Stuttering Screams and Beastly Poetry

Stuttering Screams and Beastly Poetry

Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts
Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts
Cambridge, MS: MIT Press, 1999.

Allison Hunter writes on Douglas Kahn, a modern musicologist who takes in the noise of modern battle, recordings from the tops of trains and the interiors of coalmines, and the musicality of undigitized everyday noise.

Douglas Kahn’s Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts amplifies a rattled and diseased 20th century body. The meat and bones that have traversed two World Wars - the nervous system, the electro-shock of modern care - all finally cry out in stuttering screams and beastly poetry. According to Kahn, modernism fully imbued the body with language through techniques of inscription, vibration, and amplification. But that only leaves us with the even more resolute objecthood of the body, which was explored by artists during the decades following the 1960’s. Kahn argues that a thorough understanding of sound’s influence upon the visual, literary, and musical arts is missing from their separate - and usually separated - histories. To help us understand that influence, Kahn traces the development of recording technology, the shifting cultural relationship to noise, and the use of aural tropes within the arts.

The “in your face” book jacket cover portends a postmodern focus from Kahn. Acid green and electric blue cyber colors enhance the photograph of the screaming bald pixilated head on the cover. This cover is strikingly different than that of Kahn’s previous book, Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde (MIT, 1992), which he co-edited with Gregory Whitehead. Wireless Imagination ‘s understated jacket would easily be overlooked with its red and black text on a white background. Noise Water Meat is more Zone-like in its packaging, as if MIT Press perhaps sensed the timeliness of Kahn’s subject at a moment when sound is becoming more recognized within the arts, as is clear in recent high-profile museum exhibitions (BitStreams, 010101, Crossfade, etc.). It is all the more unexpected, then, when Kahn’s close reading of an interesting but limited cast of characters in the history of sound art from the early 1900’s to the early 1960’s stops with the Italian Futurists, John Cage, Fluxus artists, William Burroughs, Michael McClure, and Antonin Artaud - just when the contemporary resonance of his study might be most felt.

In the first section, “Noise,” Kahn introduces us to the avant-garde Italian Futurists who, against conventional notions - that music was periodic, harmonious, and created from a certain set of instruments, and noise was the unstable cancerous cell of sounds - brought the “war sounds” of World War I to the musical palette. The Italian Futurists used explosives from modern battle combined with recording technology to create a new sensibility for loud and different sounds that had once been dismissed as noise.

Kahn also includes a short but fascinating look at Russian Experimental filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov. Vertov was among those who began to record sound on-location instead of within the sound studio. Like the Impressionist painters who left their studios to paint en plein air, Vertov left the movie set to record sounds in their original context. In Vertov’s words, he captured the sounds of “life caught unawares” (143). Since recording studios commonly recreated “live” sound, they had no need for portable recording equipment. Vertov, determined to record from the tops of trains and the interiors of coalmines, invented his own “portable” equipment which resulted in 2,700 pounds of gear.

Kahn then moves us swiftly from the early part of the century in Europe to the US in the 1930’s, tracing the plasticity of sound through the career of John Cage. In 1952, Cage performed his famous silent piece, 4’33,”in which he shifted “the production of music from the site of utterance to that of audition” (158). 4’33 ” requires a solo performer to sit at the piano and mark off the time in three movements (30”, 2’23”, 1’40”), without playing the instrument. The duration of these movements was chosen by chance operation. Under the guise of a traditional composition (musical score, performer, instrument, audience) Cage exposed the similarity between silence and music - both can be measured in time. This musicalization of silence brought with it what Cage called unintentional sound. As the silent piece was performed, the audience’s attention turned away from the piano/performer to the sounds of the room including coughing, chair scraping, and spontaneous comments. As Cage wrote, “People may leave my concerts thinking they have heard ‘noise,’ but will then hear unsuspected beauty in their everyday life” (184).

Kahn reveals an interesting fact that may have been an important influence on Cage’s development. In 1940 Cage applied to the WPA to work as a musician. Because of the experimental nature of his music, the government did not recognize him as someone who worked in music, and instead hired him as a recreation leader at a hospital, where he was told to entertain the children of visitors without disturbing the patients - that is, to perform in silence. Cage had to come up with new ways of performing for an audience without creating sound - twelve years before he wrote 4’33 “.

In the 1950’s, Cage taught Experimental Music at the New School for Social Research in New York City (attracting George Brecht, Allan Kaprow, and Al Hansen) and at the famous Black Mountain College in North Carolina (with Merce Cunningham, Robert Motherwell, and Robert Rauschenberg). Although Cage did not require his students to have a musical background, he did encourage performance and experimentation. The context of conventional musical performance shifted from the concert hall into the gallery or alternative space. Even the term performance was “moved” to “happening” and “event.” This created an atmosphere in which a variety of artists, from painters to musicians to actors, felt free to perform outside the constraints of their separate fields. Thus developed Fluxus, one of the most dynamic art movements of the 20th century.

