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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

The Sonic Orientation of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Novel Open Water

As explored in the second person

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s novel Open Water, published early last year, is a story about being young, gifted, and Black while dating and working in modern London. It’s told entirely in the second person. Despite the fact that the second person singular and plural can read the same (“you” can be both “you” and “you all,” as in “You kids get off my lawn”), the audience for these declarations is the narrator himself: we read the narrator speaking to himself.

The second person is a natural choice for a book that often is concerned with how people lose control of their bodies. In a positive mode, such dissociation has to do with the narrator becoming entangled with a new love such that the couple meld into an amorphous singularity. That love, however, occurs in the constraints of people ever surveilled, ever in threat of state violence, ever the object of suspicion in the city in which live their lives — an existence in which one loses a sense of control over one’s body, about which Nelson, who is British-Ghanaian, writes eloquently.

The second person enacts, for the reader, the void between the narrator and himself. We, as the reader, inhabit the space in between. We eavesdrop as the narrator speaks to himself, as the narrator attempts to bridge that void. This experience is all the more evident in the audiobook, which is read by Nelson himself. It’s especially intriguing at the open and close, when he is required to read the credits for author and narration, meaning that he says his own name out loud, as if it were someone else’s.

It’s worth noting Nelson’s second-person approach in the context of another debut novel about 20-somethings at the center of the Western cultural world: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, published in 1984. The void in McInerney’s book is quite different, even if the story, like Open Water‘s, spends a lot of time watching the narrator participate in the nightlife of a surging metropolis, albeit Manhattan instead of London. The psychic void in Bright Lights, Big, however, is about poisonous affluence, and takes place precisely after a big breakup, whereas Open Water begins even before its central relationship kicks off.

The void in Open Water is not a vacuum. It is filled with sound. The narrator is obsessed with music, notably albums by Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean, a highlight being adolescent exposure to the great Dizzee Rascal. The connection between sound and experience is embroidered into the novel right from the start, when an early phase of a relationship is summed up: “The two of you, like headphone wires tangling, caught up in this something.” We spend time with the narrator and his love, a dancer, in clubs, feeling the music as much as hearing it.

And the narrator’s experience of sound isn’t limited to music. In a barbershop, as the razors come close: “The buzz of the machine operates at a vibration that speaks to you and encourages you to do the same.” When home alone: “The silence is something you normally crave in such a full household, but something is missing.” The norms of a mobile phone offers metaphoric imagery: “Her voice spins towards you through the soft static and you try to map its direction, imagining the soundwave drifting from a place you have never seen.” The poetic writing in Open Water frequently features such sonic observations, even when music isn’t the topic.

Toward the very end of the book there is a scene when quotidian sound and musical sound, when intonation and composition, are brought side by side. The narrator drops into a Caribbean restaurant to snag a pattie, but they’re sold out. The woman behind the counter asks if the narrator is OK. He isn’t, or he wasn’t, because now just having been asked the question has helped, has taken loads off. Not just that he was asked, but how he was asked: the narrator says to himself, “You smile at how something as simple as a familiar inflection could cradle you in this moment.” In the very next sentence, he exits the shop and heads back out into the street: “Leaving, you hear a kick-kick, snare, kick-kick, snare in your ears. You wonder if Dilla added reverb the the snare, or cut it, clear, straight from a sample.” The patois-tinged accent and the noticeable reverb — both are sonic zones in which the narrator finds solace, maybe even that rarest of things in Nelson’s novel: comfort.

This first appeared in the January 17, 2022, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound (tinyletter.com/disquiet).

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This Week in Sound: Meow, Dyslexia, White Noise

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week are lightly adapted from the January 17, 2022, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound (tinyletter.com/disquiet).

As always, if you find sonic news of interest, please share it with me, and (except with the most widespread of news items) I’ll credit you should I mention it here.

“A dyslexic judge has won a discrimination claim against the government after battling for access to voice-recognition software so she could do her job.”
thetimes.co.uk

A cat owner recognized the meow of her pet, Barnaby, which had gone missing eight months earlier, while on the phone with a veterinarian to talk about another of her cats.
bbc.com

When Los Angeles Times columnist Nicholas Goldberg was left on hold with Lufthansa for 45 minutes, he had plenty of time to research the history of hold music, while he was forced to endure the airline’s own version of it: “Lufthansa’s hold theme — a proprietary piece of ‘audio branding’ the company also uses during boarding — is unbearably repetitive. It’s not melodic or euphonic or catchy or soothing. It’s just wildly monotonous.”
latimes.com

People apparently can become quite emotional about white noise. Google changed the white noise sound in Google Assistant, and users aren’t happy. Sample comments:

“Talking about feeling crazy. I thought I had clogged ears or something.”

“It’s a different pitch. Almost muffled.”

“It’s very muffled like airplane engine noise. I hope they revert or at least offer a choice.”

“I’ve literally used white noise to sleep for about 10 or more years and for the past few years been quite content with home mini then upgrade to nest and here I am suddenly quite unhappy about that weird change!”

“I thought I was going insane! We had to move every white noise maker we own into our bedroom last night and it still wasn’t enough.”

