Episode 5: Get Lower

Medium Rotation presents conversations and sonic experiences that probe the conditions (and counter the received ideas) of our time, among other times. Each season of the podcast is animated by the concerns of an issue of the magazine, which are addressed by artists, writers, and scholars. The first season, Omniaudience, asks how we understand ourselves and others through listening—and what the obstacles to listening reveal about our society.

Medium Rotation is hosted by Alexander Provan, Triple Canopy’s editor, and Nikita Gale, an artist and longtime collaborator. In the fifth episode, they’re joined by the artist and composer Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, who speaks about bass as a way to repulse people or bring them together, cause aggravation or collective pleasure. Toussaint-Baptiste recounts moments in his life when bass, emanating from a parked car or carnival, has shaken his walls, tested his nerves, and made him feel connected to other people, whether or not he appreciates the music blasting from their subwoofers. Ranging from the soundtrack of his childhood in Baton Rouge to the sonic maelstrom of J’ouvert in Brooklyn, Toussaint-Baptiste describes bass as a means for marginalized people to make an impression on an insensitive world. He listens to chopped-and-screwed cumbia, Ariana Grande, laptop speakers, Nelly, the passage of bass through subway tunnels, and frequencies too low to hear.

In this episode, Toussaint-Baptiste presents a monologue with music and illustrative audio, adapted from a performance that he presented last year at Triple Canopy, where he is currently in residence. Below, in a conversation accompanying the episode, Toussaint-Baptiste elaborates on the uses and abuses of bass—and on how the experiences recounted in his monologue have shaped (and politicized) him as a listener. He speaks about low-frequency sounds as instructing us to, in relating to each other, keep in mind what we can’t see, what we can’t hear, what we don’t know. And he connects his understanding of bass—as forging visceral connections between people without revealing who they are—to the philosopher Eduard Glissant’s “poetics of relation,” which suggests that “each and every identity is extended through a relationship with the Other.”

In order of appearance, the music and other recordings played on this episode are: Najee, “Najee’s Theme,” Najee’s Theme (EMI America, 1986); Nelly feat. Kelly Rowland, “Dilemma,” Nellyville (Universal and Fo’ Reel, 2002); Super Grupo Colombia, “Pájaro Zinzontle,” Super Grupo Colombia: Lo Mejor De Siempre (MultiMusic Mexico, 2000); E.S.G., “Swangin’ and Bangin’,” Ocean of Funk (Perrion Entertainment, 1994); trailer from Ticks, dir. Tony Randel, (USA, 1994); Leonela Guzman, field recording of I-10 near Vassar Street, Houston, Texas, 2021; MC Nero Baby, “I Gotta Lotta Respect,” I Gotta Lotta Respect (NBJ Records, 1996); RidinChevySolo, “2005 Silverado Traffic/Street bass REACTIONS,” video, 2012; FeteTV, “West Indian Day Parade 2018,” video, 2018; Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Azalea, “Problem,” My Everything (Republic, 2014); CHInewsable, “Fireworks on the streets of Crown Heights 6/20/20,” video, 2020; Vybz Kartel, “Go Go Wine,” Kingston Story (Mixpak Records, 2011); Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, “LEV AS,” 2021.

What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation between Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste and Alexander Provan, recorded during the production of the episode of Medium Rotation devoted to Toussaint-Baptiste’s work.

Jeremy Toussaint-BaptisteRecently, Nikita and I were speaking about people who’re pursuing hyper-specific experiences of audio: home-audio fanatics, audiophiles, people who are set on controlling what they hear and see. They want the perfect system in order to have the perfect experience. Nikita and I took that further and considered these technologies as an attempt at a neutral experience, not a perfect experience. What does it mean for people to try and construct technologically neutral systems that enable them to become neutral beings? Of course, that’s impossible: we’re all politicized, we’re all non-neutral creatures.

Alexander ProvanWe can’t be vessels for objective experiences of sound, or of anything.

Toussaint-BaptisteExactly. We can’t exist as conduits and prevent subjectivity from having any effect. Nevertheless, people try to create media, playback systems, and spaces that’ll make that happen, right? They calibrate their home entertainment centers and upgrade their man caves. Those aren’t really social spaces; they’re spaces that show individuals attempting to control their experiences. And those experiences aren’t necessarily meant to be shared with anybody else—or, by definition, they can’t be shared.

