Restless Sound

Fugitive Voice

by Martha Feldman

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In this essay Martha Feldman proposes that current-day notions of fugitivity, understood in the terms Fred Moten delineates as a category of the irregular that escapes easy representations and predications, can undiscipline music histories in productive ways. Among these: it can inflect musicological thinking through attention to sonic remainders of haunted pasts; it can decenter understandings of the aesthetic; and it can lead to more nuanced thinking about the imbrication of music in an “undercommons” of life that refuses ever to fully sound in harmony, residing instead in a disordered space of restless, noisy sound. Feldman asks, finally, how such thinking, developed by Moten, Nathaniel Mackey, and Daphne Brooks, among others, can remake aspects of musicological thinking about voice.

The essay begins:

A vibrant strain of avant-garde writing is nowadays centering music as the medium of a luminously varied Black radical aesthetic without much of musicology yet noticing. Such work might bring to mind sonic points along a dolorous history, from “the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs” of slaves traveling to receive their monthly food allowance that Frederick Douglass heard on the plantation—what W. E. B. Du Bois called “sorrow songs,” “through which the slave spoke to the world”—to the stirring blues laments of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone brought to light by modern-day Black feminists. Today’s Back avant-garde stretches out from such moments, addressing long histories of racial subjugation and violence intimately bound up with modern histories of capitalism, but it’s up to something different. It understands its aesthetic objects through a nexus of politics, philosophy, and metaphysics that often goes by the name of fugitivity, a concept that encompasses those earlier soundings while resituating them. Not restricted to literal flight from slavery, fugitivity belongs to what philosopher and poet Fred Moten—thus far its most expansive and challenging theorist—describes as a capacious category of the irregular in which freedom and unfreedom perpetually coexist in persons who refuse to be objectified or reduced. Only when a Black being recognizes their oppression, victimization, or commodification by speaking, talking back, or refusing to be named and delimited does fugitivity become a lived reality. Only then does it move in its characteristic temporal arc, bending toward the future even while haunted by a past that is never past. Moten conveys this existential condition in a disarming passage about the resonance between the slave narrative passed down to posterity by Harriet Jacobs (1861) and a nude photograph of an anonymous prepubescent Black girl captured in 1882 in the studio of Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins:

The moment in which you enter into the knowledge of slavery, of yourself as a slave, is the moment you begin to think about freedom, the moment in which you know or begin to know or to produce knowledge of freedom, the moment at which you become a fugitive, the moment at which you begin to escape in ways that trouble the structures of subjection that—as Hartman shows with such severe clarity—overdetermine freedom. This is the musical moment of the photograph.

Provocatively, fugitivity here, regardless of its expressive medium, has a consistency that is decidedly musical.

I want to pause at this juncture—obscure at its surface, for how can a photograph without an iota of literal sound have a “musical moment”?—because the notion is pivotal, turning on what Moten elsewhere calls “visible sound.” Avid readers of Moten will recall another photograph that clamors at various points in his prose, that of the desecrated body of young Emmett Till, whose mother insisted he be displayed in all the horror of his savage murder. The image contains what Moten calls an “extensional cry and sound,” one whose power to overtake the viewer’s senses ignites the memory with a disturbance that transduces other senses, other embodied memories.

An image from which one turns is immediately caught in the production of its memorialized, re-membered reproduction. You lean into it but you can’t; the aesthetic and philosophical arrangements of the photograph . . . anticipate a looking that cannot be sustained as unalloyed looking but must be accompanied by listening and this, even though what is listened to—echo of a whistle or a phrase, moaning, mourning, desperate testimony and flight—is also unbearable. These are the complex musics of the photograph. This is the sound before the photograph.

