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.