Vol. 3 | On Sound | Michael Stone-Richards

On Sound

Michael Stone-Richards

  1. This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper,” wrote T.S Eliot in “The Hollow Men,” and in so writing Eliot was pointing to the bathos of endings, the sense that all climaxes – don’t you know – are never quite, well, up to it, and so Eliot was not Wagnerian, since no Götterdämmerung, no twilight of the gods, could crescendo, sound so completely right, as to be worth the effort. I said, bathos, anti-climax. Still, there is some one around to hear the ending of things.
  2. The Big Bang. The Beginning of Things – everything, as that three-syllabled Anglo-Saxon word would put it. Was there an auditor for that at its coming into being? Or a B-flat 57 octaves below middle C?
  3. Hearing is the most primitive, that is, the oldest of the senses – the child in the womb can hear – and the only one of our human senses that wholly connects inside and outside, the faculty, too, responsible for our orientation in the world. Afro-Futurist Kodwo Eshun’s Otolith Group is so called for its desire to re-orient thinking.
  4. The Enuma Elish (c.1500 – 1200 B.C.E), the Babylonian creation epic, narrates the story of a war between the primeval gods led by Mother Tiamat against her offspring, led by Marduk. The cause of the conflict? The younger gods were making too much noise and their father, Apsu, consort to Tiamat, could not bear it:

    The gods of that generation would meet together
    And disturb Tiamat, and their clamour reverberated.


    Apsu could not quell their noise
    And Tiamat became mute before them;


    Apsu made his voice heard
    And spoke to Tiamat in a loud voice,
    “Their ways have become very grievous to me,
    By day I cannot rest, by night I cannot sleep.
    I shall abolish their ways and disperse them!
    Let peace prevail, so that we can sleep.”1Enuma Elish, trans. Stephanie Dalley, in The Harper Collins World Reader, ed. Mary Ann Caws and Christopher Prendergast (New York: Harper Collins, …

    One imagines that the younger gods must have been performing the cosmic equivalent of Rock music! The idea that a cosmic intergenerational battle can begin because of noise might sound a little bit suburban, for sure, but the difference between noise and sound (an increasingly controversial subject in sound studies) can be the difference between continuity and disruption, homeostasis and unwelcome spontaneity, the difference, indeed, between order and chaos.2Cf. the excellent issue of Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies devoted to “The Sense of Sound,” especially Michel Chion, …

  5. So, there can be a sound to a century - the century roar, as a poem by J.H. Prynne characterizes it – where, for example, the melody of high Victorian lyric is replaced by the noise of the savage gods, as W.B. Yeats intuits the future when he assists at the opening of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in Paris, in 1896, as if he can proleptically hear the sound experiments of Dada, Futurism, and Russian Cubo-Futurist sound formulations simultaneous with the discovery of Africanized soundings in disrupting the European poetic voice.

  6. The Africanized soundings – phylogenetic tracings? – are there in Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk when he discusses the Sorrow Songs / Negro Spirituals, quoting the following fragment passed down in his family:

    Do bana coba, gene me, gene me!

    Do bana coba, gene me, gene me!
    Ben d’nuli, nuli, ben d’le3W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk in The Oxford W.E. B. Du Bois Reader, ed. Eric J. Sundquist (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, …

    soundings not so far from Rousseau’s recollected broken fragments in Les Confessions, but Du Bois cannot grasp their modernity and only sees them as dross, theological dross, to be more precise, as he argues that in the Sorrow Songs “words and music have lost each other,” and the music alone is authentic.4Cf. Michael Stone-Richards, “Fragmentation: Du Bois, Rousseau,” Logics of Separation (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011), 216-229. And this at the same time that Dada and Russian sound poetry is uncovering the numinous element in sound as medium.5Cf. Rudolf Otto, “Original Numinous Sounds,” The Idea of the Holy (1917), trans. John W. Harvey (Oxford: O.U.P., 1968), 190-193.

