January 15, 2019
With a gentle urgency, James Allister Sprang wants me to understand something about his set up. In his studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center, he talks it through while we can’t help but catch up in a kind of standing dance, clicking, turning, and tinkering with his equipment, digressing and teaching.
Our conversation loops through his set up, dives down into the personal, flies around “poetry,” into laughter, back to the set up, time travels in a backwards/forwards spiral toward the work he’s making now. Later, at our third meeting, he draws this set up in my notebook. See: he’s got this library of language he’s cultivated through interviews, words spoken and written and read by others, mostly poets and scholars, mostly women of color—words he’s studied enough to treat as a medium; dials for shaping the sounds’ resonances, their emergence into and creation of a physical space; backing tracks he’s composed along with Aon (Pablo Chea); and a looping station, familiar, key to the sense of a live mind responding by returning, by combining, listening through the creation of sound.
In my notes and memory, I realize that my questions about how this set up works are full of bad metaphors, binaries (the human versus the technological) that I don’t believe in, do I? James’ responses are a creativity of patience—guiding me at one point toward Eshu, Yoruban trickster god of the crossroads, the fader, divining with his palm nuts on a platter, stylus reading the groove—mythic and linguistic ancestry for the turntable. In translating the technical aspects of his production of sound and language for Turning Towards a Radical Listening, Sprang’s care feels sacred, feels joyful; this care insists on language (just one way to organize sound) as a constantly and multiply mediated phenomenon, a kind of deadly miracle. His work as GAZR has entered a new stage, moving from speaking to listening, from, he says, “poet-rapper” to “listener, doing the work of a poet.” The complexly musical, social, and psychological space-times orchestrated by GAZR’s deep energy, in word and body, have phased from the exterior toward the interior—though the medium of sound is always playing with the distinction. This performance is a work to practice, to cultivate, to model, to argue for a virtuosity of listening.
To begin, this one time: the looping rhythmic knock of the skip hop of a needle on vinyl; GAZR’s voice asking Google’s Speech API to recognize and display certain words in the document projected on the central screen, take familiar actions (“SELECT ALL!” he speaks then shouts into one mic dangling from the studio ceiling, then the other)—and the failure of his rising voice to be recognized. The audience laughs at the program’s failure to do its job, but, built into the DNA of this performance is the fact of technology’s bias—highlighted by the work of scholar Safiya Noble (i), whose interview he cites and mixes. I hear a primer in the hum throbbing over the skip, maybe a tuning of the body to the dynamics of sound. The shriek up and shred down that shuffles the ears toward what becomes loosened and attenuated in the body as he elevates the frequencies or rolls them low, shifts the balance, alters the kind of space the sound comes from.
And then the words land, bubbling up from a pitch. Words that speak, in my ears, to the problem of having and being had by a colonizer’s language: English, to long for other languages. To need it to survive, and to be historically and systematically misheard. Amber Rose Johnson says, “This language which is the only language that I have, that is mine, is also not, and never will be.” What happens, sonically, is wildly more and less than this sentence, simply rendered in text. GAZR’s live mixing transmits, amplifies, degrades, hones, and mediates these sounds, words from his library—working the levels, weaving tracks like paths and directions toward and away from access, reception, comprehension. All the while Google’s Speech API is “listening,” “translating” the sounds it hears into that projected text behind him, generating its own poetry. Conceptually as well as sonically, GAZR builds toward intersectional lessons in the form of questions: How is listening a kind of mixing? How do we learn by altering what we hear? How can a greater awareness of the ways technology organizes our sound intervene, at the physical level, in how and who we hear?
Words flutter, unfurl, pound, and leap amid crisis sounds, doom sounds, peace sounds. I recognize the voice of Claudia Rankine, reading from the Stop-and-Frisk / Script for Situation video in Citizen. The mix haunts me, haunts itself with “so angry you can’t drive yourself sane.” (ii) The crawling iterations of a looped phrase, ticked below a choral wave—voice against voice, patterned in different increments—the emergence, disappearance, and return of certain words inside of his live mixing: “mine” / “we need.” GAZR tells me mixing codes moves into his physicality, bumping and leaning into small gestures spiraling out. Google’s program wants to turn off because it’s overwhelmed. It shouldn’t be uncanny that there’s something “human” about the computer’s variable ease or struggle, its uneven error. Some voices in the mix are “heard” by the voice-to-text program more accurately than others—specifically mine, emitting from this white body. GAZR’s work suggests the same could be said of us as individual bodies: that a desire to hear, to understand does not outmuscle the structural biases we inherit through language, context, culture. Complicity with the problem is not optional; it is a function of language, of our tools.
Witnessing this performance, GAZR invites you to feel into what you do with sound, to attend to yourself as you listen for what you hear when a sentence becomes a word, becomes a phoneme, becomes a beat, becomes attenuated into a string digitally plucked: Can you hear (in yourself) the stakes in what moves you? Do you want to dance (with me)? Who gets to make meaning (inside you) when they speak?
i. Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression (New York: NYU Press, 2018).
ii. Claudia Rankine, Citizen (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014).
Sara Jane Stoner is a teacher, writer, and PhD candidate in English at CUNY Graduate Center, critically obsessed with the erotics of consciousness. Her first book, Experience in the Medium of Destruction (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs), was nominated for a Lambda Award.
Photos: Maria Baranova