Treme’s Aural Verisimilitude
[Editor’s Note: After last March’s POP/IASPM-US joint conference, Sounds of the City, a collaborative project was hatched to feature the work presented at that conference in both print and online versions. This collaboration pulls in the Journal of Popular Music Studies (Karen Tongson and Gustavus Stadler), the EMP Museum (Eric Weisbard, also on the IASPM-US executive committee), and IASPM-US (Anthony Kwame Harrison, also on the JPMS editorial collective, and Justin D Burton). A print version of JPMS appearing in Fall 2012 (24:3) features eight essays from the conference, and we’ve selected several more to publish on the IASPM-US website this fall. So enjoy the reverberations of a spectacular March weekend in New York, and don’t forget about the 2013 conferences for IASPM-US and EMP’s POP.]
It’s really wonderful having the series here. But I’ll tell you, the first time I was on set, and it recreated a Katrina environment, I remember walking and turning around a corner and seeing it, and I froze and I stepped back. It shook me. It really, it devastated me.
-Karen-kaia Livers, specialty casting and music liaison for Treme
It was so real that it put me right back right there. I actually had the feeling of depression and doom.
-Phyllis Montana Leblanc, Treme actress and New Orleans resident
Damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina on a church organ in the Lower Ninth Ward. Photograph by John Rosenthal [1. http://www.johnrosenthal.com/JRNew/gallery-lg-htm/gallery-NewOrlerans-ChurchOfLivingGod2.htm]
Current HBO series Treme (2010–) follows an ensemble cast in New Orleans through the process of survival, recovery and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. The driving force behind the show is David Simon, a McArthur Genius Grant and Emmy award-winning writer and producer, who is best known for his earlier work on The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street. Simon states that he and co-creator Eric Overmyer “conceived of a show rooted in the musical culture of the city [before Katrina], but that the storm obviously gave that even greater impetus.”[2. David Simon, as quoted in the 2010 documentary The Making of Treme (0:45-0:55).]
Treme is marked by Simon’s characteristic painstaking attention to realism in the show’s aural, visual, and narrative details. While developing Treme, Simon was particularly concerned with recording and conveying what he calls New Orleans’ “ornate oral tradition.”[3. Margaret Talbot, “Stealing Life” in The New Yorker (October 22, 2007). Retrieved January 12, 2012.] Indeed, the show is filled with live performances of music, local artists, and characters whose lives center around music-making: DJs, jazz musicians, bounce rappers, Indian chiefs, and second-line brass bands. Beyond these musical components, the show also depicts New Orleans accurately by carefully rendering the city’s soundscape: the distinctive echoes of individual restaurant interiors, the sounds of chirping birds, train horns, and the rippling waters of Lake Pontchartrain are (in the words of supervising Sound Editor Jennifer Ralston) “thoroughly researched for authenticity and, as often as possible, recorded at the actual locations rather than reproduced with commercial libraries.”[4. In-person interview with Jennifer Ralston, February 19th, 2011.] These aspects of “aural verisimilitude” come together to produce an exceptionally nuanced tapestry of New Orleans. In this article, I argue that the show’s unique approach to sound and music production enables Simon and his team of sound and music editors to blur the lines between sound effects and diegetic music, allowing both to serve functions usually accorded to nondiegetic music.
Furthermore, Treme’s aural verisimilitude illustrates how Katrina dramatically altered the city’s soundscape, rendering New Orleans strange and even threatening to its inhabitants. At several points characters react to the insidious sound (not sight) of circling helicopters and patrolling National Guardsmen in Humvees.[5. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose disaster response following Katrina was widely criticized.] More subtly, characters also note the conspicuous absence of birds, a silence that implies what Katrina has stripped away. In contrast, the return of familiar musical events, such as second-line parades and funeral marches, marks both individual death and the renewal of community tradition. In the politics of Treme’s aural verisimilitude, silence speaks as loudly as a noisy second line. Music is equated with life, renewal, and rebirth, while silence becomes a signifier of death and Katrina’s destruction.
Verisimilitude in Practice
New Orleanians have felt like people have come from L.A. and kinda gone, “oh that’s really odd and interesting.” And we’re trying not to do that. We’re trying to do it from the inside out.
Eric Overmyer, executive producer of Treme[6. Eric Overmyer, as quoted in The Making of Treme (4:29-4:38).]
