CONTROL: The Rise of Extreme Incarceration (trailer)


Control: The Rise of Extreme Incarceration is a feature-length documentary that traces the largest expansion of punitive power in the United States. The movie focuses on three conditions that push our penal system to the brink: the implementation of long-term solitary confinement, the criminalization of mental illness, and the incarceration of juveniles. Over the last 40 years, our system of incarceration has metastasized into virtually every aspect of our culture and has permeated our entire social structure. Political activists face a two-tiered system that openly punishes them for their political beliefs. The mentally ill are bounced back and forth between a “public” space that has little tolerance for aberrant behavior and a prison that offers little hope in the way of psychiatric treatment. Children are forced to attend school alongside armed police officers, as they watch their friends, family, and themselves, get caught in the sticky web of law enforcement. Today, our complex penal system has swallowed up 7 million American citizens and its long shadow is cast over millions more; American society relies more heavily on imprisonment and punishment than any other on record.

Penetrating the regime of silence of this entrenched system, Control acknowledges the trauma generated by incarceration through interwoven portraits of three key characters and their friends, families, and advocates. Ojore Lutalo, a former member of the Black Liberation Army and an identified anarchist, was released from Trenton Prison last year after spending nearly 30 years in solitary confinement. Luther is a 16-year-old living in the Bronx who was arrested this past spring for the first time. In November, he goes to trial on a case that could possibly put him behind bars for years. Leah, the godmother of a mentally ill man in solitary confinement, was driven to become an outspoken activist for the rights of those incarcerated with psychiatric disabilities.

Control traces these stories out in order to help incite a cultural shift in the way we think, see, and ultimately, tolerate the hardships bred by our system of mass incarceration.

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When Radio Goes Silent

Radio Silence is the latest installation piece by digital media artist Zach Poff, and it was on display at Devotion Gallery in Brooklyn, New York from July 2 to July 11. Sponsored by free103point9, the piece is concerned with the natural and unnatural pauses in speech that occur during radio broadcasts, and these sites for reflection or response become charged with a certain potency. Poff engineered a system whereby eight radios would be tuned to different stations on the broadcast spectrum and only one could “speak” at any given time; when two of them spit out a silence of any sizable length at the exact same moment, the installation would switch between stations. What emerged was a dialogue across speakers, across stations, and across languages.

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“The technology behind this piece is kind of a union between the physical handiwork and the less physical—but still physical—handiwork of wiring it together in the mind of the computer.” Poff was careful, though, to make sure that discussions about the piece did not devolve into questions of what sort of computer programming he used, or which wires are connected to which radios. Radio Silence is concerned with technology, but only so much as it allows us to open up a discussion about our relationship to that technology, and how broadcasters are manipulating it to forge dialogues. In a nod to John Cage, Poff accepts that his role in the creation of the work was just to manufacture a potential for this dialogue: “The details are left to chance, but the structure is very clearly constructed. In doing so, my sense of authorship here is purely in the discovery of a structure, or the conscious creation of a structure. I let all of the details bump into one another as they may.”

When the average listener thinks about their radio consumption, it is generally which personality on the AM dial they subscribe to, or which FM station jives the best with their musical taste. We very much curate our own radio experiences, while remaining aware of a fundamental rift between the AM and FM bands that has been cultivated by broadcasters over the last several decades. There’s a lot of strong personalities on AM radio in particular, and FM “seems to represent this newer kind of focus on a massive variety of programming. In a way, it’s like cable television: little niches grow up and become these channels.” Both Radio Silence and his earlier Video Silence disrupt the standard broadcast communication model of single transmitter reaching multiple receivers by forging connections between the transmitters, and thereby rendering them as receivers to the radio brethren. By bringing different radio speech acts into a manufactured dialogue with one another, Poff is interested in revealing moments of simultaneity that can be “just as telling as if there was a real conversation going on.”

“My original goal in a way was to say: If I talk really quickly with no pauses, I leave behind a residue that’s extremely compact. And that residue has a certain kind of volume curve to it. Its negative space—which is how I’m considering silence in this context—has certain contours that would reflect something about the voice.” Think of the difference between an angry, loud shock jock and the slower, more reflexive pacing of a preacher on Sunday morning prayer service and the well-modulated, calm voice of a public radio journalist. “We’d notice something,” Poff says, “in those silences that would inform us about that voice that we’re not going to be able to hear.” In the end, Poff’s original goal didn’t lead to the intended statement about some sort of discovery of the use of silent pauses in different speech acts—the pauses are just a change in signal, and he turned to these as potential entrypoints into constructing a dialogue.

