GOD AWFUL BORDER WALL MUSIC
In the age of Trump has border wall music become a threat?
An act of sonic terrorism?
An acoustic virus which could infect and subvert the collective consciousness of those who happily give up their freedom to cower behind walls?
I’ve no idea.
But an incident on February 24, 2017 during a routine border wall sounding has got me wondering about such things.
As I have done for nearly 11 years, the day began with a sounding --- listening to and recording the ever-changing borderland sound ecology east of Nogales Arizona/Sonora.
It is a landscape of grasslands, rolling hills, international riparian areas, cattle, idling Border Patrol vehicles, watchtowers and even an occasional circling Department of Homeland Security spy plane or drone.
For roughly an hour I made recordings of birds, wind, grass, international running water and the richly sonorous Sonoran Desert soundscape that amplifies even the quietest of sounds.
It is a place where the more you listen, the more harmonically nuanced it becomes.
As I conducted the soundings I was keenly aware of being watched by people on both sides of the border wall and am fairly confident Border Patrol/Homeland Security had run my plates shortly after I arrived.
There was nothing duplicitous or covert about what I was doing and there never is.
I am always straightforward about my work and as always I made no effort to conceal my activities as I walked public land, headphones over my ears, trusty and road-worn Zoom H2 recorder held before me on the end of a boom, oddly pointing it this way and that in search of interesting sounds.
Considering the lack of human activity in the area --- besides the activity of people paid to be there --- I imagine my presence may have also provided a form of entertainment for some.
And this is where things grew strange.
In one particularly resonate location --- a place of sprawling grasslands, lowing cattle and ravens --- I decided to play the border wall.
Normally when I play the border wall I amplify it, bow it, manipulate it with mallets and employ other assorted Mauerkrankheit-style extend techniques that I have developed over the past decade.
However, for this particular sounding I left my gear at home and decided to play the wall with nothing more than my hands.
The sound of steel manipulated with flesh and bone is warm, subtle and nuanced. The tones are soft and likely not heard more than a couple hundred feet away.
After a few moments a Border Patrol agent, a slightly red-faced, beefy chap with a Texas seeming accent, pulled up and called out to me while pointing at my Zoom recorder: “What’s that God awful sound? Is that what that thing makes?”
How the Border Patrol agent heard what I was doing is a mystery.
And his decision to critique my performance as "God awful" seemed oddly provocative and confrontational.
My border wall compositions do not attempt to conform to traditional musical norms of tone, pitch, rhythm and so on. And my body of work has been described as everything from “aquatically sublime” to “like nails on a chalk board.”
To each their own.
Live and let live.
Then the conversation grew a little stranger when he said he heard a “reciprocating saw” and implied I may have been cutting a hole in the wall.
There wasn’t a sound for miles besides the creaking of the wall, the drone of the passing DHS spy planes, the idling engines of Border Patrol trucks and the natural sounds of animals and environment.
As I mentioned, this may be a militarized zone but it is also a place of deeply-complex expansively-subtle sound often mistaken for silence.
So if there was a “reciprocating saw” anywhere near me or where I was playing I would have surely heard it. Or better yet, the sound would have appeared on the recordings I was making.
Suddenly the subpar recordings I’d made during a sound walk coupled with the ambient leader at the start and finish of each performance took on new documentarian importance.
After the encounter --- which ended with the agent concluding that someone was cutting the wall but not me --- I wondered how I had been oblivious to criminal activity taking place within earshot of where I stood.
How could I not hear someone sawing a hole in the wall when I could hear the faintest crunching of gravel beneath my boots?
Surely I would have heard the sound of the wall being cut as it echoed in the metal of the wall itself?
At home I reviewed all of my recordings and could find no evidence of the reciprocating saw sound which the agent had heard.
It was all very strange.
Later I got to talking about this curious incident and it was suggested the Border Patrol agent was likely trying to set me up for detention, inspection or perhaps something more nefarious.
Something similar had happened once before to me when a Border Patrol agent detained me because he suspected I might be a Russian spy.
So it was not beyond the pale of belief.
I am not one for conspiracy theories, and I’d like to think that the well-armed people patrolling the U.S. borderlands are forthright and honest, but if this Border Patrol agent did suspect someone was cutting a hole in the wall with a reciprocating saw would he have casually pulled up and asked the person he suspected of cutting the hole: “What’s that God awful sound? Is that what that thing makes?”
I guess it is possible that such a casual encounter could have taken place since we were both privileged English-speaking white guys in a place where skin color and language motivates suspicion.
Or maybe the sound he heard was generated by his truck engine (as heard on the recording) and he spends his days traveling the wall in search of a sound he will never find?
Hard to say.
But if I were to go with my gut I’d bet he was just making the whole thing up.
Now entertaining this theory for a moment it does not seem too far-fetched to suggest he watched my performance from afar but did not hear me as he said.
Perhaps he or someone else --- you can hear a circling plane in one recording --- ran my plates, Googled my name, maybe listened to some of my recordings on Youtube or Bandcamp which could fit his critique of “God awful” then hatched a plan for establishing probable cause with allegations of a “reciprocating saw” and cutting a hole in the wall.
Then, upon closer investigation, he discovered I was playing the wall quietly with my hands, and the allegations of a reciprocating saw seemed increasingly ludicrous even to him.
At one point in our conversation I asked him if he heard the mysterious sound as we spoke.
He said no.
Or rather not in the location I was at.
Superficially this scenario seems laughable and absurd.
Yet it is not.
For more than a decade it has been established in books, film, radio and newspapers that my work takes only sound and leaves only bow prints.
The wall may be transformed into an instrument during a performance but it remains unscathed.
However, in the new Trumpian reality is border wall music considered dangerous?
An act of sonic terrorism?
Something to fear rather than embrace?
I have faith that America is better than that, as are those who are charged with the task of protecting it.
This is still the Land of the Free / Home of the Brave after all.
Of course I could be wrong.
Perhaps a day comes will come when God Awful Border Wall Music is outlawed and only outlaws play God Awful Border Wall Music.
Only time will tell.
But rest assured, so long as there is a God Awful Border Wall I will continue to play God Awful Border Wall Music --- with hands, bows and implements of mass percussion --- until there is nothing left to play.