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December 16, 2014

Book Notes - Steven Church "Ultrasonic"

Ultrasonic

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Steven Church's Ultrasonicis an impactful collection of linked essays, creative nonfiction that examines the connection between sound and identity.

Matthew Gavin Frank wrote of the book:

"If Montaigne were a mad cartographer driven to find the true unnameable intersection of earth and human body, with a heart the size of the sun, he would have looked something like Steven Church."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Steven Church's Book Notes music playlist for his essay collection Ultrasonic:


In the process of writing my collection of essays, Ultrasonic, I did an internet search for "sound as punishment," and came across a story about the use of music to torture detainees in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other US detention facilities. The story had the effect of shifting my understanding of the world in strange ways. It included a "top ten" list of bands and songs, and I was disheartened but not terribly surprised to find many of my favorite bands and songs on that list. Around that same time, I'd written a Book Notes playlist for Largehearted Boy on my last book, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst. I again discovered that many of the songs/bands on that Book Notes playlist were also on the list of torture songs that I'd scribbled down. I've since been unable to find the original article, but a quick online search will take you to several stories and lists of the most used torture songs. What resulted through all of this back-and-forth is the final essay in the book, "Playlist for Finishing a Book," which is a revised (or reconsidered) version of my original Book Notes piece; and what I've done here is repackage and rearrange some excerpts of that essay with new songs and some new material to create a different Book Notes playlist for Ultrasonic.

"Enter Sandman," Metallica

Metallica, not surprisingly, makes most of the torture lists, often with perhaps their most radio friendly hit, "Enter Sandman," from The Black Album, a song that is, in my opinion, perhaps the catchiest and silliest song the band has ever recorded. It is a song about death featuring an almost sing-song chorus based a children's nursery rhyme and alluding to the children's classic Peter Pan (a stylistic choice which, though similar, I would argue is markedly different from the creepy Oompa-Loompa-esque chanting in "Frayed Ends of Sanity" on their previous album And Justice for All). If you try, you can sing most of "Enter Sandman" like a nursery rhyme. It's metal for children. And apparently for torturers. But I still can't fathom what it would be like to listen to it constantly, to have to tune it out somehow if you wanted to sleep. Sergeant Mark Hadsell told Newsweek magazine: "These people haven't heard heavy metal before. They can't take it. If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them." Try it. Try to listen to the song and hear the melody of, "Exit light. Enter night. Take my hand. Off to never never land," but then imagine it played over and over and over again, all night long. Though it pains me to admit this here on the page, James Hetfield, lead singer of Metallica has said about his music being used to torture human beings, "We've been punishing our parents, our wives, our loved ones with this music forever. Why should the Iraqis be any different?" (The Guardian, June 18, 2008). And here is a truth that I suppose many of us must face some day: occasionally our heroes of art and music really are deeply disappointing monsters of rock. Occasionally they are massive jerks.

"Lose Yourself," Eminem

It wasn't all metal all the time. And it makes sense that the musical taste of torturers would reflect the diversity of the people doing the torturing and, to some extent, of American culture writ large. It also makes sense, cruelly and ironically, that hip-hop music, an art form defined by appropriation, would in turn be appropriated. The difference is that the only thing the torturers are creating through their appropriation is pain, suffering, and true terror. There is no art in the terror we've created by using pop songs to break human beings. There is no value in the cultural mash-up of torture. On some level it also doesn't really matter what kind of music is used. Torturers love everyone from Elvis to Insane Clown Posse. Suzanne Cusick, a music professor at New York University, has interviewed a number of former detainees about their experiences. Played at a certain volume, Cusick said, the music "simply prevents people from thinking," proving that this is more than appropriation, and instead a corruption of art. Binyam Mohamed, a British resident held in Guantánamo Bay said that the constant loud music made him feel that he was losing his sanity . . . while being hanged up and deprived of sleep, "there was loud music. [Eminem's] Slim Shady and Dr. Dre for 20 days ... plenty lost their minds. I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors, screaming their heads off."

