A Pedway Soundwalk led by Christophe Preissing of NON:op Open Opera Works and Eric Leonardson of the Midwest Society of Acoustic Ecology with Alex Braidwood of Listening Instruments
February 14, 2020
Report by Christophe Preissing, Eric Leonardson, and Alex Braidwood with Sharon Hoyer, soundwalker.
Listen to an audio montage of the HEAR BELOW Pedway Soundwalk.
Hearing is constant. We can’t shut our ears the way we can our eyes; sleeping or awake, attentive or distracted, our ears never stop receiving and transmitting sound waves to our brains. Studies have shown that the body does not adapt to noise. No wonder so many of us drift through our commutes with our ears swaddled in cushioned headphones or earbuds jammed into our canals, sonically cocooned against the cacophonous city.
Sharon Hoyer, soundwalker
Walking in the city—and in particular in Chicago’s Pedway System—presents numerous challenges: a patchwork of corridors and chambers, inconsistent accessibility, and the potential for unexpected construction and repairs. Wayfinding in this subterranean world, searching for signs to follow, remembering when and where to turn, and encountering unexpected broken escalators and elevators, tests our capacity to navigate and respond to the environment. For the disabled, wayfinding in the Pedway contains all of these challenges and more. And yet, enclosed by reflective glass and concrete surfaces, not only are we protected from the cold and the rain, the reverberant chambers and corridors can produce nearly musical tonalities and key changes that are noticeable simply by traveling from one underground passageway to another.
The 2020 HEAR BELOW: Listening to Chicago Underground soundwalk was conducted by NON:op Open Opera Works (NON:op) and the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology (MSAE), with underwriting support from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), and in kind support from the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC), and World Listening Project (WLP) in connection with the College Arts Association’s 108th Annual Conference. This year’s soundwalk was led by teaching artists Eric Leonardson of the MSAE, Christophe Preissing of NON:op, and Alex Braidwood, an Iowa sound artist and creator of Listening Instruments.
Because the HEAR BELOW soundwalk is entirely indoors, and mostly underground, it is a departure from what many consider a soundwalk: an outdoor walk in an urban or natural environment. However, as many go about their day-to-day urban routines and pass through this most ordinary of places, can we come to a better understanding of the life of the city by listening? If we are open and attentive to our surroundings, might we witness the ever-changing atmospheres of architectural space, with their rich and varied tones, signals, and noises, and the myriad of human activity and interactions that comprise the city? Though city planners may have had different intentions, this energy makes Chicago’s Pedway System ideal for a soundwalk: a focused excursion to re-engage our listening with our sense of place.
Soundwalkers gathered at SAIC’s MacLean Center, where NON:op board member Wade Wilson and MSAE’s Eric Leonardson handed out HEAR BELOW buttons to identify participants and information sheets for later reflection on their soundwalking experience. Preissing, Leonardson, and Braidwood wore HEAR BELOW branded t-shirts so participants could identify who was leading the soundwalk—necessary for timing, safety, communication, and most importantly, for establishing trust. Given the general novelty of the goals and practices of soundwalking, plus the inherent wayfinding challenges of the Pedway itself, extra attention was paid to planning an accessible route and producing visual aids. At 12:30 we proceeded into the frigid February air, across Monroe Street, and down into the Grant Park North underground parking structure.
Christophe Preissing welcomed the 40+ soundwalkers to the soundwalk and introduced Eric Leonardson, who led a few simple exercises to provide a “sensory reset” and set the tone for members of the group. By closing our eyes, taking some slow, deep breaths, and listening for the nearest and the farthest sounds we could hear, we shifted attention from our daily lives, to the sounds we most often ignore. That vast amount of information–including our own perceptions of it—we refer to as the “soundscape”. Alex Braidwood spoke about the Listening Instruments, which are constructed from over-the-ear earmuffs and various lengths of copper tubes. Because only six pairs of Instruments were available, they were distributed to participants as a shared resource to enjoy their fascinating acoustic effects. Then Preissing described the route that he and Leonardson had mapped the previous summer—north along the Grant Park parking, through the Millennium Park train station and the Prudential II lobby, under the AON Center and two hotels, concluding in the Chicago Architecture Center’s Gand Lecture Hall.
