A sea without a port
Though we know it is big, and can see its size on maps, we don’t really perceive its size. Like an ocean, we only see part of the megacity of Mexico, and so Mexico-Tenochtitlan is spoken of as infinite, boundless, limitless. So vast as to be unknowable, beyond comprehension. In reality though, Mexico City is not infinite. It has a beginning and an end. Patterns repeat themselves throughout the urban fabric. The city’s history is written on its walls and in the rubbish along its storm drains, in the names of subway stations and the little white crosses marking deaths on the street. The way to know something too big to perceive is through its parts.
This is how Feike de Jong, a journalist, researcher, musician and conceptual artist, frames his project to walk around the entire 800km-long perimeter of Mexico City. (The Guardian) De Jong also employs a metaphor of seafaring which resonates with my own approach to the city so much that I’m glad I didn’t come across his story until after I had completed composing a sea without a port. I tend to approach recording in a casual way, capturing interesting sounds I come across with whatever I happen to have on hand. But my practice is also informed by psychogeography, and so there is an overarching (if wandering) narrative to this record.
Mexico occupies a complicated place in the American popular imagination. As a tourist destination, Mexico evokes beautiful seaside resorts and great food, friendly locals and an opportunity to lower one’s inhibitions. Then there is the other Mexico, the post-colonial Mexico, the Mexico rocked by the effects of NAFTA, of sprawling slums and terrible poverty, of colonized peoples and traditional ways of life obliterated by the violence of multinational corporations and agricultural subsidies. But there is also the revolutionary Mexico: Benito Juárez, Pancho Villa, the Mexican Muralists, the Zapatistas, organized indigenous resistance, the many courageous Campesinos, workers, and students with a rich tradition of fighting injustice and on behalf of the oppressed. As our southern neighbor, there is the uncomfortable fact that so much of what is now the USA was once Mexico, the forgotten/repressed/unknown fact that much of the Mexican-American war was fought because Mexico had outlawed slavery. The fact that European settlement was forced on the indigenous peoples. Bigots and TV pundits cultivate fear of “illegal” immigrants, yet ironically Mexico has long been perceived as a place where American ruffians and outlaws could flee to escape justice.
And then there is Mexico City (or el DF), the sprawling capital. One of the world’s great mega-cities, with some population estimates in excess of 20 million inhabitants. Whereas NYC has 5 burroughs, Mexico City has 16, each containing many, many distinct neighborhoods. Whole villages and cities have been swallowed up by the cities constant growth. It is by far the largest city in the Western hemisphere, a cosmopolitan place that runs the gamut from high culture to folk, from Haussmann-style architecture to Modern to the informal dwellings of its slums and back again. Prior to colonization, it was the site of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, the largest city of the Pre-Colombian Americas, rivaling the largest cities of Europe at that time. Upon first laying eyes on the city Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a foot soldier of the conquistador Hernán Cortés, remarked that “Tenochtitlan is a second Venice.” At that time the city was in the middle of a great lake, a series of islands connected by unique boats. A distant echo of this floating empire can still be heard in-between the hedonistic celebrations of students and tourists in Xochimilco. For years before first visiting DF, I had heard rumors of this incredible city, of the vibrancy of the art scene, the active literary public sphere, its cafes, street food, and especially its music. Finally experiencing the city for myself both confirmed these reports while proving that no amount of stories will ever prepare you for the vastness of the city. It’s sprawl, the ubiquitous 7-11s, the vendors hawking goods, bustling markets, wild parties, art galleries, boutiques, modern architecture, political posters, cramped metro, dog parks, endless traffic, and music everywhere, from musicians on the streets to kids selling bootlegs with stereo systems strapped to their backs.
These recordings acknowledge the impossibility of ever truly knowing a place, especially one as rich and complex and contradictory as el DF. As an American tourist, my relationship to Mexico is even more complicated, as much mediated by imagination as by reality. Rather than pretend to be objective or scientific, this work embraces these contractions. This is a work about the space of encounter, in all its forms. Untreated field-recordings are rarely left so for long, refracted and looped and processed, moving back and forth between a dream and reality until the two are indistinguishable. We listen not only to the rich street life, bustling metro trains, and vibrant public spaces, but also, and with great respect, towards the rich literature, music, culture, and history of the city and its peoples. [Joseph Sannicandro]
Most of the recordings were made around Mexico City (especially Roma, Condesa, Zona Rosa, Centro, Tepito, San Miguel Chapultepec, Benito Juárez, Coyoacán, Xochimilco, Tenochtitlan, the Airport, but also many other places)
Made with: TASCAM DR-05, iPhone 3GS, a cheap portable tape player, Tape loops, SP-404, Memory Man looper, Effects pedals (chorus, echo, fuzz, freeze), Technics tape deck, and Mackie 1202 mixer.
