For this week’s protest song, Alec Hall submitted a piece created as a comment on the criminalization of black bodies in the United States and how black life is often erased from American culture and society.
The 11-minute string quartet composition, “28 Hours,” is the first reader-submitted protest song featured here at Shadowproof.
It was inspired by the Last Words Project of Iranian-American artist Shirin Barghi. Taking erasure as a “metaphoric starting point,” Hall told Shadowproof he used last known words spoken by victims of police violence—for example, Eric Garner and his last words, “I can’t breathe”—and searched through online lyrics databases for songs, which had those words. He then plucked clips from those respective songs and ran those clips through a destructive process in order to erase the original source.
Hall explained, “I took an excerpt from Leona Lewis’ song ‘Can’t Breathe’ and played it over computer speakers while recording it into my cell phone. I repeated this process nine times until there was nothing left. The result is a gradual erasure of the original as it fades into high ethereal harmonies. The music disappears completely—only its ghost is left behind.”
“I employed the technique invented by Alvin Lucier in his renowned 1969 composition, ‘I Am Sitting In a Room.’ The piece is a time-based process whereby Lucier records himself narrating a text he had written, which is itself a clear description of the procedure of making the piece,” Hall described.
“Lucier makes the tape of himself speaking the text, after which that recording is played into the room and subsequently recorded again. This process happens over and over again, until the recordings begin to excite the natural resonances of the room, smoothing out the recording as it were, until the audio of the text is submerged into the sine tone harmonies created by the acoustics of the room.”
As one might be able to tell, the process of creating the work makes as much of a political statement as the music itself.
Hall detailed two other examples. He used a digital audio technique called concatenative synthesis at the beginning of the piece. Taking a program called CataRT, two songs were combined to express Amadou Diallo’s last words, “Mom, I’m going to college” before he was brutally murdered by the New York Police Department in a hail of 41 bullets.
“In the first song, Blink 182’s ‘Going away to College,’ I took an excerpt in which Diallo’s words were sung, and fed it into CataRT,” Hall shared. “The program chops up the audio file into tiny pieces—in this case 200 milliseconds each—and then arranges them according to various spectral qualities: pitch, loudness, noisiness, etc. I then recomposed the music in this program, applying the metaphor of erasure through disintegration and dismemberment.”
Hall added, “The second song, ‘Punk Rock Mom’ by Youth Brigade, comes immediately after this section, and uses just the one word “mom”, over and over again, with the Alvin Lucier-style technique of disappearance applied here as well.”
Sixteen year-old Kimani Gray’s last words before he was shot by the NYPD eleven times in March 2013 were, “Please don’t let me die.” Hall took Patty Griffin’s song, “Please Don’t Let Me Die.” He then took the part where Griffin sings, “Don’t let me die,” and stretched it out to one minute in length.
“Using a combination of programs, I was able to extract the particular harmonies and general rhythmic movement, which I then used as a basis for a string quartet transcription. The result is a haunting, elegiac music in which we can still hear traces of the original, but through a deeply distorted lens.”
Not only does Hall bring a fascinating craftsmanship to the process of creating this politically charged piece of music, but he also has a sharp provocative analysis to go along with his creation.
“Blacks represent nearly half of the entire US prison population, with nearly one third of the entire African-American population under some form of criminal supervision, whether prison, parole or probation,” Hall argues. “Whether by way of straight-up murder or mass incarceration, the criminalization of black life is an attempt to erase its very presence from American society.”
“African-American culture is typically celebrated in mainstream channels only after it has been colonized and co-opted by white institutions of power and finance. Cultural sites of black resistance are endlessly co-opted and monetized, as the musical history of the 20th Century makes painfully clear, tracing the persistent theft of singularly black music from early blues and jazz forms through mid-century rock and roll, to funk and eventually to hip-hop.”
Hall maintains, “The white colonization of these musics is akin to the erasure of Blackness in American cultural life, along side the state project to physically erase black bodies and voices from the physical landscape.”
He consciously used the “metaphor of erasure in this piece not only as the subject, but also as an actual compositional tool.” In so doing, “28 Hours” acts as “a memorial space, where the very mechanisms of American racism are inverted. “The act of erasing becomes a process of remembrance, the commemoration of stolen lives.”
Here is the full composition by Alec Hall, as performed by a string quartet:
Are you an independent artist who has written and/or produced a protest song that you would like featured? Or do you have a favorite protest song? Send submissions to protestmusic@Shadowproof.com