The music sounds before the camera clicks, before the viewer views, and sounds again once the viewer looks. Music both precedes and expresses Black life. It triggers memories that turn into griefs and horrors, more images, and (as we learn elsewhere) bundles of sensory events beyond the strictly auditory or visual. Not just unidirectional, however, medial/sensory transformations and intermediations also go the other way. Hence Jacobs, at a devastating moment in her account, hears “a band of serenaders . . . under the window, playing ‘Home Sweet Home,’” which soon turns into the sounding image of moaning children.

Music here is no more resident solely in physical sound than in sounding music. Wherever found, Black music registers fugitive escape via the phonic eruption, which equates to Black experience and is prefigured by the scream or cry whose originary American instance (to which Moten turns twice, following Saidiya Hartman) are the screams of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester being viciously beaten by her owner. Contained “in the break” (the main title of Moten’s first book), the cry disrupts conventional grammars, strictures, and forms, indexing a breakdown or breakage, but also, relatedly, a breakthrough—a Black event that moves the subject from bondage, conscription, and silence to flight, marronage, and voice. Such flight takes the form of a literal (and for Moten paradigmatic) scream in Abbey Lincoln’s performance of Max Roach and Oscar Brown Jr.’s Freedom Now Suite (1960), a piece that is otherwise “musical” in the ordinary sense. But fugitive flight also takes other sonic forms: a plangent, wailing jazz solo; the explosive shouts in James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”; the lyrical, dancing rhythms of Rakim’s hip-hop, for example—all instances of Moten’s philosophies repeatedly articulating the Black radical aesthetic that Michael Gallope describes “as folds, blurs, oscillations, and rewinds; as displacement and dispossession; as the entanglement of lyricism, performativity, improvisation, and virtuosity.” Continue reading …

MARTHA FELDMAN is the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor of Music at the University of Chicago. Her books include Opera and Sovereignty (Chicago, 2007), The Castrato (Oakland, 2015), and the coedited The Voice as Something More: Essays toward Materiality (Chicago, 2019). She is now working on a book on castrato phantoms in twentieth-century Rome.

Photo: Jimmy and Dena Katz

Music at the Edges

Music Histories from the Edge

by Martha Feldman and Nicholas Mathew

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Feldman and Mathew, guest editors of our just-released special issue “Music and Sound at the Edges of History” introduce the issue:

Lately, across the humanities, historicism in its many guises has been in retreat—a retreat that music studies has in some respects hastened. This collection of essays asks why sound and music appear to induce exhaustion with history and historical method and how a renewed focus on musical practices might motivate fresh histories and novel forms of history writing.

Such questions were the premise of a multidisciplinary Mellon-funded collaboration between Yale University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and King’s College London that met from 2016 to 2018. Charged with rethinking the relation of music to history, the participants ultimately wondered why scholars, musicological and non-, have so frequently deployed music to disrupt or delimit historical projects—indeed whether music itself tends to elicit or even cause such disruptions and delimitations. The ironies here are patent. Not long ago, musicologists would regularly posit history as the most efficacious cure for what ailed their discipline. The study of music, so it was thought, always risked having its head in the clouds, especially the vapors of German idealism. To write music history was to place music’s feet on secure ground—to resituate, rematerialize, and re-embody in ways that checked the transcendental and formalist tendencies of old. “History,” by this reckoning, also designated a place, one where values are produced, where things are exchanged, where bodies move, where politics is played out. And yet, as many have observed, music has never been an entirely convincing occupant of this place, whose solidity is specious at best. Vibrational, ephemeral, footloose, politically mobile, and semiotically uncertain, music forever raises the specter of old philosophical anxieties—about the relation of the aesthetic to the historical, of sensuous experience to rational knowledge, of political orthodoxies to the undercommons of insurgency and resistance, of the vivid present to the absent past.[ii] Small wonder that so many theories of music’s historicity have treated musics of all kinds as strange and exceptional historical actors, even improbable bearers of special historical insight. “Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix say more about the liberatory dream of the 1960s than any theory of crisis,” Jacques Attali once proclaimed.