  7. The sound of the century is technology transforming its world-picture or frame to nature through communications infrastructure - railways, roads, airways… electrical and digital signals - or pulse - each with its encompassing sounding - pointing to the imperium of the spectacle and its core: the commodity. This is captured in William Bunge’s reflections on the sound of Detroit from the nineteenth- into the twentieth-century. It is captured, too, in an extraordinary conversation between Jerry Herron and General Baker in the courtyard of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals, 1932-1933, at the DIA where Herron wants to talk art and Baker, with a look of triggered memories, talks only noise pollution.6It is not until 1973, for example, that we begin to get quasi-official research on the damage and broken bodies in the factories of the Big Three in … Baker does not see a great work of art – an insidious work in any case sheathed in the violence of idealization that few if any Black worker could accept – but only noise pollution and at no point does he acknowledge Detroit Industry Murals qua art, instead he asks Herron:

    Have you been to that tour in The Rouge? […] In one of those movie sections [of the tour] they got the sound, they got the sound loud enough to almost simulate what it used to be like, but what you can’t imagine [from this movie simulation] is that you [the worker] heard that all day long. You [the viewer] hear it for a second and it’s gone, but man, eight hours, you go home and lay down in your bed and the press still falling, Bang! Bang! Bang! It never stopped, you know!7General Baker, in “The Past is Present: Jerry Herron and General Baker in Conversation,” MOCAD, 2013. …

    When General Baker speaks in front of Detroit Industry Murals it is telling how he never sees this work primarily as concerned with, and never speaks in celebration of, the making of the modern world, but only in terms of the crushing labor and noise pollution required for that making, something from which working men need to be liberated, but conceding that “it takes quite a lot to get working men to riot. It ain’t easy!” One might even say that he recoils at the hurt and damage masked by the violence of idealization at work in Rivera’s mural. Céline, that strange and complex Frenchman, is perhaps the writer more than any other who captured the deleterious effect of noise pollution in the Detroit car factories, the way in which noise (bruit) takes control of the whole of the body, when his great novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (1952), spoke of ce bruit de rage enorme (this sound of enormous rage) in the Ford factory:

    Once back in the right clothing, we set out again in sluggish lines, reinforced along the way by hesitant groups, towards those locations from where enormous quarrelsome sounds of machinery were reaching us. Everything in the immense edifice was trembling and, feet in ears, one was possessed by the trembling; and there was coming from the window panes and from the floors and from the scrap metal, tremors, resonant from top to bottom. In the process one was also becoming oneself a machine by dint of all the flesh of the body still trembling in this sound of enormous rage which was taking you on the inside and all around your head and lower down shaking the guts and reaching back up to the eyes by precipitating, infinite, unceasing seizures [coups: literally, blows]. To the extent that one advanced, one was losing one’s companions. On leaving them behind, one shared with them a slight smile as if everything that was taking place was indeed fine. One was no longer able to speak to one another nor to hear one another. There remained each time three or four around a machine.8Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Voyage au bout de la nuit (1952) (Paris : Gallimard, 2002), 225.

    It is an extraordinary thing that perhaps the most powerful description of the acoustic hurt and damage of working in the factory / foundry of the Big Three in Detroit should have come from a Frenchman and such a complicated figure as was Céline. What this passage describes – over several pages - is nothing less than a (demonic) possession, “this sound of enormous rage which was taking you on the inside and all around your head and lower down shaking the guts and reaching back up to the eyes by precipitating, infinite, unceasing seizures.” And just as General Baker will speak of taking home the sounds with one - “you go home and lay down in your bed and the press still falling, Bang! Bang! Bang! It never stopped, you know!” - likewise does Voyage au bout de la nuit observe that “When at six o’clock everything stops one carries away the noise in one’s head.”

  8. The music of Techno is equally the sound of a century, every bit a sound in the head, but its technique turned away from (industry and) commodity to imagining: the new ontological acoustics (created in the studio, that is, not from or found in the streets) by young Black misfits - Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Eddie Fowlkes, Blake Baxter, Kevin Saunderson, and others - who didn’t easily fit in anywhere in Detroit but who, with technology, discover new interior spaces through electronic ontologies and through this establish new communities of affect across the globe.9Cf. Francesca Berardi, “Warriors come out and Play – A Story of Cultural Resistance,” Detour in Detroit (Milano: Humboldt Books, 2015), 105-113.