ProvanThey’re about having a few people over and subjecting them to your perfect, neutral experience, or having them commend your efforts and taste.

Toussaint-BaptisteYeah, as if they’re being inducted into the cult of neutrality. I’ve been thinking a lot about Jacques Lacan and the notion of subjectivity as coming from lack, or from trauma, and how the lack opens us up to a really exciting space of relation—the space of “errantry.” Édouard Glissant writes about errantry to describe the grounds for an identity that’s rooted in contingency, flux, mobility, and encounters with others, and not in a predetermined, static relationship to land, nation, ethnicity, etc. Neutrality, on the other hand, is about being full, about not missing anything. It’s about being content with the self: you’ve got everything you need, so you don’t need to relate to anything or anyone else.

When I say that, actually, subjectivity comes from lack or trauma, I’m not thinking of those phenomena in a negative sense. I’m saying that they push us to relate to the world beyond ourselves. They make us realize that we don’t have everything we need. And that’s universal.

ProvanThe technologies you’re talking about—from perfect reproductions of sound to algorithmic approximations of people—rely on stable representations of individuals, which generate and are reinforced by the experiences being produced for them, right? And those experiences, by design, are unique to you; they can’t be shared with others or made social because they’re particular to what a system knows about you, which is why the experience is valuable (if not to you). And that’s the antithesis of Glissant’s notion of opacity, or to the notion of identities that can’t be totalized—that can’t be understood except in terms of relationality, multiplicity, a constant navigation between senses or dimensions of oneself.

Toussaint-BaptisteWhat I’m saying is that there is no totality with respect to identity. Identity is relational and framed through subjective experiences—errant experiences. And the presumption that you can achieve a sense of totality leads to what Freud might describe as a neurotic, or even perverted, relationship to identity. Trying to fix or fill the lack, in my mind, robs you of the opportunity for interiority, and thus opacity: not being definable, quantifiable, identifiable, knowable. I’m not considering interiority and opacity to be the same, but I do think that opacity flourishes through a sense of interiority.

ProvanAnd what does bass have to do with this? Metaphorically, literally, as a tool, as an imposition…

Toussaint-BaptisteI think bass is related on several registers! If bass is being played on a subwoofer or speaker, the frequencies affect your body. And since they’re affecting you physically, they’re affecting you psychologically. Bass affects your sense of yourself in the world. And, to me, tones that exist at the threshold of human hearing are directly linked to opacity: if you’re looking or listening in a particular way, you might be able to pick up the traces of the sound, or of the source, or maybe you can’t, maybe you can’t pick up the signal.

ProvanAnd that’s OK.

Toussaint-BaptisteYeah. I don’t think of bass as something that hails you, that alerts you to its presence and begs to be figured out. It’s not like music, where you hear notes and, consciously or not, consider where on the diatonic scale they register, then respond accordingly. You feel bass before you make sense of it.

ProvanYou don’t ask what emotion is conveyed by this or that sequence of tones, and how do those notes enable me to have a feeling that other listeners are also having. And because bass is so indistinct—because the experience of bass is so physical—it’s not like a pleasurable representation via a series of notes that can easily be reproduced or communicated, right?

Toussaint-BaptisteBass isn’t built on legible representations or intellectual conceptions of what sound does or can do. To be a little corny: there’s a mind-body connection. We’d be foolish to say that what we think doesn’t manifest physically, and what we experience in our bodies doesn’t manifest psychologically. What I’ve taken from reading Glissant, especially The Poetics of Relation (1990), is that opacity isn’t a function of revelation or obscurity. Opacity stands for a disregard for being figured out.

ProvanWho you are—or who other people are, and who you are in relation to them—isn’t a question that can be figured out.

Toussaint-BaptisteYeah, if it’s that good opacity, the moment you think you’ve got someone figured out, they’ll have moved in a different direction, they’ll have gotten knotted up with a bunch of other people, they’ll have made a mess.

