Curving Sound and Listening like a Stone
On "Audible Matter," the Fifth Wave from infrasonica.orgFriday, November 19, 2021
Recently, I listened to some audio tracks of the festivals of the Wixárika nation posted to YouTube, accompanied by anthropologist Johannes Neurath. After an intense period of syncopations and microtonalities produced using a rebec and a timple, in the midst of some kind of cosmopolitical vision, Neurath offered up the observation that “peyotes are people who can see really well.” For him, the key is in seeing that the Wixárikas do not eat peyote—it is not merely an act of consumption—but rather they become peyote, gaining entry to Wirikuta with the capacity to see and hear as peyotes. Perhaps, from this starting point—a readiness to become what we eat—, it is worth considering some food-related moments from the history of artistic practice, such as Andy Warhol’s metamorphosis into a hamburger and soft drink, the pulque intoxication featured in the film Un Banquete en Tetlapayac (A Banquet at Tetlapayac) (1999) by curator and writer Olivier Debroise, and of course the feminist feasts of Judy Chicago. Perhaps the key to reading is situated here: rather than in making the matter itself speak—an effort to force out some word, a gesture as violent as mining the earth—, in learning to listen in the way the matter sounds.
This type of critical listening resounds with intense echoes in Audible Matter, the most recent “wave” from infrasonica.org. Launched in April 2020, this digital platform for non-Western cultures has published five entries—which they refer to as waves, playing on the double-meaning of infrasonic and oceanic waves—in which they have explored the concepts of “sonic realism” and, more recently, “audible matter.” Each one of these waves is introduced with an editor’s note and features audio recordings, texts, interviews and essays from collaborators with fascinating propositions. “We think about vibrations,” you hear them observe as you listen to a track and wind through the twists and turns of a site consisting of typographical walls within a sonic jungle.
For Wave #5, which features eight truly stimulating proposals, the editor’s note offers a provocation: “How can we center an audible experience based on the agency of matter? In other words, how do stones listen? What do they hear?” Pondering the listening of stones requires us to accept their material agency and to blindly endeavor to listen like them. This stony submission may imply, as the editors themselves anticipate, a series of faults: “Through Audible Matter, we want to celebrate the ever-failing attempt of human translation.” This celebratory gesture is probably the most critical point in Wave #5, turning up the volume to open people’s ears. This failed attempt places one foot outside the world that is fully human—perhaps all-too-human. More than a century after this expression was created, we know that “all-too-human” worlds are of a type that is exceedingly defined, Western, Christian and capitalist. Accepting the agency of matter may mean celebrating that failed attempt and trying to listen like free-jazz birds, like equatorial volcanoes, water or jungle fowl in unbalanced lands, displaced multitudes or ships on the high seas. And perhaps in order to listen like a bird or like a stone, we must first sound like they do.
Each wave is accompanied by a track, a recording or sound piece that drives home the general theme of the other selected projects. In this installment, the critical constellation is set in place by Al Qadir, a track from the unpublished album Ibithalat (forthcoming autumn 2021), by musician, architect and scholar Mhamad Safa. Al Qadir rolls out a non-stop beat, tightened by elastic and metallic phrasings. The piece offers a geographical, or better yet, a psycho-geographical exploration by way of speculations on rhythmic movement and sonic decay in processes of migration and extraction. In “On the Rhythmic Futurities of Devotional and Labour Music of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa,” an interview by curator, scholar and collaborating editor of infrasonica.org Reem Shadid, Safa describes the multiple layers of sound that run through his project. On one hand, it features a meditation on the digital medium, a media archaeology of dance and techno music focused on musicians from Belleville, who turned to synthesizers and drum machines in the early 80s as a way of reflecting the economic crisis brought on by the automatization of the automotive industry, which pushed out the labor force and polarized society in Detroit. On the other hand, that intense media history—marked by processes of crisis, emancipation and Black consciousness in the United States—, is juxtaposed by Safa with “algorithmic speculations” of Khaleeji music from northern Africa and Zar music from the Arabian Gulf. On its deepest level, Safa’s projection or speculation asks questions about the future of certain styles of music in a world characterized by the mass displacement of human bodies: “If you then start to input all these conditions, adding the geographic changes and extractive ventures that are forcing specific people to relocate and the marginalisation of the individuals who are playing this music, you will end up in a totally different place, one we can't easily gauge.” I imagine these futurities as a kind of global sonic anti-mural: an infrasonic splitting of the bodies in Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry Murals” (1933) before the famished fangs of vampires costumed by Jim Jarmusch that, without seeming paradoxical, come back to life in Morocco. (A terrible lapsus of Mexican orientalism).