One of the most startling effects of Radio Silence—particularly when placed in relation to Video Silence—is the myriad silences evident during radio broadcasts, but which we choose to tune out. Because video broadcasts are typically more carefully constructed and edited before going live, and because there are many more genres of broadcasts populating television (drama, comedy, etc.), the silences that exist on television are there to lend meaning to the surrounding dialogic space. A well-placed moment for character reflection—that not-as-rare-as-you-think shot of a character just looking or thinking—has the potential to be at once comedic, heart-wrenching, thoughtful, and revelatory. Poff found in Video Silence that, because of the compression of television broadcasts, every silence or breath was just as loud as the surrounding speech or music, creating a highly equalized sound environment. On the other hand, and because of the dearth of narrative and fictional programming on American radio stations, radio broadcasts exploit their silences mainly in order to allow the listener to simply make sense of what they are hearing. Pauses occur between words and sentences in order to indicate phrasing, and although these silences might have been inserted to incite the same comedic, heart-wrenching, thoughtful, or revelatory feeling, without the visual clues they seem like just part of the cadence of the speaker. When you listen closely to Radio Silence in its installation setting, what immediately pops out is the shuffling of papers, constant pops, flat-line hisses, and empty static occurring on the seven non-speaking radios. It calls attention to the actual sound of radio, the aural byproducts of someone sitting before a microphone, attempting to cover up with their voice the natural state of that frequency on the dial.

In the installation piece, Poff further played on our assumptions about radio by stripping away from the device everything that we normally associate with radios, leaving just the speaker. Gone are the tuning dials, the antennae, the digital presets, and in their place is simple aluminum armature wire bent into the shape of a traditional radio. “The idea here is that each one of these has a potential to it—it’s empty, you can literally put your hand through it,” he says. It’s a nod to the notion that we all think that technology “comes down to us from the heavens,” and that the things that make the radio work cannot be understand, and that’s perhaps not the point. The shapes themselves seem just as crucial as the dialogue going on aurally or technologically: Poff has chosen to allude to eight standard radios that we all can place within a historical trajectory in the development and maturation (and perhaps recent downfall) of radio—a cathedral-style early monolith, the standard tabletop model, those awkward-looking cube radio alarm clocks, a small transistor radio. These shapes are all familiar to us as remnants from the history of broadcasting in this country, and it is significant that the radio as a physical object has undergone a much larger transition in form than that of the CRT televisions Poff used in Video Silence.

Whereas television is just now making its first move away from its earliest technology of CRTs and curved glass toward impossibly thin LCD screens, the guts of radio have remained astonishingly the same, while the shape and size of the device has shifted around it. Radio Silence forges a dialogue across the stations on the spectrum, but it also encourages considerations of the long and storied history of radio, from families sitting around cathedral-style radios to single individuals plugging in to their iPod Nanos, now complete with FM radio bands. “The device, as though it were just airdropped down from some foreign government, arrives at our doorstep and in a way,” he says, “we build our own model of how to interpret it these forms that we are surrounded with.” Our relationship to these devices and the role they play in our lives is constantly shifting, and it is almost our duty as listeners to pay attention to what’s left out of the broadcast stream so as to better understand why we do choose to tune in when we do in an era that is overflowing with media options.

“Even as the broadcasters freak out about peer-to-peer sharing of whatever form, we’re still in many, many ways dealing with the reverberations of broadcast,” Poff states. “There is a part of Radio Silence that is concerned with that. What happens when you take sound bites from a variety of sources and put them together?”

What emerges is a deeper understanding of how we interpret media conversations, and conversations between media. And this isn’t about ideology or political stance—Poff is not concerned with pitting the Right against the Left or vice versa, but rather revealing how we construct those “battles” in the first place. Perhaps it’s worth returning to Video Silence, in which Poff used a similar mechanism to exploit the silences on network television, to answer the question of what does silence mean in broadcasting. Is it just dead air, or is it a site for potential?

