Sighting Sound: The Audible as Image and Narrative in Steve Tomasula (Grade A)

on July 31, 2016 in Essays, Masters Degree

A young boy, running in the yard with an index finger extended and a thumb upraised, shouts “Bang!” and in that instant a short audible burst defines an image. Then, in the infinitesimal distance between silence and sound the gun is gone having reverted into the oddly misshapen hand that existed before his outburst. This moment of auditory narrative, not performed for an audience or with any expectation of exterior understanding, is uttered for the sole purpose of giving life to an image in the speaker’s mind and for its own sake. Steve Tomasula explores this construct, as well as the impact of perspective, several times throughout his work, but it is particularly prevalent in his novels In & Oz, and VAS: An Opera in Flatland. Two scenes especially, which will be in part the province of this analysis, are the “Essence of Music” concert and “The Strange Voyage of Imagining Chatter” Opera.
Almost immediately within the novel In & Oz Tomasula unites the notion that the auditory is a constituent part of something’s reality, “The dogs of IN are snarling again”(Tomasula 11). These dogs are real largely because of their primal unaltered state and their use having been tailored to their natural instincts. It is their snarling that gives life to their use, in this instance their instinct to protect. This reality is diametrically opposed to the non-dogs of OZ whose behavior has been mutated to suit a use. Before his epiphany, Mechanic is almost numb to the existence of the dogs which is caused by the normalization of their presence,

They [dogs] go berserk whenever they catch sight of him…Not long ago he had been deaf to all of this. Though he had passed them so often he had worn a rut in the yard between the house and the garage he never so much as glanced at the dogs and their terrific noise (Tomasula 16)

This introduction of the notion that being cognizant of a thing’s auditory elements as crucial to actualizing it foreshadows Mechanic’s recognition of the essence of Auto. Prior to this realization the dogs are only real in the context of their function. Mechanic doesn’t notice the dogs, only that his tools are no longer being stolen. Much in the way that the force of gravity, which constantly affects every aspect of physical life, can immediately be brought into the forefront of consciousness with the simple decrescendo of a cartoonish slide whistle.
In reasserting the essence of Auto’s reality Mechanic makes decidedly auditory alterations. By removing the rubber tires that allow his car to move swiftly and silently from point to point and replacing them with metal sheets that act as skis, Mechanic introduces an element of sound to its movement. It doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to conjure the grating squeals and sparking stutters of Mechanic pushing his car over the biting surface of the street. Auditors of this movement would ultimately be forced, by being confronted by what a car isn’t, to remember what a car is. Tomasula likens this illumination to the experience of a fish, “Mechanic couldn’t have been more agape had he been the fish that spends its life completely ignorant of the “sea” until it found itself pitched gasping onto the beach” (Tomasula 22). Unfortunately this alteration of form brings Mechanic into conflict with his customers. What he claims should be a simple exchange of money for keys inevitably devolves into anger and sometimes even violence. This shows the initial weakness of Mechanic’s understanding of art, particularly his own. While he has fully embraced the epiphany that he hopes to share with his audience(customers), he hasn’t developed the empathy to realize his art from someone else’s perspective. Because of this failure of empathy Mechanic is barred from the communication that he seeks. His goal is to reassert the essence of Auto and reacquaint the owners of these machines with their reality. This underdeveloped empathy is also in part of what draws Mechanic to Designer originally and blinds him to the presence of Poet(Sculptor) and her feelings.
As opposed to reasserting the essence of auto by removing its ability to go unnoticed, Composer, owing to the fact that music has become so all-encompassing, is not left with the same artistic outlet to simply “break” music to clear the haze of its constant presence. Like his home the Essence of IN hole, which is the negative space created by the Essence of OZ building, Composer’s music is the inverse of all other music. Music composed of silence is the only way to upend the near omnipresence of the mass-produced elevator music that dominates the conscious hours of the days for the citizens of OZ. This is particularly true for Designer who is constantly surrounded by hyper-commercialized music.

