Editor's Note #6
Editor's Note #6
Listening to History
by Lauren Bakst
Editor's Notes frame and weave together the narratives and practices emerging from Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia, drawing connections among the projects of the three Artists/Thinkers, Communities-in-Residence, and field notes contributed by invited artists and community members.
Lauren Bakst reflects on Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia's growing collection of Sound Notes.
On Saturday, February 20th, there was a feeling of Philly love in New York. I was sitting in the Tischman Auditorium at NYU for the panel, "From Motown to Philly Sound to Rock to Pop," that was being presented as a part of the conference, Black Portraiture[s] II: Revisited. As a part of the panel, long-time Philly radio host Dyana Williams presented on the history of songs written and recorded by Gamble & Huff, aka Philadelphia International Records. Their music, she argued, created a "blueprint" or an "aural template" for black love, intimacy, and romance. That love could be felt in the room. The video that accompanied Williams' presentation took the form of a Gamble & Huff playlist, and each time a familiar and well-loved song came on, the audience, and Dyana, would begin singing along. As voices joined together tenuously in that singing-along-softly kind of way and small movements of shoulders, hands, and feet emerged from the individuated seats, a sense of joy, of a shared knowledge and intimacy filled the room. Williams had no trouble proving her argument—it was evidenced in the audience's experience of the music.
The timing of this particular panel could not have been more perfect as Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia has been focusing on collecting and publishing Sound Notes over the past month and a half. The website has, without a doubt, gathered more Sound Notes (you can still submit yours here) than any other category, and it comes as no surprise that at least five of the contributions include songs written by Gamble & Huff for artists such as Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and Billy Paul, to name a few.
Just a few days earlier, I had been reflecting on this collection of Sound Notes when Artistic Advisor Donna Faye Burchfield pointed me to both this conference and to "The Public Historian," a journal she discovered through her extensive research for Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia. In November 2015, The Public Historian released their Special Issue on Auditory History which begins with a note from the editor, James F. Brooks, who writes:
How do we hear history? Or better, how does history reside in sound—angry words, elegiac music, rolls of distant thunder, a gunshot outside the window, a thousand voices raised in protest—in our memory, and how might we summon those memories in the interests of hearing, interpreting, and writing public history?
Reading Brooks' words, I am reminded of the open submission from Chello Sherman, who in her Sound Note writes,
I was born in Philadelphia in 1962, my father was a police officer and I remember listening to the radio during some difficult times with my mother worried for his safe return. I remember the parks and walking to school and the music that I heard through the rush of the wind in the trees. Coming back here as a student, it is even more dynamic—the sounds of the train stations and the streets, the people and the cars hushing past with bits of music emerging from their open windows.
What Chello brings into focus so clearly is the multiple, interrelated layers of sound that create the feeling of a place. Many of the Sound Notes shared on the site take the form of playlists—in the personal annotations of the songs, one begins to sense the affective bonds that tie the playlist-maker to the songs they share. Like when Iris Jenkins includes Jill Scott's "A Long Walk" and writes, "I didn't know that Jill was on her way to stardom when we used to check out her poetry at the Old Zanzibar Blue on 11th Street." So it's not just the song, it's how you hear it that gives it meaning. Collectively, these Sound Notes begin to form a network of memories and feelings that resonate so vibrantly in the music and sounds of Philadelphia.
In "Beyond Echoic Memory: Introduction to the Special Issue on Auditory History,” Karin Bijsterveld writes, "In my view, a history that takes sound into account is most intriguing when it focuses on what was audible to both individuals and collectives of the past; on how these sounds spoke to and affected them; on how this reflected ways of engaging with, knowing, and valuing the world; and on how people organized and reorganized sound to create conditions worthy to live in.”
Reading Bijsterveld's words helps me connect the significance of these Sound Notes, which just begin to scratch the surface of what an auditory public history of Philadelphia might look like, to the work of the three Artists/Thinkers. Through the process of making work with people in Philadelphia, Faustin, Marty, and Reggie are all negotiating the ways that personal histories of sound and movement are "organized and reorganized ... to create conditions worthy to live in." I felt this witnessing the world that Faustin created on stage with musicians Heru Shabaka-ra, Tim Motzer, Anthony Tidd, and King Britt at the Painted Bride in October; through the ways that Marty is tuning into the narratives embedded in nature; and in how Reggie's process is interweaving the personal and the collective. Performer Maria Urrutia structures and signifies her experience of his process so precisely through a single action that is both a gesture and a sound. She begins her field note:
Tap the chest with a closed fist. Tap.
The tapping reverberates, a reminder of the vibrations already there. How does this tap.tap.tapping both reflect on and become the place we call "Philadelphia"?
Kick off the month with a dance party on Friday April 1 at PhillyCam featuring a mix of music from all of the Sound Notes, and don't miss the performances of new works by Artist/Thinkers Faustin Linyekula, Marty Pottenger, and Reggie Wiilson April 14-24, 2016.
Lauren Bakst is the Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia Interlocutor.