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The Invention of Solitary

Situated in the thriving neighborhood of Fairmount in Philadelphia lies a decaying ruin: Eastern State Penitentiary. Back when this iconic prison admitted its first inmate in October of 1829, the then-magnificent building was up on a hill far from where most Philadelphians lived, and it was a site to be feared. Behind its massive stone walls was a carefully engineered, painstakingly designed set of cell blocks lined with small cells where inmates would be held in perpetual solitary confinement. What would later to termed the “Pennsylvania system” of justice, this machine was thought to be able to admit hardened criminals, give them time for ample reflection (23 hours a day in absolute quiet), and turn them back out onto the city’s streets as reformed, reflexive, spiritual men and women. After Eastern State was closed in January of 1970, it was essentially left to the elements.

We met with Sean Kelley, program director at Eastern State Penitentiary, on Cellblock 12.

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When Eastern State first opened, it attracted a wealth of tourists and visitors from around the country and from abroad—both day-trippers looking to admire the clean machinations of a state hell-bent on reformation of its worst criminals and representatives from governments from Europe searching for a solution to keep their own underclass in line. Kelley estimates that around 300 prisons were built in Europe that were based on the Quaker model at Eastern State—as large a footprint in the European disciplinary psyche as Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon model that Foucault made so famous. The effect was the same: a complete separation from others would lead toward inner reflection, a sterling example of how systems of power regulate individual bodies and minds.

As Kelley describes in the video above, the practice of long-term solitary confinement was eventually abandoned in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because it was deemed too cruel and inhumane to maintain. The next move in this disciplinary system was to “modernize” solitary toward what it is meant to be today: a system of punishment within the general prison population. “You still needed a prison inside of a prison because the problems that exist outside always exist inside the prison, too,” he explained. “The lesson of these Eastern State-inspired prisons was that people hate this, they absolutely hate it. It’s an unnatural state of living, and so if you really want to get someone’s attention, just cut them off from human contact.”

Those that could not conform to the strict rules of Eastern State after 1913 were held in the “Klondike” temporarily. What is called “the hole” in most prisons, the “Klondike” is a disciplinary room dug out of the side of Cell Block 14, and is only accessible by descending a very steep set of stairs. At the bottom, about a half dozen 4 foot by 8 foot cells have been dug into the walls—a set-up that is completely immersed in darkness, without electricity, running water, or ventilation. In a move that eerily recalls the current use of “the hole” in prisons across the country, solitary confinement was used not for redemption, but purely for punishment. Resembling sensory deprivation rooms (but housed in a dank cellar), the “Klondike” subterranean cells were eventually forcibly abandoned after a state penal commission suggested in an August 1953 investigation that the living conditions in this special cellblock were beyond barbarous.

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“Eastern State pretty thoroughly discredited the idea that solitary confinement will reform individuals: the idea that you can take someone bad, isolate them, and they’ll spend time looking into their hearts and becoming penitent, that, I hope, is an idea that we are past,” Kelley told us. “However, there is this pendulum swing in prisons that goes between whether we try to habilitate people or whether we try to punish them harder.” As has been well-documented by numerous scholars and activists over the last three decades, the system in America is swinging right back toward vigorous and vicious punishment, and away from purely reformist intentions.

Loic Wacquant, a professor of sociology who has been mentioned on this site before, has traced the evolution of the social state into the penal state, in what he labels “the great penal leap backward.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics tells us that in 1975 there were 379,393 inmates in county, state, and federal prisons, as compared to 1,931,850 in 2000. As Wacquant writes in Prisons of Poverty, “one might think that after 15 years [from 1975 to 1990] of such frenetic growth American jails and prisons would reach saturation and that certain…homeostatic mechanisms…would kick in…But America’s carceral bulimia did not abate: at the end of the single year 1995…an additional 107,300 found themselves behind bars, corresponding to an extra 2,064 inmates per week.” (During this same period and even a bit before, crime rates began a long, steady decline that has never been proven beyond a doubt to be the result of these policies of enforcement.) And it wasn’t that the numbers of inmates were just on the rise, but rather their sentences were getting longer and solitary confinement was being deployed more frequently to keep certain prison populations under close control. In Punishing the Poor, Wacquant explains how our obsession with “insecurity” has led to an amalgamated discourse that “is amplified and ratified by the prefabricated productions of a certain magazine sociology that shamelessly lumps together schoolyard brawls, stairwell graffiti, and riots in derelict housing projects.”