In the following section, I examine Treme’s aural verisimilitude by focusing on the interaction between sound and diegetic music in the show, arguing that the show’s sonic realism enables audiences to empathize with David Simon’s belief in the “great American city.”[7. Ibid.] Simon’s crime drama series The Wire (2002-2008) earned him a reputation for paying close attention to the urban geography and soundscape of Baltimore, his hometown. Simon has also maintained close ties to New Orleans for decades through Mardi Gras and JazzFest. In addition, the show’s co-creator, Eric Overmyer, has owned a house in New Orleans for twenty years and considers it his second home. Treme builds on Simon’s work on The Wire by functioning essentially as a defense for the rebuilding and preservation of New Orleans after Katrina, as an argument about “what’s best about the American city.”[8. Simon, as quoted in The Making of Treme (0:55-1:10).] Blake Leyh, the supervising music editor, has his own related, but specific mission for the show: he seeks to introduce New Orleans musicians who are local celebrities to a national audience, thus helping to support them economically.[9. Blake Leyh, as quoted in the 2010 documentary Treme: Beyond Bourbon Street (11:33-45).]
The show’s geographic setting helps both Simon and Leyh accomplish these goals. Although Treme’s characters are scattered all over the city, the show centers around the historically and musically rich Faubourg Tremé neighborhood, which in the late 18th century became the first neighborhood in the United States settled by free people of color. The Tremé was named after plantation owner Claude Tremé, who in the last decades of the 1700s divided his property up and gave it to freed slaves, who then built their own homes on this land. During the nineteenth century, the Tremé’s economic and cultural center was Congo Square, a site where slaves and free people of color gathered to trade and dance in “ring shouts” on Sundays.[10. Matt Sakakeeney, “New Orleans Music as Circulatory System” Black Music Research Journal 31:2 (Fall 2011), 295.] Later in the nineteenth century, Congo Square also featured market day performances by “Creole of color” brass and symphonic bands, whose improvisatory practices in part became the origin for the New Orleans musical traditions of brass bands, second-line parades, and jazz funerals. Most histories of American popular music claim the Tremé, and more specifically, Congo Square, as the “birthplace of jazz.”[11. Matt Sakakeeny rightfully critiques this oversimplification, by locating the origins of this myth in the “environmental thesis” of 1939’s Jazzmen. Ibid., 301-04.]
Treme highlights its namesake’s rich musical history by featuring jazz musicians who have been based in the neighborhood for decades, such as trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band. Since the Tremé received only mild to moderate flood damage from Katrina, many venues in that neighborhood were able to reopen sooner than those in parts of the city that were hit harder by the storm. By centering on the Tremé neighborhood, Treme is able to focus as much as on the city’s musical rebirth and recovery as on its economic and material rebuilding. As Simon comments, “This is the part of the city that gives the city its culture, where a lot of the music is originated from, a lot of dance is originated from. It’s sort of a state of mind. It felt right for the title of the piece.”[12. David Simon, as quoted in the 2010 documentary Beyond Bourbon Street (3:10- 3:22).]
To create the show’s soundscape, Simon uses a well-oiled sound team which has worked with him for over a decade. Supervising sound editor Jennifer Ralston and supervising music editor Blake Leyh both worked with Simon on The Wire. Ralston also went on to work on Simon’s Emmy-awarding winning miniseries Generation Kill, and both editors appear extremely familiar with Simon’s expectations and desires. In interviews, both Ralston and Leyh commented on how thoroughly Simon makes himself involved in the show’s recording, editing, and remixing process. Simon or Eric Overmyer, the show’s co-creator, is always on hand to approve each episode’s final mix review, called a “spotting session,” and frequently demanding second or even third mix review sessions to get the balance “just right.”[13. Blair Jackson, “Treme: Post-Katrina New Orleans Grooves in HBO Series” in Mix: Professional Audio and Music Production (July 12 2010). http://mixonline.com/post/features/treme//index.html]
How does Treme create an effect of “aural verisimilitude”? I have identified five production and post-production practices that constitute my working definition of this aesthetic:
(1) extremely sparing use of non-diegetic music
(2) numerous cameos from natives (both well-known musicians and ordinary residents) who appear as actors and musicians and provide background dialogue
(3) sound technology – using a surround-sound 5.1 microphone (along with the usual boom and RF microphones) to record the live music in scene, thus placing the show’s listeners in a single location relative to the onscreen action. This helps spacialize the sound.
(4) sound effects researched for authenticity and recorded on location whenever possible
(5) music recorded live (and usually uninterrupted) on the set on location in New Orleans
In the following section, I discuss an example which embodies all five of the above qualities. It also happens to be the show’s most elaborate musical undertaking in its first season: the restaging of the first second line parade held in New Orleans after Katrina.
