Currently Reading

I’m normally reading two books at any one time. Sometimes three, and occasionally four if I have a collection of poetry on the go or a new issue of a journal I intend to read cover to cover. But right now, for a variety of reasons, I seem to be mid-way through more than a dozen. How did this happen?

Some of them go back to last year. Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery and the Philosophy of History (2007) was a recreational read – recreational in the sense that it was not directly related to anything I was currently writing. And I’m not sure what prompted me to buy it (although I’m glad I did). Possibly I thought it might help me think through some of the issues to do with representations of time in an essay on Moby-Dick I had set aside since giving a talk about it in 2004. The bookmark – a folded sheet of A4 scribbled with pencilled notes (such as ‘IB’s own reconstruc of the Zong case & its participants is an actuarial one – Qbp46’) lies between pages 54 and 55, as it has done since December when I needed to begin work in earnest on several projects with looming deadlines.

First I had to make some final revisions to an article on a vodouchant in response to comments by the editors and the publisher’s anonymous readers. One suggested I refer to Madison Smartt Bell’s All Saints Rising (1995), the first volume of his trilogy on the Haitian revolution, because it quoted the chant in question. I knew of the book, and had been meaning to read it for years, so I now had the excuse I’d been waiting for. The chant did indeed appear on page 118, although I’m not sure there was anything unusual about it that would merit more than a passing mention in a footnote. I ploughed on for another twenty pages, according to the slip of paper, hardly scribbled on at all, for I don’t take easily to historical novels. And this one seemed to take just a little too much pleasure in the depiction of violence and suffering, and robbed the story of the narrative impetus I was expecting. I found the non-fictional accounts of historians more gripping, even if C L R James’ The Black Jacobinsor Aimé Césaire’s Toussaint Louverture only hint at the nitty-gritty detail of the day-to-day struggle.

Other things I wanted to revise in the paper included my translation of a passage from Frédéric Marcelin’s Thémistocle Epaminondas Labasterre (1901). The scene, featuring the adolescent protagonist’s encounter with young women washing clothes in a river, appears quite early on and I’d sped past, firmly intending to finish the novel at the time – two summers ago now – but, well I must have been sidetracked by something or other. It’s a fascinating read, reminding me a little of Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, and while I did tinker with my English version, I didn’t have time to resume the narrative, and this will have to wait until later this summer.

With the vodou chant out of the way, two other obligations took their place. One was a paper on the ‘Liberty or Death’ motif in the Age of Revolution for the Caribbean Enlightenment conference at Glasgow University in April. I never got to deliver it in the end, as I was taken ill two days before and spent a week in hospital. I’d completed the reading I had set myself for this, except for Laurent Dubois’ A Colony of Citizens (2004). I notice I was still several chapters short of the one entitled ‘Vivre libre ou mourir!’ when Haemophilus influenzae type b breached my defences. I’ll return to this when I return to the draft in October and begin to work it into a more substantial piece, if I can.

Alongside my wanderings in the world of political slogans and the Hegelian dialectic, I had been converting a conference paper into a more substantial essay on the literary geography of a tropical hotel. For months I’d been pursuing various themes (the hotel in fiction, travel writing and cultural theory; the philosophies of space; acoustic geographies; heterotopia) like a pup licking bone. Now the full-length text has been emailed to the editors (to be returned for revisions in due course, no doubt), a few half-chewed morsels remain on the bedside table.

One is Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958), a classic that has some intriguing remarks on sounds that I never used: ‘It is a salutary thing to naturalize the sound in order to make it less hostile,’ he writes, thinking of the way the noises of Paris that keep him awake at night can be transformed into an ‘ocean roar.’ It is waiting to be resumed at page 38 at some point later this year.

Another is Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969): an enormously rich narrative that takes off from the arrival of a US-funded research team hoping to make a difference to an impoverished community on an island in the Caribbean. Project leader Saul, his wife Harriet, and assistant Allen take up residence in a guest-house run by the loquacious Merle, who straddles the racial divisions of the newly-independent country and serves as the ideal ‘cultural broker’ for the visitors.

I had read Marshall’s first novel before, but the friend who recommended this was so on target. I’m only a third of the way through, but it is clear why the guest house should be such an appropriate setting for this Proustian anatomy of the postcolonial condition, this dissection of the souls of white folk. Each time I pick it up, I read less pages, not wanting it to end.

An ongoing project to outline an imaginary anthology of Haitian travel writing – travel writing by Haitian authors, that is, rather than writings about Haiti – has required me to read or re-read a number of fictional works in which the theme of exile and homecoming loom large. But I have also been trying to track down the motif of the everyday in Haitian literature, going back to the oral tradition of the lodyans, recently revived in Georges Anglade’s Rire haïtien / Haitian Laughter (2006), a bilingual edition that combines several smaller collections of these mini stories in one volume.

