Twilight Sleep to Push Playlists: (Re)Sounding U.S. Childbirth 1840-Present

Bennett Kuhn // A certain origin myth at the intersection of music and care is celebrated by ambient music composers and their critics. In 1975, Brian Eno slipped while crossing a London road and was struck by a car. Immobilized and on the mend in a hospital room, Eno was visited by a friend, who set playing a vinyl record of 18th century harp music at a tantalizingly quiet volume, droning away between discernibility and silence. The friend departed. Out of reach of the volume knob, Eno was annoyed by his predicament. Over time he began to attune to nuanced interactions surrounding and transecting him: the faint harp and vinyl crackle; the whooshing rain outside a cracked window; hums, whirs, and bleeps of medical goings-on; and inner rumblings. As in traditions of deep listening (Oliveros) or rhythmanalysis (Lefebrve), Eno reflected on this experience, noticing phenomena of dissolving and solidifying integrity in the midst of a complex aural landscape. What endured was a sense of responsibility (as in Haraway: one’s ability to respond) to the a(n)esthetics of liminal sound. He wanted to tap into the power of sonic environments that “would not impose themselves on people.”

In the liner notes to Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978), Eno published a bit of a manifesto for ambient music, contrasting it with the ‘background music’ of Muzak and other corporate ‘sonic wallpaper.’ Like Muzak’s sounds, ambient music attempted to be useful or functional for specific situations: the airport, for example, or the maternity ward. Indeed, Eno’s 1993 ambient album Neroli, full of dark generative bells, would go on to be implemented in some maternity wards in order “to instill a sense of calm as well as enhance the organic nature of childbirth.” A strange loop in the history of medical care and music.

At the ‘birth’ of my musician-in-residency position with Synapsis, I want to respond to the above by articulating a central theme of my work as a musician and writer situated in communities of living and dying. Music and care dance eternally like complex cousins. There is no care relationship that is not shot through with listening, situated in soundworlds, full of modes of attention and acknowledging. Conversely, no music is exempt from the concreteness of urgency. Responsibility is audible even (sometimes especially) under conditions of silence (as in my grandmother’s story below). Music can expand or curtail these caretaking faculties. And to be a caretaker is to be like a composer, organizing (aural and otherwise) materials so as to invite relationships of care to grow and flourish.

I began investigating sound, music, and care at the particular location of birthing culture not because of Brian Eno’s ambient music but rather because I got a note from my loved ones across the country. Two friends, F&K, wrote me from California in September in order to ask me to send them some songs to play before and during their upcoming birth (at the time of writing, their child is imminently due):

“I’m making some plans for my labor and delivery and I’d love to include some music from you to play in the room while I push this baby out. No pressure of course, but if you have time/energy, I can’t think of anything better for baby and I to have in our ears then some music from Umu Bennett. No need to make anything new, you can send whatever you want from your collection.” -F

This piece of writing is about how and why I made F&K a mix (streaming below) and what urgencies past and present I uncovered along the way. You were never its target audience; nevertheless, it’s here, on display, for your consideration.

Birth Mix For F&K: Press play and check the tracklisting while you read.

Colleen – The Heart Harmonicon [The Leaf Label]
Kadhja Bonet – Joy [Fat Possum Records]
Swindle feat. Andrew Ashong – Reach The Stars [Brownswood Recordings]
Sudan Archives – Water [Stones Throw]
Kingsley Ibeneche – ?? (prod. Lee Clarke and Bennett Kuhn) [Unreleased]
Okonkolo – Yemaya [Big Crown]
Aretha Franklin – One Step Ahead [Columbia Records]
Mos Def – Ms. Fat Booty [Rawkus, Priority]
King Space Man – Dots (Lost Love) [Astro Nautico]
Jill Scott – Prepared [Blues Babe, Atlantic]
Charles Bradley – Good To Be Back Home [Daptone Records, Dunham Records]
Talking Heads – This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) [Sire]
Lennie Hibbert – Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You [Studio One]
Wedel Bikri – عمري الباقي [Unknown]
Abdel Karim el Kably – El Jamil el Fik (“The Beauty In You”) [Afrotone]
Junior Kimbrough – Meet Me In The City [Fat Possum]
Colleen – Geometría del Universo [Second Language]

 

“I hear you:” resonance and care in being-a-DJ

Tasked with creating a push playlist for F&K, I set about what I will hypenate as ‘being-a-DJ’ which isn’t just an artform or social practice but more like an existential way, condition or commitment. Hilton Als offers a description of this phenomenon that resonates. Being-a-DJ involves taking up responsibility for selection like a caretaker takes up responsibility for one cared for. It’s intensely relational, both mine and barely mine. Barely mine because choices radically depend on my audience or community. ‘My’ selections are not just for or with but basically about my audience (in multiple ways). On the other hand, I am always against my audience: our roles fall on opposite sides of a line of difference: namely, my being-a-DJ. In no musical situation (which is to say no situation at all) can I dissolve into indifference, just one of the rest. So I make decisions in unstable, evolving social fields of embedded responsibility. Making a mix for F&K was like that.

