Sound as a weapon

Last week, I joined citizens and youth activists in the Martsa Amianan, which is part of the nation-wide Peoples Caravan Against Imperialist Globalization. On November 18, we staged a protest in front of Camp Aguinaldo against the militarization of Northern Luzon, the killings of activists such as Marcus Bangit, William Bugatti, as well as the the shameful role of the Armed Forces of the Philippines as the armed hooligans of foreign mining companies in Northern Luzon. As leaders from different sectors voice out their protests and demands, and as the soldiers responded to us with filthy water from the water cannon, the camp’s strategically-placed speakers blared with “Feliz Na Vidad.”

At the APEC march the day after, much larger speakers were deployed side by side with the water cannons, booming out EDM and other dance music staples. The music seems to mock, not the thundering raw voices of the protesters but their own police forces, who in the middle of the rhythms were commanded not to move an inch to maintain their positions.

AFP’s use of sound and music to repress the messages of the protesters, mediated through sound, opened up a much more interesting insight: those actively involved in the protests, far from being distracted by the enemy’s sonic machinery, have experienced the very process of radical learning, which is to recognize what is from the enemy’s and what is from our comrade’s. That is, in the process of discerning which is which, they recognized that they do not simply listen for a sound but they listen inside a sound which surrounds them; hence, the act of sonic selection as a revolutionary act.


Sound and urban pacification

As we were holding our program at the middle of the avenue, I couldn’t help but note the selection of songs played by the AFP’s resident DJ. There are a lot of pop tunes, such as Katy Perry’s “Roar” and other dance-able tunes, perhaps to dampen our angry heads, some of which were split open by the police’s sticks. Their strategy was obvious and needless to say, pathetic, but nonetheless serves as an excellent example of how repressive states apparatuses such as the police and ideological state apparatuses such as escapist entertainment work hand-in-hand.

Yet the DJ/s also displayed a ruthless expertise on the technicalities of sound. Aside from the concert-level speakers they have, they also included a significant number of EDM tunes in the playlist. This led me to one of my older assumptions regarding the connection of maximalist, immersive and tech-heavy sounds of EDM/bro-step and other contemporary dance tracks to the development of military-entertainment complex.

Friedrich Kittler has noted that the “entertainment industry is, in any conceivable sense of the word, an abuse of military equipment (Kittler, 1999).” He noted that developments in the technology of the entertainment industry are but extensions of military research in warfare and urban pacification. There are a lot of contentions that we can bring up here, but nonetheless Kittler has an excellent point. The AFP’s use of EDM may be a conscious deployment of EDM’s tendency to fill the whole sonic range and frequencies. Recent technologies have allowed greater sonic depth and more expansive utilization of never-before-used sound frequencies. This technology allows producers to utilize the entire spectrum of sounds, acting as an embedded feature to liquidate all other sounds, including street noise, human conversations, etc, and in our own case, the protests of the people. The ubiquity of side-chaining in EDM also adds to the immersiveness of the music, as if it not only persuades but violently sucks the listener into a self-made vortex of sound. This is not to include the use of sheer loudness which has long been a staple in urban pacification.

This tech-savvy-ness is expected, given the iron will of the AFP to protect the foreign companies and imperialists. While newly-purchased drones hover over us, the messages of the all the oppressed sectors of the country, from Luzon to Mindanao, roar in the same language of the growls of hunger which we can all hear from the bellies of the underpaid police, the disenfranchised indigenous peoples, and all the poor people gathered in that avenue that day.

Bringing the noise back

In the Philippines, musicians and artists have long realized the radical possibility of noise. Jose Maceda, following the footprints of the modernists, has pioneered the use of indigenous musical instruments in his atonal and drone compositions. Noise elements have become popular in the 90’s alternative music scene. Punk and other related genres have always depended on the anti-aesthetic shock effect brought by noise tactics. Even Yoyoy Villame’s song “Granada,” a parody of the Agustin Lara song of the same title, utilized a lot of noise, which in conjunction with the seemingly nonsense lyrics will bring us to a possibility of a more political reading of the song.

Yet today, noise has achieved a status of art in the field of noise art, sound design, and the general acceptance of atonality and harsh timbres both in high and pop culture. The aestheticization of everyday life has led to the emasculation of noise-as-art’s radical possibilities. This is not without precedent: Louise Varese remarked that the noise tactics of the Italian futurists have only “slavishly reproduced only what is commonplace and boring in the bustle of our daily lives.” Indeed, to create noise simply for the intent to shock significantly limits our own potential.

How then, should we mobilize our own sounds against the enemy? As the AFP’s speakers boomed, it became clear to us that our mobile sound system and our gangsa (gongs) cannot possibly drown the power of the state-sponsored sound machines. But we knew that the battle is not in how we fare in the sonic warfare, but on how we use sound to amplify ourselves; that is, using sound to strengthen our numbers. Which is why according to Goodman (2010):

Rather than the conventional monotonous artistic alliance between noise and destruction in a transgressive attempt to shock, noise instead becomes a vibrational field of rhythmic potential. A “sonic war machine” along these lines would be defined by its rhythmic consistency, would not take violence or noise as its primary object, but rather would concentrate its forces on affective mobilization and contagion. Its politics of frequency would entail the way in which vibrational force would be captured, monopolized, and redeployed.

Therefore, the solution to the co-optation of noise as transgression is the use of sound, whatever form it may be, to mobilize and multiply the listeners. Like an ice cream truck gathering the children around it or a Jamaican sound system pulsing with ‘riddim’ to provoke a spontaneous street dance, the people’s sound system must be used to draw to us those who still haven’t heard, to consolidate, strengthen and multiply our numbers. Such noise will come from the din of wails and clangs of gongs and everyday objects made into instruments, welling up and increasing in intensity, to the eventual crash of the walls, after the people’s trumpets have resounded.

Works Cited

Goodman, Steve. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2010. Print.

Kittler, Friedrich and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.


5 thoughts on “Sound as a weapon”

  1. Interesting to note how the Armed Forces is making visible the normally discreet or obscured relation between the ideological and repressive arms of the bourgeois state. I’ve come across the state’s use of sound in the manner of projecting soft power, of securing hegemony as in the Bayanihan songs of Sarah Geronimo commissioned by the Civil-Military Operations for Oplan Bayanihan’s “Whole-of-Nation” and “People-Centeric” approaches. But this deployment of sound as noise disrupting peaceful protest is pure subjective violence, akin to the use of blaring heavy rock music by US and Israeli forces in pitched urban battles in Iraq and occupied Palestine. Great insights, as usual. Mabuhay!

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