This year’s route, similar to last year’s inaugural walk, featured multiple different spaces, each with their own unique acoustic signature. As we passed block by underground block through the cavernous parking structure, the sound atmosphere shifted, changing soundwalkers’ perceptions of the otherwise drab, utilitarian “rooms”. We came upon an active construction site that “announced itself from a football field-length away.” (Sharon Hoyer) This was not under construction when the route was planned! It offered some amazing sounds and sights, at one point a low frequency blower howling and a jack hammer crackling accompanied by billowing, milky plastic surrounding a 50+ square foot space created an intense multisensory experience, buzzing our bones and assaulting our ears. Sharon described the sound:
The noise ricocheted off every surface, initially sounding like a growling beast, some massive piece of motorized equipment. As we approached the source and the distortion gradually lessened, the racket transformed into the deafening, rapid-fire crack of a lone jackhammer.
As we progressed around the construction site and up a switchback ramp, the demolition sounds subsided, jackhammer cross fading into the snoring of a homeless person—a reminder of the inequities inherent in our socio-economic system. A long, dark hallway opened up to the South Shore Line interurban rail platform. Pops, clicks, and hums of the electrically powered trains filled the air, complimented by hydraulics, doors, and a rolling suitcase. We paused there to discuss what we were hearing and to assess the state of the group, then poured into Millennium Park station where we were met with another abrupt sound signature that included the sounds of commerce, muzak, and a throng of passengers crisscrossing the station.
From there, the original plan was to take the escalator up to the spacious Prudential II lobby. However, the soundwalk leaders had not noticed the absence of an elevator. Instead, we decided to continue north, pass through the south lobby of the South Water Street Metra station and walk along the platform. As participants approached the north end of the tracks, a polyphony of voices beckoned: “This is Track Number Three.” “This is Track Number Five.” Unknown and disregarded by most non-disabled passengers, these audible track identifiers are a disability accommodation for those who are blind or low vision. They remind us that inclusion enhances the sound environment, and likewise, that numerous entrances and stops remain inaccessible, excluding many people with disabilities from the public transportation system.
Participants gathered again in the north lobby of the South Water Street Metra station for a brief conversation about what we heard and experienced since our last stop. Preissing gave instructions on the rest of the route, and we proceeded out of the lobby and up to street level in an old creaky elevator. Though some preferred to take the stairs, those who chose the elevator were audience to another unique listening experience: mechanistic rhythms and visuals suggesting decaying infrastructure.
Outside the elevator participants walked south through the Illinois Center lobby, up another set of elevators to the second level, and doubled back north and through the shopping concourse. Sharon described her experience:
The final leg of the tour took us from the South Water Metra Station up through the levels of Two Illinois Center, which was the aural equivalent of ascending too quickly from a scuba dive. As we rose from the subterranean, infrastructural level to the bustling food court, the sonic landscape abruptly shifted from low and rumbling to bright and raucous: hundreds of people fast-walking the halls, talking on phones or eating in the gauntlet of restaurants on the mezzanine that assaulted our noses even more than our ears. The half hour of attending closely to one sense seemed to increase the sensitivity of the others as well. I realized that my habit of shutting out the sounds around me on my commute with music or podcasts was a form of self-impairment, like walking through the world with my dominant hand tied behind my back. Navigating the bustling mezzanine, I felt hyper-alert, like a thin veil draped over the world that dulled and muffled everything around me had been lifted. The effect was stimulating. Almost overwhelmingly so.
At the Potbelly Sandwich Shop, we turned right to take an elevator down to the Chicago Architecture Center. Because of the elevator’s size, some took the stairs but were frustrated by a dead end. Again, we discovered that wayfinding in the pedway is a constant challenge.