Thank you: Ana Lucia Soto, Sergio Su, Marco de la Torre, Daniel Castrejón and Umor Rex, Jorge Amigo, Héctor Ortiz and his whole family, Myrdal SoundLAB, Cam and Alex and their whole crew, Grant Cogswell at Under The Volcano Books, Julian Bonequi, Audition Records, and everyone else who helped us out and showed us around or gave us advice. And to Roberto Bolaño, Juan Villoro, Leon Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, Francis Alÿs, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Octavio Paz, Rufino Tamayo and all the artists and writers who introduced me to DF long before I physically set foot there.
Photo cover by Sara Mericle
Joseph Sannicandro is a writer and scholar currently based in Minneapolis, where he is pursuing a PhD in Cultural Studies. He is co-founder of acloserlisten.com, and runs the Lost Children net label. He also records under the moniker the new objective and under his own name.
A sea without a port by Joseph Sannicandro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.galaverna.org.
“Life springs from death, just like the sun rises each morning after its nightly voyage to the heavenly plain.” Anyone who knows Joseph Sannicandro from his work on A Closer Listen, will know that he’s not someone who will take anything at face value, but likes to dig around and uncover the background stories behind any releases he might be writing about, outlining motivations and socio-political connections, which allow him to draw up illuminating interviews with artists. He’s seldom off duty and when he goes off to Mexico City (or el DF) he takes his digital recorder with him, much in the same way that a XIX traveller might’ve carried a sketchbook jotting things down, taking notes, outlining the aural world he encounters in a bid to unpack its complexities. And yet he is wise enough to recognise himself as an American tourist with all the cumbersome baggage that comes with it. In the extensive linear notes to A Sea Without A Port, Sannicandro states, “As our southern neighbor, there is the uncomfortable fact that so much of what is now the USA was once Mexico, the forgotten/repressed/unknown fact that much of the Mexican-American war was fought because Mexico had outlawed slavery. The fact that European settlement was forced on the indigenous peoples. Bigots and TV pundits cultivate fear of ‘illegal’ immigrants, yet ironically Mexico has long been perceived as a place where American ruffians and outlaws could flee to escape justice.” It follows that one of the tracks is titled “El tratado de Guadalupe” denying any possibility that this could ever be interpreted as a picture postcard rendition of DF. However, Sannicandro is neither descriptive nor dogmatic in his approach. “The post-colonial Mexico, the Mexico rocked by the effects of NAFTA, of sprawling slums and terrible poverty, of colonized peoples and traditional ways of life obliterated by the violence of multinational corporations and agricultural subsidies” are all acknowledged but never color our listening experience. Rather, it’s cultural filters that are used to ease our way into the complex sonic territory. The opening track, “I dreamt I was dreaming and I came home too late,” is titled after poetry by Roberto Bolaño. Aside from friends and musical connections (Umor Rex), Sannicandro is quick in paying tribute to the work of Juan Villoro, Leon Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, Francis Alÿs, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Octavio Paz, Rufino Tamayo and all the artists and writers who introduced him to DF long before he physically set foot there. And yet A Sea Without a Port never feels like the result of thoroughly researched homework. It is never dry, on the contrary, it sizzles with stimuli. Sannicandro is not interested in adopting an observational stance. He happily tampers with field recordings preferring the textural to the documentary. He clearly has fun with whatever is picked up by both his Tascam DR-05 and his iPhone 3GS and is unafraid to compromise the supposed integrity of the untreated material. Presumably, in order not to be overwhelmed by the task at hand, he breaks down any possible linear narrative into disjointed chapters, often opting for jump cuts rather than cross fades. He’s constantly revising, retracing lines, rubbing out and filling in the gaps with new contradictory aural impressions, abruptly stopping the flow of sound almost mid sentence to introduce startling pauses. Chubby Cheker’s Let’s Twist Again filters through the fuzzy sonic ambience of the title track, snippets of lines from popular TV dramas populate “Ivan Illich”, short tape loops of street hawking play over and over like broken records on “Non-aerial cartography”, reverb blasts through “A halo is antiquated”. Everything is fragmented, shaken up and eventually blended to produce an intoxicating auditory mixture extracted from the city’s nooks and crannies. Over the last 20 seconds of the last track, “The tragic concision of the dream”, Sannicandro introduces another snippet of what could be perceived as quintessentially “traditional Mexican music” but frustrates any expectations one might have of finally having time to savour its melodic quality by unceremoniously dropping the tune after only 10 seconds or so, leaving us with nothing to hold onto, and the impossibility of grasping yet again the “characteristic Mexican spirit” of his chosen location. As Sannicandro explains, “These recordings acknowledge the impossibility of ever truly knowing a place, especially one as rich and complex and contradictory as el DF.” A Sea Without a Port is out as free digital download on Galaverna. [Gianmarco del Re]
