When Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti suggested that music was the weapon he wasn’t speaking literally. In his eyes it was the idea that was the weapon and music the vehicle. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Music can be a weapon in itself. Consider General Kilgore going into battle with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries blaring from his chopper in Apocalypse Now, or the coercive role music has played for those captured by The US war on terror, where songs like the Sesame Street theme song or Decide’s Fuck Your God were played on endless rotation at high volumes, prompting madness, self harm and suicide attempts.
Last week a study published in the journal of neuroscience discovered that the most annoying sound to the human brain is a knife on a bottle, closely followed by a fork on glass and chalk on a blackboard. MRI scans of participants exposed to these sounds revealed that activity in the amygdala (the region of the brain responsible for producing emotions) increased in a direct relationship with the perceived unpleasantness of the sound.
Americans have recognized this and the military and FBI have been using weaponised sound and music for years. In 1989 when Panama dictator General Noriega took refuge in the Vatican Embassy, the Americans surrounded the perimeter and used incessant low flying helicopters and loud rock music by the Clash and Van Halen to compel him to leave. Then there was the Waco siege in which David Koresh and his followers were subjected to impossibly loud Mitch Miller Christmas carols and Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Were Made For Walking, which were of course combined with the sound of pigs being slaughtered.
In his book Sonic Warfare: Sound Affect and the Ecology of Fear (MIT/ Footprint), Steve Goodman charts some of these and more examples of the US and Israeli military machines (sound bombs over the Gaza strip), fascinated by the notion of seemingly innocent songs recontextualised against their will. Goodman is well qualified to discuss this as he’s not only a lecturer at the University of East London, but also the owner of Hyperdub records (home to Burial), and he himself records dubstep as Kode9.
He offers the Mosquito device that emits an unbearably high-pitched sound that can only be heard by teenagers, designed to repel them from train stations. It has now been repurposed by teenagers themselves, so they can receive secret phone calls and texts in class.
Whilst psy ops gets a few mentions, particularly The Urban Funk Campaign in Vietnam (Google it), Goodman’s main interest lies in low frequency audible or inaudible vibration and its ability to impose sonic dread. He ponders how these are used to attract or repel populations, and what comes into play for them to turn toxic. He’s interested in the politics of sound, picking out a bewildering and at times overwhelming array of ideas and examples from philosophy, the military machine, social engineering, psychoacoustics, the arts, music, and film, to further his enquiry. One moment he raises Deluze, the next it’s 2002’s Irreversible, where inaudible infrasound was gleefully used to heighten the feeling of discomfort, utilizing the frequency police use to promote nausea in rioters.
It’s by no means a catalogue of sonic atrocities, though there are more than a few here, rather Goodman is keen to mine the interconnections between all the disparate philosophers, authors, artists and musicians, and it’s a long windy but fascinating path. From the insidious use of earworms (the catchy tune that you can’t get out of your head) to the affective tonalities ingrained into the architecture of security, Goodman demonstrates the far reaching and often unintended consequences of sonic warfare, where technology, social movements, the military, law enforcement, viral marketing, sonic branding, muzak and music are all marking their territory on an overcrowded sonic battleground. And it’s loud as hell.