Exiting the elevator, soundwalkers entered the Chicago Architecture Center’s Joan & Gary Gand Lecture Hall, where CAC’s Madison Smith welcomed and introduced everyone to the CAC and its mission. This led to a lively discussion with Preissing and Leonardson, in which participants reflected and expressed their observations of what they heard, and what they learned about themselves and the city by listening to the Pedway.
While the soundwalk’s leaders emphasized listening for different acoustic signatures and marks of the diverse spaces we passed through, one participant noted a kind of sensory—aromatic and visual signatures and marks were as powerful as the acoustic ones. Additionally, each space along the walk contributed to proprioception, or the awareness of the position and movement of our body in space.
Many participants were keen to reconsider architecture beyond the visual. The ensuing discussion around the social functions of public space in relation to privilege, income disparity, homelessness, mobility, and safety for women, minorities, and the disability community, gave greater clarity to how these intersect with access to public space, resources, and socio-economic opportunity. Sharon observed:
Attendees made thoughtful observations about the sonic difference between the lower, operational levels of the city and the higher levels of habitation and city life. One attendee commented on the person sleeping near the construction zone and how the repellent nature of the noise provided them a space to sleep undisturbed; she commented on the luxury of silence, and how the sonic environment is, in a city, determined by class.
Soundwalkers who wore Alex’s Listening Instruments were astonished by the timbrel shift produced without electronics. The different length copper tubes filter different frequencies, and along with the wearer’s head movement, the ambient soundscape is enriched, with one’s attention becoming more focused on hearing. The Listening Instruments also added a level of performativity to our soundwalk by visually announcing our presence. Passersby, many of whom were enveloped in their own acoustic bubbles, were confronted by a novel approach to listening.
For at least one participant, HEAR BELOW was a new experience, for another happy participant, it changed their viewpoint on the arts in Chicago. Another participant felt a sense of inner calm that came with being attuned to the ecology of sound. For others, it was a chance to meditate on what makes the city exciting or even dangerous while being in a safe place or group.
In our predominantly visual culture, the value of listening is often ignored. A soundwalk offers a rare and non-invasive auditory interaction with a place, within an attentive and safe community, however temporary or transitory. During the post soundwalk discussion, the otherwise interior listening experience and dynamic relationships each individual had with the environment were outwardly shared and yielded surprising commonalities given the inherent subjective nature of listening. Perhaps, by shifting our focus from viewing to listening we may begin to appreciate the social exchange and engagement of the soundwalk as art. Sharon summed up her experience:
When the event concluded, I stepped outside feeling a sense of inner calm that comes with being attuned to what Leonardson referred to as the ecology of sound. Instead of popping in noise-cancelling ear buds, I quieted my internal dialogue and, walking to the train, listened.
Thanks to all of Hear Below’s teaching artists and sponsors:
Christophe Preissing & NON:op Open Opera Works
Eric Leonardson & Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology
Alex Braidwood/Listening Instruments
World Listening Project
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Chicago Architecture Center / Joan & Gary Gand Lecture Hall
For more information on related topics:
World Forum for Acoustic Ecology
Deep Listening/Pauline Oliveros
Soundscapes/R. Murray Schafer
Beginning in 2021 NON:op invites you to participate in one of our initiatives:
- Unheard Voices. The Memory Project initiative provides opportunities for meaningful participation in the creative process from all who care to participate. Individual programs include Blood Lines, SAY THEIR NAMES, American Biography, L’s GA : Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and The Gas Heart. Click on the link for each program to find out how to participate.
- Individual and Community Experiences. Our sound projects—annual Aural Neighborhoods soundwalk with Open House Chicago and HEAR BELOW pedway soundwalk; HPSCHD@50: Every Neighborhood Is a Universe festival in Chicago, Evanston, and Urbana-Champaign; and new Viral Silence: Community Portraits in Response to COVID-19—create long-term partnership and collaborative opportunities for artists and organizations to work together to create meaningful and sustainable impact within their communities.