Treme Second Line
“It Sounds Like Rebirth!”
Second line parades are a New Orleans tradition dating from the late nineteenth-century practice of funeral marches and weddings. In these ceremonial processions, family members would march in the first line with the brass band, while a large group of residents would follow behind in what became known as the second line. Eventually “second lining” evolved into a separate practice. In the Tremé neighborhood, these second lines have been put on by the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs every Sunday for decades. The first scene of Treme’s pilot recreates the momentous first parade held after Katrina. According to Livers, “In 2006 these social and pleasure clubs came together and created a task force and did this second line so that everybody could come home and know that this was the place that we were gonna rebuild and make a re-new New Orleans.”[14. Karen-kaia Livers, as quoted in Treme: Beyond Bourbon Street (2010): 19:10-19:24. Emphasis mine.] For New Orleanians, this event symbolized the city’s renewal after the storm, which made this a powerful moment for the series to begin with. As the character Davis exclaims upon hearing the second line from his bedroom window, “It sounds like Rebirth!” This is, of course, a pun because the band performing in Treme’s parade is the Rebirth Brass Band.
The second line parade which opens Treme’s pilot was one of the series’ most ambitious musical undertakings. The care taken in this restaging exemplifies the general effort the cast and crew went through in order to accurately render this historical event. Supervising music editor Blake Leyh claims that the most unusual thing about Treme is that (nearly) all of the musical performances are recorded live. He explains that “[t]he way we want to be able to tell this story is to have the people who usually do this thing do it the way they usually do it and interfere as little as possible. So that meant we wanted to record all the music live.”[15. Leyh, as quoted in the documentary Treme: Beyond Bourbon Street (2010): 19:42-:55.] Thus, the show’s creators made an effort not to “restage” the second line so much as “let it happen” by trying to “interfere as little as possible.” On the day of filming, there was no choreography; rather, as Simon says, “we just let people start marching and playing and let the cameras roll.”[16. Blake Leyh and David Simon, as quoted in the documentary Treme: Beyond Bourbon Street (2010): 19:29-19:54.] There was no interruption of the performance, and all musical recording was done live. This live performance blurs the division between diegetic music and ambient sound. Music is represented as an integral part of the New Orleans landscape, as other aspects of the city’s soundscape bleed into the second-line.
Now, for the basis of comparison, here’s a video of the actual parade from January 15th, 2006. This clip features the Rebirth Brass Band playing “I Feel Like Funkin’ It Up”, a tune that also appears in Simon’s show. How does the “real” thing compare to Simon’s verisimilar recreation?[18. This video was uploaded by YouTube user MsHottPiece (Erin Michelle), whose other videos include documented images from Katrina-related damage, the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras, and other parades from 2006 until 2011. She created her account the day of the parade, January 15th, 2006.]
The closing credits of Treme’s first season are marked by a humorous juxtaposition. Just before the required legal statement (“The characters and events depicted in this motion picture are fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”), the show credits thirty-three consultants from the New Orleans area – including celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain – for their assistance: “By sharing recollections, information, and insight, the following individuals enabled us to create a more thorough and resonant depiction of post-Katrina New Orleans.”[19. Treme Season 1 DVD, Disc 4, Episode 10: 1:23:03-35.] This leads us to an important reminder: as “realistic” as Treme’s depiction of New Orleans may be, it can never be real. Simon is well-aware of this, but also understands that blurring the lines between the real and the imaginary can help strengthen the underlying argument of the series: a defense of the importance of the “Great American City.”
Of course, Treme’s “aural verisimilitude” is an illusion. It is constructed, an effect of the powerful suture between image and sound that is produced when they are synchronized, what Michel Chion calls synchresis, or the “spontaneous and irresistible weld produced between a particular auditory phenomenon and visual phenomenon when they are produced at the same time.”[20. Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, translation by Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia UP, 1994): 63.] Treme’s sonorous world is no more real than that of any other television show or other audiovisual media.
Furthermore, verisimilitude is not a neutral form of representation. The “realism” that Simon strives for has a political aim – albeit one that is difficult to detect beneath the mask of verisimilitude. Rather than using classical techniques of underscoring, punctuation, and other effects of nondiegetic music to make his argument, Simon lets sound effects (like those of distant train horns and Coast guard helicopters) and diegetic music (such as that in live performances and playing on radio stations) serve functions usually accorded to non-diegetic music. They provide thematic unity and become associated with specific neighborhoods and characters, both within individual episodes and across the entire season. Simon thus shapes the soundscape with sound and diegetic music to reinforce his beliefs about both the value of New Orleans and the government’s response to Katrina.