Recognizing the dangerous slope that we are currently sliding down, the American Friends Service Committee’s STOPMAX Campaign and organizations like it around the country are building a network to abolish solitary confinement, which has become the preferred control mechanism for the mentally ill and politically vocal inmates. The “tough on crime” mentality of the last few decades has offered us a return to the policies that made Eastern State a beacon in its time, without the curiously benevolent motivations. When the prison in Marion, Illinois was put into unending lockdown in 1983, America saw its first supermax prison arise out of a penal state, establishing a revised Eastern State-like system in our time.

“What you don’t see as much of is a government like the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the 1810s and 1820s, saying let’s try something really expensive and new, and let’s try to find a way to give people options and make them better by opening up different experiences to them. Different tools and a different education,” Kelley explains. “As much as we are horrified by the way that the inmates here were treated—which by all accounts was an extraordinarily difficult experience—at least they were trying to make the inmates better people when they left so they wouldn’t have to keep coming back here.” The officials at Eastern State were careful not to have the inmates under their care just sit and suffer—they provided a Bible to each inmate (although many were functionally illiterate at best), taught them a trade, and offered moral/spiritual counseling. Although a bit paternalistic, these practices, Kelley believes, signaled a good faith effort toward reformation of the inmates and the correctional system as a whole.

“The idea almost seems naïve now, like it’s almost become a do-gooder idea: that people can change.” Even though the Quaker philosophy underpinning all of the reform efforts at Eastern State eventually backfired and was cast aside, the essential goal was a good one. In Kelley’s words, it was “to make a good neighbor” out of those who formerly were not welcome in society. Of course, in the early years of the prison’s life—at a time when photography and fingerprinting were still decades away—it was impossible to track recidivism or to quantify the successes of this effort. The question remains, though: what if our correctional systems today abandoned practices that over 100 years ago were deemed too cruel, and instead initiated a reform effort for the twenty-first century? What if the balance between punishment and reformation was finally found?

Quiet Time

As the pace of life quickens, the number of applications for ten-day silent meditation retreats has gone through the roof.
A story by Greg Emerson Bocquet.

No talking. No reading. No writing or listening to music, or checking voice mail. For practitioners of Vipassana meditation, who follow these rules for ten, 20, even 60 days at a time, going “off the radar” means exactly that.

While most people accustomed to the fast pace of modern living would consider breaking off all communication with the world impossible, more and more are turning to the practice of Vipassana to help quiet their minds. Since the group’s only advertising is a website that provides information about courses and registration, this increased interest is generated purely by word of mouth. But it is not only the New Age, spiritual types who are drawn to this form of silent self-observation; these days, people from all walks of life and all ages, cultures and religious backgrounds attend the basic ten-day courses.

Barry Lapping is one of a handful of practitioners who, after learning the technique from S.N. Goenka, the modern leader of the Vipassana tradition, brought it to the United States in 1982. “From the very young to the very old, the highly professional to the CEO, to the ditch digger, to the unemployed, the white, the black, the yellow, the red, all of these people have come,” Lapping says. “Because every human being—no matter where they’re from, what nationality, what race, what religion—every human being works in exactly the same way.”

The numbers back up Lapping’s claim. He runs the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne, Mass., which is able to accommodate 140 meditators at a time, making it the largest center of its kind outside of India. These days, every course has a waiting list, each with up to 100 names. Last year, 7,161 people participated in the ten-day retreats—the most common of the Vipassana courses held throughout the country—and hundreds signed up for the three-day, 30-day and 45-day courses.

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For those who are uncertain about taking the plunge into silence, the fact that the retreats are absolutely free helps many decide to give them a try. All retreats are funded by donations from people who have already completed a course. Besides allowing the group to claim nonprofit 501(c)(3) status, the arrangement has philosophical underpinnings. “There is no commercialization in this process,” Lapping says. “People can give whatever they feel, understanding that everything they have received in these ten days is because of the donations from the people who have come before.”