Given this inheritance, it is not surprising that music studies has been receptive to the postcritical—and to a degree posthistoricist—ethos that has settled on parts of the humanities over the past decade or so. That ethos has entailed a range of aestheticizing impulses, in which immediate sensuous appeal or formal organization are the preconditions of any theory of art’s historical agency or political impact. Even the performative, network-oriented theories of society inspired by Bruno Latour, which some music scholars have strongly endorsed, have to some degree recuperated the art object as a multivalent social actor alongside any number of others. But if such ideas have gained a certain traction in music studies, a still farther-reaching incredulity with history-as-usual has come from those seeking to contest the political ontologies and colonial ideologies of the archive: Paul Gilroy in his account of Black Atlantic diaspora; Fred Moten in his theory of the Black radical tradition; the feminist and queer visions of Latinx and Black futures advanced by the music- and sound-oriented generations of Deborah Vargas, Josh Kun, Kara Keeling, and others, not to mention cognate projects in postcolonial and indigenous studies. These perspectives have challenged conventional notions of history and origins, drawing on the presence and performativity of music to model the disruptively enfolded temporalities and oblique regimes of historicity they wish to theorize. “No originary configuration of attributes but an ongoing shiftiness, a living labor of engendering to be organized in its relation to politico-aesthesis. It’s always going on and has been,” says Moten.

If, under the pressure of these political imperatives, the past has become ever less stable, so too has the music that helped to reconceive it. Sound studies and voice studies, cutting across and through disciplinary boundaries, have in recent years made the very category of music appear both narrow as an object of study and indefensibly colonial—a contingent configuration amid the seemingly more inclusive arenas of sonic practices, vocal utterances, and vibrational experiences. From this perspective, “music” and “voice” designate privileged centers by contrast with lesser peripheries and, accordingly, raise fraught questions about who gets to call what “music” and who and what are demoted to the realm of sound or dismissed as mere noise(making). These subdisciplines frequently seek to disperse sounds into the resonating bodies that have historically produced and mediated them and so seem to promise more materially grounded visions of sonic historicity. Yet they also tend to complicate the very idea of historical situatedness, foregrounding processes of mediation that fold and traverse geographical and chronological distance. Moreover, as music is diffused into the soundscapes, technoscapes, and taskscapes that have newly preoccupied the humanities and social sciences, it begins to trace a transhuman domain that threatens to transcend the ambit of human historicity altogether.

And so the essays in this issue aim to be more than mere experiments in music-fixated forms of historical writing—more, that is, than sonically recalibrated accounts of historical circumstance or epochal transformation in which music (rather than literature or visual art or architecture) plays an unusually prominent role. While remaining chary of inherited claims on behalf of music’s specialness as a vehicle of historical revelation, they ask how musical practices might be thought to instigate and sustain entirely new conceptions of the past and even how musico-critical practices might invoke ontologically broadened notions of music to revise historical thought. Continue reading …

MARTHA FELDMAN is the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor of Music at the University of Chicago. Her books include Opera and Sovereignty (Chicago, 2007), The Castrato (Oakland, 2015), and the coedited The Voice as Something More: Essays toward Materiality (Chicago, 2019). She is now working on a book on castrato phantoms in twentieth-century Rome.

NICHOLAS MATHEW is Professor of Music at the University of California, Berkeley.  He is the author of Political Beethoven (Cambridge, 2013) and The Haydn Economy, forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press.

Political Sound

Sound Evidence, 1969: Recording a Milanese Riot

by Delia Casadei

The essay begins:

Milan, 19 November 1969, noon. In the heart of the city center, on the streets surrounding the Duomo, two crowds converge. The first, a large group of union workers, is gathered in the Teatro Lirico—there is a general strike all over Italy, the grievance being a rise in the cost of housing. A second group, an assortment of extra-parliamentary left-wing organizations whose Italian crop was in full flourish by 1968, is marching down Via Larga. Since the Teatro Lirico is also on Via Larga, the workers leaving their assembly mingle with the other demonstrators. The crowd swells and heaves. The police intervene. After a few moments, the scene has degenerated: the police, in vans, move toward the demonstrators; the demonstrators find steel tubes in a nearby building site and use them as weapons. A police officer driving one of the vans—Antonio Annarumma—dies in the struggle, in circumstances that remain unclear to this day.