In “The Sky is like a Bell—the Moon Is Its Tongue,” writer and curator Xenia Beivolski publishes a fragment of a research project in progress revolving around “the Russian Orthodox notion of Russian bells as ‘singing icons’, through the looting and melting of church bells in the first half of Europe’s 20th century, to the present-day riot of global material and spiritual warfare.” This text, written from an almost molecular perspective, lays out a geopolitical historiography of bronze—an element consisting of an alloy of 78% copper and 22% tin, the percentage at which bells aparently sound best. The essay focuses on the Soviet Tiblisi Zoo in Georgia, constructed in 1927 through the smelting of orthodox bells. Benilovski explores the history of the bell: first in its decisive role in the working conditions imposed by the Church, giving way to its transformation upon being melted by the Red Army in an iconoclastic gesture, through to the critiques of land-based Soviet nativism—which seem to be arising all over the world in the form of new nationalisms—, the terminological invention of the “chronotype” by Mikhail Bakhtin or the use of the bell as a tool of colonization.
From divergent spaces and in audible reverberations, Safa and Benivolski trace the histories of bodies crisscrossed by the resonances of the power of labor.
What memories create a register of us? This is the question posed by Hear Heart (2021), a sound essay created expressly for infrasonica.org by Hellen Ascoli, Negma Coy and Sofia Jade Tansky. This powerful intermedial weaving is a scrolling descent through hyperlinks that simultaneously guide the user to sounds, images and videos. The play between hear, heart and here develops through a series of singular imperatives and exercises in digital mnemonics. For example, one of them is an attempt to listen to a recording of someone’s fingers touching the keys of a piano. Consequently, I hear my click on each one of those instructions. The screen, the keyboard, my broken-down post-Covid body, my hands, my calf pains, all of that appears as well amidst the audible material. Amidst quotes from Cesar Paternosto and Donna Haraway, this weaving becomes a web of roots: loops and roots fade in and out like ghosts of the weaving, like its ominous organic double. What memories will recall us?
This wave is also an exercise in mediated collaborations and promiscuities of exhibition. The artist’s and musician’s studio, the tension with the exhibition space, open up like infrasonic laboratories, and also perhaps as provocations for the future: it is possible that from this day forward an exhibition will be registered as much by the audio recordings it generates as by the photographs included in its montage. With this wave, the well-established curatorial practice of critiquing exhibitions inserts audible curves into its methodologies.
The sea and the crossing of water appear once more in Ode/Oda, a collaboration between sound and performance artist Ella Finer and artist Mercedes Azpilicueta. But unlike the type of migration suggested in Al Qadir, Ode goes back to the history of Catalina de Erauso (1585-1650), known as the Ensign Nun of San Sebastián. In the early 17th century, Erauso fled religious life in the Basque Country and lived as a conquistador in the service of the Spanish Empire under a number of masculine identities before perishing in Orizaba, New Spain. It is a story whose trans-Atlantic echoes encode intersexual transformations and flirtations between the Castilian and Basque tongues; echoes of seas, genders and languages that, according to Finer, run through “Erauso’s plurality as an auratic person.” The piece was presented in the public program for the exhibition “Bondage of Passions” by Azpilicueta, curated by Sabel Gavaldron and exhibited at Gasworks, London, in May 2021.
The celebration of the failed attempt at human translation is intensified in the scenic proposals of Adrián Balseca and Daniel Mancero, the birdsong research of David Zink Yi and Regis Molina, and the tectonic figurations of Pável Aguilar and Manuela Ribadeneira.
Like an acoustical waterfall, four pieces come rushing in: Water, Birds, Motors and The Unbalanced Land, composed and performed by composer, pianist and electronic music designer Daniel Mancero in 2019 for the exhibition “The Unbalanced Land” by artist Adrián Balseca. The show was curated by scholar, filmmaker and film curator Raquel Schefer and was presented in Galería Madragoa in Lisbon. This exhibition developed out of an investigation of the report Travels Amongst Great Andes of the Equator by British scientist and explorer Edward Whymper (1840-1911): an expedition which Balseca reconfigures through assemblages of distinct materialities. Most significant are several artifacts that bring together earth-flattening instruments from the island of Santay, the planetary projection graphic by US cartographer John Paul Goode (1862-1932), and the Sanyo telecommunications radios –with Goode projection as its logo– that play these audio tracks on loop. Mancero’s compositions are based on motifs from the island’s sonic landscape and consist of field recordings produced by Balseca in 2019. Birds emphasizes one of the constants among these four pieces: landscape as a model to be translated, and free jazz as a method.
