She who Witnesses
Women are given to ‘uncontrolled’ outflow of sound, including shrieking, wailing, sobbing. Putting a door on the female mouth was a goal of patriarchal culture.
Men in powerful and political positions are openly voicing the misogyny they’ve long been spewing in private. The impolite and hateful are now revered public discourse. Songstresses explicitly or obtusely compose out of the ‘foul mouth’—or rather, fouled actions—of men.
Since 2004, Kala Pierson’s composing has revisited her ongoing project, Axis of Beauty, where she collects and sets texts by living Middle Eastern poets, journalists and everyday citizens in a creative response to the U.S. government’s Axis of Evil wartime propaganda. The focus on text allows for singing or speaking voices in most of the nine pieces finished in the early years of the project. Shahida is a five-minute audio piece created in 2009, based on sounds sourced via internet searches, social networks, and hundreds of recorded interviews from the youth-run site War News Radio.
‘Shahida,’ in Arabic, means ‘she who witnesses.’ It was the first Axis of Beauty piece for audio alone. It features the extended vocal techniques of Pierson’s collaborator, Su Kat (who once called herself Sukato). The unprocessed vocal sounds embody the specifically female work of mourning.
Pierson’s artistic process unfolds in a 2013 International Alliance for Women in Music Journal profile after she won Honorable Mention for the Pauline Oliveros Prize—IAWM’s Search for New Music Competition.
The song-cycle came about, in part, from a residency with Tribeca Performing Arts Center and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. My collaborator for the residency’s final performance was an old friend, Sukato [Su Kat], a composer/performer who had already been exploring extended vocal techniques and ululation in her own non-text-based work.
Ululation and other embodied mourning have been primarily women’s work across many cultures and eras. Combining Sukato’s [Su Kat’s] voice with recorded speaking voices from Iraqi and other Middle Eastern people led to a sense that she and I were not only ‘witnessing’ and mourning but also illuminating a space where Western ears could spend time absorbing the words, and therefore the humanity, of the Middle Eastern speakers (which is my broader intent, of course, for the Axis of Beauty project).
The performance was within the former shadow of the Word Trade Center, which at that time was still being used, disturbingly often, as a visual symbol in expressions of anti-Arab sentiment. The performance also incorporated my own texts about my Brooklyn neighbors’ beautiful street-level peacemaking after 9/11 and my national government’s later actions, including the repercussions of its attempt to dehumanize millions of people into an “Axis of Evil.”
In the fall of 2009, Shahida was played in a concert at the Hirschhorn Museum, where the main exhibit happened to be a major retrospective of the sculptor Anne Truitt. Her writing (Daybook) was a significant thread of support for me as I navigated what was, back in the late ’90s at least, sometimes an extremely female-negative environment. It was a real feeling of arrival to hear my piece sounding in the same space as a Truitt exhibit—recognition for a great elder.
Like the rest of my audio-only work, Shahida uses no electronically-generated source sounds, so it is often described as feeling more ‘organic’ than most electronic music. In fact, a good approximation of Shahida could be performed live by Sukato [Su Kat] plus half-a-dozen people with their hands inside several grand pianos. The only element this would leave out would be a few highly processed sounds (the descending shimmering at the beginning of the piece, which I made from a recording of my voice saying ’Shhh’).
In 2013, Pierson writes in her IAWM detail that she wrapped up her first ten years of Axis of Beauty with “Gather These Mirrors,” a cycle for chorus and string quartet on six texts by Middle Eastern writers.
“I have no intention of ending the project. Thankfully, there is less anti-Arab sentiment now than there was in 2004.”
In a recent email, with the context of just four years and a return to extreme and overt anti-Arab sentiment in the U.S. and elsewhere, Pierson laments, “The chill of that line absolutely struck me too, when I reread it.”
Kala Pierson is a composer and sound artist based in Philadelphia, and works worldwide, with commissions and performances in festivals ranging from the Southbank Centre Biennial to Tanglewood to the International Computer Music Conference. Su Kat is a vocalist, instrumentalist and composer based in New York City. Her music can be found on her YouTube and Vimeo channels.