Editor’s Note: On the occasion of OutBeat: America’s First Queer Jazz Festival, jointly organized by the William Way LBGT Community Center and Ars Nova Workshop with funding from the Center, we invited Professor Ashon Crawley (UC Riverside) to unpack the concept of “queer sound.”
The word “queer” is one with a complicated history, as both a derogatory adjective and a celebration of difference. While the term has been reappropriated by the LGBT community, that community itself is diverse, and not all of its members use the same language to describe themselves. Fred Hersch, an internationally-recognized jazz pianist and composer, and one of the OutBeat Festival headliners, published an open letter in JazzTimes on the use of the word “queer” in the festival’s name; we encourage you to read Hersch’s letter as another perspective in this conversation.
Can a sound destabilize what we think is and can be “normal?” How can sound present to us otherwise worlds of possibility, otherwise imaginative flights of fancy, otherwise dreams? It’s all about relation—relation as vibration, as movement, propulsion, against normative order and form.
And it’s all about how they sat in comfortable embrace.
They sat across from me at the bus stop in an unconcerned intimacy. This lack of concern was not for each other—they certainly looked to be fully immersed with each other in that moment—but for the world around them. They sat, he with one leg bent at the knee, resting on the bench angled at roughly ninety degrees from the other he, whose body sat forward while he faced his companion, both hands resting on his companion’s thigh. They were doing what they were doing, simply being together, biding time in Berkeley. Together in relation. Together, intimate with each other. Publicly.
It was in watching them awaiting the bus, in that pause between what was and what was to come, that I began to think about queer relationality, queer sound. For if there was something queer about their intimacy, it was in how their sitting disrupted and deformed what is generally considered normal. They were across the street from a hotel, not in front of a gay bar or a site designated specifically as a “gayborhood.” In the middle of the thicket of the normal, they were creating what would be, otherwise, an imaginative possibility by just being together. There was something moving, vibrational, about their unconcern for the world, their rapt attention towards each other only. There was something unsettling to normalcy in how they cared for each other’s flesh.
Then there was what I heard: the sound of footsteps—lots and lots of sandal klop-klops—cars, buses, trucks, random snatches of conversation. All of this was the white noise to—the background sonic environment for—their interaction and my noticing of it. I became acutely aware of the sounds around me, heightened as they were in the particular occasion and environment because of the intimacy of the two sitting not-close but not-far from me. Watching them prompted desire in me. My ear inclined, my hearing reached and extended outward hoping to catch anything—a snatch, even—of their conversation. My desire was to know something of such intimacy by hearing anything of what they said to each other. Did the one laugh lightly or gravely? Did the other hum a tune, a melody, to his companion? What was the sound they heard, or what sounds did they make, that made such intimacy possible in such a nonchalant, insouciant way?
The question remains: Can a sound be queer? This question typically begs the relation between sound and one’s identity. For us musicians, it is a question of the sexual, affective identity and our orientation to the type of music made. Certainly, many of us in the world identify as queer. But what if queerness were more than identity? What if queerness were a force that moved through the world, a force compelling vibration, movement, or relation otherwise? What if such queerness were about being open to varied and non-normative modes of relation?
Michel Foucault, in a fascinating but very short interview titled “Friendship as a way of life,” stated that friends “have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless” and that we must “make ourselves infinitely more susceptible to pleasure.” (1) He offers that “institutional codes can’t validate these relations with multiple intensities, variable colors, imperceptible movements and changing forms.” (2)
Queer sound is about friendship as a way of life, about sonic relations that are not predetermined but that emerge during the moment of creation. Queer sound is about the opening of oneself to pleasure however it may come, the openness to movement and vibration, and allowing such vibration and movement to work on you, on your relation to others, on your relation to the world. Queer sound disrupts the everyday ordinariness and quotidian qualities of life, compelling imagination into otherwise possibilities for relation. Moreover, queer sound is that which does not seek validation from rules, habits, and custom, but seeks out new modalities for relationality. Queer sound is not rooted in sound’s ability to “identify” as such. What queer sound is is found in its *capacity *to queer us, to make us live in manifold capacities, into the exorbitant possibilities that are ever before us.
