Text Sound Poetry
I created several pieces using manipulated speech recordings, starting in the fall of 2003. After creating several of these pieces, I became aware of a genre called Text Sound Poetry. Charles Amirkhanian gave me a copy of Other Mind’s re-release of 10 + 2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces and coincidentally, I finally bought the copy of the re-released OU archives that had been temping me for months. Phillip Schulze, an exchange student, gave me a copy of Terre Thaemlitz’s album Interstices.
Text Sound seems to be especially well suited to political expression. Often, a political work suffers a tension between the political/text content and the musical content. Either the political message or the music often must be sacrificed. However, in the Text Sound genre, the text content is the musical content. Composers like Sten Hanson, Steve Reich and Terre Thaemlitz are able to create pieces where complaints about the Vietnam War, gender discrimination and police brutality form the substance of the piece. To engage the piece is to engage the political content.
Reich’s pieces are less obvious than Hanson and Thaemlitz. The loop process he uses it Its Gonna Rain is auditorially interesting, but the meaning of the piece is not immediately clear to a modern listener. Many discussions of his pieces eliminate the political content and focus on the process. Before I did research on this piece I was disturbed by the implications of a white composer taking the words of an African American and obscuring them until the content was lost to the process. It seemed as if he was exploiting the preacher somehow. However, according to Four Musical Minimalists, Reich was deeply involved in anti-racist organizing and was collaborating on anti-racist street theatre with the San Francisco Mime Troop. The book also stated that Reich was fascinated with deep timbres of African American voices.
Right now, speaking for black people and saying that you're fascinated by the timbres of their voices would be extremely problematic. (I was surprised to see that the book had a very recent publication date.) But this all took place in the 60's and it's appropriate to judge his intentions only according to what was considered progressive at the time. He was on the right side of things. However, when one is trying to learn from this to figure out what to do now, one has to take into account current notions of progressivism.
Come Out is an extremely effective piece of political music. One of my questions was whether or not "come out" had a possible double meaning at the time the piece was written. It did not. That phrase as a signifier for visible queer identity originated in the 1970's or 80's. Instead Reich's sample is made into a very effective loop where the words "come out to show them" and then just "come out" are plucked from their original context and by repetition gain their own meaning of protest. Reich transforms the words from a statement of victim hood to a statement of protest. (According to Four Musical Minimalists) The words originate from a group of young African American men who were beat by the police in Harlem. One of them is describing how he was injured and wanted medical attention but wasn't visibly bleeding, so had to open is wound to allow some of "the bruise blood to come out to show them." Aworks blog points out that the piece was written as a fundraiser for the victims of the police brutality. (Gable)
Investigating Reich’s work was influential to me. I want to be aware of the issues I encountered in his work and keep on the current left side of progressivism. When someone who has privilege is using the words of someone who does not have privilege, it seems that extra care should be taken to avoid distortion. I have done this thus far by mostly only using the voice of my political enemies rather than my friends. However, the transformative nature of Come Out is entirely inspiring. It is one of my favorite pieces of political music. In his seminar in the fall of 2004, Alvin Lucier warned that the danger of using text that you admire is the urge to elevate it somehow. Reich does elevate the text, but not like a gilded manuscript. His elevation is sensitive and entirely appropriate to the material.
I first became aware of Sten Hanson’s piece The Glorious Desertion while listening to the OU archives. It is an excellent piece about American involvement in the Vietnam War. Hanson is European, yet the piece eloquently captures a picture of American politics of draft resistance during the war. It is made up of interviews of draft resistors. Although the war is long since ended, the piece is still engaging and interesting and avoids being dated. What makes it work is that the issues it raises are large and iconic of an era. There is a clip within it of men chanting “Hell no, we won’t go.” This chant is still within the national consciousness as an emblem of a large, long-lasting, successful movement.
I fear that my own text pieces will not wear so well over time. I believe the key to the longevity of Hanson’s pieces is his choice of source material. He uses the voices of people who actually believe in something larger than themselves. If I am going to keep making political text-based pieces, I need to find voices that stand for something. I need to pick prominent issues. Alas, this is hard to predict. I though prison torture mattered, but it does not, because it is only a part of a bigger picture. If I want to do anti-war pieces, I should follow Hanson’s lead and use the words of soldiers or activists.
Instead, I began my foray into Test Sound pieces by using the voice of President George W. Bush. I created two pieces using his voice that are described in the next chapter. Ron Kuivila warned about using the voices of politicians because of the danger of a short shelf life. As the election approached, I began to see the wisdom in this caution. Clearly, I thought, Bush would be removed from office (alas!). I began to look for a source of sound material that was going to stay current longer, and preferably also from the right wing.
Fortunately for me, David Brock, author of Blinded by the Right decided to start monitoring right wing media for distortions. His book details how there exists a right wing echo chamber, which he participated in during the Clinton administration. Anti-Clinton people would invent scandals, where someone would imagine a story about Clinton, and the right wing media would repeat the lie. There was virtually no fact checking to verify the imagined Clinton misdeeds. One media outlet would report it. Another would report that the first outlet had reported it. Another would notice that reporting. Finally, the buzz created by the right wing would be picked up by the mainstream and by the endless partisan special prosecutor investigations. The result of this, as we all know, is that Clinton, who was investigated initially for a land deal that went bad, ended up being impeached for having a consensual affair. If Larry Flint hadn't stepped in and exposed the then speaker of the House's recent affair, Clinton would likely have been removed from office. Larry Flint saved our democracy (at least until 2000).
