Features | Jericho

Jericho / IV :: Noise, Trauma, and Resistance (Pt. 2)

By Joel Elliott | 28 February 2012

Conscious sonic environments are an antidote, in terms of both space and time: one of the most prominent achievements of sound art was to bracket off noise with some form of beginning and ending. As if to combat my own irritation at the constant flyovers, I decided to go down to the waterfront to record sounds from the airshow. David Toop noted that the sound of loud airplanes is probably one of the least interesting or dynamic noises you can hear, reduced to a constant Doppler effect (hence why everyone goes to a stock car race hoping for a crash, anything to break out of that mindless drone), but somehow I felt compelled to record it anyway. Perhaps concentrating on something through a camera lens or headphones reduces its power to irritate. Playing it back and stopping it at will transforms it into a creative act rather than an external assault.

This is how Toop describes the attacks on the World Trade Center: “Unlike the satisfyingly tidy impact and ‘closure’ of a Hollywood explosion, the sounds heard on television rolling news as the towers collapsed were fragmented, seemingly boundless…” He asked Lee Ranaldo, who lives with his family near Ground Zero, to describe his sonic experience of that morning. After hearing both planes hit, he took the elevator to the rooftop of his apartment building. What he heard initially sounded like more planes attacking, but vaguely and indescribably different, a giant, unidentifiable roaring noise. Only when he returned to his apartment and saw the black smoke on his television and forming around his window did he realize he’d witnessed the sound of the towers about to crumble.

When I emailed Ranaldo to ask him more about the noise he stopped short of admitting New York itself was traumatized by the sound, though he did admit that the city’s sounds, so integral to the development of volume-centric artists like Glenn Branca, Swans, and Sonic Youth themselves, were both “inspiring” and at times “overwhelming.”

In the past several months, there’s been a different kind of noise on the streets. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Occupy Wall Street arose a decade after September 11th, what Time called the “worst decade since World War II,” ten years that most North Americans seemed to sleepwalk through, either blind by cynicism or patriotic fervor. If America wasn’t traumatized, it at least shared some of the same characteristics: it seemed incapable of joining the present.

One of the most integral effects of the movement was to disrupt this sense of being on autopilot: it may not have won over a lot of people who weren’t already fed up with big banks and corporate oligarchy, but it did manage to make them re-think possible models of resistance. It wasn’t just a protest, but a form of living in protest, and in that sense aimed to engage with the very day-to-day existential hole that most people in neoliberal countries had found themselves.

Ranaldo has been very active in Occupy Wall Street, both documenting it on his website and even employing audio recordings in his work. For Toronto’s Avant X Festival, he collaborated with his wife, video artist Leah Singer, on a piece called Contre Jour. The piece is one of many permutations of his “swinging guitar” technique, a heavily effects-laden electric guitar attached by a rope to the ceiling, which he alternately bangs with a drumstick or bow and sends revolving around the room, creating subtle, rhythmic shifts in feedback and sustained tone, conceptually not unlike Steve Reich’s “Pendulum Music” (which Sonic Youth performed for their SYR release Goodbye 20th Century [1999]). The whole thing has a rather satisfying mix of rock ‘n’ roll’s theatricality and conceptual art’s minimalist gestures in a way that seems to epitomize the history of New York’s underground art scene.

Singer’s accompanying still images and videos (which were on an even larger scale for a previous performance at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche) tend to combine the minute with the panoramic, creating a poetry of broad gestures. Her images seem to pulsate light even when static, and Ranaldo’s guitar sometimes carries the impression of swinging right into the landscape depicted and getting swallowed in a sunspot; an effect even more heightened when a pure flicker on the screen was combined with a strobe light in the room.

In one image, a crowd at a concert (Sonic Youth?) is doubled like a breaking wave. Likewise, as the chants from Occupy Wall Street enter, they are mostly unintelligible, but formed like some massive natural force. In a deafening climax (and another nod to OWS), drummers and other noisemakers hidden in the small audience began standing up and joining in, which mirrored again the dissolving of the distinctions between audience and performer, spectator and participant.

Ranaldo kept using the word “spontaneous” in referencing both the audience participation and the creation of protest songs at OWS. This is perhaps the key common thread that runs through both improvised music and 21st century grassroots action: the way both seem to emerge without a single cause, leader, or (at least in the case of OWS) clearly delineated goal. Toop talks about the theory of the “rhizome” as proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: like certain plants, the model of the rhizome resists hierarchical structure and embraces lateral movement. It cannot be separated or reduced to individual components or entities. The model is typically applied to internet communities, and in the case of improvisation, digital music, but it clearly goes back to at least the ’60s when free jazz gradually shed its reliance on central themes and motifs and began to hinge on moment-to-moment interactions.

In the case of political organization, few movements have embraced rhizomatic organization as completely as Occupy. My experience at Occupy Toronto saw not only a lack of identifiable central organization, but a system of checks and balances—some more effective than others—designed to create revolving-door roles, continually expanding committees and sub-committees, and a vigilante self-examination of embedded privilege and power.

Sound is an integral dimension here, most notably because of the “people’s mic”: the echoing of everything a speaker says by the rest of the group. Not without good reason, the tactic has been criticized as inefficient and unnecessary (as has many of Occupy’s strategies), but as a model of this kind of political organization it provides a way of marking how well the group is actively participating in the process. When the assembly dissolves into noise (when a speaker speaks without waiting for the echo or when someone interrupts), it’s a sign the system is coming unglued. Cries of “mic check” are attempts to restore some semblance of order: in aural terms, they are the testing of levels, the tuning up of a giant political instrument.

In this sense, noise is both a frequent means of breaking through the imposed silence of a stagnant political process, as well as the description of the spaces where the movement threatens to deteriorate and is forced to re-evaluate itself, where power seeps through the cracks. Are the two mutually exclusive? Maybe not: the energy of a rally can seep negatively into the gritty business of trying to make the difficult decisions necessary in running a kind of micro-society (as a side note, anyone who thinks the Occupiers are lazy freeloaders never went down there to see how sleep-deprived and stressed the most active organizers really were). But the risk of this dissolution is necessary in the same way that the dissent which created the Occupy movement in the first place is necessary: a little bit of chaos is proof that the group is still made up of individual human beings with differing opinions.

As much as the noise was necessary, so was the silence: I witnessed a poignant wordless march through the financial district of Toronto to the front of the TD Building where protesters simply sat with signs and handed out small flyers, reducing the concept of an “occupation” to a kind of zen-like minimum. The effect it has on the soundscape of the city is kind of incredible: sympathetic to the cause or not, the whole area around King and Bay seemed to open up an aural space. The squeak of breaks from a city bus or the clack of heels on the sidewalk, like the echo of feet in an empty cathedral or a cough in a darkened theatre before the film starts, don’t so much disturb the silence as grow out of it.

And then fade back into it again.