Music of the Spider: |
A Sonic History of Muscles
Recent performance of Atau Tanaka and his group Sensorband's bio-electronic music has attracted me so much that it makes me think about the sonic history of human muscles. My sensation is something about the historicity of sound, a history that the sound-body connectedness can evoke through the mnemonic system of human physicality. A sound-body continuum as a cultural memory device. Atau Tanaka's body motion and its musical output directly touches my sense of history by way of a special trope: a spider.
One of Tanaka's main instrument is called the "BioMuse." The BioMuse is originally a biosignal musical interface developed at Stanford University. It's original intent was to create a musical instrument driven by bioelectrical signals from the brain, skeletal muscles, and eyeballs. Tanaka's musical work with the BioMuse uses the BioMuse's four electromyogram channels. At the performance, he wears armbands fitted with sensing equipment which pick up the electrical impulses created by muscle tension, and dispatch them to a computer and MIDI synthesizers. At the stage, the electromyographic data is routed to a laptop computer running Max, and Max patches created by Tanaka himself transform the control data to a certain compositional framework to realize a real-time sound performance. For instance, if the muscle tension is minimum and the level meter is low, he might be playing low notes, and as he tenses up he'll be playing higher pitches. Tanaka's composition through the programmed Max software determines the nature of the sounds according to his body movement and tension, while allowing for a degree of improvisation. Here is a certain responsiveness of the instrument to the player's physical motion, so that the BioMuse used by Tanaka resembles the traditional organically interactive relationship between an acoustic musical instrument and its player. In a very surprising way, Tanaka's performance reminds us of the fact that any traditional musical instrument has been created as a kind of transmitter of human muscular movements.
The stage of "Soundnet", from this point of view, is even more interesting. Soundnet is a new live performance musical instrument of monumental proportions created by Sensorband which consists of Tanaka and his two collaborators. It actually is a giant web, measuring 11 by 11 meters, strung with 16mm-thick shipping rope. At the end of the ropes, there are sensors which detect stretching and movement. The three players, all wearing mountaineering harnesses, climb on it at once, spring and bounce across the net, coordinating their movements to trigger and organize the sounds. It's just like a music by human spiders on a web.
Soundnet uses the mechanically elaborated real-time interactive technology, but in a sense, the technology part is tiny compared to the musician's physical part. According to their own explanation, "the rope, the metal, and the humans climbing it take on an incredible physicality, and focus more on the organic nature and the human element of interaction rather than on mouse clicks and screen redraws. This puts the emphasis in man-machine interaction back towards the human side. As a result, the sounds the Soundnet makes as an instrument are organic as well. "
To put another organic element into the performance, Sensorband has chosen to work with digital recordings of natural sounds ranging from a howling wolf to a waterfall. The signals from the Soundnet control DSPs that process the sound through filtering, convolution, and waveshaping. Here again, natural elements are put in direct confrontation with technology. Human physical motions trigger the process to transform the naturally generated sounds into more complex man-machine interaction of sounds. Here the sounds are dealt with as the player's own musical material. Through gesture and pure exertion, they sculpt the sound to createsonorities emanating from the huge electronic spider web.
However, it is not a real spider web to catch any prey on it. Instead, this instrument is too huge for humans to thoroughly master. The ropes create a physical network of interdependent connections, so that no single sensor can be moved in a predictable way that is independent of the others. It is a multi-user, collective instrument where each performer is at the mercy of the other's actions. In this way, the conflict of control versus uncontrollability becomes a central conceptual focus of Soundnet. To sum up, the musicians are working with the uncontrollability and unpredictability which is in fact the very nature of our body.
The notion of the unpredictable body on the spider web reminds me of a history started right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean some five hundred years ago. This history is related with a metamorphosis of the body of black slaves, a new emergence of collective muscular power and prowess which is conceived and expressed in the figurative image of the spider and its mimetic dance form: the Limbo.