It’s a book that is best suited to dipping into now and again, which means it will be beside my bed for some time. With Dany Laferrière’s Vers le sud (2006), my task is to compare it with his earlier work, La chair du maître (1997) of which this is a revised version, named after the film that was based on some of the stories in the first. At first glance Laferriere has removed ten chapters and added five, not to make it more like the movie, but rather to respond to it, in turn. A sequel, even.

I have read the first novel in Marie Chauvet’s Love, Anger, Madness (1968) trilogy, now appearing in English translation for the first time, and now anxious to read the rest of it. But I’m not sure if I should really finish Rene Depestre’s Hadriana dans tous mes rêves (1988) first. I’ll decide once I reach the end of Marshall’s masterpiece.

Joe Moran’s On Roads (2009) I’ve nearly finished: a brilliant cultural history of the road in 20th-century Britain, especially the impact of the motorway in the 1960s. And quirky too, from its attention to things normally taken-for-granted, such as signage and road-numbering, to the discreet count-down symbols (used on motorways to mark the approach of junctions) that appear in the page-headers towards the end of chapters.

The poetry volume I have on the go – Sean Borodale’s Notes for an Atlas (2003)– is prose rather than verse, but demanding enough that it can only be read slowly in short bursts. Described as a ‘370-page poem written whilst walking through London’, it is divided into twenty-five sections, capturing the experience in a series of highly fragmentary impressions of things seen, read and overheard that could almost be absorbed in any order, for the pleasure of the text is in the changing rhythms and startling similes and metaphors that endow each moment with a fragile beauty.

Oh, and there are the latest issues of Studies in Travel Writingand Small Axe that I’ve only had time to flick through so far. I am particularly looking forward to the interview with Merle Collins.

Keynotes, Signals and Soundmarks

Today (Sunday 18th July) has been designated the first World Listening Day. An initiative of the World Listening Project it aims to ‘to celebrate the practice of listening as it relates to the world around us, environmental awareness, and acoustic ecology.’

The date was chosen because it is the birthday of R Murray Schafer, the Canadian composer who founded the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in the late 1960s. His book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977) was a path-breaking attempt to create a vocabulary and analytical framework for thinking about – and listening to – the everyday sounds around us. He defined features of the soundscape such as the keynote (background sound, often emerging from the natural environment), the signal (foregound sound, designed to attract attention), and the soundmark (unique and of special significance to the community).

I found some fascinating observations here. I was particularly taken by the idea that the tonal centre of soundscapes dominated by the buzz and hum of electrical equipment varies according to the frequency adopted by the country in question (eg 60 Hz in North America, 50 Hz in Europe, ie. B natural or G sharp).

But his argument is so closely tied to a narrative of disappointment and decline (from rural idyll to urban alienation), Schafer comes across as a bit of a prematurely grumpy old man (the book was first published in his 40s) who is not prepared to appreciate the rich complexity of the sounds of the city.

There are some exceptions. For instance, he does seem to have succumbed to the romance of railroads. And he can’t quite bring himself to condemn the drone – a keynote of industrial soundscapes and yet valued by ancient musics and religions. But when he asks: ‘If we must be distracted ten or twenty times each day, why not by pleasant sounds? Why could not everyone choose his or her own telephone signal?’ – you doubt that he welcomed the ringtone revolution when it eventually came.

The project’s study of Vancouver was documented on a double LP released in 1973, and subsquently re-issued on CD entitled Soundscape Vancouver with addtional recordings made in the 1990s, allowing listeners to register changes in the city’s soundcape over the intervening twenty years.

While a concern to salvage sounds which are disappearing no doubt continues to motivate those engaged in soundscape research, many of them also have an ear for emergent sounds. Not just new sounds or new combinations of sounds that transform the soundscapes we inhabit but sounds which only become clearly audible through the use of new recording techniques. The Interpreting the Soundscape CD curated by Peter Cusack (and included in a special issue of Leonardo Music Journal) – which may serve as a useful introduction to more recent work – includes underwater recordings of the North Atlantic, amplfied insect sounds, and the electromagnetic signals emitted by security gates.