Mexico City always comes up in talks about the largest human populations in the world, and it’s no wonder why – something like 22 million people sharing a common space does already sound like an outlandish 1950’s sci-fi projection of the wonders of city life. Wonder, however, has little to do with it, because great cities are machines for living, a grand mechanism that in the movement of millions of cars and the crackle of electric undercurrents perpetually dreams of us. It is a technological dream, all ones and zeroes, cogs and switches, automations that infuse our blood with the existential affirmation of an ‘I am’. Joseph Sannicandro’s a sea without a port re-enacts the potential boundlessness of such a vitality, using field recordings to explore the intense shadow that the mechanic rationality of such an enormous thing ought to create. Like the title of the album indicates, it attempts to seize that oceanic feeling through which the city’s heart beats inside our every thought, and it speaks of a Mexico City that brims with the static of modernity, always glitching out to reveal the fragmentation at its core. Joe Sannicandro aptly manipulates the noises of the city, from the high-pitched whistle that the sweet potato vendors’ carts make as they announce their presence, to the storms that make people huddle together at the entrances of subway stations, in order to produce moods that often stand in contrast to each other. “En el futuro todas las rutas de México terminarán por llamarse Insurgentes” (“In the future all the routes in Mexico will end up being called Insurgents”), which alludes to the city’s longest avenue, named “Insurgentes” after the rebels of the 1821 revolution, begins with the bustle of car horns and street conversations, soon shifting to a contemplative tone. It is, perhaps, a historical thought, an exercise in projecting to the future all the little, everyday gestures of dissent in a city that proudly displays its progressiveness to the rest of the country, an arrogance that earns it as much awe as disgust. After all, it is not difficult to make a turn in the right street and see that in the here and now such a vast machine demands as much death as the life it provides, to see that the city’s dream is often indistinguishable from its nightmare. A track like “Non-aerial cartography” offers a kind of counterpart: it mixes the repetitive pre-recorded messages of tamal street carts, rhythmically self-erasing their meaning into pure electronic noise, with conversations and cries that build up into sounds that can no longer be thought of as made up of words. There is no possibility of contemplation here, only an incomprehensible immediacy that repeats itself, moment after moment, demanding attention, demanding for you to gaze back. The city stops being a conceptual construct and mimetically turns into something monstrous, something that, curiously, peers into us. Sannicandro portrays this monstrosity with care, juxtaposing found sounds in a way that only someone unaccustomed to listening to the city all the time could do, highlighting its very surface. It is on the surface where the city’s twitches can be best seen, where the songs of an old men’s folk band mingle with the stereotypical recreations of pre-Hispanic music, where the baroque formality of people’s manners is ruptured by the shouts of road ragers, all the histories of Mexico dissonantly clashing with each other. It is in this utterly mechanical juxtaposition where the city finds its most vibrant life, having no true unity of purpose, no innate choreography beyond that of modernity and capitalism, always different, a harmony without an anchor to keep it still. Like the sounds in the album, it is incredibly diverse, and yet it seems like it is one, like it is an organism that grows and breathes and wants, but the truth lies, perhaps, elsewhere, in the transition from meaningful to meaningless (as in the pre-recorded street announcements in “Non-aerial cartography” or “The Spell of a Useful Illusion”). In thinking of its unity we keep the city under rational reins, but it is its oceanic quality what makes it meaningful, a sense forever in escape, its unimaginable scale making small, inevitable tears in the fabric of our understanding. I like to think this is not exactly unique, and that it is entirely a post-colonial phenomenon – something shared not only with the United States’ most cosmopolitan urban areas but also with places like Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta, Kinshasa or Delhi, where historical scars grant a richness of difference rarely enjoyed by the great cities of the colonizers. Sannicandro has done a great job of capturing this sense, this feeling of inexhaustible complexity, and as someone who lived in Mexico City most of his life (and looks forward to eventually returning), I believe this album represents a good point of entry for anyone looking to dive, however briefly, into the inner workings of this gigantic, dreamful machine. [David Murrieta]