Listening Underwater: Silence as Fermentation
Tao Leigh Goffe
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Despite the primacy of vision in most cultures, sound was with us before sight, in utero. We listened underwater, suspended in the amniotic fluid of our mothers’ wombs. Listening is an immersive experience. Ocularcentrism privileges the eye and vision, but to listen as a form of spatial epistemology opens other perceptual and philosophical possibilities that reveal to us how we relate as living beings to both our built and natural environments. We are constantly echolocating, finding ourselves in space through sound and silence, as a matter of instinct. Sound floods over us as we wade through it.
When I DJ it is my role to attend to sound as much as to silence, because silence structures sound. Silence structures us. Sound forms a philosophy of relation for me, a way of living and orienting myself receptively in space. We are immersed in soundwaves that form an ocean in which we attune our spatial awareness to the vibrations of energy. Soundwaves continuously emanate from points of origin and bounce back. Or not. Silence is the absence of this process. Sound is a viscous ocean of amniotic fluidity that has the power to birth and transform. It is in this process of transformation that silence ferments. My artistic practice is led by dreaming about what ferments in conditions of silence. Possibility ferments. Silence need not always be understood as the damnation of oblivion but rather an open calm sea of pluripotent possibility. Silence leads to a series of transformations and sea changes.
Silence offers many spatial metaphors to think through and with. There are three key modes of silence I wish to explore as central to my creative and collaborative sonic philosophy. First, I embrace how silence informs my experimental practice and the technology of silence in DJing. Second, I listen for the metaphoric muted soundwaves of colonial historiography as the formation of History. Third, I meditate on how silence communicates across generations as an ancestral resource. It is my contention that silence need not be a problem, but rather the necessary conditions for possibility, for speculative thought.
Adjusting levels (hi, mid, low) is integral to the practice and technology of DJing. It is the art of manipulating, fragmenting, and distorting time through sound. Whether I am working on the dancefloor of a crowded nightclub or in the empty reading room of a colonial archive like the British Library, I feel the heaviness of silence and what it has the power to communicate. The texture of sound and the way it can be sculpted drives my research as a creative practice. I sculpt sound to show that silence is a dynamic of relation that requires an audience to not hear it.
One of my favorite DJ sound effects, the low-pass filter (LPF), gives the effect of listening to music submerged underwater. Turning the knob gradually adds a wash of sound wherein the LPF silences the high (higher than 2,000 Hz) and mid frequencies (500–2,000 Hz), attenuating them to emphasize the low frequencies (500 Hz or lower). Experimenting with the effect of the LPF is my mode of embracing what is called the darkness of sound. Without high-pitched sounds the sonic definition becomes blurred and dark. Low-definition sound orients us differently, distantly, muddled, and muddied. Muffling, LPF creates a wall of silence to the higher frequencies, giving the effect of listening to a party next door. A signature sonic effect of house music, the LPF is emblematic of the uses of silence in Black diaspora musical traditions, offering distortion and experimentation as an artform. LPF can be used to transition from song to song by mimicking a distant spatial orientation. The low-pass filter makes one channel of sound feel distant as it fades into the next track. Distortion and the augmentation of sound, filtering it, is an aesthetic and technical choice that requires a deep understanding of the mechanics of sound technologies.
Since the pandemic, my practice has evolved away from the live performances of DJing to using sound as a mode of spatial design. Though I crave the ritual of performing live, I have enjoyed the silence of shifting away from the increasingly transactional nature of DJing in New York nightclubs. Producing sound sculptures as an alternate and complementary practice to DJing has allowed me to play with silence and to inhabit sounding as a verb. Sound sculptures are time-based media art forms that manipulate sound in order to draw attention to and form a sonic commentary on the interplay between spatial and temporal dimensions.
There are a range of other frequencies, lower and higher registers, not always audible to the human ear. For those who may have a diminished capacity of hearing, other vibrations are heightened and experienced as part of spatial epistemology. Silence structures sound: it is data. It is information, critical to how one navigates space whether one can hear with their ears or not. As a cultural historian my role is much the same as in DJing, listening for the vestibular resonance of inaudible frequencies we have been told do not exist. We will be told we did not exist. I DJ for those who are not often heard, for those who never hear themselves in the mainstream. It is my job to listen for the register of historical actors who have been silenced and excluded from the official archive and thus political power. The relationship between sound and silence is an equilibrium wherein one defines the other; presence requires absence to be meaningful. DJing as much as being a professor has taught me about the performative uses of silence and how it punctuates our sonic experience. Silence in the classroom can be interpreted in many ways (boredom, being stumped, stunned, contemplation, fatigue, fear, anxiety). I have learned invaluable lessons from DJing and teaching about the underappreciated labor of what it takes to sustain an audience for long periods of time. It requires being comfortable with silence. We rely on the language of nonverbal feedback, cues, and the other silent ways the body articulates participation.
