With sound, I try to create conditions to perceive what one cannot see and hear but already and always exists in a place. Part of the listening needed here is imaginative listening, or speculative listening.
Just south of Clarksdale, Mississippi, the locks and dams are long gone, the river is wild and immense. The river batture—the area of land between river and levee—is a willow forest over a mile wide, leaving space for a river that rises and falls eighty feet in any given year. In a recording of the alligator gar (audio clip 2 online), one can hear a deep, low croaking. An alligator gar is a large fish in the lower Mississippi whose fossil record dates back more than one hundred million years.
In this same recording from Choctaw Bar Island, can you also hear the low rumble and vibrating sound? This intense rumble is the relentless vibration of the microphone cord straining against the current. The vibration of the cable would generally be understood as sound interference, a technical problem intruding on the recording of the alligator gar. But technical sound “problems” are not problems. They are opportunities to disrupt the expectation of what one “should” hear or listen to in this southern soundscape. These aural interruptions are signifiers; they provide ways to enter deeper into the sound, the place, the present, the past, and one’s own imagination.
Here, the relentless vibration of the microphone cord straining against the current signifies to me the immense power of the river. At the time of this recording, in August 2015, the river’s recent high-water mark was fifty feet above my head on the uppermost branches of the willow trees. Here, sights and sounds signify the river’s natural capacity and need to expand and, in human terms, to flood. These sounds of the water’s power also foreshadow the ongoing systemic coercion of river and people. By this, I mean that throughout colonial expansion water’s power (and that of the unbuilt environment in general) has been viewed as something to tame, harness, and control. Along with it, groups of people have been captured and coerced to control that water through their forced labor. In 1927, for example, just twenty river miles downstream, in Greenville, Mississippi, hundreds of Black residents were forced by white residents into the deadly labor of reinforcing levees that had failed under high river conditions. A place where, as Tia-Simone Gardner writes, “the Black body was, is, undifferentiated from land and water that are habitually used to make life, for some, more livable.”3