One helpful Reddit user commented: “As another mentioned on the post, playing ‘river sounds’ is a close alternative to the original ‘white noise.'”
androidpolice.com, googlenestcommunity.com, reddit.com

“About 63,000 residents of Pyeongtaek will receive monthly compensation for noise pollution coming from a military airport in the city.”
en.yna.co.kr

Can you guess “the mystery sound of science”? That’s how presenters Belinda Smith and Joel Werner open an episode of The Science Show on ABC Radio National (the A in this ABC is for Australia).
abc.net.au

ABC Radio National also has the program Off Track, with Ann Jones, which “combines the relaxing sounds of nature with awesome stories of wildlife and environmental science, all recorded in the outdoors.” Recent episodes: “Antarctic blue whales and their amazing hums,” “Growls, grunts and currawong songs,” and “Just under the surface of the ocean, a cacophony of sound awaits.”
abc.net.au, abc.net.au

Nature ran a “podcast extra” interview with Simon Butler, “who is combining citizen science data with technology to recreate soundscapes lost to the past.”
nature.com

A KQED reporter, Chloe Veltmen, had her voice cloned by the company Speech Morphing to learn more about how the technology works. “”We extract 10 to 15 minutes of net recordings for a basic build,” explained Speech Morphing founder and CEO Fathy Yassa. Veltman nicknamed her AI voice Chloney. “Let’s hope she doesn’t put me out of a job anytime soon,” says Chloe (or perhaps Chloney).
npr.org

Kimi is an upcoming movie by directed by Steven Soderbergh about an agoraphobic tech worker investigating a crime related to an audio recording. Zoë Kravitz stars. Cliff Martinez did the score. The film was written by David Koepp.
variety.com

Mo Willems, children’s book author, is the first artist-in-residence at the Kennedy Center, for which he produced nine “large-scale abstractions,” one for each of Beethoven’s symphonies. The images are roughly 60″ tall and 40″ wide. They’re quite beautiful and graphically striking.
kennedy-center.org
(Via Austin Kleon’s newletter)

A review roundup of recent audiobooks, by critic Sebastian Modak, includes The Lost Sounds by Chris Watson, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. “Is this technically an audiobook?” asks Modak? “I don’t care. There are lessons and narrative here, even if they aren’t spelled out in words. As I listened, in an armchair, staring out a window, it didn’t lull me to sleep the way a ‘Sounds of Nature’ playlist might; rather, it awakened my senses.”
nytimes.com

The Tonga volcano eruption on Saturday was so loud that it was heard 1,400 miles away in New Zealand.
aljazeera.com

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Sound Ledger¹ (The Origin of Sound of the Species)

Audio culture by the numbers

541,000,000: The longest ago, in years, “that animals acquired some basic sound-making behaviors related to locomotion and predation”

200,000,000: The number of years later “before the buzzing of insects started to fill the air”

230,000,000: The number of years ago when “vertebrate animals evolved a wide range of vocal abilities”

▰ ▰ ▰

¹Footnotes: All items from scientificamerican.com.

Originally published in the January 17, 2022, edition of the This Week in Sound email newsletter (tinyletter.com/disquiet).

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Analog Reboot

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt

Getting my “dumb speaker” system in order

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twitter.com/disquiet: Tangles, X-Ray, Thelonious

From the past week

I do this manually each Saturday, collating most of the tweets I made the past week at twitter.com/disquiet, which I think of as my public notebook. Some tweets pop up in expanded form or otherwise on Disquiet.com sooner. It’s personally informative to revisit the previous week of thinking out loud. This isn’t a full accounting. Often there are, for example, conversations on Twitter that don’t really make as much sense out of the context of Twitter itself.

▰ “The two of you, like headphone wires tangling, caught up in this something.”

Very much enjoying Caleb Azumah Nelsons novel Open Water.

▰ Maybe it’s just me, but I’m having situations where to log onto Bandcamp (through Safari, on a current MacBook Pro), I have to click through as many as a dozen different captcha screen things. What is up?

▰ Each time I start learning a new song in guitar class, the first thing I do after the session (well, after I record myself playing the difficult bits before I forget them) is to search for the song at ethanhein.com.

▰ And sometimes you just need to put on Souled American’s 1988 album, Fe, marvel at the sheer personality of Joe Adducci’s bass, and listen to what Scott Tuma is up to (and extrapolate from there to what’s ahead for his own music). Such an incredible record.

▰ The X-Ray shorts tucked into the final season of The Expanse are enjoyable glimpses of the private lives of many characters. Also, observing Avasarala catnap and Peaches mourn in solitude provides ample opportunity to get immersed in the ambient sound of the spaceships they call home.

▰ I’ve learned of Elliot Harmon’s death, via Niki Korth. Elliot, while at Creative Commons (before EFF), was supportive of her exploration of Disquiet Junto activities, leading to a lengthy 2014 conversation (creativecommons.org). My thoughts go out to Harmon’s family and friends.

▰ The year is 2022. It’s inexcusable for spellcheck to not recognize “Thelonious.”

▰ Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water and Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock are two very different novels, and I like how both books wait until just about the midway point for the title phrase to appear in the story.

▰ There will be another edition of the This Week in Sound email newsletter on Monday. Topics include:

  • hold music tyranny
  • Beethoven synesthesia
  • military noise pollution compensation
  • European cases of Havana syndrome
  • more

Subscribe (free) at tinyletter.com/disquiet.

▰ And on that note, have a great weekend.

  • Pick a favorite novel and re-experience it as an audiobook
  • Rank your home appliances in terms of relative melodiousness
  • Watch a favorite TV show episode with an esoteric (to you) voice-over language
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