So far, the system works. It takes about $600,000 per year to run the courses and maintain the center, and according to Rick McCabe, the group’s treasurer, the donations consistently produce a surplus.

“If donations drop off because of this recession we are in, we will be fine for a few years,” McCabe says. More than fine, the center is expanding. Construction has begun on a massive gold-topped pagoda that will provide individual meditation cells for course participants.

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What’s It Like?

The retreats, which happen throughout the world and at 23 locations in the U.S., bring participants together in quiet, rural settings to sit and meditate for ten hours a day. While the practice is taught in group meditation sessions, the experience is highly individual. For first timers, the initial sensation tends to be one of utter physical pain.

Brent Kim, a 30-year-old who works as a public health researcher, took his first Vipassana course in India in 2007. The overwhelming discomfort proved to be more than he could handle, and he left the retreat on the fourth day. “The first day I sat to meditate for ten hours, but it felt like 30,” Kim says. “With each progressive day, my knees hurt, my back hurt and the more I would mentally complain, the more the pain hurt. I couldn’t handle it.”

Students are expected to endure the pain, trusting that the body will learn to sit without changing position so the mind has a chance to take over. Justine Ngo, 26, remembers very distinctly the moment the transition occurred. “It was day six that I finally sat for a full hour. That was when I first discovered the difference between the physical and the mental discomforts,” she said.

While many participants undertake the practice to process some mental turmoil, the application form for a Vipassana course specifically warns against people with mental disorders taking part. Sometimes, the mental and emotional stress can be overwhelming. Dmitri Iarikov, a 25-year-old student at Virginia Tech, says his emotional state changed from hour to hour, every day, ranging from moments of divine enlightenment to emotional despair.

“There were days when I was wishing that the pain would start, because all this fear, this anxiety, would come up and I would just wish my knee was just hurting,” he says. “So I would focus on that instead of being between my ears again thinking, thinking, thinking.”

Back in the Real World

On the last day of the course, students are once again permitted to speak, allowing them to share their impressions of the previous ten days. But ten days of silence effects each person differently. While Kim remembers a failed first attempt at starting a conversation, Iarikov describes the opposite. “When they actually let us talk to people and let us out of this little world we were confined in,” he says, “it’s like this valve just went off and all the steam came out.”

Often the biggest challenge for the practitioners is to maintain the mental balance and control over their stress levels once they return to the real world. Teachers recommend a minimum of two hours of meditation per day, following the Vipassana teachings of self-observation for an hour in the morning, an hour in the evening.

While ten days may seem like a long time, these retreats are meant as an introduction to the practice, not a miracle cure for life’s ills. “After ten days, you realize that even after all that focus, all that amount of work, you have a great feeling,” Ngo says. “But you’re just scratching the surface.”

This story first appeared in FLYP Media in June 2009.

George Prochnik’s Pursuit of Silence

“As we all know, absolute silence is impossible—it’s the ending of all vibrations, total death,” states George Prochnik, the author of the new In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (Doubleday, 2010). Our sonic landscape is a mixture of signal and noise, silence and form, and Prochnik’s pursuit is to take our aural “temperature,” to encourage us to think about our sonic architecture. Take a short soundwalk through any American city and the level of noise is overwhelming; we decide to combat the sonic vertigo caused by blaring horns, engine roars, babies’ cries, and machine hums by turning on our iPods and tuning out. As Prochnik argues, the problem begins at the exact moment that we reach for a noise-making device to re-upholster our sonic environments, to combat an uncomfortable level of noise by adding yet another layer of sound. In Pursuit of Silence puts forth the claim that we have lost our ability to listen to the many textures of the world and to inject our personal space with varied levels of silence.

Edited into our interview with Prochnik is sound from Freesound.org. As a database of sound recordings submitted by sensory ethnographers and sound artists from around the world, the Freesound Project offers us a window back into the realm of silence. The Project works on the same level as Prochnik’s oft-repeated quote from Thoreau: “silence has different depths, like fertilities of soil.” If there are different textures to our acoustic landscape, it is vital that we recover the experience of them and the ability to listen closely and find meaning.

What do we mean when we talk about silence?



