Ultra-red: What Did You Hear? [6 – 10]

Another Ten Theses on Militant Sound Investigation.[1]

Written by Dont Rhine and Robert Sember.

6. These four modes inform how Ultra-red attempt to organize listening within the context of militant sound research. How does the investigation begin? Having determined the terms of the invitation (see section 4 above), a group of people comes together around a common experience. That experience may have been a demonstration, a community crisis, or something as casual as a sound walk through the neighborhood. After listening together in the wake of that common experience, the question is asked, what did you hear? All responses are written on paper. After exhausting the reflections, the facilitator asks the group to arrange and analyze what has been written. This analysis leads to a question. This question is not one Ultra-red author as facilitators of militant sound investigation sessions. The historical record is rife with such listening-based investigations. For example, listening across the archive of what he called, the “sorrow songs,” more commonly referred to today as “spirituals,” W.E.B. Du Bois heard harmonic and dissonant layers of recollection and experience that informed his inquiry into the sound of the color line.

Sound object 6: Ultra-red with Prototypes Pomona, „Sound object 5 for Listening Session, Claremont, California (16 August 2011): What is the sound of alternatives to prison?,“ running time 1:00, unreleased.

What did you hear?

7. What kind of question guides the militant sound investigation? What makes for a generative question? Who asks the question and by what procedure are its terms articulated? To whom is the question directed or does it have a different function? Over the years, Ultra-red and our collaborators has arrived at the question in multiple ways. Sometimes the question names a point of convergence for those participating in the investigation. But this is not always the case. Sometimes the question names a point of divergence, a contradiction—what Freire calls, a “limit- situation”; a limit beyond which awaits greater understanding to inform future collective action. Analyzing the responses to the sound recording, the group may find markedly different, even contradictory responses, or, as Grace Lee Boggs writes, “listening closely to the grass roots for new questions that require new paradigms.” The drive to reach consensus may be so great that the group quickly begins arguing to bring the contradiction to resolution. The degree of passion generated in the argument demonstrates the amount of energy and the depth of investment in the contradiction itself. This contradiction may become the question that serves as the object for the investigation. The militant sound investigation places the question within the formulation: What is the sound of . . . ?

Sound object 7: Ultra-red, „Sheik Abdullah bin Jassim Al-Thani: A Leader’s Legacy 1913-1949, an exhibition at the Qatar Museum Authority Gallery, Katara Village, Doha, Qatar (21 January 2014),“ running time 1:56, unreleased.

What did you hear?

8. Sometimes the procedure described thus far involves a small group of people, such as a group of activists who wish to reflect on the terms of analysis that have to this point determined the terms of their interventions. Sometimes the procedure involves a much larger group of people that can be arranged into smaller groups. This is the investigative team or teams of the sound investigation. Having arrived at a preliminary question, the team(s) ask: what is the sound of that problematic (e.g. what is the sound of anti-racism? or, for our investigations into gentrification, what is the sound of the city that you no longer hear?). With that question in hand, the team asks, where and when will they go to hear that sound? They then make recordings at that place at the appointed time. In the beginning, we invite the participants to use any recording device with which they are comfortable; e.g. a cell-phone, a small dictation recorder, or a high-end digital audio recorder. Depending on where the team(s) are in their collective practice, team members may begin by making individual recordings or they may go straight to recording collectively. Going out into the field, the team(s) record everything, which is to say they record beyond the boundary of any predetermined imagining of what they would hear and then chose to share with others. Later the team members listen to their individual audio files. They take diligent notes on what they hear.

Sound object 8: Ultra-red with Ann Snitow, „Sound object 7 for The New School Encuentro, New York (8 May 2010),“ running time 1:32, unreleased.

What did you hear?

9. After repeated practices of listening, the team members begin to hear resonance and dissonance in the raw audio recordings. The team begins to organize sound objects from the audio source material. They may even go so far as to combine sounds from the original recording keeping in mind the initial question that guides the investigation. Either way, the richness of a sound object depends upon a mix of sounds that listeners will find familiar and unfamiliar. This is where aesthetics play a role. Researchers may apply digital manipulation to the recordings, resulting in objects that generate a balance between concrete and abstract modes of listening. From our experience, shorter objects of one to two-minutes in length engender robust feedback while allowing the group to remain focused on the collective work of listening in contrast to individual aesthetic immersion. Once individual team members have assembled an initial archive of sound objects, the first listening session occurs with just the members of the team. The team begins by listening to the first sound object with no introduction from the person or persons who organized it. The group writes down all the responses to the question, what did you hear? After the team exhausts their reflections, the author of each sound object tells the story about the recording. Notes are taken from the story and are compared with those generated during the first round of listening. What new resonances and dissonances have emerged? Does this help clarify, obfuscate, or refine the initial question? Depending upon the outcomes from the preliminary listening session, the group revises their sound objects. They convene a new listening session involving a larger assembly of people invited from the scene of struggle. It should be noted that the methodology we have described has, in fact, never occurred precisely in this form in the twenty-years of Ultra-red investigations.[2] Rather, the process outlined in this text is a set of protocols that guide collective inquiry. Each investigation takes on its own character and tone. What remains a consistent trajectory, by intention and by improvisation, is the sequence of collective reflection leading to critical analyses that in turn inform actions. These actions and their effects are the focus of a new round of reflections.

Sound object 9: Ultra-red, „Sin Cargo (Edit),“ running time 1:46, from Amnistía. Antiopic Records, 2003. CD.

What did you hear?

10. Listening events occupy just one moment in the militant sound investigation. They are tools within the long labor of solidarity. At the same time, organizers, activists, and base communities sometimes resist intentional protocols of listening on the grounds that such procedures feel artificial. In that resistance the researcher may hear a conflict between underlying ethical systems. For example, collectives organized around friendship can find intentional processes inauthentic precisely because they demand a reorganization of relations. In such an instance, protocols can shift a group’s ethical foundation from one based on affinity to one that becomes available to the outsider. It could be said that listening, as a political practice, is always an encounter with the stranger.

Sound object 10: Ultra-red, „4 minutes 33 seconds, Los Angeles County USC Medical Center, 22 May 2004 (Edit),“ running time 1:00, from An Archive of Silence. Public Record, 2006. MP3.

What did you hear?

[2] For example, Ultra-red members have employed a variety of objects around which to convene listening sessions. Over the years we have used video, photographs, poems, sound walks, stories, plays and tableaux, etc. Sound objects have a particular utility in foregrounding listening as the site and means of the inquiry. They also carry the trace of time and location, which produce estrangements and ambiguities we find particularly productive for collective inquiry. Sound objects nurture tendencies toward addressing concrete instances and locations of an issue as well as the work of interpretation and theoretical analysis. The responses to other media are valuable in that the question, what did you hear (or see, or feel) will always launch the group into an investigation at the center of which is the shared pedagogical space of listening to and with each other.

Works cited:

Althusser, Louis. Philosophy of the Encounter. Trans. G. M. Goshgarian. New York: Verso, 2006.
Bickford, Susan. The Dissonance of Democracy: Listening, Conflict, and Citizenship. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Boggs, Grace Lee. Living For Change: An Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
Chion, Michel. Guide to Sound Objects [1983]. Trans. John Dack and Christine North. Unpublished manuscript, 2009. 20 February 2014 [http://www.ears.dmu.ac.uk].
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk [1903]. Washington, D.C: The Library of America, 1986. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Trans. Patrick Clarke. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed [1968]. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 2007.
Lewis, John with Michael D’Orso. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Ultra-red, Ten Theses on Militant Sound Investigation. New York: Printed Matter, 2008.