/11 Memorial, which Victoria visited over spring break.)

4/22/17 – Contemporary Native Music

My original plan for mapping pre-1700s Native sounds was to exclusively use historically reproduced sounds. The problem with this is that a lot of Native music – if it even survives – has been altered because of the forced migration and mixing of different groups’ cultures. Plus, a crucial event in Julius’ mental NYC is van Tienhoven’s massacre, but I was struggling with how to represent violence through sound without assaulting unprepared listeners with raw recordings of violence, and how to make trauma more legible.

Then I started searching for modern music coming out of supposedly “erased” traditions, and found people right now doing rich work in interpreting historical violence through contemporary sound. It meant a minor adjustment in my project’s parameters, but there’s so much interesting work being done, I wanted to acknowledge our contemporaries. For instance, instead of confusing and disturbing sounds from film clips, I could use Tanya Tagaq’s music. I had an idea that, for the locations of trauma, I would use modern music dealing with historical violence, sparsely mixed with dramatized sounds or oral histories. Other locations can just have normal historical sounds.

Tanya Tagaq is an Inuk (Canadian) singer and songwriter. Her most famous work comes out of the Inuit tradition of throat singing, usually involving improvised duets/competitions between women. I’ve included a recording here just because I think everyone should know it exists, but I won’t use for my project, since it’s a different tribe from the Lenape.

Her other work, though, provides unique commentary on the trauma of Native peoples. This means I can avoid unintelligible recordings of people yelling a lot, and I don’t have to graft the Lenape music that does survive – usually celebratory in nature – onto a scene of destruction.

Seriously though, check out those Native artists.

4/12/17 – Modal Harmonies Across the Border

In Open City, Julius’ unnamed friend says he wants to choose how he dies: he imagines his ideal death, not faded and aching in a lonely senior home, but in “an empty house…I imagine a bath upstairs, which I can fill with warm water; and I think of music playing all through this big house, Crescent, maybe, or Ascension, filling the spaces not taken up by my solitude, reaching me in the bath, so that when I slip across the one-way border, I do so to the accompaniment of modal harmonies heard from far away” (182).

Both Crescent and Ascension are jazz albums by John Coltrane. “Crescent” and “crescendo” share the Latin root “crescere,” to grow. “Ascension” has an obvious meaning – moving in an upward direction. Coltrane’s music is always pushing toward something new, magnificent and beyond. Crescent’s rolling piano scales and luscious, melancholic saxophone seem to fit the tone of a dreamy embrace of death that the friend describes. But Ascension is something else. A google search turns up “genuinely controversial,” “avant-garde,” a “watershed.” Dave Liebman called the album the “torch that lit the free jazz thing.” It’s enormous, exhilarating, honestly kind of unpleasant, barely contained chaos, and I had no idea what to make of it.

Western music, from Bach to Lady Gaga, typically uses a major/minor key as the basic core of its sound, which is why we hear songs as happy or sad and can kind of predict which note comes next. A type of jazz after the 1950s uses modes, or modal harmonies – an alternative core sound, variations of which have existed throughout the world in Medieval, classical, and folk traditions, and which experienced a revival during the recent age of musical experimentation. Choosing free jazz over the Euro-centric classical music Julius prefers differentiates the two characters’ worldviews, and also suggests the diverse points of entry in thinking about death.

I won’t pretend to know what makes Ascension great (or, to some, deeply flawed), nor do I agree with Julius’ friend about insisting on having control over his death. But I think the music is playing a fascinating role in this imagined scene, both as something familiar to smooth over the pain of solitude, and something distant and unknowable, able to cross over into the realm of death itself.

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