The Room Tone of Post-Katrina New Orleans

And other reflections, a decade on

I left New Orleans 12 years ago last month, two full years before Hurricane Katrina hit. As we reflect on Katrina 10 years after, I’ve been revisiting some of what I wrote about New Orleans over the years. Sadly, I have not had the opportunity to go back to the place since, though it’s often on my mind, always a reference point — and I still bear the 504 area code on my mobile phone number. I refer to that as my “information-age tattoo.”

A few months after Katrina, I wrote “NOLA-tronic,” about the presence of electronic music, directly and indirectly, during my time there. This is back when Trent Reznor was still a resident. His studio, a former mortuary, was around the corner from the house I rented. I’d regularly walk around the neighborhood, only to find the Edge or Zack de la Rocha hunting for a croissant, or inspiration, or both. It was also shortly after the former White Zombie bass player Sean Yseult had moved to town, when Quintron was well into his rise, and lots of local jazz musicians, from trumpeter Nicholas Payton to Dirty Dozen Brass Band trombonist Big Sam had jazz fusion on their mind. I can say that it can be very informative to live somewhere where your primary interest is in the cultural background rather than the foreground. San Francisco is a great place to live if your mind is focused on electronically mediated sound and culture, but I wouldn’t trade my four New Orleans years (1999-2003) for anything.

On the fifth anniversary of Katrina, I woke up to the concept of “acoustemology,” in large part thanks to an explanatory essay by Matt Sakakeeny, an assistant professor in the music department at Tulane University. The originator of the term, Steven Feld, defines it as ““a sonic way of knowing place.”

David Simon’s landmark television series The Wire started airing on HBO a little more than a year before I left New Orleans, and I started watching it from the premiere of the first episode. Having visited Baltimore, I had already sensed a kinship between the two cities, and it felt like deja vu when he debuted Treme in 2010. After it first aired, I thought about the role of sound and music in his ode to New Orleans.

A lot of this has been on my mind thanks in particular to a recommended listen from Gene Kannenberg, Jr., a friend and comics scholar based in Evanston, Illinois. NPR on August 25 posted a piece by John Burnett (“At a Shelter of Last Resort, Decency Prevailed Over Depravity”) about the on-the-ground reporting in the aftermath of Katrina, and a minute into the story the producer reflects on the tumultuous ambient room tone of a makeshift “refugee camp” in New Orleans. I’d written recently about room tone here on, and Kannenberg pointed me to the NPR piece because it reversed the role of room tone. Room tone is something used in audio recording to fill gaps and provide a base-level sonic snapshot of a room: it is, quite practically, employed as background. In the case of this NPR piece, however, the room tone is itself, however momentarily, the subject of the story.

Burnett audio originally posted at

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