- Artist Commissions. By commissioning artists of color and artists with disabilities, we provide economic opportunities for two groups of artists who have been historically marginalized, and hardest hit by the pandemic. In 2021 we are commissioning five artists/teams to create work for Viral Silence and L’s GA. Find out more about our commissioned artists and commission program HERE.
by Allen Moore
Place: a particular position or point in space.
- a portion of space available or designated for or being used by someone
- put in a particular position
Space: the unlimited or incalculably great three-dimensional realm or expanse in which all material objects are located and all events occur.
- the portion or extent of this in a given instance; extent or room in three dimensions
- to fix the space or spaces of; divide into spaces
What exactly defines a place? How does one come to “know” a space? Is it growing up in a particular neighborhood, knowing it block by block? Is it simply spending time within that space, absorbing, researching, wandering? So many assumptions often made by people adjacent to a place. Why not experience “place and space”.
The following represents a couple of very small snippets of an amazing journey. After reading this short post, I hope you take time to sample the recorded sounds and even more so, to experience walking through these sound enriched locations.
In today’s world, a walk outside means so much more than it did a year ago. I’m hoping for some semblance of normality to return one day, except, I hope we can learn the lesson of appreciation from our natural world. Space as we knew it, changed forever in March of 2020.
A word of sincere, sound advice: to know a space, take a step back, isolate particular happenings. Be mindful of the time and the day, the people and the place. I promise you, it’s absolutely grounding.
To find out more about Aural Neighborhoods and to listen to more audio clips from Auburn Gresham and Southeast Evanston visit the Aural Neighborhoods webpage.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty…,” Abraham Lincoln famously began his brief speech to a crowd in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863. Was it all wishful thinking, or were his stirring words meant to conjure the rebirth of a nation that was created through violence, theft, and enslavement? Although Lincoln’s opinion on the freedom and equality of Black Americans had evolved by 1863, his proposition, “that all men are created equal,” remains an illusion. Today, as politicians revive Lincoln’s legacy in an attempt to inflate their own self-image, and our leaders, states, and individuals strive to safeguard and enshrine a neo-Confederacy of the twenty-first century, it is clear that his words have fallen on deaf ears. In all earnest, has America grasped what equality for all, this allusive ideal, truly means? Lincoln voiced a hopeful promise, yet, as Salvatore Martirano’s L’s GA suggests, this verbal contract, though inspirational, are empty words left unfulfilled.
Through much of his life, Lincoln’s views on racial equality were consistent with the United States’ majority white population. These beliefs, by any standard, were overtly prejudiced and racist. However, it is clear that while he struggled to achieve equality and justice for Black Americans, Lincoln’s attitudes towards Black Americans’ emancipation, voting, and rights improved beyond those of the nation he ruled. To illustrate and understand his radical growth, we turn to his 1858 speech at the Fourth Joint Debate in Charleston, Illinois, where he campaigned for the Illinois Senate seat held by Stephen A. Douglas:
I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality…I will add to this that I have never seen, to my knowledge, a man, woman, or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men.
It is obvious that during these earlier years, Lincoln held the view that the African American population was undeserving of the same equal and inalienable rights as that of the white American population. However, within five years and continuing until his assassination, Lincoln’s views on race were transformed. By 1863, he urged the need for the emancipation of Black Americans; by 1865, Lincoln supported equal political rights—considered one of the holy grails to American access and identity— between white and Black Americans, though only for men. Lincoln believed that for the United States to move towards a progressive nation-state and away from centuries of enslavement and violence, it would have to fight for and achieve racial equality. (It is, however, doubtful that as in our awareness of the twenty-first century, his progressive shift took fluid gender and sexual identities into account. As a queer, Black man, I would not have been treated as fairly and considered worthy of the same liberty as a straight, white, or Black man.)