She felt her motions slow to the dignified pace of a curator, or librarian, influenced as they were by the leisurely pace of music that played on a loop- beautiful, egghead music that she would never listen to at home but enjoyed here because it had been mastered somehow to include only the bright tones (Tomasula 13)

The presence of music for designer is anything but art, and hardly even rises to the level of entertainment. For her, the sound is just a defense against the uncomfortable and boring quiet that guides the rhythms of her unconscious waking mind. The only way for Composer to differentiate from the monotonous drone of this encompassing Mussikal Inc. is to introduce the jarring sound of silence. This forces listeners out of the passive distraction with which non-music is heard into a position where they must actively engage with the composition. However, to the utter devastation of Composer, “someone in OZ had figured out a way to use computers and other electronics to play his inaudible music” (Tomasula 44). This is a reflection of the modern advance of technology and the double-edged sword of making the creation of art more universally accessible while simultaneously adding to the diluting presence of the overpopulation of mass-produced art forms.
This leads in turn to the second criteria with which the audible can be associated with the real, and that is the need for uniqueness. No matter how similar one dog’s bark may seem to the one that follows it, there is always going to be miniscule difference between the tone, pitch, duration, and intent that makes the sound precious in its mortality and beyond the possibility of recreating. Contrariwise, the increasing consumerism for this content and the laziness with which it is viewed makes music a prime target for infinite repeatability that technology offers. This allows a listener to become complacent and comfortable with the simplest and most superficial interpretation while industry is free to become predatory in producing the indistinguishable strains of soulless art.

Art and all forms of entertainment were sold in exactly this way, culture had become like time in OZ- always the same, though no customer could ever dip his or her toe into the same river twice. And without anyone even noticing, dogs, real dogs, somehow vanished (Tomasula 15)

All of these precursor events lead to the Essence of Art concert that Photographer and Mechanic help to perform for the dejected Composer so that he, “could hear it [his music] the way it was meant to be heard, that is, in silence” (Tomasula 46) In this scene there are several vital elements that solidify the auditory reality of Composer’s silent music. As the opening bars of the unheard music blink to life on the projector there is a cacophony of sound, “Throttle open. The diesel engine roared deafeningly. The projector flickered to life, bringing up the first bars of the projected music”(Tomasula 49). This concert is beautiful in that its audience, at least in the case of Mechanic and Photographer, are willing non-consumer participants. They aren’t present at the performance looking for what they can take away from the music, but rather what they can add to it. To the jubilance of Composer, who is enraptured by being able to see his art realized, what these two companions end up giving to this art is its reality, its sound. This revelation hits very close to the heart of artistic expression as whole. When looked at honestly, art expresses no objective truth and its highest aspirations must ultimately be threefold, to illuminate the author to himself, to illuminate the author to his audience, and lastly illuminate the audience to each other. The concert itself proceeds for over seven hours, a figure that coincides with much of the hyperbolic imagery of Tomasula’s writing, and the party disbands to the shouts of “va—Room!” which recall again the actuality of Auto.
This scene is complicated by the presence of Designer who promptly falls asleep during the performance. Designer represents that part of a general audience who becomes conscious of the shallowness of mass produced art, but after venturing into the uncomfortable space of art that is not easily accessible and cannot be unpacked passively proceeds to extract only those parts of the performance that are fit for replication. Designer entered the concert with the intent of taking something out of the performance without offering anything of her self up in exchange. She attempts to recreate the artistic atmosphere, which she continually professes to have no understanding of, by purchasing a piece of art for her apartment. However, her decision is made based solely on her belief that something is art simply because it is so abstract as to be beyond understanding. Immediately she realizes that the art she has chosen doesn’t match with any of her catalogue-purchased décor and covers up elements of it until it does. Ultimately the bittersweet revelation is that having that one moment of perfect communication between artist and audience was not enough for Composer as he decides to settle for being heard even at the expense of being understood.
The counter position to this anticlimax is the artistic expression and revelation of the previously mute Poet(Sculptor). Throughout the course of the novel she is revealed to have been building the little piles of earth that caused Mechanic to daily trip on his way back and forth over the threshold to his home, “When he stubbed his toe on the mound of dirt that had reappeared before his door, he stomped it flat, and stomped it flat, and stomped, and kept stomping until he wore himself out with stomping (Tomasula 140). Despite the inconvenience and frustration, just like the metal skis of his car, the difference is what caused the transition to be noticed.
The theme of auditory as contributing to the reality of art, as well as the impact that perspective has on its connective power, is further explored in VAS: An Opera in Flatland. The limits of the reach of artistic expression, in this narrative, are those of perspective. Square and Circle are examples of this limitation and their two-dimensionality hinders their ability to connect. In the concluding moments of the novel the couple are encouraged to go to the opera, as Circle’s mother believes they might be able to find something that can fix the problems in their marriage. What Mother hopes is that by connecting with the music and production they might be able to find the common ground their inherently incongruent perspectives has condemned them too. As they sat in their boxed seats they heard,

