Experiencing the In-between-ness
“After all, to listen to a protest is to be disturbed. To know is to be disturbed.”
This article is part of the series ‘Practices of Musicking‘, (re)thinking musical experience beyond limited understandings of ‘listening’. The series accompanies the theme of our new, first issue of Soapbox: ‘Practices of Listening‘.
What is there, in between? Between two nation-states, there can be a border. Between an activist and a supporter, there can be solidarity. Between the sound and the listener, there can be a song, and between the walls of a church and faces covered with balaclavas, that song can become radical. What do we listen to, and what do we hear when we experience a sonic liminal?
In order to analyse how a listening experience can constitute a disruption, I will look at a Russian activist and punk group, Pussy Riot, and their “Punk Prayer” performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. In this protest act against the corruption of the Russian Orthodox Church and its ties to Putin’s regime, the appearance of electric guitars, the rhythmic chanting, and the song “Virgin Mary, chase Putin away” managed to break, transform and create networks of meaning to transmit their messages. In between fists in the air and the reaction of the audience, where did “Punk Prayer” by Pussy Riot started sounding radical? How do we listen to a protest, and, more importantly, how do we know that we are listening to such?
“Between two nation-states, there can be a border. Between an activist and a supporter, there can be solidarity. Between the sound and the listener, there can be a song, and between the walls of a church and faces covered with balaclavas, that song can become radical.”
The concept of in-between-ness is impossible to dissect, pin down, or represent through description. It can, however, be felt, and perhaps, be heard. The field of acoustemology questions exactly that, investigating how knowledge is experienced through sound. The very name of the field was coined by Steven Feld, who argues that the experiential nature of music makes its ontological status ambiguous, requiring a more decentralized discourse to analyse the questions it raises. He writes that acoustemology’s “logical point of connection to a relational ontology framework [an] existential relationality, a connectedness of being is built on the between-ness of experience” (Feld, 13). In other words, a sonic experience is a part of a larger ephemeral network of agents, both animate and material, socially constructed and personally perceived. A similar idea is considered by Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier in her account on listening through acoustic assemblages. Ochoa Gautier notes that “listening appears as the nomadic sense par excellence” (9). Indeed, listening both wanders and unsettles.
By this very conceptualization, aural perception and its in-between-ness becomes a critique of settled definitions and allows for a more comprehensive analysis of its constituents. In the same manner, to explore Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” from such an angle means to explore the juxtaposition of sound’s materiality and sociality – and the transformations of both. Only by considering listening as a complex and fleeting juxtaposition of both the given and the made can it begin to be analysed as aural knowledge (Ochoa Gautier 9). In other words, listening can be treated as a cluster of ephemeral networks in which the material and the social interact. This ephemerality should not be considered as a screenshot in time per se, but rather in terms of the transient or nomadic nature of sound that cannot be grasped statically. I ask, therefore, how knowing through and with listening can occur in the transformations of these networks.
I begin with the spatial setting used by Pussy Riot to achieve the radical in “Punk Prayer”. Both as symbols and material backgrounds, spaces and their acoustic properties have the capacity to provide the illusion of privacy (or publicity) and historic memory (or a sense of contemporaneity). Both of these contribute to the present event shared between objects and people. From a purely physical perspective, this is true in a literal sense – the spatial position of each person within the performance corresponds to the slight differences in wavelengths that reach them at the instance of ‘hearing the sound’. In this manner, the relationship between the listener’s experience and their spatial surrounding is individual, but it also has a historical dimension, in itself susceptible to social constructions and personal interpretations. Even if it is practically impossible to determine whether the acoustic properties of the church were considered in Pussy Riot’s choice of space, it is audible in the “Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Away”. The piece stylistically alludes to Russian Orthodox Church music (Rumens), thus incorporating the sounds deeply rooted in the history of its religious practices and the history of the architecture of worship (Velimirović, Lozovaya, & Myers). Prior to language, it is the illusion of space that sets the tone of the piece. In this way, the soundscape of the church in “Punk Prayer” is heard both as a part of the broader collective listening tradition and as its reimagination for protest purposes.