In the public sphere, a white, male American president voluntarily expressed the need for a unified and reborn nation, a nation where the enslavement of Black bodies was no more, and “freedom” was assured for its’ citizens. Lincoln acknowledged that this country must move beyond its gross institutionalized traditions to gain “a new birth of freedom,” to finally achieve the equality proclaimed in the preludial Declaration of Independence. Lincoln’s evolution continued up to his assassination, as subsequent writing alludes to his increased support of Black Americans’ freedom and reparations. “Freedom” was eventually restored to the enslaved Africans who were born into slavery on the soil of this young nation, yet, has the rebirth of the United States come, now seven score and twelve years after Lincoln’s address?
A century later, Salvatore Martirano responded to Lincoln’s most often quoted speech, pointedly depicting his opinion based on the state of affairs at the time. He composed and birthed his 1968 L’s GA, a visual-audio critique of Lincoln’s oration, during a period of great strife for this nation, when it was glaringly evident to him that this rebirth was arrested at a prepubescent state. The United States found itself, once again, deadlocked in battles of freedom, equality, and sacrificed lives—on all fronts—abroad with the Vietnam War and at home with the African American Civil Rights Movement. I considered some of the battles that my birth country is currently facing, such as institutionalized and systemic racism, sexual and gender identity, wealth disparity, prison reform, as I approached creating my own take on Martirano’s L’s GA. Additionally, I questioned what the Gettysburg Address means now, its relevance, and its urgency related to our current political, racial, and societal affairs.
I admit that I entered this process—recording and self-producing a response to L’s GA—with trepidation. For me this was new territory, but I dedicated myself to creating something as a means of personal activism and protest. Considering the current reality, that a man stunted with his own prepubescent development was elected and has remained the leader of the United States amid constant controversy, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, bullying, and lies, I showed this through my visuals. Although Martirano’s original work is ambiguous, my reflection is a plainly evident assertion that Black people were and are still treated as human beings with revocable rights, regardless of context, education, appearance, sex, gender and age.
Global awareness of the racism and violence faced by Black people—in the United States and abroad—has reached an unimaginable level; therefore, I did not shy away from my immediate feelings. My feelings, since and before the unrest began in May 2020, include fear, sadness, pain, confusion, anger, defiance, and resilience. In my brief excerpted response, I reimagined the masked politico’s choreographed movements to fit my reality. My nearly-touching, clinched fists represent my and my community’s anger, resilience, and defiance. My hands quivered as I slowly opened my fists to reveal my empty and objectless hands, instead of flat, still palms as Martirano’s masked politico had. My flailing arms and sudden drop reflects my confusion, pain, and a fate that governmental and societal choices have indefensibly dealt to Black people. My final gesture represents the helping hand, so to speak, of people and communities who have recently joined the fight to show that Black lives matter.
My appearance was also central to my vision. My masked face reflects the clear reality—physical appearance does not change structural and institutionalized violence against Black people. I wore white for two of its many implications and meanings: it is seen as a color that reflects purity, and historically this color was worn by institutionalized mentally ill patients. Black people face mental and emotional instability due to the generational and personal trauma we face by simply being. To justify the continued assault and oppression of Black people, we have been characterized as everything but pure. I appropriated this consideration of white to change the narrative: I am pure in my Black skin.
My intent was to maintain a quality of chaos—a depiction of our current reality— in both the visual and the audio. The distorted sounds, ranging in pitch, volume, and frequency, reflect the still-present message of Martirano’s L’s GA. The layered audio clips maintain the garbled quality as heard in the original production. I recorded several voice recordings—spoken and sung—each at varying tempos, dynamics, and inflections. I altered these recordings by lowering and raising the pitch, using special audio effects, and decreasing and increasing the volume. These audio clips gradually become clearer and, for the last few seconds, my repeated message, from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, is audible: “We are engaged in a great war, testing whether that nation or any other nation, so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”
I filmed scenes and took photographs during my travels in Berlin, Germany my new home. Using the now-natural backdrop of Berlin—the coarse and abundant graffiti—I created my response and my protest. Additionally, I repurposed a March 1964 Malcolm X interview, given four years before the birth of L’s GA and shy one year before his assassination. His words convey a relevant message, fifty-six years later, “They haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit that the knife is there.” If any indication is needed to understand Malcolm X’s statement, the 2020 U.S. presidential election serves as a current model to prove that this metaphorical knife is still buried deep within this wounded nation. My brief update to Martirano’s multimedia depiction reaffirms his opinion—Lincoln’s address did not lead to a new birth of freedom, but rather an aborted attempt as we continue to turn further and further away from democracy and the fulfillment of this presidential promise.
