Prof. Wai Chee Dimock
Performing American Literature
March 11, 2017
Performing Teju Cole: Open Soundscape
When I first read it, I found Open City by Teju Cole a difficult book to wrap my head around. Having grown up in the suburbs where the streets seemed to bleed together into one politely residential whole, I struggled to link the events recorded in the book with the physical spaces they were supposed to take place in until I saw actual pictures of the city. (Shoutout to David’s presentation on Google Maps!) The realization opened a whole new way of thinking about the book, not as a series of free-floating observations about the prevalence of death and erasure, but as an attempt to uncover layers of history and possibility in the specific spaces we inhabit. In an interview with The Guardian, Cole said: “my obsession, no matter how anyone else perceives it, is creating a space…I wanted to slow down the timeline of the person reading it…I wanted to infuse [the writing medium’s] particular stream with a new energy.” My project is to draw out this aspect of Cole’s writing beyond the book itself, so that people can experience this meditative world in a more personal and immediate way than relying on the afterimage of a text read stationary and quiet. As Cole put it: “just be with me in this space. And we’ll see what happens.”
I will be collaborating with Amanda Chemeche, inspired by her presentation on exploding axioms and a walking app to organize the real New York City according to the psychic landscape in Open City. Our proposal is a location-based app that will guide the user to significant locations from the book. Once the user walks (or drives, but that dampens the impact of the app quite a bit) close enough to a location, they will be able to access visuals and sound recordings that reveal some hidden facet of the site: cultural, historical, or simply self-reflective. Each location will have multiple “layers” to choose from. For instance, the user can choose “The 1600s” and the app will show what the site was like when it was part of a Dutch colony. Then the user can switch to “Contemporary” and “Islamic Culture” and the app will focus in on a mosque at the site.
Amanda will focus on visuals and architecture, while I will focus on sound and atmosphere. Sound particularly interested me because Julius, the narrator of Open City, is particularly attuned to various sounds: music, the roar of a crowd, overheard conversations, even his own voice. Reading the novel, I felt that sound had an important atmospheric quality to it, which transcends the body and can transport people to other places, other times. For instance, Julius had an almost mystical experience with a piece by Mahler: “[The] music fell over my activities for the entirety of the following day. There was some new intensity in even the most ordinary things all around the hospital…as if the precision of the orchestral texture had been transferred to the world of visible things, and every detail had somehow become significant” (18). To me, sound is the ideal medium to amplify the novel’s opening, contemplative effect on a reader. It also creates a sense of geographic memory, like something of a historical event still lingers in the place it occurred.
Reading a plaque that describes a location as the historical site of New York slave auctions is different from hearing it take place. Walking through a historical Native American site is a different experience when a traditional Iroquois song is playing in your ears. The best part is that the app user can experience the recordings while still being fully aware of the space around them, rather than having to look back and forth between it and their phone screen. Headphones mean that the app’s technology is seamlessly integrated into the analog world. Sound could immerse and transport the app player into aspects of a location, but in an unobtrusive way, broadening their perspective and making their relationship with the invisible parts of the city more intimate.
I will be making full use of the Yale Music Library, Smithsonian Folkways, and other historical or ethnographic sound resources I can find. I may also use YouTube (including amateur video and reenactments) and news archives as contemporary sources. I will also be in NYC for most of spring break to record live sounds in a few key locations. Each sound will be mostly kept separate, but in some situations I may mix and edit sounds for narrative purposes.
Despite my years playing piano, I am far from an expert on any kind of music, much less the history of sound. I will have to rely heavily on how accessible and easy-to-use the archives are. I am also new to Audacity and sound mixing. I would love to exchange ideas with anyone else doing a project with sound!
Although the book leaves ample space for reader interpretation, we are forced to depend on Julius’s often unreliable narrative as he guides us through the city. Amanda and I hope to expand the app’s reach to include observations Julius and Teju Cole might not have made. But we are also limited in what we might perceive in a site and our personal preferences. For instance, I will 10 times out of 10 choose a piece by Chopin over a piece by Mahler. On a related note, I have yet to determine how I will choose which sounds to use for each site. To address these issues, I will limit myself to three or four “layers” to use for every site in the city (probably colonial period, recent history, religion, and ethnic culture), which will hopefully be general enough to counteract our limitations. As an expanded edition of the app, I might include more diversity and an option for the app user to record something on their own, engaging them more fully and adding to the ways a site might be understood.
Since I have neither the time nor the resources to actually make this an app, integrating my design with the location will have to be purely theoretical. But this means I am free to design it however I want. There are a two ways I am debating between: I can simply indicate points of interest on a map and allow the player to choose where to go, in whatever order. Once there, the sound from the selected layer will play once, and the user can replay as long as they remain in location. This is very simple and easy to use, and works best if the app user specifically wants to visit certain kinds of locations. Or I can direct the app user as vaguely as possible, perhaps like finding Pokémon in Pokémon Go (visuals to indicate if you’re nearby, or “getting warmer/colder”), or like a very relaxed Google Maps (voice directions that would say, “turn right,” or “go straight”). When the user gets close enough to the location, the sound will fade in—softer further away, louder closer in, as if the recording is happening in real time—and will play in a loop until the user leaves. I particularly enjoy how little control the user has over their experience; this emphasizes the wandering feeling of the book, the lack of intention and direction, and also makes the sounds more integrated with reality and not something tied to a phone.
There could also be sound while the app user is in transit. I will not include this in my final presentation, but this would give the user an incentive to keep the app open when not already in a location. I could link the app to various music radio stations the user could choose from, playing in real time while they walk. Subways, which have no service but are also important to Open City, would require some kind of special solution, like pre-saved recordings. Another possibility is to create “random events” that are set to occur after the app user has walked a certain distance, or has the app open for a set amount of time, no matter where geographically the user is. The protest march on page 23 of the book is a good example of something lasting for a few minutes but not tied to one location.
I also considered recording readings of Open City and other literature as well as dramatizations of personal histories—to me, voice is equally if not more important than music in the novel’s soundscape. But the historical archives proved to be a much richer source for the project. Though I believe poetry and dialogue would do much for the atmosphere of any location, it deviates from the intent of the project, which is to explore the site-specific ethno-historical sounds of NYC.
As I do my preliminary research, this project is turning out to be unexpectedly emotionally taxing. That was my intention—immersive experience, emotional intimacy, etc.—but I was not entirely aware of what I was getting myself into until I started listening to an hour’s worth of recordings from 9/11. It complicates the process of selecting which recordings to use for each site; should I warn app users if something “disturbing” is coming up and they should listen at their own “discretion?” Under what criteria do I even judge “disturbing?” Should I try to avoid recordings dealing with intense violence and focus on music and everyday sounds? (I just hope I don’t land in the same place as V.)