User-Generated Content

Such field recordings remain the province of specialists. But with the wider availability of portable recording equipment (built in to laptops and smartphones) and means of distribution (via email, phone messaging and online public repositories), people are capturing the sounds they hear around them more than ever before. Including myself, though I am fairly new to the game. Three online repositories I have used include:

  • The Freesound Project: field recordings make up a large part of this vast repository of user-contributed sounds. The recordings are often high-quality, you can add geo-tags, and with many uploads furnished with detailed descriptions and useful keywords it is easy – and fun – to search. If you want to listen to station announcements or an indoor badminton court or a hospital trolley or someone passing through immigration at O’Hare airport or (hell, why not) next-door neighbours having sex, this is the place to go. But the interface is forbidding and uploading files is not for the faint-hearted. Those who take online social networking for granted may find it annoying that you can’t flag recordings as ‘favourites’ or ‘share’ them with a single click, and there is no embedded player.
  • SoundCloud: field recordings form a very small proportion of the material uploaded to this site which is dominated by music, but try browsing (moderated) groups such as Binaural Recording or Field Recordings. The quality of recordings is high, you can ‘favourite’ and ‘share’ tracks easily, and a mobile app allows you to listen (but not upload files) away from your computer.
  • Audioboo: field recordings form a very small proportion of the material submitted here and searches for those tagged ‘fieldrecording’ yield only a handful. You can ‘favourite’ and ‘share’ and geo-tag boos easily. With its mobile app you can upload recordings made on smartphones, which seem to form the vast majority and are consequently of low sound quality, and most of them resemble voicemail messages left by mistake. But I do like this bumble-bee and this sumptuous aural panorama from a Tokyo rooftop.

If Freesound is the best place to search for recordings, SoundCloud is probably the best way to share them, and if you have an iPhone (preferably with a third-party attachment that will allow you to use a decent microphone) and want to share some audio immediately, then Audioboo is essential. I have not used SoundTransit or ipadio. The London Sound Survey has made a useful comparison of all these services.

While these repositories are not much more than searchable databases, they do offer ways of easily finding sounds related to a common location or theme, through the use of tags and keywords or (more formally) by creating ‘sample packs’ (Freesound) or user groups (SoundCloud).

But field recordings are often made for (or made use of by) specific projects, which give rise to a more systematic presentation of material. For example, they might be a contribution to a sound map, or document a soundwalk, or form part of a series of sonic postcards.

Sound Maps

A sound map may be something you draw yourself, as a way of focusing your attention on what you can hear around you, following these guidelines, for example.

But sound maps may also be collaborative projects in which users are invited to submit recordings tagged with the location in which they were made, and which are then linked to an online map. Typically, these projects are city-focused, such as those for Barcelona (uses Freesound), the Basque CountryLondonMadridMontrealSeoul (uses Audioboo) and Vienna (uses Audioboo). Soundcities is wider-ranging, as the name suggests, but many clips are very short.

More ambitious and systematic is the British Library’s UK Sound Map(uses Audioboo), currently restricted to the Sheffield area, but with plans to extend across the whole country later this year. Dizzying in its global scope (and randomness) is the Radio Aporee: Maps project, which has made a special appealfor contributions of recordings made today so as to create a mosaic of audio snapshots for World Listening Day.

There are other location-based showcases of field recordings that (so far) have not linked them to online maps, although this would seem to be an obvious development. For example the various ‘favourite sounds’ projects in LondonChicagoBeijing and elsewhere. Or the fascinating collection in Mexico’s Archivo Sonoro (like this recording made in Viveros metro station, Mexico City).

Soundwalks

What is a soundwalk?

The soundwalk is a practice of focused listening in which one moves through an environment with complete attention to sound. Any environment, at any time of day or night, can provide space for soundwalking. Sometimes the walks are guided by a written or verbal instruction (a “score”) and sometimes not. The participants may walk blindfolded, or stand still, or move in response to the soundfield. Sometimes the walker activates the soundscape – “playing along” with the sounds – using the voice, musical instruments or objects encountered along the way. On occasion the walks are recorded and other times they are simply free form ambles through sound filled places. The walks are usually followed by an informal conversation about the experience.

This definition is provided by City in a Soundwalk which invites people to follow its suggestions for soundwalks in New York City or offer proposals for more.

There are useful guidelines for undertaking a sound walk on the Urban Sound Ecology website which hosts recordings of such walks in Toronto and plots them on city maps, as part of its ‘research initiative dedicated to exploring, examining, and understanding the sonic spaces of Canadian cities.’ They are now also working on a Vancouver map.

For more general reflections on the subject, the new Soundwalking Interactionswebsite may be worth keeping an eye on.

Soundwalks are usually local initiatives that are not widely publicized, but many are being organized for World Listening Day (follow this comment thread for more details).

And I’m not sure they need to be always on foot. A simlar spirit informs the annual invitation to complete a circuit of Birmingham (England)’s circular No 11 bus route and document the experience.

