Composition — Cacophony and the Beyond: An Aural Topography
by Sophia Larigakis
“A new world can’t look like what we’ve seen; it can’t sound like what we’ve heard, and it can’t feel like what we’ve felt before.” — Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste1
First, there was birdsong. It had always been this loud, this constant, perhaps, but in the newly shuttered city, the trills and chirps of sparrows, blue jays, starlings, cardinals, and others were surreally amplified, and could be heard long after the sun went down. Do birds always sing in the middle of the night, or did the fresh and brief hush of the city confuse their sense of time? Nighttime in those earliest days of the pandemic in New York City was impossibly quiet—no horns blaring, no chatter from stoop barbecues, no refrains streaming out of car windows—save for the birds, who activated the darkness with their call and response.2
In the early ’80s, sound artist Max Neuhaus proposed a project focusing on the sirens of ambulances, police cars, and fire engines. He wanted to replace their standard sonic patterns (divided into the “wail,” the “yelp,” and the “high low” and described by the artist as “a constant psychological irritant”) with a more locatable “set of sounds that people could live comfortably with.”3 Although his concerns were primarily practical—to clarify an emergency vehicle’s position in space—he was also deeply invested in rendering the city soundscape more tolerable, that is, more aesthetically pleasing.
Soon after the city shut down, the increasingly constant wails and shrieks of ambulance sirens drowned out the birdsong. Suddenly, illness and the spectre of death hit a different decibel—a new, obliterating earworm, its referent starting at $415 a ride. Sirens, always part of the ambient composition of a city, reflect the violences they signal (mortal, carceral) in their sonic form. They are almost onomatopoeic, designed to annihilate everything else, to send the body into high alert the same way pain does. The desire to render sirens palatable is simultaneously a wish to muffle what their peals tell us about our current conditions, and a diversion from the deeper work of abolishing the state of emergency in which they, and we, are implicated.
Sound waves, unlike water, do not wash over every body equally. They comply to social topographies, forming rivulets and desire lines, hitting dams shored up by those who wish to—who can—stay dry. As it does with every part of our daily lives, capital composes the soundscape of emergency. Although for the most part invisible, sound—like beams of light and bullets and water—is controllable, directable. It is either an index, referring directly to a source, or (and sometimes and) acousmatic, asychronous, artificial— yet highly tangible, like borders and money.
The nightly applause for essential workers started around April or May 2020. At 7pm in SoHo, Park Slope, Williamsburg, and other wealthy, predominantly white neighbourhoods, people spilled out of windows and onto stoops and clapped, banging wooden spoons against pots and pans for emphasis. It felt good, I’m sure, to be part of a collective sound, to see neighbours’ faces—perhaps for the first time, but certainly for the first time in months. It felt good, surely, to show appreciation, even if the delivery and grocery-store workers, nurses, and other invisibilized labourers were not close enough to hear it. In poorer neighbourhoods, 7pm was marked by the absence of applause, a twin silence for those areas where the ostensibly celebrated workers could not be home to clap for themselves.
On May 25, 2020, a 46-year-old Black man named George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.4 By May 26, the city was alight in righteous rebellion, and nearly every other metropolis in the United States and beyond followed suit. “All riots,” writes Hannah Black, “emit a world-historical shine, but the George Floyd uprisings were extra radiant because they opened the doors of the world.”5 Swept suddenly and violently out of various forms of isolation—out of hiding from a virus we didn’t yet understand, but that we knew preyed on physical intimacy—nothing was more important than being together in the streets. As the spaces between people closed, the air was no longer loaded, poisonous. Instead it buzzed like electricity, crackling with the potential only relationality holds to destroy and to reconstruct a new way of life. Under current conditions, riots are the closest that those with no future can come to touching, to the tune of desire and chaos, a new order.
Flames licking steel skeletons and rubber tires— preferably of cop cars, their glossy blue and white shells blackened with ash—glass panes shattering into glistening webbing, chants and cheers echoing across crowds, the scraping of civilian-fashioned barricades across asphalt: these are the sounds of riot. In his introduction to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Jack Halberstam notes that cacophony “reminds us that our desire for harmony is arbitrary and in another world, harmony would sound incomprehensible.”6 That sonic admixture, he continues, “tells us that there is a wild beyond to the structures we inhabit and that inhabit us.”7 Cacophony, those jarring and discordant intonations—rendered illegible by our ear’s inability to parse each note from its other—mimics the form of the riot. Just threatening enough to catalyze a lasting shock to the system, cacophony and the riot are defined by inescapable mutual entanglement.