Kahn develops the materiality of sound further by focusing on the synthesis of liquid and paint. The middle section of Kahn’s book, “Water,” details the use of water as a plastic and sonorous element by both Fluxus artists and Action Painters. [see Joseph McElroy’s essay, If It Could Be Wrapped, for another elemental treatment of water, eds.] Although Jackson Pollock was not the only Abstract Expressionist who worked with the flow and stain of paint (Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, etc.), Kahn focuses on Pollock’s athletic performance which created “an all-over composition that rushed out-from the wall ” (274). This “rush” was literally recorded by Hans Namuth, who filmed Pollock’s brush strokes from behind a pane of glass. The audience saw the wet paint perform a violent dance before landing on the flat surface and ultimately drying or dying. Kahn emphasizes the performance of the paint drip when he writes, “Prior to Pollock paint was meant to dry” (264).

Kahn’s invocation of Pollock makes it all the more interesting when he omits another artist who is crucial to the story: Joseph Beuys. Beuys, like Pollock, did not work with sound, but was pivotal in the Fluxus movement. More importantly, his anti-aesthetic, socially motivated statement, “everyone can be an artist,” extended the possibilities of art to every act within every aspect of society, making art everywhere possible at every moment, just as Cage had done with the musicality of noise. Beuys’s artistic interventions were called actions (his famous ecological Action, 7,000 Oaks [1982-1987], involved planting 7,000 oaks in the German town of Kassel). Kahn’s omission of Beuys here is understandable - after all, Beuys didn’t work with sound - but it is no more understandable than his inclusion of Pollock. I point this out only because I take seriously Kahn’s larger project: to question the boundaries between the various arts and how those boundaries have excluded sound. Here, one wonders if Kahn - who is, after all, a musicologist - is not inadvertantly reconstructing those very boundaries.

Beuys’s omission is all the more striking because Kahn concludes Noise Water Meat with a departure from the amplified sounds of technology to the “raw” (read: animal) sounds of one’s body. The meat of one’s body is subject to biopsy, inscription, vibration, and shock treatment through the work of what I will call three meaticians: William Burroughs, Antonin Artaud, and Michael McClure. Kahn claims each used the body to speak the voice through different locations,

William Burroughs at the microbial and cellular levels, Michael McClure at the muscular, and Antonin Artaud throughout different sites in a phantasmatic body pinned around the axis of the spine. (291)

That Kahn interchanges the word body with meat here without acknowledging their different connotations for male and female bodies is very distracting, to say the least. He mentions the performance Meat Joy (1964) by Carolee Schneeman but does not stop to register its very different deployment of the term meat in relation to the gendered body.

Burroughs, on the other hand, deployed a very different strategy, using the tropes of scientific discourse linking the body on a cellular level to the recording technology of the 20th century. His idea of language as a virus was affected (or infected) by the organismic theories of Alfred Korzybski, Wilhelm Reich, and L. Ron Hubbard. Korzybski and Reich provided the scientific research, while Hubbard exemplified the evil nature of the virus. Hubbard’s book, Dianetics (1950), introduced Burroughs to the concept of the “engram” - the inscription of a painful memory recorded within the protoplasm of one’s body. Engrams were recorded by the “reactive mind,” one of two inner recorders (the other being the “analytic mind”). This constant presence of dual minds and memory tapes influenced Burrough’s viral view of language and how it inscribes itself in the body. Kahn quotes Burroughs’s The Ticket That Exploded (1962),

Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word. (317)

From here, Kahn moves to amplify the influence of Antonin Artaud’s use of the scream as a pivotal force in the development of performance for composers like David Tudor and John Cage as well as the Beat poets. Like the Futurists of World War I, Artaud brought a new sound from the noise of the world (childhood meningitis, psychiatric hospital shock treatments) to the voice of the actor. Artaud gave a voice, as it were, to the violent drip of paint and water. His tortured performance, his contorted facial expression, and bent screaming body incorporated the athleticism of Pollock’s gestures with the unpredictability of a Fluxus happening. But Artaud always made it clear that he was consciously operating within the cultural context of the theatre.

For Michael McClure, however, no such cultural or institutional context mediates his navigation of the murky space between animal and human (as Kahn interchanges body and meat). His poetry, written in beast language, emanates directly from his muscle and not his voice. McClure claims he is eluding the cultural cloak of language that would separate him as “man” from “beast.” In fact, McClure read his poetry to caged zoo animals who apparently “spoke” back (in beast language, of course).

McClure’s work as an ecological poet is less convincingly meatist as a medium than Artaud’s scream or Burroughs’s viral inscription, particularly since we learn how McClure studied kundalini yoga and orgone therapy, body practices that transcend the physical. Orgone therapy and yoga use the “pulsational energy” of the body to access the powerful metaphysical force of the cosmos. If Kahn wants to use “Meat” in a book on the history of sound, then I want him to serve up a sinewy mass of marbled flesh, à la Schneeman. But hey, I am a postmodern gal, jaded by digital sampling, heartbeat sound effects, and sound art exhibits.

And yet, I learned something from Kahn I hadn’t expected. I learned to listen to the musicality of undigitized everyday noise, the in-the-moment noise that intercepts life in unexpected and unpredictable combinations. The contemporary sound artist will learn a great deal from the early lessons in sound experimentation in Kahn’s book. I also found refreshing Kahn’s musicologist perspective on visual art history. However, beware of musical terms and concepts in the crucial first few chapters that may not be clear to someone with a limited background in music theory. Overall, this book is well worth the time required to complete all 400 pages. For such a lengthy book in this postmodern age of distraction, that is a compliment to Kahn. After Noise Water Meat, what’s for dessert?