So it is, perhaps, more precise to speak of sound that queers. Such sound is about resistance to law, to rule, to normative function and form. Sound that queers is John Cage’s 4’33”, a “silent” piece making the audience aware of the sound that already exists around them. The piece forced a different relation to expectation, to anticipation. The piece forced a different relation to music, to sound. The piece forced a different relation to noise, to flesh. Sound that queers, in other words, is any sound, any song, that confronts the listener—that begs the listener to think of new relational possibilities. These new relational possibilities, it turns out, are as old as time. One simply needs to be open, to be vulnerable to being moved, to be vulnerable to vibration.
I ran across a video within the Black Gospel tradition that moves me. More than the singer—with all of her wondrous timbre, tone, riffing and leitmotif—the organist’s chord changes on the Hammond B-3 are propulsive. He sometimes refuses to resolve the musical phrasing and leaves it open to invite more thought, more sonic engagement. Listening to him play, I literally search for—but fail to find—words to say what I feel about the music and its capacity for moving.
In The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, Anthony Heilbut says, “Always these sounds render the indescribable, implying, ‘Words can’t begin to tell you but maybe moaning will.’” (3) If we follow the path Heilbut lays out, we engage poet Nathaniel Mackey’s Bedouin Hornbook, in which the main character N. attests to the fact that there is indeed mystery in voice, that there is “arcana intuitively buried in the reaches—the wordless reaches, of the black singer’s voice.” (4) Heilbut elucidates for us how words reach limits and can be eclipsed by sound; that sound means, that sound matters and materializes, that it attempts to approach and also goes beyond meaning. Both Heilbut and N. elaborate what sound can do, and how sound carries something more primal, fundamental, than words. Both thinkers brush up against the idea that sound is a series of relations.
Sound gathers and organizes ongoing vibration while also being open to vibration. Victor Zuckerkandl, in Sound and Symbol, describes the “dynamic quality of tone”: “[l]istening to music, then, we are not first in one tone, then in the next, and so forth. We are, rather, always between *the tones, *on the way from tone to tone; our hearing does not remain with the tone, it reaches through it and beyond it.” (5) We can simply call this betweenness, this on-the-wayness, a fundamental sociality of noise, where sociality here does not only denote gathering and ensemble, dance and play, but likewise journey and movement. As such, sound that queers—and we find this in Jazz and Black Gospel, yes—compels us to celebrate openness as opposed to closure, and heightens our awareness to the idea that any ending is a possible beginning, that any completion is but temporary and tentative. Such sound desires to go somewhere; it is in the tradition of stealing away, because it ain’t got long to stay here.
Sound that queers is the ontic improvisational posture and pose—as unceasing question, as unending openness, as open-ended desire, as willing incompletion—for others to hear, that assumes others will hear and be quickened. Sound that queers presumes relations of plentitude and multiplicity, and plays this out on pianos, saxophones, drum sets, and Hammond organs. This queering sound gathers and organizes sonic relations, imagining the impossible, inciting listeners to vibrate and relate otherwise.
Ashon Crawley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. His areas of research include Pentecostalism, sexuality, and music.
(1) Michel Foucault, Robert Hurley, and Paul Rabinow. “Friendship as a Way of Life.” In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (New York: New Press, 1997), 136, 137.
(2) Ibid, 137.
(3) Anthony Heilbut. The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times - 25th Anniversary Edition (Limelight Editions, 1997), xxxiii.
(4) Nathaniel Mackey. From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Bedouin Hornbook, Djbot Baghostus’s Run, Atet A.D., 1st ed. (New Directions, 2010), 50.
(5) Victor Zuckerkandl. Sound and Symbol. Bollingen Series; 44. ([New York] Pantheon Books [1956-1973], n.d.), 137.