The best modes of being-a-DJ I have encountered revolve around making selections that activate resonance. (The word ‘resonance’ here is supposedly to work only half-technically.) Resonance is when things literally re-sound across living and dead people’s bodies; at audible, inaudible, or liminal levels; in and across spaces real or speculative; the living and dying of non-human life; the bodies of people who don’t hear; and at other intersections. This phenomenon is at the heart of how sound transects matters of social response-ability. Think about the utterance “That resonates with me.” Does it express mere symmetry of perception? I think it often means to register something deeper, a willful state of solidarity. As if to say, ‘I’m taking in your experience and actively holding it up to my own.’ This signals a willingness in the speaker to do some labor in acknowledging (in the Cavellian sense) someone else’s state. The impact I wanted to have on F&K with my being-a-DJ, through musical selection, was to give them songs that would resonate (between us, our ancestors, and their unborn child), an act of care.

Genealogy of aurals: acoustics of childbirth across three generations of Simonetti women

Beginning this investigation, my first response was to extend my listening vis-à-vis the women in my family, whose firsthand experiences of evolving maternity ward sonic culture over the past half century gave me a sense of how to make DJ selections with a greater sense of historicity and futurism.

The Simonetti women had never specifically discussed the sonic dimensions of their birthing experiences with me. My grandmother (98 years old; born 1920 in Sicily; immigrated two years later to Ellis Island) surprised me when she claimed to have no memories of any of her five daughters’ births, from the eldest (my mother in 1950) to the youngest (my aunt in 1960).

Nani’s memory today is generally the same as it has always been during my lifetime. Why was she drawing a blank? She explained that she had been “put under” all five times.

I was confused and angry. Five births over two mid-century decades really occurred under the effective silence of anesthesia? (For most feminists this is a stupid question: Iris Marion Young’s phenomenology of pregnancy comes to mind and her claim that “pregnancy does not belong to the woman herself” under patriarchy.

It turns out Queen Victoria was anesthetized with ether in 1840, later delivering nine children in kind and establishing a fad for childbirth. From the middle of the 19th until the early 20th centuries, chloroform and ether gave way to a mixture of morphine and scopolamine known in Germany as Dammerschlaf, translated here in the U.S. as Twilight Sleep. Mixing pain relief and insensitivity with amnesia, Twilight Sleep erased birthing people’s memories. What is maybe more shocking to me is that feminist activists fought for the practice as tool of “painless birth.”

From roughly 1915 until the mid-‘60s, the “zombie drug” scopolamine was apparently used widely in hospital birthing. I have no way to verify that my grandmother was given this drug and not some other. Such knowledge rests in the nocturnal slumber of a history erased. What endures in our collective memory, however, is a prolonged, numbing silence.

My mother, in stark contrast, was lucid when my older sister Paige and I were born. In Paige’s case, Mom said Dad brought a cassette tape of New Age musician Andreas Vollenheider to play in her hospital room. Its soothing, tranquil ethno-sounds and soft, glassy synths brought her to a place of resonance in calm. In contrast, labor came weeks early for me, and in the rush to the hospital, Dad grabbed only a transistor radio. I was born at the mercy of FM frequencies. Mom remembers being at ends with the chaos of the radio format, at one point screaming at my father to turn it off because some insufferably “scratchy” country songs had snuck on the airwaves.

Over generations, Simonetti women and their peers went from silence to cacophony. My mother was the first woman in our family to do many things. One was be able to introduce ‘personalized’ sound into the hospital. Given different timing, Dad might even have prepared a custom cassette mixtape like the playlist I’m sharing here. What co-evolved with audio technology during this period were general value shifts, new feminisms. The 1960s heralded greater selective powers for birthing people. Personalized birth became not only attainable but widely advised in order for birthing people to anticipate and satisfy their individual needs and those of their children.

A complex legacy follows this shift into the present. How do cults of personalization play out in the contemporary evolution of sonic cultures of childbirth? And how could I respond through my being-a-DJ in the case of F&K?

Emerging interventions: push playlists, Spotify babies, and the politics of personalization

Scientific investigators since the ‘70s have evidenced the utility of music in birthing settings. “Listening to music during labor has a positive impact on labor pain and anxiety, maternal-fetal parameters and analgesic requirement,” was the conclusion of a 2014 obstetric investigation.

Bluetooth speakers in maternity wards have made sound selection more broadly distributed than ever before. Two thirds of one OBGYN’s patients at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City tote portable speakers and smartphones to their births, ready with “push playlists.” Over 90,000 of these mixes are shared on Spotify. Some “Spotify babies” are presumably almost 10 years old already.