Competing accounts of the event appear almost instantly. Italy’s president, Giuseppe Saragat, releases a public statement laced with imagery of a body politic assailed by lethal pathogens:

This odious crime must serve as a warning to all: to isolate the criminals and put them in a condition of no longer being noxious; their purpose is the destruction of life.

Many demonstrators were illegally incarcerated for several months while they awaited trial. The leading left-wing newspaper, L’Unità, published eyewitness accounts from both striking workers and a judge (Domenico Politanò) at the Milan tribunal, who maintained that “[the police carried out] an aggressive act on a peaceful demonstration.” Other commentators, including left-wing writer Nanni Balestrini, maintained that the police attacked first, that Annarumma collided with another police van, and that his death was subsequently framed as murder in order to antagonize the extra-parliamentary left. The Italian Confederation of Workers’ Unions (CISL) suggested that the extremist left-wing groups were of “suspect provenience,” meaning that they might have been infiltrated, perhaps by neofascists seeking to pin a political murder on the left. Slogans calling to avenge Annarumma’s death appeared on walls across the city. In the police barracks at the Milanese northeastern district of Bicocca, where Annarumma was usually stationed, the climate became increasingly exasperated. Far-right press such as the weekly Il Borghese called for the occupation of the city by the police. When, a few days later, Mario Capanna, leader of the Movimento Studentesco (the university’s leading left-wing group and part of the group accused of Annarumma’s murder), attended the funeral of Annarumma to offer his condolences, he narrowly escaped lynching by a mob of enraged policemen.

The ensuing trial did little to calm this tense atmosphere. While responsibility for Annarumma’s death was officially attributed to the demonstrators, an individual culprit was never found: what the law produced was not the cathartic exhibition of a criminal body, but an immaterial moral shadow cast over a mercurial, disorderly crowd—a collective that could take on different political shades depending on the onlooker. Viewed from the hindsight of the decade that followed, the whole episode—and the atmosphere it generated—was grimly familiar and not unique to Italy. The state of constant urban confrontation, in other words, was one that characterized many nations during the height of the Cold War. This “low-intensity warfare”—the US Army term used to describe the situation in Italy, as well as in Greece, West Germany, and Chile in the 1970s—saw official and unofficial police forces mobilized to curb left-wing political extremism. In Italy, as elsewhere, the decade beginning in 1969 was dubbed the anni di piombo, the years of lead—a period characterized by political violence by way of artillery: bombs detonated on trains and in railway stations and banks and the kidnapping and murder of politicians, activists, and members of the police force.

As I have mentioned, neither the epithet nor the political situation was exclusive to Italy during the years of the Cold War—indeed, the phrase anni di piombo was coined in 1981 by German director Margarethe von Trotta, who made it the title of a film about the tensions between East and West Germany. In Italy, the term referred to a series of urban guerrilla actions resulting from several layers of political conflict: the skyrocketing of private industry profits during the years of the economic miracle (1958–1963) had been accompanied by neglect of the public sector—housing infrastructure, health services, and education—that became the subject of frequent and vociferous protests among workers, university students, and left-wing intellectuals. By the end of the sixties, these sectors had articulated into a myriad of competing extra-parliamentary left-wing groups. Some of these (such as the Movimento Studentesco, the Marxisti Leninisti, and Adriano Sofri’s Lotta Continua) had considerable traction and contacts with Soviet Russia, argued for the necessity of political violence, and had ties with the Communist Red Brigades. Although in conflict with one another over the minutiae of their political programs, all groups protested the parliamentary left, which in 1969 consisted of a first-time coalition of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the Christian Democrats (DC). This same government—and anything to the left of it—was also under attack by numerous neofascist groups such as Ordine Nuovo, and Avanguardia Nazionale. Although the plan came to nothing, Julio Valerio Borghese, a naval commander during the fascist regime who continued lobbying for extreme right politics after the war, allegedly gathered armed forces to attempt a coup d’état—now known as the Golpe Borghese—between 7 and 8 December 1970. The US government—which had kept very close ties with the center-left Christian Democrat government since the 1950s—naturally did not want the extreme left to gain traction in Italy; but by the seventies, as some Wikileaks cables have since shown, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was actively invested in discouraging inquiries into the links between neofascist sympathizers and the police, a disquieting position considering that Italy was in the aftermath of an attempted—if badly executed—military coup, and that Kissinger would in 1973 openly support the Chilean golpe against Salvador Allende.