The final section of this paper will investigate how Simon uses music and sound – as well as its absence – to communicate particular ideological beliefs about New Orleans, its inhabitants, the United States government, and Hurricane Katrina. These ideas can be summarized in four points:
(1) New Orleans the city, the show’s “true protagonist,” is characterized as fundamentally musical. The act of “Musicking”, or making music as a social, embodied activity, is a practice which heals and connects individual characters in their otherwise isolated struggles.
(2) “Real” New Orleanians are characterized, like their city, as being intrinsically musical: musicking is a way for them to perform themselves and bring themselves back to life; Creighton, a character who commits suicide, is one of the least musical and isolated of all the characters.
(3) Conversely, Katrina is made audible through moments of chilling silence. Characters discuss the absence of music and other familiar sounds, like birdcalls. The hurricane literally wiped the city’s soundscape clean.
(4) The show’s soundscape often characterizes FEMA, the National Guard, and the New Orleans Police Department negatively, through the presence of dark, threatening sounds and disruptive noises that appear mostly at night and while characters are isolated.
Ninth Ward Post-Katrina
Katrina’s Sonorous Absence (Or, Silence = Death)
In March 2009, Treme’s Supervising Sound Editor Jennifer Ralston moved to New Orleans two months before beginning work on the series in order to acquaint herself with the city. By interviewing residents who had remained in New Orleans immediately following Katrina, Ralston learned details about the city’s altered soundscape that she ultimately wove into the show’s sonic tapestry. For example, residents informed her that there were no birds or crickets in certain parts of the city, such as the Ninth Ward, for the first six months after Katrina – they all were killed or flew away. Ralston also told me
Electricity was down in many areas – resulting in a lack of white noise like air conditioners and transformer hums. No electricity also meant that traffic lights were not working, so all intersections were treated as four-way stops by drivers, resulting in no roaring traffic on city streets because no one could drive more than a block without having to stop. In areas where there were residents but no electricity, generators were introduced for white noise. [21. Email correspondence with Jennifer Ralston, March 19th, 2012.]
Locals she interviewed described this as a haunting silence, one that served as a constant, eerie reminder of what Katrina had washed away. The information Ralston collected influenced the show’s depiction of these affected neighborhoods. Not only did Ralston eliminate ambient noises like birds or crickets from these neighborhoods during the first season, but characters also discuss their absence openly. While searching an abandoned house for his missing father in the Ninth Ward, one character comments to another that “Even the birds don’t come back this neighborhood – you notice?”[22. Episode 3, “Right Place, Wrong Time”: 17:20 – 17:25.] The absence of sound in this scene presages his discovery of his father’s body, Wild Man Jesse. In the following scene, note the conspicuous absence of background noise, except for a dog barking.
While many characters in the show are musicians who use music as a means of economic and cultural survival, Treme’s characters who live without making music are represented as being unable to recover after Katrina. In most cases these characters either leave the city or, in the most extreme example, die by the Season One finale. Janette Desautel, played by Kim Dickens, makes her living as a chef but ultimately decides to leave NOLA after her restaurant business goes under. John Goodman’s Creighton Bernette is a Tulane English professor, who is so distraught that his beloved city will never be able to rebuild itself that he commits suicide by the end of the first season.
Creighton’s character is based on real-life blogger and professor Ashley Morris, whose online tirades against FEMA and President Bush won him an online following before he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2008. However, Creighton’s death is not silent. He drowns himself by jumping off the Canal Street Ferry into the Mississippi River. Just before he jumps, we hear the wind and waves of the Mississippi, along with the sound of the out-of-tune calliope from the Steamboat Natchez playing in the distance. If music is associated with life, then Creighton’s life is out of tune, just like the calliope that anticipates his death. In the following scene, pay attention to when the calliope music stops.
Another non-musician is trombone player Antoine Batiste’s ex-wife, LaDonna Batiste-Williams. In her first appearance on the show, LaDonna states that their divorce was due to his musical career: “Wanna know what went wrong? I married a goddamned musician. Ain’t no way to make that shit right.”[24. Treme, Season 1, Episode 1: “Do You Know What It Means”: 16:36-16:42.] LaDonna’s estrangement from Antoine’s musicality – and musicality more generally – is connected through silence to her search for her brother Daymo, who went missing during the storm. LaDonna’s silence is underscored by the absence of music in scenes where she must keep terrible secrets about the nature of her brother’s death and remain speechless in order to protect her family.
LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) watching a second-line from the sideline
In her 2011 book Sister Citizen, political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry uses Hurricane Katrina as a jumping-off point to examine the affective political lives of black women. Harris-Perry examines how the internal experience of being seen as less than influences black women’s ability to self-identify as political citizens of the United States. LaDonna is herself an archetype of the “strong black woman” that Harris-Perry identifies as a restrictive, constraining – albeit positive – stereotype in Sister Citizen:
The strong black woman is easily recognizable. She confronts all trials and tribulations. She is a source of unlimited support for her family. She is a motivated, hard-working breadwinner. She is always prepared to do what needs to be done for her family and her people. She is sacrificial and smart. She suppresses her emotional needs while anticipating those of others. She has an irrepressible spirit that is unbroken by a legacy of oppression, poverty and rejection.[25. Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America (Yale UP: 2011): 21.]
As Harris-Perry points out, the “strong black woman” is a political imperative, an archetype who establishes a set of expectations for real black women to rise up and meet. This results in shame when this imperative is not met. Harris-Perry seeks to move beyond to a place where black women can be their own bridges, carrying their own burdens without being saddled with someone else’s. In the series thus far, LaDonna has not reached this point.
However, by the end of Treme’s first season, music does evolve into a medium through which LaDonna can mourn the death of her missing brother. Despite LaDonna’s self-imposed distance from Antoine’s licentious musicality, she quietly carries a “small torch for her ex-husband.”[26. Khandi Alexander, as quoted in the documentary The Making of Treme (2010): 5:55-6:01.] Throughout season 1, Antoine provides forms of emotional and financial support for LaDonna that she does not get from her non-musician, respectable dentist husband who lives in Baton Rouge. She is reunited with music only after she is able to mourn her brother’s death openly, freely dancing in the second-line at his funeral march with her friends and family. Through music and public ceremony, she is granted catharsis, and she is no longer alone. In contrast, Toni Bernette (Creighton Bernette’s wife) can only watch LaDonna dance, not yet coming to terms with her husband’s death.
LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) dancing in the second-line of her brother’s funeral. On the far right is Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), who is not dancing
Conclusion: the Limits of Aural Critique?
New Orleans-based ethnomusicologist Matt Sakakeeny has recently criticized Treme for not being as overtly political as The Wire, and for treating New Orleans in part as a musical fantasy land separate from the rest of the country.[27. Matt Sakakeeny, “Treme” Contemporary Political Theory 10: 3 (395-399).] He argues that Simon lets the federal government off too easy, by isolating New Orleans and not implicating FEMA more directly in its neglect. While I agree Treme differs from The Wire in being far more of a “close up” than a broad shot of the city, I do not think this necessarily depoliticizes the show. Rather, Simon’s close-up on New Orleans serves as a powerful argument for its preservation by highlighting its eccentricities and irreplaceability.
Furthermore, while Treme could have easily criticized the US government’s lack of involvement more directly, its indirect appearances make the institution appear more monstrous. Just as telling as music’s presence is its conspicuous absence in scenes which emphasize Katrina’s devastation and the absence of FEMA. Otherwise filled with music, the moments in which the show is without music and sound are eerie and even terrifying.
To paraphrase Harris-Perry, Treme “does its most important political work by subverting what counts as political.”[28. Harris-Perry, 20.] In the show sound functions as a mediator between internal and external experiences, bringing characters’ internal, affective selves into relation with their external, political lives. While Simon’s aesthetic of verisimilitude ostensibly emphasizes the city’s external soundscape – those sounds that were literally there – the sounds that we hear in the show tell us as much about its characters’ internal lives as the external world which they inhabit.
Treme posits the musicality of New Orleans and its inhabitants as a fundamental good and as a life-giving force. In the most optimistic interpretation of the show’s aural narrative, music triumphs over US government’s anempathetic noises and Katrina’s chilly silences to bring the city back to life. Despite – or perhaps because of – its aesthetic of verisimilitude, Treme’s soundscapes are inherently political. They perform an alternative politics of the subjective, one in which sound – and its conspicuous absence – render audible both a traumatized city and its uneven, lilting process of recovery.
Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) playing a funeral march with his son and the Treme Brass Band
Zarah Ersoff is a PhD candidate in musicology at UCLA, specializing in the relationship between music, sexuality, and colonialism in the nineteenth century, and where she has taught courses covering topics from Beethoven and Baroque opera to rock ‘n roll and film music. She holds a Masters in musicology from UNC-Chapel Hill.