Ask me what music I’ve been listening to during this pandemic and my mind goes blank. I know that selective listening has gotten me through many difficult moments over the past year or so, but I’m hard-pressed to think of the sounds I allowed in now as separate from my being. In some ways, sound has filled in for the interactions we might normally have had, and in other ways, it has emphasized the distance between ourselves and any kind of infrastructure to help us cope with a number of challenges. In this essay, Harmony Holiday thinks on sound and the experiential discernment of listening, how sound and environment are linked, and what that says about how we live.
—Erika Stevens, interim editorial director
Fear of New Music
Listening, like any creative act, must be practiced, requires diligence and commitment, sometimes nauseating patience. Listening to any sound recording shifts the environment around it so much that it also requires willingness to be changed, moved, altered, invaded, opposed, debunked, overshadowed. Sound is the gauntlet of each new mood, whispering along the spine like a blade; the right noise can turn dejection to rejoice. Frustration heaves its sighs before the conscious mind allows it to register, fatigue’s narrow wimpers arrive before the eyes close, joy’s rush ripples before you realize you might be happy, against all odds, in a moment so eternal it bursts and there you are, exposed to yourself and forced to love it, almost violated by the lived dream.
The world, obsessed and riddled with sickness and politics as it is in its current iteration, attacks the senses, and to fortify against it we stiffen and crystallize trying to hold ourselves in our bodies while some insipid speed grabs the skin and shakes us down to organ and bone—song, chant, heave. It took me several months of the global pandemic to realize I was afraid to take in new sounds during it, that they might align me with the new reality, the shiny nightmare of epidemiology and hysteria, as if all sound I encountered would come to signify and imprint this time, this mode, this endless apocalypse. As if all past sound and music was suddenly alien and off-limits for the dead world it might conjure, inspire my longing for, and imitate in a slow shadow of hopefulness or delusion. I really didn’t want to hear it. There was less pleasure in the luxury of listening, less arousal from the way voices leave machines and touch the ear and create inescapable intimacy. Music was no longer preface to an ecstatic action or back up for a perfect intention; now songs and recorded voices were reminders of emotional possibilities that had been foreclosed or deferred by circumstance. Listening forces the trauma of this era to the surface, where it has to be faced; listening exposes the fantasy of a beautiful and vibrant and functional world during a time when dysfunction is being demanded of us all, even praised as a healing modality. Music brings the desire to repent and return to communities we’ve exiled for now. It’s dangerous to be cut through to your deepest core by a rhythm or tone while being told to fear touch and gaze and nearness— where do you place all of the blood and renewal, how do you follow its traces to freedom in a world trapped and running in place. Listening now is like hunting endangered prey to capture and “save” it. Every song is a little too meaningful, every word weighs more and less, everyone ends up in the zoo-museum, trying to hold on to the withering, soon-to-be distant voice of the past century in sound, alienated from us by our stupor, our new petrified way of being. The distorted sound that will pass through the mask and shield to herald the end of Americanism and all its pathological excess will soon hunt us, to kill.
It’s eight o'clock and (every night at this time) like a collective of energetic self-aware zombies, the people scream as if they are all children again, drowning together in a public pool, one massive death cult of the West. My skin is wet with tears and wind scrap which fall like dainty spit and debris into the leopard-printed net around my mouth. I don’t want to access this hysteria’s sound. I don’t find the collective howl of trapped capitalists endearing or redemptive. I think it’s another tacky affectation of the neo-liberal fantasy of oneness with no substance, their blood-soaked rainbow, their terminal world. I don’t want to hear it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Harmony is a writer, dancer, archivist, and the author of five collections of poetry including the forthcoming Maafa (Fence Books, 2021). She also curates an archive of griot poetics and a related performance series at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. She has received the Motherwell Prize from Fence Books, a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, an NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship, a Schomburg Center fellowship, a California Book Award, and a research fellowship from Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room. She’s currently working on a film commissioned for Los Angeles’s 2020 biennial Made in L.A., and a collection of essays entitled Love Is War for Miles, in addition to other writing, film, and curatorial projects.