The symphony oddly musicless until their random beats begin to coagulate into zygotes of two notes, a harmony of water and mud. Mitosis into four notes, then eight, then sixteen. Then a sour discord—a mutation—that causes the sound to rearrange itself into a new complexity, music becoming itself, playing itself, its musicains only being the medium it lives in…(Tomasula330)

Predictably, even as the descriptive imagery of the opera urges a coagulation of perspective as the notes draw nearer and nearer, neither Square nor Circle has made a move toward any common understanding. Circle gets bored halfway through and takes a moment to balance her checkbook while Square attempts to wholly assimilate the performance treating the chattering audience as part of the experience. This extreme difference of perspective is a reverberation of a movement made earlier in the novel,

From the mountains he had once seen canyons. From the canyons mountains. But now, living in Flatland, the Y mountains (he once looked up to) or the X canyons (he once looked down into) were so distant that they seemed to be no more than distant fictions (Tomasula 71)

Square and Circle have come to a place where their point of view has shrunk to a two dimensional image and the gulf between them so vast that they are not even listening to the same song. From the outset of the novel both characters are struggling to understand one another but the subtle implications and gestures, such as Circle’s repeated “your turn”, are not as clear as either of them believe they are.
Throughout the opera the comic book style panels are constantly interrupted by classic word bubbles of the interjecting chatter of the audience. In conjunction with, “the shatter of busting glass”, and the “rows of saxophones…trilling through faster than human muscles can trill” (Tomasula 336-7). The audience, who will continue to show its disinterest throughout, will stand and darkly echo Designer’s claim that the defining characteristic of art is that it is beyond comprehension. This is almost a cynical contraversion of the elation Composer, Mechanic, and Photographer achieved at the close of the Essence of Music Concert. The cowed mass, having offered and attained nothing, submit to the societally approved praiseworthiness of the Opera and proceed back to their lives having communicated nothing but ideas that are not their own.
In both of these works Steve Tomasula subtly introduces elements of sound that stretch his narratives beyond the visual and into the auditory. Even going to far as to almost subliminally add notation designs and tempo jargon to his opera in flatland that can, should the reader choose to take the offered cues, alter altogether the pace at which the audience experiences the story. He encourages his audience to be observant, to appreciate the things that have become invisible through overuse, and to realize the limits of our empathy. All of these moves are made in pursuit of the two constituent parts of artistic endeavor, creation and observation toward the ultimate goal of connection. Marshal McLuhan wrote that, “indeed, it is only too typical that the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium”(McLuhan 9) and in both IN & OZ and VAS: An Opera in Flatland that proves to be all too true. In both cases it appears that Tomasula’s main call is for his audience to try. To put forth the effort, despite the fact that it has been made so difficult by the extreme convenience of modern society, is a goal worth attempting. If nothing else one can always benefit from learning to appreciate the value of something before it breaks beneath the weight of indifference.

Works Cited

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: MIT, 1994.

Tomasula, Steve. IN & OZ. University of Chicago Press. Chicago IL, 2003. Print

Tomasula, Steve. VAS: An Opera in Flatland. University of Chicago Press. Chicago IL, 2002. Print

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