The language of birds, in all its repetitive phrases and runaway melodies, breaks through in Untitled, (teaser for a hidden phrase), a work-in-progress by visual artist David Zink Yi in collaboration with musician and composer Regis Molina. By way of a juxtaposition of musical recordings and narratives that recall the musical pedagogies of Leonard Bernstein, Zink Yi uses sophisticated arrangements of wind instruments to explore the language system of an enigmatic bird species capable of building up a vocabulary of up to 3,000 song phrases. The piece is fresh, moving and suggestive: free jazz with doodles along with phrases featuring ornithological repetition and variation. It arbitrarily brings to my mind an imaginary situation: composer Olivier Messiaen in a dance with cultural critic Paul Gilroy, under the participatory observation of poet and jazz critic LeRoi Jones; critical figurations in which atmospheric improvisation politicizes the songs of birds in a radically molecular manner, and where African voodoo returns in the form of an Afro- and Indo-American musical key. We anxiously await other variations on this piece, as implied in the name of the work, “Untitled, (teaser for a hidden phrase)”.
Finally, the center of the earth bursts forth in Harmonic Tremors, a collaboration between visual artist Manuela Ribadeneira and composer Pável Aguilar. During a residency in the Colombian town of Armero, Ribadeneira explored the volcanic landscape and the eruption of Nevado del Ruíz in November of 1985. She was interested in an assertion that was constantly made by the survivors, who said that this could have been predicted, this could be a warning. Aguilar created a sonic interpretation of the phenomenon using recordings of infrasonic vibrations: “[it] was fascinating since we worked with rhythmic and sound patters imperceptible to the human ear.” Exhibitions of the project have been presented in multiple locales, including at MAC Panamá (2017-2018), in Casa Triángulo under the title Ouça (2018) and at FLORA ars+natura (2018).
Audible Matteris presented as a complex exercise in improvisation, performance, execution and speculation mediated by machines and devices that amplify infrasonic frequencies, along with the experimental use of heterogeneous methodologies, from disobedient musical scores to prophetic algorithms. Critical forms coded into animal, geographical and geological phrases in order to curve sound into decisive loops. The historical figures encrypted in the allusions to techno and free jazz music recall the anticolonial and antiracist impulse that made up part of its social emergence and also call to mind that legendary quote from LeRoi Jones, meditating on the absorption of swing and bebop by white culture in the United States: “The music was already in danger of being forced into that junk pile of admirable objects and data the West knows as culture.” We can see Audible Matter as an oceanic wave of critical resistance crashing up against that junk pile.
This wave carries deep within it the squawking of a sea of lithium, frenetic buzzings from the south, diasporas of critical materialities that run contra the Atlantic, contra Humboldt, contra Mercator and Goode and all cartographers, contra Google Earth, contra religious campaigns and their Soviet glimmers. I can hear a sort of audible clarity tearing through the time encoded into maps as we know them today: a way of breaking them all to pieces using imperceptible beats. Likewise, the hammer’s blow of Black music in volcanic and avian keys shatters any tranquility. In Audible Matter, we can hear a whisper of the possibility of curving sound and, let us hope, of destroying Western times, along with those that are all-too-human. In any case, in these resounding bass notes we can hear phrasings that may allow us to learn to ring out like a stone, or at least make a failed attempt.
Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen
 As is well-known, the notion of “cosmopolitics” is registered in key texts by Isabelle Stengers and in certain uses by Donna Haraway and Marisol de la Cadena. In Mexico, it has been employed particularly extensively in the field of anthropology, in connection with a number of artists from various nations. A notable recent example is Kixpatla: Changing Perspective, Changing Face—Art and Cosmopolotics (San Ildefonso College, 2021).
 See the podcast “Complicating the World: Cosmopolitical Visits with Johannes Neurath,” #GranHotelAbismo, Season 2, Episode 3. Produced by Rifka Richter, Edited by Adán González (Mexico City: MUAC, UNAM).
 I use this term following its critical usage by Jussi Parikka in reference to Wolfgang Ernst. See Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2015).
 LeRoi Jones, “Jazz and White Criticism”, Black Music. Free Jazz and Black Consciousness 1959-1967 (Buenos Aires: Caja Negra Editora, 2014) 20