Every night for a week, thousands of phones would erupt in chorus: a curfew. Without breaking step—across the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and along Flatbush Avenue and Broadway, roadways that we overtook again and again—we reached into our pockets and bags in unison, devices droning with an alert otherwise reserved for flash floods or hurricanes. Instead of cautioning us about life-threatening weather, the alerts warned about another kind of dark omnipresence. After 8pm, the cops could do whatever they wanted to us, even more so than usual. Just as our lives are and have been structured by town-clock tolls and alarm bells, peals to mark the contours of life and direct movement, the curfew drone reverberated out of the nowhere of structure, godlike. “Fuck your curfew”—a new chorus. Some peeled off, many kept moving.
In 2015, the artist Danny Giles made Lyric, an immersive work that references and revolts against Police Observation Devices (PODs), surveillance tools armed with flashing lights installed in the poorest areas of Chicago to record criminalized activities. Lyric invites participants to don headphones and interact with a full-scale POD replica installed in a dark room. The work, a ready-made transmuted into a new setting, transforms the device’s menacing blinking lights into strobes. Beneath it, participants are granted control over their own soundscape, engaging in the collective and life-affirming practice of dancing joy in the face of horrific conditions.
The Chicago Police Department’s PODs undoubtedly inspired the NYPD’s high-intensity white floodlights, erected since 2014 outside of housing projects around the city as part of a surveillance strategy termed Omnipresence. The blisteringly bright spotlights are powered by roaring generators—a timbre from another era, reconceived for fascistic tactics in the present. Poor and predominantly Black neighbourhoods are the most heavily policed and surveilled. During last summer’s uprisings, the raging thrum of NYPD helicopters was loudest and unrelenting in those areas, even in the middle of the night, even when the protests were miles away. Sometimes they flew so low that their white-hot spotlights would illuminate my bedroom like lightning, the rotors’ thwack-thwack-thwack so impossibly loud it felt like they must be hovering outside my window. And then there were drones: their buzz accompanying every step of the marches. It was impossible to know if the remote controls were manipulated by cop or comrade fingers, if we were being surveilled or surveilling ourselves. Guerrilla maps were drawn by rebels eavesdropping on the crackle of police radios, informing those on the ground of impending attack.
Developed by the United States military at the turn of the 21st century, Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) are used by the NYPD, among others, as sonic weaponry. LRADs produce high-frequency, ear-splittingly loud sounds which can be directed as precisely as a beam of light. Like tear gas and other military-grade weaponry frequently used on civilians by police departments in the United States, LRADs are purportedly used for “crowd dispersal,” but the reality is much more violent: these “sound canons” can induce vomiting and cause severe and lasting ear damage. They were made, like the police itself, to control and to maim. The anticipation of sound reverberates just as potently as the sound itself. In addition to handing out snacks, water bottles, masks, and hand sanitizer—small acts of care for one another—some protestors started offering earplugs. These small, gummy objects were our only defence against the threat of LRADs, which could be deployed at any time, and therefore, following this panoptic logic, the potential for sonic annihilation—a kind of pre-emptive ringing in our ears—was present at all times.
Fireworks shattered in the sky and reverberated in our eardrums every night in Brooklyn between Juneteenth and July 4, when they came to a deafening crescendo. They were so constant, so raucous, that conspiracy theories started circulating on Twitter. The FBI, people claimed—or maybe it was the cops— dropped crates of the explosives in front of housing projects, entrapping Black kids with thrilling and illegal ammunition. Some of us preferred to think, with better reason, of the fireworks as a stake in Black joy: a much-needed expression of ruckus and din; a form of controlled chaos; focused light and colour in air polluted by needless death and darkness.
Neuhaus’s project was never realized. It could not have succeeded—beyond the fact that art rarely intervenes tangibly, materially in life—because it is not the city soundscape that is intolerable, it is the conditions of life under racial capitalism. How long can we bear to listen to the sounds of emergency? It cannot, must not, become ambient. Our ears will keep ringing until we resist.