Representing personal preferences through sound within hospital settings is apparently common practice today. The egalitarian redistribution of the power to ‘create content,’ including birthing mixes is part of what has been called a full-blown “producerist revolution.” “We’re all DJs now,” is a saying that registers the sea shift.

Countless online sources detail how to craft your own playlist, but I was not helped by them because most are written by and for white wealthy people. There are now even private services for hire adjacent to or within the apparatus of music therapy through which white people are selling other white people scientificated notions of what counts as “good music” for birthing. When it comes to being-a-DJ and making a push playlist, these selectors (lay or ‘professional’) often embrace cultural appropriation. Queer and trans women of color lead efforts to call out fetishism and colonialism, but the mostly white midwifery and home birth movements continue to make violent, nonconsensual music selections in the name of “natural” birth. The personalization movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s in this way have crested into an overvaluation of the personal, runaway hyperindividualism.

Resonant mixmaking: being-a-DJ for birthing

Picking music submissions for F&K’s birth meant moving away from the Internet, a ‘default white’ space. Better context for my decision-making came from Philadelphia-based birth doulas Hannah Slipakoff (a friend) and Elizabeth Weinstein (my partner), who told me stories about their experiences with sound, music, and caring primarily for birthing people of color in the Philadelphia area. We discussed birthing music tempos and vibes, timings and opportunities, what selections had worked best, and what had been least helpful. In all cases, it mattered exactly whom the doulas were taking care of and the robust features of their communities. It was a matter of complex relations and preserving integrity: resonance in action.

The mix I composed in response was meant to be a soundimage of F&K’s family histories, migration patterns, and spiritual roots as well as the experiences of the Simonetti women in my family and doulas in my life. It attempts to fit with and transform spaces of prenatal anticipation and mid-labor intensity. Below 120bpm, I kept to the speed of a relaxed heartbeat, flexing muscles of quiet reflection and sonorous exertion.

The most moving for me was diagramming the ways that F&K are vast, stretching from origin points in Baltimore and Oakland, to the homes of family or spots where they have lived for meaningful stretches in Sudan, the South, New York, Tufts (where we three met), Colombia, and the Amazon. This mix is a scattered but coherent, a psychogeographic document in sound meant to guide like a constellation (“Baby, we’ll reach the stars”). When I delivered the mix it came with a note:

This music is for whenever you two and baby are trying to align emotionally and spiritually (prenatal, during labor, etc.). The tracks are not necessarily sequential, but I did put them in an order in case you want to listen to them all together sometime. I picked singles that were rooted in your individual and collective points of origin, from the South and Sudan to the West Coast and the Mid-Atlantic. There are intergenerational echoes of the soulful soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement modulated ritually through beats and loops that swing like labor, new beginnings to an intergenerational dance. I myself am only playing on one track (having co-produced of an unreleased demo by Astro Nautico artist Kingsley Ibeneche). All the organ sounds are resamplings of Kingsley singing the word “light.” (I’m not sure if Noor is still in the running as a name since our last update, but either way I wanted to help you register the child’s autonomy and grace here.) Each song for me conjures you or your unborn child in some way totally clear or basically enigmatic. I hope one or even some of the songs can pluck the right chords at the right times in order for you and baby to move through what is ahead. I pray that sounding these songs is for you re-sounding, connective with ancestral soundworlds, longstanding and future intonations of resilience.

Hearing forward: postscript on care and composition

Brian Eno’s hospital room listening experience in turn led to the creation of music for hospitals. Over maternity ward loudspeakers, albums like Neroli and Discreet Music adopted a posture of playing one single music to resonate with births happening in any number of rooms.

DJs and other care providers today face numerous challenges in plotting interventions against one-size-fits-all care models. There is so much I could not discuss in this writing, from drumming for birth to notions of gendered sound and maternity “music belts” to the changing ways birthing people are encouraged to make body noises during labor.  Throughout, resonance remains one barometer of the success of interventions.

The English expression “I hear you” doesn’t just mean “I understand you” or “We’re on the same page” (i.e., cognitive identity). It also doubles as an expression of care: “I got you(r back);” or “we’re in this together.” No technology can set music making and care into such a state of alignment transcendentally or for all people. Our resonant signals swell and vanish from this earth like (as?) our bodies. Standing frequencies await amplification, ready to soundtrack other births.

Bennett Kuhn is a musician-in-residence for Synapsis for the ‘18-’19 academic year. His forthcoming music and critical writings engage spaces of care medicalized or otherwise, from mental illness and ALS to chronic kidney disease of unknown causes, dreaming, and grief. Follow Kuhn’s music and writings on Instagram, Soundcloud, and Twitter (@RADIOKUHN). Special thank you to Hannah Slipakoff for sharing several example playlists and critical essays and Paul Jones for mix artwork.

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