In a Bookforum review of Prochnik’s book, J. Gabriel Boylan summarized the dangers of constant exposure to noise: “It turns out that the peak of brain activity, of thinking, comes in the tiny pauses between sounds, when we simultaneously process the previous sound and anticipate the next. When noise never abates, brain activity tends to flatline.” The disappearance of silent spaces is endangering our ability to obtain a reflective, active state of mind. One of the most dramatic moments in Prochnik’s latest effort comes when he spends a night shift with a police officer in Washington, DC who frequently responds to calls of domestic violence. He tells Prochnik how the scene upon arrival is frequently one of deafening noise—layers of televisions, radios, stereos, and the inevitable screaming of the angry parties—but when he asks that these devices are turned off and the couple sit down quietly, the violence comes to a halt. We are, as Prochnik puts it, “living after the third sonic fall,” in a moment in history when we have taken the decibel levels of the Industrial Revolution and two world wars and added a third layer of noise on top. As a result, we’ve lost the close connection with our environment—that heightened awareness and ability to be surprised—that comes with the ability to pluck out sonic information from the general hum of life.

As Prochnik told Paul Holdrengraber in a conversation at a recent NYPL Live event, “the quest always begins in silence, whether it’s an animal stalking its prey or a thinker answering a question. The start of the question is silence.” During the course of his “quest” in the book, he encounters the “boom car” fanatics of Florida, neuroscientists who are looking at how consistent exposure to noise rewires our neural pathways, architects working to transform spaces for the deaf community, friends at the Brooklyn Friends Meeting House, and more. In the end, he writes that “instead of being against noise, I think we need to begin making a case for silence.”

As Prochnik states, we’ve turned “so many of our public spaces into noise dumping grounds and what we can put into a direct feed into our ears is somehow more interesting.” We put on our earbuds to exert at least a minimal amount of control over the noise, and in so doing enact a tiny personal protest against the barrage of sound that ultimately further removes us from our environment. The simple act of tuning out erases deliberate thought, i.e. silence, and causes a deficit of listening. “I don’t think it’s about fabricating silence,” Prochnik told us, and rather “it’s about defabricating the noise.”

Building Silence



“Silence doesn’t just happen magically, it needs a space.” Prochnik’s assertion speaks to the need to find what he calls “that aural truffle.” When Prochnik turns the lens back toward his own environment (that of Midtown Manhattan), he discovers the allure of the pocket park for providing that “site of refuge” from the proverbial hustle and bustle. Also called a minipark or a vest-pocket park, these tiny patches of green space are squeezed into the irregular waste products of zoning codes or haphazard development.

The first pocket parks were built in the years following World War II, when the frequent bombing campaigns in Europe turned the urban layouts into Swiss cheese-like schematics. Today, in particularly blighted urban environments like Detroit and Philadelphia, city officials have made it a priority to develop more of these pocket parks out of the empty lots that are cropping up every day. In Philadelphia, for instance, the population of the once-bustling industrial hub has dropped 26 percent since the 1960s, from a peak of 2 million to less than 1.5 million today. The infrastructure and space could support many more residents, but the 25,000 vacant lots (the highest per capita rate in the nation) have led to a city plan that is needlessly sprawling. The Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Philadelphia Green program has launched a campaign to inform city officials on how to build in more green space, at once reclaiming the vacant land and providing a vessel of solace within a city littered with assaulting noise.

As Prochnik makes clear, these reclaimed holes in the city grid do not produce silence exactly, but rather something akin to silence. In a world that lacks “acoustical contrast,” it is comforting to be able to sit down and observe the many layers of aural information that rise above the baseline. In one section of In Pursuit of Silence, Prochnik visits with some of the leaders of the sound mapping initiatives taking place right now by the European Environment Agency—initiatives that are mired in bureaucracy and produce maps that are essentially endless data streams that might never actually catalyze change.

“Rather than just being against noise and telling people who have no experience of silence, ‘be quiet,’ people who at this point literally don’t know what the means, we’ve got to start showing them what it means to be for silence,” Prochnik told us. “We’ve got to give them the space to do it and it’s got to be experiential.”