Obviously, something had to be done about this situation. David Brock wrote a confessional memoir and then enthusiastically switched sides. Americans love their converts and so the left has enthusiastically supported Brock, despite his confession of lying in virtually every article he had written until then.
Fortunately, his recent efforts are all well documented and verified. In an effort to expose right wing spin and echo as lies before it becomes part of mainstream political culture, he began to post outrageous comments by pundits on his website mediaMatters.org. In addition to posting the text of offensive comments, he also provides documentary audio and video clips.
This documentary evidence seemed to be a goldmine. It was a treasure trove of right wing voices. And what’s more, the offensive content was already cherry picked. No longer would I have to do text searches of Bush’s speech transcripts and then look for a recording of it. I could find all the pundits I wanted and only have their worst comments to listen to. I reasoned that pundits may rise and fall in popularity, but they often last for years. Rush Limbaugh has had a radio show for more than ten years and has thousands of rabid followers. His voice is iconic. He was the first pundit I downloaded samples of. However, I found his voice initially difficult to work with. Limbaugh is hard to pull apart. He is not sound bitey. He says nothing immediately reprehensible. It takes a few moments to realize that he's reprehensible. After experimenting with Limbaugh’s voice, I turned to Ann Coulter. Her outrageous, short sound bites were much easier to manipulate. Limbaugh requires several minutes to grok. Coulter requires mere seconds. My success with Coulter lead me back to Limbaugh and on to other pundits.
However, I fear that my pundit music has an even more limited lifespan than my Bush music. Rabid, right wing pundits do not focus on broad issues. The focus on the GOP talking point of the day and on attacking their opponents with whatever the echo chamber kicks up. It may turn out to be something that changes the course of history, like Monica Lewinsky, or it might be later easily forgettable like “Travelgate,” Howard Dean screaming, or Kerry throwing away combat ribbons during a protest. In a short time, people will have trouble remembering the name of the losing challenger, let alone the guy who lost the primary in New Hampshire. Pundits themselves may outlast these candidates, but if the content of their speech is made up of dated issues, then the speech also becomes dated. Pundits only touch on broad social issues as asides in their focused attacks, except for only occasionally.
Coulter did say that we should “Invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”, where “they” are the people of the Middle East. She touches on the national mood but - one hopes - she does not represent a mass movement. She represents a political elite, and not even an elected elite. Her words will not lastingly resonate unless, God forbid, she wins a prominent public office. These pundits do not stand for anything larger than themselves. Their words reflect self-glorification first and everything else second. Michael Savage’s pro-torture remarks were filled with interjections complaining that other media outlets (aside from him, of course) were “communists.” He paused for self-aggrandizing comments. “You like that?! Go complain to somebody! See if I care.” Rush Limbaugh uses silly voices more often than not. He is in love with the sound of his voice. He stands only for himself. Ann Coulter is dazzled by her own cleverness and never bothers to construct a coherent argument. These pundits are cynical. They only believe in their own greatness. They do not exist to convert, but rather to preach to their own choirs.
While I enjoy Text Sound Poetry, especially what I found in the OU archives, I think that my time working with pundits is past. In the end, I’m frustrated. I thought that people would be appalled at Limbaugh defending prison torture. However, it’s not an effective political piece because people are not appalled. They don’t care. Someone finally managed to neutralize empathy. Prison torture was not enough to cost Bush an election. It’s only Arabs and terrorists and bad guys that get tortured. When Michael Savage calls Iraqis “sub humans,” he speaks for America.
Making leftist experimental music is inherently futile. The politically dominant far right doesn’t like experimental music and will not listen to it. If they did listen to it, they wouldn’t be persuaded by my content. They don’t see anything wrong with defending prison torture. I, like the pundits themselves, end up preaching to the choir.
On the other hand, as Brock notes, most centrists and leftist are blissfully unaware of how the far right is changing discourse. Bringing this to the attention of the left may hopefully inspire them to fight it. At the least, one hopes that all of the Alien Others constantly attacked by the right wing would begin to feel solidarity. Arabs and queers are often used almost interchangeably. Imus in the Morning described an Iraqi resistance fighter as “an enemy combatant who had sworn fidelity to some bearded fatwa fairy.” (http://mediamatters.org/items/200411190009) Queers stand-in for almost any social “problem.” Bill Cunningham said while discussing classroom discipline on Hannity & Colmes, “In the good old days, back when AIDS was an appetite suppressant and when gay meant you were happy, back in those days there was discipline in public schools. But not today.” (http://mediamatters.org/items/200503040003) Ah yes, back when people knew their place and social norms could be enforced with lynching, in that mythical golden age, children were well-behaved.
Antebellum logics are a threat to queers, to people of color, to women, to atheists and to anyone who wants to avoid a police state. When Bush complains about pop culture and Limbaugh defends prison torture and Michael Savage calls queer members of the “turd world,” this is a treat to my future ability to survive in this country. I keep saying that I’m done with pundits, and then I keep working on just one more piece. I feel compelled to engage these threats.
This post is Copyright 2005 Celeste Hutchins. All rights reserved. It is not Creative Commons Licensed.