Nowadays, the Limbo is known as part festive dance, part calisthenic workout widespread throughout the Caribbean area. The object of the Limbo is to go under the bar by bending the body in rhythm to the music of a steel band. The limbo dancer moves under a bar which is gradually lowered until a mere slit of space remains through which he passes with spread-eagled limbs like a spider. The practice of the limbo is now strongly tourist-oriented in Trinidad and other British Caribbean islands, and together with the carnival and the steel band music, it represents one of the stereotypical folk images of the Caribbean that the Western desire for the exotic continuously invents and consumes.
It is said that the Limbo was born on the slave ships of the Middle Passage. Captive slaves from Africa were crowded into the holds of the ships, their hands and feet were bound in chains which were attached to an iron bar. To limber up their stiff, cramped limbs, the slaves devised a competitive exercise to see who could pass beneath the iron bar without touching it with their bodies. So, the limbo is a limb contorted with the colonial history, the contortion which transformed the slaves' body into the crawling spider.
The ironical wit to see and feel a spider in a violated, distorted body of slaves themselves, however, is also related to anancy , a spider-hero of the African tribal myth. Anancy is an earthly trickster very popular in African fables, and is often referred to as a cosmic alternative power of creator-gods. And if anancy holds this chaotic, destructive power against any oppressive situation in order to renew the cosmos, it isn't strange that the slaves in the New World foresaw the rebirth of the spider-hero in their dislocated bodies. In this sense, the limbo-anancy syndrome can be considered as a result of the archetypal sea-change, a total displacement and dislocation of joints and muscles which the slaves had brought with their bodies across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. In other words, the African phisicality had experienced a fundamental change during the Middle Passage and had obtained a new articulated structure of the limb. Then, the limbo dance can be viewed as a privileged place of cultural struggle where the distorted limb starts to reassemble their new West Indian corporality, while feeling somewhere the phantom of their lost African body.
Wilson Harris, a distinguished Guyanese writer and critic, says in his stunning essay "The Limbo Gateway" that it is legitimate to pun on limbo as a kind of shared phantom limb which has become a subconscious variable in West Indian cultural expression. If the limbo dancers are feeling their phantom pain in the depth of their body already lost, then the spider-like limb is a newborn synthesis of hybrid phisicality charged by a politics of the colonial history. Memory was reset and recharged in a new body while preserving a phantom pain which the history brought to them as a consequence. Harris writes:
It has taken us a couple of generations to begin --just begin-- to perceive, in this phenomenon, an activation of unconscious and sleeping resources in the phantom limb of dismembered slave and god. An activation which possesses a nucleus of great promise -- of far-reaching new poetic form. For limbo is not the total recall of an African past since that African past in terms of tribal sovereignty or sovereignties was modified or traumatically eclipsed with the Middle Passage and with generations of change that followed. Limbo was rather the renascence of a new corpus of sensibility that could translate and accommodate African and other legacies within a new architecture of cultures.
Let's listen to one of the authentically touristic Trinidad steel band music accompanying the limbo dance.
There is no need to repeat here the well known history of the U.S. mass consumption of the British Caribbean popular music and dance starting from 1940s with Andrews Sisters' "Rum and Coca Cola" or Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat Song." However, this touristic/exotic revival of the Calypso and its dance counterpart, the limbo, has been, in a sense, the second biggest distortion occurred to the West Indian's body, which is namely the postcolonial repetition of the colonial body exploitation.
Barbadian-born poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite, knowing and criticizing the process of this double exploitation of the West Indian culture by the postcolonial world capitalism, writes a militant poem called "Caliban" (1969) by employing the typical steel band repetitive phrase: limbo, limbo like me.
This particular poem "Caliban" included in the last book of Brathwaite's "New World Trilogy" is usually considered as one of the first, conscious attempts to rewrite Shakespeare's The Tempest among the 20th century Caribbean intellectuals in order to appropriate its potential postcolonial connotations by praising Caliban as the symbol of the resistance and liberation in the colonized society. In the Shakespeare's canonical text, Caliban is depicted as a native monster-slave whose physical characteristic is so oddly ambiguous that he became easily a victim of the Western imperialistic imagination to see the native as wild, quasi-human creature. Brathwaite, in this poem, discovers the hidden epistemological possibility of Caliban and gives him a new West Indian meaning as a rebellious salve whose physical existence and language are totally displaced and transformed to claim against their new political, socio-historical environments.