  9. It is with their montage film, Handsworth Songs (1986), an essay film on the Handsworth Riots in Birmingham, England in 1985, that John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) announce a new aesthetic anchored in sounds and sounding, a studio produced acoustic developed by Trevor Mathison that frays the difference between music and noise allowing a new prepredicative positioning of sound in relation to worlding. In doing so, BAFC’s sound practice draws upon various avant-garde sound practices opened up by Soviet cinema, Lettrisme, the Internationale situationniste, Alain Resnais but also Edgard Varèse whose concept of musical material worked through timbre where, as Klaus Kropfinger observed, “[Varèse] defined music as the art of timbre in the broadest sense of the term, and he did so by incorporating the social context as a source of new sounds, specifically tapping the huge potential of electronically generated sound.”10Klaus Kropfinger, “ ‘You Never took the simple Path’: Varèse’s Liberation of Sound and the Delimitation of the Arts,” in Edgard Varèse: …

  10. Then there is the staging of sound – in Cage, in Feldman, in the vocalists Joan La Barbara and Meredith Monk, in the meta-machine performances of Lun*na Menoh, in the great performers of scatting as mainstream as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, or as found in the vocalization of Theaster Gates and The Black Monks, no less than in the modes of experimental jazz from Cecile Taylor and Ornette Coleman through to Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Barbara Donald, Henry Threadgill, and George Lewis.

  11. From the staging of sound is but a non-linear step to the new soundscapes of R. Murray Schafer and the quest for a new sound of health which Pauline Oliveros provisionally characterized as deep listening, music as environmental sounding. The doctors of the coming community will be listeners.

  12. Koyaanisqatsi.

    Detroit Research began its first volume Of Spaces, continued with volume 2 On Dance, and here concludes volume 3 On Sound. Our guest editors, Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller of ADULT., have assembled a stunning set of reflections and histories of sound both performatively and conceptually from John Cage and Juliana Huxtable – what a curation! – to Lun*na Menoh and others with superb essays by Chris Scoates on Brian Eno and Carey Loren writing his distinctive history of the Detroit performance scene. Kuperus and Miller have spent more than twenty-five years as part of the Detroit art and performance scene, beginning with life at CCS, and have always practiced their polyphonic intermedia work – in music, photography, painting, film, performance – in Detroit, nationally, and internationally. The richness of their practice is reflected in the richness and complexity of the work they have curated for us. It is an unprecedented and distinctive opening onto a sound and performance culture still bearing fruit. Our cover of Lun*na Menoh is the window onto this world. Ingrid LaFleur - Detroit, South Africa, Louisiana, New York, Detroit - has curated a set of sound works for us (Sam Woods, Sterling Toles, Reuben Telushkin) which we have embedded in an extended and open set of reflections on Detroit ’67 in sound, iconography, and unfinished business - see here, for example, the superb essay by Marsha Music on “The Division of Labor” which has already been read by a generation of CCS students in Critical Studies and Critical Practice, and Amy Kaherl’s “Dinner Music” as she transitions away from her incredible work at Detroit Soup, one of the most innovative social practice spaces in Detroit.11On Amy Kaherl and Detroit Soup, cf. Berardi, “Crowdfunding before (and after) the Internet Era,” Detour in Detroit, 231-233. We have curated the collection to extend the idea of sound in video work – Bree Gant, Laura Gibson, Elysia Vandenbussche, for example – but also visually as with Ish Ishmael’s exceptional photo essay from The Year of George Floyd, and “Further Soundings” from artists such as Todd Stovall, Jon Brumit, and more. We reprint as “The Sound of Detroit” William Bunge’s conclusion to Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution (1971), along with work by Alex B. Hill both on placing the extraordinary figure of Bunge and a new set of works in our section “Drawing Detroit.” We have brought together a wealth of material on social engagement – Kate Levy, Shanna Merola, and Halima Cassells on the model of extraction of resources from the city; Shakespeare in Prison, edited by Frannie Shepherd-Bates; poems from the Poetry Writing Workshop from the Women’s Huron Valley Prison, edited by Rob Halpern; the world of canning in New York as uncovered for us by Francesca Berardi - and new work in artist research (Bridget Francis Quinn, Kylie Lockwood, Charisse Pearlina Weston, who was recently the Burke Prize Awardee of the Museum of Art and Design, along with interviews with Vito Acconci and Jim Crawford); we also present a dossier on the practice of Addie Langford, and a major section on Critical Practice / Art and Pedagogy with reflections from CCS students in Transportation Design, Photo, Communications Design, with CCS alum Grant Czuj (MFA Yale Painting, 2022), and faculty (Molly Beauregard drawing upon her book, Tuning the Student Mind (2020), makes the case, a case that should no longer need making, on the importance of meditative practices within the curriculum of art + design school, and Michael Stone-Richards on “Time in Critical Practice” on the need for a new model of embedded durational critical practice to replace an unsatisfactory artisanal model of the Crit). The section of “Essays in Research” sees Ellen Levy – born in Detroit, resident in New York – writing on (Detroit born) Ray Johnson, Biba Bell on Nick Cave in Detroit, and a set of reflections by me on labor and the Black avant-garde encompassing McArthur Binion, Alison Janae Hamilton, Theaster Gates, and David Hammons. Our “In Review” section sees beautiful material by Jim Boyle on the 53 North project, an emerging sculpture garden in Port Austin, Michigan; Greg Fadell; CCS Alum Dionne Smith-Jackson reviewing a performance in Busan, South Korea; Felicity Stone-Richards reviewing the exhibition Les Artistes Africains-Américains et la Ségrégation at the Quai Branly, in Paris; and Mateusz Kasprowicz, from the comparative perspective of Detroit / Vassar, writing on the Detroit-based philosopher of work and value Frithjof Bergmann. In an “Envoi” I reflect on thinking through the time of covid-19.

