Body Sonic / Coronavirus Surroundsound

[Image: A shot of “Carl Craig: Party/After-Party” (2020), by Don Stahl, via Artforum.]

There’s a great moment in a recent article by Jace Clayton, who reviews an installation by DJ and musician Carl Craig for Artforum, where Clayton talks about music’s relationship to empty space.

There is something of “a sonic axiom,” Clayton writes: “Amplified music sounds terrible in empty rooms. The less stuff there is in any given space, the more sound waves will bounce around the walls and ceiling and glass, losing definition as they both interrupt and double themselves. The resulting audio is smeary, muffled, and diffuse. However, when the same space fills with bodies moving around, those waves are absorbed, dampening those irksome reflections and allowing us to hear the sound more powerfully and in far greater detail.”

The effect is such that “the only thing that could make [music] sound better is people.” Bodies make music better—a second sonic axiom, as well as an optimist’s call for more social listening. In other words, your music will sound better the more people you experience it with. Hang out with others. Be bodies. Share.

In any case, Clayton’s piece went online a couple weeks ago but I find myself thinking about it almost daily, as the acoustic effects of the coronavirus lockdown become clear in cities around the world.

“As the pandemic brought much of the crush of daily life to a halt,” the New York Times reported, “microphones listening to cities around the world have captured human-made environments suddenly stripped of human sounds.” To put this in Clayton’s terms, cities are now spaces without bodies.

Think, for example, of Francesca Marciano describing “the new silences of Rome” in an age of coronavirus, or the New York Times itself pointing out how, in Manhattan, “the usual chaos of sounds—car horns, idle chatter and the rumble of subways passing frequently below—[has] been replaced by the low hum of wind and birds. Sound levels there fell by about five decibels, enough to make daytime sound more like a quiet night.”

There is an interesting paradox at work here, though, in terms of a widely reported belief that birds appear to be singing louder than ever before: birds are actually quieting down now, as they have less competition to out-sing. As the NYT writes, this is “because they no longer have to sing louder to be heard over the racket of the city, a behavior, known as the Lombard effect, that has been observed in other animals, too.”

[Image: Gowanus, Brooklyn; photograph by Geoff Manaugh.]

I’ve written at length about sound and the city elsewhere, but one of my favorite pieces on this was a short profile of acoustic engineer Neill Woodger, then-head of Arup’s SoundLab, published in Dwell way back in June 2008.

There, Woodger made the point that, as we transition to electric vehicles, which will remove the sound of the internal combustion engine from our cities, we are being given a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime acoustic opportunity: to redesign urban space for sound, highlighting noises we might want to hear—birdsong, bells, distant train whistles—and helping to excise those we do not.

The coronavirus, it seems, has inadvertently set the stage for another such sonic opportunity. Our global urban lockdowns have all but stripped our cities of “bodies moving around,” in Clayton’s words, such that our streets now sound quite eerie, as if replaced by uncanny muted versions of themselves, or what Marciano calls “an atmosphere of peaceful suspension, as when it snows and everything is wrapped in cotton wool.”

Much has been made of how temporary design interventions in response to COVID-19—things like wider sidewalks, outdoor cafes, streets liberated from cars and opened up to children, families, and the elderly—might become permanent.

In this context, what permanent acoustic shifts might we hear coming from all this, as well?

(Consider picking up a copy of Jace Clayton’s book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture.)

Sounds in Transit

I’ve been delinquent in mentioning Jace Clayton’s new book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture. Longtime readers of this blog might recognize Clayton—aka DJ /rupture—from an interview published many years back in The betway必威 Book, on the topic of music, sound, and cities.

Uproot is Clayton’s guide to various sonic undertows shaping contemporary music around the world, from Autotuned vocals spilling out of North African villages to raves in ruined 必威手机版 s on the divided island of Cyprus, or from Jimi Hendrix’s literally sinister left-handed amplification of the “Star-Spangled Banner” to five thousand years of continuous habitation—and urban music—in Beirut.

Clayton has long defined himself as a kind of human forward-operating base, picking up the signals of incoming future music, writing dispatches for Fader, giving interviews to The Wire, and chronicling much of this on his own blog, Mudd Up!

The book itself proceeds through a series of longer chapters punctuated by aphoristic statements (“Dancing is a form of listening”; “Music that doesn’t change is free to do other things”; “To be local is to have few options”; “What we care for we repeat”). These summations both highlight and launch each chapter’s short, linked essays that back up Clayton’s claims.

Its very first sentence simultaneously warns against and advocates digital amnesia: “The early twenty-first century will be remembered as a time of great forgetting,” he writes. He is referring to the complex effects of an ongoing format change, as musical culture transfers “from analog to digital.” Later in the book, Clayton develops this into what he calls the “distributional aesthetics” of 21st-century music, with both approval and slight political hesitation. He has in mind not just DIY punk CDs sold for cash after road shows but Lebanese cab drivers streaming new, anonymous tracks to jet-lagged passengers over Bluetooth.

How the sounds are delivered—through whom they are distributed and how they are saved—becomes as much a part of their effect as their rhythm or their BPM.

Uproot is at its best and most resonant when Clayton is out in the field, tracking down the physical origin of today’s music, whether that means visiting a town in Monterey, Mexico, to interview a 17-year-old bedroom producer of tribal ranch techno or browsing the stalls of Moroccan public markets.

In the latter case, Clayton gives an unexpected material signature to otherwise ephemeral MP3 culture. “The inorganic tang of injection-molded plastics off-gassing complex, probably carcinogenic polymer molecules mingles with sweat and diesel exhaust,” he writes. “Find the sellers of cheap plastic and you’ll have found the sellers of music, because for most of the world music is only worth as much as the plastic it comes delivered on.”

[Images: Jace Clayton at work; photos by Erez Avissar, via NPR].

Questions of preservation, economic control, and cultural power interlace throughout the book, but Clayton manages to ground these in examples of samples—Sting profiting from P. Diddy, say—and software, such as the now-ubiquitous Autotune mentioned earlier, originally developed as a seismic tool for oil exploration.

Clayton remains both attention-addled and unusually focused, zooming in to track, with forensic detail, the unlikely paths a specific remix followed from a Berlin apartment to becoming an online dancing meme, before he abruptly changes station and moves on to new ground. Later, for example, Clayton shifts from the impossible task of preserving an ever-growing ocean of MP3s washing around online to thoughts about why sending golden phonographs to space with the Voyager mission—intergalactic file-sharing—wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

In any case, what’s particularly great about the book is that it wasn’t simply written from the comfort of Clayton’s home, an introvert’s report from too many hours spent downloading vast catalogs of exotic sounds; instead, Uproot is a road book, part field guide, part treasure map, a demonstration project to show that all music is made somewhere and that Clayton is unusually good at locating it.