I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing ‘What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” – all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. I pour the red liquid over the while mound watching it glisten and the vapor rising as Louis bends that military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound. Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aides me to understand his music. Once when I asked for a cigarette some jokers gave me reefer, which I lighted when I got home and sat listening to my phonograph. It was a strange evening. Invisibility let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music.
Invisible Man, “Prologue”, Ralph Ellison, 1952
Five Recordings of Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” 1929 playing simultaneously (with reverb)
I first read Invisible Man in my senior year of high school AP English class. It completely wrecked my mind – in part because there was a urgency that communicated through this novel that I could just barely grasp and understand – it was as heavy as it was breathless – insistent in it’s poetics. I didn’t understand about 90% of it!
I read the novel again in college in two different courses – a Black Literature and Comparative Literature Intro class. Each time, deepening my understanding and drawing out more of a relationship to it’s protagonist and the questions of visibility/invisibility and the refusal of white culture to recognize non-white subjectivity. The tension that exists in, as Sylvia Wynter cited by Weheliye notes
‘‘the possibility of their/our recognition of this imposed ‘invisibility,’ which leads to a new demand for another concept of freedom, another possibility of a livable being that culminates in [the protagonist’s] recognition of his alterity.’’ (20)
As Weheliye notes, by situating the protagonist’s “non-subjectivity” in the ocular domain, the visual space – there is then inherent possibility within the sonic space – a place for the formation of the black subject.
As a young asian adoptee in a white family within a predominantly small white town – the idea of double-consciousness introduced by Invisible Man, the conflicted subject formed by the hypervisibility or invisibility formed by those around me was particularly resonant to my own personal experience.
As a 45 year old musician today, the link between my sound practice over the years and this particular desire to understand one’s body and subject outside of it’s visual appearance – to find one’s own subject that resists the legibility of those who define me by their gaze is deeply embedded in my work.
Rather than suggest that this dimension (subjectivity) can be converted into or represented in sound, I would like to retain its ‘‘scandalous’’ qualities, since the sonic realm grants aural ‘‘opacities’’ qua subjectivity: pathways to moments of subjectivity set off against subjectivity per se; a sonic subjectivity that does not lose sight of the black subject’s visual interpellation but noisily ‘‘rings’’ and ‘‘clangs’’ beyond, above, below, and beside the optic nonetheless. (Weheliye 114)
I’ve made a few versions of this experiment with five recordings, the first was just having the five different embedded videos of the record playing as soon as you load the page – This created a short delay based on the few milliseconds it took for the videos to load sequentially. For this time around, I duplicated the recordings in a DAW and tweaked some reverb settings to hear the the “flesh” of these recordings in space – the bodies of sound. Below is my interpretation of the Ellison passage and the video of the original 1929 recording on Odeon.
Wanting to embody and be embodied by sound, the protagonist imagines his flesh as an eardrum, transforming his corporeal schema into a channel for his sonic subjectivity, which, in turn, emerges only in relation to his scopic interpellation. Thus, the sonic and the scopic, far from being diametrically opposed, provide occasion for one another; visual subjection begets sonic subjectivation. (Weheliye 10)
Weheliye, Alexander G. “‘I Am I Be’: The Subject of Sonic Afro-Modernity.” Boundary 2 30, no. 2 (May 1, 2003): 97–114. https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-30-2-97.