I struggle to find a balance between Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address and our ever-present reality. Black Lives Matter, a movement that began in 2013, is needed to protest that “Black lives matter”—it is a simple message, but, even still, many struggle to agree with and accept this. I question, how much of “me” was included in his speech? Lincoln recited his words at a time when the United States was at war with its very existence, at a time when the humanity of Africans and their American-born descendants was finally being considered by white America. In 2020, we meet again, at the same junction. Lincoln’s speech recognized a fact he believed the United States was prepared to engage with, but he was unwilling to confront the past that generated the need for this rebirth. He advanced in his views on race, but he could not imagine the vocabulary and the emotions of Black Americans who faced unthinkable suffering at the hands of white America. To answer a question I posed earlier, America has yet to realize what equality for all means. After nearly two centuries, we are still in an ongoing war for the freedom of Black Americans to be, to do, and to live. I offer the following amended address:
Over twenty score ago, our captors brought forth, upon this country, our wounded bodies and traumatized minds, to establish a new nation, conceived in enslavement and violence, and dedicated to the proposition that all white men are created equal.
We continue to be engaged in a great civil war, testing whether the institutionalized processes of injustice and racism can be dismantled by that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated. We are met here on a great battlefield – in virtual and in physical – of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who gave their lives – John Lewis, Dorothy Height, Ida B. Wells, Muhammed Ali, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm – and those who were murdered – Fred Hampton, Atatiana Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marsha P. Johnson, Elijah McClain, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Malcolm X, Emmett Till and so on – so that this nation might change. It is altogether fitting and proper that we remember them. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The valiant men and women, living and dead, who fought here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will note and long remember, what we say here and what they did here.
Instead, it is for us, the living, to be consecrated here to the unfinished work for which they have so far fought and died and so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of breath that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall finally be about the people.
 Neely, Mark E. Jr. 1982. The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc.
 Edna Medford, Ph.D. “Lincoln’s Evolving Racial Views.” Presentation, Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library, Fremont, OH, February 14, 2010.
Kameron Locke (he/him) is a classical singer, musicologist, and research-based artist who expresses facets of Blackness through music, performance, and study. A recent émigré to Berlin via London, he originally hails from Chicago and describes himself as an infiltrator in the classical music space, creating change from the inside.
The economic disparities between different Chicago neighborhoods have been clearly identified and displayed in community activist and photographer Tonika Johnson’s Folded Map Project. From the perspective of sound and the field of acoustics, are these inequalities also apparent? For example, is the soundscape different in Lincoln Park and Englewood; Austin and the Gold Coast? How is it different and why? How does economic investment or de-investment affect the sound of a neighborhood? NON:op Open Opera Works’ Christophe Preissing and artist Allen Moore partner with Chicago Architecture Center’s Open House Chicago to consider these questions.
Aural Neighborhoods is adapted for social distancing with self-guided outdoor soundwalks in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood and southeast Evanston. These communities were selected because they are approximately the same distance from Chicago’s loop, and they include sonic points of interest that roughly mirror each other in geography and content. The OHC2020 app—available on October 14—includes clearly marked sound trails, and information and brief recordings to learn more about the unique sound markers in each neighborhood.
If you would like to comment on Aural Neighborhoods you may do so below. If you would like to find out more about each sound trail or the individual sites, click HERE. If you would like share your experience of either sound trail—in words, audio, video, or still images—please contact non [at] nonopera [dot] org. We look forward to hearing from you.