The idea that listening is not homogeneous and that sound can act as an index or symbol for meaning is noted in Pierre Schaeffer’s famous “Treatise on Musical Objects” (Schaeffer). By recognising the associative nature of listening, Schaeffer deconstructs sounds in order to challenge the boundary between “mundane” real-world sounds and “musical” sounds . Building on this idea in the electroacoustic medium, the distorted relationships between the recognisable aural reality and abstraction can be used to create an effect of surreal world “environments” in electronic music (Young). This associative nature of listening allows simulating the experience of links between a sonic agent and the sound it is expected to produce, such as causality, or the lack of it thereof. In an (over) simplified metaphor: breaking that causality would result in the same confusion and dissatisfaction as hitting a table and hearing a birdsong, because we expect to hear something from hitting a table, and a birdsong is not that. This illustration shows how more complex shifts within a certain network of relationality create a discontinuity within the limits – such as those defining causality – of in-between-ness of experience. In “Punk Prayer”, the material connectedness of a “usual” aural network of a church gets disturbed, thus creating new meanings.
The church, however, serves a much more recognizable social and symbolic purpose in the protest aimed as an act of resistance against Putin’s oppressive regime. After all, Pussy Riot’s appropriation of the material space is also an appropriation of the church as an institution, and thus exhibiting established power relationships (Bourdieu). In this momentary act, Pussy Riot created what Rosi Braidotti considers to be “a prayer for joy, a hymn to freedom” (Braidotti 252), thus reclaiming both “hymns” and “prayers” for their own “punk poetry” purposes (Rumens). Indeed, what makes the act poetic and hymn-like is the way it allows its audiences to connect the juxtaposition of symbols, both musical and visual – the shouting with fists in the air, the electric guitar on the altar, and so forth.
As a performance rooted in the punk movement and its ideology of disruption (Clarke, Hall, Jefferson, & Roberts), “Punk Prayer” allows for breaking of the silence in a way that in a church is heard – or provoked to be heard – as blasphemy. Assessing it in the light of acoustemology, these two frameworks — that of the religious ritual and that of the protest — experience an in-between-ness of expectations when they collide in “Punk Prayer”. Ferdia J. Stone-Davis argues that these conflicting messages are exactly what makes the performance ‘radical’: the misalignment between the world of churchgoers and that of the performers. Stone-Davis employs “Punk Prayer” to illustrate how a music performance can be used “to unsettle contexts of meaning and […] break open contexts and become an event” (Stone-Davis 115). The ‘unsettling’ first and foremost implies a movement, an escape from the (ideological) stagnation;
The breaking of contexts is a form of an iconoclasm directly targeted at the Fathers of the Orthodox Church and the entire institution. If “contexts of meaning” can be considered as networks of agents in sonic experiences, then “becoming an event” is a form of knowledge through listening. In such a conflict, these contexts of meaning undergo a transformation, thus creating new relationships and networks of listening. As a result, a message of radical protest is produced and perceived as aural knowledge.
“If ‘contexts of meaning’ can be considered as networks of agents in sonic experiences, then ‘becoming an event’ is a form of knowledge through listening.”
“Punk Prayer”’s transformation of the church reveals a certain kind of transformation of listening— one that is unexpected and superimposed. The space that signifies and accommodates oppression is transformed into a space that facilitates a protest. Through this example, I argue that one way of acquiring (aural) knowing is to break the connectedness of being and grasp the transient. In other words, something does not have to be tangible or static in order to constitute knowledge through listening. Quite to the contrary, it is the nomadic nature of listening that allows for hearing the disturbances of both material and social contexts of “Punk Prayer” as a radical protest: as “the hymn of freedom”. Here lies the advantage and the complexity of acoustemology: in its ability to both investigate the limit in which agents relate to one another, and grasp the in-between-ness of transformations within aural (and, in fact, performative) reality. To experience the in-between-ness is to embark on the limit between networks, and thus to acquire (aural) knowledge.
After all, to listen to a protest is to be disturbed. To know is to be disturbed.