Danger Music: On the Intimacy of Screaming

Photograph by Isabel Stowell-Kaplan

Reviewed in this Essay: Dick Higgins’s “Danger Music #17” performed by Jenn Cole and Didier Morelli for The Future of Cage: Credo conference at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, University of Toronto, Oct. 26, 2012

Didier Morelli said that when he plunged his head into his kitchen sink to recite Dante’s Inferno, he imagined the bodily technology of the sound wave travelling between Toronto homes. All those words might be bubbling along through the system of pipes and up through the drains of the woman down the street. When I was a child, I thought that, because my dad was a plumber, I could look down a sewer grate in North Bay and see him fixing valves under the street’s surface. He lived 200 kilometres away.

The score to Dick Higgins’s “Danger Music #17” is simple: Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Didier and I began our performance of this score at Cage: Credo by leading spectators from their seats to the stage. The lights went down. We cracked pink Canadian Tire glow sticks, dropped them into pails of water and began to scrawl on the floor with chalk. My writing followed two textual passages: Georges Bataille’s compelling claim that, “These stammerings have uncommon force” and a mantra I heard on the subway once – a man repeating urgently, “Ireland won the war. Ireland won the war. RehRehReh Black dog.” An ode to unintelligibility. The stammer and the scream pose a break in the relentless jabbering of all day news stations and reductive televangelists. Inarticulacy reignites our curiosity.

After turning two TVs to static, we knelt at our buckets, and began, in turn, to speak the words we had been mapping on the floor between the shoes and legs of the audience. Then we began to scream. I listened to Didier with my ear to the surface of the water in my pail. I stood in the pail. He stood in his. We stepped out of the water and screamed together. Once, I had to pluck a fluorescent glow stick from Didier’s hair. In this way, we experienced Higgins’s score of six screams, teetering between intention and accident and the risk that is inherent in all improvisation.

Does the danger in “Danger Music #17” lie in the potential to be misunderstood by audience members who were alternately reminded of suicide or Christmas lights? The scream is open to innumerable interpretations. For theorists like Susan Sontag, the cry dissolves language and points to the ulterior particularity of the person crying out. But what I meant when I screamed was, at bottom a cry for intimacy, a sounding towards the other. The cry’s force lies in its being an enigma that can’t be reduced by exposition. Screaming always bears the risk of misunderstanding.

Submerging one’s head and screaming to the end of one’s breath lies on the border between the safe exhalation and lethal inhalation, but, like sounding down a drain, crying out carries an intimate possibility. Its ability to sound pleasure or pain makes the cry unpredictable. But screaming can also be an act of love when one screams for someone. For the man on the subway, for the audience, for…