Silence Now

New England Phonographers Union: MIC’D

It is a recovering of sonic phenomena that would otherwise be lost. We traveled from Boston to the small town of Kittery, Maine with Ernst Karel and Jed Speare to do some field recordings before a live performance they were to give later that evening at the Buoy Gallery. They are members of the New England Phonographers Union, a fluid congregation of sound artists that play on the contextualization and recontextualization of clips of acoustic information. Traveling around with recording gear, they seek out the sonic identity of spaces, sound objects and events; the New England Phonographers Union probes soundscapes for an acoustic signatures that can be reassembled (unprocessed and untreated) in an improvisational setting.


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The Union was formed as an outpost of the Seattle Phonographers Union, a similar group formed in 2002 that strives to make familiar sounds foreign and foreign sounds familiar. There are also like-minded Phonographers Unions in New York, Chicago, London, and Montreal, and the main link between them all is the idea that by playing back found samples from our acoustic ecology, we can become more attuned to our world. All of these groups seem to owe their roots to the World Scoundscape Project started by R. Murray Schaeffer and Barry Truax at Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s, which strove to create encyclopedias of our acoustic ecology and document the relationships between different sonic spaces. Drawing on this history, the New England Phonographers Union shies away from field recordings with a distinct melody, opting instead for the natural vibrations that can be picked up in our world. As the Boston Phoenix wrote in August 2008, “the hum of an electrical appliance, the whip and whistle of wind, chattering voices, the clang of machinery, and a host of ostensibly non-musical noises are all grist for the phonographers’ mill.”

Christopher DeLaurenti of the Seattle Phonographers Union has pointed out that good practice in field recording requires an awareness of listening as a form of mediation. During our time spent out on the docks and under the bridges of Kittery with Ernst and Jed, this notion kept coming up. We watched them stand huddled from the wind, microphone placed as closely as possible to the sound source as they tried to keep still for upwards of ten minutes at a time. And yet, the presence of the microphone shifts how we perceive the thing being recorded. “There’s a great illusion that I’ve always had about field recording, like being so attuned to what you’re doing that you feel very invisible, very inconspicuous,” Jed told us. “It’s really focusing on the moment.”

It is a recovering of sonic phenomena that would otherwise be lost, and a recontextualization of the aural data into a new, varied soundscape during collaborative and solo performances. During a performance, the phonographers are invisible in the space of the gallery—they set up their laptops and sound mixers in the corners of the room so as to recede into the darkness. It seems that we are not meant to acknowledge their presence, and the further that you move toward the middle of the room, the more their phonographic solos blend into an overwhelming sense of aural immersion. We have never seen the objects, people, and spaces that originally created the sounds we are hearing, and we cannot see how they are being replayed in the moment. Stripped of all context and visual cues, the shades of musique concrete coalesce into a map of the sonic environment being created right then and there.

The act of field recording constantly reminds us that our ears are not just receptacles, but filters as well. And when the specific sounds that have been plucked out of our noisy world are moved into an improvisational setting, we become aware of chance. As Jed told us, “in an improvisation setting, the ways that one contributes is by doing something and sticking with it and/or playing a kind of sympathetic or supporting role and balancing these things. Or just staying out altogether.” The members of the New England Phonographers Union work with and against the sounds deployed from each member’s sound database, strategically re-presenting sounds into a broader spectrum that resembles a modern classical composition. In a special moment every once in a while, the members’ clips speak to one another in a way that could not be planned—a flat-line hum perfectly works with the rhythm of a swing, or two sanguine vibrations perfectly mirror one another in a call-and-response pattern. It is our world, remixed.

But out in the field, back at the moment in which the data is collected and samples taken to the gallery for examination, it all comes down to what “catches the ear,” as Ernst says.

“These strange creaking sounds are kind of interesting.”

“I just did 13 minutes there.”

Silent Worship at Brooklyn Friends

When individuals during Quaker worship feel the unmistakable urge to stand and speak (to give ministry), it is often described as an non-intellectual moment, and a person may not even realize that he or she has stood to speak until the act has actually occurred and words are flowing from the subconscious. The other friends then focus on the speaker, and the utterances become held within the silence of the group. Silence offers a conduit for those thoughts to reverberate and take on new life in the minds of the listeners, forming a community around each ministry. (An old Quaker saying questions that value of ministries, asking “does it make the silence better?”) Elias Hicks, a controversial Quaker leader who lived in the beginning of the nineteenth century, said that Quaker silent worship was the search to “center down into abasement and nothingness…This is what I labored after: to be empty, to know nothing, to call for nothing, and to desire to do nothing.”