Thomas J. Kernan
Have we secured a new birth of freedom? Abraham Lincoln’s most recognizable piece of political oratory, the 1863 Gettysburg Address, opens with the president’s reminder that the still young nation was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln then swiftly turns from that historical claim to the reminder that the present experience was that of a nation divided in a civil war over whether this high ideal could come to pass. To conclude, he does not declare victory, in any sense—as it assuredly was yet elusive on many battlefields—but he does not even assert that the moral cause was secure. Rather, Lincoln charges his audience to join him in resolving that they would work to follow the efforts of those who had died, and thereby achieve what was truly required, a new birth of freedom.
Within the speech’s three paragraphs, Lincoln acknowledges that the enlightened cause of the new nation remained unfulfilled, yet possible through a rebirth. The national founding cause was not wrong, but it was not yet true either. Historian David W. Blight has argued that Lincoln and the period’s most recognized black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, embraced comparable language and ideas in their 1863 speeches. In this brutal year of the war, when the possibility of battlefield victory and freedom for the enslaved appeared questionable at best, both men employed a similar rhetorical effort: the nation’s founding ideals were not wrong, but they had yet to be lived. The Civil War was only to be a success if it could serve as a rebirth, a moment when the high-minded thinking of four score and seven years ago met the lived experiences of “all men” who the “new nation” said were “created equal.”
Merrill D. Peterson, in his seminal study of Lincoln memory, orients this rebirth as part of a thread of Christian thinking in which Lincoln developed a yet unknown American civic religion. To this end, Lincoln would make a similar gesture in the penultimate passage of his 1865 second inaugural address, the recognizable bit of poetry, “Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’” While many Americans have long considered Robert E. Lee’s signing of a Confederate surrender, just soon after Lincoln’s second inauguration, to be the arrival of the national rebirth, Lincoln was struck down by an assassin’s bullet before he could continue his assessment of the nation’s status.
Did we make it? Was every drop of blood repaid? Was God’s judgement favorable? Even if so, did the “new birth of freedom” take the form of a healthy and robust baby who was to be nurtured into a nation-state with which her parents would be proud? Or, as Lincoln had warned, were the ultimate sacrifices of slave and soldier in vain? In the hands of twentieth-century, Illinois-based composer Salvatore Martirano and the poet/performer Michael Holloway, who joined him to premiere L’s GA in 1968, the answer was “Have a new birth – blah, blah, blah, birth – blah, blah, blah – birth, blah, blah, blah – of freedom – wap, smack, smich, woop.”
Martirano’s composition was preceded by many other musical settings of the Gettysburg Address. As early as 1865, the Cuban composer Narciso Teller Y Arcos referenced Lincoln’s speech in preparing an international funerary ode that was first printed in Paris. In the midst of the Great Depression, Jacob Weinberg set a Yiddish translation of the speech to rebut challenges raised about the patriotism of Jewish-American immigrants. Certainly, the most recognized and performed setting of a portion of the address remains Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait (1942), which culminates not with “blah, blah, blah” but with orchestra and narrator together reaching a triumphant climax.
Martirano’s multimedia masterstroke features the choreographed role described in the score as “a gas-masked politico,” three movie projectors conveying filmic images prepared by Ronald Nameth, two-channel tape accompaniment, and Lincoln’s words adapted by the poet Holloway in a manner that they are both present but obscured throughout. The composition’s title, L’s GA, conveys that Lincoln’s charge on the Pennsylvania battlefield remains seemingly always with us, yet miles away. This title is, of course, an abbreviation of “Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address,” but Martirano never overtly asserts the full title of the speech within his composition—not in the text nor even in an imaginative program note that he prepared for a 1969 performance at the University of Connecticut. In twenty-first-century academic parlance, one might describe Martirano’s title as a deliberate erasure, but it is not. Martirano did not merely remove or eclipse some of Lincoln’s speech; he offered an update on the speech, a response to the late president. If Lincoln had provided a task that the citizens were to accomplish, then Martirano was checking in on our progress and reporting back that any “new birth of freedom” had yet to bring into existence a vibrant new being.