The product of these tensions was an atmosphere in which violent extremes mingled and even were played against one another by a government intent on preserving its precarious stability at all costs. Extreme left-wing groups were often infiltrated by spies from the extreme right, and vice versa. The strategy of “false flagging”—that is, of committing a crime in such a way as to pin responsibility on a particular political group—was a key mode of operation in the late sixties, one whose effect was not so much a successful laying of blame as a deeper destabilization of any identity behind political action. If a crime could be committed so as to look like the work of a leftist group, then the very ideal of activism—that of making direct, immediate dents in a political order—was shattered into a forest of signs, which were then subjected to the vagaries of representation and interpretation.

A period such as the anni di piombo presents a peculiar kind of problem to any historian (let alone a sound historian, as we will see). Unresolved crimes, violence without a culprit, were more rule than exception in this period—it was a time of “terror as usual,” to use Michael Taussig’s sinister oxymoron. Such crimes are always already embedded in a highly sensationalist public record dating back to the violent event itself and woven in a literary and visual corpus that spans, by now, decades. A violent event existed in a particular “climate of representation”—to use Lisa Gitelman’s phrase—through which the event was codified into reports that rooted themselves in the memory of the city’s inhabitants. The climate, in the case of 1970s Italy, was characterized by sensationalist public statements, such as Saragat’s intimation of biopolitical terror, which pointedly fails to identify any political purpose behind the violence other than the “destruction of life.” The sensationalism, though, was not a general matter of rhetoric, of overstatement, or even of metaphorical language. The historian can’t pretend to scrape it off as mere ideology, exposing the live historical flesh underneath. And this is why: in the history of Italian politics that begins with the explosion in Piazza Fontana and extends to the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, it was hardly ever the loss of life, the most concrete consequence of political violence, that was sensationalized; rather, it was precisely the unintelligibility, the impossibility of conclusive evidence regarding its perpetrators that was staged, proclaimed, bemoaned, and ultimately sold.

This climate of representation, in which unintelligibility is presented as a kind of standalone reality effect (that is, such a picture, or such a witness, is telling the truth because its contents or testimony are unclear), puts the historian in a peculiar double bind. We don’t know, for example, if Annarumma was intentionally murdered or died by accident, perhaps as a result of attempted self-defense. Nonetheless, reporting this particular or any event as a problem, as an unresolved issue, is to appropriate the mode of presentation of the event itself at the time of occurrence, making the historian complicit with the sensationalist press coverage. And yet it is also essentially impossible for the historian to resolve the mystery (and this is, of course, the mode of Italian microhistorians like Carlo Ginzburg, who directly engaged with the historiographical and political problem of the anni di piombo) and demystify the sensationalism: for all the putative resolutions of the Annarumma, Piazza Fontana, and Aldo Moro cases, none of them have yet amounted to an official legal resolution. Indeed, not only is the overblown mode of representation difficult to deflate into a legal resolution, but one could also argue that sensationalism in 1970s Italy aided, rather than defied, the exercise of the law: in response to the Moro murder, Prime Minister Francesco Cossiga passed a law (formulated on 15 December 1979 and passed on 8 February 1980) sanctioning mass incarcerations, unwarranted searches, and more severe punishment for terrorist activities, effectively turning the problem of unintelligibility into permission to persecute, rather than legally try, members of activist groups deemed suspicious.