Silence ferments. Sound travels in waves, like water bathing the ear. Fermentation is a metabolic process of transformation through the microbial action of enzymes. This process is often anaerobic and takes place in cool dark spaces favorable to probiotic bacterial and other microbial growth. Filtering out the light and keeping the oxygen out, beautiful life-giving microorganisms begin to grow. This is the definition of fermentation and how it slows down the natural process of decay or death. Preventing the corrosive process of oxidation, the sea is an archive that holds many such silences and submerged colonial histories of racial violence. What is the ocean but a space of fermentation, a dark saltwater brine? The duality of silence can be violent in its epistemic erasure, but it is also necessary for the birth of new possibility. It is necessary to structure meaning amidst noise. Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s landmark text Silencing the Past centers the Haitian Revolution as an unthinkable event. Trouillot also reminds us of the necessity of silence in order to decipher the din of the horrors of the European colonial archive. Silence bathes and preserves history. Silence is fluid and forms an almost liquid suspension. What we understand of history and its formation is created by archival densities and scarcities. Gaps, absences, lacunae are pregnant with meaning.
History is developed through a metaphorical process of fermentation, a process of slow decay. The saltwater of the sea is a brine that ferments to produce history. Suboceanic transformations take place in anaerobic conditions. Shakespeare’s “sea-change into something rich and strange,” a line from The Tempest, evokes the power of the ocean to transform the human body. Bones turn to coral and eyes to pearls underwater as the body melds with subaquatic ecologies of decay beyond the human order of life. What was jettisoned becomes preserved in the stickiness of time.
I am constantly listening for what connects African diasporic and Asian diasporic experiences: the cross-currents of the Black Pacific and Chinese Atlantic. I ask why the intersecting histories and routes of Black and Asian oceanic passages across deep time and space have been forgotten. Listening underwater to the silence of two ships offers an answer, fermented and preserved metaphorically by the sea. The wreckage of ships of modern capitalism, two boats trafficking humans, the Zong and the Dolores Ugarte, are examples of what the silence of the sea preserves as an archive. Poet M. NourbeSe Philip writes of the Zong Massacre in 1781 during which 130 enslaved Africans bound for Jamaica were jettisoned, drowned by the ship’s proprietors to collect on insurance claims. The violent system of racial indenture followed in the shadow of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade deploying debt as a financial and racializing instrument of bondage of over one million Asians. Asked in relation, how does the volume of one history amplify or muffle another? Abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote of the Dolores Ugarte carrying indentured Chinese bound for Peru in 1871. Six hundred indentured people died aboard as the vessel was set ablaze, while the ship’s proprietors left unscathed. Navigating the slow decay of colonial violence, the wrecked histories structures the underwater architecture of my Atlantic and Pacific. Yet they do not feature as chapters in history textbooks about the Atlantic or Pacific worlds. Douglass and Philip write in different modes against silence to ensure that we cannot forget those cast into oblivion at sea, conscripted into bondage. Silence transforms the enslaved and indentured bodies underwater, leading to a sea-change in thought and ethics. Philip transforms the memory of the enslaved into poetry, while Douglass transforms the memory of the indentured into rhetoric to end human trafficking.
Across generations silence communicates. Colonial history is also family history. For colonial subjects like my grandfather this meant shuttling across the Black Pacific and Chinese Atlantic. Born in Jamaica to a Black mother and Chinese father, he spent his boyhood and early adulthood in Hong Kong before returning to Jamaica. He later migrated to Queens, New York. There were many Afro-Asian children like him, but he never wanted to talk much about his childhood. “Talk is cheap,” my grandfather would say laughing. When he did speak it was in a series of witticisms and one-liners, the common masculine immigrant vocabulary of second, third, and fourth languages. A man of few words, I understand now that his silence was not always a lack, a reluctance, or an emptiness. The difference between what he would not say and could not say is profound. He lived through the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and through World War II, and I will never know what he and his siblings experienced as Black Hongkongers. Silence is heavy. “The dead are always talking and sometimes the living listen,” writes Marlon James. I listen to my grandfather’s passport photograph from 1934 for what it can tell me about muted colonial histories. Mutilated flesh, the photographic film represents an open wound of Black Pacific intimacies. Cities defined by water, Kingston and Hong Kong reverberate with the dissonant echo of an Afro-Asian sound clash. The underwater architecture of silences between the harbors, former colonial port cities, structures the crosscurrent of my Black Pacific and Chinese Atlantic experience. Listening underwater, we remember the ocean suspends and sustains.
