“Listening is a sacrifice.” — Christopher DeLaurenti
All memory is individual, unreproducible—it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering, but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened. —Susan Sontag
To read Susan Sontag’s 2003 essay, Regarding the Pain of Others, with pencil scribbling references to current-day wars is to be expected. Hers is a profound rethinking of the intersection of news, art and contemporary depictions of violence and our memories of them. So, too, could the word “Ferguson” be readily jotted in the margins. Meandering the intersections helps us navigate memory well beyond any of the recent conflagrations between Black citizens and militarized police forces in U.S. cities.
To re-read Sontag now alongside Christopher DeLaurenti’s new work, Fit the Description: Ferguson 9-13, August 2014, is to realize how framing manipulates memory, whether images or sounds are being spliced. Such construction forms a symphony of protest that is intimate and palpable, overwhelming and revealing. Fit the Description adds to DeLaurenti’s growing body of Protest Symphonies. They are not simply verité recordings that have been edited; they have been heavily constructed and, like memory itself, re-built.
His sonic poetry is not entertaining, though you can get mired in its stories and urgency, its waves of sound pummeling and swirling in percussive, relentless, agonizing beauty.
Fit the Description: Ferguson 9-13, August 2014, Christopher DeLaurenti, 2015
“How we are treating memory is it’s mimicking the cloud.”
DeLaurenti felt the escalating intensity of the events just after Michael Brown’s shooting because he was immersed in social media’s convergence of narratives about Ferguson and the rioting that ensued. Images were being uploaded, in some cases, in real time.
Sontag enjoins us to question our complicity in this co-spectatorship of pain. Yet artistically, DeLaurenti plays in the interstice between visuals and audio, but also between close up and distant sounds that surreptitously snag us on our journey to over-hearing. Because we are only listening to Ferguson through DeLaurenti’s splicing, rather than watching events tumble out chaotically, it feels less complicit. We are witness, yes: with eyes shut we’re able to listen deeply, to conjure a face or a body. This eavesdropping allows a further slipping in.
Perhaps we’re co-auditors more than co-conspirators. DeLaurenti says he wants to listen as if he’d never heard these stories before. And in doing so, perhaps he, and we, can listen with empathy.
A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit. —Susan Sontag
DeLaurenti constructs terraced audio fidelities—hi- and lo-fi—reflecting what was posted at Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. As a composer of sound gleaned far from the state of siege, DeLaurenti’s juxtapositions provide an eerie tension: the YouTube of loved ones eulogizing Michael Brown melds with the sounds of anonymous witnesses viewing his slain body intentionally left on the street. Some say the police made mourning his death part of what it meant to take in the details of his story and perhaps, what we remember of it.
Phonographers of Conscience
Why is there is no Museum of the History of Slavery? Sontag suggests this would conjure a memory that is judged too dangerous. To walk into such a museum would acknowledge that the evil was here rather than safely elsewhere.
But there is a decades-long archive devoted to collecting Jim Crow racist memorabilia. DeLaurenti’s sonic segues through social media serve as a contemporary archive—a conscience—for the events at Ferguson, for the contentions of race, for riot’s memory, for all those saved postcards of lynchings. It’s a construction that brings the evil up close.
As a medium, radio, in all its stripes, invites intimacy different than the voyeurism of social media. Fit the Description lures its listeners; it’s a panorama and you can enter wherever you like. Perhaps the piece appeared too soon in the habits of our cultural listening to disasters, DeLaurenti ponders, at its broadcast on the one-year anniversary of Ferguson. It’s not ironic that Fit the Description came to our ears initially as a commissioned project by the Creative Audio Unit of Australia’s Radio National and heard first as a broadcast, on ABC’s Soundproof, and then streamed, now readily, at a distance.
Memory has a long tail. What society chooses to think about—calling these ideas ‘memories,’ is, over the long run, a fiction, suggests Sontag. The images produced by photographers of conscience beg us not to forget; DeLaurenti’s sonic composition guarantees contemplation. Sontag admonishes that too much value is assigned to memory and not enough to thinking.
A Memory Palace
Quiet riots fuel conflagrations and we remember and then we forget, like the eerily parallel story of another young Black teen, James Powell, whose death 50 years before Michael Brown’s by a white police officer sparked six nights of riots in New York. To point to what we’ve forgotten, as podcast producer Nate DiMeo has done in The Memory Palace episode airing just before Ferguson erupted, might be more relevant than remembering. What will we forget about Ferguson?
Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory—part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction. —Susan Sontag
As a spectator to these events via numerous media, we dip in, and, overwhelmed, we’re glued to the small screen. But to have different ways of accessing both the facts and the emotions of Ferguson, Fit the Description adds to the archive through a sonic handling.The near silence at the end of the 30-minute piece is choreographed around a percussive, reverie-forming elegy of gun shots. This wall of sound and soundlessness is intentional.
A collective memory is whispered into the ear and a collective instruction to meet these sounds with empathy is the strength of DeLaurenti’s artistry.
—Joan Schuman, Earlid, fall 2015