a column by
dB drag racing, event held at Media Markt, Flensburg, Germany, 2009 Brandon LaBelle©2010
On April 23rd I flew from Toronto to Porto in the north of Portugal with a long stopover in Frankfurt. Arriving in Porto a time-difference day later, I fell asleep exhausted, only to be awakened at the stroke of midnight by the sounds of explosions outside the hotel window, more cannon than fireworks I thought, but pulling back the curtain revealed relatively modest synchronized light events in the sky. Car horns and shouts followed in celebration. It took time to occur to me that it was April 25th, Portugal’s day of liberation commemorating the Carnation Revolution of 1974 that ended Europe’s longest-running dictatorship, though I’d written about the sound of the 25 de Abril bridge in Lisbon little more than a year before.
The next afternoon I wandered out of an anonymous mall to find myself in a parade, cars blaring taped anthems and people carrying carnations, singing traditional songs and chanting slogans. Police kept temporarily closing off side streets to let the marchers pass. At one side-street, an irritated motorist started blasting his horn at the parade, adding his own counter-revolution to the combined songs and, shouts that were already thickening the air. It was a struggle for urban space, or just right-of-way, but its instruments were determinedly sonic.
Heard on a tape (I was carrying), the car-horn interruptions are different. Fixed events where the other sounds course by, the horn blasts seem like formal, compositional elements. They’re otherwise almost value-neutral in the overlay, but the event might dramatize the way we use sound to contest or modify space and to construct multiple auditory spaces as sites of identity. Anyone who’s thought about the relationships between sound and life will likely enjoy a new study of the subject and related disciplines from urban studies to music called Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life, by Brandon LaBelle (Continuum; London and New York). LaBelle, a sound artist and an academic, writes with a fluid brilliance about the way that sound interacts with the other elements of our experience with a kind of comprehension and comprehensiveness that can suggest Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media or Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command, resulting in a visionary tome linking history, subcultures and street art. It’s not a book about music per se, but it’s hard to imagine a reading of it not interacting creatively with anyone’s thinking on musical practice and meaning.
Referencing the Clash and the Bee Gees, urbanologist Jane Jacobs and phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, LaBelle divides up his vast subject spatially, moving from the underground (in which he treats subjects from subway busking to communities nestled in the subway systems of great cities), moving through homes (from prisons to gated communities) to the sidewalk, the street, the shopping mall, the airport and the sky. Along the way he references and combines a wealth of information drawn from fields as distinct as social engineering and art.
His account of the underground moves fluidly from a discussion of the culture of sirens in WW1 London bomb shelters in the underground to the notion of underground as metaphor in the protest music of Czechoslovakia’s Plastic People of the Universe. His meditations on the idea of home range from the role of silence in the development of the American penal system (imagine a sociology of silence in American culture from the Auburn Prison to John Cage) to artist Vito Acconci’s Talking House project in which all of the private sounds of domestic life were amplified and projected into the street beyond. There’s also a fine account of the early use of bells as fire warnings in Manhattan leading to the tragic fire of 1835, thematically linked to contemporary home alarm systems. Once in the street, LaBelle follows car audio and identity from the 1950s low-rider culture of Los Angeles to the contemporary phenomenon of dB drag racing, “a competitive sport utilizing the automobile as an acoustical shell by which to drive or ‘race’ bass frequencies.” (Page 158) That is, a car “race” measured in decibels instead of miles per hour.
Along the way, both street CD sellers and conceptual artists appear with speakers mounted on their backs. In his account of airports, LaBelle references the background music of Satie and Eno and describes the “Sound Showers” of the Oslo airport, highly localized speakers that emit sounds of waves, birds and happy babies as a break from the airport’s characteristic din.
Even for those largely immune to the charms of contemporary academic prose, LaBelle can be bracing, writing about sound employing a richly metaphoric vocabulary that turns description itself into a kind of music. At his best he mixes vernacular language (in this case hip-hop vocabulary), academic quotation and combinatory vision into a kind of Beat poetry, a dense verbal playground of colliding signifiers that teems with insights. His remarkable chapter on the street and the audio customization of cars includes the following:
Extending the legacy of funk and hip-hop music, the modified mega-bass car is an engineered funk-production – a drum machine for the production of the Phat Beat for an altogether different set of grooves. The car might be said to take on the status of the turntable, as a sonic technology casting a new mix that is equally new epistemology. The language of scratching shifts to a language of mega-bassing, relocating the breakbeat as “hyperrhythm,” which ultimately “scramble[s] the logic of causation” to forge a “new illogic of hypercussion and supercussion.” The signifying field of the percussive outlined by Mowitt shifts once on wheels, altering the rock beat for the throttled vibe – a vibration that takes all the psychic energy found in the percussive and places it within the sub-woofer. (Page 156)
LaBelle has a kind of accepting overview that I can’t help admiring. It’s too easy to simply decry noise pollution or the behavioural engineering of public space without actually exploring what a specific event might mean (e.g., how sound is wrapped up in identity and issues of private and public space), but LaBelle has the ability to keep thinking where many others would just react. It’s an ability that makes this one of the more stimulating reads of the year.