Sonic Postcards

Sonic Postcards is the name of an education project in the UK pioneered by Sonic Arts Network (now part of Sound and Music). Its aim is ‘to encourage pupils to engage with their sound environment and be creative with ICT.’ The website showcases the results of each school project (usually with several postcards from different pupils) and includes the results of exchanges with schools in China, Switzerland and Catalonia.

But sonic postcards would be a good name for any short recordings, often produced in a series over a period, but not tied (as most contributions to sound maps or documentations of soundwalks are) to capturing the sounds of public places. They might be more interested in sounds of more personal significance – to the individual or community who heard or made them – and exhibit a kind of intimacy that the other forms of presentation lack. Freed from what can sometimes be a curse of trying to be ‘representative’ of a place, they are more likely to give us sounds which are interesting for their own sake.

For this reason, I enjoy Headphone Commute’s sound postcards, which often have tiny stories attached to them, such as the one featuring a busking violinist at Grand Central Station or the close-up of a dog… drinking.

And while these postcards are issued on a seemingly ad hoc basis, there are other similar series which gain impetus from self-imposed rules, such as Taylor Deupree’s 2009 project, One Sound Each Day (with recordings, for example, of him making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in July or misting the houseplants in December).

Or the One-Minute Vacations created by the quiet american. Try out some ‘voodoo ice cream’ in Benin and then join the football crowd in the San Siro stadium in Milan (from Year Five).

Happy World Listening Day!

The Payback

On Wednesday, many people were taken aback by an announcement from the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of a new ‘framework initiative’ that would return the 90 million gold francs paid by Haiti from 1825 to 1947.

This indemnity has long been a bone of contention, pressured as Haiti was to pay ‘compensation’ for the loss of colonial property in return for international recognition of the newly independent state.

When the Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, brought up the question once more, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the death of national hero Toussaint L’Ouverture in a French cell in 1803, his counterpart Jacques Chirac was not impressed.

Even though two years earlier the French parliament had recognized slavery as a crime against humanity, the official response to the bill for $21,685,135,571 and 48 cents (its modern equivalent, with interest) was brusque, even bad-tempered. The foreign ministry commissioned a report on Franco-Haitian relations, which dismissed the claim for reparations as anachronistic and mocked the way in which Aristide had presented it.

There was precious little support even in the left-wing press in France, leading the Haitian writer Louis-Philippe Dalembert to pen an article in Libération wondering why intellectuals in the land of Hugo and Zola had all turned into foreign ministers whose main aim was to defend French interests. Dalembert was no friend of Aristide, and doubted whether Aristide was the best person to raise the issue, but he insisted that the demand for the restitution of an ‘immoral and iniquitous debt’ should not be allowed to be forgotten.

And indeed it has not. So despite Aristide’s enforced departure in the coup of February 2004 and Gerard Latortue’s prompt reassurance that the ‘illegal’ and ‘ridiculous’ claim would not be pursued, when Nicolas Sarkozy visited Haiti in February this year, he faced angry protests demanding that France pay up and help return Aristide to office.

The announcement of 14 July did not, then, come out of the blue. But, only a day after the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of a ban on wearing the Islamic full veil in public, it was unexpected, to say the least. And, of course, it was too good to be true.

In a manner reminiscent of the tactics of Les Liens Invisibles or The Yes Men, the announcement was carried on a site imitating that of the French Foreign Ministry, backed up by a news releasepurporting to be from Agence-France-Presse.

‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,’ goes Gramsci’s slogan. For those with too much of the latter, the news may have prompted a flurry of excitement, but disappointment would inevitably follow. Those with an excess of the former may have taken some cynical delight in pointing out that the website was ‘fake’ or a ‘hoax’, as if it were therefore of no further account.

But both responses miss something interesting. It is no more ‘fake’ than a play or a film. The point of the excercise is not to kid people that something has taken place but to make it seem strange that something hasn’t. We might think of it as a kind of historical re-enactment but of the future rather than the past.

It stages a possible – or alternative – future, by composing a plausible statement that combines the language of neo-liberalism with that of France’s long-standing democratic traditions, without making reference to the claims of Aristide and his supporters.

In doing so, it invites us to imagine a rationale that would allow France to do a U-turn without losing face. Anyone reading the statement would find it hard to dismiss it as giving in to ‘illegal’ and ‘ridiculous’ demands. And thus the demand – whose symbolic importance should not be underestimated – is kept alive.

Sweetest of all perhaps, it has forced the Ministry to deny that it is planning to do anything so noble and to declare that it is considering legal action against those who dare to imagine such a thing.