The Art of Listening: vuvuzelas

On the sound of the 2010 World Cup.

A couple of mornings ago, I awoke from a dream about being chased by a bee. I might have thought nothing of it, but in the days since, friends have reported similar occurrences. It would seem that the likely culprit is a long plastic horn which non-African football audiences are only now familiar with as the vuvuzela.

Many people do not like the cumulative and enveloping buzz produced by thousands of spectators blowing the horn in unison. Some have complained that it ruins the tournament atmosphere; others that it puts players off their game. RW Johnson, the South African historian unfavourably compares the sound to that of a chainsaw and says the instrument should be banned. (He's not alone in this, but the World Cup organisers have refused to do so.)

I beg to differ. For devotees of pure sound, as followers of the Art of Listening must surely be, massed vuvuzelas are a fascinating thing: more than simply the aural equivalent of a Mexican wave, the constant, tiny variations in volume and tone turn the crowd into a single, responsive entity. When a goal is scored, or a foul committed, there is no change as such, merely an intensification of the sound already there. The usual noises - cheers, chanting, insults, a brass band playing the theme from The Great Escape if it's an England match - are all subsumed into the drone emitted by the horns.

While the drone may be a new discovery for football fans, it has an extensive musical history. Perhaps one or more of the following clips will serve as a good alternative soundtrack to viewers who tire of the vuvuzela.

"De natura sonoris No. 2" by Krzysztof Penderecki. Readers may recognise this from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining - film being an area in which mass audiences have long been conditioned to accept sounds that would otherwise be dismissed as avant-garde or "unlistenable". (Hat-tip here to Zone Styx Travelcard.)

 

L Subramaniam, live at the Royal Albert Hall. An excellent example of how a drone - used extensively in Indian classical music - can act as a springboard for a virtuoso performer, in this case the violinist Subramaniam.

 

Sunn 0))), live in Berlin. Distorted guitars played in low tunings and at high volume.

 

The late guitarist Jack Rose. His reinterpretations of American folk and blues were anything but traditional - which brings us to a final point about the vuvuzela. The South African tourist board claims it is derived from the ancient kudu horn. But beware the authenticity trap! The vuvzela's manufacturers say instead that the prototype came from America, while they have traced its use to a Chinese women's basketball game. A true child of globalisation, then - and a reminder that what you hear is never less than the product of its circumstances.

 

You can read more from The Art of Listening column here.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.