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  • While taking coffee at my local café, I recorded the environmental sounds that surrounded me in the establishment. I then decided to playback the recording on headphones, while sitting in the café. The auditory layering of both recorded and live sounds induced a certain amount of tranquillity. The listening experience had a dreamlike quality reminiscent of shifting sands underfoot.

    I was then reminded of William Burroughs' experiments using sound recorders in public situations. This extract from 'William Burroughs - El Hombre Invisible', a biography by Barry Miles, explains it well:

    "William Burroughs's spoke at length about the use of tape recorders as a revolutionary tool:

    'It's more of a cultural takeover, a way of altering the consciousness of people rather than a way of directly obtaining political control ... Simply by the use of tape recorders. As soon as you start recording situations and playing them back on the street you are creating a new reality. When you play back a street recording, people think they're hearing real street sounds and they're not. You're tampering with their actual reality.' He found that by making recordings in or near someone's premises, then playing them back and taking pictures, various sorts of trouble occurred. He immediately set out to exploit his discovery.

    'I have frequently observed that this simple operation - making recordings and taking pictures of some location you wish to discommode or destroy, then playing the recording back and taking more pictures - will result in accident, fires, removals, especially the last. The target moves.'"


    I imagined a scenario of playing back my recording over the in-house PA system at the café. The idea of observing whether anything unusual or untoward happened to the customers became intriguing. Would this tampering with reality (as William Burroughs believed) cause an accident or make people get up and vacate the café? Not that I wished the customers any harm. However, I was intrigued by Burroughs’ proposition.

    I then recalled an interview with Ian Fraser "Lemmy" Kilmister, who performed with the psychedelic rock band called “Hawkwind” during the 1970s. He spoke of how certain frequencies, while played at high volume during concerts, would literally cause some audience members to soil themselves or faint. The members of Hawkwind often employed this cruel technique at concerts and coined it, “Sonic Violence”.

    This led to my meditation (albeit mythical) upon Hawkwind performing outside the Vatican embassy, where General Manuel Noriega sought refuge, during the American led invasion of Panama in 1989. “Operation Nifty Package” was the name given to The United States Navy SEALS plan of exacting music torture upon Noriega. The SEALS laid siege to the embassy and declared psychological warfare on the General, by playing deafening music to convince Noriega to surrender himself. These methods have purportedly been widely used in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq.

    My headphones were still planted on my head at this juncture. Had my self-inflicted sonic experiment led me on a merry dance of lucid thought, was this a stream of consciousness meltdown? I suddenly removed the headphones, in case this sorcery forced me to perform a wild, barefoot pirouette around the café. This might well be the Pandora’s Box that Burroughs was so willing to open. Albeit, rather a quaint technique compared to the US military’s heavy handed sonic solutions.

    On a final note, I can’t imagine that the US military have paid royalties to the artists whose works were played to captives while in American custody. However, if they ever do cough-up, let’s hope that the artists transfer the money to an organisation that strives to protect the human rights of music torture victims among others. Ultimately, pain is pain, however large or small, loud or quiet.
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