ProvanAAnd that brings us to the monologue. How’d you end up with these accounts of these episodes in these places? How’d the experiences connect to each other, whether at the time or in retrospect? You’re telling the story of your formation as a listener—of what you bring to listening—but the narrative isn’t linear or chronological, and you don’t come to define yourself at the end.

Toussaint-BaptisteWhat I’m describing are moments where I found myself really, really affected by sound, in positive and negative ways. I speak about living in Baton Rouge, having cars rolling down the street and pumping bass, dealing with that all day and all night. That wasn’t good for me; I’m super sensitive to sound, and it’s taken many years to get to the point where I can figure out how I want to be in relation to sound without experiencing trauma. So, really, these are all moments of navigating my own relationship to something that was once traumatic. And, obviously, I’m not saying get past your trauma; I’m considering how these moments, however rooted in trauma, have influenced how I show up as a listener—and how I make sound.

For the past couple of years, Nikita and I have been talking about listening as a political act. And I’ve started to wonder how we show up before we listen, before we engage in listening as a political act. What are the encounters with sound that politicize us in one way or another, and how do we carry those with us as listeners, as political beings?

ProvanHow do they orient us? And toward whom, toward what?

Toussaint-BaptisteExactly. How do they set us up—or not—to relate in the world? Because the experience of listening isn’t just about you: even if you’re listening to something by yourself, it’s something that was made by other people. So you’re extending yourself—or they’re extending themselves—across time and distance. You’re engaging with other people, even if your headphones are on.

Before I got to the point where sound was radicalizing me, I was absorbing sounds that had been created by radicalized beings. My experience exists within a lineage of experiences, and that lineage may not be linear. So, to me, it’s important to talk about these experiences in a nonlinear fashion. I mean, my relationship to sound, bass, pleasure, anxiety, and distress is not linear!

ProvanYeah, and it’d be weird if that weren’t the case, right? You’ve got to allow for some recursiveness.

Toussaint-BaptisteRight. For instance, last year I was confronted with my own anxieties and relationship to sound in a way that brought back the experiences I’d had when I was younger. Outside my window in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, there were fireworks going off for months, to the point where my building was shaking, my walls were shaking, my windows were shaking, I was shaking. I ended up having to seek out therapeutic treatments that I’d never have considered! I’m deep into bass, but the sound still messes with me. Soundproofing isn’t going to fix it, and exposure isn’t going to fix it. The question is: do I want to be in proximity to the sound or not?

ProvanWhich means: do you want to be in relation to the people that are the source of the sound?

Toussaint-BaptisteYeah, and that's really difficult. Is that what I want? Or, how can I push through my immediate response of distress in order to relate to the source of the sound, even if the sound is unpleasant to me?

ProvanThe question is: are you going to change? Or is your relationship to the people behind those sounds—who don’t necessarily understand or about your response—going to change?

Toussaint-BaptisteI don’t even think it’s about changing the self. I’m still me, I still hate those sounds; or, they still elicit a really intense response in me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be in relation to the people making them. Even if I don’t want to be, those are my neighbors. They look like me; we may not be of the same diasporic lineage, but they look like me and we’re subject to the same shit. So what do I matter? It’s about me only inasmuch as it’s about the social framework or fabric in which we all exist. And I wouldn’t want to exist on my own; I wouldn’t want to be in a world populated only by … me. I’m not that fun! That’d be so boring.

ProvanI think a lot of people who don’t live in neighborhoods like the ones you’re describing assume that, in those areas, the environmental sound defines the place; the people who live there are responsible for the sound and therefore they’re used to it—as if everyone’s the same, as if people don’t get used to trauma, as if people don’t get used to all sorts of horrible experiences that challenge and change them.

Toussaint-BaptisteYeah, and I’ve discovered that exposure therapy doesn’t work. Exposure makes the response worse; there may be temporary or short-term benefits, but in the long term everything gets worse.

ProvanYou could just look at the rates of mortality and heart disease in certain neighborhoods, among marginalized populations.

Toussaint-BaptisteI don’t think anybody wants to live in a place that’s imposing on them all the time. I mean, there are moments when I want to play my music loud, too, and sometimes I do. That’s part of living in a city as amazing and rich as New York, Baton Rouge, or Houston: not everybody’s going to be on the same page all the time ,and that’s fine. That’s good, actually. There’s a navigation or a dance that we all have to do, because we’re relating to each other, we’re living in the same spaces. We have to be willing to experience what others need to do at certain moments, given that we all know that we’re going to inconvenience people or cause them discomfort at points in our lives.