Martirano composed L’s GA during the Vietnam War and the height of the African American Civil Rights Movement. In that moment not only was Lincoln’s goal unmet, but these external and internal wars once again obscured any hope of having the text, majestic as it remained, ring true. The film content, frequently loud passages of tape accompaniment, and the actor’s timed gestures in the performance space all underscore the disorientation of wartime. But most striking for most who witness L’s GA is the way in which it subverts expectations of similar performed art objects: the singer, actor, or poet who portrays the “politico” delivers Lincoln’s words while wearing a gas mask. The audience does not see the individual’s face; all facial expressivity is obliterated. Not only are the address’ ideals lost in the fog of war provided by the film and tape accompaniment but the mask, the uniform, and the madly fascistic gestures prevent any possibility that the performer is offering Lincoln’s wise words as a statement of something fully realized.
Martirano goes still further to dehumanize these words from the actor by, at one point, asking him to consume helium—a step that performers can achieve with real-time sound manipulation in contemporary performances—so that his voice ascends to a significantly higher pitch and is even more unexpected. What follows is empty, absurdly hollow, profoundly clichéd beauty: time-lapse film of flowers blooming, accompanied by an egregiously over-the-top excerpt from an opera by Camille Saint-Saëns.
In crafting a musical setting of the Gettysburg Address, Martirano did as all composers attempt: he brought it into his time and place. For Martirano, in 1968, Lincoln’s hopes were, well “blah, blah, blah.” In conceptualizing how to portray the Gettysburg Address, Martirano contributed to the Lincoln musical memorial repertoire a composition that remains an enduring framework for performers seeking to challenge the notion that the nation met the hopes that Lincoln deposited on the battlefield of his day.
 David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 414–15.
 Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 360–61.
Thomas J. Kernan is an associate professor of music history and head of the honors bachelor of musical arts program at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. He regularly publishes research on the musical memorialization of Abraham Lincoln, from the president’s death in 1865 to the present, a topic for which his doctoral dissertation, “Sounding the Mystic Chords of Memory,” earned the 2016 Hay-Nicolay Prize from the Abraham Lincoln Institute and Abraham Lincoln Association.
by William Brooks
It was 1967. You don’t remember that, do you? Probably you weren’t even around then. But I was. And it is one of my memories; what I remember; part of our American Biography; part of what made us all—even you, who might not have been born—what we are.
Young men were being drafted and dying in the jungle. Young black men were dying more often. Resistance was growing. I was white, and I was safe: I had a deferment. I could watch while SDS and Black Muslims contended with each other as well as with the government. It was very confusing.
There was a concert, and Sal Martirano presented L’s GA for the first time: a composition for gas-masked politico, with helium bomb, assisted by a nurse. Lincoln’s iconic words struggled to be heard through the mask. The voice struggled to be a voice, bombed as it was by helium. American words of inspiration were turned into fascist chanting, mindless calisthenics, totalitarian mockery. And all drowned out by sound and image: love duets at 110 dB; war games played on naked bodies; thunder, drums, and death.
FIFTY-THREE YEARS LATER
Masks are everywhere: masks for defense against illness, masks for defense against tear gas, masks to conceal identities. Everyone can be—everyone is compelled to be—a gas-masked politico.
Are you choosing your mask? Choosing to be safe, to be separate, to be secure? That mask enables you to breathe without fear, to venture outside, to care for yourself and others.
Or has the mask been forced upon you? To smother you, silence you, suppress your very being? That mask cares nothing for you or for others.
With some masks, words struggle to be heard: I can’t breathe. Be safe. Black lives matter. With other masks, words are amplified: Be free. Make America great. All lives matter. Nothing matters.
Lives are taken, voices suppressed: by gas, by knees, by gunshots, by chokeholds. Inspiration is replaced: by fascist tweets, lies, distortions, fakery, greed, racism, abuse, indifference.
Fifty-three years later, so much has changed. Or has it?