This is not to say that the question of the aesthetic value, the performativity and complex sensationalism of the coverage of political violence at this point in Italian history hasn’t been examined by historians. It is, however, striking that, by and large, these analyses have focused on visual evidence, on either printed media or photography. Verbal media—newspaper articles, interviews, and so on—could also embody terror insofar as they were shown merely to report on what seemed unsettling documentary evidence. Of course visual evidence and its presentation were even more crucial to the building of such an atmosphere—from the typesetting of headlines, to the pictures included with the report, to the street-level “eyewitnesses” on which journalistic reports of this kind so heavily rely. Historians have since produced accounts of precisely the representational work performed by 1970s media, accounts that are largely based on an analysis of images and news clippings. In the case of Italy, a collective study was published in 2011 of an iconic image of Milan’s anni di piombo (a balaclava-wearing demonstrator pointing a gun at armed police), showing the work of representation evident in the technical features as well as press coverage of the photo. There is, on the other hand, a pronounced dearth of critical studies about sound media in these same circumstances. This is an odd lacuna. After all, this is a historical period in which recording technology allows for extensive sonic documentation—not to mention surveillance—of events that could then be broadcast or even circulated as recordings. Is this lack of a critical history of political sound recordings simply a sign that recorded sound has lost the race against visual media as a source of proof, and thus as the subject of historical critique? Or is it that the act of recording sound is considered by default less mediated (more presence than representation) than visual reproduction, and thus, again, less worthy of critical attention? And if so, how might we begin to think of a representational climate for sound in these decades? Continue reading …

In this essay, musicologist Delia Casadei homes in on the contradiction between the declared purpose of the LP I fatti di Milano and the sound recording it mobilizes toward that end. Drawing on both sound studies and Italian political philosophy, she argues that the record embodies and actively stages idiosyncratic but highly contemporary relationships between music and soundscape, between sound event and its technological reproduction, and ultimately between political event and the act of writing history.

DELIA CASADEI is an Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley. She researches the relation between voice, sound reproduction, and ideologies of language, with special attention to the twentieth century, Italy, and matters of nationhood and race.

The Screen in Sound

A Lecture by Rey chow:

The Screen in Sound: Toward a Theory of Listening

October 18 | 4-6 p.m. | 370 Dwinelle Hall, UC Berkeley

This lecture is drawn from Rey Chow’s chapter in the anthology Sound Objects (Duke UP, forthcoming), co-edited by Chow and James A. Steintrager. By foregrounding crucial connections among sound studies, poststructuralist theory, and contemporary acousmatic experiences, the lecture presents listening as a trans-disciplinary problematic through which different fields of study resonate in fascinating ways.

Rey Chow’s research comprises theoretical, interdisciplinary, and textual analyses. Since her years as a graduate student at Stanford University, she has specialized in the making of cultural forms such as literature and film (with particular attention to East Asia, Western Europe, and North America), and in the discursive encounters among modernity, sexuality, postcoloniality, and ethnicity. In her current work, Chow is concerned with the legacies of poststructuralist theory (in particular the work of Michel Foucault), the politics of language as a postcolonial phenomenon, and the shifting paradigms for knowledge and lived experience in the age of visual technologies and digital media.

REY CHOW is Anne Firor Scott Professor of Literature at Duke University. In addition to her work on Sound Objects, she is the author of numerous influential monographs, including 2014’s Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience. Her most recent publication in Representations is “The Hitchcockian Nudge; or, An Aesthetics of Deception,” written with Markos Hadjioannou, published in number 140, Fall 2017.