ProvanI think there’s a will to take what afflicts you—or what you have no choice but to experience—and to figure out how to turn that into something that you might want to experience.

Toussaint-BaptisteAnd maybe that’s what I’ve been doing in my own work with bass. I’m not creating sounds that are the same as the ones that cause me to feel distress, but I’m not trying to restrict myself by saying that I can’t cause anyone else to feel distress. A while ago, someone actually vomited in response to one of my installations, to the physical sensation of intense bass in an enclosed space, in the dark. I guess the work was a little too spicy for that person’s constitution. I’m not trying to push people to the limit; I don’t want to be a jerk. But I am motivated by the vast range of potential experiences that people might have. I can’t say that you’ll feel one thing or another, that you’ll vomit or you won’t.

ProvanAt the same time, that violent physical response relates to your interest in the various applications of bass, especially in a military setting. Speakers are weapons, right? Or they can be—and they are—weaponized, especially infrasound and ultrasound: frequencies at the extreme low and high ends of the spectrum, respectively, that can be felt but not heard. These sounds are legendary for causing psychic disturbances, being involved with inexplicable phenomena, and being used in sonic warfare. The US government has used sonic weapons for ages, abroad and at home. Prisoners at Guantanamo have been subject to endless heavy metal; farmers in Vietnam have been assaulted with recordings of tanks as well as haunting sounds that were meant to evoke wandering souls; protesters around the country have been met with long-range acoustic devices like sound cannons; Black neighborhoods have been carved up by highways that create constant noise and stress.

Toussaint-BaptisteYeah, and one of the things that really excites me about bass is the threshold between consumer technology and sonic weapon. How can these tools—which, historically, have been used to achieve or reinforce a myth of neutrality, and also as a means of oppression and domination—be used by people of color and queer folks who’re seeking pleasure, joy, and liberation? How can we subvert the technology in order to build rather than destroy bonds between people? And, to go back to Glissant, to make space for opacity? How can we claim the right to not be seen, heard, or understood—and to relate to each other as such, as different? That’s what bass is about: there are tones you can feel but can’t hear; you feel them with and in relation to other people. You don’t feel them on your earbuds.

ProvanHow much has your experience of—or desire for!—bass changed because of the pandemic? Obviously, the experience of sound and of other people has become immaterial, mediated, isolating.

Toussaint-BaptisteI do think the past year has been really complicated in terms of how we consider and engage with sound. We’re hardly experiencing sound socially or bodily. That said, I don’t want to be too New York-centric; and, of course, the world has sounds, the city has sounds. And I’ve been excited to seek out those sounds, to listen to what already exists. There’s sub-bass throughout the city, thanks to the subway: my apartment vibrates constantly because the 4 train is going through the tunnel in front of my building, and those vibrations travel through the ground, through the walls, and manifest physically as well as sonically.

ProvanI remember when my five-year-old son—a very typical New York boy—was obsessed with the subway and we’d stand on the platform for twenty minutes, watching the trains go by. He’d get really excited before I could see the train coming, before I could really hear the train. At some point, I asked him why he was so into that precise moment, and he said, “Well, that’s when I can hear the train in my body, and not with my ears. Can you hear the train with your body, too?”

Toussaint-BaptisteAbsolutely! And that’s wonderful that your son can, too! I’ve been trying to get to that place, to get attuned to the sounds that exist all around us instead of … thinking about when I’ll get to go to a club. Because that’s not an option, unfortunately. And, you know, a watched pot doesn’t boil! So I’ll just listen to the city however I can.

Medium Rotation is produced by Alexander Provan with Andrew Leland, and edited by Provan with Matt Frassica. Tashi Wada composed the theme music. Matt Mehlan acted as the audio engineer and contributed additional music.

Medium Rotation is made possible through generous contributions from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and Nicholas Harteau. This season of Medium Rotation is part of Triple Canopy’s twenty-sixth issue, Two Ears and One Mouth, which receives support from the Stolbun Collection, the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, Agnes Gund, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.