In traditional societies and settings, sound can take on a sacred quality—the ringing of bells, chanting, blowing of horns all are meant to invoke the gods’ passions and attentions. At the turn of the last century when the mechanical revolution turned aviators and broadcasters into secular gods, the hum and roar of industrial machinery took on this sacred aspect of noise. Power was displayed through displays of noise; sound is a conduit for whatever a culture or individuals hold as the divine.

But the inverse still holds true; there is still a divine power to sonic absence. Quakers and Buddhists both turn to the silent world for a sense of peace and communication with the divine spirits. The Ohio Yearly Meeting’s Book of Discipline states that “a living silence may be so filled with the Divine Presence that all who worship become conscious of it and are drawn together in unity under the power of His love.”

The Quaker meeting is a silent affair with neither mantra (as in Orthodox Christianity or Hindu meditation) nor focal image (as in Tibetan Buddhism). Instead, silent worship moves Quakers toward an uncircumscribed divinity, an openness that allows god’s inspiration to fill the individual until he or she is moved to speak. And also unlike other forms of religion that focus on meditation, Quaker worship is not meant to draw the self back within—it is not a complete introversion. The Meeting House is an energetically charged environment in which silence is used to draw the friends together as they all reflect on light, spirit, prayer, and god.

William Penn believed that silence was preferable to speaking because the secret always remained safe: noise is folly. Sitting still in the quiet of a meeting, human-generated problems wash away, and the inaudible voice of god can be heard.

Movie House Configuration

In 1928, the latest movie house designed by vanguard architect Frederick Kiesler opened up on a main street in Greenwich Village. Called the Film Guild Cinema, it featured a screen that at the time perfectly embodied the spirit of modernity: taking into account the importance of spatio-visual and acoustical aspects of a film’s performance, an expanding and contracting “iris” could respond to the geometry of the projected film. The height and width of the screen was entirely dynamic—the theater’s design was a design and engineering feat. (There were also plans for a “projectoscope” that offered simultaneous projections on multiple surfaces, like a planetarium, but that was never realized.)

Kiesler wrote of this movie house: “The film is a play on surface, the theatre is a play in space, and this difference has not been realized concretely in any architecture, either that of the theater or the cinema. The ideal cinema is the house of silence…The spectator must be able to lose himself in an imaginary, endless space.”

The movie house must make itself invisible, so as to allow viewers to focus on the screen entirely, and unwanted acoustic effects (such as echoes) must be minimized. Kiesler’s architectural inventions were reflected in the original Anthology Film Archive screening room, designed by Peter Kubelka. This latest modernist sanctuary took the spectator’s isolation fully into account: a divider encapsulated each viewer within his or her own cubby hole. Each viewer was insulated haptically and aurally—no communication was possible across the dividers.

But what happens when the space of the movie house doesn’t afford such carefully controlled acoustics? At a recent screening of a film in a giant loft space of an old warehouse—a space not specifically designed as a movie house—the sound was a bit uncontrollable. Quick sonic drops in the film (meant to be complete drop outs) were followed by an echo that eerily added to the film’s meaning. The rupture in the intentioned silence—the upsurge of the aural, those unwieldly waves—was welcomed by the audio engineer, who after the fact praised the gradually fading hum.

Brotzmann’s Breathing

Brotzmann’s playing is a breathing based cycle that focuses on the violence and energy that sound requires as it ruptures out of silence. Each phrase starts with his breath, which is more powerful than the instrument. The diaphragm pulls the air in, sound can’t start on an exhale, which creates the first and most important fissure in the silence. Then the exhale, the diaphragm pushing out, modulating the saxophone, which is a technical amplification of his breath sound. The air, exhausted, retreats again as the silence re-incorporates, with a final push (gasp) the mouth breaks the seal with the instrument and the cycle begins again.

Anti-Noise Terrorist

“It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of a man’s beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth . . .”
(Beowulf 34)

Grendel’s main complaint doesn’t seem to be the noise per se. He makes real violence manifest from the symbolic violence done onto his own free noise space. Beats, structure, syllables, rhyme, meter lead to history, mastery, and ultimately the end of Grendel’s liberty, the lie to end all lies, a logical measure of the universe, λόγος.