Sound is a ritual of aural healing. Sonic reverberations form communities through antiphonal registers—the call-and-response of the Black diaspora. Sound bathes and soothes. Sound is elongated until it eventually dies. A visceral experience, our bodies feel the clash of sound, multiple sonic channels in competition, mono or stereo rituals of sound. Our bodies are the filter, like the LPF selecting which frequencies and histories to feel in the present. Sonic negative space, silence defines through its absence. Far from emptiness as it tends to be read in Western cultures, absence is form. Forgetting, like silence, is necessary for the formation of memory. Forgetting is necessary for the formation of diaspora. Sound often triggers a primal register because the ear is also the somatosensory seat of the body’s equilibrium and cochlear sensibilities.
Silence communicates across generations. It masks and can be a strategy of opacity. Sound has a texture. Sound sculpts space and it can be viscous and thick. Acoustemology, defined as a way of knowing through sound, may have been coined as a word in 1992, but ancient societies have long understood sound as an epistemology. As an ancestral mode, silence can function as a resource upon which to draw. There are intervals of Black silence and revolution. Silence is a ritual that protects as a form of opacity. I ponder this as I consider my Maroon ancestry. Various Maroons of Jamaica have maintained their sovereignty, different groups escaped the Spanish and other bands of runaways defied the British in the 1600s. Through the quietude of guerilla warfare, they all embraced silence and camouflage as a military strategy. Studying the echolocation of bats has taught me much about Cockpit Country where Maroon communities have thrived for generations, communicating through silence. Jamaican Maroons (Kromantin) have their own secret language, Kromanti, fermented in silence from the Gold Coast over the course of four centuries, and the African drum is their language too. Intervals of Black silence across the Caribbean’s mountain ranges communicate through the echoing of the distant drumbeat with those who are far away. Through a military code that surpasses the Morse Code, across the hemisphere from Virginia to Suriname, Maroon communities who will never meet know each other exist. They communicate, deploying sonic strategies. Silence ferments and preserves.
Ultimately silence teaches, if we are willing to listen. Our bodies are mostly made of water, and to it we will return. Perhaps we will return to listening underwater as we did in the amniotic suspension of the womb. The certainty of the climate crisis tells us that water, our submergence under rising sea levels, is our collective global fate. Embracing sound as fluid is more than a metaphoric way of letting go for me. Listening underwater is a sacred ritual of return. Silence forces a confrontation with the self and origins. Collective loss often across oceans defines diaspora. Sitting with silence together as more than loss cultivates a kind of diasporic intimacy of having been born of the same womb at different times. In the stillness we reckon with the deep time of colonialism. Silence is then a choice. The air is not dead, rather it is pregnant with a politics of refusal, an inscrutable silent opacity. Silence requires us to be receptive to the process of fermentation as the gestation of yet unimagined lifeforms that will be born rich and strange.
Tao Leigh Goffe is a writer, professor, interdisciplinary artist, and DJ. She makes videos, sound sculptures, and installations that foreground digital tools as a way of critiquing overlapping European colonialisms and creating sonic kinship through technologies. Her works examine how metadata and other taxonomies function as colonial sorting tools attempting to segregate life. Goffe was born in London, United Kingdom, raised in New York City and New Jersey, and lives and works in Manhattan. She teaches at Cornell University. She received her PhD from Yale University and her bachelor’s degree from Princeton University. Goffe’s curatorial contributions have been made to exhibitions in venues including CCADI, Harlem; Sound and Vision, Hilversum, Netherlands; and Pen and Brush, New York. She is co-founder of the Diaspora Solidarities Lab, a Mellon Foundation funded initiative for transformative Black feminist digital and analog praxis. Goffe has given invited lectures on sound, technology, sexuality, and race at University of the West Indies, Yale University, Leiden University, University of Chicago, and the California College of the Arts.