Now Caliban plays pan at the carnival, dances limbo, sings pieces of Calypso while knowing that these capitalistic signs were the result of a violent appropriation of so-called folk culture, and that the meaning of these signs must be reversed again and be reappropriated after five hundred years' silence of the Caribbean people whose subjective history has been marked by such crucial dates of events as the Fidel Castro and his revolutionary guerrilla's secret landing at the Cuban Orient province, the emancipation of the slaves from the British West Indian plantations, and the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Caribbean island of Guanahani.
Shakespeare wrote "Ban Ban Cacaliban" referring simply to the drum sounds of the cannibals. Brathwaite writes "Ban Ban Caliban" after many bangs and revolutions to refer to the newborn historical entity called the West Indian. Here, Caliban's music and Caliban's muscles are regarded as absolutely historical substance.
"The muscles of the colonized are always tensed," wrote Martinican thinker Franz Fanon, imagining that the black slaves' aggressive phisicality were being prepared in their shantytowns against the harsh oppressiveness of the masters. The impulse to take the colonizer's place implies a tonicity of their muscles the whole time. Fanon continues:
The first thing which the native learns is to stay in his place, and not go beyond certain limits. This is why the dreams of the native are always dreams of muscular prowess; his dreams are of action and aggression. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, climbing; I dream that I burst out laughing, that I span a river in one stride, or that I am followed by a flood of motor-cars which never catch up with me. During the period of colonization, the colonized never stops achieving his freedom from nine in the evening until six in the morning.
Here, Fanon obviously evokes the historical body of the blacks, hisotricity of their muscles which is fully loaded by the sociopolitical meanings.
And we already know that the historical muscle can sometime resonate and resound with a music. Limbo-anansy-spider syndrome. We can listen to the sounds the muscle makes with its deepest connoisseurship of what had happened in the history. Lastly, let me cite an ironic, but highly moving rendition of limbo by a diasporan Guyanese poet John Agar's "sounded voices."
Limbo Dancer's Reading Habit
Muscle reads. Muscle leans. Muscle remembers.
Muscle misreads. Muscle appropriates. Muscle consumes.
Muscle in the disguise of spider who knows the very beginning of the world. Anyway, it is a mnemonic device to evoke hidden meanings of history. It is also a practical machine of forgetfulness to maintain the subconscious pasts in the depth of our body.
And if our contemporary attempt to revitalize the organic connection between the muscle and the musical performance had any meaning, it is in the realm of the history we share that we must minutely inspect the validity of that meaning. Sounds generated from human body always carry some historically loaded significance. The music of the spiders which Sensorband and their Soundnet create requires us a new politico-historical approach to the sound and soundmaking.
John Agar. "Limbo Dancer's Reading Habit." Literary Review, Fall 1990.
Edward Kamau Brathwaite. The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Bert Bongers. "An Interview with Sensorband." Computer Music Journal, 22:1, Spring 1998.
Franz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1991[orig.1966].
Wilson Harris. "The Limbo Gateway." in Bill Ashcroft et. al. (eds.), The Post-colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995.
Ryuta Imafuku. "Cricket Archipelago: C.L.R.James, Trobrianders and Sea Amateurs," in On the Beach of Sports. Tokyo: Kinokuniya-shoten, 1997.
Ryuta Imafuku. "Shakespeare and the 'Américas'." Chikuma vol. 326-334, May 1998-Jan 1999.
Ato Sekyi-Otu. Fanon's Dialectic of Experience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
The Trinidad Serenaders: The Latest Party Dance Craze. Columbia Records, CL1784, 1962.
Very special thanks to Atau Tanaka for his generous help to make me informed about Soundnet, and his understanding of my unorthodox connection of his musical project to the politico-historical issues. Atau's website on"Soundnet" (http://zeep.com/sensorband/soundnet/index. html) also gave me some useful information.
Also, thanks to Steven Feld for your very insightful comment when I read this paper for the first time at Kyoto, in 1998.
To Shin'ichiro Suzuki, I really appreciate for letting me know the source of some nice steel band music in Trinidad.
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