    Many artists and friends across the community - and indeed beyond Detroit - have donated artwork, resources, and time to make Detroit Research and the project for  Visual + Critical Studies for which it stands possible. First and foremost, we should like to acknowledge the indispensable role of McArthur Binion whose unconditional support meant that we could imagine freely what it might mean to enact the principal mission of Detroit Research, to place the work of Detroit art practice in dialogue with national and international voices. We cannot thank enough the many artists, beginning with our remarkable guest editors Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller of ADULT. for their unstinting support. Their section on sound is both historically and conceptually rigorous as well as acoustically stunning. We gratefully acknowledge the many artists who donated work for our fundraisers: Michael E. Smith, Addie Langford, Scott Hocking, Carlos Diaz, Chris Tysh, George Tysh, Greg Fadell, Leni Sinclair, Biba Bell, Bailey Scieszka, Bridget Frances Quinn, Jessica Stoller, Tony Hope, Benjamin Teague, and Maya Stovall. Many people who pre-ordered copies of Detroit Research 3 or donated to our fundraiser assisted us in reaching a wide audience. We should also, once more, like to acknowledge the crucial and timely interest of Katy Locker, former Knight Foundation Program Director for Detroit and the indispensable support of the Knight Foundation in the form of a Knight Art Challenge Grant in 2015. Detroit Research is produced in collaboration with the College for Creative Studies (CCS) whose President Emeritus Rick Rogers has given unstinting support along with Nina Holden, late VP of Institutional Advancement at CCS. CCS President Don Tuski and VP for Institutional Advancement Tracy Muscat have also been supportive of this project. We are also happy to acknowledge our longtime friends and supporters: Gretchen Davidson, Jane Schulak, David Klein, Gayle and Andrew Camden, and Linda Dresner. We have also been fortunate to receive corporate support from Avanti Press and Wells Fargo. To the gallerist Christine Schefman of the David Klein Gallery, Detroit, we express our heartfelt thanks for her continued support, as also to the curators Larry Ossei-Mensah and Susan Cross for permission to reproduce an installation shot from Alison Janae Hamilton’s exhibition Pitch at MASS MoCA, 2019; to Colin Ross of Gray Gallery in New York for assistance on image permissions; to Akeem Smith for permission to use instalation shots of his exhibition No Gyal Can Test (Red Bull Arts, Detroit, 2021). We also thank Amy Cosier of Lehmann-Maupin for assistance with work by McArthur Binion; and Connie Tilton of Tilton Gallery for permissions to reproduce documentation from David Hammons’ Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983.

    The design work for Detroit Research has been a labor of love and the team that pulled it together at various stages nothing less than exceptional: Cece McGuire, Jack Di Laura, Isabella Achenbach, Jessica Stavridis (née Newberry), and Marissa Jezak. The list could continue but it is sufficient to show what it has taken to make this work possible.