"Bullet in the Head," Rage Against the Machine

In the course of writing Ultrasonic and working on some other projects, I was trying to understand with my own writing the relationship between art and ethics (a dilemma that nonfiction writers carry around like Quasimodo's hump), and increasingly believing that art, while perhaps created in one, doesn't exist in a vacuum once it is given to an audience. Once you turn art loose into the world there's really no controlling how people interact with it, appropriate, or abuse it. The musicians themselves on the list also struggle mightily with the ways their work has been appropriated and corrupted, perhaps forever. Tom Morello, famous now for his rebuke of 2012 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan's professed love for Morello's music and his band Rage Against the Machine, was equally outraged when he discovered that some of his songs were also on an expanded list of those used in detention facilities. Morello and other musicians demanded that the full list of songs be released and that the practice stop immediately. Quoted in The Guardian on Dec. 10, 2008, Musician David Gray, also on the list, said, "What we're talking about here is people in a darkened room, physically inhibited by handcuffs, bags over their heads and music blaring at them. That is nothing but torture. It doesn't matter what the music is. It could be Tchaikovsky's finest or it could be Barney the Dinosaur. It really doesn't matter, it's going to drive you completely nuts."

"Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," AC/DC

I have a terrible singing voice. Can't hold a note, can't carry a tune. But I still sang to my daughter at night as I rocked her to sleep and gave her a bottle. Mostly it was the classic stuff. Mary and her lamb, twinkle-twinkle, and maybe a few lines from the gospel and bluegrass classic, "Go to Sleep My Little Baby," combined with other lines that I just made up to go with the lilting tune. I never sang any metal or rap music, never broke into some lines from Judas Priest or Danzig, and I didn't soothe her with the sounds of "Enter Sandman." Mostly she didn't care for the noise of my metal, but it's also just not terribly appropriate for a sleepy toddler. If you search, though, you can find an album of bluegrass covers of Metallica, a slightly softened and oddly appropriate take on many of their classic songs that even a child could love. More searching will lead you to an album called Rockabye Baby: Lullaby Renditions of AC/DC, another favorite band of mine, and of torturers. This album, though, is apparently intended to help your child drift peacefully off into dreamland, or at least help you relive your adolescence as you put them to bed. To achieve this, the list of songs includes the fan favorites, "Hells Bells," and "Back in Black," as well as a lullaby rendition of "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," the persona song narrated from the point of view of a hired killer who offers his services at a discounted rate just in case, "you're havin' trouble with the high school head," or, "If ya got a lady and ya want her gone, but you ain't got the guts."

"Waymore's Blues," Waylon Jennings

I'd grown up with the Oak Ridge Boys and John Denver, a little bit of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, and Merle Haggard but it wasn't until I got older and closer to finishing writing Ultrasonic that I began drifting away from mostly metal back into the blues and country music of my roots. I suppose I needed a break from metal and torture, angst and face-melting guitar riffs, needed something slower, easier, and easier to sing along to. My daughter was just a toddler when I rekindled my appreciation for Waylon Jennings, a man who'd been one decision away from dying in the plane with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. Jennings, also the former lead guitarist for Hank Williams, is someone I like for his lack of polish, for his faults and failings. Though he never achieved the commercial and critical success of his "outlaw" compatriots, Cash and Nelson, Waylon would carve out a deep place in my heart, thanks initially to his role as the balladeer on the 80s TV show, The Dukes of Hazzard, and more recently, because he would end up teaching my daughter how to spell one of her first and favorite words. His song, "Waymore's Blues," a song that Shel Silverstein once called an, "American folk classic," contains the line, "If you wanna get the rabbit out the l-o-g, you gotta make a commotion like a d-o-g," and was played on heavy rotation for a while in our house and in my car. We'd be driving and my daughter would bark, "Daddy, I want Waylon," and the two of us would sing along, me trying to mimic Waylon's laconic bass-toned voice and her singing, "d-o-g" on cue, smiling and laughing and demanding that I play it again and again. She never got tired of it. Sometimes I did, and I'd try to get her to sing along with me to other Waylon songs, but she always came back to, "Daddy, I want the d-o-g song," and most days it was nearly impossible for me to say no to anything she asked of me.


Steven Church and Ultrasonic links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Bookslut interview with the author
Fresno Bee profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Day After the Day After
Los Angeles Times interview with the author
Propeller interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists
Essential and Interesting 2014 Year-End Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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